A few weeks ago I received an message from Kimberly. She told me that one of the teachers at her school had invited her and a few ALT friends out to Lake Towada for some sightseeing.
Of course I said yes to that! I’d never really been to Lake Towada (only driven by it) and had always wanted to go. I don’t have a car here, so I am always relying on the kindness of people with cars who go places. Plus, who would turn down an opportunity to be chauffeured around by a Japanese person in Japan?
On Saturday, April 27th, Kimberly and I walked from our houses to her school, where her teacher was waiting for us. She had also invited our friend Evan, a fellow car-less ALT, and he was waiting for us there also.
We got on the road a little after 9am. Kimberly’s co-worker/teacher didn’t speak much English, but he tried very hard. Most times he would speak in Japanese and I would understand him, but other times not at all. That’s the way it goes! He even wrote down vocabulary words on a piece of paper. It was so cute. His name was F-sensei.
F-sensei explained that he likes to do this with ALTs once or twice a year for cultural exchange. He worries that ALTs just stay in Hirosaki (or their respective towns) and never see the sights of Aomori before returning to their home countries. This made sense, because Kimberly’s predecessor had never, according to Tori, done any sightseeing. They just stayed in Hirosaki every weekend and went to their church here. It’s a shame, really, because there are a lot of things to go and see elsewhere in Aomori.
The weather that day was pretty crappy, not going to lie. The rain had stopped for a bit in the morning, but there was no sun in sight. Clouds, clouds, clouds. As we drove up to the mountain, we were actually in a cloud. We walked across a large bridge overlooking a valley below.
We drove along the now-melted snow corridor on Mt. Hakkoda. Some of the walls were half the size they had been when I did the walk and onsen excursion. And yet, still impressive. It was a shame we could not see anything because of the clouds. I didn’t feel like taking too many pictures.
After passing through Mt. Hakkoda, we went down the switchback roads to Towada. We saw some old copper mines along the way. F-sensei told us that lots and lots of miners used to live in those parts. Now, most of the people are gone. But who knew there were so many copper deposits in northern Japan?
The drive through Hachimantai park along the Oirase stream was beautiful and featured many waterfalls. It reminded me so much of the drive along the Columbia River in Oregon.
When we got to Lake Towada, F-sensei asked us if we wanted to go to the other side by car or boat. By boat it would take an hour, by car 15 minutes. Even was really keen on the boat idea, so F-sensei just got out, ran over to the boat crew, and came back. He handed us all tickets for the ferry and told us to hurry since it was leaving soon. We rushed onto the boat and then realized that F-sensei would not be joining us. He would be staying with his car and driving.
We were all kind of amazed that he would pay for all of our tickets and then wait 45 minutes for us to arrive while we had the ferry experience. We felt kind of guilty. Going on the ferry was really fun despite the weather. It was cold and the visibility was terrible, but we were still able to enjoy the cruise very much.
Towada is Japan’s 12th largest lake and Japan’s largest crater lake. It is a double caldera lake above an active volcano (the last recorded eruption was in 915 AD). Apparently the reason why it is so blue is because it is so deep!
The boat dropped us off at Yasumiya, a tourist area with a visitor center, hotels, souvenir shops, and restaurants. As we had thought, F-sensei was there waiting for us when we got off the boat. He promptly handed me his umbrella and insisted I used it, even though I had a hood to keep my head dry.
From there we went to the famous Lake Towada Maiden statue (乙女の像, constructed in 1953). There are a bunch of naked lady statues in Aomori, but I think this one is the only one to feature two women. F-sensei said that this one was made in the image of the sculptor’s mentally ill wife.
From there we saw Towada shrine, which was quite old-looking.
The woodwork on the roof was extremely detailed and intricate. I remembered from my history lessons that a lot of old temples and shrines were easily susceptible to fires back in the day. This shrine must have escaped such fires. Apparently it used to house the “Great Blue Dragon Spirit” of Lake Towada until the end of the Edo period. But now it enshrines some legendary prince.
And then, lunch!
Evan, F-sensei, and I got mountain vegetable soba noodles in hot broth (山菜そば). Kimberly got the shrimp tempura soba, also in hot broth (海老天そば). My meal was fantastic. The noodles were handmade and really dark-colored (from the high percentage of buckwheat flour used). F-sensei insisted on us getting dessert, so all three of us got zenzai, a sweet azuki bean soup.
And then he paid for it all!
We were all pretty flabbergasted that he wanted to treat us to absolutely everything. But he insisted. His response was that he only does this once or twice a year, so he could afford it. ^^;;
The rain was just not letting up, so we got right back in the car. It was a shame we couldn’t get out and walk around more. Darn weather. We drove back up into the mountains and stopped at an observatory look-out for our last albeit cloudy view of Lake Towada. I could only imagine what it would be like on a clear, sunny day.
The next stop on our tour was the sleepy town of Kosaka in Akita Prefecture. It had once been a fairly busy, populated town full of miners during the Meiji period. It experienced a boom in 1907 and was Japan’s top mine in terms of production value. Because of this, the town had cutting-edge technology like hydroelectric power generation, telephone and telegraph, public water supply and railways, etc. But now most of the young people are gone, having fled to bigger cities.
The reason why we went to this town was to see the oldest kabuki theatre in Japan. I didn’t expect much of this, honestly. From the outside, it looked like just an old building. And I had seen my fair share of old buildings. But it totally exceeded my expectations.
The theatre’s name was Kourakukan and was built in 1910 to entertain the large mining population. It has a capacity for 607 people.
F-sensei paid for us to take the tour of the theatre. The outside was distinctly Western-style, but the inside favored Japanese-styles. First, we were shown up to the second level and sat down in the upper mezzanine seating area. There was an actual play going on, so we got to watch a portion of it! The other patrons were sitting on the first floor, so we could come and go without disturbing anything. Seeing a real play was so cool! There was even a female actor among the cast. I don’t think it was a traditional kabuki show.
I could have watched for longer, but we were ushered downstairs to the basement, underneath the stage. Or as they say in the Phantom of the Opera, “the vaults of the theatre”. It was very cool down there temperature-wise. And you could see the dirt because we were pretty much underground. In Japanese, they call the basement naraku.
The theatre staff/tour guide showed us the mechanism called the suppon (trap lift) used to pull people up on stage from below. This was used for ghosts and such characters who needed to appear suddenly.
Lastly, we saw underneath the mawari butai (revolving stage). It was this huge revolving THING that makes part of the stage spin. It’s totally man-powered and really impressive. Entirely made of wood and metal. All the pictures I took of it were pretty much a waste because of the poor lighting down there. Oh well!
To me, the theatre tour was a major highlight of our trip. I think everyone really enjoyed it. We couldn’t see the dressing rooms because they were in use for the show, but we saw pictures and there were hundreds of old signatures from actors who had been there over the years.
It was getting late in the afternoon when we headed back to Hirosaki. We went through Owani, on roads that I was definitely familiar with. But then F-sensei started to go a different way. I thought to myself… “Why are we going this way? this isn’t a short-cut. Why is he going the long way?”
Well, it turned out that he was taking us to his house for cake! His wife was waiting there for us with apple roll-cake. We met his wife, talked for a little while, and then he gave us all signed copies of his two published books. I can’t read them, but it was a really nice gesture. Those things weren’t cheap.
At his house, I saw the most amazing example of generational technology ever. I didn’t even know they MADE these…
After that, F-sensei was extremely nice and drove us all to our respective homes.
The day turned out to be really awesome, all thanks to F-sensei, our generous tour guide. I saw and learned so much!