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Sitting in the heart of Honshu's northernmost region is Aomori, nestled in the centre of Mutsu Bay and backed by the Hakkoda mountains. Aomori stands as a gateway to some fascinating history within the prefecture that takes its name, including Edo-period castles, ceremonial lantern processions and ornate gardens. The city is known for its cool climate and fishing tradition, and offers visitors a glimpse at the more rural side of Japanese culture – taking particular pride in the quality of its locally-grown apples.
Alongside Aomori city's modern Museum of Art just out of the centre, there's a particular wealth of traditional landmarks to see nearby in the Hirosaki and Goshogawara regions:
The Neputa Mura (Neputa Village) gives visitors a great introduction to the region and its culture. The village is primarily a museum dedicated to the paper lantern festival held in early August – visitors have the chance to walk around and see some of the gigantic, masterfully painted Neputa lanterns in all their glory, lit from within to resemble their appearance in the annual procession itself. Themes painted on the enormous fan-shaped floats include paintings of oni and other demons, as well as depictions of heroes from folklore like the samurai Watanabe no Tsuna. Other exhibitions in the museum include areas devoted to handicrafts, antique toys and the local shamisen instrument.
The extremely photogenic Hirosaki Castle sits on top of a towering stone foundation by a red wooden bridge, surrounded by cherry blossom trees and a moat that turns pink when their petals fall. Built in 1611, the original five-storey fortress was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground, but was rebuilt as a smaller three-storey structure in 1810. The surrounding area now forms Hirosaki Park, one of the most beautiful in Japan and a prime location to see the native cherry blossom trees in bloom during April and May. Other attractions in the park include the Hirosaki Castle Botanical Garden at its southern end, and the Gokoku Shrine in the northern area.
Tsugaru Kanayama Kiln
Japan has a rich tradition when it comes to the production of pottery, with many places producing earthenware in their own idiosyncratic style. The kilns of Tsugaru Kanayama have traditionally produced pottery with a distinctive red and brown coloration, and today offer pottery workshops where visitors can try their hand at creating anything they like. The site is also home to flower gardens and Café Patata, where visitors are invited to make their own pizza – whether with traditional ingredients or some that are uniquely Japanese – with help from the friendly café staff.
The distinctive triangular ASPAM building should be shoppers' first port of call, offering visitors a wide selection of food stores and gift shops. Aomori is well known for its apples, so expect to see plenty on offer in the shopping centre – but in terms of more permanent souvenirs, you can also find kokeshi dolls, tsugaru lacquerware and koginsashi embroidery. Shinmachi Street is also well worth a look, with a good selection of antique and craft shops.
Aomori prefecture has its own very individual cuisine, and includes dishes like mizu-zuke, a light and refreshing dish made from kelp and the wild mizu plant soaked in salt water; kenoshiru, a tofu and vegetable stew, flavoured with miso; and jappa-jiru, a warming cod-based dish cooked with daikon radish and other vegetables, to warm visitors to Japan's snowier regions.
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