Cafe Des Gitanes – There’s Good Coffee in Aomori

Aomori is a great city, but it has no guesthouses that I was able to find. So when I went to Aomori from my awesome guesthouse in Sendai, it was a bit too sudden of a shift from very social to staying alone at a hotel in a small city. Little did I know that there was good coffee to be had in Aomori, and it’s just a few minutes from Aomori Station. Sadly, as my luck would have it, I found it on my last day in the city so I was only able to try one.

It's also a surprising amount of time for a third wave shop to be open in Japan.

Seeing the quality of the roast was the first thing to impress me.

Cafe Des Gitanes is a good looking place, it’s apparently been there for almost 10 years and has a pretty good following. The style is certainly that of your third wave cafes but also ever so slightly apes Italian cafes, though not to any detrimental degree. I didn’t go for the espresso, sorry if you were drinking something and spat it all over your computer, and the reasoning is a bit judgmental on my part. Cafe Des Gitanes uses almost the same setup I had in New York, a good “prosumer” home espresso machine and a Rancilio Rocky. Anyone who says that setup can’t make great espresso deserves a swift punch from me, but it also doesn’t seem to be this cafe’s focus and is a bit unfair to judge when I only had one chance to try some coffee. Of course you’re free to make your own decisions but in the right hands a “prosumer” machine and Rancilio Rocky can be far better than a La Marzocco and a Mazzer in the wrong hands.

I really tried to avoid blur, I really did T_T

Been drinking coffee consistently for about 12 years, come from an Italian American family, but this is the first time I ate a biscotti with coffee.

So we fall back on my second staple, Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. It’s becoming quite common that I’m using African coffees, especially Ethiopia as a sort of second standard, I’m not sure if it’s because it’s kind of an average level of difficulty to extract or because I’m just biased. My cup was perfectly extracted, 10/10 and all the wonderful fruity flavor notes were really prominent. The location of the cafe makes it both great and horrible for me to recommend. If you will ever find yourself in Aomori City, even for only an hour or so, I would highly recommend going there. However the nature of Tohoku and lack of other great cafes means that coffee geeks might rarely find themselves that way. It’s a shining beacon of deliciousness in a wasteland of Dotours and Mister Donuts.

And you guys should be proud, hopefully it can get even better.

Goryokaku – The End of an Era

Goryokaku is a five pointed, star-shaped fort built in the Bakumatsu era of Japan. This being the time of the rapid westernization of Japanese politics and culture, the fort is similar to one you would find in Europe or America but major buildings were distinctly Japanese. It is quite possibly one of the best sakura viewing spots in Japan, and also has a very late blooming period. So just when you thought it was over, you can still enjoy more sakura. The best place to see it from is Goryokaku Tower nearby.

The entrance, nope it's not much to look at.

The statue of Hijikata in the tower lobby.

If you wanted to find out about the real end of samurai culture and politics, Goryokaku is the spot. I’ll try to be quick. The Shogun of Japan gave up his power thus returning it to the Emperor, but really just giving it to the newly formed government forces, yet there were still those who had a lot of power in the old government or just couldn’t go with the change, that decided to fight. I mentioned one of the major battles at that time which happened in Aizu. Their last stand, was to go to the still unclaimed land of Ezo (modern day Hokkaido) and set up their own government with their own president, called the Ezo Republic.

There is no castle tower, just a magistrate's office.

The halls of the office.

It’s a bit of a strange part in Japanese history, as the supporters of the former government set up a democratic government and would later face the new government which was to become an oligarchy. Another thing to note is that Ezo was never conventionally considered a part of Japan, and was barely developed. The republic of Ezo petitioned the emperor to let the state develop, partially to protect Japan from Russia, but the request was of course denied.

Still looks quite Japanese.

I'm sick so I'm out of interesting things to say.

It is also close to the final resting place of Hijikata Toshizo, the last Shinsengumi. For those who don’t know, the Shinsengumi were a pack of mostly former ronin (who would be viewed as lower than dirt at that time) who were given the tasks of maintaining order in Kyoto and carrying out very violent attacks during the Bakumatsu. There’s a lot of romanticizing and modern support for the Shinsengumi, but I’ve never been on that page. For one thing, Serizawa Kamo is quite possibly one of the worst human beings I’ve ever read about, for another their cause was barely noble and mostly opportunistic. That being said, if any of them deserve to be considered heroic it would be Hijikata, and you can see the love for him all over the area.

Hijikata atop the city he arguably helped create.

Sannaimaruyama – Ever wanted to go back to early humanity?

I shouldn’t need to make this so clear but the area is a replica. The entire place is made to replicate the Jomon Era which is about 12,000BC to 300 BC. However, there are a good number of well preserved artifacts to see, mostly behind glass, but some inside of temperature controlled domes that look like they may still be excavated.

Still debatable what the pillars were for, I'd like to imagine it was just some modern art piece.

There’s really not much to say about the history, as far as we know the site is a perfectly fine recreation of what the Jomon people lived in. One part that stands out is the wooden structure with six columns and three levels, but even the reason for it’s existence isn’t well known.

Hope you like straw roofed huts.

It should be noted that this time period is well before and location very far from the origins of the Yamato people who later established the Japanese court system, and means that the people at this site may be more closely related to the Ainu people or may have been supplanted by them as the earliest records of Japanese history indicate that they moved in from Northern Kyushu til they set up their capitals in the Yamato Plain, modern day Kansai (Kyoto, Nara, Osaka…). At that time (which started in 250AD), the Ainu had control reaching as far down as modern day Kanto (Tokyo, Kanagawa…) and held onto parts of Tohoku well into the establishment of Japanese warrior culture.

Disney's newest resort

So it is interesting to see the similarities and differences between what was used thousands of years ago and years later. Jomon people were said to mostly be hunter gatherers but had some degree of farming, the level of which is up for debate. It is a good chance to get a break from seeing what you normally would see in Japan, and as far as I know it’s the only recreation of a Jomon site in Japan.

It was so important I had to include it twice.

It’s also quite close to the Aomori Museum of Art, which was amazing but like most museums in Japan, don’t allow pictures. I would recommend both.

But you can take a picture of this strange statue which I assume is here to throw everyone off.


Bus: ¥500 (1 day pass) [¥200 for one ride]

Aomori Museum of Art: ¥510

Hours: Both are 9am-6pm but close at 5pm between October and May.

Asamushi Onsen

Asamushi Onsen, which literally means ‘wretched bug’, is a nice trip for those who want to relax at an onsen but don’t want much hassle or to spend much money. The onsen is in a modern building but has a pretty nice bath. The big draw of the onsen is that it has large windows and is higher than any other nearby buildings that you can watch the sunset while in the bath.

It is indeed a very nice view.

Yes I do have an obsession with small islands that have a tori (gate) on them.

The building also doubles as a rest stop so it has a restaurant, a gift shop on the first floor, and a pretty awesome market next to it (I believe I saw giant scallops for ¥90) which closed around 3pm but was already winding down around the time I got there. Ultimately it’s all up to whether or not you have some extra time in the Aomori City area. Asamushi Onsen’s not much of a draw but definitely a good experience if you have a few hours free.

I left the bath to take this picture, I hope you're happy!

Also probably a lot more satisfying on less cloudy days.

Aomori City

My brother doesn’t like scallops which has always surprised me because I used to be pickier than anyone else when it comes to seafood. The reason I bring this up is because there are two things you need to know about Aomori City, Apples and Scallops.

The station is seconds away from the bay.

You can see the building next to the bridge has a scallop on it.

Aomori is really the small New England city of Japan, located far up north on the coast serving up one specialty seafood in a million different ways. The city also looks reminiscent of New England to me. So it’s a pretty quiet port city with some expensive stuff, especially food, where almost everything closes early. One thing that struck me hard was that all sushi places in the city are really expensive and I’ve been told Akita is worse. The problem is that if you’re in Aomori city, you need to try out some scallops and apples. The station’s curry place even serves up scallop curry.

The city itself actually stretches pretty far.

This ship is actually a museum now though there is a port to Hokkaido a few miles away from it.
The city’s a good hub to the more interesting things in the area but besides that I felt like I was on some romantic getaway alone. However there are some museums and it’s a slightly artistic city so there may be a lot more beneath the surface to find. One large redeeming factor of the city is that there is a great coffee shop, which of course I didn’t find until my last day. We’ll get into that one another time.

Okay so the bridge is really the only landmark the city has going for it, but it offers a free nice view of the bay.

The ichiba (market) is about 2 minutes from the station. If you see fish you want to eat, don't hesitate, the owners will find a seat for you to eat it all up.

Sukayu Onsen 酸ヶ湯温泉

Sukayu Onsen, which if you’re a native English speaker will probably sound like “Sky Onsen” the first few times around, is a pretty popular hot spring in the mountains of Aomori. You can get there using a JR Bus from Aomori station. I was told about this place by the friendly faces at Umebachi Gueat House, the thing that sold it was that the water is so thick you can barely see your own body.

This required more work than I'm willing to admit to get

As my students used to say "It's like a Japan"

If you remember my post about Kusatsu from a few years ago (good memory!) you’ll remember that the biggest thing to stand out was the smell of sulfur when you enter the town. As soon as I stepped off the bus I was hit by probably the strongest sulfur smell I’ve ever encountered. If you’re like me, that’s a great thing.

Driving through the snow covered roads is a common thing in the fall and I even wished I could do it.

One of the few interesting spots inside, a rest area.

There are two different baths, one mixed, ‘Hibasennin furo’ ひば千人風呂, and one separate, ‘Tama no Yu’ 玉の湯. I didn’t understand what that meant so I just got a ticket for both, but mixed means exactly what you think it means; this is one of the few onsen in Japan that have men and women together. I was surprised but the usual questions you’d have are easily answered. There are two main pools, one that’s pretty damn hot, and one that’s super hot, they’re both divided into male and female sides and I think there’d be hell to pay if you crossed over for no reason. There’s also a divider that extends half way into the female part of the super hot pool. Lastly, it’s like a nude beach, if you are thinking about using this to perverted ends, you’d be better off doing just about anything else. I make this point because it was really not a big part of the experience and both the air and water are so thick you can barely see anything anyway. Also after that amazing huge smokey room, the separate bath was a huge letdown; whereas the large one could fit a bunch of people, in the separate one, three’s a crowd.

A tori almost completely covered in snow, meaning the snow is probably about 10 feet high.

My parents will be very happy to know that I went through this snow tunnel in order to get more pictures.

There’s also skiing and hiking available but at obviously different seasons, my feet sank into the thick layer of snow a few times while getting these pictures (ah the dedication) so I’d highly advise against hiking outside of the summer. The big draw is definitely the mixed bath and its amazingly beautiful greenish silver color. If you go to Aomori, this is definitely something you’d have to do.

Climbing up snow that I could easily get trapped in, hooray

Just two demons chilling out.

A float for Aomori's popular festival.

I usually don't like doing the picture of a picture but this is the only shot that can give an idea of the inside of the actual bath.

JR Bus: ¥1340 each way
Mixed bath or Private Bath: ¥600
Both baths: ¥1000

Hirosaki Castle

Himeiji, Kumamoto, and Hirosaki castles are often cited as the big three of Japan. You may notice that there’s never been a review on Himeiji despite it being the most popular and the largest original castle, that’s because when I lived here before there were serious renovations. Having seen Hirosaki, I’m running low on high profile castles.

The bridge to Hirosaki Castle

The usual shot of Hirosaki Castle

My typical style is to make a bee-line for the castle keep right away. However Hirosaki is definitely about the grounds themselves, the keep peeking out at weird and interesting angles, and in the busiest season, caught in a flurry of sakura. Going through the the grounds is what’s truly great because once you get there, the keep is actually kind of small.

The good angle of the honamru, the other side isn't up to snuff.

In fact I checked a few times to make sure it wasn’t a guard tower. However the grounds provided much more as there is a clear view of Mt. Iwaki across from the keep.

Actually, the left side is the entrance

Iwaki Mountain, well worth the trip

My favorite original castle is still Kochi castle, but I have no regrets about going to Hirosaki. As was a theme on this vacation, I’m sure in sakura season it’s much better. If you can beat the crowd.

The guard tower you can see when leaving

Mt. Iwaki from Hirosaki Station

Getting to Zao Kitsune Mura (Zao Fox Village)

Zao Fox Village is now world famous thanks to bloggers, and while it will probably soon have its own bus line and services, getting to Zao Kitsune Mura is quite difficult.

But if you make it you can see this guy

Or this comfy guy

Don't forget King James

By Taxi:
This is the easiest and yes I am including it, if you can go with two others (I think even 4 people can fit in a taxi legally) who want to go that will make it a bit easier. Almost every person I spoke to knew exactly what Zao Kitsune Mura was.

Is it click bait if I name this 'Japanese foxes make out'?

Foxes get a lot of time to think

Sometimes you can get to see a whiny fox

By bus:
This one’s tough, the bus only runs on Tuesday and Friday and only runs from Shiroishi Station, that’s the normal train JR station. I know someone online said that it goes to both, but I’d hope anyone reading would learn from my mistakes. The bus leaves Shiroishi Station at 7:56 and you’ll want to take it to Kawarago Dam 川原子ダム, one of the return busses leaves at 2:22 from Kawarago Dam. If you don’t want to be bothered sticking to that schedule and are going alone, there are a lot of people who want to split cabs going back from Zao Kitsune Mura, so that’s a cheaper way too.

Out of 800+ pictures, how many are wistful foxes?

Dude, this fox totally has nine tails, I wish I got a shot of it!

Direct Liner:
Starting this month, they have their own direct taxi bus that leaves Shiroishi Zao at 10:00 and Shiroishi Station at 10:10, the return trip is 12:30 which doesn’t give you much time. Anyway, like so much of what I want in Japan, it has to have a complicated system. You can sign up for the liner here but the taxi bus won’t leave with less than 5 people and the maximum is 8 people.

The benches aren't for you silly people

I felt bad for not including this fox posing for me.

Taxi to/from JR Shiroishi Station: ~¥3680
Taxi to/from Shiroishi Zao Shinkansen Station: ~¥4160
Direct Liner: ¥2000
Bus: ¥200, according to rumors

Shiroishi Taxi Phone Number: (0224) 26-2154


Anyone who’s read this blog before wouldn’t be surprised that I decided to go to a small difficult to access castle town with a ridiculous amount of history. Before getting into the history, it should be noted that I was a bit unsure about going to this town, especially when the possibility (which fell through) to go to a cat island came up. It is however, in Fukushima, which seems to be somewhat poetic in how much the nuclear disaster in Fukushima affected the country and even affected my life. If you wanted to visit a peaceful and nice part of Fukushima, this is probably the best that can be offered.

The mountains in the middle of Fukushima

Yaki Dango, really awesome

So for history; the castle, Tsuruga-jo, is a recreation and is as fake as Osaka, and Hiroshima castles. At times it resembles the slightly more faithful Kumamoto Castle, but like those it’s basically a museum inside, and I have to say the history can be a big enough draw. Firstly, the city has two names because the people of Aizu were once defeated by Date Masamune from Sendai and subsequently given up when Toyotomi Hideyoshi took control of the country. Toyotomi named the city Wakamatsu, and the subequent Tokugawa government changed it back to Aizu. Aizu was monetarily and militaristically one of the strongest parts of the Tokugawa family, and had the most to lose in the Bakumatsu. While the Aizu government actually did relinquish power peacefully, the new government wanted to punish Aizu. The Aizu forces and Shinsengumi held out for about a month of siege from the Meiji government in Tsuruga-jo. There’s a famous story about how the younger forces outside the castle, the Byakkotai saw smoke from the castle and all except one committed suicide. The guy who I met at my guesthouse who knows a lot of history said in Japanese “And then everyone died is a common ending in most Japanese history stories.” So it was quite interesting to see things from the other perspective.


This is probably the best view of the castle until sakura season

The red tiled roof does add an interesting aspect to the castle, and as they’re quick to remind you, it’s the only castle standing sporting red tiles. While its newness can be off-putting, they do hold a great deal of festivals, likely to counter this. Their sakura matsuri seems amazing, enough to make me consider going back, and they also seem to have a Byakkotai festival as well. There’s also access to the tea room, which you can see and enjoy some matcha from a different tea room, still with the same nice garden.

The best part of going inside the castle.

The view from the top

Aizu is also a bit of an onsen town, the tourist bus makes stops at the castle as well as the “Onsen Station” (which is more or less just an information center) so you can head to a nice onsen after seeing the castle. I went to Harataki Onsen 原滝温泉 which has an awesome outdoor bath as well as indoor. The water was clearer than I’m used to, but was incredibly hot. Even a dude I met at the onsen agreed, I could only stay in for about 30 minutes, which is shameful. Though I’m sure that makes it much better in the winter or on cold days.

Don't be fooled by the beautifully ugly entrance. This is the real deal. Harataki is an entire hotel

Aizu-Wakamatsu Bus Pass: ¥500 (1 ride is ¥210)

Tsuruga-jo: ¥510 (includes free entry to the tea room)

Tea Room Matcha and Manju: ¥500

Harataki Onsen: ¥1,080

The Fox Village

I’m a bit sad I wasn’t able to find this place on my own last time I was here and beat it to the punch of being world famous. Let me say two things about this place because there’s not much to say except FOXES! This is a really difficult place to get to without a car (more on that next time), it is well worth it if you’ve never seen or heard foxes before. A lot of Japanese people have asked me how many foxes there are, and it was difficult because there are definitely too many to count. The area is pretty big but you could probably circle the perimeter in about 15 minutes if that was your goal. We found that 3 hours was the sweet spot.

Some foxes come to greet you like this guy.

Most sleep in a ball of fluff.

I gave some of them names, this one's Miles Prower.


Some foxes think they're dogs.

In the front area there are some foxes that you can pet because as I found out, a fox’s instinct is to sniff a little and then quickly chomp on any foreign object, so there are special ones in another area. There are of course ones in the main area that you can pet as well, but the likelihood of being bitten is probably over 90%. Still if you do want to pet a fox in the main area, I promise there will be someone who seems to be immune to biting (and tetanus) who will find the nice fox for you.

You will probably see and hear a lot of fights.

And have a lot of foxes come up to inform you that they're cute.

Like cats, foxes do like high places.

This is King James, very territorial but also very sweet. He was pet-able.

They are quite low on human food, having only a few ramen bowls when I was there, so eating beforehand is probably a good idea. You can of course buy carrots or hot dog slices for the foxes, but the recommend you feeding them via a sort of feeding station in the middle of the main area or at least throwing it to them.

Don't let me fool you, there are a lot of foxes.

Sometimes the foxes mix in too well with the mountain landscape.

Somehow this guy got pudgy.


This is the fox version of Xena

Most of what foxes do is sleep, make weird noises, fight each other, run, or just walk up and look at you waiting for you to do something interesting or give it food. I already saw people from all over on the day that I was there, so I’d definitely recommend getting there as soon as possible until it becomes a place where tourists truly flock. There are also some good onsen nearby if you happen to go the easy route and take a car. For those of you who want to do it the hard way, next week I’ll explain how to get there and of course, more foxes!

This is my model, I have over 50 pictures of him.

This fox really thinks it's a dog.

The white foxes look a lot like wolves

If there's any fox I'd abduct, it's this one.

fox in a box

Their wistfulness matches my own.