Amazing Akita: Japan’s Northern Gem
I have been fortunate to visit some truly wonderful and unforgettable places in the 9 years since I first made Japan my home. But as the old adage goes there’s always something special about your first time. Indeed my first trip to Japan, for a vacation back in 2005, took me to one of the more out of reach regions of Japan, Akita.
Akita is located in the north western quadrant of Honshu Island’s northernmost region, Tohoku. Whilst it is discernibly colder than Tokyo, Akita is nowhere near as chilly in winter as Hokkaido, and summers can still produce scorching temperatures well into the 30s. Akita also has a unique character and charm that really sets it aside from other parts of Japan.
It was my studies of the sword based martial art Kendo that first took me to Akita city. My Sensei’s home dojo (School) Suishukan, was situated just outside Akita City, The prefectural capital. In subsequent visits, I have based myself in and around Akita City as it makes for the perfect base from which to explore the many sights this region has to offer.
Getting to Akita is relatively straightforward. You can either take a flight from Tokyo, around 1 hour, to Akita airport, or if you enjoy the scenery and experience of the shinkansen then why not take the Tokkaido Shinkansen from Tokyo Ueno station. It will get you to Akita City in around 4 and a half hours. From there, the exploring can begin.
Given its location on the coast of the Sea of Japan, many of Akita’s tourism hotspots are dotted along the Oga Peninsula. It is here that you will find the first stop on our tour, the Oga Aquarium GAO. Oga Aquarium has a variety of local and international sea life as well as a couple of very chilled out polar bears. The aquarium is a little out of the way, taking about 75 minutes from Akita City by car, or 60 minutes by local bus from Hadachi Station on the JR Oga Line.
From the Aquarium, we can continue up the coastline to meet one of Akita’s most colourful, and occasionally terrifying characters, the famous Namahage. Standing around 2 metres tall, with a fiery red-masked face and long, black, bushy hair ensconced in a straw coat and ragged boots, Namahage presents a frightening, if somewhat comical visage. Originally a local folk tale used to scare disobedient children, Namahage’s legend has grown down the years, to the point where he now plays a key role in New Year festivals and celebrations across Akita and the surrounding areas. As an Oni (demon god) families across Akita often prepare new year offerings of food and drink to leave out for Namahage. The practice is similar in many ways to that employed by children around the world who put milk and cookies out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
A short drive from the Aquarium, Oga City houses the Namahage Museum. As well as giving a rundown on the origins and history of Akita’s favourite Oni, the museum also offers and insight into the village life of historic times where Namahage first found a following.
By this time you’ll probably be quite hungry. Being a coastal region, Akita has some of the finest fresh seafood that you’ll find anywhere in Japan. The sashimi (raw fish) slices and the Hoke (grilled fish) are especially tasty. You’ll also find plenty of souvenir shops dotted around the coastal areas where you can buy those all-important postcards, guidebooks and pretty much every form of Namahage-themed merchandise you can think of.
One of the other famous sites of the Oga Peninsula is the “Godzilla Rock”. Named after Japanese cinema’s favorite fire-breathing mutant iguana, Godzilla Rock is a naturally occurring rock formation that, when viewed from the correct angle, just happens to bear a striking resemblance to the head and torso of the famous movie beast.
The rock is best viewed at sunset. During this time as the sun disappears behind the “head” of Godzilla, its rays form a pattern that seems to emanate in flashes of orange and red sunlight, creating an effect very reminiscent of Godzilla’s notorious “atomic fire breath”. It really has to be seen to be believed.
After a day of sightseeing, and walking around all the delightful little photogenic spots that the Oga Peninsula has to offer, you’ll probably be feeling a bit tired. You may even have some aches and pains in your feet, legs and back. In that case, there’s only one thing for it, time to hit the onsen.
Akita is famous all across Japan for its onsen (hot springs) and the different therapeutic and healing properties each onsen can offer. The Aki-No-Miya Hot Springs, in the mountainous regions bordering neighbouring Miyagi Prefecture are noted for their healing qualities in treating chronic muscular conditions such as rheumatism and also skin complaints, scarring and so on. Alternatively, the town of Yuzawa offers Doroyu Hot Springs. These muddy waters are said to possess regenerative qualities that aid both healing and maintaining a youthful complexion. Imagine the effect of a facial mask being expanded to encompass the entire body.
Possibly the most famous hot spring in the area is Nyuto Onsen. This particular onsen has large and mostly alkaline waters, which as well as being very relaxing take on a very attractive white, almost milky appearance. As part of a larger group of onsens to be found in Towawda Hachimantai National Park, the area gives you the chance to sample a variety of different onsens without having to travel too far.
Akita is also known for its festivals. Most famous amongst these is the Kanto Festival, which takes place in August every year. The event always sells out, so make sure you get your tickets reserved early, to ensure the best possible view. You can marvel as the participants balance massive kantos (lanterns tied to wooden poles) whilst continuing to sing and dance along with the rest of the crowd. It really is a spectacle that everyone should see at least once in their lives.
Akita is certainly not the first place that comes to mind when most of us think of visiting Japan, but I can honestly say it has given me memories that will last a lifetime.