I nearly walk by Aomori’s Furukawa market on the first pass, expecting something akin to the cacophony of Tokyo’s central wholesale fish market (known casually to most as Tsukiji). Sliding open the door to the squat building, however, I am assaulted with the not unwelcome scent of fresh seafood, an encouraging sign that I am in the right place. The ticket booth just inside the door is one more reassurance that this city on the tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu still serves up to visitors the freshest fish market-to-table breakfast in the country.
In truth, we’re arriving closer to the lunch hour but, thankfully, Aomori’s market doesn’t discriminate against late comers. A staff member accepts our proffered cash and passes back a book of tickets, while explaining the market’s nokkedon system.
Unlike Tsukiji, where you either eat in the outer market or you gird up your bargaining loins for a chat with the buyers, Furukawa makes the process practically painless. One booklet (for ¥1,080) nets the diner 10 tickets. A single ticket is used to score a bowl of rice, the base for your breakfast, or brunch in our case. The remaining tickets are used to purchase portions of sashimi or even a few grilled options, all of which top the bowl of rice, becoming a DIY donburi.
I fend off my food cravings until I have perused at least two of the market aisles. Thick slices of tuna sit next to little dewy orange balls of ikura (salmon roe). Creamy sea urchin and massive helpings of homemade egg omelet add a sunny spot of color to the fish mongers’ freezers. Portions available to purchase with nokkedon tickets are laid out in individual aluminum trays; it’s perfectly acceptable to spend all of your tickets on one specific food. I personally decline to disappoint my taste buds and my bowl is soon full of a rainbow of foods.
“Some nebutazuke for your bowl?” a friendly vendor gestures to a tiny clump of pickled vegetables, fish innards and a hints of kombu (kelp). “It’s a local specialty,” she encourages when I hesitate, not entirely convinced by the slightly unappetizing pile. In the end, I settle for another Aomori offering, a skewer of grilled scallops. The fishmonger at the next stall busily shucks another box of the shellfish, fresh off the boat from nearby Mutsu Bay.
With a full stomach, I amble a few blocks along the surprisingly quiet streets. Aomori is not known as a top-rate tourist destination, but the map I’ve grabbed from the city tourist office seems to indicate that there is enough in this small downtown district to occupy me for at least a day. Determined to put that theory to the test, I keep my eyes peeled for my next activity. On the edge of the bay, just north of Aomori Station, I can’t ignore the red slats of the Wa Rasse building, whose whale-like ribs house a sparkling new exhibition of the city’s famous Nebuta Festival, held annually from Aug. 1 to 7.
Wa Rasse is a play on words, incorporating part of the festival chant “rasse rasse rasse ra!” with the Japanese word for harmony. While the festival itself claims a history of at least four centuries, the striking Wa Rasse museum opened just in 2011. I pay my entrance fee and spend some time in the exhibition’s opening tunnel, poring over the photos documenting the festival in years past. Sadly, not much is listed in any language other than Japanese, but the rest of the displays need no introduction. From the end of the tunnel, a viewing platform gives the first impressive glimpse of the full-sized Nebuta floats.
Seen from above, the initial sight is admittedly a tad terrifying. The emotion is appropriate, as one of the float’s purported uses was to scare enemies in battle. Consisting of metal frames wrapped in heavy washi paper and sporting the countenances of demons and equally fearsome samurai, these larger-than-life lanterns are designed to strike dread into the average heart. For maximum effect, the museum’s main hall remains darkened at all times. Candles and naked bulbs within the float’s wire skeleton provide an ethereal glow to the scene.
At least five of the previous year’s floats are displayed in the museum, along with smaller examples and a wall of massive masks. I lose track of time wandering among the photogenic floats and taking advantage of the hands-on corners, where visitors can take a peek at what’s behind the painted facade. If you time it right, live performances of some of the festival music are carried out on weekends and holidays.
Just across from the entrance to Wa Rasse, a hand-lettered sign for hotate (scallops) catches my eye. Never feeling sated when it comes to this particular seafood, I leap at the chance to “catch my own,” an all-you-can-eat opportunity the Hotategoya shop offers for only ¥500. The record appears to be 13 scallops in the allotted three minutes, and I imagine myself suited up in gloves, raking through seawater for hidden hotate.
Inside, the tank sporting my favorite mollusk sits nearly half empty. The waitress hands me a flimsy fishing rod with a three-pronged hook and wishes me luck in securing myself some supper from their imitation sea. As she counts down my start time, I’m already mentally salivating over my surely significant catch.
Well within the first 30 seconds, it’s clear I have underestimated my scallop-wrangling skills. I manage to snag one sole clamshell while failing spectacularly for the remainder of the time to budge any more of the bivalves from the bottom of the tank. Whether out of charity or the fact that I actually rated a guaranteed number of morsels in the price, the waitress kindly contributes another shell to my basket before whisking them both away to be grilled.
Slightly chagrined, I sit and sip my tea until my meager dinner is delivered to my table. At the first taste of the tender meat, all shame is forgotten, thoroughly replaced by sheer delight. I try to pace myself but a half dozen bites later, my hard-won catch is already digesting.
Still hungry but wanting to exit with dignity intact, I pay my bill and amble a few blocks over to the main shopping street. One of the brochures I’ve grabbed lists several nearby locales at which I can enjoy a bit of shamisen music. I pick the closest, the oddly named Ringobako (Apple Box) and — with stomach still insisting upon sustenance — select a seat in the spacious izakaya (pub).
While the plethora of smoking salarymen almost motivates me to call it quits, the parade of food that comes out of the kitchen convinces me to stay. I tick off the regional specialties of fried garlic with miso dipping sauce and (yes, more) scallops cooked with egg and green onions, before digging into a spicy shabu-shabu pork salad and an offering of perfectly seasoned chicken wings.
At seven o’clock on the dot, a kimono-clad woman takes her place between the two glaring Neputa demons that bookend the stage and strikes the bachi (pick) hard against her massive three-stringed Tsugaru shamisen. A short verbal introduction leads to a slightly melancholic but driving tune that has much of the audience tapping their feet under their wooden apple crate seats.
I let the music roll over me as I dig into the finale of my meal, a frozen apple, cored and stuffed with apple sherbet, that still manages to maintain its perfect shape. The cold tanginess of the dessert on my tongue is an assault on my senses, much like the accompanying shamisen music and the vibrant visual stimulation of the illuminated Nebuta characters seen earlier in the day. Clearly, you cannot experience Aomori passively. I’ve barely ventured past the train station and yet the city has served up enough more than enough to sate my senses.
Shin-Aomori is the last stop on the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo; trains run from Shin-Aomori to JR Aomori Station twice an hour. All of the sites mentioned in the article are within a five- to 10-minute walk from Aomori Station. Nokkedon are available until 4 p.m. every day but Tuesday. Entrance to the Wa Rasse museum costs ¥600. Ringo Bako holds daily shamisen performances by a rotating cast of musicians at 12:45 p.m. and 7 p.m. For even more on Aomori, read next week’s special Aomori travel page, which will explore the prefecture’s traditional architecture, crafts and new apple products.