A strange part of Japan, where you can experience the magic and mystery of the ancient Itako shamans. A unique landscape, a valley with a lifeless lake with eerie acidic turquoise water. Smelly sulphur streams sand fumaroles remind you of the entrance into hell. Its magnificent Zen Buddhist Temple welcomes you and its hot springs can regenerate your strength. A place where the spirits of the dead go to another dimension.
The Hakkoda mountains hiking area is really easy to reach from Aomori. A bus leaves in the morning from a stop beside the train station (check in the tourist information for the time) and it is free for Japanese Rail Pass holders. Once into the mountains the bus stops at a tea house/gift shop for a comfort break. Outside there is a row of taps dispensing warm spring water. A sign claims that if you drink 1 cup you will live 3 years longer, 2 cups and you will live 6 years longer and 3 cups will ensure you live until you die.
We got off the bus a the Sukayu Onsen stop. The start of the path is around the next hair-pin bend and on the opposite side from the large car park. Initially we climbed through forest, at 2.2 km we arrived at an open river valley filled with sulfurous fumes. Our noses were soon assaulted by the acidic gasses that linger here so we quickly moved on. After another half an hour we arrived at a saddle. Here there is a mountain hut and a spring with enamel cups on a chain. This is a great spot to take a refreshment break before beginning the final ascent to the summit. From here there are plenty of volcanic features (cones, craters and a mysterious pond) to spot as you make your way to the top. There is a small white stone shrine just before the true summit. The path continues over the summit and zig-zags down to another mountain hut. Should an unexpected eruption occur you will find all the necessary emergency supplies in the hut. At this point the path splits and it is possible to climb up Ido-dake and then descend using the Hakkoda ropeway. We took the direct path back to Sukayu Onsen. Initially this is steep and rocky but it soon flattens out to an incredible high altitude marsh land. This is the Kenashi-tai marshes and truly a unique environment. The path is now a raised wooden walk way with occasional platforms with benches and information boards. When we were there the air was filled with a myriad of dragonflies, big and small, red, green, blue or brown. From the marshes it is around another 2 km back to the Onsen.
It was now time for the high point of the day. The onsen has a bath known as "Senjin Buro”, the bath of a thousand bathers which is a massive mixed sex bath of 248 meters square. Plus it is the oldest timber building in the Hakkoda area. Slip off your clothes, balance your tiny towel on your head and slip back in time as you relax in the steam filled beech wood baths. After 680m of ascent and descent, you've earned it.
In August, the cities of Tohoku compete to put on the largest/brightest/loudest/weirdest festivals to attract visitors and ensure a bountiful rice harvest. Aomori specializes in giant lanterns depicting mythical characters that are pushed around on carts and floated on the sea.
If you are in Aomori with an hour to spare visit the festival museum. Here you can see prize winning floats from previous years. The workmanship is impressive and you will definitely want to return for the festival itself.
Aomori is in my top 10 of possible retirement destinations. Beside the sea, with good hiking nearby, famous for apple production and just in case you get bored you can go to a restaurant and catch your own scallops with stick and some string.