American expats talk about life in rural Towada, an alternative little town in Aomori that feels like home

Located in Aomori Prefecture in the North of Japan, Towada City is a charming little rural town about three and a half hours from Tokyo by a combination of shinkansen and bus. A place where visitors can relish seasonal nature that exemplifies Japan’s natural beauty, Towada is not only close to some of Japan’s prime nature spots, such as Lake Towada, Oirase Mountain Stream, and the Hakkoda Mountains, but wherever you turn is another of nature’s wonders – hot springs. The city itself has plenty of charm too. Downtown Towada is home to the Towada Art Center that opened in 2008 and was designed by Ryue Nishizawa, the architect responsible for the Louvre Lens. Modern art works by renowned artists like Yayoi Kusama are also scattered throughout the town in large numbers. It is perhaps these kinds of new initiatives that are inspiring increasing numbers of people from all over to Japan to relocate to Towada. Amongst these new arrivals are two expat Americans, Alex Queen and Michael Warren, who moved to Towada in 2016. There they run 14-54, an office-cum-public space in downtown Towada that acts as a hub for their company which specializes in a wide range of businesses including translation, interpreting, web design, system builds, and regional development. What made them choose Towada? Here they talk to us about what they love about this area.

Towada, town of hot springs and warm welcomes

ーHow did the two of you end up living in Towada?

Alex: I can trace it all back to when I was in my teens and I lived in Aomori’s Goshogawara City as a homestay. Since then, I’ve also worked in Tokyo, and I do still travel back and forth, but I wanted to make Aomori my base. Back when I first came here, I found myself involved in a range of things in Towada, including translation and interpreting work at the Towada Art Center, and some community consulting. I was looking for both an office space and a place to live, and someone at Towada City Hall told me about a rent subsidy system for utilizing empty premises.

Alex Queen(Left)、Michael Warren(Right)

Michael: I used to live in the neighboring Gonohe Town while working as an English teacher. Later, I worked alongside Alex at the same university in Tokyo, and in 2016 he invited me to collaborate with him on establishing a company in Towada.

ーHow do you find it now you’re actually living in Towada?

Alex: It’s very comfortable here. Towada was only developed about 150 years ago, and so from a historical perspective also, it’s a new city. Many of the inhabitants have moved here from other parts of Aomori or other prefectures altogether, and this makes the community very tolerant of newcomers. This town is built around cultural diversity, or rather the town welcomed us foreigners in the same way they would anyone else, so we were able to slot right into the community.

14-54
14-54
14-54

ーWhat do you like about Towada City?

Alex: I love the nature, the people — everything, really. I’ve travelled all over Japan, and I don’t think there are many places with such abundant nature. But my ultimate favorite would have to be…

Michael: Onsen maybe?

Alex: Yeah, it would have to be the onsen.

Michael: There are loads of good hot springs in the urban area and also out toward the Hakkoda Mountains.

Cap: Sarukura Onsen

Alex: Michinoku Onsen, Pony Onsen, Momijinoyu, Ippongisawa Onsen, Towada Onsen, Yuyu Land…and these are just the ones in the town itself. Over toward Shichinohe-Towada Station on the Tohoku Shinkansen line are two more – Suginoko Onsen and Higashi Hakkoda Onsen. Every week, I make it to one of the onsen.

ーApparently, there are lots of different types of hot springs in Towada, is that true?

Alex: If it’s hot spring properties you’re after, Michinoku Onsen or Pony Onsen are the best. They’ll leave your skin smooth as silk. If you want to try a range of different types of hot spring, I recommend large facilities like Ippongisawa Onsen or Momijinoyu. To go where the locals go, try places like Sarukura Onsen, Tsuta Onsen, or Yachi Onsen, located a little way out of town on the route to the Hakkoda Mountains. The sulfur smell is so strong that it lingers for around three days after you bathe. (Laughs)

Cap: Tsuta Onsen

Michael: If you’re new to onsen, Momijinoyu is probably a good option. I think people will enjoy features like the ceramic bowl-shaped baths.

Alex: Places like Momijinoyu and Pony Onsen are also popular with the locals, and Towada is full of friendly people, so even first timers will feel comfortable.


All the nature and activities you could ask for in each season

ーWhat else does Towada offer?

Alex: The answer to that question has to be nature. There are mountains, rivers, and lakes nearby, and the ocean is only about 30 minutes away. Towada’s got everything. You can ski, snowboard, canoe, ride horses, and you can also take nature tours and go camping. The Utarube Campground that sits on the shores of Towada lake, in particular, is one of Japan’s best campsites. This summer I camped out almost every week.

Cap: Utarube Campground

Alex: As soon as I finished work on a Friday, I’d head straight to the campground, put up my tent, light a fire, drink a beer, read a book, and then sleep. The next morning I’d be up at around 5 and out on the lake. If I got my canoe out early, I’d have the lake to myself – It’s an unbeatable feeling.

ーWhat kind of activities do you recommend for travelers?

Alex: Everything is fun, but for me it would have to be canoeing. Recently we’ve also started seeing some new initiatives in that area including “Towadako Guidehouse KAI,” a tour company set up by a group of young locals. It’s wonderful floating in a canoe on the huge lake surrounded by untrammeled nature on all sides. My favorite part is Kokonoeura, a cove that is only accessible by canoe — it’s incredibly quiet and has an aura of mystery about it.

Michael: Just sitting on the lake, breathing the air, and looking out over the scenery has a restorative power. It’s also fun in fall when bright red foliage is reflected in the water, or in the depths of winter when we’re plowing through icy slush.

Alex: And how about the brilliant nature tours along Oirase Mountain Stream?

Michael: The NPO Oiken, an Oirase ecotourism research organization, holds rambling tours of the Oirase Keiryu, a mountain stream in Towada.

Alex: One of the most interesting would have to be the Oirase Keiryu Moss Walk. Over 300 different types of moss inhabit the Oirase Mountain Stream, and when you look at them through a magnifying glass, each one is incredibly unique. Peering at moss might sound a little dull, but it was a truly fascinating experience because it gave me a real sense of how these many different types of mosses are all maintaining the Oirase ecosystem.

Cap: Oirase Keiryu Moss Walk

ーSo, it seems that each season has its own enjoyments?

Michael: In spring, sakura trees line Kanchogai-dori Avenue where the Towada Art Center is situated, and these are decorated with a multitude of tiny lights when the cherry trees blossom between mid-April and early May.

Cap: Cherry trees lining Kanchogai-dori Avenue

Michael: We hope people will come for the fall leaves. From around the second half of October, the scenery is crowded with mountains dyed red with fall leaves. One famous spot is the walking track around Tsuta no Nananuma, (seven lakes and ponds of Tsuta) where the fall leaves are reflected in the water. And then winter is another world altogether.

Cap: Fall leaves reflected on the surface of Tsuta no Nananuma

Alex: I love winter too. We have two ski fields, Towadako Ski, Snowboard & Spa Resort, and Shichinohe Town Ski Area about a 30-minute drive away, and both of them are open right through till night. I often hit the slopes for a couple of hours after work. Drive for an hour and you’ll reach the Hakkouda Kokusai Ski Area, which is open from late November to early May. The Hakkoda Mountains are in one of the world’s heaviest snowfall zones, and with powder snow, the snow quality is perfect. It’s still good in May, and if you get a nice day, you can even take to the slopes in a t-shirt.

Cap: A ski field in the Hakkoda Mountains

What is it about Towada that attracts creative types?

ーIt seems that Towada is attracting more and more people who are creating interesting initiatives like yours.

Alex: 14-54, where our office is located, is a community space that is open to the public. The complex houses the 14-54 CAFÉ run by a young local couple, Takuya Nakanowatari and Michi Jin, and is also home to a space where a community collective sells traditional craftwork, and the Towada Art Center Reading Room.

The owners of 14-54 CAFÉ, husband-and-wife team, Takuya and Michi
14-54 CAFÉ

Michael: A Chinese staff member from the Towada City Community Revitalization Collective is stationed at 14-54, and I expect they’ll be able to support Chinese-speakers with any issues they might have.

The Towada Art Center Reading Room located inside 14-54

There are also lots of good shops and cafes in the area. In the same arcade as 14-54, there is a place called Café Happy TREE which has a serious obsession with making perfect coffee. You can choose the roast type, and the strength — my favorite is the dark roast and I drop in for a cup at least twice a week.

Cafe HappyTREE

Michael: Their American-style bagel sandwiches made with local produce are also superb. Depending on the time of the year, vegetables grown by the owner, Yuji, may be on the menu, and another healthy option is his sugar-free pancakes. Yuji will also lovingly discuss coffee beans or the ingredients he uses.

Cafe HappyTREE
Yuji, the owner of Cafe Happy TREE

Alex: About 10 minutes’ walk from 14-54 there’s a confectioner called Soma Kashiho. It’s run by a lovely lady in her 80’s and her son, and their apple pie is not to be missed.

Soma Kashiho

Michael: The apple pies are made from Aomori’s apples, and the apple variety and flavor change depending on the season. And then there’s the coffee éclairs, almond cookies, salt raisin loaf, apple cake, lemon cake…

Alex: Anyway, they are all unbelievably delicious, right? (Laughs)

Alex: Close by is Kutoten, a folkcraft store built in a rented house by Susumu Yoshida, a designer who moved here from Tokyo. The store stocks contemporary folkcrafts made by Yoshida and other local artists, and the shelves are filled with items like kendama toys made from reclaimed skateboard decks, and accessories made using Aomori’s traditional crafts, Tsugaru lacquerware, and Nanbu Hishisashi embroidery.

Kutoten
Kutoten
Kutoten

Michael: They also operate the “Tokidoki Yubinkyoku”, which translates loosely as the “Now and Then Post Office,” and one of its services lets you send postcards that will be delivered at some unspecified point in the future. There are lots of other interesting initiatives, so please do drop in and check them out.

The Tokidoki Yubinkyoku space within Kutoten

Alex: Then over toward Lake Towada is yamaju, a co-working space and guesthouse that opened this year. Even if you stay a month, the bill is only about 60,000 yen, so we invite you to make use of Towada not only for holidays but also for business stays. When you’re working and you hit a mental block, you can refresh your focus with views of the lake.

yamaju  ©︎Fuukeiya
yamaju  ©Fuukeiya
yamaju  ©Fuukeiya

ーIs there anything overseas visitors should know when visiting Towada?

Michael: I think it’s more convenient if you have a car, because it frees you up to travel all over the place. You can get around by bus, but they don’t run many services.

Alex: There are several car rental agencies around Shichinohe-Towada and Hachinohe Stations on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line. Apparently, there are some companies that offer discounts if you apply when purchasing the Japan Rail Pass. I’m sure Towada will appeal to people who enjoy nature, or art, or those who like an alternative-type lifestyle. Michael and I have visited most places in Aomori Prefecture, but for us, Towada is somewhere that has opened up a variety of possibilities. Our work at 14-54 has given us opportunities to meet new people and make new discoveries, and we are very grateful.

Information

Aomori | Japan Travel | JNTO

https://www.japan.travel/en/travel-directory/aomori/


14-54

Address: 14-54 Inaoi-cho, Towada-shi, Aomori

Access: Take a bus from Hachinohe Station on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line (approx. 40 min.), get off at the Towada Art Center and walk for 5 min. Alternatively, take a bus from Shichinohe-Towada Station on the Tohoku Shinkansen (approx. 35 min.), get off at Kanchogai-dori Avenue and walk for 2 min.

https://www.14-54.com/


Momijinoyu

Address: 391-4 Senzaimori, Oaza Sanbongi, Towada-shi, Aomori

https://momijinoyu2015.wixsite.com/momijinoyu


Pony Onsen

Address: 167-1 Saihaba, Oaza Sanbongi, Towada-shi, Aomori

http://www.hotelponyonsen.book.direct/en-gb/


Towada Art Center

Address: Towadakohan Utarube, Oaza Okuse, Towada-shi, Aomori

http://towadaartcenter.com/en/


Towadako Guidehouse KAI

Address: 486 Towadakohan Yasumiya, Oaza Okuse, Towada-shi, Aomori (within Ikoi Café)

http://tgkai.jp


Incorporated NPO Oirase Shizen Kanko Kenkyukai (Oiken)

Address: Sungreen Bldg. #103, 11-1 Nishi 23-Bancho, Towada-shi, Aomori

https://www.oiken.org/


Cafe Happy TREE

Address: 14-44 Inaoi-cho, Towada-shi, Aomori

https://www.facebook.com/cafe.happytree/


Soma Kashiho

Address: 22-7 Nishi 11-Bancho, Towada-shi, Aomori


Kutoten

Address: 5-16 Nishi 2-Bancho, Towada-shi, Aomori

https://www.instagram.com/kutou10_crafts_design/


yamaju

Address: 486 Towadakohan Yasumiya, Oaza Okuse, Towada-shi, Aomori

https://yamaju-laketowada.jp/