Day 3: Aomori and Hirosaki

Thursday, 25 October 2012
Sendai to Shini-Aomori rail ticket on Hayate obtained with rail passWe must've been having a lot of fun as time was absolutely flying and it was already time to get the next shinkansen to Aomori. 

The earliest shinkansen left at 6:40am but took an extra 40 minutes than the others as it stopped at a lot more stops than normal. Since we needed to get breakfast we choose the 8:13am Hayate. 

I actually wanted to get the Hayabusa as it's slightly faster and since it's the JR east equivalent of the Nozomi & Mizuho (which you can't use with the JR pass), I was a bit curious.

Unfortunately the first one was not until 9:50am, so I'll have to wait until the next trip!

One thing to bear in mind when traveling to Aomori is that it does not have any 7-11's!

I have no idea why this is the case but it means that you can not get money out unless you use a post office. Since post offices are not normally open 24/7 you have to be a bit careful.

We had to pay for the Aomori hotel in cash so I made sure I had enough money to cover the two days by withdrawing 40,000円 in Sendai yesterday. Kate did the same.

Breakfast was much the same as yesterday expect the eggs were boiled instead of scrambled! I took two and wondered how I would break it. I didn't want to crack it on the table or anything else hard like that as it would get dirty. I tried banging it on our tray and while it made a lot of noise the shell didn't yield.

Looking around it seemed like we were not the only ones having issues.

I think I ended up biting into the shell to crack it.

One other thing is that there was no Octopus ball soup today! Poor Kate!

After breakfast we lugged our luggage (I think I just discovered where the word luggage came from!) to the station and hopped on the shinkansen. 

Since the shinkansen only goes as far as Shin-Aomori Station, we had to change trains there to get to Aomori Station. It's not that unusual for shinkansen to only stop at a "Shin" station rather than the main station, this is because the main station might be in a location that is too crowded or inconvenient to build the special shinkansen tracks to. Some others I can remember having separate stations include Shin-Oska and Shin-Kobe.

From this you might infer that the "Shin" referes to the fact that it's a shinkansen station but shin really just means "New" (Shinkansen = 新幹線 = New Trunk Line), so just because a station has shin in the name doesn't mean that shinkansen stop there. For example, there's no shinkansen service at Shin-Sapporo Station .

Once we got to Shin-Aomori we did our transfer and and got on the Limited Express Super Hakucho. It was waiting for us and actually goes all the way to Hakodate. We're not going there for another two days so we got off at the next stop, seven minutes later, at Aomori station.

Upon arriving at Aomori station we immediately recognized the famous Aomori Bay Bridge. It seems a bit strange at first since it only actually goes over a tidy bit of water in Aomori Bay (about 100m), is about 30m from the shore at its furthest and is 1.2km long. It was actually built to alleviate cargo ship traffic rather than to cross a particular body of water though- so it makes sense.

The Toyoko hotel we were staying at is very close to the station so were were able to drop off our luggage and quickly make our back to the station to get a bus to the Aomori Prefectural Art Museum.

Since we were unsure of what bus to get I had to ask at the tourist information center- another chance to practice my Japanese! Oh no!

When I went in it looked like they were filming some kind of commercial as they had those massive TV cameras and a lady smiling and holding her phone up to what looked to be a IC card reader on an interactive terminal. It was probably to highlight something they had developed using the relatively recent introduction of NFC (Near Field Communication) abilities in phones. Maybe it was to pay for or to reserve something?

I managed to ask 「バスで青森県立美術館に何番ですか?」. I'm not sure how much sense that sentance made in Japanese or how grammatically garbled it was but it did work as the lady told me what bus number to get as well as what stop. She also gave me a timetable.

We waited at the stop and the bus came just a few minutes later! Good timing!

Since this was our first Japanese bus for this trip it's a good time to describe them in general.

For local buses in Japan you very often get on at the back so don't worry if it seems to drive right past you when pulling over! When you do get on you should keep an eye out for a ticket machine that spits out a numbered ticket. 

If the bus operates on a flat fare then there probably will not be one of these boxes. If the bus operates on variable fare and you forget to get a ticket you'll probably have to pay the "Nashi" fare which is equal to the most expensive ticket.

You use the ticket to check how much you have have to pay when you exit by comparing the number writen on your ticket to a big electronic sign board at the front of the bus. The amount you have to pay is updated each time you pass a stop (the price doesn't always change though- sometimes it takes a few stops). If you know in advance how much the fare will be you can keep an eye on the board price; once is reaches the known fare you know that your stop is coming up soon.

You don't need to do this too much though as the best thing about Japanese buses is that either the bus driver or the bus itself will announce what stop is next, and it will also appear in writing on a sign at the front of the bus! So you know exactly when to press the bell.

I wish Brisbane buses did this! It's often very difficult to work out when to press the bell in Brisbane if you've never got a particular bus before. It's also really hard to even find out what stops it does stop at. The only place where everything is written down is the internet.

One thing we noticed is that the ticket box always has a ticket ready, so were were wondering where the ticket went if no one took it. Upon careful observation it turns out that if no one gets on and takes it the ticket gets sucked back into the machine!

When you get off the bus you usually have to chuck your numbered ticket and exact change into a box which checks that it's correct. Don't worry if you don't have exact change though! There should be a change machine at the front which you can put 1000 yen notes and coins into and it will spit out some smaller denominations.

The Aomori Art Museum is located close to the Sannai Maruyama Jomon Archaeological Site although since it was quite cold and rainy we decided to just go to the Art Museum.

Aomori-Ken dog by Nara Yoshimoto wearing a massive beanie
Aomori-Ken dog with Giant beanie
This time we made sure to lock up our umbrellas. You put it in a holder and locked it with a key that you keep until you retrieve your umbrella. This must be to combat the rampant umbrella theft!!

We also put our bags in lockers so we didn't have to carry them around (free with a refundable 100 yen deposit).

A lot of the art that was on display was by Nara Yoshitomo. I'm having trouble describing his artwork so I'll quote wikipedia
"Most works depict one seemingly innocuous subject (often pastel-hued children and animals drawn with confident, cartoonish lines) with little or no background." - Wikipedia
There were two giant dogs on display and the one outside was massive. Since it was cold he was wearing a beanie too!

It's a huge beanie!

His name is Aomori-ken and we could see him from inside where there was a kind of house that you could climb on. He was the only exhibit you could take pictures of and you could also go outside and go right up to him.

We got a bit lost as there were no "Route" (順路) signs and we didn't realise that in order to go outside and look at the dog we actually had to (sort of) go behind the ticket counter.  To continue to the rest of the museum we then had to double back and retrace our steps a fair bit. We worked it out after asking on of the people who were looking after the exhibits.

Also in the museum were some woodblocks by Munakata Shiko as well as three absolutely massive paintings by Marc Chagall and displayed in a room that had 19 meter high walls.

Once we were done with the museum we got our bags and umbrellas and made our way back to the bus stop. We were a bit sad that we were missing out on the Archeological site but we decided that it was still too rainy. Hopefully we'll make it out there next time we're in Aomori.

Tea and apple flavored zero calorie Japanese jelly from Family Mart
Tea and apple flavored jelly
The bus arrived within a few minutes- so it was another case of good timing! We were a bit worried at first since not everyone got on and the bus went a different route to last time- although when people got on I thought I could hear it saying "Bound for Aomori-eki". It was a bit hard to hear as the speakers were outside the bus. Turned out it was the right bus and we arrived back at the station ready to go searching for lunch.

Since it was only around 13:30 we thought we could make it all the way to Hirosaki if we grabbed a quick convenience store lunch. We went to Family Mart so Kate could get the "Karori Zero" (kJ/calorie free) jelly that they have for sale. I think I got some sandwiches but I'm not sure, we both probably got nuts as well.

Aomori to Hirosaki rail ticket on Tesort Shirakami obtained with rail passWe took the food back to the train station and booked the next train bound for Hirosaki.

We were lucky to get a "Resort Shirakami" train which features big comfortable seats with heaps of leg room as well as tall, wide and clear windows to look out of.

Red barn on a farm taken from train to Hirosaki from Aomori

During the train ride we ate lunch and looked out the windows- the country side scenery was pretty and there were lots of apples!

Apple trees! At bit blurry due to speed of train
I tried to take some photos but the apples were too close and we were moving too fast for even sports mode.

You can see some blurry red balls though and I'll assure you that they are apples.

At Hirosaki station there was a big apple artwork thing and when we went out the exit we saw more TV cameras! They were filming someone talking about apples this time!

We went into the Hirosaki tourist information office and I asked where to get the Dotemachi Loop bus from. It was a bit funny as it was a pretty small office but there were five people crowded at the desk and they all tried to answer at once. Too many staff!

Since the bus comes every 10 minutes we didn't have to wait long. We wanted to get off close to the entrance to Hirosaki park (near Otemon). I think that the stop was called Shiyakusho-mae (市役所前) which means "In front of the city office".

There was quite a large building filled nearby filled with people carrying forms around- I figured this must be the city office as the activities looked very governmental.

Hirosaki Castle KeepAfter alighting from the bus we went into Hirosaki park and made our way to the castle keep.

This keep was originally built in 1611 but burnt down 16 years later after being smote by lightning. It was rebuilt about 200 years later in 1810.

Even if it is a reconstruction it is still over 200 years old!

Before we could go into the area containing the keep we had to buy an admission ticket. There was a deal that let you get admission tickets to the castle, as well as both the Botanical and Fujita gardens which are located nearby.

The deal was very good value and if you used the Northern Tohoku Welcome Card you received a further discount.

This card lets you get various discounts around the whole northern Tohoku region and you can print it out at home. We found that it wasn't always honored though and it seemed like some merchants had never heard of it. I doubled checked though and they were listen on the website. More on that tomorrow.

The ticket booth for the castle actually had a sign up saying that they accepted the pass but the ticket lady was still really suspicious of it. Since it is only available to foreign tourists maybe they don't get too many people trying to use it?

Close up view of Mount Iwaki from Hirosaki Park
View of  Mount Iwaki
After buying our ticket we went up inside and had a look out the windows. The inside was mainly full of castlely things like old Armour and other artifacts.

After the castle we had  a look around the rest of the park.

Many locations within Hirosaki park offered great views of Mount Iwaki which is a nearby andersitic stratovolcano. A classic example of stratocolcano is the iconic Mt Fuji. Mount Iwaki is only half as tall as Mt Fuji at 1.6km but it has erupted more recently with the latest occurring in 1863.

Zoomed out view of Mount Iwaki from Hirosaki Park
Hirosaki park also is a very popular location for cherry blossom viewing and from looking at photos of the area during spring I can see why. The castle keep area is an especially popular location as it makes a nice backdrop and can be combined with the nearby moat.

Sakura grove at Hirosaki Park. Sans blossoms

Even though there were no cherry blossoms blooming when we went and had a look at another popular location, Sakura Grove (桜 = sakura = cherry blossom tree). This line of treas near a river becomes a tunnel of pink when the flowers bloom in April.

It was still a nice tunnel of green when we walked along it.

When we got the the end of Sakura Grove we dashed back across the park to the Botanical Gardens.

Waterwheel house at Hirosaki botanical gardens

The gardens were quite spacious and had various flower displays set up, as well as displays like a little water wheel house.

There were also a lot of stalls selling food in the center area and there was an area where you could play with rabbits!

We were pretty fascinated as we had never really seen rabbits in real life before (They're banned as pets in Queensland).

The people who were looking after the rabbits were looking at us warily as it was late in the day (with no one else about) and I think it was mainly kids who wanted to pet the rabbits. We didn't want to *that* much I guess and since we didn't approach them and them didn't approach us we ended up just having a look.

They were pretty cute!

Close up photo of apples in hirosaki botanical gardens
Proof that there were apples!
There were also apple trees and a rose garden that I remember.


And at least two differet Panda displays!

One was carved out of a bush!

The other was made using some kind of non plant substance I think but it was still pretty cool. They had flowers around them.
Black and white panda's made of non plant material at Hirosaki Botanical Gardens
Bush cut into the shape of a pandas head at Hirosaki Botanical Gardens

We were having lots of fun at the botanical gardens but when we checked the time we realised that there was only 10 minutes until entry closed at the Fujita Memorial Japanese Garden. So we quickly exited the Botanical gardens and ran back across Hirosaki Park.

We actually somehow managed to find ourselves in the middle of a school when all the students were leaving!

I'm don't really know how it happened and I hope we didn't break any rules. It seemed like it was a high school though and they ignored us as we raced though. Maybe this happens a lot- they are in a direct path after all.

View of the Fujita Memorial Gardens from red bridge
View from the bridge.
View of red bridge and waterfall at Fujita Memorial Gardens
View of the bridge
Anyway. We exited out of the school's via the front driveway and made it in time to get into the Fujita Gardens.

These gardens  were built in 1919 by buisness Fujita Kenichi

We spent a nice half hour strolling around the gardens and looking at the various sections.

I really like how in Japanese gardens you can pretty much point your camera anywhere and it will come out nicely framed.

The main feature of this garden was a relatively tall water fall with a red bridge that you could walk across.

After exiting the gardens we made our way back to the bus stop. When we got there we noticed that there seemed to be two other men waiting but for some reason they were sheltering under the City Office building and would have been out of view of the bus driver. It wasn't raining.

We looked at them and they in turn looked up. After following their gaze I could see why they had taken shelter! The sky was absolutely full of birds! They were flying all around and I was momentarily mesmerized until my brain yelled out "Poop!".

I put the umbrella up which caused the two men waiting to laugh. Luckily they were not directly overhead most of the time so I didn't feel too threatened and we managed to get the bus back to Hirosaki poop free.

Hirosaki to Aomori rail ticket on Tsugaru obtained with rail passUnfortunately we did not get a resort train on the way back although we did manage to reserve a seat. We did cut it a bit fine there though.

While were waiting in line we decided that we were going to forget about reserved and just get unreserved if it got to 17:30 (Train left at 17:33). It was 17:29 and there was still a lady in front of us and we were thinking about leaving now when she suddenly bailed.

We were a bit freaked out as the ticket guy causally (slowly) entered in our details and printed our tickets- but we made it!

Once we got back to Aomori we check in and paid for the Toyoko in and had a brief rest.

After the rest we went looking for food and settled on a restaurant Otoya (大戸屋 = big door shop). The food looked delicious and it was! It was also really good value. There was table service and they had an English menu that Kate looked at.

plum and radish chicken cutlet
Chiken, Radish and Plum
I got the plum and radish chicken cutlet set meal (梅おろしチキンかつ定食 = Ume oroshi chikin katsu teishoku). The chicken and plum were nice although I wasn't really sold on the radish. 

pacific cod and vegetable in black vinegar
Fish and Vegetable

Kate ordered the pacific cod and vegetable in black vinegar set meal (真だらと野菜の 黒酢あん定食  = madara to yasai no kurozu an teishoku ). I wasn't touching it as it had onions but Kate assured me that it was delicious!

5 Grained rice
Five Grain Rice
Since they were set meals they also came with miso soup (negi nashi de for me), japanese pickles, cabbage as well as our choice of rice (white, hijiki (seaweed), grated yam, small fish (I think) and 5 mixed grains). 

We went with the mixed grained rice. 

Miso Soup
Miso soup
The miso soup and rice were both delicious! 

I picked at the pickles a bit but was not really into them and neither was Kate.

You got a sauce that you put on the cabbage which made it edible for me as I don't really like cabbage. In case you havn't noticed I'm a bit picky with food, I don't want to be, but I find a lot of things bitter for some reason.

Kate, at least, enjoyed hers to the fullest extent you can enjoy cabbage I think.

About half way through we were served tea (free).

Careful about trying to finish it out all of politeness though! They'll happily keep topping it up for you!

This is also done to the complimentary water you're served.

Best to just leave some left if you're done. It shows that you were so satisfied that you couldn't possibly fit  any more in.

While we were eating we realised that we went to this restaurant in Kyoto during our last trip! We even ordered the same food last time. 

We had been trying to blot it from our minds as we had an embarrassing experience where we accidentally stole some drinks (we thought they were included). We paid for them in the end but it was extremely embarrassing nonetheless.

Amazingly all both our meals came to only 1500円.

With our tummies full we went back to the hotel to get some sleep before tomorrows trip to hell and back!


  1. I'm enjoying your blog a lot. I especially like reading about your food adventures. I can relate somewhat because I'm a picky eater and vegetarian. I imagine it's even harder for you since you actually get physically sick from eating onion.

    I wish all buses made it easy to know which stop was approaching!

    1. Thank you very much for reading and for taking the time to leave a comment!

      I think in Japan being Vegatarian would be pretty hard- depending on how strict you are. So much food has Dashi in it as a base stock. Though if you make an exception for marshmallows maybe you can make an exception for fish? Not sure.

      Yeah, in Brisbane our buses give no indication of where they are so if you're travelling to a new area it can be pretty hit and miss. Though these days it's not much of an issue if you have a smart phone.

      I've been reading your Australia Blog! It's really fascinating and I read quite a few posts. Have you ever had cordial? Doesn't seem to be a drink featured in America much. Let me know if there is anything you want to ask about Australia!

      I guess you might already know but I feel I should warn you about rupurt murdoch.

      Apologies for the rant. He owns half of our cable TV company Foxtel that makes a lot of money. Almost all of our newspapers are owned by him as well and run at a loss- their purpose is to influence people's opinions and not really to make money. His media (most of our mainstream media) is our version of US Fox News. "Fair and balanced". It's nuts, lots of stuff is made up out of whole cloth. There's not much alternate except ABC which actually is very fair and trusted. Mudouch hates the ABC.

      The Daily Telegraph, Courier Mail and The Australian are rags. The first one in particular is crazy. At the last election they had daily front pages of the labor party dressed up as Nazis, Clowns etc etc. Due to their penitration they set the conversation.

      Just be very careful taking anything you read there at face value, even just regular pieces- the fact checking is non-existent.

      Fairfax are dying but still have a bit of influence (Brisbane Times, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age). They have a bit of a right lean but not too much, worth reading. The guardian is another left leaning alternative but they barely exist. Crikey is good for politics.

      Anyway, really sorry for the rant! Just thought you might read our papers! Not sure, you might know more than me anyway.