As the seasons pass, Aomori Prefecture presents a variety of faces to its visitors, each one different but no less beautiful than the last. A wild bouquet of cherry blossom swallows the region in spring, while summer is the time to explore the singing sands and floral meadows of the coast. As the year draws to a close, autumn’s inferno of red and ochre leaves gives way to heavy snowfall, which smothers the mountain peaks and transforms the trees into bizarre snow monsters, bent double against the winter wind. Whenever you decide to visit, read on to discover why Aomori is Japan’s finest year-round destination.
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Springtime sees Japan blessed by one of nature’s great spectacles, as a blanket of pink and white cherry blossom (sakura) sweeps across the archipelago from south to north. In Aomori, the sakura lasts from late April to early May, and Hirosaki Park, in the heart of Hirosaki City, is one of the best places to see it anywhere in Japan. There are some 2,600 cherry trees here, with the oldest dating back 300 years.
Taking pruning tips from Aomori’s apple farmers, the Hirosaki groundskeepers have cultivated trees which produce almost double the normal amount of flowers – making the sakura even more breathtaking than usual. Why not follow the locals’ lead and pack a picnic to enjoy under a canopy of cherry blossom? This time of year sees a special range of cherry-infused food and drink hit the shelves; try sakura mochi, a rice cake infused with the flavour of the petals and leaves.
Even after the cherry blossoms have fallen from the trees, spring is a beautiful time to visit Aomori. Not only do the fallen petals linger for a while as a pretty dusting on the city’s parks and streets, but the spectacular natural landscapes of the prefecture’s national parks become accessible again as hiking trails re-open in April. The Shirakami Mountains occupy the western section of the region and are covered in pristine forests of Siebold’s beech, home to macaques, black bears and serow, a type of antelope.
The forests are criss-crossed by numerous hiking trails, which reward walkers with stunning mountain and forest scenery, broken up by cascading waterfalls. Lake Juniko, in the western Shirakami Mountains, is actually an area incorporating 33 lakes and ponds. The main water bodies are connected by raised wooden boardwalks. Boating and camping are popular activities on the lakes, some of which – such as Aoike – are famed for the deep sapphire blue of their water.
The arrival of the warm summer weather opens up even more of Aomori for exploration. Sanriku Fukko National Park is strung along the east coast of the prefecture and boasts stunning coastal scenery, rich in flora and fauna and ripe for hiking. A particularly beautiful stretch is the Tanesashi Coast, which extends from the island of Kabushima to the southern end of Hachinohe City and the Okuki area. Comprising 12km (7.5 miles) of gentle coastal cliff paths, the area is alive in the summer months with the vivid bloom of more than 650 native plant species, including the deep burnt orange sukashiyuri lily.
A particularly pleasant stretch of coastline surrounds the Ashigezaki Observatory, a naval lookout dating back to the Edo period. As well as roaming the crumbling walls of the fortress, you can enjoy sweeping views over the coast from the Samekado Lighthouse, and experience the strange sensation of ‘singing sand’ at Osuka Beach. This rare phenomenon, poorly understood by scientists, creates an eerie whistling or screaming sound when you walk on the sand. The rugged beauty and sense of tranquillity makes the Tanesashi Coast a lovely spot for a picnic, with sea kayaking a great way to explore the coastline.
It's not just Aomori Prefecture’s rural regions which are worth a visit in the summer months. Early August sees the city of Aomori come alive with the Nebuta Matsuri, the most famous festival of its kind in Japan. The name refers to the procession through the city of nebuta, floats depicting mythological figures, celebrities and actors. Each float is essentially a giant paper lantern, exquisitely crafted, colourfully painted and measuring up to 16ft (5m) high and 30ft (9m) long. With the floats illuminated from within, the nightly processions are quite the spectacle – and things are ramped up a notch at the end of the festival, when the skies above Aomori Bay are lit up in a riot of fireworks.
Everyone is encouraged to join in the festivities and dance alongside the procession of floats – but looking the part is essential. The traditional haneto costume is available to buy from supermarkets all over town, and consists of a monochrome-patterned kimono, wrapped with colourful sashes and adorned with jingling bells.
As autumn descends and the trees turn from fresh green to fiery red, Aomori’s national parks remain as alluring as ever. Towada Hachimantai National Park is a stunning wilderness region, where rugged mountain slopes are covered in thick primeval forest, laced with hiking trails and streams, and dotted with bubbling hot springs.
To experience the park at its most beautiful, follow the hiking trail along the floor of the Oirase Gorge. Beginning at Nenokuchi on the shores of Lake Towada – the largest crater lake on the island of Honshu – the trail weaves along beside the Oirase Stream, passing more than a dozen waterfalls which tumble serenely into the water from top of the valley. Shaded by the bows of mighty Japanese oaks and horse chestnuts, and fringed by more than 300 species of moss, this is a leisurely 14km (9-mile) woodland trail which shows Towada Hachimantai at its beautiful best. Visit during October and November to see the autumn colours at their most enchanting.
It’s a looker all year round, but Aomori might just be at its most photogenic during the winter. The Hakkoda Mountains, halfway between Aomori City and Lake Towada, are a group of volcanic peaks famous for their rugged scenery, hot springs, and the thick quilt of snow which covers the area every winter.
This is one of the handful of places in Japan where the weather conditions combine to form a natural phenomenon known as ‘snow monsters’. Thick ice, frozen fog and snow are blown onto the branches of fir trees, then whipped into horizontal shapes by the swirling winds. The result is vast snowfields of strange amorphous shapes, lined up on the slopes like silent guardians of the mountains.
The best time to see the snow monsters in all their glory is January and February. They are far from the only winter attraction in the mountains, however. Ride the Hakkoda Ropeway to the top of Mount Tamoyachi and you can see all the way to Aomori City and the northernmost tip of Honshu Island, the Shimokita Peninsula. You can then ski or snowboard down the slopes to the foot of the mountain, where you can warm up in the Sukayu Onsen, a natural hot spring enclosed in a traditional wooden bathhouse.
Header image: Sakura in Hirosaki Park © Aomori prefecture