When most people think about travelling around rural Japan, they probably imagine concocting increasingly complicated train and bus routes, rushing to catch those trains — JR Pass clutched in hand — as they run only five times a day, before collapsing into a seat as idyllic mountain scenery flies past the train window. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Often the best way to see what Japan’s rural prefectures have to offer is from behind the wheel of a car on a road trip. Instead of watching breathtaking views and hidden shrines shoot past your window never to be seen again, you can pull over and take in the unique scenery of Japan’s countryside. A nice Aomori road trip down the west coast of Aomori Prefecture, in particular, is one area that must be explored on four wheels, or at least two.
The route for an Aomori road trip is simple. The secret is knowing where to stop along the way. You only need one road: National Route 101, which runs from Aomori City along the west coast until Akita Prefecture. The first hour of the drive takes you across a vast patchwork of rice fields in the Tsugaru Plain under the ever-watchful eye of Mount Iwaki, but once you reach Ajigasawa and Fukaura the road hugs the meandering coastline to Akita. Your final destination is the Juniko Lakes close to the Akita border, which is about an hour’s drive from where Route 101 meets the coast.
With the Sea of Japan on your right and the mountains on your left, just driving straight there is a beautiful day trip in itself, but it would be a waste to not take advantage of the freedom a car offers and make a few stops along the way. You don’t want to miss any hidden gems, so here’s your comprehensive guide on where to stop for an Aomori road trip down the west coast of Aomori.
Kita-Kanegasawa’s Giant Gingko Tree: The Tree with Breasts?
About 20 minutes into the drive near Kita-Kanegasawa Station, you can find the largest Gingko tree in Japan. Thought to be over 1,000 years old, the tree is 31 m tall with an impressive circumference of 22 m. While the tree is stunning in autumn when the leaves turn a golden yellow, people also come year-round due to the bizarre stalactite-like appendages that hang down from the trunk. These are the trees many oppai, or breasts, a name given to them for their resemblance to the human equivalent. While they are just aerial roots, locals say that touching the tree’s breasts will help improve breastfeeding. It’s not often that you get the chance to touch a tree’s breast, so it’s worth a quick stop even outside of the autumn months.
Senjojiki: A Beach of 1,000 Tatami Mats
A few minutes down the road you reach Senjojiki, a 12 km long bedrock beach formed during an earthquake in 1792. The name ‘Senjojiki’ means 1,000 tatami mats and is believed to originate from an infamous party held hundreds of years ago. Legend says that the feudal lord of the area had 1,000 tatami mats laid out on the beach for a massive banquet. While you’re more likely to run into fishermen and families nowadays, it’s not hard to imagine hundreds of samurai letting loose with several cups of sake at this picturesque spot.
With unobstructed views of the Sea of Japan, Senjojiki is also considered one of the top 100 sunset spots in the country. It’s well worth stopping for a second time on your return to Aomori City to see the rocky coastline bathed in deep reds and purples as the sun sinks beyond the horizon.
Fukaura Harbour: Shrines, Rocks, and Topknots
A further 30 scenic minutes down the coast, the centre of Fukaura offers a variety of sights to enjoy, including artistically employed hair at Engaku-ji Temple, aesthetic shrines perched in the sea, and one very big rock.
As you drive into the centre of Fukaura, the more observant road tripper may spot several people walking out to a big rock in the sea. This is your cue to quickly pull over in the Family Mart parking lot that suddenly appears around the bend. This rock is Oiwa, an eloquent name that translates to ‘big rock’. A concrete path takes you across the shallows to the base of Oiwa, where a series of increasingly steep stairs lead you through the rock and over the top.
If you’re scared of heights or plummeting into the sea, it might be best to avoid looking down while you clamber to the top. However, the views are magnificent, with the calm sea before you and Fukaura harbour behind. On cloudy days, the rays of sunlight that sneak through the cloud cover seem even more magical when seen from above the sea, and during the summer months, colourful wildflowers clutch to the top of the rock face, fighting against the strong sea breeze.
Engaku-ji looks like a small, quaint temple from the outside, but it’s hiding a few unexpected hairy surprises. Established in 807, this temple has a long history that is strongly linked to the Kitamaebune shipping route in the Edo and Meiji periods. Before the shinkansen, going north from Kansai to Tohoku or Hokkaido was a considerably arduous affair that had to be done by sea. The Kitamaebune ships would often stop in Fukaura harbour, and the temple displays various wares brought along onboard.
Perhaps the oddest relics of this shipping route are several topknots attached to ema, or votive tablets. Long ago, an unfortunate ship was hit by a terrible storm. In a desperate attempt to find rescue, the people on board cut off their topknots as offerings to Kannon, the goddess of mercy, and prayed for salvation. At this moment, a light appeared before them and led them to the safety of Fukaura harbour. The light came from the branch of a cedar tree within Engaku-ji’s grounds, so they left their topknots as offerings to thank Kannon for answering their prayers.
Oddly enough, these aren’t the only hair-themed relics on display in the temple. There are also several tapestries depicting scenes from the Buddhist canon that are embroidered using human hair. It’s well worth the 400 yen entrance fee for the treasure hall to see this wide array of unique relics. Plus, you’ll also be able to brag about visiting one of the hairiest temples in Japan.
Bentenjima is your final stop right before you leave Fukaura’s town centre. Pull into the parking lot at Okazaki Sunset Observation Deck and look for the stairs down to the shore. Bentenjima is more of a rock than an island, but the shrine perched on top makes for a great snapshot. If you climb up to the shrine itself, you are rewarded with more panoramic views of the bay.
Furofushi Onsen: Never Grow Old and Never Die
A short 10-minute drive brings you to Furofushi Onsen, whose name promises some serious bang for your buck. Furofushi means ‘never grow old, never die’, which is a pretty good deal considering it only costs 600 yen. The onsen is famous for its outdoor bath, which is right on the edge of the sea. There truly is no better way to enjoy a good soak than listening to the calming sounds of the waves crashing only metres away. For the more adventurous traveller, there is a mixed bath, but there is also a female-only bath right next door.
Unfortunately, the outdoor bath is only open to day visitors until 16:00, so if you want to enjoy a sunset bath by the ocean, you’ll have to stay at the onsen’s hotel. Even if the hot spring water doesn’t deliver on its miraculous promises, the spectacular ocean views provide considerable compensation for your loss.
Juniko Lakes: Blue Ponds and Beech Forests
15 more minutes of driving brings you to the end of your Aomori road trip down the west coast of Aomori. At last, you can get out of your car and stretch your legs as you head out on a stroll around the Juniko Lakes. Various paths meander amongst the 33 lakes and ponds that are scattered throughout the area, but the most famous of these is Aoike. The cerulean blue waters are so clear that you can see all the branches lying at the bottom of the 9m-deep pond. It’s no surprise that the pond was named Aoike, which means ‘Blue Pond’.
However, Aoike isn’t the only pond that is such a mysteriously bright blue; it is merely the most famous. Follow the path through the beech forest next to Aoike, and you’ll reach Wakitsubo Pond, which is far bluer than Aoike and much less crowded.
From here, the path leads you through the woods to a small tea house opposite Ochikuchi Pond. This is the perfect place to take a break before the close of your Aomori road trip or continuing to somewhere new. Order a cup of matcha tea, sit back, and enjoy the views of the serene lake before you.
Check out STAY JAPAN to book a stay in Aomori and enjoy the same experience as Clarissa.