Aomori Prefecture is one of the most popular destinations in Tohoku for its rich culture and equally rich food, exciting local festivals, crazy levels of snow and welcoming warmth of its people who speak an endearingly unintelligible dialect. Particularly in the hot months of summer, the cities of Aomori, Hirosaki and Goshogawara burst into life with the famous Nebuta, Neputa and Tachineputa festivals, where huge lantern-floats (in the case of Tachineputa, 19 ton + 23 metres) crafted into the shape of scenes from Japanese folklore parade the streets to the sounds of local music, dance and thunderous Taiko drumming.
Experiencing one of these festivals (if not, all of them!) should be a top priority on your Japan bucket list! Even if you can’t manage to make it to Aomori during early August, you will be relieved to know that there is one well-kept-secret location in the mountains of Misawa where you can experience not just one but ALL of these festivals at once, on pretty much any day of the year!
Hoshino Resorts: AOMORIYA
Welcome to ‘Aomoriya’, one of the two unique onsen (hot spring) resorts in Aomori Prefecture owned by the well renown luxury chain Hoshino Resorts (the other, Oirase Keiryu Hotel, is located further west in Towada City). Said to have been created around the local concept of ‘Nore Sore‘ which means ‘to the fullest’, at Aomoriya you truly can enjoy everything that is great about Aomori to the absolute full. The fun begins before you even enter the front door…
For a start, the luggage porter is none other than an adorable miniature pony dressed in traditional Aomori festival garb. He will kindly take your bags as you step out of the car/bus and carry them all the way to the front entrance. Don’t worry, unlike the many overworked salarymen of Japan, he is very well cared for and given frequent break time. Just look at that smile…!
Stepping inside to the dimly lit entrance space you immediately feel that this is no ordinary hot spring hotel! The decor is just the right mix of traditional Aomori style and modern Japanese chic. Throughout the public spaces and private rooms of the hotel nearly everything – from the teacups to the furniture – is apple or scallop themed, but not in a garish, over-the-top fashion.
However, head downstairs to the bottom floor and it is a whole different story!!
Enter Jawamegu Hiroba! Designed to exude a Showa period ‘retro’ atmosphere, this entire floor is closer to a small town in itself. Completely decked out in festival decoration, here you can find everything; from stores selling every kind of apple flavoured treat you can think of, live scallop fishing (and scallop ice-cream?), cocktail bars, free apple-juice on tap, yukata rental and a live music stage.
I have often heard travelers complain that whilst staying at an onsen is a relaxing, pampering experience, being located away from town can leave you twiddling your thumbs at night without access to entertainment. This place has you 200% covered! There is so much to explore in the Jawamengu Hiroba floor alone that you really should consider staying two nights (if your budget allows)!
But weren’t we talking about experiencing festivals?
Along with a huge meal of delicious local seafood and mountain cuisine (easy on the apple snacks!), the Michinoku Matsuriya restaurant inside the resort holds daily live performances of the Aomori Nebuta, Hirosaki Neputa, the Hachinohe Sansha Taisai and the Goshogawara Tachineputa festivals! That’s four festivals worth of spine-tingling music, dance and song. Actual floats from the festivals parade around the spacious venue and there is plenty of chance for diners to jump in and participate in the action!
You might also recognise the faces of some of the performers from earlier in your stay – the very same staff who man the front desk and prepare your rooms are also trained to perform the traditional songs and dance of each festival.
If you still need some time to digest before hitting the hot spring baths, after dinner another rather special performance is held back inside the Jawamegu Hiroba. Aomori, particularly the Tsugaru area, is famous throughout Japan for its talented Shamisen (traditional Japanese stringed instrument) players. The Shamisen players of Aomoriya, however, specialise in a highly unique genre of shamisen music – the ‘Tsugaru Sukoppu-Jamisen’ or the ‘Snow-shovel Shamisen’…! Yes, a snow shovel.
This is kind of like Japan’s answer to the air guitar! Instead of a shamisen, these performers ‘play’ a snow shovel using a bottle-opener as a bachi (a pick). Played along with actual shamisen music in the background, it is a highly entertaining percussion-style performance which I am honestly still not sure is meant to be taken seriously!! I laughed along at the performance before discovering a nearby cabinet containing a rare Tsugaru lacquerware snow shovel; first prize from the highest level contest of its kind in Japan. I guess it kind of is a serious deal! (Read more about Tsugaru Sukoppu-Jamisen and its museum in Aomori here)
After all that entertainment, you are going to feel like a nice relaxing bath! Being a hot-spring resort after all, Aomoriya offers guests use of three different baths with probably the best quality spring water I have ever bathed in (and I have been to a LOT of onsen in my time). It is difficult to describe in words, but the water almost feels thick; if you run your hands along your legs in the water it is the same sensation of rubbing a silky moisturising lotion into your skin (A ++++++).
In terms of the baths themselves, there is a wide outdoor bath surrounded by lush garden which also displays a floating Neputa festival-float in winter; a beautiful wooden indoor bath made of Aomori Hinoku Cypress wood which fills the space with a glorious woody fragrance; and also a traditional style bath-house annexed from the main resort building. For obvious reasons I was unable to take any pictures inside the baths themselves, but the resort website offers some pretty amazing photos for your perousal.
Throughout the year, Aomori resort offers heaps of great activities for guests during the day, as well. Particularly for those with younger families, you can take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the nearby park (beautiful in Autumn) or try your hand at some traditional Tohoku handicrafts such as Tsugaru lacquerware, Kokeshi doll painting, Japanese kite painting and Tsugaru Koginzashi needlework.
Whilst it is certainly not the cheapest resort I have ever stayed at, Aomoriya is so, SO much more than just a hot spring hotel! If you consider how much others might spend on an overnight trip to Disneyland, this is basically like the ultimate Disneyland for hot spring addicts and Japanese culture enthusiasts.
Sadly, most of my photos do not give the atmosphere justice (I guess I’ll just have to go back to take more!) but here is a great visual (00:58~) of what you can experience at Aomoriya, as well as the nearby Tatehana wharf morning market (the largest morning market in Japan) in Hachinohe City.
Access & Links
HOSHINO RESORTS: AMORIYA
TEL : +81-(0)50-3786-1144
Prices: Not cheap – this is more of a special occasion splurge rather than one for budget travelers! Please consult the resort’s homepage (below) for prices of staying in different styles of room with/without meals and performances included.
Access: There are shuttle buses you can reserve (at least 3 days in advance) to pick you up from nearby Misawa Station. There is very comprehensive access information (in English and Japanese) published on the homepage (above), including the following pdf files with access details from Sendai Airport and Narita Airport.