A Guide to Tsugaru Peninsula, Aomori

A stratovolcano, at 1,584 meters tall Mount Iwaki dominates this northwest section of Tohoku’s Ou mountain chain, Japan’s longest. East of it sits the castle town of Hirosaki, Japan’s apple capital, built between the Iwaki River and the Hira River south of where the Hira becomes a tributary of the Iwaki. The Iwaki River continues north providing water to farms carved out of the Tsugaru Plain that it passes through on its way to empty into Lake Jusanko. Yesterday you rode along an asphalt farm road nicknamed Melon Road, for good reason, on the same plain through fertile rolling hills dotted with farms and forests. West of the road were a series of lakes, ponds, marshes and wetlands between you and the sea. To the east was the Iwaki river, farm villages and the  southern end of Tsugaru Mountains, the northernmost mountains of the Ou chain.

Lake Jusanko.

You followed the road to the narrow strip of land between the west shore of Lake Jusanko and the Sea of Japan, where it merged with National Route 12, which took you across a bridge over the narrow inlet of water connecting sea and lake. During the Muromachi/Kamakura period Junsanko was a bustling port but the one you passed by is a forgotten, sleepy, clamming, fishing and off-the-beaten-path tourist destination. Watery Tsugaru plain abruptly ends at the lake and the north stretch of Tsugaru Mountains begins. You rode next to them along the coast and through their foothills to a tidy campground in the tiny village of Nakadomarimachi, where you made camp and spent the night.

At one time this was all the domain of the Tsugaru clan whose castle, built south of the peninsula in Hirosaki in 1610, has survived the vicissitudes of history and today is one of the best places to view cherry blossoms in all of Japan. Their samurai traipsed through these forests as Ainu and Emishi hunters, the native populations whose stories reach back into the misty shroud of human history, did before them. All have left their cultural and historical imprint on the past, and their cultural influences still haunt the forest like mythical Nebuta warriors.

“Red sky at night sailor’s delight, red sky at morning sailors take warning”. The old folk saying stems, like much folk say everywhere, from pragmatic observation of nature expressed through folksy poetic lexicon. It indeed describes actual meteorological phenomena caused by moisture, dust, clouds, prevailing winds and the scattering of blue light. This morning’s red dawn had briefly, beautifully, correctly forecasts today’s sunless weather.

The sky, now battleship grey, not so much meets the sea at the horizon as it just thickens to ashen fog and then thickens further to leaden water. The steam from hot coffee, that you sip from a tin coffee cup, adds welcome warmth to the somber beauty of the cool overcast summer morning. Your camp’s been broken down, your gear has been loaded and after coffee you ride to the camp office to check out. There, an elderly gentleman minding the camp store asks about your destination today. You tell him Tappimisaki and are wished well with a crisp “keppare”, Tsugaru dialect for “gammbate”, which in Japanese means “do your best”.

You take your leave and ride north along the coast of Tsugaru Peninsula back on foggy, lonely National Route 339 or Tatsudomari Line Road. Man-made structures along the road are few and relatively far between but gnarled Japanese Black Pines are plentiful. Seagulls high above the roar of the surf  squawk searching for a fishy breakfast. About a half dozen or so wooden fishing shacks, from behind broken concrete and tetrapod breakers, are staunchly facing morning whitecaps on the water where the road veers northeast. Here it parts company with the coast until it becomes stairs, after crossing over Tsugaru Mountains, leading down to the Tsugaru Straits where the island of Hokkaido is a mere 20 km away.

The Sea of Japan. With Hokkaido just beyond the horizon.

During your misty, wet ride up and down cutbacks through lush, wet mountain alpine foliage you have a close up encounter with a red faced snow monkey, the most northern-living primate in the world. He pops up out of the brush, beyond the road’s guardrail, and scampers along with you for a few meters shrilly telling you to move along.

Alexander Day on Flickr

After a thrilling ride down the mountains you find yourself at the the tip of one of the most populous islands on the planet and there is nary a soul in sight. You dismount from your bicycle and follow the highway, which has diminished to stairs, on foot down to the tiny, quaintly decrepit fishing village of Tappi. A few dozen mostly wooden structures are nestled along a rock wall on a very narrow strip of land at sea level. Inhabited by seafaring families and friends whose day began even earlier than yours, the village is quiet save for the whistle of wind and a pump chugging away in some maritime task somewhere across the little harbor. You hear enka music suddenly blaring above the hamlet, from back up on top of the bluff, and are of course intrigued to say the least.

The Lyrics of Ishikawa Sayuri’s Tsugaru Kaikyou Fuyugeshiki. See the red button on top of the front middle stone? Press it and hear the song's joyous melody resonate.

You walk back up the stairs of Route 339 and the song finishes but a few steps later starts again. After reaching the top of the stairs you follow the strains of Ishikawa Sayuri’s Tsugaru Kaikyou Fuyugeshiki, whose lyrics lament the sorrow of parting and the sight of the forlorn, frozen strait in winter, to a scenic lookout with stone benches. At the lookout point a PA system, rigged to black granite stone with the lyrics carved in it, faithfully blasts the song out at high decibels each and every time an intrepid tourist comes by and pushes a little button at its base.

The monument to the 34 men who died so the Seikan tunnel could be built.

With the lusty serenade in your ears, you ride back a short distance along Route 339 and find a very solemn monument to the 34 men who died building the Seikan Tunnel, which runs under you, connecting the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido.When it was completed in 1985 it made possible travel from Honshu to Hokkaido, pulled apart by geological forces millions of years ago, possible without watercraft for the first time in many, many millenium. This engineering wonder, the longest undersea tunnel in the world, has in recent years been upgraded to accommodate the Shinkansen (bullet train) and at one time had two stations (now closed) with museums in them which were the world's only underwater train stations.

Tappimisaki Harbor

Later after a relaxing soak in your hotel's outdoor hot spring you sit on tatami at a low table in your room’s alcove sipping a regional libation. The land that produced the dark literary genius Osamu Dazai can have a certain pleasant melancholy that makes one contemplative and you pass the evening quietly looking out at the strait of Tsugaru.

The next day the skies have cleared and after a morning soak you pack up again, check out and are back on Route 339. You follow it southeast along the shore of Minmaya Bay down Cape Tappi until you pick up to Route 280 which follows the coast of Tsugaru Peninsula south along the shore of Aomori Bay. The road offers sunny vistas of the mountains of Shimokita Peninsula on the other side of the bay all the way to Aomori City.

You ride through fishing hamlets and along a narrow road past wooden boathouse after wooden boathouse built along the seawall. Through open doors, as you ride by, you catch sight of their dank interiors and glimpses of  fishermen’s families processing the day’s catch. You pass clean sandy beaches and quaint seaside towns and by late afternoon you have reached the outskirts of Aomori City. The city center is your destination and by reaching it, you've reached the end of your journey around Tsugaru Peninsula.

Aomori City. Photo by Angaurits on Wikipedia

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