Oops, this was supposed to be written a month ago! We’re on the cusp of autumn so let’s get our trip details out before summer is completely over. For our summer/my beginning of funemployment trip, we decided to go to Aomori Prefecture, which is all the way up north of Japan. The JR train ads have been selling this area relentlessly, especially since the long awaited shinkansen towards Hokkaido was finished in March. We decided let’s go!
Our first stop was Eichigo Yuzawa, which is the starting point for the train we wanted to ride, the Genbi Shinkansen. The Genbi Shinkansen is a newishly released train that goes to Niigata (the land of the best rice ever in Japan) and it’s meant to be like a moving art museum. One artist is chosen for each car of the train and you get to move around the train, and look at the pieces. It was very neat and we even got a special edition spoon and fork set with our tickets! Had nice coffee and pastries as well.
In Niigata, we went to the manga museum in town which was devoted to manga authors from the area. The special exhibit of the museum was the Neon Genesis-inspired katana swords, which Zach and I found hilarious and really nerdy. There was some sort of trebuchet type of concept weapon that’s supposed to be attached to a mecha robot arm and we are like “…” because how could that even work?!?! Anyway, it was a pretty cute museum and it nicely explained the manga process interactively.
Honestly we played a lot of Pokemon Go in Niigata. Like a lot! We trekked out toward this park that followed the ocean. It was so hot and muggy as we trudged along this forest. We were going to this really pretty temple, and on the path towards it people were playing Pokemon Go! A pikachu popped up and everybody got excited! All while this really nice temple is being ignored! We also went to the aquarium which was pretty nice, with penguins, some deers, and some baby stingrays eating large chunks of fish. We had some really good gelato afterwards!
While in Niigata, we ate a lot of things obviously! The special is negi-soba, which is a half buckwheat, half regular wheat noodle. Was good, softer than regular soba, and, especially with tempura. Another special of the town was tarekatsu, which is tonkatsu with a sweet savory sauce on top of the famous city rice. Was really tasty and would definitely eat again.
After, it gets a bit hazy. Lots of running around on pretty old trains, and weird transfers towards this rest house on top of a pizza place and then taking a shinkansen toward Nagaoka for their famous summer fireworks. We were also running around in yukata, which are summer casual kimonos, and our too-small-for-foreigners slippers during a thunderstorm and it looks like it wants to rain HARD. Luckily we made it to Nagaoka, and only a light drizzle. We met Zach’s friend, Ikumi, and we headed toward the river where the fireworks show was gonna be. Everybody was in full summer mode, with people wearing yukata, people sweating, and a lot of beer and bbq snacks. It was hugely crowded as we walked into the grocery store, where everybody was trying to get their yakisoba and other dinner/snack items for the show. We found a spot on the grass and the whole show was great! A fireworks show here is definitely different from 4th of July fireworks. Instead of 20 minutes of fireworks all going up at once, the fireworks here are much slower. Fireworks are presented in segments and everybody oooohs and awwwss politely. The show lasted an hour and a half and ended with some experimental fireworks. It was definitely a fun experience and after I understood again why people like summer.
As Libby left off above, we finished our evening in Nagaoka watching some really interesting, experimental fireworks. Our ride back to the resthouse we were staying at was a little cumbersome; there were crowds of people from all over who had come to see the show, and were all now piling out of the same train station in every direction. There were lines leading up to the platform, and from there a very few limited number of trains going in various directions were crowded with people. We had actually forgotten to buy our return train tickets before the crowding, and unfortunately they were /requiring/ us to have purchased before hand. The tellers and ticket machines were all closed! It turned out fine though, since we were still able to board the trains and then simply pay our missed ticket portion once we finally arrive at our destination. The JR team seemed very organized for such a massive event, it still impresses me to this day how orderly and calm they can be when directly mindless surges of very rude people, including us without our tickets lol.
Anyways, that was only the beginning of our Summer adventure! Afterwards, we took a long coastal train up towards Akita city. Libby mostly slept the ride, but I enjoyed watching the cost pass by. It was a slow, but comfortable train, not too crowded (although we were at this point traveling on a week day afternoon). Arriving in Akita was awesome! We had planned things perfectly such that the one evening we had in town was the evening of it’s most famous Summer festivals. We ventured out into the night after settling into the hotel, and found the main areas packed with, you guessed it, delicious food! Libby’s favorite is the ever satisfying and simple buttered potato, ubiquitous as a festival food here in Japan. I had a kind of peculiar but delicious local style of burger, and we also shared some cucumber on a stick, along with, randomly, a fried pizza calzone lol. Oh apple fritter things! Apples and garlic are specialties of the northwest regions of Japan, and both of those are pretty cool by me.
After getting our food on, it was time to check out the main event; giant lantern balancing! It’s super hard to explain, but I’ll give it a try. Large crowds of people surround the streets as young men carry 30 foot tall poles adorned with maybe 40 or so paper lanterns. Then, they begin to, much to the thrill of the crowd, daringly balance this massive fixtures on their heads, hands, shoulders, elbows, or knees, each time pushing ever closer to tilting and causing the entire them to come crashing down into the crowds. Which is exactly what happened at least a couple of times lol. No one is hurt, they’re just paper lanterns, but it’s still really exciting, and draws a sudden gasp from you when you see them go wildly out of control and suddenly out into the crowd. Anyways, that’s basically it; they do this kind of street performance to a continuous rhythm producer by the parade platforms nearby and then after awhile it was over.
Akita was a real surprise, both me and Libby liked it alot more than we expected. There was a massive, beautiful Lotus filled pond that we got several pictures of. There’s also a fairly large park featuring the remains of a large castle, and several botanical features we explored for a little while. We are considering coming back to spend some more time around the town.
Our next stop was Hirosaki. Originally, I had planned for us to take another set of gorgeous trains heading up towards Hirosaki, the so called “Luxury” liners, but unfortunately due to spike in commuting traffic due to the festivities and my lack of an earlier reservation there would be /no available spots for the entire day. period/. I really screwed this up and owe us another trip to actually take the liner train next time, but to be fair /no where on the website with all the information about the train line even mentioned reservations/. Apparently, you have to make the reservations at the station only, but still do that weeks in advance. But that fact is also not mentioned. So, whatever.
Still, with only that as a minor set back, we took local trains into town and got set up in our hotel. The hotel was cheap, but had one of the better rooms we had yet, plus! Plus! Public baths! Yay! We also go free popsicle as we left the hotel, which was needed because HOLY CRAP IT WAS HOT HOT HOT throughout the afternoon.
The evening, as we had planned it, would once again be another local summer festival, this time featuring parade floats known as “Nebuta”. These are basically paper made displays featuring fantastical, mythical depictions of historical or literary characters in their most famous moments. But what really makes it cool is the fact that the parade waits until night to fall, and all these massive floats are lit up from inside, resulting in a display that is hard to explain. While we snacked on more summer festival food, we watched in the crowd for well over an hour as hundreds of floats came by. There was also massive taiko drums being pulled and constantly beat by a rotating group of young boys and girls. The experience is, again, hard to put to words, but definitely worth the trip!
Following that, we had a minor little side trip to the “rice art” paddy fields; a weird kind of country side spot where local farms plant and grow different types of rice in a very particular patterns to produce elaborate artwork and pop culture depictions when seen from above. Check out the pictures below about that! Also, I took Libby on a bicycle ride that was pretty amusing 😛
Our last major leg of the summer trip was Aomori itself, the largest city of the Norther tip of Japan’s main island, the city that connects the Hokkaido railway through the large tunnel beneath the ocean. Nebuta in Aomori are a /huge deal/, even more than the small town of Hirosaki where we had seen them the night before. We were able to visit an amazing museum just full of popular floats from different times, with alot of history and videos detailing the larger than life nature of the spectacle. Unfortunately… we didn’t actually stick around to see the summer festival that occurred that evening in Aomori! I messed up a bit and we didn’t end up joining in on this last summer Festival. Still, we had some sampling Apple Ciders (remember how I mentioned Apples were a big deal up here?), and Libby got her Hotate (oysters cooked fresh and hot on a grill).
When we finally did reach home, we were treated with… a local summer festival! Our own little down threw one the evening of our return, so once again we went out into the night and ate food, looked at the sights, and generally had fun.
Maybe there’s more to say about our trip, but I think I’d rather just introduce some pictures!