A 下北 Weekend: Tuna, Mountains, and a Pit Stop at a Hellmouth

Here comes yet another “life here rocks” post, so if you don’t like hearing about amazing food, fantastic scenery, and all around good times, stop reading now.

Even if you’d stopped reading, I’d still want you to see this.

Yet another reason to love autumn in Japan is that amazing festivals absolutely abound. This weekend, a few other ALTs and I made the long, long trek up into the Shimokita (下北) “blade” of Aomori’s axe to Oma, the northernmost point on Honshu, to indulge in some top-notch tuna. But since it takes about four hours to get to Oma from Aomori, we first stayed overnight in Mutsu (about a three hour drive) with a fellow JET to cut down on the transit time on Saturday morning. After an awesome twelve hours filled with Settlers of Catan, blueberry pancakes, chai lattes, and amazing company, our convoy set off in search of the best, most expensive tuna in the world.

Naturally, I needed a picture with a tuna head and fin.

That superlative isn’t just my Aomori-resident bias speaking; earlier this year, a tuna caught in Oma sold for $736,000 at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. And no, I didn’t accidentally tack on a few extra zeros to that price. Of course, compared to that atmosphere, Oma’s annual マグロ まつり is absolutely tiny by comparison. What it lacks in size, however, it definitely makes up for in atmosphere and (my favorite aspect about festivals) food.

Get in my belly.

Chunks of the delicious tuna can either be bought for a pre-determined price or in an auction. At first, when I saw that the pieces sliced off for the auction were being sold for around $150, I thought that price was outrageous…until I saw that small steaks that would probably serve about two to three adults were selling for about eighty dollars. The auction was definitely the way to go. As the token 外国人 present, we were lucky enough to be treated to a small free sample. We “oh my god”-ed and moaned appropriately as the fatty (in the best way) tuna melted in our mouths. When you see how much this tuna sells for, it can seem a bit ridiculous, but once you taste it, the price absolutely makes sense.

~$150 worth of tuna, and worth every dollar.

Once we had a gander at the auction, we perused the various stalls for some choice festival fare. My bottomless stomach and I have absolutely no restraint when it comes to food, so I definitely ate the most out of our little foursome. I regret nothing. Surprisingly though, my favorite incarnation of the tuna was the freshly sliced and still bloody meat with a bit of wasabi on top, without any other ingredients or preparation to distract from the tuna itself.

Monster scallops. Not tuna, of course, but I never turn down scallops. Ever.
Tuna gyoza.
Grilled tuna steak. We shared that amongst the four of us; I didn’t eat it all by myself. (But wouldn’t’ve complained if forced to.)
Tuna sashimi and rice (マグロ丼)
Tuna okonomiyaki.
Tuna festival paper lanterns

After we had our fill of tuna, we headed out to gape at some more fantastic Shimokita scenery. This was my first time venturing up into the northern expanses of the prefecture, but it definitely won’t be the last. I used to think that Towada and Hakkoda were the most beautiful places in Aomori, but after this weekend, Shimokita has definitely resoundingly stolen that title. Driving through the mountain roads’ hairpin turns in my cohort’s tiny car with rock music blaring and the sun beating down on us made me realize just how naturally gorgeous this place is. (Not that I really needed any reminding.) And when we exited the mountains to be greeted by a sweeping sapphire seascape, I couldn’t help but laugh in incredulity. (And then I hung out of the  window like a puppy thrilled to be going for a car ride, snapping picture after picture with a silly grin on my face.)

Perfect weather added to the scenery.
The mountain roads of Shimokita. Not for the meek driving adventurer.
It was easy to forget that the ocean was nearby.

We headed into Yagen Valley for some quality onsen – public bathing in hot spring baths – time. I love onsens, because the combination of the water’s heat and calming atmosphere works out every kink and sore muscle in your body. You feel so relaxed and contented afterwards. In theory, I always tell myself that I’ll have a nice, long, luxurious soak, but I usually only last about fifteen minutes before getting completely overheated and unable to breathe. Outdoor baths, like the one we went to, are a bit better, since the air circulates more, and I think I lasted longer than usual because I was entranced by the awesome autumnal view.

Yagen Valley, near the onsen we went to.

Then we made a pit stop in hell: Osorezan. One of the holiest spots in Japan, Osorezan is fabled to be the entrance into the underworld. Despite that rather sinister reputation, it’s incredibly beautiful, filled with craggy rock formations and sulfuric colors. The eight mountains that surround it form the shape of lotus petals, symbolizing the center of the Buddhist religion. (Or so my information pamphlet told me.) It’s understandable why you could think of this place as the gateway to hell: while beautiful, it’s very sparse, and with the clouds of steam escaping from underground and overall lack of lush vegetation, it doesn’t have a very welcoming air to it.

Vaguely creepy, with those posts leading nowhere.
Osorezan rocks
A hellmouth, in the flesh.
…though I find it very hard to believe that an entrance to the underworld would be this beautiful.

Once we’d had our fill of hell’s landscape, it was off to Aomori once again…but not before we stopped twice more for some dessert. First on the menu: soft ice cream. Pumpkin for me, and rape blossom (neither of us really knew what flavor that was…) for my partner in crime. And then the final course: tofu doughnuts. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the healthy tofu outweighed the frying factor…

I think it’s the most I’ve traveled within Aomori in such a small period of time since moving here. Plus, it’s funny to see my own personal reactions to things change; when I first Google-mapped our route, the projected drive time from Aomori-shi to Oma was just under four hours…for about ninety miles. And I didn’t even blink in surprise. On the roads at home, that might’ve taken an hour and forty-five minutes, tops. Gotta love those mountain roads coupled with low speed limits.

Our weekend route.

Overall, it was yet another fantastic weekend getaway, without any low points at all…but for me personally, Osorezan was the highlight. It has been a must-see ever since I moved here, for the simple reason that it’s supposed to be a “hellmouth.” My major geek obsession is Joss Whedon, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer taking the top spot. Buffy’s hometown, Sunnydale, is located over an entrance to hell, AKA a hellmouth. So living in a place with a similar gateway? Makes my wannabe-Slayer heart beat just a little bit more quickly. Add in the best tuna in the world, beautiful mountain and ocean views, and outdoor hot spring baths, and my new vocabulary word – 大満足, or “deeply contented” – applies perfectly.

On the shores of the lake by Osorezan.

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