Honshū’s most northerly city, Aomori (青森), sits at the bottom of Mutsu Bay, sheltered by the two claws of the Tsugaru and Shimokita peninsulas. It’s a small and rather characterless city, though it comes to life during the Nebuta Matsuri (Aug 2–7), one of Japan’s biggest and rowdiest festivals, which features giant illuminated floats and energetic dancing. It takes less than a day to cover Aomori’s main sights, of which the most appealing is a park displaying nebuta floats.
Southwest of Aomori, the small town of Hirosaki has a number of interesting historical sights clustered around its once magnificent castle that can be covered on a day-trip. You could also explore the Shimokita Hantō, the axe-head peninsula peering over Aomori from the east, which is dominated by the sacred Osore-zan, an eerie wasteland where souls hover between life and death.
Be sure to book ahead, especially if you’re coming for Nebuta Matsuri (Aug 2–7), when prices can rise dramatically.
Seafood, apples and apple products fill Aomori’s food halls and souvenir shops. Local specialities worth sampling include hotate kai-yaki, fresh scallops from Mutsu Bay grilled in their shells and served with a dash of miso sauce, and jappa-jiru, a cod stew that’s available in winter.
Aomori is a great place to pick up souvenirs. As well as nebuta paper lanterns and seafood, look out for regional products ranging from kites and embroidery to lacquerware, brightly painted horses, and Tsugaru kokeshi dolls. ASPAM and the JR station both hold crafts shops, while the main shopping street, Shinmachi-dōri, offers good browsing.
The Shimokita Hantō protrudes into the ocean northeast of Aomori like a great axe-head. Its jagged blade is covered with low, forested peaks, of which the most notorious is Osore-zan, the “terrible mountain” where spirits of the dead are believed to linger on their way to a Buddhist paradise. Despite its growing commercialization, Osore-zan’s bleak crater lake, surrounded by a sulphurous desert where pathetic statues huddle against the bitter winds, is a compelling, slightly spine-tingling place.