Towada & Oirase Travelogue, Day 1: Lakeside Reverie
By Lillian Androphy
The first part of a two-day journey to explore the natural beauty of Lake Towada and the Oirase Gorge in the southern part of Aomori Prefecture
After arriving at Aomori Station on the airport shuttle, I had a bit of time to kill before my bus bound for Lake Towada, so I decided to take the opportunity to head over to the nearby Aomori Gyosai Center (Furukawa Market) and enjoy the famous Nokkedon “build-your-own” seafood rice bowl. Only about a five-minute walk from the station, the market was easily recognizable with its large, colorful sign.
At the information counter near the entrance, I purchased a set of ten tickets (1,500 yen including tax), the first of which I exchanged for a warm bowl of steamed rice. Then, I roamed the stalls displaying a dark blue flag, where my remaining tickets could be exchanged for nearly every possible kind of sashimi as well as miso soup and other side dishes. The salesladies were quite enthusiastic in extolling the appeals of their wares, and I found that my tickets were disappearing quickly. In fact, I had used nearly all of them when I discovered, to my dismay, that there was an entire other row of stalls also displaying the dark blue flag, with entirely different offerings. My tickets now entirely depleted, I proceeded to the dining room on the second floor to enjoy my lunch. Self-serve tea, water, and soy sauce were also available here. The fresh sashimi was delicious, although I felt like I could have easily used up another ten tickets.
Realizing that my bus’s departure was rapidly approaching, I hurried back to the station, where I had just enough time to buy a ticket and board the bus. I decided to purchase the Aomori/Hachinohe-Towada two-day “free pass,” which offers unlimited rides on all JR “Mizuumi" and “Oirases” buses for 5,800 yen. Since the round trip between Aomori Station and Lake Towada alone will normally set you back by more than that amount, I found it to be a good value.
The bus took off, first stopping at the Shin-Aomori Shinkansen station and traveling through the outskirts of the city before beginning its ascent into the foothills of the Hakkoda Mountains. Informally known as the “Hakkoda-Towada Gold Line,” this road is an incredibly scenic route, and there were a few bathrooms breaks where I was able to take pictures and breathe in the clean mountain air. The Hakkoda Mountains are known for their beautiful fall foliage. Although it was only mid-October, the leaves were already changing, much earlier than in Tokyo. The crimson of Japanese maple leaves and the yellow of beech leaves created a magnificent tapestry of color.
We passed the Hakkoda Ropeway and various onsens including Sukayu Onsen, the snowiest inhabited place on earth. The final rest stop was at Tsuta Onsen, an extremely picturesque hot-spring inn located amid rustic scenery. Just like the ascent, the descent from the mountains was marked by a series of steep switchbacks, and I was more than a little impressed by the driver’s skill in maneuvering the enormous bus through the tight turns.
Once we had made our way down the mountains, the Oirase River emerged running parallel to the road. Here, in the lower reaches of the Oirase Gorge, the river was wide and flowing with clear, pristine water. We began to climb again, and the river turned into churning white rapids and waterfalls, which I would be exploring more thoroughly tomorrow.
Finally, after almost three hours on the bus, I caught sight of something vast and blue gleaming in the sunlight beyond the trees—my first glimpse of Lake Towada. The bus followed the lakeshore for a bit before finally reaching the terminus. I dropped my luggage off at my hotel and then hurried to the boat pier to board a Lake Towada excursion boat. There are two routes, but I chose the round-trip loop course lasting about fifty minutes. The boat had three different decks, and while the heated indoor compartment looked a lot cozier, I chose to stand outside on the stern in order to get some better shots with my camera. I was happy to have brought extra layers to bundle up, as the temperature on the lake was extremely brisk. In fact, perhaps due to its size, the lake seemed to create its own weather patterns, with a faint, mist-like rain falling here that had not been present on shore.
As we set off from shore, the first thing I noticed was the stunning cliffs and rock formations that surrounded the lake, testaments to its volcanic origins. Small rocky islands with clusters of trees protruded from the water like bonsai arrangements. In the sky above, black-eared kites soared in search of prey. Together, the white and reddish cliffs, the deep blue waters of the lake, and the surrounding mountains decked in colorful fall foliage created a breathtaking vista. As the clouds moved rapidly above the lake, the light was constantly changing, transforming the scenery in new ways. Despite the chilly wind, the time on the boat passed very quickly, and before I knew it, we were heading back for shore.
After disembarking from the boat, I decided to take the lakeshore path toward two attractions located only about five minutes away: the Maiden Statue and Towada Shrine. The Maiden Statue is a sculpture of two women, known as the last work to be created by noted Japanese sculptor and poet Kotaro Takamura. The mysterious statue creates a stunning sight with the lake and mountains in the background.
Next, I followed the path away from the lake and slightly into the forest. Greeted by the whimsical expressions of guardian lion-dog statues, I found Towada Shrine, a majestic structure surrounded by cedar trees. The thick moss carpeting the ground added to the mystical atmosphere. Enveloped in the quiet of the dense forest, I could certainly believe that I was in the presence of some ancient nature deity.
Now that evening was starting to fall, I returned to my accommodations, the Hotel Towadaso, and changed into the complimentary yukata robe before heading for the onsen bath. A steaming-hot soak soothed all the exhaustion of the day, and I felt sufficiently revived to make my way to dinner in the large dining hall. After dinner, I explored the palatial hotel with its tearoom and indoor rock waterfall. There was also an area where guests could try on the flower-adorned hats worn by dancers in the Aomori Nebuta Festival. Nonetheless, I decided to make it an early night, knowing that I would need my energy to explore the Oirase Gorge tomorrow.
(To be continued in “Towada & Oirase Travelogue, Day 2”)