Located on Aomori’s east coast, the port city of Hachinohe has long gone under the radar of travel media. But unheralded doesn’t mean uninspiring. For nature lovers, the city’s stunning Tanesashi Coast is the northernmost section of the 1,000-kilometer Michinoku Coastal Trail, a new route created to help with the long-term recovery from the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011. For foodies, Hachinohe is home to the country’s largest weekly market and a distinctive food culture shaped by harsh winters and cool summer winds. The city has lucky bird poo too.


Discover the unique food culture of Hachinohe City

Walking through Hachinohe’s Sunday morning market is like taking a crash course in Aomori’s culinary heritage. Fishmongers sell freshly landed squid and mackerel. Farmers bring in garlic, homemade pickles, and a multitude of other produce. Food trucks cook up everything from steaming hotpots to deep-fried crackers.

Officially called the Tatehana Wharf Morning Market, or more casually the Asaichi in Japanese, the weekly open-air market is one of the largest in Japan. “We have 305 registered vendors, and between 280 to 300 of them are here every week,” explains the market’s chief director, Haruki Keicho, in between serving customers at his coffee stand. “But besides the size, another special feature is that you find things not sold in regular morning markets ― not just seafood and produce but things like sewing machines and items some people might otherwise throw away.”

The Asaichi isn’t the only foodie destination in Hachinohe. Much of the market’s produce will find its way into Hachinohe’s collection of restaurant-packed alleyways, otherwise known as yokocho. As restaurant owner Kenichi Kimura explains, there clusters of tiny places to eat and drink ― often with just enough space to seat half a dozen people shoulder to shoulder ― originate from welcoming fishing crews after the hardship of being at sea.

“In these small spaces, everyone crowds together and drinks. Even with people from outside of Aomori, everyone ends up joining the conversation,” Mr. Kimura says. “While eating and drinking, you hear local accents mixing with Tokyo and Kansai [Osaka] dialects; that fun atmosphere is one of the appealing parts of yokocho.”

Another is the food. Take Miroku Yokocho, where Mr. Kimura runs a restaurant called Totoya Ikasen that specializes in squid and mackerel dishes. While may of the 26 restaurants at Miroku Yokocho serve seafood, others have menus focused on meat, home-style cooking, garlic, and all sorts else that pairs well with a few drinks.

Quite a few also serve a local specialty called senbei-jiru, a hotpot that more than any other dish reflects Hachinohe’s unique food culture. Because of the cool climate and the cold Yamase wind that blows from the Pacific in summer, rice has traditionally been difficult to grow in and around Hachinohe. With that, a distinctive flour-based food culture developed in the region. One staple of that are Nanbu senbei wheat crackers ― great just by themselves, even better when served with pickles, cured fish or cheese, and perfect for adding carbs to a hotpot like senbei-jiru.

Every family has its own tweak on tradition, but to make a basic senbei-jiru you begin with a simple fish, soy, or other stock. To that you add chicken, fish, and vegetables like hakusai cabbage, carrot, and burdock, before breaking in the hard Nanbu senbei crackers and cooking them until they have soaked up enough stock to be al dente. The result is hearty and addictive. It’s 100% Hachinohe.


Find a little luck amid the natural beauty of the Michinoku Coastal Trail

A few kilometers south of the Tatehana Wharf, the bustle of the Sunday morning market is replaced by the frenetic flapping and squawking of gulls at Kabushima Shrine. Some 30,000 of them breed and raise young on protected land here every year from late February to early August, making Kabushima one of the most distinctive shrines in Japan ― and one with an unusual take on what constitutes good fortune. As the shrine’s chief priest Toshio Nozawa explains, being pooped on by the gulls is considered good luck.

“In Japanese, ‘un’ can mean both ‘luck’ and ‘poop’, so it’s partly a play upon words. As seagulls are said to be messengers of Benzaiten, the goddess enshrined at Kabushima, being pooped on is like receiving a gift from God,” Mr. Nozawa says. “Seagulls also have a special relationship with fishers in Hachinohe, as they lead them to rich fishing grounds. Kabushima has a strong connection to fishers too ― they traditionally come here to pray for good catches and safety at sea.”

Of course, that’s not the only reason to visit the shrine. Among other things, Kabushima marks the northernmost trailhead of the Michinoku Coastal Trail, a roughly 1,000-kilometer route that runs from Aomori south to Soma in Fukushima Prefecture.

Built as part of the regional reconstruction efforts in the wake of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, which claimed more than 18,000 lives in Tohoku and devastated coastal communities, the trail has become a symbol of recovery. Whether you have a few hours to spare or several days, there’s plenty of it to explore within Aomori.

Hiking south from Kabushima, the trail takes in windswept beaches and rugged shoreline. After a couple of hours, it then reaches the Tanesashi Natural Lawn, once a grazing area for horses but now home to the Tanesashi Kaigan Information Center, a year-round hub for hiking and other activities along Aomori’s Tanesashi Coast.

“The natural lawn is very attractive when it’s green in summer, but also looks lovely when covered in snow in January and February,” says Ms. Naoko Machida, chairperson of the non-profit organization that runs the Information Center. “We have lots of activities here too, from glamping and yoga on the lawn to horse-riding, while another of the charms are the small fishing ports along the trail here ― places like Tanesashi Port just south of the Center where hikers can have a deeper cultural experience by encountering the local lifestyle and interacting with locals.”

More Aomori

For more about Aomori’s food culture, please take a look at our online guides to local flavors and seafood. If you’d like another unique angle for a story, there’s also the Akatsuki-no-kai, a group of local women working to preserve traditional Aomori culinary traditions. Or for a deeper look at Hachinohe’s food culture, this short video goes on a journey into the city’s yokocho and markets.