Cycling Aomori. The switchbacks and shrines of the North.
The quality of cycling in the north of Japan can not be underestimated. Situated deep on the northern tip of Honshu is the prefecture of Aomori. Located in Mutsu Bay, Aomori city retains its Edo Period grid pattern, though the city was heavily bombed in World War II. Most of Aomori’s attractions are recent buildings including a number of contemporary architectural gems: the Wa Rasse and A-Factory near Aomori Station, Aomori Bay Bridge and the Aomori Prefecture Tourist Center (ASPAM). No visit to Aomori prefecture would be complete without a delving deep into the city, as the markets, temples, museums, and historical sites all offer an abundance of intrigue and historical value.
Leaving the prefectural capital behind allows for an incredible variety of destinations and scenery. A must see is Hirosaki Castle, a small three-storey fortress, originally built in 1611 by the Tsugaru Clan. This Edo period icon is considered an icon of Hirosaki. The castle is located in Hirosaki Park, a spacious public park of about 0.6 square kilometers. The castle’s original five-storey keep burnt down in 1627 after being struck by lightning. Rebuilt in 1810, the present three-storey keep is the only one in the Tohoku Region that was not rebuilt in the modern era.
However, shrines, temples and friendly northern hospitality are only part of what makes a trip to this region worthwhile. The quality of cycling in Aomori is exceptional and the roads here are as good as it gets. One of the main attractions here is the world famous Iwaki Skyline switchback climb. Not a massive mountain by any measure, but it is astounding with its 69 hairpins turns snaking its way up the mountain.
The Iwaki Skyline Road is a toll road with a great view that takes you up to the 8th station. There are 69 twists along a total of approximately 10 km. The natural forest of 90 year-old beech trees near the 3rd station makes for a superb ride up the twists and turns. A race is held on the climb every year and draws riders from far and wide to test themselves on this 10km climb.
Looks like fun! Beyond the 69 turns of Iwaki Skyline that bring you back onto yourself there is the beautiful coastline to explore. Nestled high on the Pacific Ocean is the Tanesashi Coast. It is one of Japan’s most beautiful and multifaceted coastlines. From sandy shores to rocky cliffs, it’s a great place to spend a day riding and exploring, and there are plenty of delicious restaurants nearby to curb your appetite once you’re done!
If you are lucky enough to visit Aomori in early August then you will be able to see one of the most spectacular festivals in Japan, the Nebuta Matsuri.
Nebuta and Neputa are a type of Tanabata related summer festival held in towns around Aomori Prefecture. The largest of these festivals is the Nebuta Matsuri (ねぶた祭) of Aomori City, held every year from August 2 to 7. The highlight of the festival is the daily parade of enormous lantern floats, flanked by large taiko drums, musicians and dancers.
Local teams build the festival’s two dozen floats, which are constructed of painted washi paper over a wire frame and take an entire year to design and construct. They can be up to nine meters wide and five meters tall and often depict gods, historical or mythical figures from both Japanese and Chinese culture, kabuki actors, and characters from the popular NHK Taiga Drama historical TV series. Every night of the festival the floats are wheeled out onto the streets of downtown Aomori for a parade, except on the last day (August 7), when the parade is held in the afternoon. The floats are pushed along the street by human power, weaving back and forth, and spinning around for the crowd. Each float is accompanied by teams of taiko drummers, flute and hand cymbals players, as well as hundreds of dancers, called haneto in the local dialect, who follow the procession chanting “Rassera, Rassera” while performing a dance that looks a little bit like skipping.