RWC 2019: Where to stay, what to do and where to eat in the unmissable Aomori region
So you’ve decided to land in Sapporo for the Wallabies’ Rugby World Cup opener against Fiji on Saturday, September 21.
You’ve made an excellent decision, the clash between two of the World Cup’s most exciting outfits isn’t one to be missed and you’ll get to witness it first hand in one of Japan’s most unique stadiums in the Sapporo Dome.
And here’s the kicker.
By securing tickets for that pool D clash you’re also opening yourself up to something else that’s not to be missed, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take in some of Japan’s most stunning, nigh-on-unbelievable experiences.
We’re talking about the Aomori region.
The northernmost prefecture on Japan’s main island of Honshu, Aomori is simply breathtaking and is just a stone’s throw from Sapporo, making it the ideal stopover before or after the Wallabies’ clash with Fiji.
With that in mind we’ve put together a comprehensive guide on how to make sure you get the best from your trip to Aomori – how to get there, where to stay, what to do, we’ve got everything covered.
GETTING TO AOMORI
If you’re planning to head to Aomori before the Wallabies’ clash with Fiji you can fly into the heart of the region’s capital from most major cities in the country but your fastest option is a short, 70-minute flight from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. There’s several scheduled each day.
If you don’t fancy flying you could jump on a Hayabusa train on the Tohoku Shinkansen (bullet line), which takes about three hours from Tokyo and is usually about half the price of a flight. There’s local transfers available after arriving at Aomori Station too.
Even more cost-effective is the day or night buses that run, the latter is slightly more expensive but offers substantially more comfortable seating for the 11-hour trip.
If you decide to shoot down to Aomori after the Wallabies’ clash with Fiji there’s plenty of options available as well. There’s plane-train and bus-train options, or you could rent a car and drive south yourself before jumping on the ferry.
Like their equivalents from Tokyo they’re far more time-consuming but if you’re not on a tight schedule, that’s half the fun isn’t it?
The fastest option once again is a flight, the best one being the 45-minute trip from Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport. Depending on where you’ve stayed, you’ll probably need to get a train there before your flight.
Whatever your decision, bear in mind prices will vary being Rugby World Cup time.
GETTING AROUND AOMORI
Don’t stress, you’re in Japan not on Mars so you’re not going to encounter anything different to what you’re used to here.
There’s local taxis, trains, buses, ferries and even planes available to you on Aomori, renting a car’s a great option to get yourself around as well.
The most economical, or cost-effective, form of transport is a shuttle bus though.
WHERE TO STAY IN AOMORI
Whether you’re looking for budget accommodation or something more luxurious Aomori has plenty to offer, you can even channel your inner backpacker and spend a few nights in one of the many hostels in the region.
While it pays to do your research and find the right option for you, here’s a couple of options at different price-points.
It’s simple, it’s good value and it’s in a good position, just five minutes from the nearest station. The rooms are cosy but for budget accommodation this place is welcoming, friendly and perfect to rest your weary head. Rooms usually start around $90 Australian.
A mid-price option, this is our choice if you’re after a genuine Japanese experience from your accommodation. It’s also just 14 minutes from the beach and has access to hot springs as well, and the food… oh, the food. Rooms usually start around $170 Australia.
A touch more expensive, this is built like a traditional ryokan and is very popular for couples. This ryokan, of course, comes with the benefit of the hot springs attached to it, and has ocean views too. The food’s magnificent and the rooms slightly bigger than many hotels in Japan too. Rooms usually start around $230 Australian.
WHAT TO SEE IN AOMORI
Aomori is one of the most beautiful regions in Japan and, as you’d expect because of that, there is no shortage of astounding sights to take in during your stay, including one of the most astounding, mind-blowing visual experiences on the entire planet.
INAKADATE TANBO ART
This is the main attraction, a simply unfathomable experience featuring some of Japan’s – nay, the world’s – most breathtaking visuals that you may never get the chance to see again.
Every year the Inakadate’s villagers turn their rice paddies into astonishing works of art, creating gigantic, eye-catching murals using only the fields as their canvas and different coloured rice plants as their medium.
Rice had been grown in the area for more than 2000 years prior but the artwork began in 1993 as part of a revitalisation project, one that serves to give visitors an opportunity to learn about the village’s culture.
Since then the murals have become increasingly more elaborate and spectacular every year, featuring traditional Japanese themes along with the likes of depictions of Godzilla and even Star Wars scenes.
More than 100,000 people visit the village each year to take in the villagers’ extraordinary productions which from the ground look like nothing more than a usual rice field.
Once you head up the dedicated, raised viewing platform though, the mind-boggling artworks come to life.
They will be on display during the early stages of the Rugby World Cup too, so if there’s anything you must have on your Aomori bucket list, it’s this.
SANNAI MARUYAMA RUINS
The Sannai-Maruyama ruins date back to the Jomon period – an era that lasted somewhere from 12,000 to 300 BC – and were actually discovered when planners were looking for a spot for a new baseball stadium.
Instead they stumbled across a massive, ancient settlement.
They discovered a number of burial pits while excavating, and since the discovery the buildings uncovered have been recreated using the traditional methods, essentially bringing the national historic landmark back to life.
Thanks to that tourists now have the chance to experience what life was like in the area all those years ago, and there’s a smaller, indoor exhibition that includes tools and artefacts from the initial discovery too.
NEBUTA FESTIVAL EXHIBITION
The Aomori Nebuta Festival, one of the region’s major summer celebrations, is held for a single week each year in early August but visitors can get a feel for the unique experience all year round at Nebuta House, Wa Rasse.
The museum is just a one-minute walk from Aomori Station and, via an impressive exhibition, serves to introduce visitors to the history of the annual Nebuta Festival.
The highlight of that festival is the daily parade of enormous lantern floats which are constructed from painted washi paper over a wire frame, and are flanked by large taiko drums, musicians and dancers,
The remarkable, imposing floats take around 12 months to build and often depict gods and historical or mythical figures from Japanese and Chinese culture, with three chosen carefully for exhibition at the museum each year.
In showing those handpicked floats visitors are given the chance to learn the history and stories behind each and their makers, a unique chance to experience a wondrous element of the festival regardless of when they visit.
An added bonus, if you time your visit correctly, is the live performances the festival’s musicians give on weekends and national holidays, with tourists given the chance to join in the haneto dance.
WHAT TO DO IN AOMORI
Aomori is renowned for its natural, man-made beauty and unbelievable culture experiences and there’s countless ways to take that in.
Like on most trips, the absolute best way to do that is to get out and explore the area, which will give you the best chance to experience everything Aomori has to offer first-hand and up-close.
VISIT LAKE TOWADA
Part of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park, Lake Towada is the largest caldera lake on Honshu and is located on the border of Aomori and Akita.
Along with Mount Hakkoda it has become one of Japan’s most-famous hot-spots for taking in the renowned Autumn colouring. The view of the colored leaves, reflected in the crystal clear water of the lake, makes it truly spectacular.
By taking a scenic boat or embarking on an adventure excursion, or even just grabbing a canoe and heading out onto the water, there’s plenty of different ways to experience what the lake itself has to offer.
Lake Towada is also the starting point for one of the area’s great natural beauties, the Oirase Stream.
The picturesque mountain stream is the only outlet from the lake and flows along the floor of the Oirases Stream, flush with the area’s famous, colourful foliage.
There’s also more than a dozen waterfalls that cascade down into the stream along the length of the gorge’s walls and, fortunately for you, there is a hiking trail that leads along the most-scenic upper passage of the stream between Nenokuchi and Ishigedo.
EXPERIENCE MOUNT HAKKODA
Mount Hakkoda is a set of volcanic peaks located between Aomori City and Lake Towada, often considered among the most-famous mountains in Japan.
The 1,585-metre high mountain is famous for its seasonal beauty all-year round and is one of the first places in the Tohoku region to develop the renowned, gorgeous autumn colours of the area, along with naturally beautiful areas like the Suirennuma Pond.
Those colours usually begin appearing in late September as the Rugby World Cup hits full swing and with hiking trails galore and of course the famous Hakkoda Ropeway, there’s no shortage of different ways to take in the spectacular, whirlwind plumes of red, yellow and orange foliage.
While the hiking trails vary in length and starting points they all feature their own unique highlights, some of which include remote onsen, ryokans, hot springs, marshlands and, on the northern foothills, the Aomori Contemporary Art Centre.
The Hakkoda Ropeway – once included in CNN Travel’s top 10 ropeways in Japan – gives visitors access to some of those hiking trails at its peak, on the top of Tamoyachidake.
Of course the ropeway provides a unique, aerial, panoramic view of the area as well, with one-way and round-trip tickets available.
SWITCH OFF AT AONI ONSEN
Switch off is quite literal in this case, because there are no televisions, no refrigerators and no power outlets in any of the guest rooms here.
The luxury of being able to completely lose yourself in the area is part of what makes Aoni Onsen so appealing and indeed famous in Japan, it’s known as the ‘lamp inn’.
The onsen is surrounded by ravines within the Aoni Stream, which flows from the Minami Hakkoda mountain range and is characterised by the surrounding virgin forest, waterfalls, and rapid currents
The lamps are the only source of light within the onsen and when they’re lit of an evening, the atmosphere transforms from a simple, untouched inn to a magical world of wonder where guests are treated to seasonal, delicious Japanese cuisine, all of which is fresh from the mountains and river.
Aoni Onsen also features hot springs in the form of an open outdoor bath, a beechwood bath and a stone bath, giving visitors the chance to reach complete content in one of Japan’s most peaceful locations.
WHERE TO EAT IN AOMORI
The area, like most of Japan, is famous for its seafood and there’s no doubt you’ll find some of the freshest you’ve ever had the joy of eating. But there’s plenty more on offer too, including one of the region’s most delightful, albeit somewhat bizarre, delicacies.
FURUKAWA FISH MARKET
For lovers of seafood there’s nowhere better than the Furukawa Fish Market, about a five-minute walk from Aomori station.
After purchasing tickets as you enter you exchange those for whatever toppings you may please to have the pleasure of creating your own, personalised Nokke-don.
Each of the stalls inside the market, also known as the Aomori Gyosai Centre, is fixed with an orange or blue flag to let visitors know whether they’re selling rice or seafood, respectively, making it simple to navigate too.
It doesn’t get much easier, or fresher, than that.
Right next to Aomori Station, Hotate Goya gives visitors the unique opportunity to catch their own lunch before cooking and eating it.
For as little as 500 yen you can try your luck in catching as many scallops as you can in three minutes and if you so please you can grill them yourself too, or eat them as sashimi or nigiri sushi.
Never fear, if you don’t manage to catch any the owner usually throws a couple your way as a consolation prize and if scallops aren’t on your menu there’s a number of local seafood specialities available as well.
AJI NO SAPPORO ONISHI
An eight-minute walk from Aomori Station, this restaurant is famous for one dish in particular, the miso-curry-milk ramen.
Yes, that combination may sound strange but you will not be disappointed by this delicacy, thought to have been originally developed by Onishi Fumio and Kiyoshi Sato in the early 1970s.
The delicacy hails from Hokkaido, near Sapporo, and when it was developed the most-popular style of ramen in Aomori was soy sauce ramen with a dried sardine broth base.
But through word-of-mouth this Hokkaido-style ramen – a distinctive blend of miso, milk and curry often accompanied by bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, wakame seaweed and pork – became an underground success.
Legend has it high school students actually suggested miso be combined with the milk-curry ramen, creating what is now one of Aomori City’s signature meals.
It would be ludicrous to stop in the region and not try the delicious meal, which has been much-loved by the locals for more than 30 years.