24 hours at Hoshino Resorts KAI Tsugaru

2.45pm

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.


3pm

The moment you step into the ryokan’s spacious main hall, you’ll be struck by the immense mural filling the wall opposite.

Matazou-Kayama

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.

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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.


3.15pm

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.

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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.

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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.


4pm

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.

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You’ll learn about the long history of Owani onsen – and why it is reputed as one of the best in the country.


5pm

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.

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Slowly lower your body into the warm waters, then relax while taking in the view of the water gardens.


7.30pm

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.

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Other local specialities include garlic, the particularly sweet Dake Kimi corn and, of course, apple. Expect spectacular presentation and inventive combinations.


9pm

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.

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After a short outdoor concert from a boat, the main concert follows indoors with performances from award-winning musicians.

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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.


9.30pm

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.

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8am

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.

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9.30am

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.

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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.

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And because each season brings changes and transforms the landscape, this is a region you’ll want to come back to again and again.

A day out in Hirosaki

Situated in the Tsugaru region of northern Honshu, the small town of Hirosaki is off many tourists’ radar – yet it has plenty to offer.

Most Japanese know it for the picture-postcard cherry trees surrounding its 17th-century castle. But there’s much more to Hirosaki.

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Like the sublimely-landscaped Fujita Memorial Garden, the impressive complex of 33 temples, and an excellent hands-on museum where local craftsmen create original works in front of you.

Local insights

The Tsugaru region covers the western peninsula of Honshu’s Aomori Prefecture. Within this remote part of Japan, Hirosaki is a major hub – and yet its population is less than 180,000. The town has a pleasantly laid-back feel and, as an Edo-era regional capital, it offers plenty of history and cultural riches.

If you’re staying at Hoshino Resorts KAI Tsugaru, Hirosaki is just a 10-minute train ride from nearby Owani station. And the ryokan is a great place to begin your discovery of the Tsugaru region.

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As a guest, you’ll be able to experience the local shamisen through nightly concerts. You’ll sample the best of the region’s cuisine, including melt-in-your-mouth Oma tuna.

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And you’ll learn all about the intricate art of kogin needlework, a regional tradition celebrated in the ryokan’s décor.

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Moving castle

On arrival at Hirosaki station, make a beeline for the Castle Park. It’s best reached via a short bus ride or a 30-minute walk.

This large, leafy park is dotted with imposing wooden entrance gates, numerous traditional red arched bridges, and a network of deep moats. It is celebrated for its 2,600 sakura trees, which attract a staggering two million visitors during the springtime Cherry Blossom Festival.

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For this 2-week period, that park is a photographer’s dream, famed for its “tunnel” of cherry trees on either side of the west moat. When blossom starts to fall, it covers every inch of the water with floating pink flowers.

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Hirosaki Castle was originally built in 1611, but all that remains today is a three-storey keep perched atop the motte.

In 2015, the keep was moved some 70 metres from its original position for renovation on the supporting walls.

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Moving the 400-ton tower took 3 months using hydraulic jacks and a dolly system. You can learn about this extraordinary feat of engineering in an exhibition inside the keep.

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From here, you’ll have an excellent view of Mt. Iwaki, the local volcanic giant that looms majestically above the Tsugaru Plain.

Classic landscaping

On the south-west side of the park, the Fujita Memorial Garden is an exquisite example of a traditional Japanese garden.

Separated into an upper section with tatami-lined house and a lower garden around a pond, it boasts beautiful, aesthetic landscaping.

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Trees lean at impossible angles, their lower branches supported by strategically-placed pillars. A waterfall cascades over an arched red bridge, and irises and azaleas spread dashes of colour around the immaculately-kept lawns.

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Stop for lunch or coffee at the tearoom, built in grandiose Western style like many early 20th-century buildings in Hirosaki.

Feudal past

From the Fujita Memorial Garden, it’s a 10-minute walk to Hirosaski’s Zen temple area, a collection of 33 temples gathered here in the early 17th-century to form a spiritual hub for the town.

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The most impressive is Chosho-ji, the temple of the Tsugaru family, with its 16-metre high main gate dominating the district.

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If you have time, head back to the northern side of the Castle Park, where the former Samurai District offers an insight into life under feudal lords. You can visit the residences of 3 samurai who served the Tsugaru clan in the 17th century. The most grandiose is the Ito Residence, home to the clan’s doctor.

Craft showcase

A couple of minutes’ walk away is Neputa-mura, an excellent museum celebrating all things local. The focus is the town’s famous Neputa festival. Held in early August, Neputa features immense intricately-painted lanterns made from washi paper in creative shapes and forms.

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A dark high-ceilinged room presents an array of these illuminated lanterns – and you’ll have a chance to bang the traditional drums used during the festival.

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Beyond the main hall, a former rice brewery has been transformed into a production studio and showcase for local crafts. Here, you can watch artisans creating traditional kokeshi dolls, kogin clothes, goldfish neputa and a range of children’s wooden toys, including the region’s unique zuguri spinning tops.

Where better to buy an original gift? Something unique to remember your day out in Hirosaki.


Photo credit:

masato_saito / CC BY-NC-ND

shinyai / CC BY-NC

shinyai / CC BY-NC

shinyai / CC BY-NC

24 hours at Hoshino Resorts Oirase Keiryu Hotel

1.15pm

Shin-Aomori may be some 700kms north of Tokyo, but it takes just 3 hours to reach by shinkansen. At the station, you’ll board a shuttle bus bound for Hoshino Resorts Oirase Keiryu Hotel.


3pm

The journey on winding, thickly-forested mountain roads comes to an end at the tiny village of Yakeyama. Here, within the Towada-Hachimantai National Park, lies Hoshino Resorts Oirase Keiryu Hotel, the only hotel located directly on the banks of the picturesque Oirase Keiryu stream.

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Yakeyama is the starting point for both the Oirase Gorge and a spectacular 8.5-mile trail that follows the ebbs and flows of the stream through the forest to its source, mighty Lake Towada.

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Whether you’re planning to hike, fish or admire the numerous waterfalls along the way, you’ll be at the heart of nature during your stay.


3.15pm

Time to settle in.

You room features tatami mats, a comfortable raised mattress and generous sofas.

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For a special treat, opt for your own private hot spring bath overlooking the stream.


4pm

Before you head downstairs, why not slip into your complementary yukata and sandals? It’s all part of the Japanese hotel experience!

Each of the hotel’s wings has a spacious central lounge dominated by a towering suspended chimney sculpted by avant-garde artist Tako Okamoto. Both feature floor-to-ceiling windows, transporting you into the forest and making the seasons an integral part of the décor.

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In spring and summer, sunlight penetrates through a forest of lush greens. In autumn, the panorama is picture-book pretty, with crisp orange, golden yellows and deep reds crowding the trees.

Winter brings a blanket of snow, weighing down branches and transforming nearby waterfalls into glistening walls of layered ice.

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winter


4.30pm

At the Activity Desk in the west lobby, you can peruse your many options to explore the National Park. Outside snow season, the choices are endless, encompassing everything from fly fishing to firefly watching.

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For an authentically Japanese experience, sign up for one of the many moss-related experiences.

The Japanese are fascinated by moss, with the Oirase Gorge home to some 300 different varieties. Choose the morning Moss Watching Tour to get a closer look, armed with your complementary magnifying glass!

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In winter, activities turn to snowshoeing and tours of the beautiful frozen waterfalls.


5pm

Take a towel from your room and head to the hotel’s onsen. There are 2 indoor pools, but the real pull is the rounded outdoor bath set above the stream.

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Lie back in the warm waters, sourced from nearby Mount Hakkoda, and listen to the soothing sounds of the babbling stream.


7pm

For dinner, indulge yourself in the high-class French cuisine of Sonore restaurant, with a pre-dinner aperitif on the stream-side terrace.

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Or opt for the Aomori Ringo Kitchen, an immense buffet of freshly-prepared Japanese and Western dishes.

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Take a 9-compartment tray to sample a little of everything from sashimi to seafood bake, mochi rice cake to apple (“ringo”) pie. Then come back for more!


9pm

Head to the bar to cosy up on a chaise-longue sofa with views of the illuminated forest.

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How about a Japanese whisky to round off the evening?




8am

There’s another lavish breakfast buffet at the Aomori Ringo Kitchen. Take your pick from eggs and bacon, croissant and jam, or fish and miso.

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Alternatively, you can start the day on the stream-side terrace with a generous bento box.


10am

Time to explore the Oirase Gorge. If you’ve not signed up for an activity, lace up your walking shoes and head out on your own. The trail to Lake Towada takes around 4 to 5 hours, but you can easily shorten the distance by taking the hotel’s free shuttle bus or the local bus to different points along the route.

Along the way, you’ll pass 14 waterfalls, including the impressively wide Choshi Otaki and the roaring two-tiered Kumoi no Taki.

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The path climbs gently, staying close to the stream until you arrive at Lake Towada, an impressive double caldera expanse, known for its clear waters. From here, you can take a boat trip to the small town of Yasumiya, a chance to admire the seemingly endless wilderness that encircles the lake.

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Yasumiya has a pleasant, laid-back feel. It’s the perfect place to end the day, wandering along the beach, visiting the hilltop Towada shrine, and sampling street food such as yakitori or shioyaki (fish on a stick). From here, you can take a bus back for a well-earned hot spring bath at Hoshino Resorts Oirase Keiryu Hotel.