Aomori, Tohoku

The latter half of 2020 was rather busy for me, with moving homes, work and other personal projects. But after some schedule alignment, we were able to plan a mini end of year getaway. Taking a break for our more usual escapes – Netflix and video games, we made our way to Aomori, the northernmost prefectural capital city on Honshu.

The JR East foreign residents promotion, allows us to buy a 3-day all you can ride pass for around 12,000 yen. This price includes all JR East train lines, plus use of shinkansen which gives the pass incredible value, considering a  regular one-way shinkansen ticket already costs that much. During our planned travel dates, the controversial Go To Travel campaign had already been suspended, but from calling up our accomodation providers directly, they were actually happy to still offer us the same price pre-campaign suspension (sans tax).

We set off early from Tokyo with the aim of maximising what was going to be a pretty short amount of time in Aomori. It’s about a 3 to 3.5 hour ride, ending at Shin-Aomori station. From there, it’s another short ride to Aomori Station itself. We make quick use of the station lockers to hold onto our medium-sized luggage while we meander around the city centre.

In a previous life, I spent 6 months living in Stockholm during the city’s coldest of months. So even though this wasn’t this Malaysian girl’s first snow rodeo, I was still rather apprehensive. Cold winds and Sam are not friends. Nevertheless, the snow in Aomori very pretty and makes for some quaint photographs.

Our first stop was Aomori Nokkedon, about a 10 minute walk from Aomori Station. If I am being completely honest, this was pretty much my only goal for the trip and I could’ve gone back to Tokyo right after and be very content.

As seen on Adam Liaw’s incredible Destination Flavour Japan series, Aomori Nokkedon is a fish market with a twist. Customers purchase tickets, either a 5 pack (750 yen) or a 10 pack (1500 yen) and use these tickets to purchase “neta” toppings for your kaisendon.

Your first ticket goes towards getting a bowl of plain rice (two tickets if you want an extra helping) with the option of squeezing some vinegar water over it. From there you’ll survey the stalls which have neta on offer, ranging from maguro tataki and salmon roe to ootoro, uni and tako. Each piece usually costs a ticket, with the more luxurious items costing two. They do sell fish and cuts that are more apt for home-cooking and it’s nice to see it all side-by-side which shows you how fresh it all really is. 

It’s a bit grey and a lot cold but we wander a bit more. Aomori is a much smaller city compared to sprawling Tokyo, but some interesting architecture of note is ASPAM and Nebuta House Wa Rasse. There is also a warehouse looking building called A-Factory which is worth visiting to pick up some cool Aomori omiyage and snacks. At the top of A-Factory is also a guest lounge area which allows you to purchase tokens to sample a range of Aomori apple ciders.

Some of the things we bought at all of these places were fuji apples, freeze-dried apples, apple tea, cider, apple-flavoured KitKat and local coffee.

Back on the train again, we’re headed towards the location of our ryokan in Asamushi. It takes about 20-30 minutes on the train and is the onsen site located at the edge of the city. Summer in Asamushi seems pretty promising with an aquarium and a michi no eki (souvenir, restaurant and general local entertainment hub) but arriving around 3-4 pm in the middle of winter, the main strip of the road was pitch black.

Asamushi Sakura Kanko Hotel, itself is quite old and the service was polite if a bit cold. We’ve stayed at a number of ryokan of this kind by now so these are details that we notice but don’t really surprise us. Our room was a bit nicer than the main lobby area and quite spacious. I’d say this is a big plus to ryokans over Western hotels. Without big furniture like beds and desks, Japanese style rooms just give you that much more room to move. The best part was undoubtedly the view we had of the ocean, plus the sound of waves which carried us even in sleep.  

A true test of a ryokan lies in the strength of its onsen. Sakura Kanko’s onsen facilities are basic but the water was truly restorative. There aren’t private baths you can book here however, so you can’t bathe with friends, family or partners of the opposite sex and if you have tattoos you should try to be careful and perhaps go during antisocial hours.

Our evening festivities consist of visiting a friend of mine and founder of Place to Grow, the NPO I was volunteering my time with in 2020. In a completely 偶然 (by chance) moment we had the joy of sharing a meal with her large family who are all from Aomori, and to chat about life here in the north. 

The next day, we have a simple teishoku breakfast in the hotel. They serve us in a huge hall with other patrons on different table but it’s well spaced out to allow for social distancing. You can go to a buffet line of sorts to get your own rice and miso soup. Sakura Kanko actually allows you to book a dinner+breakfast option, breakfast-only and no meals. We opted for breakfast-only thinking we would be dining outside anyway but still wanted a sample of what they had to offer.

Next we visit Auga Fish Market, yet another site for fresh seafood. Unlike the Nokkedon centre which is predominantly for dine-in customers and a smattering of home purchases, Auga Fish Market’s main deal is the selling of seafood, vegetables and all sorts of other produce for kitchen use. We were there from around 10 am or so when the market had truly woken up. Stalls were running and there were some customers and tourists milling around but it wasn’t terribly packed.

Hell bent on sampling as many kaisendon in Aomori as possible, I sit down at a bar counter at one of the few dine-in stalls and order a maguro special rice bowl. It was fantastic, super fresh and each piece was worth savouring on its own. In terms of price point, it cost me 2700 yen which is almost the price of two bowls from Nokkedon centre. I was teasing for paying “Tokyo” prices and indeed this was definitely on the pricier end, considering the setting was just a stool at a stall in a fish market.

We come to the end of our Aomori journey back at Shin Aomori station, to catch our next shinkansen to Sendai. As a final departure meal we again grab a small kaisendon (a steal at only 600 yen) to go from one of the restaurants at the station, to take with us on the train. Aomori’s food scene really impressed me, and I know I’ve only just barely uncovered the tip of the iceberg! I’m definitely keen to come back but probably during a warmer climate.

Links to all the places I visited:

A-Factory: https://www.jre-abc.com/wp/afactory/index/

Aomori Nokkedon Centre: https://www.en-aomori.com/food-013.html

ASPAM: https://www.en-aomori.com/shopping-001.html

Auga Fish Market: https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3754.html

Nebuta Museum Wa Rasse: https://www.nebuta.jp/warasse/foreign/english.html

Asamushi Sakura Kanko Hotel: http://asamushi-kanko-hotel.com/

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