A Journey Through Apple Country ― Explore the Tsugaru Plain to see why Aomori is Japan's apple heartland

Driving through the countryside outside Hirosaki City and across Aomori’s Tsugaru Plain, apple orchards punctuate the expanse of farmland. Bottled apple juices, apple confectionaries, and hard cider dot the shelves of souvenir stores and market stalls. Some hot-spring baths even have apples bobbing up and down in them. Why? This is Japan’s apple country.

Apple farming was first introduced to the Tsugaru Plain in the late 1800s to provide unemployed samurai with a livelihood. It’s since grown into one of the region’s most recognizable industries, as you’ll discover with a visit to Hirosaki City Apple Park, where the 2,300 or so apple trees represent some 80 apple varieties.

For anyone hoping to learn more about apple production, the hands-on experiences here (depending on the time of year) include apple flower thinning and apple fruit thinning, in addition to apple picking. There is also the opportunity to discover the variety of products created with Aomori’s apples by stopping at the park’s Ringo no Ie (Apple House) to try everything from apple ice cream to apple curry.

Raise a Glass to Aomori’s Apples

Rounding out the experience, Hirosaki City Apple Park is home to Kimori Cidre, a small-scale brewery owned by a cooperative of apple farmers that between November and early May each year produces roughly 20,000 bottles of hard cider. These include two regulars - a dry hard cider (6%) and a sweet version (3%) - but also limited releases.

“We think of it as a farm product, not industrial, and a way to promote apple farming,” says brewer Satoshi Takahashi. “Hirosaki isn’t actually a perfect apple climate, so it takes a lot of effort and skill to grow good apples. It’s possible that in 20 years, 80 percent of farmers will be gone as there are few successors willing to continue this work - these are basically small family businesses. Our aim is to preserve tradition and show how special orchards are, and by creating new products like Kimori we can also show new possibilities for potential successors.”

To try the local hard cider (or cidre), stop by the Pomme Marche café-bar-gallery, where co-owner and cider expert Mio Nakayama serves the café’s own hard ciders, as well as a changing lineup of three to four guest brews.

Pies, Trains, and Hot Springs

Away from the apple park, there are plenty of other ways to have an apple-themed trip in and around Hirosaki. The city is known for its apple pies, with roughly 40 shops creating their own (often quite varied) versions: pick up a Hirosaki Apple Pie Guide Map to learn about all of those, or consider hiring an “apple pie taxi.” The drivers are experts on apple pies (they’ve even passed written exams about them) and can take you on a tour to sample what they consider the city’s finest sweet treats.

Another option is a scenic ride on the two-carriage Konan Railway Owani Line, passing through orchards bursting with apple blossoms in May and then ripe with red, yellow, and green apples in October and November. You could cycle through the orchards too, but whichever mode of transport you opt for, it’s always worth a stop in the Owani Onsen area to soak in natural hot-spring baths. There are plenty of baths to choose from, including at Hoshino Resort KAI Tsugaru where you’ll be able to enjoy the gentle aroma of apples floating on the water.

Innovation in Apple Country

Aomori’s apples are the result of generations of experience, and the painstaking care and attention farmers give to their trees. But while apple farming has traditionally been a labor-intensive job, some Aomori apple growers are striving to make apple production more efficient and sustainable by employing the latest technology. Take Mr. Toshihiko Moriyama of Moriyama Orchard in Hirosaki.

“I introduced IoT to our apple orchard, attaching a tag with a QR code to each apple tree and developing software which records the work done on each tree,” Mr. Moriyama says. “Just by reading the QR codes, a worker can see what work has been done on the tree as well as what work is necessary. looking at the data, I also began to think of ways to reuse waste material, converting pruned branches into mushroom beds and trying to find a way to turn thinned apples into something marketable.”

The result of the latter is Tekikaka Cidre (hard cider) and apple juice. “I came across hard cider on a homestay in Canada and tried making my own after coming back but had difficulty finding the right apples and good yeast,” Mr. Moriyama says. “After some experimenting, I found thinned apples worked well, as they contain more tannins with less sugar, a characteristic similar to cider apples. Then the eureka moment for the yeast came when we tried beer yeast.”

But there’s even more to Aomori’s apple innovation than food and drink. One Japanese entrepreneur in Singapore has created a way to produce synthetic leather from apple pomace. She has established a company called appcycle in Aomori whose Ringo-Tex vegan leather has been adopted by ANA for the seat material on one of its airplanes. Utilizing recycled apple crates, a furniture company in Itayanagi (north of Hirosaki) called Keyplace has created tables, benches and desks. Their products are now shown at overseas furniture exhibitions.