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Saturday, Sep. 24, 2011

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Amore mio, Aomori


Special to The Japan Times

With reconstruction underway and tourism returning to northern Japan, Aomori Prefecture is once again a viable tourist destination. You can ride the Hayabusa (not the space probe, but the bullet train) and probe northern Japan. As the new bullet train pierces the northernmost reaches of Honshu, to me, it looks like a giant hurtling thermometer.

The Hayabusa goes from Tokyo to Aomori and moving at 300 kph, there is hardly an excuse anymore not to visit Aomori Prefecture and those people with the funny Japanese accents who live there.

Although I have visited the prefecture in winter, and truly loved it, I think it must be even more spectacular in the autumn when you can enjoy the sights in slightly warmer conditions.

On the Aomori Prefectural Government web page entitled "For Foreigners," there is information in English, Korean, Chinese, Russian and Italian, on all the wonderful things we can do in Aomori once we get there.

Of course, you have to read between the lines on these types of promotional pages. Take for instance the explanation of Cape Shiriya at the northeastern point of Honshu, where they have horses called kandachime, which means, "horses which stand through the cold," referring to how they "stand straight and still throughout the frigid winter." That's probably an understatement. With temperature falling as low as minus 9 in winter, these horses are probably frozen solid. Rigor mortis has set in. Another reason to go in autumn, before the horses stiffen up. Take them horse blankets.

We are also told that "Aomori has an area of 9,607.04 sq. km and is the eighth largest prefecture in Japan (as of Oct. 1, 2006)." Hmm, this indicates that the prefecture is either growing or shrinking, but I'm not sure which. Perhaps prefectures are like people and shrink as they age. In Japan, with rising sea level data jostling with reclaimed land percentages, it's hard to tell which way a prefecture is re-sizing itself, but at least we know it is likely bigger or smaller now than it was in 2006.

One of Aomori's main marine products is the "sea cucumber," a cute way of describing sea slugs, as if they were vegetables. Sea slugs not only look exactly like giant slugs, but they are also dangerous animals that will slug you if given the chance. Luckily, most of the sea slugs you see in Aomori will already be laid to rest on your dinner plate. I doubt these animals are part of the "kawaii" culture of Japan. I dare say you will not find sea slug key chains, cellphone straps or other sea slug souvenirs. If someone would just give them some hair, they'd be a lot more marketable.

Aomori harvested 1,509 metric tons of sea slugs in 2005, which is 16.1 percent of the sea slug market in Japan. Why there isn't more current data, I'm not sure. Perhaps the sea slugs had a go at the data collectors and beat them up.

Aomori is most famous for its apples, so I suspect there is a bountiful supply of these, depicted as shiny red mascots with faces and appendages roaming the tourist brochures and pointing the way to prefectural "charm points" on maps. Not surprisingly, the apple blossom is the prefectural flower.

There is also a prefectural flag, on which is a symbol described as a "stylized" version of the prefecture's shape. The real shape of Aomori prefecture is not easy to explain, and at least the stylized version looks like something, even if it is only a faint resemblance to a tree stump with a worm eating through it. Perhaps the worm is, in a subconscious kind of way, the tourist worming his or her way through the sightseeing spots of Aomori, including the Shimokita Penninsula, famous for its beech trees.

There is a 2 km stretch of Hotokegaura coastline of volcanic green rocks, some over 100 meters tall. These rocks have been naturally formed into their shapes by the elements. But the real wonder is why the rocks are described as "reminiscent of a gathering of praying Buddha." Hmmm. Have you ever seen a gathering of praying Buddhas? I've seen plenty of stone Buddha statues, but none of them looked like these rocks. Maybe that's the point — something to ponder. To me they are more reminiscent of praying seas slugs (yes, I have seen praying sea slugs before).

The prefecture also boasts many Jomon Period ruins from up to 5,500 years ago. So if you can't make it to Aomori this year, no worries, they'll still be there next year.

If you can't make it to Aomori Prefecture this autumn, however, I recommend you go in August, so you can see the very famous Nebuta Festival. Floats over seven stories high are paraded down the streets, accompanied by musicians playing bamboo flutes and taiko drums. Not only that, but you are encouraged to participate in the festival. What could be more fun?

So go ride the Hayabusa and probe Aomori prefecture!



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