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1) THE SHIMOKITA PENINSULA 下北半島 – A Bridge Between Worlds

A Voyage to Aomori, Part 1 of 5

It beckoned. Cold, remote and foreboding at the edge of Japan, an axe-shaped wildnerness unknown in the English-speaking world and far from everything.

The Shimokita Peninsula (下北半島)marks the northernmost frontier of Japan proper. It was one of the final territories to be reached and incorporated into the Japanese nation (apart from Hokkaido in the north and the Ryukyu Islands in the south, which are in essence different countries, though that is another story.)

Long had I felt the call to explore these reaches. However, four years into my residence in Japan an impossible set of circumstances emerged in the face of which a retreat was the only option. Shimokita become the inevitable destination.

North, just as before – as on that voyage to that other world, Hokkaido, and those explorations of Tohoku aroundthat timeor since. But this time was different. This was a necessary flight to the fringes of this land, in search of a crossing to a very different kind of realm.

Osorezan (恐山). The so-called mountains of fear, a mysterious beacon at the centre of Shimokita. Its name is well-known throughout Japan, for Buddhist mythology has it that it is the entrance to hell, and a place through which everyone must transit after they die. Its landscape is volcanic, sulphurous, bizarre, and charged with a strange spiritual energy: a place of dread to some, of peace to others, for it seems all react to it differently. This was the place I sought, though I cannot entirely say why.

On the way I found there is more to Shimokita than its image suggests. Like most places considered remote, peripheral and empty, it seems Shimokita has long been exactly the opposite. For it guards the Tsugaru Strait (津軽海峡), a crossroads of history which has brought together people, information, cultures and goods from different lands over hundreds of years. Cold it certainly is, and out of the way to most of us it may be, but Shimokita reaches out for the worlds of the northern seas, on top of connecting those of the living and the dead, and has a beauty of its own that is one of a kind yet varied, subtle yet full of character.

Aomori Prefecture, in red, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Shimokita is its eastern Peninsula. Together with the Tsugaru Peninsula (the western one) it encloses Mutsu Bay. To their north the deep Tsugaru Strait separates Japan's main island of Honshu from Hokkaido.


It is here that we shall open this five-article series. It covers a journey that would continue on to Aomori city (bottom-left on the map above), and from there into the mountains and forests that stretch down this prefecture's centre. But let us start where that journey began: on a train that rocketed out of Tokyo one bleak end-of-summer morning. By the afternoon it had reached Aomori Prefecture, where I changed at Hachinohe then Noheji onto ever smaller trains, which finally trundled, as evening fell, up the windswept axe-handle of the Shimokita Peninsula.

Mutsu (むつ) and Mutsu (陸奥)

The sun set over Mutsu Bay, the great inlet from which emerges much of Aomori's legendary ocean cuisine. To the east rose a splendid supermoon, much heralded on the internet that week for its coinciding with a total lunar eclipse in some lands, if not this one.

At last I arrived in Mutsu (むつ). The only city in these parts, and a small one at that, Mutsu is Shimokita's socio-economic and transport hub and serves as the base for most journeys deeper into the peninsula.

Mount Kamefuse overlooks Mutsu from the west. The views over the city you will find on the internet are photographed from its observatory, the white building visible here on its summit.

It is not to be confused with Mutsu Province (陸奥国), by which most of Japan's northeast was known until the Meiji Restoration. But it was only in the Heian period, around a thousand years ago, that this area was consolidated into Japan at all. Until then, what is now Tohoku lay well outside Japan, far from its imperial centres in Kansai and considered foreign, indeed barbarous, by the Japanese people.

Before the Japanese there were the indigenous peoples: those the Japanese called Emishi (蝦夷), and the Ainu, whom the Japanese called Ezo. The relationship between these groups is a complicated matter, but that they were ethnically and culturally distinct from the Japanese is not in doubt.

The Emishi fought off the Japanese for several hundred years, quite effectively it has to be said. But but by the eleventh and twelfth centuries the northern territories, up to and including Shimokita, had been integrated into Japan, and the indigenous people had either assimilated – some by force, others by choice – or crossed the sea to Hokkaido.

By the twelfth century, Shimokita had passed into the control of the Northern Fujiwara clan, whose founder happened to be half-Emishi, and who ran a wealthy and nigh-independent northern kingdom out of Hiraizumi (now in Iwate Prefecture) until they were brought down by the Kamakura shogunate. At the direction of Kamakura the Andō clan took charge in the north; the Kakizaki clan, descendants of the Andō, would emerge around where Kawauchi village is now and would later become the Matsumae clan of Hokkaido fame. The Andō in turn were defeated by the Nanbu clan of Morioka domain (also in Iwate, now the prefectural capital), who dominated this area in the Edo period down to the Meiji Restoration (1868), and under whom what is now Mutsu city became a regional office.

All this may sound rather complicated, but what it suggests is that all these powerful clans identified significant interests in this area and were prepared to go to great pains to control it. As to why, it may be relevant that each in their turn traded extensively with the Ainu – a hugely profitable concern that got them both Ainu products and high-quality goods from the Asian mainland.

Mutsu city as we know it today consists of two settlements merged together in 1959, plus all the other towns, villages and wilderness areas that have been glued onto its administrative area much more recently. One of its two halves was and is Ōminato, a port and major naval base during Japan's imperial era. The base still exists, now controlled by the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF).

Ōminato naval base. Several warships sit there, perhaps waiting for the constitution to be changed so they could go and fight with China again or something.

The story of the eastern part, Tanabu, is a more curious one. This is the core of Mutsu city, which emerged as the regional office under the Nambu clan. But after the samurai ofAizu (now in Fukushima Prefecture) were stripped of their holdings for siding against, and losing to, the revolutionary forces in the Meiji Restoration (1868), Tanabu is where they were sent into exile. A cold and sterile land, it was thought, and a long long way from Aizu; nonetheless, some of them found it promising enough to stay on for the long term, and they and their descendants have continued to develop the area to this day.

Mutsu has now grown into this region's central hub, and in particular supports the fishing, logging, quarrying, military and energy (wind and nuclear) sectors that make up the bulk of the Shimokita economy. Today Mutsu is equipped with all the supermarkets, restaurant chains, convenience stores and so forth you can see everywhere, though visitors looking for rowdy and exciting times might not find much to entertain themselves for long.

To really explore the peninsula beyond you need a set of wheels. Public transport on Shimokita is extremely limited. A few buses per day connect Mutsu and some of the outlying villages, while most of them and the wild interior have none at all. Here I extend my gratitude to the proprietor of B&B Muu for driving me around all day and sharing his great knowledge and experience of the peninsula, and for anybody seeking a few nights' accommodation in the area I strongly recommend his cosy log-house inn – not least on account of Arashi, his hyperactive and adorably fluffy dog.

B&B Muu.

The Shimokita Coast

Few humans inhabit Shimokita's mountainous interior. Instead it is the home of such furry fellows as black bears, monkeys, and the rather unusual Japanese serow. The few human settlements are scattered along the peninsula's triangular coastline, and most of these are fishing villages, each renowned for its own respective ocean fare.

Head west out of Mutsu and you come to Kawauchi (川内), where the Kawauchi river flows down from the mountains. A road follows it up along a valley once rich in ginkgo trees, though few now remain, then winds its way through vast forests. I am informed that those along this stretch of road present some of the region's best displays of autumn colours from late October.

One of Kawauchi's oldest remaining ginkgo trees. This fellow is probably at least two or three hundred years old.
Kawauchi Dam.

The road meets the west coast a short distance south of Sai (佐井)village. This is a quintessential fishing village, nestled amidst breathtaking coastal scenery. Its most prominent catch appears to be sea urchin(uni), and it also serves as the main port for the ferry network which links the hamlets along this western coastline.

Just south of Sai is Hotokegaura (仏ヶ浦). This is a two-kilometre stretch of natural cliffs and rock formations, carved over centuries into remarkable shapes by the powerful waves of the Tsugaru Strait. The best way to view them is by boat, though strong winds kept all the vessels on shore today.

Hotokegaura (仏ヶ浦).

Hotokegaura means the “shore of the Buddhas”. The name reflects how these cliffs have engaged the imaginations of many who have looked upon them, to the point where some have claimed to see in them the faces or shapes of Buddhas. Each formation has thus acquired its own Buddhism-inspired name: '500 Arhats', 'Head of Nyorai', 'Beach of Nirvana' or suchlike.

A short trail down from a car park (with a few steep stairs) lets you wander amongst them at their base, where you will also find a small temple. Here and there stand Buddhist tablets and statues beside or beneath the formations. The place's spiritual and natural beauty together produce a tantalizing atmosphere.

Along the road above these cliffs a group of these comrades emerged. The Japanese macaquesthat live up here are apparently the northernmost wild monkeys in the world.

Head on a few more kilometres and you come to Ōma (大間). This is the northernmost point on Japan's main island of Honshu, and from its windswept cape of Ōmazaki (大間崎) you can look across the Tsugaru Straight and see Hokkaido. Indeed, on a clear day you can even make out the city of Hakodate, which connects to Ōma by ferry and with which the story of Aomori is closely intertwined.

The inscription reads kono honshūsaihokutan no chi: 'the northernmost place in Honshu'. Hokkaido can be seen in the distance.
Hakodate, in Hokkaido. More specifically Mount Hakodate; the city itself lies to the east at sea level. Compare the sunset photos at the end of my Hakodate articlewhich show this same stretch of water from the opposite direction: from atop that mountain, looking towards Shimokita.
This one reads maguro ippon tsuri no machi: 'the tuna rod-and-line fishing town'. Rod-and-line fishing is a traditional method almost exclusive to Ōma.

As the statue suggests, the other pillar of Ōma's reputation is its bluefin tuna(hon-maguro), said to be the highest quality in all Japan. The country's appetite for this fish is ravenous, notoriously so, and much of Ōma's catch supplies high-end sushi or sashimi restaurants or exclusive retailers like the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, where pieces thereof can go for literally hundreds of thousands of yen. Not surprisingly, there are now serious concerns about the sustainability of bluefin tuna fishing; the fish's populations have dramatically collapsed in recent years, and consumption is advised against by several major conservation and monitoring organizations.

Try not to do this, in other words. Though in fairness, if you've made it all the way out here you can probably be forgiven for it. This came at about 3000 yen: not cheap, but a fraction of what it would cost you somewhere like Tokyo.

These two statuses – “most northern” and production of the pinnacle of one of Japan's most popular foods – has made Ōma slightly more touristy than most of Shimokita. Visitors might well run into a few busloads of sightseers, and perhaps hear Chinese spoken. The cape has also become a quite popular setting for Japanese television dramas.

Continuing east along the coast, you come to Ōhata (大畑)about halfway along. This is another fishing port, albeit a slightly larger one. The special catch in this part of the peninsula is squid, and indeed, the nearby village of Kazamaura (風間浦) holds squid races outside its squid centre at 5pm every Saturday from July to October.

The harbour at Ōhata (大畑).

Furthest east is Higashidōri (東通), the upper end of the Shimokita axe-handle and Japan's northeastern extremity, the cape of Shiriyazaki (尻屋崎). Its winds and waves, wide-open grass fields and solitary lighthouse really do create a sense that you stand on the edge of the world.

Shiriyazaki lighthouse.
Behind the lighthouse is the end of the cape. To the left, the Tsugaru Strait. To the right begins the Pacific Ocean.
A Jizō maintains his vigil at this way to the world beyond. We will meet him again at Osorezan.
There are at least three types of bird in this picture. Can you spot the odd ones out?

The lighthouse deserves a few more words, because it hides a story of its own that belies its lonely appearance. It was in fact Japan's first electric lighthouse, and its tallest made of brick. Completed in 1876, it was one of twenty-six lighthouses in Japan built by Richard Henry Brunton, a Scottish engineer hired by the Meiji government, and employed a special lens developed by the French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel.

Perhaps a pattern begins to emerge. The Emishi migrations; the Ainu trade; the Hokkaido ferries; the European scientists. For a place imagined as the middle of nowhere, Shimokita seems remarkably connected.

It was a pattern rounded off by the Americans in somewhat typical fashion: they bombarded the lighthouse to bits in World War II and murdered its operator. For that matter their forces also took control of the Ōminato naval base during the post-war occupation, and still retain a presence at the Misawa Air Base further south, also in Aomori, though many of them fled after the March 2011 Triple Disaster. As for the lighthouse, it was repaired in the following years and stands today as a principal icon of Shiriyazaki.

So too do these magnificent fellows.

These are Shiriyazaki's famous Kandachime wild horses, known for a stout and furry hardiness that sees them through this coastline's toughest weather extremes – for this is a place of constant strong winds, changeable skies and above all remorseless winters, when Shiriyazaki is buried in snow and affords the sight of these horses looming majestically through the blizzards. They are an awesome example of endurance and strength of will, and through all that they remain the serenest of creatures, happy for you to go up to interact with them.

They also seem fond of using these to scratch themselves.

If you have made it this far out, there is some fantastic scenery to be had if you take your time and explore the coastline.

Look closely to see the rainbow.

There are other places on the peninsula worth exploring, in particular the hot springs of the Yagen Valley and the golden fields and wind farms of Mutsu-Yokohama (of which you get good views on the way up), but this should do for now as a sample of Shimokita's character. A final word here goes to this little dairy factory on the outskirts of Mutsu, with its own goats and cows, where we stopped on the way back for some of the most satisfyingly fresh ice cream and drinking yoghurt I ever remember tasting.

What then to make of Shimokita? It is certainly a long way from Japan's cores of Tokyo and Kansai, and holds more than a few surreal or perplexing environments to make you feel like you really have reached the farthest frontier. But that, perhaps, is what has made it so central in its way. A world's edge, after all, is where people cross to and from the worlds around it.

In a country notorious for its heritage of seclusion, that matters. During the Edo period, Japan had but a single recognised and heavily-regulated opening to the outside world at Nagasaki. What is less remarked upon is that Aomori, at the other end of the country, was equally a bridge to lands beyond. Above all it was the gateway to Hokkaido, which back then was just as foreign as anywhere else, and which in turn has connected Japan to the products and influences of the Asian mainland since ages gone by. It seems Shimokita, which reaches out the farthest, was very much a part of that too.

If you visit the prefectural museum in Aomori city you can watch a funny animation which tells the story of a native of Sai village. The short of it is that he got shipwrecked on one of the Kuril Islands, where he was found by a Russian expedition. He accompanied them to Irkutsk, where he ended up settling. Later on his son, by a Russian wife, would produce one of the first Russian-Japanese dictionaries – its Japanese influenced, of course, by the Shimokita dialect.

We will see more of this when we come to the story of Aomori at large. But first, there was one more place on Shimokita I had to go. Its most inscrutable boundary of all, the object of my voyage, lay surrounded by mountains at the heart of the peninsula. Osorezan, so it it said, marks a frontier with yet another different world, and a bridge which one day all of us must cross. 

Other articles in this series:
2) OSOREZAN – Mount Fear 
3) AOMORI CITY – Rassera, Rassera: The Story of the North
4) OIRASE GORGE AND LAKE TOWADA – Colourfully Lurking

This post first appeared on Chaobang's Travels, please read the originial post: here

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1) THE SHIMOKITA PENINSULA 下北半島 – A Bridge Between Worlds


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