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Friday, Oct. 19, 2007

ONSEN AND SHAMISEN IN AOMORI

In hot water at the seaside


Staff writer

I'd heard about the "bath in the sea" in Aomori Prefecture, Honshu's northernmost prefecture and a mere 600 km north of Tokyo. But this kaichuburo, as they call it in Japanese, isn't about splashing in the waves; it's a hot spring, and it's named Furo Fushi Onsen (hot spring of eternal youth and eternal life). As I'm not getting any younger, how can I not go there?

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The "bath in the sea" is Koganezaki Furo Fushi Onsen in Fukaura Town, Aomori Prefecture. The unusual ocher color of the water is due to oxidized iron. YOKO HANI PHOTOS

The hot spring is a part of an inn called Koganezaki Furo Fushi Onsen in Fukaura Town, about 70 km from Hirosaki City.

When I visited, the weather was poor, the misty rain meaning some visitors were hanging back from entering the outside baths. Others, however, made the plunge and were enjoying this unusual hot-spring located just five steps away from the stony shore of the Sea of Japan. It really does make you feel as if you are taking a hot bath in the sea.

The ocher color of the hot spring may seem a little strange, but it's simply the result of the oxidized iron coming from deep underground, and there is not a strong smell emanating from the calcium- and magnesium-rich water.

The deep-blue Sea of Japan stretches to the horizon, and when you're soaking you can enjoy the refreshing sea breeze, hear the lapping of the waves and watch the sea gulls gliding about.

As it was cloudy, I unfortunately missed out on seeing the sun set while soaking in the water. "It's absolutely gorgeous," said Hisao Takekoshi, who works at the front desk of the Furo Fushi Onsen hotel, but then he would say that.

Hotel guests can soak in the outdoor bath from sunrise to sunset, while day visitors can bathe from 8 a.m to 4 p.m., "so long as the sea does not get rough," Takekoshi said.

"When the sea becomes stormy, you cannot approach the hot spring because the high waves often cover the bath. You know, when the Sea of Japan gets rough in winter, it's just tremendous.

"In spring and summer, the weather is more stable. If you can see the sunset from the bath, you may really feel that you received something that enables you to stay young forever," he said.

Picturesque train trip

Another reason I visited the hot spring in Fukaura on my way to Hirosaki City was to ride the Resort Shirakami train, which is famous among train lovers for its route, which stretches through beautiful terrain from Akita Station to Aomori Station along the Sea of Japan and through the mountains.

The Resort Shirakami train has only three cars and was packed with travelers. The driver would slow down at various points so the passengers could enjoy the spectacular views of the sea and other local attractions such as huge apple orchards and vast rice paddies.

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News photo
At his izakaya, Aiya, Kazuo Shibutani takes center stage at a Tsugaru shamisen live show; Atsushi Tada, a Tsugaru shamisen player from Hirosaki City

Tsugaru shamisen (Japanese stringed instrument) performers even held a small live show on the train to promote Aomori's heritage. The Tsugaru shamisen sound is faster and more upbeat than usual shamisen playing, and it is now popular throughout Japan and abroad thanks to performers such as the Yoshida Brothers, but it originated in the Tsugaru region in the western part of Aomori Prefecture.

From Uesupa Tsubakiyama Station in Fukaura the train took two hours to reach Hirosaki, a city of 186,000 inhabitants known for its castle, cherry blossoms, and apples.

Also, the old castle city is one of the starting points to get to Shirakami Sanchi, 130,000 hectares of mountainous land that stretches through Aomori and Akita prefectures. The central area of about 17,000 hectares in Shirakami Sanchi was designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site in 1993 because of it's large, primeval beech forests.

Apart from the beeches, the peaceful old city is flooded with tourists in spring when about 2,600 cherry trees bloom, and in summer, when it hosts the Neputa Festival. Just like Aomori City's Nebuta Festival, Hirosaki's fest is famous for its large floats (dashi) adorned with enormous and colorful paper images of legendary characters that are carried or rolled on wheels through the city in the evening.

Shamisen heaven

Still, the city needs something fresh and new to promote itself, said Daigo Shiroto from the Hirosaki Tourism Convention Association.

"Cherry blossoms, apples and the summer festival are all seasonal things," Shiroto said. "We need something more so that we can offer enjoyment to visitors all year around."

With this goal in mind, they are promoting the area's traditional culture, such as the Tsugaru shamisen, as a brand of Hirosaki.

"In Hirosaki, we have our traditional sound of Tsugaru shamisen," Shiroto said. "And there are many Tsugaru shamisen lovers outside this prefecture. We would like to offer them more than just an opportunity to listen to the music. For example, we are thinking of organizing a tour lasting two weeks or so in which visitors can be taught how to play a piece on the shamisen."

Local people say the Tsugaru shamisen in Aomori has its own special sound, which they refer to as a "dialect."

Atsushi Tada, a local Tsugaru shamisen artist who was a national champion in 1990, said the playing style can be traced back to simple origins.

"Tsugaru shamisen was originally played by farmers when they took a break. The way they played had a particular rhythm that is difficult to explain but is a little similar to the rhythm of plowing the ground," Tada said.

Tada, 38, plays at parties and other events when he is invited, and he teaches the instrument to students in his studio near Hirosaki Station.

If it's not convenient to invite Tada round to your living room to play you can stop by the many restaurants in the town where shamisen performers play every day. One of them is an izakaya, Aiya, a 15-minute walk from the station. Inside, there's room for about 35 people, and Kazuo Shibutani, the owner and a shamisen performer, holds live performances every night. There, you can taste local sake and tofu as well as good seafood with the locals while enjoying music that ranges from traditional tunes to improvised pieces. "This one is only for tonight, only for you," Shibutani often tells the crowd.

So my jaunt up north wasn't all about cherry blossoms, apples and a castle.

Getting there: To Hirosaki from Tokyo, fly to Aomori Airport in Aomori City. Then take the bus (about 1 hour) to the city. To go by train from Tokyo, take the shinkansen to Hachinohe Station and change to the local express lines to Hirosaki, which takes about 5 hours in total. An alternative route, which this writer took, is to head for Akita Station by shinkansen, and then take the Resort Shirakami train to stop in Fukaura Town (Uesupa Tsubakiyama Station) in Aomori Prefecture on the way to Hirosaki. For more information; Koganezaki Furo Fushi Onsen, www.furofushi.com; Hirosaki Tourism Convention Association; www.hirosaki.co.jp/


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