AOMORI RAMBLES

Summer in Japan is hot. HOT. With 99% humidity enveloping the heat sink of old post-war concrete and new age designer urban sprawl, even nights don’t cool down much. Air conditioners are used sparingly as an austerity measure, and the peak hour train crush is unbearable. Japan’s cities are the worst place to be in July and August, and the antidote is Tohoku.

Tohoku means ‘the North-east’ and refers to the 6 prefectures at the northern end of Japan’s largest island, Honshu: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata. While it can get hot up there too, the lush summer green of forests, mountains and rice paddies temper the heat.

67 % of Japan is forest – both natural broad-leaf deciduous, native conifer forests and the ubiquitous conifer plantations of Hinoki and Sugi cypress. The mountains of Tohoku are under deep snow for many months of the year, with a short time to rush through spring, summer and autumn before settling down under the frozen white blanket again from late November. Excellent hiking abounds here.  In August 2019 I found a few days for hiking when I visited Aomori to attend the Hiraga Neputa Festival, and experience the onsen and warm country hospitality of the Kuroishi area.

Green rice plains stretch off across the middle distance in the western Aomori prefecture, bordered by the volcanic mountain ranges of Iwaki-san and Hakkoda. Summer in the Aomori countryside is an immersion in shades of green.

isabella bird

Nearly exactly 141 years before, In late July 1878, intrepid traveller Isabella Bird passed through Aomori in drenching rains making the heat of summer unbearable when travelling by foot and packhorse and staying in tiny hamlets sleeping on her wet stretcher and bedding (why didn’t she accept a warm dry futon? – fleas). She was one of the first foreigners ever to visit this area of Japan, and a woman! Her account of the journey is a fascinating picture of 19th century Japan, although her cultural sensibilities are viewed through a heavy veil of Victorian racial superiority.

In her book ‘Unbeaten Tracks in Japan’, (page 130) she describes the wet landscape of mountainous Tohoku as follows:

‘It was pretty country, even in the downpour, when white mists parted and fir-crowned heights looked out for a moment, or we slid down into a deep glen with mossy boulders, lichen-covered stumps, ferny carpet, and damp, balsamy smell of pyramidal cryptomeria, and a tawny torrent dashing through it in gusts of passion. Then there were low hills, immense rice-fields…’

Kuroishi

My stay in Kuroishi coincided with the summer festival week of Neputa, as did Isabella Bird’s visit in 1878, then called the Tanabata Festival. I was unaware of her visit to this very area, until I spotted a faded plaque at the little onsen village of Nakano.

Kuroishi is a delightful little town of well-preserved Edo period architecture in Nakamachi area. With so much rice, sake breweries are abundant. Sweet little 2 carriage trains manned by a single driver run to this area of Aomori. Samisen playing is a local skill with a long reputation here for excellent musicians.

My first walk was a little hike up into the Shiroiwa hills behind Kuroishi with my homestay host, the delightful Mrs Ishiyama, last generation of her family of Shinto priests to still live in the pretty rural hamlet next to the shrine. Now her son owns a designer ramen chain in Tokyo. Perfect summer weather meant the forest was alive with insects, as we walked along a stream past wild hydrangeas. Mrs Ishiyama was very fearful along the way that we might encounter a bear. We emerged at our destination unscathed, at a white cliff of exposed volcanic rock, and finished our walk by visiting the tiny Shinto shrine for the god of the white rock.

Ishiyama-san’s country garden was a dream mix of summer flowers, vegetables, fruit trees, and a beautiful ‘kura’ storehouse, a feature of this area of Aomori. She showed us her fascinating hobby of making charcoal ‘flowers’ from smoking chestnut conkers and other cones and nuts, which are then used as air fresheners in houses, as charcoal absorbs smells and moisture.

kura

Freestanding storehouses called ‘kura’ are a feature seen all over rural Japan. These buildings were invaluable necessities for food storage through the long winters, and they are particularly attractive and well-preserved architectural relics. Thick plaster walls insulate and their location away from the main buildings in a farm complex protects from fire. The decorative details seen in the northern ‘kura’ are beautiful, and many are well maintained and still in use, for rice and apples. I have seen them renovated into separate accommodation with a very atmospheric ambience.

The Kuroishi area publishes a local guide to its distinctive ‘kura’ with a walking map but in Japanese only.

oirase – hiking with bears

Not far to the east of Kuroishi, the really wild forest of the Hakkoda mountains begins. Well-known in Japan is Hakkoda’s Oirase Stream walk, and I set out to experience this trail for myself. Taking an early bus from Aomori city, I disembarked 2 hours later at the trailhead with one other walker. We struck up a conversation, discovered a shared interest of plants and set off together, past the first of several ‘Kuma Chui’ (beware of the bears) sign. The walking trail follows a rushing stream called Oirase, and unfortunately so does the highway! Tour buses and tourist cars were frequent reminders that non-walkers also enjoy this beautiful part of Japan through the window.

Walking through the lush green vegetation of high summer, with the sound of the adjacent crystal-clear stream was a delight. Stopping to identify an interesting tree, I noticed movement in the riverside vegetation about 10 metres away and to my amazement, a black bear stood up and looked me straight in the eye. Tapping my companion on the shoulder to alert him to the now two bears close by, we retreated with hearts thumping quietly further up the track. The Japanese black bear (Tsuki Waguma) is a smaller species than the really scarey brown bears of Hokkaido, but still an animal which commands respect. They had been foraging in the lush growth next to the stream, and the water noise had masked our presence. I always carry bear bells in Japan, but this time had not tied them to my pack. not far along the trail after our bear interaction we came across a sign saying that bears had been sighted in this area recently. Incongruously, tourist buses were passing by, oblivious to the presence of these genuine Oirase forest residents. I have seen bear paw prints and scats on walks in Japan before, but this was a truly remarkable hiking experience for me. Bears have a bad name in Japan and can be dangerous if surprised. There are annual reports of negative bear/human interactions, with both parties coming out badly. Occasionally people are killed, and aggressive bears are culled. With young people moving away from the farming life to jobs in cities, forest edge hamlets are populated by elderly people or abandoned. Orchards and crops are not tended and bears come out of the forest to feed, as forestry plantations have impacted on their natural diet of fruit and berries from the broadleaf deciduous forest vegetation, and the vicious cycle continues.

The Oirase stream flows into serene Lake Towada, an ancient crater lake. Despite the tour buses, the Oirase stream walk is a delight.

Towada Lake in summer

Tsuta Onsen  https://tsutaonsen.com/en/

A short bus ride brought me to my accommodation for the night, a beautiful old onsen in the forest. Many centuries old with VERY hot water bubbling up, soaking in the hot spring bath of  xxx  was heaven.

A short walk before breakfast through the silver birches near the onsen took me to a mirror-still lake. The only person there, I sat listening to birds and insects, watching fish in the clear water and admiring the perfect reflections of the white bark of the trees opposite, until… I heard a large animal moving through the forest behind me. I took to my heels imagining not wild pigs or deer but the bears of yesterday coming to eat me. This area becomes overwhelmed with tourists in the autumn (mid to late October) who come for the golden forests, the ancient onsen and to photograph this particular lake in its autumn glory.

hakkoda mountains

Not far away from Tsuta onsen, Hakkoda Mountain has a network of trails through the alpine landscape over the dormant volcano which I walked with some Japanese friends. We took the cable car up to the mid-station level, saving about 700m of ascent, and giving us more time on the mountain. Our goal was to do a loop walk finishing down at another ancient onsen hot spring hotel in the middle of nowhere. After walking through wind-pruned alpine conifer scrub, we emerged into a high open plateau. Perfect blue sky weather was reflected in the circular ponds dotting the rolling green meadows, and the hot day no problem at altitude. Weather can change very quickly up here, and to venture further into the crater section, I would recommend a local guide.

neputa festival

To cap off my Aomori travels, I participated in the local Neputa festival of the Hirakawa district. This festival held in early August originated from the Tanabata festival combined over the centuries with the cultural traditions of the north. Being a small local version of the famous Aomori city Nebuta, everyone was involved, from the local preschools to the nursing home residents – I love the strong sense of community which exists in rural Japan. Amazing floats trundled off to thunderous drumming as the sun went down behind Mt Iwaki. The colourful Neputa festival continued through the clear starry night with the whole rural region coming together to celebrate summer, a truly memorable event.

Summer in Tohoku is apples, peaches, and lush green velvet rice paddies. Spring is immersion in white blossoms as petals flutter in the breeze at Hirosaki Castle. Autumn is harvest time and endless forests of golden leaves. The other face of Aomori in winter is one I have yet to experience – a harsh time outside when the tough northerners batten down the hatches and make sake, do traditional crafts and enjoy each other’s company. And there’s great snow for skiing!

Fireworks smoke puffs indicate the start of the Neputa festival with a backdrop of Mt. Iwaki

references

I was a guest of Koji-san of Pitt Travel, Goshogawara, and received great hospitality from the staff of Green Farm Nokakura Association, Sato-san and Norita-san. There is a wonderful overnight homestay system in the area,details available from Pitt Travel.

Copyright: all images are by Relle Mott, and remain the property of the author

TORII GATES & FOXES

鳥居

The simple Shinto torii gate always exerts a mysterious pull on my curiosity. Aside from the fact that they nearly always come with trees, they are usually beautiful forms, inviting a thoughtful sojourn exploring the Shinto shrine complex beyond, or working out what deity they signify in Shinto nature worship.

Rural Fukushima prefecture has many Shinto deities

Encountered all over Japan, in forests, on roadsides, in city alleys and private gardens, the elegant shape of the torii gate can be seen demarcating the everyday world from the sacred world of Shinto deities. They can be tiny or enormous, made from natural timber, stone, in vermilion red, or functional concrete. The presence of a torii gate is the simplest way to identify a Shinto shrine from a Buddhist temple, although the two religions harmoniously coexist even on the same site. Consistently appearing in Shinto architecture right down to the dress of shrine maidens, the colour red symbolizes the sun and life, and is thought to repel evil spirits, danger and illness.

The original meaning of the word torii is unclear. The enigmatic literal meaning of the two kanji characters which write torii  鳥 居 can be translated as ‘bird perch’, but it is possible that it derives from the term tōri-iru 通り入る, meaning to pass through and enter – the function of the gate separating the human world from the spirit world.

Theories of the origin of torii gates abound:

  • the ancient religious use of bird perches in groups at the entrance to villages throughout Asia, which were thought to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck
  • the association of white birds with souls of the dead in folklore and the three-legged crow in Japanese mythology
  • similar symbolic gates were widespread in Asia in ancient Hindu and Buddhist sites, possibly transmitted back to Japan with Buddhism from the 6th century

Inari & the FOX guardians

Tiny foxes guarding an important rock, near Hakone Jinja

Often seen within Shinto shrines are a pair of fox statues, guarding a subshrine or a sacred object. These are the messengers of the deity Inari, a busy god with many portfolios: rice and agriculture, fertility, sake, merchants, swordsmiths and general prosperity and success. The foxes, messengers of Inari, can often be seen with keys to the rice granary in their jaws, a common sight in agricultural areas. Foxes are mythical shape-shifters, often into female form to fatally seduce men, and are believed to have the power to speak. They are mischievous and cunning, but bring protection from bad fortune as well.

The bibs are an interesting feature, placed by devout local people to protect the deity and thereby assist the souls of deceased relatives. As a deviation from the usual foxes, in Takayama I came across a pair of bears as shrine guardians.

The most well-known (and photogenic) Inari shrine is Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, with its hill paths completely covered with red torii gates, donated by businesses grateful for success. There are many other Inari shrines across Japan which have this same style of torii avenues without the crowds.

Hie Shrine in Akasaka, Tokyo

But my favourite torii gates are the weathered and authentic ones deep in the country. Next time you travel on regional trains in Japan, look out for isolated groves of trees in the middle of fields or hillsides – hidden in the middle is likely to be a local Shinto shrine worshipping some ancient deity of nature. Take note of the style of the torii gate if you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse – simple country shrines show an authentic spirituality which is often lost in important shrines.

Rustic torii on the other side of Kakunodate, where the tourists don’t go

 (all images are by and remain the property of Relle Mott)

Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage Trail

Shikoku Henro-michi Pilgrimage Trail:  1200 years old and 1200 kilometres long

 

Following on from the Tohoku Basho walk, we headed south to Shikoku island to walk selected highlight sections of the famous Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage trail, which circumnavigates Shikoku, least visited and smallest of Japan’s four main islands.

Henro pilgrim

Starting in Tokushima, with some trepidation due to the trail’s reputation, we set off. We loved it! The long trail covers many different landscapes in Shikoku, from flat valley road walking through rice paddies and villages, to mountain forests. It was varied, interesting, beautiful  and best of all, a true pilgrimage. The atmosphere of the ancient temples on top of sacred mountains was unmistakeably spiritual – we felt the serenity!

The Japanese Henro pilgrims wear white robes which will become blessed once they complete the 88 temple circuit – and they will use these as their funeral robes.

Trail-markers come in different forms on Shikoku:

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wet walk up to Temple 21

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