10 Oct 2019 in In immersion
Immerse yourself in the culture, cuisine and music of Honshu’s far-flung north-western tip.
By shinkansen from Tokyo, it’s a 3-hour journey north to Shin-Aomori. From here, a local train will take you via rice fields and the region’s famed apple orchards to the hot spring town of Owani. Take the shuttle bus for the 5-minute ride to Hoshino Resorts KAI Tsugaru.
The moment you step into the ryokan’s spacious main hall, you’ll be struck by the immense mural filling the wall opposite.
Created by prize-winning painter Matazo Kayama in the classic Nihonga style, it depicts the four seasons that are so marked here in Aomori Prefecture: the cherry blossom of spring, the red leaves of autumn, the restless waves of winter, and the full moon and clear skies of summer.
Outside the large windows, water surrounds this side of the building, with rocks rising out of the surface, housing a thicket of spindly trees growing at impossible angles.
You can admire this classically Japanese scene, created as part of the ryokan’s recent renovations, from a comfy chair on the suspended wooden terrace.
After your welcome drink (local apple juice, of course), you’ll be guided to your room. Most rooms are Japanese-style with tatami-lined floors, raised beds and comfy sofas.
Following the ryokan’s reopening in April 2019, all rooms now feature touches of Tsugaru koginzashi needlework. This regional art form consists of weaving yarn through multiple layers of indigo-dyed linen cloth, and was originally used to strengthen clothes against the region’s harsh winters.
Working with local artist Iemasa Yamahata, Hoshino Resorts KAI Tsugaru has put a contemporary spin on the craft, and you’ll find diamond-shaped kogin patterns on the table runners, cushion covers, and shoji paper screens of your room.
Down in the Travel Library, you can enjoy a brief introduction to Owani’s hot springs in the form of a kamishibai, a storytelling technique that uses multiple picture cards.
You’ll learn about the long history of Owani onsen – and why it is reputed as one of the best in the country.
Time to test the onsen. In autumn and winter, you’ll find apples bobbing in the baths. The rest of the year, the bobbing is done by wooden apples made of Aomori hiba (Japanese cypress). Both the natural and wooden variety infuse the water with natural nutrients.
Slowly lower your body into the warm waters, then relax while taking in the view of the water gardens.
Overlooking the omnipresent water gardens, the restaurant serves multi-course kaiseki menus. If you’re a fan of tuna, you’re in for a treat: Oma tuna from the Tsugarau channel is reputed as Japan’s best, with sushi owners sometimes paying millions for its perfectly-balanced fat content.
Other local specialities include garlic, the particularly sweet Dake Kimi corn and, of course, apple. Expect spectacular presentation and inventive combinations.
Every night, the Tsugaru shamisen takes centre stage. Unlike the traditional shamisen, the local version of this Japanese lute is thwacked rather than strummed, creating a raw sound that is much more dynamic.
After a short outdoor concert from a boat, the main concert follows indoors with performances from award-winning musicians.
Forget any preconceptions you may have about the shamisen being archaic: the sound here is decidedly contemporary, an exhilarating vibe that will have you tapping your toes.
Before heading to bed, treat yourself to a drink of local cider or sake on the terrace, served in speckled coloured glassware, typical of the Tsugaru vidro style.
For breakfast, you can look forward to the likes of scallop, miso soup and egg in soy sauce. The miso and soy are made using the local onsen as a heat source.
Time to discover the region. Just 10 minutes away by train, the city of Hirosaki has plenty to fill a day. Visit the immaculately-kept Japanese gardens of Fujita, stroll through the grounds of the castle.
Then head to Neputa village, a hands-on museum celebrating all things local. With craftsmen creating their work in front of you, it’s a great place to pick up a gift.
If you’re looking for sweeping vistas, Tsugaru has plenty, from craggy coastlines to expansive wetlands and the volcanic slopes of Mt. Iwaki.
And because each season brings changes and transforms the landscape, this is a region you’ll want to come back to again and again.