Japan by Motorcycle

Day 10

August 7, 1999

"Stonehenge" and The Nebuta Festival

Aomori Prefecture

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    One thing about riding the night ferry is that you are forced to get an early start on the day.  I was on my motorcycle in Aomori by 6:00 in the morning.  Unfortunately I had had a restless sleep due to the cramped conditions on the ferry.  And, anyway, it's hard to get comfortable on a floor, carpeted or not.
    I knew the big fireworks for the last day of the Nebuta Festival would be that evening so I took the opportunity provided by our early arrival to scout out and reserve a vantage point for myself.  I eventually found the waterfront viewing area and since I was only one person, I found a place on a small mound in which I could leave a small ground cloth in between spots already reserved for larger parties.
    That being done, I set off to take a look around Aomori Prefecture.  I started by heading towards Sukayu Onsen and Lake Towada.  According to the guidebook, Sukayu was one of the few remaining mixed-sex hot spring baths left in the country.  All of the baths were mixed at one time until "progress" in the form of western ideas came to teach the native people of Japan "modesty" and "morals."  Sukayu was also the sulphur-water type of bath, the kind I had skipped in Noboribetsu the day before.  So perhaps I would get a chance to bathe in rotten-egg-smelling water after all.
    In contrast to my last day in Hokkaido, the day was beautiful and it was a great ride up the mountainous roads to Sukayu Onsen.  I found the place easy enough.  It was really quite large with room for busses full of pensioners to park.  This was clearly a hot destination for the 70 and up crowd.  But I was ready for a bath in any case and I wasn't worried about feeling out of place.  I was pretty much used to it by now.
    In turned out that even Sukayu had given way to modern mores and had set aside an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening for women only.  The rest of the time was "mixed."  I arrived during the women's morning hour and had to wait about 20 minutes before guys were allowed in.  I walked around a little bit.  The place was a large wooden structure filled with tatami-mat rooms for overnight guests.  There must have been capacity for a few hundred people.  Being constructed in the standard Japanese way, I'm sure the place must be extremely cold in the winter.  After my short tour, I finished waiting in the lobby where I bought a Coke and watched TV along with other people who seemed to be waiting as well.
    Myself and several other waiting guys were first into the men's changing room when our time came and we were first in the bath.  There were a few women still in the baths until they were suddenly confronted with a bunch of naked men coming down the steps into the baths and most of them quickly skitted out into their changing area.  However there were indeed, a few women who had no qualms about staying behind in a mixed bathing environment, however all these women were at least 70.  I made a mental note to make sure that the next time I came, I made sure to coincide my trip with a visit from an all-girls college if at all possible.
    In any case, the place was quite large and there were several baths including one where you could sit underneath small waterfalls.  The water temperature ranged from hot to very hot, definitely not for the faint of heart.  In the large baths, men and women were expected to stay on separate sides according to signs marking the gender zones.  Aside from the signs, the place looked like it had been there for ages with everything built out of rough-hewn wooden beams and planks.  And unlike most onsen which had an area where one can wash-up properly, this one had none.  The only fresh water was provided by spigots on the side where you could fill up a bucket and rinse yourself off with cold water.  Oops.  I had sort of planned on at least being able to wash the smelly water off though I understand you're really not supposed to.  You don't want to lose the health effects of the water and its minerals.
    I did rinse off with the cold water as best I could and left with a rosy glow to my cheeks and a less-than-rosy smell to my body.  Lake TowadaI rode on to Lake Towada, another large caldera lake formed by ancient volcanic action same as the various lakes in Hokkaido.  It was a nice day but there was already too much haze to take any decent pictures.  I circumvented over halfway around the lake on the curvy road and headed for Oyu.
    I found the nearby Oyu artifacts, which they call Japan's "Stonehenge" because they are laid Oyu Stone ArtifactsOyu Stone Artifactsout in a circle and it's not clear by who or why they were built.  However, these stones were small enough for any one person to carry and were not quite as impressive.  The nearby museum displaying ancient pottery, however, was interesting.  And just the concept of people living 4000 years ago having lived and made these exquisite items right there was mind-bending.
    In order to get back to Aomori more quickly, I hopped on the freeway but I still had time so I made a stop in Hirosaki to take a look at Hirosaki Castle.  Hirosaki Castle MoatHirosaki CastleMost of the castle structures were long gone except one building which still dated from centuries ago.  Nevertheless it was not particularly impressive as Japanese castles go.  However, the castle park was nice and I took the opportunity to get out of the hot sun and take a siesta to help make up for my lack of sleep the night before.
    I couldn't dally any longer and I braved a traffic jam to head back into the city.  I made it into the city and found a place to park before nightfall.  Nebuta Festival FloatI had time to take a look at the famous lighted floats which are particular only to this festival.  Nebuta Festival MaidensI had been warned about the "huge" crowds by various people I had talked to about going to this festival but the crowds were certainly no worse than any typical Tokyo fireworks event.  Much better, in fact.  Soon it was becoming time for the show and I endeavored to get some food at the stalls before I went to find the place I had staked out.
    Somehow I found my spot though it was a little harder to find with the tons of people there now.  I ate some yakisoba and other standard festival fare before setting up my tripod and getting ready to attempt to photograph the action.  After I took a few sunset shots, the fireworks started.  They were stupendous as practically all Japanese fireworks are.  (There's almost no point to seeing fireworks in the U.S.)  Just when you think it was the finale, they start lobbing more fireworks up in the air like there's no tomorrow.  Unlike other fireworks I had seen, the lighted floats were paraded up and down the waterfront and looked to be underneath the fireworks.  I was too far back to get a good view of the floats but I imagine the VIP seats must have afforded a fabulous view.

Nebuta Festival Fireworks

Nebuta Festival Crowd

Aomori Sunset

Aomori Waterfront

Aomori Sunset

Start of Fireworks


Fireworks o' Plenty

Heart-Shaped Fireworks

Still More Fireworks

    Eventually, the finale really came and it was over.  I packed up my ground cloth and made my way back to my bike.  I managed to work my way out of the city which really wasn't all that big but it took a while due to the festival traffic.  Finally I was on the open road and headed up into the mountains back towards Sukayu Onsen.  There were a couple of camp areas on that road that I had noticed earlier.  I found one of them around 10PM and proceeded to set up camp in the dark.  There were a few other campers but not many.  I had already eaten at the festival so all I had to do was set up my little tent and change into the clothes I use for sleeping.  The night was once again mild with a clear, starry sky overhead -- really nice.  I felt vindication over my aching butt.  This is what made it all worthwhile.  My butt didn't really agree but it wasn't calling the shots.  I wrote in my diary for bit but I was fading fast.  I shut off my head lamp and was soon fast asleep.


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Just The Stats

Day 10



Place Weather
Start: 47010 6:30 Ferry Pier, Aomori Sunny/Hot
Finish: 47300 22:00 Hokkoda Camping Area, Aomori Pref. Clear/Warm
Totals: 290km 15 hrs


Gas: 700 Food: 2,600
Highway Fees: 1,000 Campground:
Onsen: 500  

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Created: Feb 22, 2001
Last Updated: Mar 22, 2001

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