So recently I went to speak for a second time at Japan Rail Cafe for their Tohoku month special seminars. The topic this time – Culture. For those who did not get to attend the session, here are some of the highlights of my presentation which was based on my experience in Tohoku back in 2014.
Iwate – Ryokan experience
I have said this countless times, but a trip to Japan without a ryokan stay is NOT complete! It’s not just an accommodation option – a ryokan stay gives you a feel of what it’s like to be Japanese for a day (maybe). You sleep on the tatami floor, sit in the floor, walk around in your yukata, enjoy a communal hot spring bath and then have a full multi course dinner featuring the region’s best produce. It’s like staycation but 10000000 times better.
Ryokan experiences may be super costly especially in famous places like Kyoto so you scraped the idea, but all over Tohoku you may find this experience without burning your wallet. Iwate prefecture is pretty much a mountainous place with many hot spring spots. And with hot springs they will be ryokans! This particular area I went to was from the Tsunagi Hot Spring area. There are many ryokans within this area and the one I stayed at was Aishinkan. This area is accessible from Morioka Shinkansen station and a free bus was provided to access it. To find out more about the various hot springs areas in Iwate, do check out this site. I will recommend choosing Iwate if you want an affordable ryokan experience because my stay costs around S$100+/person only including the full course dinner, breakfasts and the facilities was spacious and decent. Ryokan stay doesn’t necessarily need to be very expensive if you experience it in Tohoku!
Miyagi – Matsushima islands
Matsushima has been ranked as one of the Top 3 Scenic Views of Japan. So if you’re visiting Sendai, you can take a local JR train to Shiogama station, and from the Marine Gate you can enjoy a scenic cruise which brings you to view the various islands of Matsushima for 50 minutes before you arrive at Matsushima Bay.
Matsushima itself has it’s own charm too.
On the island near the pier you can find 2 famous temples – Zuigan-ji 瑞巌寺 – one of the Tohoku Region’s most important Zen temples and a “National Treasure and Important Cultural Property of Japan”, and Entsū-in 円通院– which has one main hall and two gardens – Japanese and western.
Matsushima is also famous for oysters so to enjoy some of these you should come between October to March. If you come during December – March, you can also opt to have an oyster cruise, which means you have oyster hot pot on the boat while viewing the famous islands!
Recommend season: Autumn, winter
Aomori – Apples
Apples is very important to Aomori prefecture and it’s interesting how they build their whole identity around it.
Did you know the famous Japanese Fuji Apple is NOT related to (the equally famous) Mt Fuji?
Fuji apple is a breed of apple developed in the 1930s in Fujisaki city of Aomori prefecture by Tohoku Research Station, and eventually released to the market in 1962. Aomori is definitely the apple capital of Japan!
A good place to learn more (and eat) apples is the Hirosaki Apple Park, in Hirosaki city. They have 65 different breeds of apples there. And besides the famous Fuji apple, there are so many other famous apples within Japan that the rest of the world may not know of. They have really cute names like Sekaiichi (World’s No.1). To learn more about Aomori apples, do check out Ringo Daigoku.
For those who do want to pick apples do come BEFORE mid November. I came in end November and it was all over. This was the only tree left with apples because everything was harvested! Apple season starts August so I suggest September or October. The apple picking activity is very popular here and costs only ¥200 for 1kg ($2.50/kg). This price is unbeatable I tell ya, because Aomori apples are a premium product in Singapore (you don’t want to know how much it costs here…). You can also buy in crates and have it TaQBin-ed to the airport and checked in to Singapore because our lovely customs allows bringing in fruits! Perfect souvenirs for your friends and relatives.
Recommend season: Autumn
Aomori – Hirosaki Castle
Image source: http://www.en-aomori.com/
For cherry blossom chasers, sometimes you already booked your flight to Japan but the peak in Tokyo or Kyoto is over. You should actually make a trip up to Hirosaki (just a 3hr Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori and then a local JR train ride to Hirosaki) because this is one of the best places for cherry blossom viewing. Obviously I didn’t get to because I came in end November, but Hirosaki castle has plenty of cherry blossom trees. Another top spot is the nearby southern foot of Mt. Iwaki, where there is a road lined with 6500 oyamazakura cherry trees, stretching for 20km.
This is also one rare spot where you can see both cherry blossom and snow at the same time! Because in other areas of Japan, the snow would have cleared by spring, but up north it is colder hence you would get to see both if you are lucky.
Recommended season: Spring
Aomori – Nebuta
This is on of the biggest summer festivals in Japan with over 3 million people coming to experience it every year from 2nd – 7th August, in Aomori city. There is a museum dedicated to this art and I did visit it when I was there! But of course, I didn’t quite understand what it was all about at that time.
We had a live Skype session with Sakurai-san from Sendai. He went up to Aomori’s Nebuta museum to share with us what it was about! If you would like to be part of such festival, do visit in August. You can also hop by to Akita prefecture nearby for their Kanto Matsuri summer festival as well.
Recommended season: Summer
I would say I’m not super into exploring different cultures when travelling, but definitely experiencing and being exposed to different cultures is a must. If not you can just stay at home? In my 6 trips to Japan, including this Tohoku trip, I have seen a variety of cultural representation of Japan and they have all been eye opening.
Stuff like history, architecture, religion – I’m not that interested. But stuff like arts, festivals, traditional activities, I do like to take a glimpse and experience it for myself. For example – tea ceremony, onsen town ryokan experience, hands on workshop for craft or traditional food making class, I am the hands on experience kind of person, rather than the museum kind of person when it comes to experiencing culture.
Of course, when travelling, it is not just about YOUR interest. You need to consider what your companions like as well, so including some of those cultural sites that others may like is only right to make the trip enjoyable for everyone. Maybe your brother likes temples and shrines, your uncle is fascinated by traditional dance and festivals, your aunt collects items of highly skilled craftsmanship and your grandmother likes to experience nature. Tohoku is a region that is culturally rich and you can find all sorts of cultural activities, surely there is something for everyone!
Tohoku is one region of Japan that you sure can experience Japan in it’s original form and here’s a list I summarised for you guys:
- Natural scenery with long history
- Miyagi – Mastsushima Islands
- Aomori – Lake Towada
- Akita – Shirakami Sanchi, Lake Tazawa
- Shrines, temples, castles, samurai houses
- Fukushima – Aizu-Wakamatsu Tsuruga Castle and Samurai mansion
- Miyagi – Matsushima Zuigan-ji and Entsu-in
- Aomori – Hirosaki Castle
- Yamagata – Yamadera
- Seasonal festivals
- Aomori – Nebuta Matsuri (summer)
- Akita – Kanto Matsuri (summer), Yokote Kamakura (winter)
- Niigata – Earth Celebration Festival
- Traditional music and dance
- Niigata – Kodo Taiko Group
- Traditional craft making
- Fukushima – Aizu lacquered ware
- Old school onsen towns
- Yamagata – Ginzan Onsen
- Akita – Nyuto Onsen
(Of course there are way more festivals and stuff which I did not list down. These are just a few!)
Why is Tohoku a cultural place? Firstly the whole of Japan is still a very cultural place, but from what I know, Tohoku is a large area (bigger usually means more variety) of Honshu Japan and settlement of people happened between the 7th and 9th century. Which means this area has a long history of being inhabited, but unlike some more modern places in Japan (like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya etc), a lot of Tohoku is still considered rural. This means that a lot of it’s old historical properties are preserved and not demolished to make way for sky scrapers. Not being a metropolitan city also means a lot of it’s natural landscape still exists. And being a non-city also means that traditions are more likely kept and practiced for centuries. It’s like a more untouched version of Japan in this current era.
I may not be 100% right saying this, but I’m just comparing it to how Singapore is – we are so developed until we have not much culture to speak of, except for Singlish and hawker food. In big cities with fast pace of living a lot of traditional festivals are often forgotten, old buildings are constantly demolished and that’s the environment we all grew up in. How many of us in Singapore actually get together to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival or Dragon Boat Festival anymore? All we remember is the food associated to it – mooncakes and glutinous rice dumplings. Nobody ain’t got time for that.
I digress. So I was saying, it is common sense to figure that rural places away from the urban areas are were you can find old school experiences, yes?
And best of all, this area is not yet that commercialized to tourists (comparing to the more famous Tokyo, Hokkaido and Kyoto perhaps), plus the area is huge, so there isn’t much of a squeeze! Have you experienced going to famous castles or viewing points ONLY to have to wait in line for 30 minutes to enter and when you reach the top you are being squeezed like sardines? (Well I have, and I do not like that, no thank you. I could experience that in the MRT in Singapore instead, just saying.)
To appreciate culture, you definitely cannot be rushed or disturbed. This is highly important but often understated. You want to do it peacefully, quietly, because you want to soak it all up, to appreciate the beauty without distractions. Without getting angry or frustrated by people standing in your way.
And with us on the left and right are the lovely staff of Japan Rail Cafe, Ms. Yi Xiu and Mr. Yamataka. Thank you guys for making this happen and bringing Japan Rail Cafe to Singapore! I sure am looking forward to trying the food when I come back next time.
For the entire month of December, Tohoku is the featured region at Japan Rail Cafe Singapore. For those who missed the first two sessions of the Tohoku seminar, there will be ONE more session happening this Saturday 17th December 2016! I will not be there this time but I’m sure you would learn a lot from the speaker. The theme for this 3rd session will be about JR Tomato Land and driving in Japan.
Date: 17th December 2016, Saturday
Time: 1:20pm – 3:00pm
Venue: JR Cafe
Registration: Sign up right here
Japan Rail Cafe
5 Wallich Street, #01-20
Tanjong Pagar Center