Another early start (a theme on this trip again) saw us back on the Tohoku shinkansen heading from Sendai up to Shin-Aomori station in Aomori prefecture, the most northern prefecture in Honshu. As soon as we got off the shinkansen at Shin-Aomori station we walked across the road and picked up our first rental car at Times Car Rental.
The rental process was really easy, the rental staff didn’t speak English but my Japanese was sufficient and they had some English paperwork regarding the insurance policy for the car. With Times Rental you don’t get to pick the exact car you will rent, rather you rent a class of car. We only needed a small car but didn’t want a Kei Car as we were going into the mountains, so opted for the next class C-1. The car was got was a Suzuki Swift, luckily the boot (with rear seats down) was just the right size for our two large luggage cases! After collecting the car we stopped at a nearby konbini to get snacks for the road, and took a short walk around the local area, which was super cute and really rural!
Our first stop was Takayamainari Shrine on the western coast of Aomori prefecture. This spot is almost impossible to get to by public transport and so many tourists aren’t able to visit. We saw the shrine on NHK and it looked beautiful. Like all Inari shrines there are rows and rows of red torii gates and plenty of fox statues. The garden is beautiful and also offers great views to the coast. The torii gates were a little weather worn, with paint peeling off and damage to the wood, however it was still really beautiful.
There is a river which flows along the shrine grounds and also a waterfall and a number of beautiful red bridges. There are a number of great photo spots around the shrine. Remember to bring a number of 5¥ coins to offer to the multiple inari shrine buildings dotted around.
Our next stop was to find a great spot for lunch, there wasn’t much around this area but I wanted to see the sea and have a stroll on the beach. On Google maps there was a small road which lead to the shore and so we headed off. On the map there was what looked like a pier jutting into the sea, but when we got there we found what looked like a bridge into the sea…
We had lunch in the car whilst wondering why a bridge was just go out into the sea. When we got out a lovely local fisherman ran over to me and gave me a bag of apples! So kind! Especially as Aomori is the apple capital of all of Japan. They were the most enormous apples I have ever seen, and were super delicious.
The typhoon was still having an impact on the weather and it was really windy and cold, and the sea was rough! Turns out the “bridge” was the Tsugaru gyoko nihonkai bouhatei, a breakwater pier for boats. We couldn’t get to the end of the pier as the waves were so strong they were crashing over the pier itself.
Stop number three on our Aomori road trip was the town of Hirosaki, home to Tohoku’s only original feudal castle, Hirosaki castle. The drive from the coast to Hirosaki was stunning, we drove past the most famous peak in Aomori, Mount Iwaki and miles and miles of apple farms. The Tsugaru region of Aomori, where Hirosaki is, is the premiere apple growing region of Japan. It was harvest season and so we saw a lot of apple growers in their fields picking the huge fruits!
Hirosaki castle and the castle grounds are one of the biggest draws of the city. The castle and park are most famous during the cherry blossom season as the moats and grounds are filled with cherry blossom trees. Autumn is also a great time to see Hirosaki castle as the same cherry blossom trees have red and orange leaves. One fun things we found out about driving in rural Japan are the sweet older ladies who run small car parks during the day. This was our first experience of one of these car parks, a sweet old lady guided us into a parking space and charged the standard fee of 500¥ to park there. She gave us a map in English and also offered us apples and apple juice she was selling from the back of her car.
We walked through the park grounds which were lovely, families having picnics and playing, and a few photographers snapping the turning leaves. What is left of the castle is the three story castle tower, on top of stone walls. Since 2013 the castle tower has been moved several meters, and is scheduled to be moved back once renovations on the stone walls have been carried out. You can get inside of the castle which gives great views of the surrounding mountains.
While we were visiting the chrysanthemum festival was underway, hundreds of different chrysanthemum flowers were on show along with multiple things decorated with the flowers too. Including creepy mannequins with flower clothes on.
After exploring the castle and grounds we needed to head to our accommodation for the night on Towada Lake. The second exciting thing we learned that day is that is takes *forever* to drive anywhere in rural Japan, literally double whatever Google Maps seems to think it’ll take. By the time we got to the lake it was pitch black, with no street lights we missed a weird junction and ended up driving around the wrong side of the lake, making the drive even longer!
We were booked into Towadako Hostel, we have stayed in K’s House hostels on previous trips and they were all high quality, so we were excited. The hostel wasn’t that cheap as we had booked a private room, it was actually more expensive than a few of the business hotels we stayed in.
It was the most disgusting place I have ever been! The hostel owner was very kind but the place was filthy! Apparently as the owner has become old he is unable to do the cleaning, instead he expects the guests to keep up with the cleaning in the shared bathrooms and kitchens. Obviously people don’t! Our private room was also the coldest place inside ever. To heat the room there was a small electric heater which did basically nothing, or a kerosene heater than filled the rooms with fumes. The futon were stained and musty and it was super noisy and hard to sleep. To get to the shared toilet we had to go outside and back into the main building, and our room didn’t look from the outside! We left at 4am!