24 Apr 2019 in In immersion
Discover Tsugaru’s national parks, ancient settlements and moving castle while relaxing in a revamped ryokan.
The northernmost tip of Honshu is one of the country’s most untouched regions, characterized by sumptuous national parks, craggy coastlines and a unique cultural heritage. It’s known nationwide for its colourful festivals and for having 4 distinct seasons, with plenty of snow in the winter.
In the west of this far-flung corner along the Sea of Japan lies Tsugaru, a place with a strong regional identity, where the locals are proud of their reputation for agricultural excellence, for expert craftmanship and cultural diversity.
It is this unique identity that is celebrated in the recent redesign of Hoshino Resorts KAI Tsugaru, a ryokan located in the hot spring area of Owani at the foot of the mountains.
If you’re looking to get off the beaten track or you want to discover another side of Japan, this is the perfect destination.
Celebrating the local
Reopened on April 1, 2019, Hoshino Resorts KAI Tsugaru has been reimagined inside and outside. By interweaving regional craft traditions with contemporary comfort and design, the ryokan offers a slice of local life in an upscale setting.
All 41 rooms have been redesigned to feature touches of Tsugaru koginzashi needlework. Consisting of weaving yarn through multiple layers of indigo-dyed linen cloth, this local craft was developed some 300 years ago to strengthen clothes against the region’s harsh winters.
At Hoshino Resorts KAI Tsugaru, koginzashi becomes an art form. Local artisan Iemasa Yamabata has put a contemporary spin on the craft, using digitization techniques to create original designs using diamond-shaped kogin patterns on the walls, doors and furniture.
You’ll find koginzashi craftmanship on the table runners, cushion covers, and shoji paper screens of your room.
Seasonal water garden
Local art is also a central part of the resort’s new water garden, with Tsugaru koginzashi lanterns floating on the ponds. Illuminated in the evenings, they lend the garden an ethereal glow at nightfall.
Other local artworks are dotted around the outside space, including colourful Tsugaru vidro glassware made using an ancient free-blowing technique.
The water gardens are the ryokan’s relaxation area, a place to sample seasonal treats in the day and sit back with a celebrated local sake from the Yugari Lounge in the evening. It’s the perfect spot for lying back after a rejuvenating soak in the hot spring baths or after dining on the chef’s Tsugaru-inspired menu, featuring a platter of local sashimi seasoned in 8 different ways.
The garden is also the venue for a nightly concert of the Tsugaru shamisen. Unlike the classic shamisen, the local version of this Japanese lute is thwacked rather than strummed, creating a raw sound that is more vivid and dynamic.
Concerts are regularly performed by national shamisen champion Kohei Shibuya.
Outside the ryokan, there’s plenty to discover. Sweeping landscapes and grandiose historical sites are in generous supply in this part of Japan.
Less than an hour away by car is one of Japan’s 4 World Heritage sites: the vast expanse of Shirakami-Sanchi. This magnificent mountain range is home to the country’s last virgin beech forest, which once covered much of northern Japan.
The hiking trails here are an invitation to discover the Japanese wilderness first-hand, from the 90-minute Anmon Falls walk to the day-long trek up the highest peak, Mount Shirakamidake.
Other scenic spots include the pretty paths along the Oirase stream, a must in autumn, and Lake Towada, the largest caldera lake in Honshu.
Not to mention the spectacular coastline.
Experience the past
This is also a region where Japanese history can be traced back a long way. At the Sannai Maruyama Archaeological Site, you can visit the remains of an ancient settlement from the Jōmon Period (c.10,500-300 BC), featuring pit-dwellings, burial pits and reconstructions of long houses.
Nearby Hirosaki Castle is an impressive three-storey fort originally built in 1611. Renovation work is currently underway on the stone walls that support the tower – which necessitated moving the entire castle keep some 70 metres! You can see the castle at its new site until 2021, when work is due to finish – and it will be moved back again.
And, if you’re visiting Tsugaru in the spring, the castle is a must. Thanks to some 2,600 cherry trees, its grounds are justifiably reputed as one of the country’s very best spots for admiring the flowering blooms of pink sakura.