When thinking of Japan, the most common images that come to mind are the neon signs of Tokyo’s streets and the ancient tea houses of Kyoto. However, the country's diverse landscapes and cultures go far beyond those famous images, and dedicated travelers who go deeper into Japan will discover a totally new side of the country.
Northern Tohoku is still a hidden gem. The region combines the pastoral scenes of dairy farms and roads lined with apple orchards with festivals that light up the summer nights. We head off on an adventure through Aomori and Iwate prefecture’s farmlands with influencer Cheesie, a great lover of Japan who is passionate about exploring the country’s undiscovered destinations.
Aomori Prefecture, located at the northernmost tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu, is best known for two things: apples and the glowing displays of the Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori’s iconic summer festival.
This colourful yearly festival runs from August 2 to August 7, and features parades of nebuta—gigantic floats made from paper and wire—that are lit from within. Experienced craftsmen spend an entire year designing and creating each new float, which can be up to five meters high and nine meters wide. The lavishly painted and detailed floats often portray action-packed scenes from history or mythology, with gods, warriors and animals captured in dramatic poses.
During the festival, 24 floats are paraded through the streets of Aomori City, accompanied by music and dancers, to the cheers of enchanted spectators.
If you can't make it to Aomori for the festival, pay a visit to Nebuta no Ie WARASSE, a museum housed in an impressive modern structure just a short walk from Aomori Station.
Nebuta no Ie WARASSE encapsulates all aspects of the Nebuta Matsuri. You can see previous award-winning floats up-close, have fun with interactive displays that allow you to create your own float character, and even listen to live music performances of songs played during the festival.
Nebuta no Ie WARASSE is definitely one of Aomori’s must-see spots and a magical place to start a tour of this fun-loving prefecture.
You will find two more spots to get a taste of Aomori within walking distance. The first is the bustling Aomori Fish Market, where you can buy tickets to make your own kaisendon (seafood rice bowl) from the fresh catch of the day. Those with a sweet tooth (and a love of cider) will feel perfectly at home at A-FACTORY, located just across the road from Nebuta no Ie WARASSE. This popular store not only offers tasty souvenirs made with Aomori produce, but also has a fun cider-tasting vending machine and delicious ice cream made with different varieties of Aomori apples.
Aomori City’s Nebuta Matsuri is not the only festival boasting illuminated floats in the prefecture. A number of cities celebrate their own Nebuta Matsuri, sometimes called Neputa Matsuri depending on the region. Each year, floats created for these events are upcycled after the festival.
The innovative store Irodori, located in Kuroishi, upcycles the old floats into gorgeous lamps and fans! Each of their products is crafted using one-of-a-kind materials from the old floats, meaning no two lamps are ever the same. If you want to customise your lamp, you can also sign up for a workshop to make your very own design.
The Kimori cider brewery and apple orchard in Hirosaki has towering Mt. Iwaki, one of Aomori's most iconic peaks, as a backdrop. Kimori’s cider gets its flavour from the region's abundant natural assets, including freshwater from Mt. Iwaki, and the mild summers and cold winters needed to grow the local large, sweet apples.
The orchard is carefully tended, and quality control is so stringent that 90 percent of the apples grown are rejected during the earliest stages of fruit development to ensure that the best apples grow strong and healthy. The meticulous care results in the finest apples in Hirosaki.
The cidery’s staff are passionate and knowledgeable about their craft, sharing that apple cultivation in Aomori started around 150 years ago thanks to an apple-loving semi-retired samurai. This “godfather of apples” was Kikuchi Tatee, who, starting in 1877, dedicated the remainder of his life to studying and perfecting the art of apple growing, learning from foreign experts, and travelling across Japan to find places ideal for establishing orchards.
While times have changed—as Aomori now produces over 400 thousand tons of apples each year—what hasn’t changed is the farmers’ dedication to growing incredibly delicious apples.
When you visit Kimori to try some of their tasty cider, you might see a single apple hanging on each tree in the orchard. If you are wondering, it represents a bid for a good harvest: the apples are gifts for the kami (deities) to ensure an excellent harvest the following year.
As its name suggests, the hot-spring hotel Romantopia of Stars and Forest is surrounded by the lush forests of Hirosaki and has unbroken views of the night sky glittering with stars. Located near Mt. Iwaki and the Shirakami Sanchi mountain range, the hotel is the perfect place to relax as you listen to the peaceful sounds of nature, gaze at the peaks from the outdoor baths, and watch constellations appear after dark. Take stargazing to the next level by visiting the observatory located next to the hotel. “This is a wonderful place!” says Cheesie. “Not only is it a great place to have a good rest, but you can also enjoy the clear summer nights!”
Cycling is one of the best—though often overlooked—ways of exploring rural Japan. Aomori has many cycling-friendly roads, and during the spring, summer and autumn, the views are sure to make the kilometers fly by.
Rent a bike from one of the many rental shops around Chuo-Hirosaki Station, rev up your sense of adventure and board the Konan Railway’s Cycle Train. Running on the Owani Line, this cyclist-friendly train allows you to take your bike on board to travel to Owani Station, the starting point of your route.
The Apple Road cycling route is a farm road lined with apple orchards. Breathe in the scent of the 400,000 apple trees as you pedal along. Along the way, you'll see Mt. Iwaki rising in the distance and the verdant fields of local farms, including Tsugaru Yume Apple Farm.
To get a taste of the bucolic nature of the area, head to Tsugaru Yume Apple Farm, where you can pick apples from mid- to late August, and cherries from June to July. While there, you can also make sweets and experience farm work.
The farm also has a café where you can enjoy a cup of coffee with homemade apple-based sweets, pick up souvenirs, and even bake your own apple pie!
From one farm to another, this time in Iwate Prefecture. Koiwai Farm has been in business for over 130 years and is one of Japan’s most renowned dairy producers. However, this is no simple farm: it is a dairy-centric amusement park, farm, restaurant, and lush forest all rolled into one.
Considering Koiwai Farm was founded in 1891, it should come as no surprise that it is home to several designated Important Cultural Properties. Be sure to take a tour of the dairy to learn more about how the farm has evolved over time.
Hop aboard the 45-minute tractor tour next, to learn more about Koiwai's afforestation project. Over the past 100 years, they have transformed the once parched volcanic landscape in the foothills of Mt. Iwate into a thriving forest. After the tour, sample the farm's freshly picked produce with lunch at the on-site café.
A short bus ride away from Koiwai Station, you will find Morioka Handcrafts Village, a park with a museum and complex dedicated to the art, crafts, and culture of Morioka. Here you can wander through the displays showcasing craftsmen’s work, try traditional weaving techniques in a workshop, and watch Morioka’s famous ironware take shape under the hands of talented artisans.
If you are heading up to Akita, you can experience a real taste of this northern prefecture by spending a night at Farmstay Midori no Kaze. Located in the peaceful mountains near the samurai town of Kakunodate, Midori no Kaze boasts spectacular views. Enjoy local home cooking lovingly made by your host, and learn to make Akita’s most famous dish, kiritanpo, pounded rice that is shaped on a stick, grilled, and then dipped in a miso and soy sauce paste.
The farm, which has three bedrooms of varying sizes and styles, also offers blueberry picking in summer and a pizza-making experience that makes use of the farm’s stone pizza oven. Enjoy these activities set against the blissful and relaxing pastoral backdrop.
"Tohoku is such a special place, it offers a side of Japan so many travellers don't expect, making it full of surprises. The landscapes and culture are simply unforgettable. If you want to see a whole new side of Japan, be sure to visit Tohoku," says Cheesie.
Lush farmland, apple treelined roads, incredible food, and colourful festivals make Tohoku a region full of surprises and delights. If you're looking to go off the beaten path during your visit to Japan, be sure to add Tohoku to your bucket list.
Cheeserland is an influencer who is enthusiastic about anything Japanese,
not only tourism but also its wonderful local culture.
Based in Malaysia, Singapore and Japan.
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