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Goin’ the extra mile with the Gono Line!

Goin’ the extra mile with the Gono Line!

The roar of waves crashing with their salty scent in the air, lakes shimmering a mystical azure in the sunlight filtering through the woods, fields upon fields of apple trees in bloom with their delicate blossoms swaying in the wind…and a basketball hoop for you to shoot three-pointers? What if I told you all of the above, and so much more, could be experienced on the same train line?

 

While I enjoy rail travel across Japan, there are two lines that I particularly enjoy—the Sanriku Railway Rias Line (三陸鉄道リアス線 Sanriku Tetsudō Rias-sen), and the JR Gono Line (五能線 Gonō-sen). Similarities between the two are numerous—both of them are in the Tohoku Region (東北地方Tōhoku-chihō), both run along the coastline, offering majestic views of the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan respectively, and both of them are extremely long, at 163km and 147km respectively. In fact, the Rias Line is the longest third-sector railway line in Japan, while the Gono Line is the fourth longest line out of all the non-main lines managed by JR East.

 

While I have professed and written about my love for the Rias Line on multiple occasions, the Gono Line has so far only gotten a few mere mentions from me, despite having taken it on average once every year for a while, once even taking it twice in the same year. Its turn to take center stage, though, is finally here. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will be as enamoured by all that the Gono Line has to offer, and I hope that you will one day make the trip down to partake in all these wonderful sights and experiences!

 

Fact sheet: Basics about the Gono Line

The 0km marker at the platform of Higashi-Noshiro Station marking the start of the Gono Line. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

The Gono Line, as mentioned earlier, is a 147.2km behemoth of a line that connects Higashi-Noshiro Station (東能代駅Higashi Noshiro-eki) in Akita and Kawabe Station (川部駅Kawabe-eki) in Aomori. Since its completion, the line has functioned as an important means of transport for the people living along the Sea of Japan coast.

 

Due to its location right next to the coastline, it is not uncommon for train services to be halted in winter due to strong winds, blizzards, and high waves. Nevertheless, the breathtaking views from the train have made it very popular amongst tourists, both domestic and foreign. The Joyful Train that runs along it, the Resort Shirakami (リゾートしらかみ), is a frequent entry in rankings asking about the top 10 sightseeing trains that people enjoy the most.

 

However, as I wrote in my article on why I enjoy rail travel in Japan, the same problems that plague all other locals lines have also affected the Gono Line. Battling an ever-shrinking ridership due to the decreasing populations in the local communities along the line, the Gono Line was on the verge of being closed when, in an attempt to revitalise the line, the Nostalgic View Train (ノスタルジックビュートレイン), a sightseeing train and the first of its kind back then, was introduced as a way to draw tourists in 1990. That train would become the forefather of the Resort Shirakami, first introduced in 1997, and the Resort Shirakami itself has steadily grown in popularity, with an all-time high of an estimated 120,000 tourists taking the train in 2016, almost twenty years after it first started running.

 

The exterior of Iwadate Station, the last station on the Akita side of the Gonō Line. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

Nowadays, not only is the Gono Line an important means of travel for the people living around the area, it also serves as an important source of tourist revenue. This is not only because of the Resort Shirakami, but also because many stations along the line are gateways to the sacred Shirakami Sanchi (白神山地), a UNESCO World Heritage Site straddling both Akita and Aomori with its many natural attractions, a few of which will be introduced further on in the article.

 

Promotional posters of Mizumori Kaori’s single, “Gonō-sen”, on display at Iwadate Station, together with her signature. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

So well-known is the line that It has also been featured in mystery novels and their TV adaptations, as well as songs. As the Gono Line approaches its 90th anniversary, let’s take a look to see what the line has to offer.

 

Scenic panoramas in the four seasons

The snow-covered landscape and Sea of Japan from the Gono Line near Fukaura. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

When talking about the Gono Line, the first thing that comes to my mind is the Sea of Japan. Some may argue that the sea is just that, and there is hardly anything to observe about it. I used to have that image as well, but observing the sea while taking the Gono Line in different seasons changed my perceptions. In summer, when all is calm, the waves gently caress the shores the line runs along, painting a peaceful picture of serenity. In winter, however, when strong winds blow, the sea changes her expression completely, and is now raging and furious, waves crashing onto rock before disappearing back into her dark, shadowy depths.

 

Back when the older trains that had windows that could be opened still plied the line, I would lift the window up to enjoy the sound of the waves and breathe in the briny scent of the sea. So enjoyable was the situation that I once drank one of those small glass cups of sake with the sound and smell of the sea being my otsumami (おつまみ), or drink snack!

 

The Gono Line offers spectacular views of and runs very close to the Sea of Japan. At quite a few points, the rails are almost at sea level, and the only things standing between the sea and the train a few rows of concrete tetrapods, allowing you to experience the beauty and majesty of the sea up close. In fact, so captivating are the views that all trains slow down at certain points to allow travellers to enjoy the scenes for a few moments.

 

Nowhere on the line is this better experienced than after the tunnels between Iwadate Station (岩館駅  Iwadate-eki) and Ōmagoshi Station (大間越駅  Ōmagoshi-eki). To paraphrase the opening line of Nobel Literature prize winter Kawabata Yasunari’s famed novel Yukiguni (雪国), “Once you emerge from the tunnel, right before your eyes unfurls the sea”.

 

Senjojiki Coast

The view of the Sea of Japan from the Gono Line in summer. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

For those who would like to get off the train and see the sea up close, how about making a stop at Senjōjiki Station (千畳敷駅  Senjōjiki-eki) along the way? The station is right next to Senjōjiki (千畳敷), a natural attraction formed in 1792 through an underwater earthquake pushing the rocky land below up and further carved by waves battering them. Dramatic towering rock formations also dot the landscape, making the beachfront very dynamic with all its undulations.

 

The rocky outcrops of Senjōjiki are so named because legend has it that one of the local lords of the Tsugaru domain (津軽藩 Tsugaru-han) who chanced upon this natural formation was so mesmerised by it, he laid a thousand tatami mats there and held a banquet there for all to enjoy the dramatic views. This also explains its name, which translates to “an area lined with a thousand tatami mats”.

 

An aerial view of Senjōjiki. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟)

 

The best season to visit Senjōjiki (and all other beach-related attractions) is in summer, when the waves are calm and the waters shimmer in the sun. There are a few souvenir shops and eateries right next to the beach that operate only during the warmer months of the year, and what could beat sipping an ice-cold drink and enjoying freshly grilled squid while enjoying the splendid views of nature?

 

The Resort Shirakami awaiting the return of tourists before setting off. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

Though only local trains stop at the station, a stone’s throw away from the beach, those who intend to take the Resort Shirakami will be pleased to know that there are certain trains that make a 15-minute stop at the station for tourists to get off, stretch their legs and enjoy a brief walk around Senjōjiki before hopping back on. So, for those of you who wish to spend some time at Senjōjiki but balk at the idea of having to wait hours for your next train, this is an excellent alternative.

 

Senjōjiki Coast (千畳敷海岸)
Address: Kita-Kanegasawa, Fukaura, Nishi-Tsugaru District, Aomori 038-2504
Access: Right next to Senjōjiki Station (千畳敷駅)

 

Apple orchards

Most of you who have visited Japan before would have heard of, or been to, hanami (花見), that quintessential activity in spring where people gather under cherry trees in full bloom to watch the flowers sway in the spring breeze, especially towards the end of their short lives, where even the slightest gust will send showers of petals floating down not unlike delicate pink snowflakes. As with the cherry trees, other plants belonging to the rose family bloom in spring as well, including the apple tree, possibly one of the flowers most representative of the Tohoku Region, with Aomori being the single largest producer of apples across the whole nation. This is especially true of Hirosaki City (弘前市  Hirosaki-shi) and the areas surrounding it.

 

A Gono Line train running through an apple orchard in full bloom, with Mount Iwaki in the background. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟)

 

The last section of the Gono Line after Goshogawara Station (五所川原駅  Goshogawara-eki) passes through acres after acres of apple groves, and come early to mid-May, when the trees come into bloom, the air is filled with their clean, sweet scent, and the buzz of bees as they fly from blossom to blossom and pollinating them resonates all around. This spectacle is best observed along the stretch between Itayanagi (板柳駅 Itayanagi-eki) and Fujisaki Stations (藤崎駅 Fujisaki-eki). While hanami is certainly a beautiful spectacle, I do think that apple trees in full bloom come a close second, and they are even better when you think of all the delicious apples that will be harvested in a few months’ time!

 

Mount Iwaki

Mount Iwaki and paddy fields glowing golden in the sunset. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

The last scenic wonder to be enjoyed from the train windows is Mount Iwaki (岩木山 Iwaki-san), the tallest mountain in Aomori at 1,625 metres. Situated towards the end of the line in Ajigasawa Town (鯵ヶ沢町 Ajigasawa-machi) and Hirosaki, while the majestic mountain is already itself mesmerising no matter the season, her beauty really comes through when paired up with other scenarios.

 

Picture, for instance, the mountain in late May, still snow-capped and surrounded by apple orchards in full bloom, clouds of pink and white at the foot of the mountain. Or how about the summer evening, with the setting sun silhouetting the mountain and painting paddy fields shades of flame and gold? Just like the sea, Mount Iwaki reveals different facades of herself across the seasons, and her arresting beauty deserves one’s full attention, no matter the time of the year.

 

Experiences on the Gono Line: Nature, the Resort Shirakami, and so much more

Jūniko Station, the gateway to exploring the Shirakami Sanchi. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

As mentioned earlier, the Gonō Line passes through the Shirakami Sanchi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is also a haven for those who like to experience nature. For those who are so inclined, there are many mountains, including Mount Shirakami (白神岳 Shirakami-dake), that can be climbed in the area and offer spectacular views of the scenery around from their peaks.

 

Aoike (Blue Pond)

Aoike and its beautiful blue waters. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

If you are not keen on scaling mountains, there are also many easy hiking trails around certain areas of the Shirakami Sanchi that take you to famous sightseeing spots within the area. One of the most famous spots in the area is Aoike (青池), or Blue Pond, so named because its waters shimmer a beautiful azure in the sun.

 

The most famed of the Jūniko (十二湖), a set of lakes found in the Tsugaru Quasi-National Park (津軽国定公園 Tsugaru Kokutei Kōen), there is a hiking trail that takes you around Aoike and a few of the other lakes on a hike that is anywhere between 1 to 3 hours, depending on how much time you have and how far you wish to go.

 

Aoike (青池)
Address: Matsugami, Fukaura, Nishi-Tsugaru District, Aomori 038-2206
Access: 15-minute bus ride from Jūniko Station (十二湖駅) (Aoike is a 10-minute walk from the last bus stop, Oku-Jūniko Parking Lot (奥十二湖駐車場))

 

Japan Canyon

The Japan Canyon, viewed up close. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟)

 

Another natural attraction not to miss in the area is the Japan Canyon (日本キャニオン Nihon kyanion). Named after the Grand Canyon due to the similarities in appearance between the geological formations, part of the white mountain walls forming part of the canyon can be seen from the Jūniko hiking trails. Get up close, though, and you will get to see the landscape with all its undulations. There is an observatory deck situated twenty minutes away from the carpark at the entrance that allows you to get a view of the entire canyon from above, making it ideal for those on you who want to get a quick look at the canyon and focus more on the Aoike and the other lakes.

 

Japan Canyon (日本キャニオン)
Address: Matsugami, Fukaura, Nishi-Tsugaru District, Aomori 038-2206
Access: 5-minute bus ride from Jūniko Station (十二湖駅) (Japan Canyon is a 15-minute walk from the Hakkei-no-ike bus stop (八景の池))

 

Resort Shirakami

One cannot talk about the Gono Line and not mention the Resort Shirakami! As mentioned in the earlier part of this article, it was the Resort Shirakami that saved the line from certain doom. Now ranked as one of the most popular sightseeing trains in Japan, it is easy to see why it is so popular with rail enthusiasts and tourists alike.

 

Resort Shirakami Aoike in winter. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Even though only one train was initially converted into the original Resort Shirakami, the Aoike train, JR East was quick to convert an additional two given the sharp rise in demand for tickets, and christened them Kumagera (くまげら) and Buna (橅), named after the flora and fauna found in the Shirakami area.

 

Now affectionately referred to as the Three Shirakami Brothers (しらかみ三兄弟Shirakami san-kyōdai), a maximum of three round trips are carried out each day, although the number of train services and the actual trains used varies depending on the maintenance schedule of the trains. While regular trains on the Gono Line all start from Higashi-Noshiro, the Resort Shirakami is geared towards tourists, with all trains starting from or ending at Akita Station (秋田駅 Akita-eki), making it easy to access from Tokyo via the Akita Shinkansen.

 

The box seats of the Resort Shirakami Buna. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

In addition, while regular Gono Line services all end at Hirosaki Station, two of the three Resort Shirakami trains go on from there to end at Aomori Station (青森駅Aomori-eki), allowing travelers to catch the Tohoku Shinkansen from Shin-Aomori Station (新青森駅Shin-Aomori-eki) for a ride back to Tokyo. With careful planning, a day trip on the Gono Line that includes a little sightseeing along the line is very feasible!

 

A miniature replica of a Hirosaki neputa on display in the Resort Shirakami. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

Although there are many sightseeing trains all around Japan, what sets the Resort Shirakami apart from the others is how culturally immersive they are, by allowing tourists to experience the culture of Akita and Aomori up close and personal. For the Akita side, during certain months of the year, namahage (なまはげ), ogres that traditionally visit homes during the New Year in search of ill-behaved children (ostensibly to bring them away) make a special appearance aboard the Resort Shirakami, giving tourists a chance to experience a little of how families in Akita celebrate the new year. Of course, over here the namahage are not looking for children, so those travelling with kids, please be assured that your children are safe!

 

The Tsugaru-jamisen performers aboard the Resort Shirakami. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

On the other hand, for the Aomori side, there are Tsugaru-jamisen (津軽三味線) performances and storytelling of local folk stories in the Tsugaru dialect, as well as traditional puppet shows, and it is a treat to hear these with the ocean as a backdrop as the train travels along the coast. Unfortunately, no English translations are provided, but it is a good chance for one to experience what the Tsugaru dialect sounds like, and how different it is from standard Japanese.

 

Try shooting hoops at Noshiro Station (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

Cultural experiences are not the only thing one gets to have when taking the Resort Shirakami, though. For those of you athletically inclined, how about trying your hand at basketball? Noshiro City (能代市Noshiro-shi) is home to one of the undisputed champions in high school basketball, Noshiro Technical High School. In fact, so unrivalled they are, they have won a grand total of 58 national competitions since 1967!  

 

Reflecting this, there are many basketball-related artworks and displays to be found around the city. This also holds true for Noshiro Station (能代駅Noshiro-eki), where a basketball hoop can be found at Platform 1. Though normally for decoration, selected Resort Shirakami trains stop at Noshiro Station for around 10 minutes, during which tourists can try their hand at basketball. There are novelties to be won for getting the ball into the hoop (and you get to try multiple times if there are few challengers that particular day). This is probably the only station in the whole of Japan where one can play basketball on the platform, so do not miss this very rare opportunity.

 

The Oraho counter within the Buna train, where one can purchase souvenirs and have a drink. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

I have had the pleasure (and good chance) to take all three of the Shirakami Brothers, and part of the allure of the Resort Shirakami series lies in the different layouts of the three trains. The Buna train, for instance, is the only one out of the three to feature a counter where one can purchase local souvenirs and even enjoy a flight or two of local sakes. With its woody interior and painted green design inspired by forests, it is also decidedly sleeker than the other two trains.

 

The Kumagera train, on the other hand, is takes inspiration from the black woodpecker it got its name from, with its deep red seat fabrics resembling the colour of the birds' heads. Not to be outdone by its siblings, the Aoike train got a cool addition just this April, with the installation of two experimental e-Motion Windows, transparent displays affixed to the windows of the viewing car that display information related to the line and tourist spots in both Akita and Aomori, all while allowing tourists to enjoy the scenic views at the same time!

 

The Three Shirakami Brothers. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

While a slow ride on the local trains plying the line is always the highlight of any rail trip, the Resort Shirakami offers such a wide variety of experiences, it is well worth the extra cost (¥540 for a reserved seat if you are not using a rail pass) to enjoy everything the train has to offer, and then some.

 

Furō-fushi Onsen

The outdoor bath of Furō-fushi Onsen. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟)

 

Just like in my other articles on Hokkaido and on winter landscapes that featured the  Kitakami Line, no travel article on Japan is complete without an onsen recommendation! There are a few along the Gono Line, such as Hatahata-Kan (ハタハタ館) right next to Akita-Shirakami Station (あきた白神駅) and Suigun no Yado (水軍の宿) near Ajigasawa Station (鯵ヶ沢駅). But the most unique out of all of them must be Koganezaki Furō-fushi Onsen (黄金崎不老不死温泉) in Fukaura Town.

 

Its baths are a unique golden-brown due to the oxidising of the iron in the water, and being situated right next to the Sea of Japan means that one can bathe with a fantastic view of the sea before them, with this view being especially dramatic in the evening when the setting sun sets the sea ablaze in shades of flame and gold. Its main claim to fame is Its outdoor bath that sits right next to the sea uncovered. A short walk away from the building, it is situated on the rocky outcrops, with seawater even entering the bath when the waves are high, making a soak here an experience like no other, almost as if the sea were the onsen. Perhaps bathing in its waters will indeed give one eternal youth and life, as its name alludes to!

 

Furō-fushi Onsen (不老ふ死温泉)
Address: 15-1 Shimokiyotaki, Henashi, Fukaura, Nishi-Tsugaru District, Aomori 038-2327
Access: 15-minutes’ walk from Henashi Station (艫作駅), or free shuttle bus from WeSPA Tsubakiyama Station (ウェスパ椿山駅)
Opening hours: 08:00–20:00 daily
Tel: +81-17-374-3500
Writer’s note: The timing given is for day use of the indoor bath. Daytime use of the outdoor bath is from 08:00–16:00 daily.

 

Gourmet eats along the Gono Line

A sampling of the delicacies of the land and sea Aomori has to offer. The dish in the bottom left corner is kaiyaki miso, a local dish of scallop and egg simmered in a miso broth. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

As with all other areas in Japan, Akita and Aomori have a wealth of treasures to be shared with all who visit in terms of food. This is exceptionally true for those who love seafood—the many coastal towns along the Gono Line are all renowned for their seafood, and the quality of the fish caught around there is top notch, meaning that all who visit the area will be treated to a feast for both the eyes and tastebuds!

 

Fukaura tuna steak rice bowl. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟)

 

When one thinks of maguro, tuna, the first place that comes to mind for most people is Ōma (大間), the northernmost point of Aomori. Indeed, Oma tuna is the most expensive brand of tuna that can be obtained in Japan, and it is well-known for its quality. Fukaura, though, is just as famous for its tuna. If anything, half of the tuna from Aomori are caught at Fukaura, making it the number one producer of tuna in the prefecture! However, its brand name pales to that of Ōma—to counter this and increase visibility for tuna from Fukaura, and to have people enjoy Fukaura tuna in a variety of ways, the people of Fukaura came up with a new local dish: Fukaura tuna steak rice bowl (深浦マグロステーキ丼Fukaura maguro sutēki-don).

 

At any of the six participating outlets, including Koganezaki Furō-fushi Onsen, ordering the rice bowl brings you a plate with vegetables, a small dish of neatly sliced tuna sashimi, two skewers of tuna sashimi, three small bowls of rice, pickles, soup, and dessert. The idea is that you first enjoy the tuna raw as a sashimi-don (刺身丼) on the first bowl of rice, topped with locally grown nagaimo (長芋), Japanese mountain yam. Of the two skewers, one is to be grilled atop the accompanying hot plate on one side and placed atop the second bowl of rice, garnished with shredded egg, and the other is to be grilled on both sides and eaten with the last bowl of rice, topped with dried and shredded tuna flakes.

 

There are strict regulations on what counts as Fukaura tuna steak rice bowl, with all eateries serving it having to abide to the wording down to the last letter (for instance, each serving of tuna sashimi must be 40 grams), so you can be assured that no matter which eatery you have it at, the experience will be consistent across all outlets. With more than 230,000 servings being sold since its debut, it has become a symbolic dish of Fukaura, and a must-try!

 

Furō-fushi Onsen (不老ふ死温泉)
Address: 15-1 Shimokiyotaki, Henashi, Fukaura, Nishi-Tsugaru District, Aomori 038-2327
Access: 15-minutes’ walk from Henashi Station (艫作駅)/free shuttle bus from WeSPA Tsubakiyama Station (ウェスパ椿山駅)
Opening hours: 10:30–14:00 daily
Tel: +81-17-374-3500
Writer’s note: The operating hours given above are for when the Fukaura tuna steak rice bowl can be ordered. There are five other outlets serving the rice bowl. For more details, click here.

 

Hon-maguro gozen ekiben

For those who are unfortunately unable to make a stop at Fukaura to have a taste of this tuna steak rice bowl, though, fret not, for there is an ekiben (駅弁) that aims to replicate that experience. Launched in 2019, the hon-maguro gozen (本まぐろ御膳), an ekiben showcasing Aomori-caught tuna in five different ways, had its creation supervised by Fukaura, so its quality is guaranteed!

 

The hon-maguro gozen ekiben. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

The ekiben features three compartments with rice, akin to the three different serving styles for the Fukaura tuna steak rice bowl, with some of the toppings the same as well. Featuring minced tuna cooked in a sweet-savoury soy sauce-based sauce, tuna cubes cooked like steak, marinated raw tuna, marinated seared tuna, as well as negitoro (ネギトロ), minced raw tuna, this ekiben, although slightly on the pricier side, is a fascinating example of just how much ekiben technology has progressed in recent years to allow raw fish to be sold as an ekiben. The fact that it looks and tastes good is a plus point. The underside of the ekiben wrapper has detailed information on the ekiben, as well as facts on tuna, so be sure to save the wrapper for further reading!

 

Kōfuku no Sushi Honpo (幸福の寿し本舗)
Address: 92-6 Yanakawa, Aburakawa, Aomori-shi, Aomori 038-0059
Access: 30-minute walk from Aburakawa Station (油川駅)
Opening hours: 08:30–17:00 weekdays
Tel: +81-17-788-2234
Writer’s note: The address given above is for the maker that makes the hon-maguro gozen ekiben. The ekiben itself can be purchased at major stations like Shin-Aomori and Morioka, as well as aboard the Resort Shirakami. It can be purchased without prior reservations on the Resort Shirakami No. 2, whereas prior reservations are needed for purchasing it aboard the Resort Shirakami No. 4, both departing from Aomori.

 

Hirame zuke-don

Some of you more well-versed in Japanese may have heard of the term kōhaku (紅白), or “Red and White”—often used nowadays to indicate two teams competing against each other, the same applies to the delicious cuisine that can be found along the Gono Line. If red refers to the tuna in the Fukaura tuna steak rice bowl mentioned above, then white is hirame (ヒラメ) or flounder, a specialty of Ajigasawa. In Ajigasawa, flounder can be caught year-round. With its firm, flavoursome flesh, flounder can be enjoyed in a variety of ways from sashimi to being simmered in soy sauce, and as meuniere, lightly pan-fried in butter and enjoyed with lemon. Just like the tuna steak rice bowl of Fukaura, though, Ajigasawa has created their own way of enjoying flounder, that of hirame zuke-don (ヒラメ漬け丼), or marinated flounder rice bowl.

 

Hirame zuke-don. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟)

 

The concept of marinated rice bowl, whereby sashimi is marinated in a soy sauce-based sauce and piled atop rice, is nothing new, and can often be found in home cooking to use up leftover sashimi before it goes bad. For the hirame zuke-don in Ajigasawa, though, freshly caught flounder is used in the preparation of the rice bowls, so you can be assured the fish you will be eating is of the best quality.

 

Unlike the Fukaura tuna steak rice bowl which is found only in eateries, there are a wide variety of shops and eateries selling the hirame zuke-don in Ajigasawa, ranging from supermarkets selling it at a very affordable one-coin price of 500 yen, to restaurants and hotels, like the aforementioned Suigun no Yado, where one can sit down and have a proper meal, complete with side dishes, pickles and miso soup. With all the eateries offering this dish adding their own spin to it, this zuke-don will hit the spot for those looking for something different from the usual rice bowls found everywhere.

 

Suigun no Yado (水軍の宿)
Address: 26-1 Shimotomita, Ajigasawa, Nishi-Tsugaru District, Aomori 038-2761
Access: 5-minute walk from Ajigasawa Station (鯵ヶ沢駅)
Opening hours: 11:00–14:00 daily
Tel: +81-17-372-6512
Writer’s note: The opening hours given above are for Noresore, the restaurant within Suigun no Yado. The hirame zuke-don here must be reserved by 12pm the day before. There are eleven other eateries and supermarkets selling the zuke-don. For more information, click here.

 

Apple products

With all that delicious fish consumed, it’s always good for a little dessert to counter the savoury taste of the rice bowls, and to end off your meal (and trip on the Gono Line) on a sweet note. Aomori is the undisputed grower of apples in Japan, producing close to 60% of all of the country’s total apple produce annually. While they can be enjoyed as is (and the crisp, sweet, juicy flesh is itself a huge treat), there are so many processed apple products that can be found in Aomori, it is worth checking a few of them out.

 

A selection of Ringowork apple products available. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟)

 

Some of you may have seen the Ringowork brand of apple juice, apple jam, and other condiments like apple vinaigrette on sale here in Singapore. They are produced in Itayanagi Town (板柳町Itayanagi-machi), a small town that is a stone’s throw away from Hirosaki, one of the larger cities in the area. At the Ringowork research facility that is part of the Furusato Centre, you can have a look at how these products are made, as well as purchase them at the souvenir shop located in the main building of the centre. There are also exhibits where you can learn about the research processes going on not just with product development, as well as on how apple varieties are developed, as well as all to do with apple farming.

 

In addition, the centre also has a small apple orchard where apple picking can be experienced, as well as various hands-on workshops where you can join them in making things ranging from cookies with the leftover apple fibre from processing the fruit, to dyeing with natural dyes made from all parts of the apple tree, and even making things from woven apple tree bark. With so many things to explore and experience at the Furusato Centre, it is definitely worth a visit to when you are in Itayanagi.

 

Itayanagi Town Furusato Centre (板柳町ふるさとセンター)
Address: 34-6 Motoizumi Fukunoda, Itayanagi, Kita-Tsugaru District, Aomori 038-3661
Access: 15-minute walk from Itayanagi Station  (板柳駅)
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00 daily
Tel: +81-17-272-1500
Writer’s note: The opening hours given above are for the main hall with the exhibits on apple farming. For the other facilities like the crafts workshop and restaurant, different operating hours apply.

 

Apple pie

Of course, when talking about sweets that involve apples, none come as quintessential as the classic apple pie, baked with cinnamon and sugar, and nowhere are the apple pies in Japan are delicious as they are in Hirosaki, one of the major apple producers in Aomori!

 

A banner on a building at Hirosaki advertising apple pies. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

So dedicated are they to promoting apple pies in Hirosaki that there is even an official guide map showcasing a list of over 40 recommended shops selling apple pie of all types, ranging from slices to mini individual pies, as well as ones baked with an entire whole apple in them. With charts showing how sweet and/or sour the pies are, as well as how strong the cinnamon is, there is guaranteed to be something for everyone’s liking.

 

The apple pie and drink set, and a view of the garden from the Taishō Roman Tea Room. (Image credit: Hirosaki Tourism and Convention Bureau)

 

While it is always nice to be able to pop into one of the shops above and purchase a few different types for breakfast the next day, there are a few cafés where one can enjoy apple pie with a drink, the most unique of them all being the Taishō Roman Tea Room (大正浪漫喫茶室Taishō Roman Kissashitsu) located in a corner of the Fujita Memorial Garden next to Hirosaki Castle. Housed in the Western building of the former Fujita Family Villa, a National Tangible Culture Asset, stepping into it feels like taking a trip back into the Taishō Era (1912–1926), with its Western-styled design and trappings, and it is a good way to spend an afternoon after exploring Hirosaki, gazing out at the garden while enjoying a slice of pie and a drink.

 

Taishō Roman Tea Room (大正浪漫喫茶室)
Address: 8-1 Kamishirogane-cho, Hirosaki, Aomori 036-8207
Access: 20-minute bus ride from JR Hirosaki Station  (JR弘前駅) (alight at the Shiyakusho-mae (市役所前) bus stop, from which it is a 3-minute walk)
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00 daily
Tel: +81-17-237-5690

 

Closing

Some of the Gonō Line-related things I have collected over the years. The wooden coaster is a prize from the basketball challenge at Noshiro Station, while the keychain was a special gift given to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Resort Shirakami, and is not for sale. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

The Gono Line has long been my favourite line ever since the first time I took it in 2013 – in fact, so impactful was that eventful first ride that it was the reason why I became a noritetsu (乗り鉄)! Though a ride on a local train on the Gono Line between Higashi-Noshiro and Hirosaki is more than four hours, there are so many things to see and do while on the line, time goes by so quickly whenever I ride it. It is definitely not the fastest way to travel between Akita and Aomori, but it more than makes up for it with its beautiful views and wide range of experiences with the Resort Shirakami. I know for sure that when international travel to Japan resumes, the Gono Line is the first line I want to ride and fall in love with all over again.

 

Access

The Gono Line can be accessed via either of its terminal stations at Higashi-Noshiro and Hirosaki. To get to Higashi-Noshiro Station, take the Akita Shinkansen to Akita (approximately 3 hours 50 minutes from Tokyo) and transfer to the Ōu Main Line to Higashi-Noshiro (approximately 45 minutes via the Limited Express Tsugaru). To get to Hirosaki Station, take the Tōhoku Shinkansen to Shin-Aomori (approximately 3 hours from Tokyo) and transfer to the Ōu Main Line to Hirosaki (approximately 30 minutes via the Limited Express Tsugaru).

 

Header image credit: おじゃぱ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

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