Aomori – city of apples, snow and lanterns

Boarding the Hakuchō train in Hakodate, we left Hokkaidō through the Seikan tunnel, which is the world’s longest undersea tunnel and reached Aomori in about two hours. I had expected the undersea section to be much scarier but it wasn’t even really noticeable as the surrounding darkness wasn’t any different from the obscurity in other tunnels. It felt quite long though which is probably expectable since it’s the second longest main-line railway tunnel after the Gotthard Base Tunnel which just opened e few months ago in Switzerland. Sitting comfortably with a hot canned coffee we didn’t mind the subterranean train ride and I used the time to work on my travel diary by cutting out cute motifs from pamphlets and adding the stamps from all the places we’ve been. As of March 2016 the Hakuchō line has been replaced with Hokkaidō Shinkansen.

Cedar pine for the traditional New Year’s decoration called Kadomatsu is sold everywhere in late December.

When we left Hakodate and the most northern island of Japan we didn’t expect to actually find even more snow in Aomori but that’s exactly what happened. Aomori is in fact renowned for heavy snowfall, the heaviest among all Japanese cities, and even among the heaviest in the world. The second thing which immediately caught our attention were the many lanterns which were carefully wrapped in transparent foil to keep them from getting wet. Famous for the Nebuta summer festival in early August where impressive illuminated Nebuta floats are being carried through the city and the beautiful orchards growing incredibly sweet apples in the romantic countryside, Aomori attracts many visitors.

Reaching our hotel at the Shinmachi-dōri which is just a short walk from the station, was easy as this main street has sprinklers with salt water I think, that causes the snow to melt but leave everything under water. All the other smaller side street however were snowed under and it was crazy and funny at the same time to find your path through the huge amounts of untouched snow. Coming from Switzerland you’d expect me to be somewhat used to such copious amounts of snow but what we’ve seen in Aomori just blew my mind. The city felt safe and calm under the soft snow blanket and you could have done snow angels everywhere, it was like being in a huge winter playground.

Our first destination was a car rental where we had to explain that we needed a car to drive from Aomori to Nagano. Of course not directly but with a zigzag route through northern Honshū. Little did we know. Afraid that the company may say no to such lunatic idea our hopes were rather low but the guy at Times car rental was utterly polite and even gave us an upgrade although we didn’t had the member’s card. Over time we realized our mistake of booking every hotel in every prefecture so much in advance and on such tight schedule because that made it difficult to change the route and taking it a little slower what resulted in being constantly sleep-deprived.

North of Aomori Station, right next to the bay in the waterfront district stands the Nebuta house Wa Rasse, a remarkable building encased in red metal slats which resemble the teeth of a comb or baleen whale. The museum is dedicated to the Nebuta festival and visitors can learn about the story behind the currently featured Nebuta as well as the structure of the float. The floats often depict kabuki figures or mythical stories and are hand-painted and illuminated from the inside with hundreds of light bulbs. I was looking forward a lot to this museum but unfortunately it was closed during New Year.

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