Local Japan: At Home in Aomori
I love the countryside of Aomori. In spring the smell of fresh air after a rainfall, the blooming trees that cover everything in a beautiul green and the scent of the flourishing flowers. In winter the ability to have a wide sight through the trees, the snow that covers everything with a white blanket and the warmth of the people’s hearts during the cold time. Coming from Berlin, I always considered myself to be a big-city-girl, but since I arrived in this rural area of Nothern Japan, I realized that I was wrong.
Three years ago, in 2014, I did my first trip to Japan. It was a two-week-long voluntary service on the countryside of the Shimane prefecture. I didn’t speak any Japanese, but that couldn’t keep me away from falling in love with the country and it’s people.
At that time, there was a dream born inside of me. I wanted to go to Japan for one year to do a voluntary service, preferably on the countryside. Of course I have been to Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo – since these are the must-see places when coming to Japan – but somehow, the countryside left a greater impact.
I applied for the one-year voluntary program twice. The first time, they didn’t have any place for me to go, since I really wanted to live in a rural area. But when I sent in my application for the second time, they finally had a place to offer. It was said to be on the countryside of Northern Japan, near the city of Aomori, where it’s supposed to snow like hell. Before I arrived here, I had a lot of people telling me different stuff – mostly negative. The people tend to be grumpy and shy; their japanese is hard to understand, since they speak too fast; there are tons of snow up until the end of March, so it’s going to be freaking cold and I wouldn’t be able to meet a lot of young people or go party. Little did they know, I would grow to love this place more than any other place in Japan that I’ve been to.
And that is how I got here. I was supposed to live with a buddhist priest on his temple ground, but just a few weeks later I realized, my supervisor was more of a business man than an actual buddhist. He has a huge piece of land with two houses and the temple. In one house, he lives by himself – since his family lives in the South of Japan – and in the other house I have my private space. He is a huge fan of Germany and the western culture in general, which is why my house is made out of wood and completely western-styled furnished. The only “japanese” thing here are the sliding doors and windows.
In the beginning, it was the end of September 2016, I was overflown with emotions. The weather was still good, but I had a lot of trouble leaving the house. I live in a very small town named Kominato Hiranai-machi, which is about 35 minutes by train from Aomori city. Whenever I would go outside, people would stare at me, since they are not used to see foreigners around here. As it got colder and colder, I had a reason to stay inside and even though I wanted to get to know the people, I still felt uncomfortable most of the time. It was like being the new toy presented on a golden plate in front of everyone.
One thing that I appreciated from the very beginning though was the beautiful scenery this place had to offer. With the few houses around, on every single day you have a stunning view on the mountains, the sky and the all-in-all nature.
In October, my supervisor introduced me to the only other foreigner living in Kominato. She is an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) from America and we started accompanying each other, since we both felt left alone. With her help, I was able to get in touch with other foreigners. With one of them I became friends and we went on a party trip to Aomori city together. That night I met my first two japanese friends – that I am still friends with until this day.
From that time on, I started to leave the house more. Even though it just got colder and colder, I went out partying regularly in Aomori city. It was completely different from partying in Berlin, Germany – which is a great place to have a blast. The thing about Aomori city was that once I decided to stay later than 22:30 – I had to spent the whole night there. It was always fun and as time went by, I got to know a lot of people. Some of them I call my friends now. (Sidenote: all of them japanese. The more my japanese skills improved, the less I felt the need to only hang out with foreigners who didn’t seem to like me that much anyways.)
In December, I did a trip to a place called Nagawa, near Sannohe. It is still in the prefecture of Aomori, but closer to the city of Hachinohe. My supervisor took me there to pick up apples from an apple farm. The prefecture of Aomori is famous for apples all over Japan, but since japanese fruits are breed to perfection and only the best ones sell, an apple farmer has a lot of apples left to sell to people who don’t care about the looks. We bought 4kg of apples which all had little marks here and there – but in my opinion, they were just as perfect as the other ones. And delicious, of course. (haha!)
That trip to the apple farm changed my feelings towards everything completely. Beforehand I felt like I was in the wrong spot, but from that point on, all things started to slowly fall in place. I completely fell in love with the scenery of the apple farm. The apple trees with the beauty of the mountains rising at the horizon and the amazing sky that is so wide and clear. I wanted to see more of Aomori, so I went on various day-trips around the region. Later on, I explored Hachinohe and walked 10km next to the sea. Also, I went to Misawa from time to time – which to me is not the most comforting place, because since there is a militairy air base in Misawa, a lot of american army people live there. Regularly I visited Asamushi, which is very close to my home town Kominato and it’s also a famous onsen resort. The onsen there are all-natural onsen and I tested all of them one by one. I highly recommend paying a visit when you are in the prefecture of Aomori. The most famous place in the prefecture might be Hirosaki city, though. Until now, I have been there three times and loved it a lot. Hirosaki is famous for having the smallest castle in all over Japan, but with a huge garden full of sakura trees. Just before Golden Week the bloom of the sakura trees revealed a fascinating view and I have heard a lot of japanese people saying that Hirosaki is considered the most beautiful place to do Hanami in Japan. Which is probably why during Golden Week so many people paid a visit! (haha)
After more than 7 months of living here, I have adjusted quite well to the standards. One thing that highly bothered me in the beginning was the washing machine situation. If you don’t own a rather expensive washing machine, your clothes will be washed with only cold water – all the time. I end up washing my underwear and socks twice in a row, because otherwise they don’t get clean. I still wonder how japanese people keep their clothes so clean.
What I really like and dislike at the same time is the clothing situation. In other parts of Japan it might be very important to be fashionable, however on the countryside the most important thing is that your clothing is practical. People still tend to judge me from time to time for wearing a shirt that’s “too tight”, but since they have gotten used to the foreigner being a little different on the outside, it’s accepted. I realized how much my thinking patterns are influenced by the people around me during Golden Week, when I went to Hirosaki. There I saw a busty blonde foreigner thinking “Why can’t she show some more respect to the culture and at least cover up her cleavage?”, even though I’ve never been a judgemental person. As time goes by, you just really start adjusting to the people around you and understand their thoughts.
There is a lot more to tell about Aomori prefecture, but for now, I would just like to wrap things up and explain why these months of staying here made me want to live here. Sadly at the moment, I will be unable to stay here for more than one year due to my visa, but I plan to come back to Japan and move to the Tohoku region. The people are shy, but nice. Once you get to know them and they open up to you, they are very heartwarming and loyal – and not grumpy at all. It’s true that “Tsugaru-ben”, the dialect that people use here, is very fast and almost impossible to understand. Not only for foreigners, I have met japanese people who moved here and still have problems understanding from time to time. Most of the people will take the time to speak slower japanese with you though, and let’s be honest – humans can adjust to everything. Yes, the winter is long, cold and full of snow – but beautiful. I had to shovel snow every morning during the winter time, but it is a scenery you will never forget. Of course you grow to get bugged by it, but if you don’t shovel away your snow – nobody will. It had become part of my daily routine so much that now, in May, where it’s finally getting warm, I kind of miss the amounts of snow that piled up over night just to greet me in the morning.
I travelled a lot already and have been to various places all over Japan, but this right here is my most favourite one. In February I went on a 10-day-trip to Hiroshima for a volunteer meet-up and all I could think of was how much I wanted to go back to the rural, quiet and calming countryside of Aomori. My friends weren’t able to understand that, but it’s the truth. I love being here and if it was my decision, I would neither leave this place in the next few years nor for another spot in Japan.
Author: Eva Johanna Bauer