Aomori Prefecture is the northern most prefecture of Honshu (the main island of Japan), and due to its relatively remote location, it often goes forgotten. However, this prefecture has a great deal to offer. There is something for everyone: spectacular festivals, delicious food, unique temples, fascinating museums, skiing, onsen, and many more. It’s the perfect place to visit year round; you can see one of the best hanami spots in Japan, escape the summer heat and see one of Tokohu’s best festivals, witness spectacular fall colors, and enjoy up to three or four meters of snow on the mountains. No matter when you visit, you are unlikely to be disappointed. Here, I will introduce some of the best things to see and try in Aomori Prefecture.
1. Aspam Center
The Aspam Center is the perfect place to start your visit to Aomori. This is the main tourist information center, but it includes so much more than that. There are restaurants where you can try local food, shops selling local goods, an observation deck with a beautiful view of Mutsu Bay, and a theater where you can see a film on Aomori’s sites and festivals. One other highlight is the free Tsugaru shamisen performance. As the name implies, the instrument is from the Tsugaru region in northwest Aomori, and now, the Tsugaru style has become popular nationwide. The performances are held twice at day at 11:30 and 2. Lastly, the A shaped building along Aomori Bay is worth seeing, and it is especially striking at night, when it is illuminated. While entrance to the building is free, the panorama theater ticket costs 600 yen and the observatory is 400 yen or you can buy a combo ticket for 800 yen. If you plan to do more in the area, there are also combo tickets available that include the Asamushi Aquarium, Nebuta Warasse, and Hokkodamaru Memorial Ship.
Each summer, Aomori hosts one of Tohoku's top festivals, the Nebuta Matsuri. During the festival, massive illuminated paper floats are paraded through the streets, accompanied by dancers, musicians, and drummers. It is absolutely worth trying to see for yourself as it remains one of my favorite festivals in Japan. However, if you can't make it, you can see five floats displayed at the Nebuta Warasse Museum, which is only a short walk from Aomori station. The floats are absolutely gorgeous, and the amount of work that goes into creating them is astounding. It’s amazing to see these pieces of art up close and personal, and the museum is worth a visit even if you are visiting during the festival. There are even hands on displays where you can touch the floats or get a closer look at how they are constructed. If you are in the Hirosaki area, Hirosaki is home to the Neputa Mura, which displays equally wonderful floats from its version of the festival. The museum also serves as an introduction to local culture, and there are also exhibits on handicrafts, shamisen, and Japanese traditional toys. Both are worth visiting as the cities' floats have different styles. Entrance fee for Nebuta Warasse is 600 yen and Neputa Mura is 550 yen.
Aomori is the highest producer of apples in Japan so, of course, there is no shortage of apple related products you can try. If you want a hands on experience, you can even try apple picking. There are many orchards you can visit, and one popular option is Hirosaki Apple Park. The grounds are free so those who don’t want to pick apples can still wander and see the 65 different kinds of apple trees. Additionally, there is an old farmhouse that has been converted into a museum that exhibits traditional farm equipment. There are also apple products, apple curry, apple ice cream- really any apple product you could want. From August to November, visitors can try picking apples (for a fee), which they can either take home or juice. You can also try trimming the leaves or learn how to sort apples. From Hirosaki station, you can take a bus to the park for 200 yen.
If apple picking is not your style, you can visit the cider bar on the second floor of A-factory, which is minutes away from Aomori station. Here you can sample all kinds of apple juices and hard ciders made in Aomori. You first buy a prepaid card, and then select your drinks. The drinks range from 100-300 yen for a small glass, which makes it easy to try many different drinks. A-Factory also houses shops, a food court, and restaurants, and if you find a drink you particularly like, you can buy it in the store.
4. Asamushi Aquarium
Asamushi Aquarium is the largest aquarium in Tohoku though it is smaller in comparison to some of Japan's more famous aquariums. Still, don't let the modest exterior fool you; there is plenty to see like seals, dolphins, penguins, and of course plenty of fish, including local species. Four or five times a day a dolphin show is held. It’s an impressive twenty minute show, and it is the highlight of the aquarium. It’s also worth watching the sea lions, penguins, and other animals get fed. Entrance cost 1020 yen, which includes the dolphin show, or 710 yen after the last dolphin show of the day, from 3:10 on weekdays or 4:10 on weekends. You can also buy a combo ticket for the aquarium and theater and observation at Aspam Center for 1300 yen. If you choose to skip the dolphin show and enter late, be aware that the aquarium closes relatively early with last entrance at 4:30. The aquarium is a ten minute walk from Asamushi Onsen station, which is a 24 minute ride from Aomori.
5. Sannai Maruyama Site
This archeological site is where remains from the Jomon period (13000-300 BC) were discovered. In this free, open air museum, there are many reconstructed houses spread across the spacious grounds. You can even enter many of them for a better sense of what life was like back then. There are original remains as well, and you can see burial mounds, burial jars, and the sites where buildings once stood. It's a fascinating look back in time even if you don't consider yourself a history buff. There is also a museum where you can learn more about the history and customs during the Jomon period. Here you can see astoundingly original old artifacts like pottery, and models illustrating what life was like. It's easy to spend a few hours here, and you really do feel like you are transported back in time. For those who want to stay even longer, there are even workshops where you can try your hand at making things like a woven basket or clay figures. The site is located twenty minutes from Aomori station by bus, and it is easily paired with the Aomori Museum of Art.
6. Aomori Museum of Art
The museum is located a short walk away from the Jomon site, and in fact, it was built to reflect it. Much of the museum is underground to represent the archeological site, and the dominant colors are earthy browns. The museum's most famous piece is a giant white dog called Aomori-ken. The other works include the cute but surly characters pop artist Yoshimoto Nara, and three giant paintings by Marc Chagall, which were originally created to be ballet backdrops. The museum highlights the work of many local artists, but you can also find pieces by Picasso, Matisse, and Rembrandt. There’s plenty to intrigue art lovers, and at only 510 yen, it's surprisingly cheap too. You can reach the museum by bus (Bijutsuen-Mae stop) or walk from the Jomon site.
7. Furukawa Fish Market.
Aomori is a great place for seafood lovers, and there are all kinds of local seafood to sample. For a unique experience, you can make your own seafood rice bowl at Furukawa Market, also known as Aomori Gyosai Center. This dish is called nokkedon. Simply buy a set of tickets (5 for 540 yen or 10 for 1080 yen) and use those tickets to buy your rice and toppings. The toppings cost between 1-3 tickets and you can find fish, crab, shellfish, squid, scallops, and many other kinds of fresh seafood as well as vegetables. Take out is not permitted, but there is a seating area with free tea and condiments where you can enjoy your custom seafood bowl. If you find something you particularly like, you can of course also buy fish to take home. You can find this unique meal spot only five minutes from Aomori station by foot.
8. Miso Curry Milk Ramen
This unique ramen is not an common Aomori dish, but the brainchild of one ramen shop, Aji no Sapporo Onishi. The name is a nod to the founder's roots and the home of miso ramen, but this variety was developed in Aomori. The unique combination was thought up by junior high and high school students, and when it increased in popularity, it was added to the official menu. The ramen has a miso base and curry powder and milk are added with a slab of butter on top. While the combination may be rather strange, it is a favorite of the locals, and the spices of the curry and the mildness of the milk create an rich unforgettable taste.
If you have ever wished to see a post-apocalyptic waste land, this is the temple for you. The name, fear mountain, is an apt one, and it is said to resemble to entrance to the Buddhist afterlife. The stark contrast between the lush green mountains and beautiful (but poisonous) lake and the barren, volcanic landscape is stunning. The temple grounds are large and atmospheric, even eerie. It's not exactly a welcoming spot with the strong sulfur smell and constant sound of water bubbling and boiling under your feet, but it is an unforgettable one. While the landscape is the real highlight, the temple itself is wonderful. This temple is one of the holiest places in Japan, and one unique feature is its itako, traditionally blind mediums who can communicate with the dead. There are a few buses a day from Mutsu that take you to the temple from April to November, and entrance is 500 yen. It is a bit of a journey, but it is absolutely worth the time.
One of the most unique things to see in Aomori is the wild horses of Shiriyazaki. These horses are called Kandachime, named for their ability to withstand the cold. There are only about 40 of these endangered horses left, and they are given plenty of room to roam in their preservation. Despite being wild animals, they are accustomed to people and do not mind being approached or even touched. Shiriyazaki, the northernmost tip of Honshu, itself is beautiful with stunning views and a pretty, Meiji era lighthouse. If you want to visit the cape and see the horses for yourself, Shiriyazaki is an hour by bus from Shimokita station or Mutsu bus terminal or 2.5 hours by car from Aomori. With a car, it is easy to combine this with Osorezan.
11. Hirosaki Castle Park
One can easily spend half a day wandering through the castle park area. The main draw, of course, is the castle itself. The castle was originally built in 1611 though the current keep dates back to 1810. It is one of the twelve original castles left in Japan, and the only one in the Tohoku region. The castle itself is relatively small at only three stories, and it is more modest in comparison to some of Japan's other castles. However, the castle comes alive in the spring, and it has a well deserved reputation as one of the best cherry blossom spots in Japan. It is equally lovely surrounded by fall colors or buried in snow. The park itself is free to enter for those who just want to enjoy the beautiful castle from the outside. In the park you can also find an impressive wooden gate and picturesque red bridges spanning the moat. The spacious botanical garden is located next door to the castle. The garden is divided into 23 sections with an astounding 1500 plant species. You can also find cute panda shaped bushes, a flower clock, and peacocks. Entrance to the castle and botanical garden is 310 yen and 250 yen respectively or you can buy a combo ticket that includes both plus the Fujita Memorial Garden for 510 yen.
12. Fujita Memorial Garden
The Fujita Memorial Garden is a landscape garden that was built in 1916. The garden is divided into two areas, the upper and lower levels. From the upper hilly area, there is a stunning view of Mt. Iwaki, a mountain dubbed Tsugaru-Fuji due to its resemblance to the more famous mountain. Here you can also find a Meiji era residence that has been turned into a cafe where you can enjoy tea and apple pie. The lower level is centered around a pretty pond with a miniature waterfall and beautiful tea house you can tour. While you won’t see many flowers, this landscape garden is immaculate and lush. It’s a relaxing, peaceful place for a walk. Entrance is 310 yen, and it can be reached by a 15 minute bus ride from Hirosaki station or by foot from Hirosaki Castle Park.
13. Towada Lake
This beautiful lake is located on the border between Aomori and Akita, and it is the largest caldera lake in Honshu. There are two sightseeing cruises you can take around the lake, both lasting around 50 minutes. There is also an observation deck and small shrine. For those with a car, it is possible to drive all the way around the lake. However, the most famous spot in the area is not the lake itself but the Oirase stream. This picturesque stream is especially gorgeous in the fall as it is famed for its fall colors. Hikers can enjoy the 9 km of paths going from Nenokuchi to Ishigedo with numerous waterfalls along the way. To access the area, there are buses from Aomori (165 minutes, 3090 yen) and Hachinohe.
Aomori has no shortage of beautiful onsen, and the relatively cool temperatures means they can be enjoyed year round. In Aomori, you can find everything from cheap, no frills bath houses to gorgeous onsen resorts. For the latter, Furofushi Onsen is a great option. Both the indoor and outdoor baths offer a spectacular view of the Sea of Japan, but the real highlight are the outdoor baths. The two baths, one mixed and one women only, are right beside the ocean. Overnight guests can relax in the outdoor bath while watching the sunset, which is sure to be an unforgettable experience. Unfortunately, for day trippers the outdoor onsen is closed at 4, but anyone can use the indoor baths until 8 PM. Entrance is 600 yen, which includes both baths. Unfortunately, this onsen is rather out of the way, and it is best accessed by car (2. 5 hours from Aomori City) as trains can take up to 4 hours. For travelers who don’t want to travel that far, Asamushi Onsen is a more central option. In this town, you can find countless hotels and public onsen as well as hiking trails, a free public foot bath, an aquarium, and a beach. Entrance fee for most of the baths ranges from around 500 to 1000 yen but you can buy a pass for 1000 or 1500 yen that gets you entrance to two or three baths respectively. The pass is valid for six months, and also offers a discount to the aquarium.
15. Winter Sports
The cold weather of Aomori makes it a perfect place to enjoy skiing or snowboarding, and the ski season usually runs from the end of November to mid-May. Many options are easy to access, and some mountains, like Kamafuseyama in Mutsu, even offer views of Mutsu Bay. Hakkoda, located about an hour from Aomori, is one of the most popular options. The mountain has 5 courses, with the longest extended for 5 km, and there are both trails for beginners and more advanced skiers. One fun feature of the mountain is the “snow monsters” or trees so covered in snow that they resemble giant monsters. For those who don't have their own equipment, Moya Hills is a better option as they have rental facilities. It has six courses for a range of levels, and night skiing is also available. By bus, it is about 50 minutes from Aomori.
Aomori can be reached in 3.5 hours by Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo for 17500 yen (reserved seats required). Direct flights are also available from Haneda and Itami airports. For those on a budget, night buses make an 11 hour journey from Tokyo for as little as 5000 yen. From Aomori city, Hirosaki is only 45 minutes away and the Shimokita Peninsula is 2 hours away by train. While Aomori is far from many of Japan’s more popular cities, this amazing prefecture is well worth the visit for travelers who want to try something off the beaten path.