We are entering the final third of our trip – the first third was in Okinawa Prefecture, the second third, in Hokkaido, and now we take the JR train under water, through the Seikan Tunnel from Hakodate to Aomori, entering Tohuku (Northern Honshu). This railway tunnel, under the Tsugaru Strait, is the longest and deepest in the world, at about 54 kilometers long, and a depth of 240 meters below sea level. The Japanese Government expedited the planning of the Seikan Tunnel when five ferries capsized and sunk in the Tsugaru Strait during a typhoon in 1954, killing 1430 passengers. Construction of this engineering marvel actually began in 1971, and the tunnel opened in 1988.
The time has passed by so quickly! We have had several first-time-ever experiences so far on this trip, and we look forward to getting to know another part of this lovely country that will be new to us, even though we are now on our fourth visit to Japan.
It poured overnight in Hakodate! It was still raining lightly as we had breakfast at our guesthouse, and, in between the morning soap operas, the television news showed footage from Kyushu of muddy waters rushing down already flooded streets, up to the roofs of the unfortunate mini-cars parked in the wrong places at the wrong time! The waters looked to be at least a meter deep, possibly more in places!
I tried to artfully rearrange the items on two or three of my breakfast dishes without actually eating anything on them – it was just too early for me to do the proper thing, which would be to eat the raw squid our guesthouse hostess had placed before us; honestly, it was too early for me to even manage the minimally polite thing, which would be to eat a bite or two… So instead, I just pushed them around a little bit with my chopsticks, and then ate all of the rice and nori we were served! Tali made an excuse for us, in Japanese, that we were still full from our dinner the night before…or possibly what she actually said was that the big church bell fell on our heads, so we couldn’t eat any more…I’m not totally sure myself, but Tali is positive she got it right..
In any event, a little raw squid at breakfast is certainly not enough to change my view that this guesthouse stay in Hakodate, just like the others we have had on our Japan adventure, was a wonderful and unforgettable experience – a great way to interact with real local people in their homes, instead of with hotel clerks doing their jobs efficiently and well, but without much chatting, or sharing…
We walked over, with our backpacks, to the JR Station, only about ten minutes in the light rain that was still falling, and quickly got our reserved seats on the next train to Aomori. Shortly after noon, we arrived in Aomori, where it was raining much harder, and decided to take a cab to the Richmond Hotel, rather than trudge about fifteen or twenty minutes in the rain. We were momentarily at a bit of a loss about what to do for the rest of this rainy day – up until now, we’ve had a rental car at our disposal for all but a few days of this trip, so, even if the weather was “moist,” it was still easy to hop into the car, and do some sightseeing that way. Now, relying on the train or the bus, as we do, means that there will be lots of getting wet if we decide to sightsee outdoors, despite the weather.
We decided to walk back over to the train station, as the rain had begun to lighten, to catch a bus to take us to the Aomori Art Museum, about a half hour’s ride from where we were. We stopped along the way to have lunch, and by the time we’d finished and were standing in front of the station, it was already past 2:00pm. I’d seen a small sign to “Nebuta House Warasse” right in front of the station, and instead of going to the Art Museum, we decided to follow this sign, to see where it might take us.
After a short walk from the station to the waterside, we wandered into the Nebuta House Warasse, still not knowing what to expect. To our surprise, it was a huge contemporary building, just opened in the past year, displaying five gigantic floats from the annual Aomori Nebuta Festival, which will be replaced by new ones every year. These floats are art at the highest level, encompassing drawing, painting, and sculpture in a most delightful way!
The Aomori Nebuta Festival held from August 2-7 every year, is one of Japan’s best-known fire festivals, more than 300 years old, and is famous throughout the world, attracting about 3 million visitors last year. Through the streets travel more than 80 fantastically executed floats with a brave and fierce warrior figure known as the Nebuta. Illuminating the floats from within are electric lights, which have replaced the lanterns of old, and around the float, hayashi musicians play instruments while haneto dancers perform, all the while chanting, “rasse, rasse,” filling the town with joy to celebrate the short Aomori summer.
I felt as if we had, by wonderfully good fortune, discovered the perfect place to be for the rest of the day! The floats, and the sounds on tape of the musicians and chanting dancers which played throughout the museum, were all mesmerizing, and we wandered around the floats on the main exhibition floor like kids in a candy store. What a great experience!
Our feelings about being in Aomori on a very rainy day had just gone from a bit of depression to elation, and as if to reinforce that, when we left the Nebuta House Warasse, the sun came out and quickly burned away the remaining rain clouds!