Escape to the beauty of the north in these areas of Aomori Prefecture, where natural beauty and ancient tradition thrive.
The Hirosaki and Shirakami areas are in the southwestern part of Aomori Prefecture, and accessible by car, train, bus and air.
By train, Hirosaki is most easily accessed from Tokyo via Aomori, the last station on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line, and the connection point to the Hokkaido Shinkansen. From there, the local train to Hirosaki takes 30-40 minutes. All trains are covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Flights from Tokyo to Aomori take about one hour and 20 minutes. From the airport, a bus to Hirosaki takes about one hour.
There are a variety of highway buses from Tokyo that travel during the day or overnight. These take around 10 hours.
Hirosaki is the area's main city and transport hub. It is also a well-preserved castle town, with Hirosaki Castle at the center. Built by the Tsugaru clan, it is especially well-known today for its spectacular cherry blossoms in spring, its botanical garden, and the stately Gokoku Shrine. There is also a small lake where you can rent rowboats.
Whether you visit for winter's Snow Lantern Festival, the Cherry Blossom Festival in spring, summer's Neputa Festival or to enjoy the autumn foliage, Hirosaki Castle and its grounds are beautiful. Due to be finished around 2025, renovations to the stone foundation offer insights into how Japanese castles were built.
With so fascinating places close by, Hirosaki makes for a natural hub for exploring further. The Shirakami Sanchi UNESCO World Heritage Site is the biggest draw, especially for hikers. There are 12 official hiking trails in Shirakami Sanchi, ranging from easy to hard-core mountain trekking, all offering spectacular vistas.
Like a necklace of precious gems, there are 33 jewel-colored ponds and lakes scattered throughout the Shirakami Sanchi area. They are thought to have formed when a large earthquake caused a landslide and are known as Juniko, or Twelve Lakes, because only 12 were visible from the collapsed mountain when they first formed. The most famous is a small pond called Aoike, which is a brilliant cobalt blue.
Also located in the Shirakami Sanchi, Anmon Falls are three waterfalls that appear as one, connected vertically. A hike takes you along the river to the source of the water. Follow the trail up the cliff to see the base of each rushing fall. Throughout the area, the thick virgin beech forest embraces you with greenery.
Aoni Onsen is a traditional Japanese hot spring and, as usual, you bathe naked. The indoor baths are gender segregated, but be aware that the outdoor bath is mixed. There are two one-hour time slots when women can bathe outdoors privately.
Aoni Onsen is so remote that there is no cellphone reception, and the baths are lit only by oil lamps. Relax and unwind in this magical place where time stands still.
The Hirosaki Neputa Festival, held annually in the first week of August, shouldn't be missed. The main event is a parade made up of giant illuminated floats, painted with brilliant depictions of warriors, samurai and glamorous women. It celebrates the past returns of victorious warriors. As night falls, the majestic floats glow in the dark.