Shimokita-Hanto 本州最北端の地~下北半島

Photos & text by Daniel Simmons

Haiku poet Matsuo Basho covered a lot of ground in his 17th century classic “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (奥の細道, Oku no Hosomichi), his paean to the sights and sounds of Japan’s Tohoku region, but he never made it this far. Even were he alive today and able to enjoy the speedier-than-ever jaunt to Aomori city via JR East’s recently-extended shinkansen line, he’d still have to brave the waves and winds of Mutsu Bay, or a roundabout route by road and rail to the east, to finally–finally!–make it to the adze-shaped Shimokita-hanto. The peninsula remains one of the most remote regions in Japan.

That it suffers from decidedly infrequent public transportation is, in a way, one of the charms of Shimokita-hanto. The place forces you to slow down, to drink in the scenery and the stillness… at least until a sudden storm sends you rushing for the nearest sheltering roof. It’s also one of the few regions in Japan where you’re almost guaranteed to see a wild animal. The peninsula plays host to growing numbers of Japanese macaques (the world’s northernmost population of monkeys) and roaming antelope-like animals called serows. Hiking along a forested slope near the village of Wakinosawa on the peninsula’s southwest coast, I spotted a solitary serow grazing among the bushes. It looked up at my approach, gave me a long quizzical look, and then sped off in a kicking flurry of hooves.

One wishes Basho had made it this far, if only to see what kind of haiku he might have penned after an afternoon at Osorezan (恐山), the peninsula’s main draw. Osorezan is one of those sacred places in Japan that everyone’s heard of but few have visited–as its name suggests (“Fear Mountain”), it’s not really a top vacation destination. Properly speaking, Osorezan isn’t a mountain but a series of low-slung hills surrounding a shimmering (and poisonous) caldera lake. The ground nearby is unstable and everywhere blistered by multi-colored pools of bubbling water and volcanic vents spewing sulfurous fumes. Where there are trees, giant ravens perch on the withered branches and taunt visitors with mocking cries. Elsewhere the only sound is the tchk-tchk-tchk of hundreds of small brightly-colored plastic toy windmills turning slowly in the wind, placed by grieving parents among the steaming rocks as offerings to Jizo, who protect and guide the souls of their prematurely dead children.

Given the unsettling surroundings, it’s perhaps no wonder that Osorezan has long been linked, in Japanese folkloric tradition, with the gateway to the Buddhist afterlife. Since time immemorial this desolate area has been considered a gathering place for departed spirits, and nowadays a festival every July offers visitors the chance to speak with the dead, via blind mediums called itako. Along the entrance road to Bodai-ji, the temple whose grounds cover most of this eerie landscape, there’s a red bridge crossing a small brook (Sanzu no kawa), which souls must cross in order to successfully enter the afterlife. For all the doom and gloom, however, the area remains spectrally beautiful and well worth the trip. Still-living visitors to Bodai-ji (admission ¥500) must do so between May 1 and October 31, after which point the snows and the spirits take over until the following spring.

Outside of Osorezan, there is a host of other, more conventionally pretty sights, including the gorgeous wave-sculpted rock formations at Hotokegaura, the hot spring-laden Yagen Valley in the rugged center of the peninsula, and the views from Cape Oma across the Tsugaru straits to Hokkaido.

How to get there: There’s no airport on the peninsula, so you’ll have to go by car, bus, train, or ferry. From Hachinohe (a few shinkansen stops south of Aomori), take the train to Noheji and transfer to the JR Ominato Line to head to Mutsu, the main population center (really, the only city of any size) on the peninsula. Two ferry options include the crossing from Kanita or Aomori City across Mutsu Bay (weather and waves permitting) to the lovely coastal village of Wakinosawa. Buses to Osorezan run from Mutsu (one-way ¥750) about six times a day; the last bus returns just before dusk.







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