Road Trip on JR Gono Line (Part 2)
Our two-day journey on the JR Gono Line, which runs through the prefectures of Aomori and Akita, continues. Our first day is spent travelling through Aomori and we check into the Fukaura Tourist Hotel.
Our two-day journey on the JR Gono Line, which runs through the prefectures of Aomori and Akita, continues. Our first day is spent travelling through Aomori and we check into the Fukaura Tourist Hotel. We want to visit a famous spot in the area before we leave Fukaura the next morning. We find out about a temple called Engakuji, where there are wishing plaques with cut topknots on them. The following day, after breakfast, we hop on the hotel shuttle bus and go to the temple. The bus will later take us to the train station too.
Engakuji was built during the early Heian period. During the Edo period, merchants from cargo ships that passed through Fukaura would come here to pray for a safe journey. The head priest takes us around the temple. Besides mandalas and Buddha statues, there are also several interesting artefacts on display. For example, there are “hanging Buddhas” which - according to legend - Shogun Sakanoue no Tamuramaro wore during his conquests. A portable version of Buddha, they are round with rings on each side and people hung them on their walls. Sakanoue no Tamuramaro presented them to this temple. We check out some rare votive pictures of Kitamaebune (north-bound trade ships). Also on display are over 100 topknots, which have become national important tangible folk-cultural properties. They belonged to sailors who were rescued from storms - they cut their topknots off and dedicated them as offerings.
We ask the head priest to suggest a place we could visit next. He tells us to go to WeSPa-Tsubakiyama Station and then take a monorail to an observatory, from where we can see the Sea of Japan. The hotel shuttle bus picks us up from the temple and takes us to Fukaura Station. We get on the 9.20am train and head to WeSPa-Tsubakiyama Station, which is 15 minutes away. Our next train will depart at 11.15am. We ride on the monorail for 10 minutes to the Shirakami Observatory. Unfortunately, it suddenly starts to rain heavily, so we can’t get a good view of the surroundings. But on a clear day, one can see the Shirakami Mountains - a World Heritage Site - and the dazzling Sea of Japan.
We head back to the train station and make our way to Iwadate. The train crosses the prefectural border and enters Akita Prefecture. We arrive at Iwadate Station in Akita after half an hour and the next train from here will leave at 1.50pm. We drop by a barber shop nearby and speak to its owner Mr Kaneda. He recommends we have lunch at Isobune. It is known for its grilled squid and octopus with rice. He walks with us to the restaurant but it is closed due to the bad weather. He then gives us a ride to Ikoi's Lodge, which is five minutes away. Squid spaghetti and beef spaghetti are among its popular dishes. The chef-owner received his culinary training in Tokyo and opened this shop 35 years ago.
The owner of Ikoi’s Lodge offers to drive us to Iwadate Station. At the station, we ask a local about a place worth visiting near Higashi-Hachimori, our next destination. The person suggests we check out Suzuki Fisheries, a sandfish factory. On the train, we ask someone else about recommended spots and the passenger tells us about Yamamoto Gomei Company, a sake brewery. So we decide to go to the sandfish factory first and then to the local brewery.
We arrive at Higashi-Hachimori at 2.20pm and have until 3.50pm to visit the two spots. A staff from Suzuki Fisheries picks us up from the station. A company that deals with processed fish and seafood products, Suzuki Fisheries’ main product is sandfish sushi. Sandfish from Akita Prefecture is pickled with Akitakomachi rice, salt and chopped vegetables. It is then fermented for two to three weeks. After tasting some sandfish sushi, we make our way to the sake brewery.
At the brewery, we are taken on a tour of the place. It has been around since the Meiji period and its local sake is brewed using water from the Shirakami Mountains. It has sake such as Junmai Ginjyo and Yamamoto Pure Black. It also makes its own brand of sake which is only sold at the brewery. This sake is made from the brewery’s own yeast and they include Gorgeous Yamamoto Yeast and Sexy Yamamoto Yeast. We get to sample some sake. “Gorgeous” is popular for its deep, sour and distinct flavour; while “Sexy” has a sweet, soft and smooth taste.
After this, we walk to Higashi-Hachimori Station and travel by the 3.50pm train to the last stop of Gono Line, Higashi-Noshiro Station. The train journey takes half an hour. At the station, we end our two-day trip by buying some Shinonome Youkan, a popular souvenir made from red beans.
- Visit the Engakuji temple in the town of Fukaura to see artefacts such as “hanging Buddhas” and topknots of rescued sailors
- A must-see spot near WeSPa-Tsubakiyama Station is the Shirakami Observatory