Friday, 8 January 2016

3) AOMORI CITY 青森市 – Rassera, Rassera: The Story of the North

A voyage to Aomori, Part 3 of 5

From the sanctuary of Osorezan I crossed back to this world of artifice and illusions. A two-hour descent from the Shimokita Peninsula by train brought me to Aomori City (青森市), the capital of Aomori Prefecture and my base for a few more days of northern exploration.

Aomori. It is a name synonymous in the Japanese imagination with scallop-fishing, apple-growing, and above all the Nebuta Festival.

The city perches at the south end of Mutsu Bay, at almost the geographic centre of the prefecture, where it brings together the diverse cultures, histories, trades and forces of nature of a land whose present form is of very recent construction. Most of Aomori City as we know it today was built upon the wreckage of World War II, while the concept of Aomori Prefecture as a coherent unit is scarcely a century old. Let's take a look at the story of the north end of Japan.

The First Peoples and the Japanese Conquest 
If we speak of illusions, we should do away with one of this country's most popular: that is, the myth of the homogenous nation. The closer you actually look at Japan, the less escape there is from the hollowness of those claims that this is a land of one people, one ethnicity and one culture.

Get on a bus at Aomori Station and within twenty minutes you come to one of Japan's most interesting archaeological excavations, right there in the suburbs of Aomori City. The oldest finds at the Sannai-Maruyama site (English website here) date back almost 6,000 years, to the world of the earliest known inhabitants of this region.

It is believed these people were settled long-term here for the best part of two thousand years, through what is now known as the early and middle Jomon Period. A remarkable amount of stuff has been discovered at this site and reconstructed since they began to dig it up in the 1990s, letting you walk amongst the remains of small and large pit-dwellings, mounds, burial pits, storage pits, prehistoric roads, and unique structures like this pillar-supported tower.

Interior of the large longhouse.

On top of that, some 1,700 artifacts have been unearthed which give us a glimpse into the lives of these ancient people. Much of this treasure is on display in the site's museum, where everyday tools of stone, earth, wood and bone accompany the beautiful and evocative crafts for which Jomon sophistication is famous. There is elaborately decorated pottery, lacquerware, baskets, woven clothes, ritual beads, and of course the clay figurines, or dogu, which stand as the abiding symbol of the Jomon peoples today.

Holes in the earth like these are thought to be the remains of pillar-supported buildings.

The Japanese emerged later. From where exactly is still unclear – perhaps some mix of the Jomon peoples already living there and a big wave of new arrivals (that is, immigrants) from the Asian mainland during the Yayoi Period (~300BCE – 300 CE). Eventually a centralized state and society coalesced from these tribes, referred to as Yamato or Wa and the ancestor of the Japanese state today.

The Yamato world, however, was centred in the Kansai region, around what became Nara and Kyoto. That was a long, long way from these northern lands: so distant, indeed, that those early Japanese considered the eastern and northern half of Honshu to be well outside the boundaries of their nation. They came to look down on the people who lived there, the descendents of those ancient Jomon, considering them backward and giving them the derogatory name Emishi (蝦夷). 

The Japanese state developed and grew over the next few centuries, and by the end of the Nara Period (710-794) it had run into serious financial difficulties from its spending on armed forces and public works. It occurred to them that money could be raised by absorbing the Emishi into Japan and making them pay taxes. 

This, it appears, was one of several factors that opened Japan's violent conflicts with the indigenous peoples of the north. That is an epic story in its own right, and a dramatic one, too often left outside the mainstream histories (we might say, cynically, out of convenience for the popular political narratives within Japan and general ignorance, much of it wilful, outside it). This was a collision between peoples who represented different civilisational worlds: the Japanese a world of regimented political order with its centre of gravity in imperial China, and the so-called Emishi a wilder, freer world of hunting and gathering and crafting on the northern seas and islands and Siberian expanses, swpet by the Arctic winds. It was a struggle that would rage on and off for a thousand years, produce no end of bitterness and tragedy, and culminate, eventually, in the 19th-century colonization of Hokkaido, which along with the Russian conquest of Siberia has all but eclipsed that distinct world of the north – at least for now. 

Back then however the so-called barbarians were organised, strong, and proud of their independence, and with their skilled horseback archery and hit-and-run warfare they fiercely resisted Japanese aggression all the way, at one point burning the fort at Tagajō (near present-day Sendai) that now served as Japan's eastern capital. Decades of brutal fighting culminated in the “Thirty-eight Years' War” of 773-811, towards the end of which the campaigns of the general Sakanoue no Tamuramaro finally broke the back of the Emishi resistance and extended Japanese control to what is now the north of Iwate Prefecture.

Nebuta floats in the Wa Rasse Nebuta Museum in Aomori City. Each of these has actually been used in the Nebuta Festival, which takes place every August and whose imagery is believed to refer back to the struggle between Tamuramaro and the Emishi.

This was a cruel and treacherous business, and Japanese atrocities aimed at cowing the Emishi often only enraged them into fighting further. Through cunning and enticement as much as conquest (such as capturing warriors' families and forcing them to relocate to the capital region to put pressure on the fighters), the Emishi were steadily assimilated into Japanese society, co-opted into the apparatus of the regional government, or mercilessly crushed.

Nonetheless, even after Tamuramaro's victory there were those further north – in what is now Aomori – who remained unconquered. There is also evidence that great Emishi migrations up towards the north coast and across to Hokkaido took place around this time, most likely in response to the Japanese expansion. It was not long afterwards that the Japanese began referring to them as Ezo (which has the same kanji characters as Emishi, 蝦夷): a word better known for its association with Hokkaido and its inhabitants, who would later be known as the Ainu. 

Despite the intense discrimination against these people, relations calmed somewhat over the next few centuries. In place of armed struggle, a thriving trade network grew up between the northern peoples and a succession of branches of Japanese power in the north (some of which, like the Northern Fujiwaras of Hiraizumi, were effectively autonomous), and before long all kinds of valuable goods from the Asian mainland were entering Japan from the north, as we have seen. Nonetheless, power in Japan was increasingly passing from the nobles to the military; indeed it was from the wars with the Emishi that the samurai emerged, and they would settle locally, develop strong regional power bases, accumulate increasing political clout, and eventually usurp governance of the country from the imperial court altogether. By the second of their military regimes, the Ashikaga shogunate (1337-1573), their rulers were casting firm eyes on the northern coast.

There could be no doubting that coast's strategic importance. One of the towns on the Tsugaru Peninsula still bears the name Sotogahama. Hama means “coast”, and soto either “outside” or an old Buddhist term, Sotto, connoting the edge of the world. For the Japanese, this was quite literally the edge of their world, and the gateway to that separate world of the north that still lived on beyond it in Hokkaido, Sakhalin, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the realms beyond the Amur. The shoguns renewed their efforts to bring this boundary under their control just as Japan began its own descent into chaos.

This was the edge of the world once.

There followed the region's defining years of upheaval, a time marked by major Ezo insurrections and conflicts between rival Japanese factions. As Japan disintegrated into its century-and-a-half of internal warfare (the Sengoku or Warring States Period, ~1467-1603), it was the Nanbu clan (南部氏), a house of samurai descended from the old Minamoto branch of the imperial family, which rose to dominance in Japan's far north. The Nanbu had arrived in this region some centuries earlier, in the time of the Kamakura shoguns, and would shape a great deal of the destiny of the north in the centuries to come.

The Divided North 
The name and concept of Aomori did not yet exist in this period. Most of this territory was lumped together with the entire eastern half of Tohoku as Mutsu Province (陸奥国), from which warlords like the Nanbu or Date Masamune of Sendai now set about carving out their own domains.

By the 1590s, the feared warlord and unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi had subjugated most of the warlords in Japan proper. With the defeat of the Hōjo clan and conquest of the Kanto plain (where Tokyo is now), Hideyoshi set his sights on pacifying the north and consolidating it into a unified Japan. To do this he granted a licence to the Nanbu clan, now at the height of their power, effectively binding them to his will by recognizing their control over the region on his behalf and forbidding further warfare within it.

The main Nanbu house was based at Sannohe (三戸), its power centred around the eastern borderlands of what are now Aomori and Iwate prefectures. However, a couple of decades earlier, a branch of the Nanbu household, the Ōura, had declared independence, and by the 1590s their rebellion had wrested the Tsugaru region to the west from Nanbu control. Renaming themselves the Tsugaru clan (津軽氏), they too pledged loyalty to Hideyoshi, who gave them his recognition in 1590 – to the absolute fury of the Nanbu, who with further warfare prohibited could do nothing about it.

Thus was born the Nanbu-Tsugaru rivalry that would divide this region between east and west from the very start of its story as a part of unified Japan. After the Battle of Sekigahara (1600) which concluded the period of warring states, the Nanbu moved their capital to Morioka (盛岡), now capital of Iwate Prefecture, while the Tsugaru established themselves at Hirosaki (弘前). These two domains (han, ) would last the Meiji Restoration (1868) and their rivalry for some time longer, laying the basis for the separate cultural worlds which grew up in the east and west halves during the Edo Period.

Northern Tohoku in the Edo Period, from the Aomori Prefectural Government website. Hirosaki Domain (Tsugaru clan, diagonal stripes) is to the west. Morioka Domain (Nanbu clan, horizontal stripes) to the east encompassed most of present-day Iwate (lower right) as well as eastern Aomori, including Shimokita (upper right).
As the map suggests, a few more bits broke off from both these domains. The Tsugaru sprouted a sub-fief, Kuroishi Domain (黒石藩), while a succession dispute in the Nanbu household with shogunal arbitration resulted in the birth of Hachinohe Domain (八戸) as an independent realm.

All this matters now because it set up a basic complexion for this region that lasts to this day. Hirosaki is now one of the culturally richest cities in Tohoku, while the more industrial and commercial Hachinohe remains the major centre in Japan's upper northeast with plenty of character in its own right. It was in the Edo Period that all these domains developed their own identities, socio-economic infrastructure and cultural expressions. Tsugaru lacquerware, for example, is internationally celebrated, and is said to echo the magnificent earthenwares of this area's ancient Jomon inhabitants.

Perhaps the starkest legacy of the east-west division is in language. Aomori retains a linguistic boundary between speakers of the Tsguaru dialect in the west and the Nanbu dialect in the east, each of which contains many expressions unintelligible to the other. The Tsugaru dialect, indeed, is considered the furthest of all Japanese dialects from today's standard Japanese, so different that most Japanese people struggle to understand it.

We see it also in the Nebuta Festival (ねぶた祭り): the great symbol of Aomori today, one of the Three Festivals of Tohoku and one of Japan's most breathtaking visual spectacles. Every year in the first week of August, enormous floats made of high-quality Japanese paper and illuminated from within are paraded through the city's streets amidst drumming, dancing, chants of rassera, rassera and some three million tourists who come to see it. Its origins are obscure, with influences thought to include agricultural practices and folklore, Chinese lantern festivals, and tales of Tamuramaro's war with the Emishi we looked at earlier. The artistry, craftsmanship and cooperation that goes into these floats is enormous, and you can learn more about them at the Wa Rasse Nebuta Museum (the red building next to the station in the top photo).

Masks from Nebuta floats over the years on display at the Wa Rasse Nebuta Musuem.

There are noticeable differences in how Nebuta is celebrated across the prefecture. In Hirosaki, where it is known as Neputa in the Tsugaru dialect, the mood is more sombre and less boisterous than in Aomori city, said to be because Hirosaki's festival evokes a departure for battle in contrast to Aomori's mood of post-battle celebration. The floats are two-dimensional fan-shaped paintings rather than three-dimensional models; their illustrations are grislier than Aomori's and refer to a wider range of Chinese legends and literature; and the chant is not rassera, rassera but yah-ya-do, yah-ya-do. 

That is not even to mention other parts' own takes on it, like Goshogawara's Tachineputa festival where the floats are extremely tall, or Hachinohe's totally unique Festival of the Three Shrines (Sansha Taishi) with its grand and enormous omikoshi (portable shrines). In a short visit one can scarcely begin to uncover the deep cultural legacies of the divided worlds that once made up this region. 

Crucially, this newly stabilized frontier also resumed the role that had always made it of such concern to the authorities: that of a conduit to the northern world beyond the Tsugaru Strait, and the trade with the Hokkaido Ainu which flourished once more. While the northern domains still dealt the Ainu plenty of prejudice and coercion, the relationship seems to have been for the most part stable. And little wonder if so: for in exchange for Japanese goods like rice and sake, the Ainu handed over not only furs, pearls and other rare treasures of the north, but also items obtained from the so-called santan trade with the peoples of Sakhalin and maritime Siberia, including splendid silk clothes and ornaments from the Qing court in China.

The northern domains revelled in this Ainu trade, as they could show it all off to the shogunate and other domains (like stronger Sendai to the south) as a demonstration of their power. This relationship with the Ainu lasted longer here than it seems to have for the Matsumae clan up on Hokkaido itself, where the concern became less about trading with the Ainu and more about violently forcing them to become like the Japanese. As such, there is evidence that Ainu communities still lived in Morioka and Hirosaki Domains into the Edo period, and many places on or near Aomori's northern coast still have names that originate from the Ainu language. 

The whole area was also devastated by a series of nationwide famines. The worst of these, the 1782 Tenmei Famine, starved some 200,000 people to death in the domains combined, almost half the population in Hirosaki's case, and left skeletons scattered about on the roads and in houses. It was the result not only of the far north's notorious cold and fickle weather but also, of course, of poor economic policies and crisis management, exacerbated no doubt – and not for the last time – by the aloofness of distant central authorities. To pay off these domains' debts, for example, rice exports were being forced on the region even though everyone knew its special vulnerability to famine should enough rice not be kept in reserve; a point made, at times, by way of popular protests and peasant uprisings. Memorial towers still stand today in various parts of the prefecture to console the resentful ghosts of the farmers who bore the brunt of these unnecessary calamities. 

Throughout these events, the namesake of this article, Aomori City, was little more than a small fishing village if it even existed at all yet. Its significance began only after the Meiji Restoration turned this northern world on its head.

The Birth of Aomori 
In 1868, by when the imperialist aggressions of Europe and the United States had broken open the East Asian world, a revolutionary alliance overthrew the Tokugawa shoguns and restored the Japanese emperor to power. Most of these revolutionaries were from Japan's southwest, in particular the domains of Chōshū and Satsuma, who bore long-standing antagonisms with the Tokugawa court on top of their grievances of the day.

The northern domains of Tohoku, however, were much more historically loyal to the shoguns, and perhaps understandably resented the idea of being controlled by people from the opposite end of the country. Coming together under the Alliance of Northern Domains (ōuetsu reppan dōmei, 奥羽越列藩同盟), centred on Aizu and Sendai, they resisted the revolutionary forces until Aizu fell – brutally – that November, and the remnants fled to Hokkaido, where they were defeated the following April.

Each of the northernmost domains went a different way in this struggle. The Nanbu clan of Morioka Domain fought and lost as part of this Northern Alliance and were punished severely by the new Meiji government, losing huge amounts of their territory. Among this land was the Shimokita Peninsula, given over to resettling the nobles of Aizu who were stripped of everything for their leadership of the Northern Alliance. Hachinohe too had fought for the Northern Alliance, but basically got away with it because of connections (its lord had got himself made an adopted son-in-law of the lords of Satsuma). As for the Tsugaru clan of Hirosaki, the Nanbu's rivals, they first sided with the revolutionaries before switching to support the Northern Alliance, then defected back to the revolutionaries yet again and helped them attack Hakodate. They thus managed to come out of the war on the winning side and were rewarded with territory by the imperial government.

In the event, all this rearrangement of land mattered little, because in 1871 the domain system was abolished altogether and replaced with the prefectures system of today. Many of the former lords became prefectural governors, and both the Tsugaru and Nanbu families had many of their members made part of the new nobility. (And they are still around: the wife of the current emperor's brother descends from the Tsugaru line, while the late Nanbu Toshiaki became chief priest of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo until his death in 2009.)

At first each segment of this increasing confusion of northern domains became its own prefecture, until the idea emerged that it might be better to merge them all together into a single unit. This was done in September 1971, creating what was initially named Hirosaki Prefecture, with its capital in Hirosaki city. Inevitably the people in the old Nanbu territories on the east side strongly objected to this arrangement, and so a compromise was reached: the capital would instead be the more centrally-located village of Aomori, from which the new prefecture would take its name.

Thus was born Aomori Prefecture (青森県), which at its outset also incldued a big chunk of the old Nanbu territories near Morioka, to the south. These were transferred to Iwate Prefecture in response to the preferences of the people there. It also included the old Matsumae holdings at the southern tip of Hokkaido, which were soon given over to the Hokkaido Development Commission. Thus by 1876 Aomori Prefecture had taken the shape which it retains to this day, and its capital and namesake village began to grow, becoming a town in 1889 and finally a city in 1898.

The Bridge to Hokkaido
Aomori in the Meiji years joined the rest of the country in that period's great flourishing of culture, science, art, education, media, industry and infrastructure – especially infrastructure, given this region's role as a springboard for the now much more committed genocide colonization of Hokkaido. Infrastructure in the new Japan meant railways: the Tohoku Main Line dates back to this period, with the full link from Tokyo to Aomori Station completed in 1891 by the private Nippon Railway company, the first incarnation of what is today the JR Group. Soon smaller railways were sprouting into every nook and corner of the land, so that even the treasured ocean fare of Shimokita could be loaded onto refrigerator cars and trundled down onto Tokyo dining tables. 

Aomori Station (青森駅) remains the hub of the city today and will likely be your main point of reference as a visitor. It is right next to Mutsu Bay, and a stroll that way will take you to where the city preserves an impressive piece of this history.

This is the Hakkoda Maru, one of the ships that served the Seikan Ferry (青函フェリー) line between Aomori and Hakodate that began in 1873. Now a memorial ship open to the public, it preserves a flavour of its glory days as both the basis and symbol of Aomori's emergence.

It also has lots of those really cool rooms you always find on ships like this where you will want to press all the buttons.
Notice the on-board shrine in the top right.

The ferry ran for the best part of a century, transporting millions of passengers and enormous quantities of cargo. This particular ship, originally the Hirafu Maru, had the distinction of being built as a train ferry, and has a special deck for train carriages that could accommodate up to 48 vehicles.

With the Seikan Ferry, the boundary with the northern world was permenantly bridged. Up till then the Tsugaru Strait had been a true natural boundary if ever there was one: deep, narrow, dangerous to navigate, and host to foul weather and merciless waves and winds that had claimed countless lives in shipping disasters down the centuries. These could still not be written off, as was learnt for example in the infamous Tōya Maru Disaster of 1954, in which the eponymous ferry sank in a typhoon with the loss of 1,159 lives. Nor was this bridging to everyone's advantage, least of all the Ainu's, for whom it brought the final curtain on their existence as an independent culture. But for Aomori, its vital position at one end of this bridge marked another major step towards its integration as a core part of Japan.

Dioramas inside the ship re-create life in early twentieth-century Aomori, showing some of the trades and industries which have come to define it.

It was a bridge finally completed when the Seikan Tunnel, the longest undersea rail tunnel in the world, opened in 1988. The direct road and rail link made the ferry redundant, and it was finally suspended after eighty years of service.

Everything Was Destroyed by the Americans 
This is a heading you might find in many stories in the recent history of our world, often as a defining event. Aomori's near-annihilation in World War II makes it no exception.

We will not discuss at length here the atrocities committed both by and against Japan in that war in general – for that, have a look at the articles here and here. What is relevant here is that Aomori, too, experienced the US Air Force's horrific firebombing campaign against Japanese cities in the closing stages of the war; an episode that has been overshadowed in the record by the no less appalling nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but which inflicted far more death and destruction in total.

These bombings were a calculated campaign to inflict terror, despair and agonizing death in flames on the Japanese civilian population as a deliberate strategy to undermine the regime. In Aomori it began on 14th and 15th July 1945, when US ship-based fighters sank ten Seikan Ferry ships and put the service out of commission. Further air raids struck Hachinohe and several other towns. Finally, at around 10:30pm on the night of 28th July, a fleet of sixty-three B-29 bombers approached Aomori City from the west, flying at two-minute intervals, and for over an hour carpeted the entire built-up area with some 80,000 incendiary bombs. The mostly wooden city was consumed in a literal sea of fire, to the point where even from Hirosaki it was said that the sky turned red.

The city had one legitimate military target: the Toyo Seikan factory which produced military aircraft parts. This, it appears, was not damaged by the firebombing. Instead it burnt 90% of the city to ashes: residential areas, municipal buildings, schools, shops, shrines and temples, with over 1,700 people killed and many more left wounded or missing. Naturally these were mostly people who had nothing to do with the atrocities committed by the Japanese state or military and who themselves had suffered under its oppressive rule.

I will say no more on these matters now, save for the following. Do not expect any respect, humans, so long as you scream about terrorism while celebrating your own countries' war crimes, or insist, as though you have a clue, that people of some ethnicities are more violent than others.

Bombed-out Aomori, 1945. One day it could be you.

Aomori's Rebirth 
This wartime experience is also the reason that as with most cities in Japan, including Tokyo, almost everything you see in Aomori today is new. With the obliteration of the city in 1945, it effectively had to start again. And like most other cities in Japan, how it started again.

Aomori City as seen from the Hakkoda Mountains to the south.

Aomori followed the rest of the country's example in the so-called period of High Economic Growth, sharing in the explosion in commerce and industry that accompanied Japan's face-first plunge into high-speed consumerism. The old Nanbu territories on the east side became particularly popular with heavy industry: Hachinohe was designated a “new industrial city” in 1964 and has grown into the region's industrial core, while the Shimokita Peninsula, as we have seen, now houses several major energy and extraction concerns. Agriculture, always important up here, was also upgraded with new machines and improvements to land and facilities. The Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train reached Aomori in 2002, got its shiny new Shin-Aomori Station terminus in 2010, and is now being extended to Hokkaido; while there I observed a certain local excitement over the imminent opening of the segment up to Hakodate.

In Aomori City itself, two new icons emerged towards the end of the twentieth century. One was the Aomori Prefecture Tourist Center, better known as the ASPAM building. 76 metres tall and completed in 1986, it sits on the waterfront and serves as a showcase of the city and region. Inside it visitors can find many little shops offering local food and crafts, regular cultual performances of things like Tsugaru shamisen, a panoramic movie theatre, information and discount ticket schemes for local attractions, and an observation deck at the top offering one of the best views over the city. The nighttime photograph above is taken from it, and shows the other great symbol of resurrected Aomori: the Aomori Bay Bridge, opened in the 1990s and unmissable to anyone passing through the area.

Both the bridge and the ASPAM building were constructed at considerable expense and shaped to evoke the letter 'A' for Aomori. All of this is close together and can be taken in through a stroll along the Mutsu Bay waterfront, which is quite pleasant for an evening walk.

The ASPAM building.
Aomori Bay Bridge, lit up in the evening.

Naturally all this came with problems too. Many of the enthusiastic industrial schemes failed; agricultural overproduction and the crash in the prices of Aomori's famous apples in the 1960s gave rise to the phrase “mountain and river market” (yamakawa shijō), referring to how farmers ended up throwing away huge quantities of their produce in the wilderness. On top of that, so thorough an embrace of the ways of the market has brought with it a certain soullessness, with a disdain for people, relationships, values and nature that brought Japan many turbulences and tragedies in the post-war decades and still afflicts it today. A tinge of that is perceptible even in those parts, though provincial pride and the blessings of nature help offset it to well below its levels in, say, Tokyo. 

One of the region's most talked-about challenges today, as in most of the country outside the big cities, is depopulation. One notices this personally. Whever I went in Aomori Prefecture – the city itself, remote Shimokita, or the interior mountains and rivers – it struck me that the average age of the people I saw, let alone met, must have been well over fifty or sixty. I literally had no significant encounters with young people on the entire trip. Aomori City itself, when not thronging with people for the Nebuta Festival, feels quiet, relaxed, and spacious, but constantly raises in your mind the question: where is everyone?

The answer, it seems, is that they have got bored of the pleasant surroundings, cultural vigour, clean air and fresh, real food, and left to overwork themselves to death while crushed beneath the overwhelming stress of social and corporate expectaions, artificiality, and sheer mass of anonymity in big cities like Tokyo.

Even if it means they miss out on miracles like this.

The scallops (hotate) of Mutsu Bay are one of the treasures of Aomori cuisine. Affordable, freshly caught and bursting with flavour, they are available in no shortage of local eateries and can be taken in a number of styles: raw as sashimi or sushi, grilled, or fried. These photographs come from Hotate-goya, a restaurant with a lively and cheery atmosphere right next to Aomori station, where you can pay 500 yen to fish up as many as you can from the tank in three minutes then have them prepared for you in the style of your choosing.

It is harder than it looks. The scallops can propel themselves around at impressive speeds and surprise people with their mobility.
Fried scallops.

There are also quieter and more conventional restaurants like Osanai, also very close to the station, where you can get hotate as part of set meals like this.

Ramen is also popular. Miso-butter-milk ramen, a local speciality, is one more sign of Aomori's connection to the northern realms, having its origins in the ramen of Sapporo. Appropriately then I recommend Taste of Sapporo Onishi, where it comes with the additional kick and deliciousness of curry powder.

So there we have Aomori City, the new nexus at the top of Japan. No longer a frontier to a separate civilizational realm of Arctic winds long since extinguished (though it may be back one day, if the Russian or Japanese spheres recede and the Chinese does not take their place); but everything here was built upon that role, and its legacies are everywhere. 

The city is worth at least a day to explore it in own right, and is a convenient place from which to set out for many other interesting sites in the region (even a day trip to Osorezan, if you plan it well). Within the city almost everything is comfortably within walking distance, including one more site I must recommend above all: the Aomori Prefectural Folk Museum, to whose superbly comprehensive cultural and historical exhibitions I am indebted for much of the hard-to-come-by information in this article.

Finally, as far as places to stay go, a lot of big hotels seem to have sprung up in the city centre, but for a more authentic experience, I would strongly suggest the Iroha Ryokan. Its tatami rooms are simple, clean, cosy, affordable, and conveniently located just across from the station, and you will be well-looked-after by hospitable and knowledgeable hosts. 

One of the buses you can get on at Aomori Station takes you south on a scenic traverse of the Hakkōda Mountains, all the way down to the border with Akita Prefecture. It is there that you can find one of the region's most outstanding sites of natural beauty, to which we will turn in the next article.

Other articles in this series:
2) OSOREZAN – Mount Fear
4) OIRASE GORGE AND LAKE TOWADA – Colourfully Lurking

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