Shimokita Peninsula ― Exotic Geology and Culture of the Far North

Most foreigners know nothing of the powerful beauty of the Shimokita Peninsula of Aomori, which is the northernmost prefecture of Honshu, the largest Japanese island. Yet, Shimokita is an excellent destination for sojourners seeking healthy slow travel and deep dives into a foreign culture. Journeying across this vast promontory, one weaves in and out of the extraordinary Shimokita Geopark and the fascinating customs of Honshu’s most northern residents.

Ruggedly attractive geoparks

Only regions with the most spectacular geology, geography, and cultural heritage become geoparks. The Shimokita Geopark consists of 18 distinct places, including bewitching holy cliffs and other ancient religious sites, remote hot springs, volcanic landscapes, nature-sculptured rock formations, and the rustic towns and villagers of hardy but friendly fishermen and farmers. Harsh winters and distance from Tokyo, enabled this alluring promontory to preserve its richness of sunning landscapes, unique customs, and rare delicacies. Some of the best places to savor these are below.

Spiritualism and natural beauty in Hotokegaura

Hotokegaura is perhaps the most popular. A crystal clear azure sea laps two kilometers of trash-free, uninhabited beaches from which bone-white towerlike rock formations grow toward the clouds. Believed to have spiritual powers, these awe-inspiring natural structures received names connected with Buddhism, and Hotokegaura was part of an ancient pilgrimage route. Today, Hotokegaura is designated as a place of scenic beauty and a natural monument as well.

To leisurely reach this lovely, mysterious geological wonderland, board a scenic 30-minute (one-way) small boat from Sai Port. Or enjoy forest and ocean vistas while strolling down a 1.4-kilometer trail that zigzags 116 meters downward from a cliffside parking lot.

The black diamonds of Oma

Oma Town stares across the fertile sea at Hokkaido from the northernmost point of Honshu. For countless generations, the fishers of Oma Town have been pole-fishing bluefin tuna from the marine depths between Honshu and Hokkaido. Oceanic currents produce favorable conditions for Oma tuna, nicknamed “black diamonds,” to grow and develop the fatty marbling that usually earns the highest prices at fish auctions. In 2019, one sold for 333.6 million yen at Tokyo’s famous New Year’s fish auction.

During tuna fishing season, open-ocean tour boats sail with guests to observe the pole fishers as they catch and haul the giant silver-black massive fish onto small ships. Incredible seafood meals, including dishes not usually served in Japan, wait for visitors to Oma.

Besides preparing sashimi and sushi, Oma chefs maintain traditional methods of preparing tuna. Visitors can try vinegar-soaked tuna skin and stir-fried diaphragm, tuna steak, deep-fried cheek meat, and even slices of tuna heart and liver.

Small-town Oma is not excessively touristic. Accommodations are primarily small hotels, but there is one luxury selection. Shukubo Bukkoan is one of the most splendid Japanese Buddhist lodgings. These are usually austere, but this is something else. Monk Yudai Kikuchi accepts only one couple every evening, and he spoils them with Oma-style tuna dinners, Buddhist temple vegetarian breakfasts, and a stylish bungalow on his temple’s grounds. In the morning, guests receive private instruction in Zen meditation, Buddhist philosophy, and copying Buddhist sutras.

A drive and a dive into ancient Japanese beliefs

From Oma, a two-hour drive on winding mountain roads exposes visitors to one of Japan’s three most sacred areas. This is a place for a deep dive into Japanese folk religions. An old belief of Shiomkita locals is that the holy area called Osorezan is where they go after passing away. The worlds of the dead and the living, some say, merge in this mysterious volcanic region. The bubbling mud pits, steamy hissing vents, and eerie sulfurous odor create an otherworldly, heart-touching landscape.

Trails lead from Osorezan Bodaiji Temple across a lava-encrusted rolling valley to a soft white sandy beach on a calm lake surrounded by mountains. Lake Usorisan symbolizes paradise. Mourners often leave dolls, towels, shoes, pinwheels, and other goods for their departed loved ones along the trails between the lake and temple.

Some hope for brief reunions. In July and October primarily, female shamans help the living communicate with the dead. Osorezan Bodaiji Temple offers simple rooms and shared baths, dinner and Buddhist vegetarian breakfasts to mourners and respectful visitors. Guests are encouraged to join prayers and memorial services. The temple also allows visitors to soak in four Osorezan hot springs (one is mixed-sex) in simple wooden buildings on the temple grounds.

Mythical creatures and serene riverside onsen

The idyllic Yagen Valley is nestled in thriving forests between Osorezan and Oma Town. Hiking and snowshoeing trails are plentiful. Freshwater fishing enthusiasts enjoy a healthy river habitat that promotes the growth of tasty fish. After a lovely da of green tourism, head for a bath in Oku-yagen onsen, one of Japan’s best open-air riverside springs. Minerals provide a beautiful blue hue to the natural  hot water.

After savoring the view of the sparkling river, trees, greenery, and statues of kappas, mythical river creatures of Japan, enjoy local food. A down-to-earth onsite restaurant adds mountain vegetables and produce from nearby farms to traditional countryside dishes, and sells artworks created by village residents. Slowly delving into the charming Yagen Valley is a wellness experience. In fact, the Japanese kanjis for Yagen mean medicine and research. The Yagen Valley also belongs to the Shimokita Geopark.

Wellness rewards for slow travelers

Aomori’s official bicycling routes include the Mutsu Bay Cycling Route, half of which sweeps along the peninsula’s western coastline through geopark areas, forests, farmlands, and rustic villages with barely any stoplights nor buildings higher than two stories. But since most roads of the Shimokita Peninsula are like that, unofficial scenic pleasure rides are abundant, except for winter. Bicycling is a great way to explore the geopark. Bicycles allow slow travelers to deeply experience the essence of Shimokita.

The relatively calm shallow water of Mutsu Bay is the hoe of Japan’s softest and sweetest scallops. Many residents are scallop aquaculturists. Along all sides of the peninsula, locals harvest seaweed and catch various fish and squid specific to this region. In the mountains, locals gather mushrooms and wild vegetables. The sumptuous Shimokita cuisine served in rest stops, tiny restaurants, and Japanese izakayas, following traditional, area-specific traditions, are additional reward for those who choose to travel slowly in this remote region of Japan.