Winter blessings across the Tsugaru Strait: Hirosaki, Aomori and Hakodate
Japan is full of places that steal a piece of my heart. Despite having travelled to all 47 prefectures, I always look forward to revisiting old places in other seasons, when you can experience a different atmosphere and scenery. One thing I had never experienced before was a white Christmas, so last year I set off to do just that!
Though separated by the Tsugaru Strait (津軽海峡 Tsugaru kaikyō), the cities of Hirosaki (弘前), Aomori (青森) and Hakodate (函館) are relatively close by, have plenty of sights to see in winter, and produce delicious seafood. I had been to Aomori and Hirosaki numerous times, and Hakodate once, but never during winter. Thus last Christmas, I was very excited to see just how much snowfall there would be in some of the snowiest places in Japan, as well as to savour their tasty seafood.
Having lived in tropical countries my entire life, I am always fascinated by snow. And I know that many fellow Southeast Asia residents feel this way too. Throughout the six years that I have worked in the Japan-bound tourism industry, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is “Other than Hokkaido, where else can I see snow in December?” The answer is simple: mainland Japan’s northernmost prefecture—Aomori (青森).
One of the Tohoku region's most culturally rich cities, Hirosaki (弘前) is castle town located in the western part of Aomori prefecture, and used to be the cultural and economic capital of Tsugaru (津軽)—the old name for western Aomori.
Snow sakura at Hirosaki Park
Hirosaki Park's snow-covered sakura trees during the daytime (left) and illuminated with pink light at night (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh (left) and Hirosaki City (right)
When you mention Hirosaki, one of the images that comes to mind is sakura. The view of the 2,600 sakura trees at Hirosaki Park (弘前公園 Hirosaki kōen) is one of best in the entire country. In winter, snow accumulates on the bare branches of the 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. I tried to visit at night but there was no snow. However, I visited again the following morning and the moat was frozen, with the trees coated in fluffy white snow—magical!
Hirosaki Park (弘前公園)
Address: 1 Shimoshiroganecho, Hirosaki-shi, Aomori 036-8356
Access: Take the Dotemachi Loop bus from JR Hirosaki Station (弘前駅) to Shiyakushomae Bus Stop, and walk 5 minutes to Hirosaki Park.
Apple pie heaven
Apple juice vending machine. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Did you know? Aomori Prefecture is the top producer of apples in Japan, and within it, Hirosaki City produces the most apples. Around Aomori Prefecture, you might come across an interesting vending machine, that dispenses only apple juice—seven different kinds! 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.
Apple pie in Hirosaki (left) and apple fields in autumn (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you visit Hirosaki between early August to mid-November, you can go apple-picking, but in winter (and the rest of the year), you can enjoy these 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.
Looking at the map, I settled for a shop near my hotel. It was such a comforting feeling to be eating a slice of warm apple pie in winter, the flavour of the apples filling my mouth, with a hint of cinnamon, the flaky crust, and a side of vanilla ice cream. In addition to photos and prices, the pamphlet even ranks the sweetness, sourness, and cinnamon flavour of the apple pies, so that you can search for something that suits your preferences.
Former Hirosaki City Library. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Due to its long history, Hirosaki is rich in tradition and culture. Other than its famous castle, Hirosaki also has many western-style buildings (洋館 yōkan) that were built in the late 19th century, when the city invited missionaries to come teach English. Seeing these buildings covered in snow made me feel like I was in another country. Was this really Japan? There were even snow-covered pine trees around the building, ramping up the white Christmas atmosphere.
If time permits, I always try to stop by Aomori City (青森市 Aomori-shi), which is only a 5-minute ride from the Shin-Aomori bullet train station, and a 40-minute ride from Hirosaki. There are two things I come to make a pit stop for: a delicious bowl of nokkedon, and a handful of apple souvenirs from A-Factory.
Nokkedon at Aomori Gyosai Centre
Some of the nokkedon I've had over the years. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Nokkedon (のっけ丼) is a DIY seafood rice bowl, where 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.
Nokkedon stalls. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Tourists often associate seafood with Hokkaido, but its neighbor across the Tsugaru Strait, Aomori, is also a very rich source of fish and shellfish. 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, squid and bluefin tuna.
My favourite toppings are scallop (帆立 hotate), 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. Wasabi and soy sauce are provided, but you are free to bring in your own condiments.
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)
Apple souvenirs at A-FACTORY. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Selling everything from apple juice to apple jellies, from freshly harvested apples to apple pastries and apple-themed handicrafts, A-FACTORY is your one-stop shop for apple souvenirs. My top picks are the 100% apple juice, apple chip snacks, and locally brewed apple cidre "AOMORI CIDRE". Whenever I stop by, I always buy at least two 1.5L boxes of the apple juice to bring back to Singapore; it tastes incredible. A-Factory is only a 3-minute walk from JR Aomori Station, making it the perfect place to stop by before catching the train back.
Apple gelato in a variety of apple flavours. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you have more time, do try out the all-natural gelato. In addition to regular flavours, there are also seasonal apple flavours, which are the highlight for me. They literally tasted like blended frozen apples with an added dash of sweetness. The apple flavour is very concentrated, and you can even see bits of the apple skin.
Exterior of A-FACTORY. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Address: 1-4-2 Yanagikawa, Aomori-shi, Aomori 038-0012
Access: 3-minute walk from JR Aomori Station (青森駅)
Opening hours: 10:00–19:00 (Shopping) | 11:00–18:00 (Dining)
Located on the southern tip of Hokkaido, Hakodate (函館) was one of Japan's first port cities to open up to international trade, and has thus experienced a lot of overseas influence, as seen in some of its buildings.
View of Goryokaku Park in winter. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Nestled in the middle of Goryokaku Park (五稜郭公園 Goryōkaku kōen) is the iconic star-shaped Goryokaku Fort, one of Hakodate’s most well-known sights. When I visited, the grounds were blanketed in snow. Right beside the park is the 107m Goryokaku Tower, from which you can command a birds' eye view of the park and the fort. Coming from a tropical city, every day, everywhere I look, I am always surrounded by green trees or concrete buildings. Thus for me, the sight of buildings and roads covered in white is always enchanting! At Goryokaku Fort, colourful scenery can be seen in all four seasons: sakura in spring, lush greenery in summer, warm foliage in autumn, and beautiful white snow in winter, so I hope to be back again in a different season.
Goryokaku Tower (五稜郭タワー)
Address: 43-9 Goryokaku-cho, Hakodate-shi, Hokkaido 040-0001
Access: From JR Hakodate Station (函館駅), take the Goryokaku Tower and Trappistine shuttle bus to the Goryokaku Tower bus stop. The tower is a 1-minute walk from the bus stop.
Opening hours: 09:00–18:00
Night view at Mount Hakodate
Night view from the top of Mount Hakodate. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Mount Hakodate’s night view (函館山の夜景 Hakodate-yama no yakei) was something I had been waiting to see for a very long time. The first time I visited Hakodate back in summer 2016, I had tried to visit, but strong rain and winds resulted in the ropeway being closed. Finally, last Christmas, I was able to enjoy it. The stunning nightscape of Hakodate city from atop Mount Hakodate is so beautiful that it has been honored as one of Japan's 「Three Great Night Views」, receiving the highest three-star rating in the Michelin Green Guide Japon. Despite the chilly weather, the view did not disappoint! To top it off, it started snowing, and on the way back, I could see the fireworks being set off at Hakodate Bay.
Mount Hakodate Ropeway (函館山ロープウェイ)
Address: 19-7, Motomachi, Hakodate-shi, Hokkaido 040-0054
Access: From JR Hakodate Station (函館駅), take a bus to the Ropeway-mae bus stop. The ropeway facility is right by the bus stop.
Hakodate Christmas Fantasy
Hakodate Christmas Fantasy 2019. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Every evening from 01–25 December, a large fir Christmas tree covered with 50,000 lights is set up on a floating platform and dazzles the Hakodate Bay Area. This is the Hakodate Christmas Fantasy (函館クリスマスファンタジー Hakodate kurisimasu fantajī). Every 15 minutes or so, the illumination colours change, providing a different atmosphere. On some days fireworks are set off, and with stage performances to liven up the atmosphere. I visited on Christmas Day, and as luck would have it, it was snowing.
It started snowing. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
I had only ever seen fir trees on TV, and this was my first time seeing REAL fir trees up close. Combined with the falling snow, it was a truly beautiful white Christmas—magical and enchanting.
Kaisendon at Donburi Yokocho
A delicious bowl of seafood. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Like Aomori, being near the Tsugaru Strait means that Hakodate has abundant and delicious seafood too! Around 150m from Hakodate Station is the Hakodate Morning Market and within it, the Donburi Yokochо Market (どんぶり横丁Donburi Yokochо̄ Ichiba). Here, there are 19 shops selling various types of kaisendon (海鮮丼 seafood rice bowls). Unlike Aomori’s nokkedon, you cannot choose your toppings individually as the items are preset, with usually three to five toppings. However, since there is a huge variety and many combinations, something’s bound to catch your eye. (English Pamphlet of Donburi Yokochо̄). I went to shop #12 Michishita Shouten (道下商店) and had the Michishita Don, which had generous toppings of sea urchin, scallop, salmon roe and crab – all my favorites. There was also a side of yummy shiokara (塩辛 pickled squid guts)!
Donburi Yokocho Market (どんぶり横丁市場)
Address: 9-15 Wakamatsucho, Hakodate, Hokkaido 040-0063
Access: 1-minute walk from JR Hakodate Station (函館駅)
Opening hours: Varies with restaurant, usually 6:00–15:00
The H5 series train on the Hokkaido Shinkansen. (Image credit: JR East)
The two major cities of Aomori in Aomori Prefecture and Hakodate in Hokkaido are connected by both train (1 hour 50 minutes) and ferry (3 hours 40 minutes). As a railway enthusiast, of course I took the train. The Hokkaido Shinkansen started operating in March 2016, and I took my first ride in May 2016. Linking mainland Japan with the island of Hokkaido is the Seikan Tunnel (青函トンネル), an architectural feat that runs 240m under the seabed of the Tsugaru Strait. Its name comes from taking the first characters of Aomori (青森) and Hakodate (函館),
JR Shin-Aomori Station (新青森駅) is a 3-hour ride on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line from JR Tо̄kyо̄ Station (東京駅), and JR Shin-Hakodate Hokuto Station (新函館北斗) is another 1-hour bullet train ride on the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line from Shin-Aomori Station.
- Aomori Station: 5-minute train ride on the JR Ou Main Line from Shin-Aomori Station
- Hirosaki Station: 45-minute train ride from Shin-Aomori Station, or 40 minutes from Aomori Station on the JR Ou Main Line.
- Hakodate Station: 15-minute train ride from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto on the JR Hakodate Main Line.
JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are visiting the Aomori and Hokkaido regions, check out JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass, an affordable and flexible pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East and JR Hokkaido lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for any 6 days of your choice within a 14-day period. You can use it from Tokyo all the way until Sapporo. At only ¥26,900 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Aomori (~¥35,000) or Tokyo and Hakodate (~¥47,500), and the 6 days do not have to be consecutive.
JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
Alternatively, if you are entering from Sapporo and are keen on visiting Tohoku but will not be going to Tokyo, check out the JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass, a flexible 5-day pass. You can use it from Sapporo all the way to Fukushima in southern Tohoku. At only ¥19,750 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round-trip between Sapporo and Hirosaki (~¥30,000) and the 5 days do not have to be consecutive.
Resort Shirakami Joyful Train in winter. (Image credit: JR East)
With these passes, Joyful Trains like the Resort Shirakami are also free to ride. I took the Resort Shirakami from Hirosaki to Aomori, and the snowy scenery of white fields and Mount Iwaki was beautiful. Click here to read more on the Resort Shirakami.
Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh