04 April 2011

Towada Horseback Riding

As part of our new series, 'Hop in Your Car and Drive,' comes our second installment: Towada Horseback Riding. Located about two and a half hours from the Tsugaru area, Western Hat Japan provides a great weekend retreat to the scenic Towada countryside. Your hour-long tour (60 and 90 minutes sessions are both available) will be guided by two Japanese instructors who, despite limited English ability, possess just enough to make you feel comfortable. After an introductory riding lesson in the stable, you'll be led along a path that winds through the farm and forest and past a training site for yabusame (traditional Japanese mounted archery). Be sure to wear clothing that allows for maximum mobility and proper attire to keep you warm. It gets chilly in the countryside! Finally, be aware that unlike tours in the US, Japanese instructors believe in a "headfirst" approach to learning, i.e. they will introduce you once to trotting and cantering in the stable and will then ask you to do the same while out on the trail. If you feel uncomfortable with this pace, just let your guide know beforehand. Tsugaru-chan enjoyed her visit very much and highly recommends it, but will stick to eating horses in the future (a Tsugaru-area delicacy) instead of riding them.

The Skinny: Horseback Riding in Towada
Price: 3500 yen for one hour
Hours: Coming soon...
Location: Towada

01 April 2011

Osorezan: the Gateway to Hell

With the spring weather finally here, Tsugaru-chan wanted to share some great places to explore. Get excited to hop in your car and drive! First on our list is Osorezan. Considered one of the three holiest sites of Japan, this Buddhist area was founded in the ninth century by the Great Buddhist Master En'nin. When Tsugaru-chan visited Osorezan last fall, the first thing she noticed was the unusual atmosphere. With only the sound of the crow's caw, a strong sulphur smell, and the numerous warnings for mumashi pit vipers, Tsugaru-chan felt like she really was at the entrance to Hell, a title bestowed upon Mount Osore (literally "Mount Fear").

Perhaps one of the most striking features of Osorezan is the landscape. Tsugaru-chan's local tour guide explained that no vegetation grows on the rock-laden grounds (representative of hell), yet just a few meters up the mountain a verdant forest flourishes (representative of heaven). Scenery aside, one of the most moving aspects of Osorezan is its function as a gravesite of sorts, predominantly for children. Visitors often build cairns, man-made piles of rocks in a conical shape, topped with colorful pinwheels, packs of crayons, chocolates and other wordly goods as a means of mourning.
Small Jizo statues are also another way to grieve. Popular throughout Japan, they are typically dressed with a reb bib and cap and serve to protect the souls of deceased children.

Lastly, a few times a year Osorezan hosts a number of blind mediums, or itako, to allow communication with the dead. The lines are often long and are only offered in Japanese, so if you would like a chance to speak with a departed one, please bring along a translator. This sacred Buddhist site, renowned for its mystical powers, is definitely worth the drive. Japanese people will also be impressed you braved one of the most frightening spots in Japan (don't be surprised if you're asked if you saw a ghost!). So ganbatte, and enjoy the Shimokita peninsula of Aomori.

The Skinny: A great day trip to one of the holiest sites in Japan
Price: 500 Yen for adults (older than 15), 400 Yen for adults belonging to a group of more than 30 members, 200 yen for children (below 15)
Annual Schedule: Open from 5/1 to 10/31. Main festival of Bodhisattva Jizo 7/20-7/24. Autumn festival is three successive days in early October, the second Monday of October (Sports Day) and the Saturday and Sunday immediately before it
Daily Schedule: Open from 6:00AM-4:00PM (changed during the festivals). Religious services are 6:30AM, 11:00AM, 2:00PM.
Location: Mutsu City, Aomori, Japan  

For more information, give this article a read.