The pioneer Joyful Train: Resort Shirakami
Do you enjoy travelling by rail? In Japan, my favourite method of travelling is without a doubt by train. Not the high-speed, high-tech shinkansen that we are all familiar with, but more so the local trains deep in the countryside – like the Resort Shirakami in northern Tōhoku (東北). Being able to eat local ekiben (駅弁 lunch boxes) onboard while staring at the beautiful scenery passing by, this train journey itself is a trip on its own!
The Resort Shirakami in different seasons. (Image credit: JR East)
Not just a means of transportation, the Resort Shirakami was the highlight of some of my trips – they were part of my travel itinerary like how a theme park or a castle would be. And with contrasting seasonal scenery to see in different times of the year, there is always something makes me want to come back to ride it again. Spring, summer, autumn and winter, the seasons in Tohoku can be felt very distinctly, and visiting the same place in different seasons can provide a very different experience.
Eating ekiben on the train. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
To date, I have ridden about 25 of such themed trains all around Japan. Known as “Joyful Trains”, some of them feature exquisite interior designs (wood is my favourite!); while some offer delicious food made with local ingredients, either sold as a package or as ekiben.
Enjoying the scenery from the Resort Shirakami. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Others have incredible sightseeing spots along the way – either trains slow down for you to take photos from the window, or you can get off at the station to get a closer look, or there are buses to bring you to the place of interest. Some trains also arrange fun activities onboard or at the stations – kudos to the volunteers and staff!
Who knew all of these could be enjoyed from a train?! The Resort Shirakami offers ALL of these, making it a top pick for both beginners and experienced veterans alike. Being the Joyful Train that started it all, the Resort Shirakami remains one of the most-ridden and most-beloved of all time. This pioneer Joyful Train certainly lives up to its name of being a resort train for the Shirakami area, combining design, food, beautiful nature, and a plethora of activities. There is something for everyone:
Hop off and go sightseeing
The Resort Shirakami shuttles along a very scenic coastal route between JR Akita Station (秋田駅) and JR Aomori Station (青森駅). On most days, there are three Resort Shirakami trains running in each direction. Some people take one train for the entire journey from Akita → Aomori (or reverse). But instead of just going from one end to the other, you can also make stops in between, go sightseeing for a while, and continue the journey on the next train. Here are some of my favourite stops along the route:
Blue waters of Aoike. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Surrounded by a beech forest, Aoike is a beautiful blue pond near JR Jūniko Station (十二湖駅). This is where one of the Resort Shirakami trains got its name from, and is definitely a must-see at least once. The minerals in the water make the pond appear a bright blue, and is just stunning to look at. There is also an elevated platform for you to get a better birds’ eye view. Just be careful after rainy weather, I slipped and badly sprained my ankle here.
From Juniko Station, take a 15-minute bus ride to Aoike Bus Terminal (青池バスターミナル), then walk 600m to Aoike. The path is relatively wide and flat, and can accommodate wheelchairs. However, do note that the viewing platform has steps. The buses complement the Resort Shirakami timings, so no worries about long waits. The bus terminal also sells light snacks and souvenirs, and has seats for resting.
Example itinerary with timings below:
8:20–10:26 | Akita → Juniko 「Resort Shirakami 1」
10:40–10:55 | Juniko → Aoike Bus Terminal (Bus, ¥360)
11:00–12:30 | Walk around Aoike
12:30–12:45 | Aoike Bus Terminal → Juniko (Bus, ¥360)
13:06–15:49 | Juniko → Hirosaki 「Resort Shirakami 3」
Koganezaki Furofushi Onsen (黄金崎不老ふ死温泉)
Furofushi Onsen. (Image credit: 青森県)
You can also opt to stop somewhere to stay overnight, and continue your trip the next day. One example of such a stop is the JR WeSpa Tsubakiyama Station (ウェスパ椿山駅). If you stop here, I recommend taking a soak in the Koganezaki Furōfushi Onsen (黄金崎不老ふ死温泉), an open-air onsen by the seashore offering fantastic panoramas of the ocean! "Furofushi" means to never age and never die, so who knows, taking a dip here might boost your health and longevity! The vast view of the sea is also incredible.
Koganezaki Furōfushi Onsen (黄金崎不老ふ死温泉)
Address: 15 Shimokiyotaki, Henashi, Fukaura-machi, Aomori 038-2327
Access: Shuttle bus from JR WeSpa Tsubakiyama Station
Opening hours for day trip visitors:
Kogane no yu (黄金の湯): 08:00–20:00
Furofushi no yu (不老ふ死の湯): 10:30–14:00
Outdoor seaside bath (海辺の露天風呂): 08:00–16:00
Admission fee: ¥600
Hirosaki City (弘前市)
Hirosaki's Apple Park and delicious apple pie. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Another stop I highly recommend making is at Hirosaki Station (弘前駅). Aomori Prefecture is the top producer of apples in Japan, and within it, Hirosaki City produces the most apples. Why not try your hand at apple-picking if you are visiting between September to November? Hirosaki Apple Park (弘前りんご公園 Hirosaki ringo kōen) has over 65 varieties of apples, and offers a stunning backdrop of Mount Iwaki in the distance.
During other times of the year, you can enjoy these delicious fruits in a different way – apple pies! There are dozens of stores selling freshly baked apple pies in Hirosaki, so much that the local tourism office even made an apple pie guide map pamphlet. To find out more about the story of Hirosaki and apples, check out the movie Kiseki no Ringo (奇跡のリンゴ Miracle Apples), based on the tale of one farmer’s quest to cultivate chemical-free apples in Hirosaki.
Hirosaki Apple Park (弘前市りんご公園)
Address: 125 Terasawa, Shimizutomita, Hirosaki-shi, Aomori 036-8262
Access: Take the Tamenobu bus (ためのぶ号) from JR Hirosaki Station (¥200). (Bus only operates from April to November)
Opening hours: Apple-picking is available from 09:00–16:00 (August until mid-November)
Fee: ¥200 per kilogram of apples picked
Top: Hirosaki Castle Park’s Western Moat during the day and at night. Bottom: View of Hirosaki Castle with the cherry blossoms and Mount Iwaki, and the cherry blossom carpet. (Image credits: JR East / Carissa Loh (top), Hirosaki City / JNTO (bottom).
Hirosaki is also famous for the sakura (桜 cherry blossom) at Hirosaki Castle Park (弘前公園 Hirosaki kōen), and is one of the Top Three Spots in Japan to view the pretty pink blossoms. Techniques taken from apple cultivation have been adapted to grow denser and more beautiful cherry blossom trees.
The park offers varying views during the day time and at night, so come at both times if you can. A famous sight is that of the cherry blossom carpet (花筏 hana ikada), which happens when the petals fall off and accumulate on the still waters of the moat, forming a pink carpet. Cherry blossoms here bloom around late April to mid-May, and a festival is also held during this period.
Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival (弘前さくらまつり)
Address: 1 Shimoshiroganecho, Hirosaki-shi, Aomori 036-8356
Access: Take the Dotemachi Loop bus from JR Hirosaki Station to Shiyakushomae Bus Stop and walk 5 minutes to Hirosaki Park.
Food Stall Hours: 09:00–21:00
Night Illumination: 18:30–22:00
Hirosaki Park's winter sakura light up. (Image credit: Hirosaki City)
If you can't visit during spring, how about coming during winter, where you can see the Winter Sakura Light Up (冬に咲くさくらライトアップ fuyu ni saku sakura raito appu)? Aomori has some of the highest snowfall in Japan, and during winter snow accumulates on the bare branches of the sakura trees and on the moat below. Every night in December to February, the trees are illuminated with pink light, making them look like sakura is blooming.
Enjoying the ride
En route, the Resort Shirakami makes stops at various stations, some at which you can get off for mini activities and events that the staff organiser just for Resort Shirakami passengers.
Noshiro Station (能代駅)
Basketball shooting and cedar wood craft sales at Noshiro Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
On some morning trains, the Resort Shirakami stops at JR Noshiro Station for around 10 minutes, where you can try your hand at basketball on the platform! Noshiro is famous for its basketball prowess, with Noshiro Technical High School winning the Japan National Championships over 50 times, and being the inspiration for the high school in the famous Japanese manga series Slam Dunk. Shoot the ball into the hoop to get special prizes like Resort Shirakami coasters or postcards made from cedar wood. Akita is famous for cedar wood, and you might also spot some local vendors selling cedar wood crafts on the platform.
Senjojiki Station (千畳敷駅)
The sea at Senjojiki Station. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)
During the daytime, most of the trains will stop at JR Senjōjiki Station for 15 minutes, where you can cross the road and get up close to the sea. Look out for the tasty grilled squid (焼きイカ yaki ika) sold at the local shop! Be sure to hurry though, as it is limited. If you are not one of the first few, you can forget about having a taste.
I have been to Senjojiki four times, but only managed to get the squid twice. Don’t worry about missing the train back – about 3 minutes before departure, the train will let out a loud whistle, signaling that it is time to make your way back.
Shamisen performance on board the train. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)
Depending on train, there are various onboard performances such as shamisen (三味線 traditional Japanese string instrument), storytelling in the local Tsugaru dialect, and puppet shows. I enjoyed the shamisen performance most, as there is a segment where the audience can join in.
The Resort Shirakami runs on the JR Gonō Line (五能線), winding around the Shirakami-Sanchi (白神山地) UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in Akita Prefecture and Aomori Prefecture, where you can find primeval beech trees (BUNA・橅), rare animals like the black woodpecker (KUMAGERA・くまげら), and stunning lakes and ponds like AOIKE・青池. You guessed it – it is from Shirakami-Sanchi that the three Resort Shirakami trains got their names!
Resort Shirakami Buna Train. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Buna means "beech tree", and is the newest train, having been refurbished in 2016. Its green exterior is meant to symbolize nature and trees, and runs on a hybrid electric/diesel engine. The interior design features a lot of wood from local areas that the train passes through (Akita is famous for cedar), as well bright and warm colors like yellow, orange and pink.
The Resort Shirakami Buna's sales counter. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The Buna is also the only train with an on-board sales counter 「Oraho」, which sells souvenirs, bentō (弁当 lunch boxes) made with local ingredients, local craft beers and sake, as well as local handicrafts. Opposite the counter are window-facing bar seats which face the sea.If you can only ride just one of the Resort Shirakami trains, I recommend this one! There is also free wifi available on board.
Resort Shirakami Aoike Train. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Aoike means "blue pond", and is also the name of a beautiful sightseeing spot in the Shirakami-Sanchi area which I introduced earlier. This train was last upgraded in 2010, and features a hybrid electric/diesel engine. The interior color scheme is a cool grey with vermillion accents.
Resort Shirakami Kumagera Train. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Kumagera means "black woodpecker", a species endemic to the Shirakami-Sanchi area. This is the oldest train, last upgraded in 2006. Meant to resemble a warm sunset, its exterior is coated with yellow and orange. The Kumagera's interior features deep scarlet seats, like the bird which it is named after.
Seats and views
Scenery from the Resort Shirakami. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh (left) and Akio Kobori (right))
All three trains run along the same route, just that the vehicles are different. All Resort Shirakami trains are made up of four cars. Three cars feature regular two by two seats with spacious leg room. If you can, get a window seat on the ocean side (seat “A” for regular seats). The windows are large and wide, offering fantastic views of the stunning blue ocean and rice fields.
Special compartment box seats on the Resort Shirakami. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
There is also one car per train with compartment box seats offering great views of the ocean. Some of these compartment box seats even have a special feature: the seats can be extended to create a fully flat resting space, where you can sit cross-legged or even lie down! This is a unique experience for a train, and definitely made my journey more relaxing.
The Resort Shirakami train is reserved seating only (even for rail pass holders), so be sure to make your train reservations in advance. For online seat reservations, the type of seat (regular or box) cannot be specified. However, in-person at JR ticketing counters, you can request box seats (subject to availability) at no extra charge.
Extended stay at Aomori or Akita
If you are riding the Resort Shirakami, chances are that you will start or end your trip at Aomori City (青森市), one of my favourite places in Tohoku. I highly recommend staying a day or two at this charming city to explore its delicious seafood and taking a side trip to explore the beautiful nature in the nearby National Parks.
Oirase Keiryu in summer, autumn and winter. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Oirase Keiryū (奥入瀬渓流 ) is an extremely picturesque mountain stream flowing out of Lake Towada (十和田湖 Towadako), near the border of Aomori and Akita. The best sights to enjoy are its renowned yellow foliage during autumn (late October–early November), and fresh verdant greenery in early summer (May–June). However, winter also offers magical snow sceneries, when everything is frozen or blanketed in white.
Oirase Keiryu is a 2-hour bus ride from JR Aomori Station. JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) holders can ride the bus for free. For a detailed account of hiking at Oirase Keiryu in summer and autumn, check out my other article here. If you'd prefer to be enchanted by Oirase Keiryu's splendid winter scenery, check out my winter trip here.
Creating my nokkedon! (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Surrounded on three sides by the Sea of Japan, Tsugaru Strait and Pacific Ocean, the variety and quality of seafood from Aomori is very highly ranked. In particular, Aomori is a top producer for scallop (帆立 hotate), squid (イカ ika) and bluefin tuna (本マグロ hon-maguro). Enjoy the fresh seafood with nokkedon (のっけ丼), a DIY seafood rice bowl for which you can choose the toppings you want.
First, you purchase coupons from the main entrance (¥1,500 for 10 coupons, or ¥750 for five). Next, you get your rice for one or two coupons (regular or large serving), then you go around the seafood market’s 30 stalls to exchange the remaining coupons for various toppings of your desire. There are different fish available in different seasons, so I always enjoy coming here no matter the time of year. My favourite nokkedon toppings are scallop, salmon roe (いくら ikura) and sea urchin (ウニ uni). As expected, Aomori’s scallops were big and juicy! Other than raw fish, there are also a few stalls with grilled/fried seafood, vegetables and homemade tamagoyaki.
Aomori Gyosai Center (青森魚菜センター)
Address: 1-11-16 Furukawa, Aomori-shi, Aomori 030-0862
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Aomori Station
Opening hours: 07:00–15:00 (Closed on Tuesdays)
Kakunodate Samurai Residences, Akita Dogs and Kiritanpo. (Image credit: 秋田県観光連盟)
If you are not coming from/going to Aomori, then you might be coming from/going to Akita. Akita is well-known for Akita Inu (秋田犬) dogs, a large and loyal breed of dog. Perhaps the most famous Akita Inu is Hachiko (ハチ公), of which a statue has been erected in Shibuya Station. For local food, try kiritanpo (きりたんぽ), pounded rice cakes made into a soup with meat. Tohoku's distinct seasons can also be experienced all over Akita, from cherry blossoms and autumn colours at Kakunodate Samurai Residences, to snowy scenery in winter.
A trip on the Resort Shirakami (Buna)
The Resort Shirakami certainly lives up to its name of being a resort train for the Shirakami area, combining design, local food, beautiful nature and a plethora of fun activities along the trip. Click here for more information on this pioneer Joyful Train.
The Resort Shirakami can be accessed from JR Shin-Aomori (新青森駅) and JR Akita (秋田駅) shinkansen stations. Shin-Aomori is 3 hours 10 minutes by bullet train from Tokyo on the Tohoku Shinkansen. Akita is 3 hours 40 minutes by bullet train from Tokyo on the Akita Shinkansen. All seats on the Resort Shirakami require reservations, which can be made online up to one month before your departure here.
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are thinking of visiting the Tohoku region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable and flexible pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for any 5 days of your choice within a 14-day period. At only ¥19,350 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Aomori (~¥35,000) or Tokyo and Akita (~¥36,000), and the 5 days do not have to be consecutive. The Resort Shirakami and other Joyful Trains can also be ridden for free with the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area).
Other Joyful Trains (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Other than the stunning scenery, Joyful Trains like the Resort Shirakami offer a myriad of unique local experiences such as food and special events. The next time you visit Japan, why not try a riding a Joyful Train to experience more of the local regions' unique charms? Check out the Toreiyu Tsubasa, a footbath bullet train; the FruiTea Fukushima, a travelling café train; or the POKÉMON with YOU Train, a must-try for Pikachu fans! Click here for information on JR East's Joyful Trains.
Header image credit: JR East