Meteorologists rank Aomori City as the world’s snowiest city: over six meters descend on Aomori every year. Aomori prefecture’s winters are wild and exciting. Sea winds swirl, and exceptional snowfalls blanket Aomori from coast to coast. Aomori residents respond to winter’s intensity by creating cultural activities and enjoying natural phenomena nonexistent or rare to other regions. Only on Aomori’s Tsugaru seasonal winter train do passengers grill dried squid on pot-bellied stoves. A mountain where monsters whose flesh is snow and ice appear in the coldest months exhilarates skiers, snowboarders, and snowshoers.
Other Aomori winter joys include fat-tire snow bike rides around an ancient castle, Japanese onsens in the snow, and snowshoe trips through dreamlike landscapes. A female shaman consults a frozen waterfall to foretell the future. This list is just a taste of the exotic flavors of Aomori’s winter. If winter were yearlong, there still wouldn’t be enough time to enjoy all its adventures to be found at the northern tip of Honshu Island.
HOT FUN, WARM PEOPLE, AND AOMORI’S INTENSE WINTER
Snow Monsters and the Hakkoda Ski Area
The top of the Hakkoda Ski Area Ropeway (1,300 meters) is the realm of ice-encrusted trees, crafted by winter into aliens, dinosaurs, and other beautiful monstrosities. These beast exist only a few locations worldwide. A precise combination of moisture, low temperatures, and cycles of snowfall and freezing is necessary for this magical transformation. Skiing or snowboarding on Hakkoda powder between thousands of snow monsters makes for Instagrammable and Youtubeable moments.
Besides those bizarre natural sculptures, the Hakkoda Ski Area offers world-class ungroomed natural courses, off-piste ski opportunities through forests, almost endless views of snowcapped volcanic mountains, and snowfall exceeding fourteen meters per winter. In-the-know powder hounds are sliding away from crowded ski resorts to score fresh tracks on Hakkoda’s untouched backcountry terrain.
Lake Towada in winter means crisp lung-cleaning air and vistas of white peaks; Towada is a caldera lake at an elevation of 400 meters. Despite its enormous size, 61.1 square kilometers, and cobalt blue water, almost no one, except hawks, ducks, cormorants, snowshoers, and winter canoeists with local guides, ventures out in winter. Snow edges the lake, and icicles dangle from tree roots. Slice through the slushy-iced surface of Lake Towada in a sturdy canoe and peer into crystalline water. There will be no car horns or motorboat engine sounds, only bird calls and the voice of your guide pointing out the marvels of nature. Exercising in such conditions purifies the body and mind.
Fat-Tire Snow Bike Tours through Castles, Gardens, and Onsen Towns
Fat-tire snow bikes enable riders to ride on snow and ice safely. Innovative guides in Aomori bring tourists to exceptional locations that would be difficult to experience otherwise. Fat-tire bikers cruise through the grounds of Hirosaki Castle, past ancient shrines and temples, through apple orchards, along the Oirase Gorge, and into onsen towns, such as Owani Onsen. These fun tours include breaks for hot regional delicacies and soaking in hot springs.
CHILLING OUT IN SNOW COUNTRY DEEP CULTURE
Japanese Hot Springs Unlike Others
Après snow-play hot baths are definitive Aomori experiences. The mountains upon which Aomori’s twelve ski resort areas perch circulate geothermally heated water into baths at both traditional and contemporary Japanese inns.
Lists of Japan’s top 100 hot springs invariably list Sukayu and Tsuta Onsen. Japan’s most enormous mixed-gender bath (located near the bottom of the Hakkoda Ski Area Ropeway) is within Sukayu Onsen’s rustic timber building. The Bath of a Tousand People is the nickname of this vast public bath.
Tsuta Onsen’s healing waters have attracted guests for nearly a millennium. In 1897, local hoteliers built a ryokan around the natural hot springs. Day visitors can warm up in the onsen before and after strolling on snowshoes to seven pristine ponds. Tsuta Onsen’s hotel closes from late November to mid-April.
The 14km Michelin-starred Oirase Gorge is another splendid location for winter treks. Water from Lake Towada, one of Japan’s deepest lakes, swirls down a deep, curving valley filled with powdery snow, crystalline streams, and waterfalls frozen into sparkling sculptures. The Oirase Gorge could serve as the setting or inspiration for a Disney or Ghibli movie.
Hot spring enthusiasts would enjoy soaking in a bath overlooking the gorge. The hot spring at the Hoshino Resorts Oirase Keiryu Hotel is the only spring partially surrounded by ice walls (3.5m high by 16m wide in mid-January). Soaking in deep-muscle-soothing 42℃ mineral water while steam floats off your body and dissipates into wintery forest scenery feels magical.
Only in Aomori: A Waterfall that Foretells the Future
Another winter rarity of Aomori is Niogataki Waterfall. Until the coldest months of winter, water slips like a silken sleeve over the lip of a cliff. Unlike other waterfalls, this one freezes into a round pillar. In ancient times, locals built shrines for deities within an indentation in the cliff. When temperatures plunge, the waterfall changes into a 33-meter-high column of ice. On the third Sunday of February, residents and visitors celebrate this natural miracle with the Niogataki Ice Festival, which has over 150 years of history. A Shinto priest leads barefoot walkers over the embers of a bonfire built on the ice and snow. Also, an itako, or Japanese spiritual medium, predicts the coming crop harvest, based on her examination of the shape and size of the ice column.
Tsugaru Railway’s Winter Stove Train
The Stove Train is a winter-themed social event that introduces foreigners to the frigid Aomori terrain and the warmth of its people. As the train chugs across the white landscape of rural Aomori, residents and guests join together around pot-bellied stoves. The passengers heat dried squid over glowing charcoal and often share sake. The stove train operates on one 20.7 km track between Tsugaru Goshogawara and Tsugaru Nakasato on Aomori’s western coast.