Aomori, where two ferries leave for Hokkaido, has a ridiculously awesome tourism department. Their website has great itineraries for traveling the city and area. The city map brochure was especially helpful. Everything we visited was within a 15 min max walk from the train/bus station (not the Shinkansen station).
After finding parking under $5 for 24 hours, we headed to tourist info in the bus station for help reserving the ferry. They were extremely nice and printed the Seikan ferry coupon Rob found online then called the ferry for us and made a reservation. If you bring a foreign passport in , you can get a card for 2 weeks of WiFi through the eFlets portal (also valid in Hokkaido).
Our first stop was the free shamisen performance at ASPAM (a prefectural tourism center with info gift shops and restaurants). They host two performances daily at 11:30 am and 2:30pm. We’ve been listening to Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, which mentions shamisen playing, so we were curious to hear the instrument. It’s a stringed instrument where there is emphasis on plucking the strings but also using the pick (to me, it resembles an ice scraper in shape) to beat out complementary rhythms on the sound box. The artist playing was quite good at it, we enjoyed listening and watching him play.
Next, we headed on to the WaRasse Nebuta museum, which features amazing floats from an annual summer festival. The floats are wire frames covered in paper, painted and lit up.
This was one of the best museums we’ve ever visited. Go on a weekend when they have instrument and dance demos. After playing some, they teach you a dance then let you try a couple of the instruments (drum and cymbals). The performers are really energetic so we tried to get into the audience participation fun and made a good spectacle of ourselves.
All the staff and volunteers were amazingly friendly and tried to give us explanations in English. One woman noticed we were debating staying until 2 for a demo and just went ahead and opened 30 minutes early to let us give papering part of the Nebuta metal frame a try.
After all that excitement, we wandered next door through an area of snow sculptures and lanterns to the A-factory, a fancy local food mart/restaurant/tasting bar/food court/cidery (this is an apple growing region of Japan). We sampled 3 ciders for 100 yen each. Unfortunately, none of them were good enough to be worth consuming more than the sample.
After seeing it in the tourist guide, I couldn’t resist trying the catch and eat Scallop fishing at Hotate Goya. For 500 yen, you have 3 min to catch as many scallops as you can. They give you two minimum. After the catching, you can choose to have them sashimi, grilled or sushi style. Since they cost ~150 yen at the seafood market and tourists are pretty inept the first time, I think this turns out to be a favorable proposition for them as it also gets folks in the door. The woman at the tourist info said you can catch from 0-12. Two older Asian men that came after us only caught one between them. This made me feel better about my three.
Since three scallops doesn’t go too far, we caught the end of the town fish market for some more fish. Called Nokkedon, you buy a pack of coupons then user them to buy rice and fish from around the market. There are tables with condiments and tea at which to enjoy your assembled bowl.
We still had a bit of time before the ferry, so we went shopping in the nearby mall. My favorite store did “remakes” of clothing you would find at any US thrift store.
Finally, we caught our very quiet ferry to Hokkaido. No one else used the lounge (we were the only passenger car) and there were showers.
Four hours later, we arrived full, clean and ready to drive a few hours toward skiing the next day.