Kuroishi: A Step Back in Time ― Visit small town Aomori to discover a slice of the region's past

In 1878, the British explorer and writer Isabella Bird visited the Aomori town of Kuroishi, arriving in early August just as the town’s summer festival was in full flow. She was blown away by the spectacle: “I never saw anything more completely like a fairy scene,” she wrote in a letter home. ” There were hundreds of lanterns carried on long poles round a central lantern, 20 feet high, with a front and wings, and all kinds of mythical and mystical creatures painted in bright colors upon it.”

When Bird visited, Kuroishi had a population of roughly 5,000 - by her account - a number that has grown to some 32,000 in the intervening years. Yet in many ways the town still harks back to the days of Bird and beyond, making it the ideal place to discover Aomori’s traditional charms.

Kuroishi’s Historic Nakamachi Komise-dori

Most obviously, Kuroishi still has an old-fashioned summer festival, the July 30 to August 2 Kuroishi Neputa, which sees some 50 floats being paraded through the streets (more about that below). There’s also Nakamachi Komise-dori, a 250-meter-long preserved section of the main street that once would have greeted merchants and other travelers journeying to and from Aomori City: traffic that helped Kuroishi prosper back in the Edo era (1603-1867).

Stroll along Komise-dori’s covered sidewalks (designated to protect shoppers from blizzards and rain) and you’ll find a collection of historic wooden buildings, including the 220-year-old Narumi Sake Brewery and its lovely garden: the brewery is a nice spot to stop for a sake tasting. A few doors away is Tsugaru Komise Eki, an old structure that’s now a store selling regional produce like lacquerware, ceramics and hand-painted gourds, but also serves as a venue for occasional Tsugaru shamisen (three-stringed instrument) performances.

Across the street, you could stop by the 270-year-old Takahashi House for a coffee and chat with 14th-generation owner Ms. Yukie Takahashi, a walking encyclopedia of local history and lore. She’ll be happy to talk about the region’s old food culture or even how traveling Edo-era merchants would blow their money in Kuroishi’s inns and (long gone) brothels.

Discovering Crafts and More in the Wider Kuroishi Area

Moving away from central Kuroishi, you’ll also find crafts and a very traditional place to stay. The latter, Aomori Kurahaku, is a renoveted 100-year-old warehouse (just under a 20-minute walk from Komise-dori) that’s available to single groups of up to 10 people at a time. It comes with a blend of traditional and contemporary touches, ranging from tatami mat flooring to a modern kitchen for self-catering.

Opposite is an Edo-era farmhouse that guests can use to unwind in (eventually that will be a rental property too). It also makes a handy base for exploring other parts of Aomori, with the blossoms of Hirosaki a 30-minute drive away and Mt. Hakkoda an hour.

As for the crafts, Kuroishi is known for its Neputa float makers, but also its wooden kokeshi dolls and Tsugaru-nuri lacquerware. At the Tsugaru Traditional Craft Center and adjoining Tsugaru Kokeshi Museum you can get a taste of it all in one place. The two-floor museum documents the region’s doll-carving traditions and most influential artisans (male and female) and has demonstrations and hands-on workshops. The craft center is also experiential, with spaces to try lacquering and watch various artisans at work. And seeing how this part of Japan is apple county, there are also stalls selling apples and other farm produce.

Thankfully, it’s now much easier to get to Kuroishi than in Bird’s day. She reached the town almost two months after leaving Tokyo to explore the Tohoku region, the final week spent complaining of a bad back and hampered by storms and flooding. Today, Kuroishi is 35 minutes by local train or 30 minutes by car from Hirosaki city (and its iconic spring cherry blossoms). Alternatively, it’s a 45-minute drive from Aomori city, which has a direct bullet train connection to Tokyo.

The Kuroishi Neputa

Up to 4.5 meters tall and 4 to 5 meters wide - and painted to look like historical and mythical figures or famous scenes from artists such as Hokusai - the floats at the center of the Kuroishi Neputa festival are works of art. Each year roughly 50 are paraded around Kuroishi during the festival, meaning lots of work in the months prior for artisans like Mr. Tokiyuki Imai, one of almost 20 active Neputa float makers in Kuroishi.

“I begin thinking about the designs in winter, then start work when the snow begins to melt in spring,” Mr. Imai says. “Working with an apprentice, it takes 20 days to design and paint the front image (kagami-e) of a Neputa, and 10 for the rear (okuri-e). The assembly [of the paper on a frame] is a community effort of 10 or so people. People of all ages come together for each float, which strengthens bonds through the community.”

To try some Neputa craft yourself, stop by Irodori on Komise-dori. Run by a local NPO that promotes community revitalization, Irodori sells lanterns and art objects made with paper upcycled from actual Neputa floats. It also runs workshops where you can make your own lanterns.

“It feels sad to see a Neputa dismantled after it’s been used, but it makes me happy to see the Neputa start a second life cycle in a new form,” Mr. Imai says.