Thawing out on the stove train through Tsugaru

by Dan Asenlund

Contributing Writer

In his 1944 semi-autobiographical “Return to Tsugaru,” Japanese author Osamu Dazai (1909-48) revisits his native Tsugaru, a peninsula in northernmost Aomori Prefecture and, apart from praising its people, has mostly unflattering things to say about the place. Forty years later, British writer Alan Booth followed in his footsteps, walking the entire peninsula to the mouth of the then recently finished Seikan Tunnel that connects Honshu and Hokkaido. Booth’s observations largely echo those of Dazai.

On own my journey to Tsugaru, I decide to take the train, as it is still freezing in late March and also because the train sets itself apart in two curious ways: first, it has a coal stove used to thaw frozen passengers; and second, you can grill squid on that same stove. Need I mention the sake to wash it down? In other words, it sounds like the perfect place to get acquainted with a genuine Tsugarian or two.

I make my way on local lines to the city of Goshogawara, where the diesel-powered stove train is ready to depart for Nakazato, a distance of roughly 20 kilometers. As I step onto the platform, I feel as if I’ve been teleported to prewar Japan and before boarding the rustic train, a woman greets me, followed by a conductor with a thick Tsugaru accent. They have a certain aura about them, and I begin to understand what Dazai and Booth were talking about.

This being a weekday afternoon, I fear that I might be the only passenger. But when I step inside, I see two people seated around the stove at the front end of the car and more gathered at a second stove in the back. I sit down near the front and soon find myself in conversation with 75-year-old Aragaki.

With his excellent complexion and sprightly demeanor, Aragaki tells me that he is an avid horse jumper and used to be an international judge, having first come across the sport at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. An ardent globe-trotter, this is his first time in Aomori. The purpose of his trip? The stove train, of course.

“Wonderful, isn’t it? I came all the way from Tokyo for this,” he tells me as the conductor shovels fresh coal into the stove and lights it. “Now, let’s order some surume.”

Surume is locally caught squid and a must on the stove train. It goes extremely well with the local sake and, as the conductor — a multitasker, it seems — places the squid precisely on the grill, a young woman sitting opposite Aragaki orders a bottle of the brew.

I look up and see the woman, sake bottle in hand, smiling at me. She pours us a drink and we raise our glasses to toast Aomori. The woman, 33-year-old Aki Senoo, tells me she is here for Dazai. More specifically, the museum dedicated to his life in Kanagi, his hometown.

“I’m actually going with my friend, but she’s driving. When I heard about this train I knew I had to ride it, no matter what.”

Senoo downs her last shot as the train approaches Kanagi, where Aragaki also disembarks. As the train departs again, I look out the window and spot him waving goodbye.

The car now empty, I chat with Miki Abe, who greeted me when I boarded. She works as a guide on the train and tells me that passengers hail from across the world. In operation since 1930, the train has taken on different rituals over the years, the current ones dating back to 1983. In days gone by, surume was not always grilled, and a bottle of sake, necessary for the grim winters, cost just ¥10.

This particular winter, however, has been rather mild and, as the train turns back from Nakazato, two elderly men who have just boarded look out the window and discuss the weather. Snow, surprisingly, is largely absent.

“Soon Hokkaido will become famous for apples,” one of them says. “Yes,” muses the other, “and Aomori for mikan oranges!”

They laugh as they pour each other, and then me, more sake. Meanwhile, Abe points out sights in the distance as the train completes its 90-minute round-trip. As I depart, I thank her and the conductor — whose accent I’ve still not understood a word of —before resuming my quest to meet bona fide Tsugarians.

Exiting the remote Kizukuri Station, where trains depart every two hours, a looming figure occupies my peripheries. There, above me, built into the wall of the station is a giant clay statue, a shakōki dogū, with what looks like giant goggles and an extraterrestrial appearance. It’s an enlarged replica of a figurine dating back to the Jomon Period (10,000-200 B.C.) that “ancient alien” theorists claim is proof of visitors from civilizations light-years away.

To find my answer, I don’t have to travel nearly as far, as the Aomori Prefectural Museum houses the “real thing” (which also turns out to be a replica, the original being in storage in the Tokyo National Museum). Attendant Nakaba Kaimori is happy to shed light on the figurine’s unique appearance.

“It certainly looks like it’s wearing goggles, but I think they are just very big eyes — like all-seeing gods,” Kaimori says, also attributing the ornate outfit to this theory. “I think it’s a creation of the Jomon people’s imagination.”

Whatever the answer, there is no escaping the fact that Aomori Prefecture is a cluster of mysticism. It houses strange pyramids, stone circles and even the grave of Jesus Christ! (According to this theory, it was Christ’s brother Isukiri who was crucified, while Christ escaped to Japan, had a family and died at 106.)

From the museum, I travel an hour by bus to Mount Hakkoda, home to the juhyō “snow monsters.” I alight at the foot of the Hakkoda Ropeway and quickly find myself sandwiched between a troop of snowboarders in a cable car ascending the 1,324-meter Mount Tamoyachi, one of several peaks in the Hakkoda Range.

If winter was found wanting along the railway, there is no threat that the apple orchards of Hakkoda might be substituted for more exotic fruit. The layer of snow is massive and, as the cable car reaches halfway, the snow monsters start appearing below. Formed as wind and fog blow against the trees, creating a jagged coating of rime, the sight is eerie and somewhat extraterrestrial. Out of all the sights in Japan I’ve visited with exaggerated monikers, this one lives up to its name.

After a few hours trekking through heavy snow and enjoying the views of the city of Aomori and its imposing bay, it is time to defrost my body in nearby Sukayu Onsen and its famed Senninburo, or “1,000-person bath.” It’s one of Japan’s few remaining konyōku onsen, where men and women bathe together in the nude. Estimates say there are only a few hundred left and this one stands out among them for its massive Meiji-style indoor bath built in timber.

I hesitate before entering my first konyōku, but I take the plunge and find myself surrounded with people of all ages and both sexes. Suddenly the words of Dazai echo in my mind: “Tsugaru … is Honshu’s North Pole.”

He is speaking geographically, but I believe that the city’s remoteness has created a unique situation where foreignness isn’t an oddity, but the norm. I smile at another bather, who smiles back and nods. There, stripped of clothing and preconceptions, we are all Tsugarians.

The stove train runs three times daily between December and March from Goshogawara Station, an hour from Aomori Station on the Ou Line. Kizukuri Station is a six-minute ride on the Gono Line from Goshogawara. The Hakkoda Ropeway is open year-round and a round-trip ticket is ¥1,850.