Set off through Towada-Hachimantai National Park (also known as Towada-Hachimantai Kokuritsukoen) to discover pristine powder, fir-clad mountains marbled with onsen and world-class seafood. As wild as Tokyo is chaotic, the park extends 855 square kilometres (330 sq. mi) across the unpeopled Aomori, Iwate and Akita prefectures, taking in numerous scenic headlands.
Towada-Hachimantai National Park in autumn and winter
Surveying the sweeping south-central prefecture of Aomori in the northernmost stretch of the park is the Hakkoda Mountain range. Though attractive all year round, this densely forested region is at its best in autumn when it becomes ablaze with gold and carmine strewn across an endless canvas of leaves.
As the months of autumn (September to November) usher in the white abyss of winter (January to February), the colourful fanfare appears two-fold by the reflections playing out upon the surface of Lake Towada, the largest caldera lake on Honshu.
A magnet for thrill seekers, the southern reaches of Towada-Hachimantai National Park include a great sweep of towering volcanoes, an inundation of steaming onsen and irresistibly wild hiking trails meandering upstream into forests of cathedral-like firs. Stood on a rippling plateau is Mount Iwate, creator of this phenomenal landscape.
Strike out to Hachimantai Ski Resort for hot spring baths overlooking the storied peak. Out on its backcountry slopes of deep powder, infinite opportunities to lose yourself in nature await.
Hakkoda Mountains: soft powder and ice monsters
Governing much of south-central Aomori Prefecture is the Hakkoda Mountain range: 19 mountains with Mount Odake as the main peak, reaching an altitude of 1585 metres (5200 feet). Skiers and snow trekkers tend to be among its winter crowd. Adventure hikers can be seen taking to the slopes for the rest of the year, often in the direction of the northern part of Tashirotai or the southern side of Sukayu Onsen.
Glide down silent slopes on untouched powder to discover the ethereal landscape of the Hakkoda Mountains in winter, season of ice monsters: towering pines dressed in feathery coats of ice. One of the heaviest snowfall areas in the world, it has a long season, running from mid-December to mid-May. However, between March and May is when the weather is consistently good and most other ski resorts in Japan have closed.
Arguably the best way to experience the snowy surrounds is on a guided tour with Mount Hakkoda Guide Club, a long-standing tour company with a history of more than 25 years, based near the Hakkoda Ropeway. The ropeway running above the dreamy scene of ice monsters allows visitors to climb the summit of Tamoyachidake peak, North Hakkoda, an elevation of 1324 m (4343 ft). On a clear sunny day, it affords views of the Tsugaru plains and Mutsu Bay.
Sukayu Onsen: steaming onsen and sweeping views
Huddled amongst trees on the west side of the Hakkoda Mountains in Aomori Prefecture is Sukayu Onsen, a geothermal spring percolating through the earth beneath the eponymous ryokan, in business for over three hundred years.
A hunter once chased a deer that had been shot and found it a few days later. When he saw the deer running away, he found a hot spring gushing out around him. The story goes that the hot spring was therefore named 'Shikanoyu' (deer bath).
The name ‘Sukayu’ (literally ‘sour hot water’) came centuries later, coinciding with the construction of its large cedar bathhouse or sennin-buro (one thousand person bath) – comprising four types of hot baths called netsunoyu, shiburokubu, hienoyu and yutaki (waterfall bath). Dull, meditative sounds of flowing water softened by the timber-clad interior impart a sense of calm in muscle-fatigued adventurers.
One of the snowiest places in Japan, a dip in the steaming waters of Sukayu Onsen in the depths of winter is all the more atmospheric. In 1954, the onsen was designated as a National Recreational Hot Spring – a distinction that sets it apart and draws a crowd, fortunately tempered by its remoteness.
Body and mind soothed, wander over to Onimenan, the resort’s restaurant, serving Japanese comfort food. Dishes include sukayu soba and ginger miso bamboo oden (Japanese style stewed vegetables and dumplings).
Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE
Flesh out your knowledge of Aomori Nebuta Matsuri – one of the largest festivals in the region of Tohoku – at Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE. The whole building is a celebration of the history and culture of the summer festival, one that was designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property in 1980.
The contemporary museum space features a revolving exhibit of the summer festival. Experience the magnitude of some of the 2020/2021 parade floats that didn’t make it to the streets of Aomori, due to COVID-19 – their enormity is impossible to grasp by other means.
An inclusive affair, organisers of Aomori Nebuta Matsuri encourage spectators to participate in the festivities. Many do so by renting festival clothes and learning the simple dance, so that they can join the parade on its way round the town.
Keeping the carnival atmosphere alive, the museum staff encourage visitors to sing, dance and play drums, whenever the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri music plays at different points throughout the day – irrespective of the time of year.
Among the exhibits are full and half-finished floats, designed by local artists, giving an idea of the creative process. With good reason, the people of Aomori are intensely proud of their matsuri (festival) and its traditions, and the museum is a physical manifestation of the effort they put into hosting it.
Aomori Gyosai Center
Combine your trip to Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE with Aomori Gyosai Center, the prefectural city’s vibrant (and more touristic) fish market. From JR Aomori Station, follow the heady scents of fresh fish and miso soup to Aomori Gyosai Center (variously known as Furukawa Fish Market and ‘Nokkedon’).
Were it not for the aromas and clamour of vendors vying with one another from within, tourists would be hard pressed to distinguish its unremarkable exterior. The market’s interior meanwhile tells an entirely different story: full to the capacity with stalls of fresh fish, crustaceans, molluscs and seaweed.
Explore the vastitude of its offerings with a donburi (known locally as ‘nokkedon’), a rice bowl costing two meal tickets (100 yen each). Consider purchasing another eight tickets to spend at the other stalls in the hall, piling onto your rice whatever sashimi (raw fish) catches your eye. Miso soups, pickles and cooked meats are also offered.
Then, take your nokkedon over to one of the indoor benches, where you’ll find condiments (wasabi, soy sauce and ginger), free cups of tea and atmospheric effervescence.
Another distinct part of the city’s character is coffee, having previously served as a transfer point for merchant ships destined for Hokkaido. Passenger ships, as well as merchant ships, inundated its port up until the opening of the Seikan Tunnel in 1988.
Set back from the street is ◎COFFEEMAN good, a modest albeit puissant shop perfuming the city’s main shopping district with the enticing aromas of freshly roasted coffee beans.
Yudai Hashimoto, the shop’s professional barista, invites only one to two people at any one time to draw from his expertise in artisanal coffee. As if through some sort of creative alchemy, he transforms even the most mundane of coffee drinks into something little short of extraordinary. Hashimoto by the same token has gained a reputation for authentic brews like his popular tsugaru miso caramel cappuccino.
Matsukawa Onsen Kyounso
Let silence envelop you in the hot spring fed pools of Matsukawa Onsen Kyounso, a quiet mountain inn set amongst trees in Iwate Prefecture, in the southern portion of Towada-Hachimantai National Park. Offering indoor and outdoor baths fed by the free-flowing source is Matsukawa Onsen Kyounso, a geothermal-powered ryokan. Its open-air bath is particularly scenic in winter.
Unlike the more acidic waters of Sukayu Onsen, the natural mineral waters of Matsukawa Onsen are only mildly acidic and contain hydrogen sulphide, making the water kind to your eyes and gentle to the skin. Its home comforts include spacious, Japanese-style rooms and a restaurant serving dishes made from seasonal local ingredients, such as horumonyaki (beef or pork offal), natto (fermented soybeans) and Iwate Shorthorn beef (oft-found in a hearty stew).
It is said that Matsukawa Onsen was discovered by yamabushi (mountain ascetics) on their sojourn through the region. Like the hunters of Sukayu Onsen, the yamabushi recognised the restorative powers of the onsen waters and decided to settle themselves there.
Once word had got round about the healing properties of the hot spring, many in search of a cure for their illness travelled far and wide, sometimes spending weeks or months at a time in the area.
Transformed by the advent of paved roads and air travel, the onsen now attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world, mostly outdoor enthusiasts in search of a remedy for their aches and pains.
As well as bathing in it, the inhabitants of Matsukawa rely on the effervescent fount to power the town, harnessing its energy at its geothermal power plant, built in the 1960s – the first of its kind in the country.
Hachimantai by snowcat
Do as the locals do and explore Iwate’s off-piste powder by snowcat (CAT) – a vehicle designed to move effortlessly across the snow. Hachimantai Backcountry Tour Clubman has been offering guided CAT tours around Mount Hachimantai for around 40 years. In the safe hands of one of its experienced guides, you’ll be taken on a bespoke tour befitting of the conditions and your skill level.
A short climb by CAT will drop you at the summit of Mount Daikokumori swept by prevailing westerly breezes. Follow the 40-60-minute hiking route up Chausudake (also known as Mount Chausu) in the park to the rocky, tree-less summit, where you’ll be afforded jawdropping views of Mount Iwate on fine days.
Before embarking on the descent, make time for a pitstop in the mountain hut, where you’ll have an opportunity to warm yourself and build energy with a thermos full of hot noodle soup.
Fired by the thrill of the descent, experienced skiers or snowboarders can be seen tearing down the deep powder at lightning speeds, pulling stunts mid-air above the wide-open track flanked by colourful swathes of forest. Afterwards, relax your muscles in the sulphurous, slightly acidic waters of Matsukawa Onsen Kyounso.
Make Northern Grande Hachimantai, a friendly restaurant in Matsuoyoriki, an adjunct to your excursion. Expect dishes like tochucha pork (local pork) and wine made from Iwate mountain grapes.