Cut off by the Ou Mountains to the south and far removed from any center of power, Aomori Prefecture’s remote Tsugaru Peninsula was largely left to its own devices until the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603).
In the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), different factions of the Tsugaru clan swore allegiance to either side to ensure the clan’s survival. Clan-head Tsugaru Nobuhira, who sided with Tokugawa Ieyasu, went on to marry Ieyasu’s niece Mate-hime. Centuries later, the Tsugaru clan backed the imperial government in the Boshin War, securing its peerage in the ensuing Meiji Era (1868-1912). This blend of geographic destiny and opportunistic leadership has allowed Tsugaru to develop distinctive folk arts, customs and characteristics through the centuries. To this day, the Tsugaru dialect has a reputation for being impenetrable even to people from other parts of Aomori.
During World War II, throughout which Tsugaru enjoyed relative peace and quiet, Oyama Publishing Company commissioned a special volume in its New Fudoki travel series on the region, and hired native son Osamu Dazai to deliver it. Best known in the West for his later novels, “The Setting Sun” (1947) and “No Longer Human” (1948), Dazai based his travelogue on just over three weeks in the area in 1944, and includes a visit to his hometown of Kanagi on the dinky Tsugaru Railway Line. Translated by James Westerhoven and released in English as “Return to Tsugaru: Travels of a Purple Tramp” in 1985, the book portrays Tsugaru in a frank way, meditates upon its history, and swells with a fondness for its people.
Fleeing summer in Tokyo, I’d come to Tsugaru lured simply by cooler climes. The peninsula as a whole can be further subdivided into smaller, geographically and culturally distinct areas, but for my first trip to the region I’d stick to the center of the Tsugaru Plain along the Iwaki River valley. My journey started in the regional capital of Hirosaki, where I spent a day touring the old buildings that stand as a testament to the Tsugaru clan and the area’s fortuitous history. At Choshoji Temple, I saw the tomb of Mate-hime, who secured Tsugaru’s prosperity when she married Nobuhira. At Hirosaki Castle, I climbed the keep and craned my neck to view Aomori Prefecture’s tallest peak, Mount Iwaki, but it was wreathed in white clouds. At the former To-o Gijuku Missionary Residence, I glimpsed the life of Christian proselytizers in the Meiji Era. As interesting as they were, these monuments to the past told me little of Tsugaru’s real character, and so the next day I headed deeper into the peninsula.
Of Goshogawara, a small city 25 kilometers north of Hirosaki, Dazai writes, it “does not have the feel of a rural town, but is tinged with that frightful loneliness characteristic of big cities.”
I found this description to hold true as I walked west from the station past more than one derelict building towering over wide and empty streets. Dazai was visiting his aunt when he wrote about Goshogawara in “Return to Tsugaru,” but I’d stopped by to view the city’s unique nebuta floats.
The origins of Aomori’s nebuta, alternatively called neputa depending on which city you’re in, have been lost somewhere in the gap between legend and reality, though the tradition has enjoyed a renaissance over the past several decades. Each year in early August, these huge paper lantern floats depicting warriors in battle are paraded around town to the accompaniment of flutes and drums. For the rest of the year, most nebuta towns display their floats in a dedicated museum. Each nebuta festival has its own distinct style, and Goshogawara’s is all about size. These 33-meter-tall, 19-ton tachineputa (standing neputa) dwarfed everything I’d yet seen in Tsugaru.
The Tachineputa Museum’s elevator carried me up to the sixth floor, where I found myself at eye level with the paper giants. From here, I followed the winding, open walkway back down to ground level. Each position on the path revealed some new detail of the massive tachineputa, or told a new story as minor figures on the floats twisted and sneered at each other or the viewers passing by. I was sorry to have missed the festival, where I could’ve seen these goliaths on the march, but grateful I could take the time to study them up close.
After the museum I went back to the station to catch the infrequent Tsugaru Railway Line, which would take me deeper still into the heart of Honshu’s northwestern corner. The Tsugaru Plain unfurled in sheets of green as the single train car chugged dutifully north. The wind washed over the rice paddies in waves and wind-bells suspended from the ceiling of the train car tinkled softly. Outside the window, the slopes of Mount Iwaki, the Tsugaru Fuji, rose up into a bank of clouds that was shot though with rays of sunlight. The passengers were an even mix of indifferent locals and motley tourists, and I disembarked with the latter at Kanagi Station. From there we followed the street signs to Dazai’s birthplace and boyhood home.
The son of a wealthy political family, Dazai had the uncommon luxury of an expansive, stately home constructed in 1907. With the windows thrown open and clear summer air wafting through the house, I was happy to while away some time wandering from room to room and imagining life here in prewar Japan. As Dazai has such venerated cult status in the Japanese cannon, I saw more than a few students on the Dazai pilgrimage taking selfies around the house while posing with copies of a cherished paperback.
Across the street I caught a performance of Tsugaru shamisen at Kanagi’s small museum dedicated to the famous folk instrument, which is modified from the Okinawan shamisen far to the south. The style of play is unique, marked by hypnotic, looping melodies at turns marshaling and sorrowful. Around the corner at Shin-Zashiki, the residence where Dazai fled at the end of the war, I saw the place where Dazai sat by the window and wrote some of his best work. Small though Kanagi’s sites may be, they seemed inversely proportionate to the town’s far-flung location.
Turning back south, I arrived at Mawarizekiotame Pond in the late afternoon eager to cross Tsurunomai Bridge and explore the Fujimiko Park on the pond’s western bank. Though traditional in appearance, Japan’s longest wooden bridge was built in 1994 for purposes more symbolic than utilitarian. More impressive is the man-made pond itself, dug as a reservoir for the surrounding croplands by Tsugaru Nobumasa in 1660. A smattering of other vacationers and local couples strolled back and forth across the bridge and through the forested park dotted with jungle gyms and modern sculpture. Through it all, Mount Iwaki’s peak stayed hidden from view, though I had time to examine the lower slopes that Dazai likened to “an ancient court dress folded open slightly, the symmetry of the folds exactly preserved.” As daylight faded I returned, spent and gritty, to my ryokan (inn) on the northern side of the bridge.
After a bath I sat by the window and watched the reflection of the bridge on the water’s surface. The sun had already set, and soon the mountain’s lower slopes receded into darkness, and then the pond turned black save the lights of the bridge mirrored there. At dinner with the other lodgers I had a chance to admire Tsugaru lacquerware, distinctively speckled through a tedious layering process that takes months to complete. Upon returning to my room, I spread out over the tatami with my copy of “The Setting Sun” and listened to the crickets singing from the darkness.
The pond and I were both calm the next morning, though the mountain was stubborn in revealing anything more than the folds of its court dress. Sitting on the bridge, I felt the breeze and listened to the water lap against the wooden pillars. In a country so abundant in coastline and rivers, such a lacustrine setting was a welcome diversion. I kept looking to Mount Iwaki hoping for an unobstructed view of the mountain when I finally admired the view that I had. So long bothered by the mountain’s veil, I now saw the clouds above and bridge below as elements of a unified scene, a natural frame not unlike those often evoked in ukiyo-e like Katsushika Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” There were so many ways of looking at a mountain, and if I returned to Tsugaru a thousand times I might never see them all.
How to get there: The fastest route to Tsugaru is to take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Shin-Aomori Station and transfer to the Ou Main Line for Hirosaki. However, a more scenic option is to take the Akita Shinkansen Komachi to Akita Station and transfer to the coastal Gono Line, which passes through Goshogawara on the way to Hirosaki.