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Sunday, July 22, 2012

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Hitchcockian highlight: Mind-boggling numbers of umineko (black-tailed gulls) can be observed up close at Kabushima Shrine in Hachinohe. TOMOKO OTAKE PHOTOS

Power spots and prehistory in beautiful Aomori Prefecture


Staff writer

The government of Aomori Prefecture which straddles the whole of the northern end of Japan's main island of Honshu — and is best known as the nation's apple capital — broke new ground in its tourism promotion campaign late last year, when it announced it would start selling the prefecture as the land of "power spots" and "mystery zones."

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Left: A Gassho Dogu (clay figurine with clasped hands) from 3,500 years ago is one of many Jomon Period items excavated in Hachinohe and put on display at the city's archaeological museum, Korekawa Jomon-kan.

The term "power spots," referring to places that are believed to give visitors immediate spiritual energy, has gained substantial popular currency in Japan over the last few years.

However, while the resultant sudden deluge of camera-toting, luck-seeking visitors has excited many communities hosting such "holy" and "magical" sites — complete with eateries, souvenir shops and guest houses — others have frowned on the profane and often marketing-driven interest in venerable institutions such as temples and shrines.

So Aomori Prefecture's decision to designate 38 sites such as shrines, temples, trees, waterfalls and huge rocks as power spots — and to name another 22 sites as "mystery zones" — wasn't without its share of controversy.

"When we announced the power-spot concept, we were criticized quite a bit," conceded Takabumi Shikanai, director of the prefectural government's community revitalization unit, as he introduced himself to a group of journalists invited by the prefecture earlier this month to join a two-day tour of such spots. "Many people asked, 'Why should the prefectural government push this?' " he confided with considerable candor.

This isn't the first proactive step taken by the prefectural government to increase tourism in a bid to stop its declining population from falling further. So far, though, all its best efforts have been in vain. "We once tried to lure back retirees who were originally from the prefecture (but had gone to big cities for work) — but to no avail," Shikanai said. "We really want to see more people come here, however temporarily."

It was with such dire prospects for this outstandingly scenic part of the Tohoku region in the back of our minds that we headed to our first "power spot" of the day — Kabushima Shrine in the seaside city of Hachinohe in southeastern Aomori.

Kabushima, originally an island named after the wild kabu (turnip) that flourishes there, was enshrined in the 13th century and only became joined to the mainland following reclamation projects carried out in 1943-1944.

The moment I got off the bus, though, it wasn't history (or turnips) that overwhelmed my first impression — but the massive presence of umineko (black-tailed gulls) wherever you looked. At the gate, on the steep steps, the rails, the stone statues and just about everywhere there perched, wheeled and squawked positively mind-boggling numbers of the long-beaked, red-eyed and ominous-looking migrant avians on high alert as they tried to keep their fluffy chicks on this breeding colony safe from predators and inattentive wanderers like myself.

Shrine official Hisanori Furudate explained that the island is the only place in Japan where up to 40,000 of these birds can be observed up close. Indeed, he said that as the shrine has been the gulls' nesting ground for centuries, many couples visit to be blessed with children.

He added that many visitors who used to gripe about the bird droppings are happy now, as the shrine recently started distributing a wooden certificate to each of those who "are lucky enough" to get un (which in Japanese means both "good fortune" and "poop") for free.

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Baffling beagle: Miroku-no-taki (The Waterfall of Bodhisattva) in Takko, southern Aomori Prefecture, is known as Snoopy Waterfall, as the giant rock surface resembles the cartoon dog.

Good luck is also said to attend those who walk along a short trail around the shrine's premises three times. But to do so, of course, means dodging the ubiquitous and aggressive birds all around you, in what looks like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's famed 1963 suspense film, "The Birds."

And while Furudate reassured us that umineko are the tamest of all seagulls, being pecked in my leg from behind made me almost shriek in terror. Consequently, for any future visit, it was pertinent to learn that the gulls are in Kabushima every year from the end of February through early August.

Next off, we flew back millennia in Hachinohe time to the Korekawa Jomon-kan, a museum showcasing numerous earthenware 3,500-year-old objects from the Jomon Period which dates back some 8,000 years and continued until the Yayoi Pottery Culture took over around 300 B.C.

Excavated from two archaeological sites in Hachinohe — Korekawa and neighboring Kazahari — the artifacts on display at the city-run facility are truly impressive in terms of both their quantity and quality.

According to the museum, thousands of Jomon Period items such as pottery, stone swords, jewelry and clay figures are preserved there. Of the collection, 1,629 items have been designated as Important Cultural Properties by the national government. Amazingly, due to the peat bogs from which they were retrieved and which helped preserve them, many of these finds still have the intricate decorations, often featuring layers of lacquer, that were applied by their creators in prehistoric times.

In particular, a clay figure of a sitting woman with her hands clasped above her knees, discovered at the Kazahari site in 1989, is nearly intact from head to toe, except for a severed left leg. The 20-cm-tall figurine, designated as a national treasure in 2009, was obviously treated with great care by its Jomon Period owners, curator Takeo Ichikawa said, pointing to its upper left leg, which shows signs of having been glued back to its torso.

"You can tell that the owner used natural asphalt as adhesives to put the severed parts together," Ichikawa said. "Also, traces of paint on the body show that the figure was originally painted all red."

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One of many appetizing apple desserts at Oirase Keiryu Hotel in Towada City.

As wondrous as all this was, though, we were soon back on the power-spot hunt, traveling to the town of Takko in southern Aomori bordering Akita Prefecture.

There, amid deep beech forest, was a giant rock wall down which streaks of water flowed. Called Miroku-no-taki (The Waterfall of Bodhisattva), this massive feature on the landscape gets its name from local folklore.

Legend has it, it seems, that back in the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), when a young trainee monk named Chugakubo was passing through the area, he heard that the village was in the grip of drought and famine. He preached to the villagers, urging them to pray, and soon afterward they were blessed with rain. But by the time the rain had filled the villagers' rice fields, saving them from starvation, the monk was found sitting dead at the waterfall.

Nowadays, however, the feature is better known as the Somen Waterfall, because of the way the fine streaks of water run down the rock resembling somen (thin wheat noodles). Lately, too, it has attracted the name Snoopy Waterfall because the rock's surface looks like the famous character from the "Peanuts" comic strip. As cheesy as that may sound, strangely enough the longer you gaze at the waterfall, the more it starts to look like nothing but Snoopy. Sorry, what was the name of the monk again?

On day two of our journos' jaunt around Aomori, following an overnight stay at the exquisite Oirase Keiryu Hotel by the upper reaches of the Oirase River in the Lake Towada area of central Aomori, we took a stroll around the area's forest of horse chestnut, Judas and wing-nut trees, among others.

"The greens darken as summer approaches," said hotel employee-cum-nature guide Ruriko Ogasawara as she showed us around that wonderland of nature. In fact, so verdant were the surroundings that the two kanji characters comprising the prefecture's name kept coming to mind: ao (blue, or green) and mori (forest).

As I stood there bathed in soft sunlight peeking through the leaves, I kept thinking back to the words of Isao Inada, another Aomori prefectural government official, from the night before. "Great food and rich nature — everyone tries to promote them," he'd said apologetically over a dinner featuring local fare, including top-quality beef, fresh seafood, vegetables and, of course, the prefectural staple of apples. "That's why we are pushing the 'power spots' — to take an edgy approach."

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He also said that, more than a year after the ongoing nuclear accident in Fukushima more than 300 km to the south, tourism to Aomori is still sluggish despite the fact that its radiation readings long ago returned to normal levels. "Some people say they don't even want to pass through Fukushima," he lamented.

By then, however, Aomori's charms were beginning to win me over. After all, in such hard times it might be excused for taking a different tack and relying on whatever godly powers it could summon — and the help of its world-famous "Peanuts" star. It's only after you get there you realize the true attractions of the "blue forest" country.

Hachinohe is a three-hour shinkansen train ride from Tokyo. To get to Kabushima, change to the local Hachinohe Line from JR Hachinohe Station, get off at Same Station and walk for about 15 minutes. Korekawa Jomon-kan (www.korekawa-jomon.jp) is a 20-minute bus ride from central Hachinohe. Miroku-no-Taki (www.town.takko.aomori.jp/000000ke2024001.htm) is 20 minutes by car from central Takko. For more information on the Oirase Keiryu Hotel, visit www.oirase-keiryuu.jp.


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