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For this New Years vacation, I decided to take one last great trip in Japan to the Tohoku (northeast) region, made possible through a JR bargain rail ticket but complicated by rural Japan’s infrequent local train schedules. Why would I embark on a trip to a bitingly cold part of Japan with little to offer tourists on a schedule that had me riding the trains almost as often as I was seeing the sights? I hadn’t been there before, I needed to think things over, and I wanted to see snow.
My first stop was Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region and a place devoid of museums or historical sights. A friend recommended I visit the Sendai Mediateque, an architecturally interesting building containing a few art galleries (closed for New Years), a large art library (all in Japanese) and an open exhibit of snow falling against a shadowed background. Along the street outside was the (apparently) famous Sendai Christmas illumination, which, though beautiful, would have been better with snow.
This is the Japanese ryokan hostel where I stayed in Sendai, complete with tatami floors, traditional Japanese breakfast, and flat-screen television.
This is Aomori prefecture at the northern tip of Japan, where I saw my first real snowfall. There was something remarkably peaceful about it. Last winter Yamanashi only received a few light dustings of snow, and I’d forgotten how the snow can make the landscape come alive by hiding the brown dullness of late autumn. Here you can see the Bay Bridge, an interesting landmark that connects two small pieces of land that could easily be crossed by driving around the block.
The Tyrell Corporation has also set up a branch office in Aomori city.
This is the Aomori Contemporary Art Center, an open art facility with a gallery and studios for working artists designed by Tadao Ando. The larger, half-circle portion on the left contains a gallery (free admission) filled with entrants for a recent print competition. You may remember Ando as the architect behind the Naoshima island museums I visited back in July, and I mention him again because his work has given me a new appreciation for architecture. This building, set against the snowy landscape of a northern forest, reminded me even more of a certain building from my college years.
This is the coolest izakiya I’ve ever seen. The shower scene cinches it.
The port city of Hakodate, on the northern island of Hokkaido, was one of the first Japanese cities open to Western trade, and was largely spared during World War II. As a result, many of the 19th century European-style buildings and churches still remain, including this one, the old Public Hall at the top of the hill.
For 10,000 yen, you can buy monstrous crab legs bigger than my hand. And I have big hands.
My travel pamphlet proudly boasted that the view from Mt. Hakodate at night is the greatest in the entire world. I’m hesitant to agree with such a grandiose statement, but it is pretty nice.
Hirosaki Castle in Aomori prefecture. Like most castles in Japan, the original burned down long ago, and this corner fortification is all that remains.
One of the temples of Chuson-ji in Iwate prefecture. The temple grounds were unbelievably peaceful in the freshly fallen snow, with a minimum of distraction from tourists.
Boat tour through the majestic Geibikei Gorge, also in Iwate. This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in Japan, and, astoundingly, features a rock profile eerily similar to New Hampshire’s dearly departed Old Man of the Mountain. Our tour was lead by an old man in an umbrella hat who sang us a song on the ride back.
More Geibikei Gorge.
Matsushima, my final stop, and a site the tourist information board proudly labeled “Matsushima 3 Best View!” Matsushima is a group of about two hundred-sixty tiny islands rising out of the sea near Sendai, and was a fitting place for my New Years contemplations. It’s time to return to the States to face the future with courage in the new year. No more confused wandering or obsessive deliberation. As long as you keep moving in one direction, you’ll always get somewhere.