From the time we stepped out of Aomori airport, Koichi kept saying “the air is so fresh and clean”, and I found myself saying “where are all the people?” and “Where are all the YOUNG people?”. There’s something exciting about leaving a city as big as Tokyo (but knowing you will return) and venturing (for a few days only) far north of the capital to Aomori and Towada. It’s certainly worth a trip if you’re ever thinking to visit the northern part of Honshu.

We arrived in Aomori on a Saturday afternoon. It’s early April and patches of snow still remain on the ground. From the airport we drove a short twenty minutes to the Aomori Museum of Art. The air is so fresh and the parking lot is so empty – less than ten cars were parked at the museum. At the front entrance, we were greeted by staff members wearing uniforms designed by Mina Perhonen and they graciously guided us to the elevators that lead to the basement level. Koichi never mentioned how amazing it would be inside. He said he didn’t want to tell me because he wanted it to be a surprise. He’s good at getting boyfriend bonus points. As we entered the 16 metre tall, 21 metre square massive room, my jaw dropped. The incredible silence within the room enhanced the whole experience, and I could go on for days describing what I saw – but maybe I shouldn’t, just in case you ever visit and then I’ve ruined the surprise. However, let me say – the emotional impact a work of art can have on a viewer is wonderful – I felt it strongly when I’ve looked at Rothko’s or Boltanski’s or Kahlo’s in Museums around the world, and again, right here, in a small city in northern Japan.

There was one work of art which I was really looking forward to seeing, and that was the giant dog sculpture by Aomori-born artist Yoshitomo Nara. A fair portion of the museum is dedicated to his work, and rightly so. He’s fabulous. What wasn’t so fabulous was that the acces door to the courtyard where his giant dog stood, was locked for the winter. A gallery staff member said they would reopen it a week later. We tried our best to get her to unlock the door for us. Koichi’s puppy dog eyes, and my story of how far I’ve travelled from Africa gained no sympathy from her. The ice-queen of the basement gallery was having none of it.

After our museum visit, we went across the road to a museum which was in complete contrast to the one we had just visited. However, with only 15 minutes to spare before closing time, the staff at the Sannai-Maruyama site were kind enough to let us in (they asked where I was from and I told them all the way from South Africa – instant access!) There’s something a little haunting about being in a place at dusk that has had a history for so long. The very area we were walking upon had been unearthed and excavated a few decades before and a vast amount of ancient Jomon artefacts were discovered. A heavily historical site now recreated to give visitors a sense of what it might have been like hundreds of years ago.

That evening, we took a walk around our hotel – we stayed in the centre of the city – close to the train station and close to the harbour. The streets were quiet and we found ourselves having dinner and sake tasting at an izakaya in the centre of the town. Just a quiet evening with the locals. On our way back to the hotel we stopped by a convenience store. It was full of people. Young people! Young people just hanging out in a convenience store and the sound system was playing a Bossa nova version of The Carpenters “Top of the world.”

We woke up early the following morning. “Top of the world” is stuck in my head, and an empty wine bottle and ice cream wrappers lie next to the bed. Koichi suggested we visit a local fish market for breakfast. Being so close to the harbour, we were able to walk less than five minutes from the hotel to one of the indoor fish markets. It was about as local as it could get – fishermen delivering fresh shellfish, families from nearby, the smell of green tea, and miso soup. For only one thousand Yen, we are given a bowl of rice and ten breakfast tickets that we could exchange for the most divine fresh fish or pickles on offer from the dozen or more stalls around the market. Two pieces of fresh salmon, three pieces of tuna – the underbelly is the most exquisite part – melts in your mouth, one scallop, a spoonful of fish eggs, miso soup, and piping hot green tea. Truly a delicious breakfast and a very memorable part of our trip.

We left the market and drove ourselves to Towada – a small town south of Aomori city. Stomach full, I slept all the way in the car. When I woke up about an hour later, we had arrived at the Towada Art Centre. Past the entrance and into the exhibition space, the impact of the first art piece I saw was overwhelming. Koichi never told me anything about it. Again, BONUS POINTS! He said he wanted it to be a surprise. If you’ve ever seen a Ron Mueck sculpture in a gallery, you’ll understand what I’m going on about. Seeing his work in real-life left me speechless. In the other exhibition spaces, works by artists such as Hans Op de Beeck, Yoko Ono, and Mariele Neudecker, impressively formed part of the permanent collection.

Our journey through Towada later lead us to a small homeware store downtown, run by a husband and wife. We discovered this little gem of a shop in a local advertisement for Japanese ceramics and other household goods. When we arrived, the owner of the store immediately asked us if we were there to see the art installation. Koichi and I were both confused by this but he quickly lead us to the back of his shop, opened up a wooden hatch in the ground and told us to be careful as we climbed backwards down the steep steps leading into a…dungeon…a torture chamber…who knew, but we went down anyway! When we reached the bottom of the steps, he turned the light on – a single warm bulb hanging in the middle of an empty bomb shelter. On the ground was a sculpted landscape of Japan that almost grew out from the concrete floor. This simple, yet incredibly evocative piece left me feeling as if we had travelled to this place for a reason.

When we returned to the surface of the shop, the owner had prepared Koichi and I a cup of hot tea and told us about the artist and creation of the work we had just seen. Around the shop, I couldn’t help but notice a few small pop-up dioramas of family photographs placed on shelves throughout the store. They were black and white images of the store more than fifty years ago with the owner as a little boy and his parents standing out front.

It starts getting late. We drive back to Aomori airport through forests and over mountains. For some reason we decided to take the scenic route. There is an extreme lack of colour. The sky is grey and it’s misty, the ground is covered in snow. The distance ahead fades into nothing. We travel along parts of the road that become almost completely invisible. No other cars were traveling on the road and it felt as if we were in a horror movie. Suddenly, Koichi and I screamed like two Japanese school girls, as what appeared to be a small fox ran in front of our car. Luckily, Koichi has excellent driving skills and the creature escaped unscathed. But I was reminded that in Japanese folklore, foxes are guardians, and for the most part they’re positively regarded. We eventually made it over that frikkin mountain and I promised to buy Koichi a glass of wine on the flight back home.

  • aomori_0010
  • aomori_0014




  • aomori_0016
  • aomori_0018
  • aomori_0019
  • aomori_0020
  • aomori_0022
  • aomori_0027
  • aomori_0036
  • aomori_0035
  • aomori_0039
  • aomori_0044
  • aomori_0046

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>