Like the vastness of space, like a universe unlimited, untold, unattainable…

(Shiko Munakata)

The northernmost tip of Honshu island of Japan, Aomori Prefecture takes pride in its remarkable history traced as far back as 5500 B.C. Literally meaning “blue (or green) forest,” the winter wonderland is greatly admired for its self-sufficient agricultural economy and exquisite seasonal landscapes. It boasts an abundant production of rice from Tsugaru region, wheat from Nanbu region, and vegetables, fruits, livestock and fishery from Shimokita region. Bounteous nature spans across Hakkoda Mountains, Oirase, Towada-Hachimantai National Park, Hirosaki Park and Castle, vast ski resorts, and the Shirakami-Sanchi Mountains, designated as a World Natural Heritage Site. Additionally, Aomori is blessed with one of the largest and most colorful festivals in the country, the Aomori Nebuta Festival.

The Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE, fronting the scenic Aomori Bay, is a stylish architecture designed by Molo, d/dt, and Frank La Riviere Architects. Twelve-meter tall and red-colored steel ribbons were twisted and bent to form openings for light, views and passageways. They wrap the entire facade, welcoming the mythical world of Nebuta and the contemporary city. The museum was opened in 2011 to present the auspicious history of the Aomori Nebuta Festival. It displays some of the richly decorated floats used in the summer festivity held in early August.

Believed to have originated in the eighth century, the festival recounts ancient Tsugaru traditions and the Tanabata Festival (the meeting of the stars Vega and Altair). Some folklore aspects fuse with the Nemuri (meaning sleep) Nagashi custom of warding off sleep demons who cause drowsiness among farmers during the harvest season. The brightly lit Nebuta paper lantern floats, measuring approximately nine meters wide, seven meters deep and five meters high, depict faces of ancient warlords and historical and Kabuki characters created by skillful artists. They parade cheerfully through the streets of Aomori City with Haneto dancers bouncing and chanting to the exciting music of Nebuta bayashi bands (drums, flutes and hand cymbals). For two years since the breakout of the pandemic in 2020, the festival had taken a break but gladly returned this year, spreading nostalgic joy once more to the locals.

In the contemporary art scene, the Aomori Museum of Art stands as an important architectural and historical landmark in Aomori. Architect Jun Aoki was inspired by the archaeological excavations in the adjacent Sannai-Maruyama site, one of Japan’s largest Jomon settlement lands. The white, flat and long-stretched building is made up of a brick curtain wall, constructed on an uneven earthen landscape and crisscrossed with trenches. The joints are concealed, allowing the exterior structure to absorb the overall form. White cubical galleries surround the museum interior, built in interstitial spaces of different scales and proportions, which contrast the earth rooms and exposed ground floors and walls.

The Aleko Hall, home to four of Marc Chagall’s spectacular backdrops from the ballet Aleko of the American Ballet Theatre, can be considered the museum’s most outstanding collection. Measuring 19 meters by 21 meters, the colorful and spellbinding paintings hang on the walls and seem to float from the skies like gigantic drapes as they stage the poignant tale of love and tragedy of the Russian nobleman, Aleko and his free-spirited lover Zemphira.

Currently ongoing until October 2 is minä perhonen minagawa akira Tsuzuku, a wonderful exhibition of the popular brand’s products by designers Akira Minagawa and Keiko Tanaka. It showcases textiles, clothes, interior goods, tableware, accessories, artworks, videos, printed materials, and the designers’ original drawings and illustrations. Tsuzuku is literally translated to “temporal continuity.” It demonstrates the process of “linkage, joining hands, and circulation” as the underlining principle behind the creative energy diffused in the detailed attention to fabric, embroidery and printing techniques. The stitched tambourine circled pattern, for instance, is one of minä perhonen’s most representative designs adapted to clothing, furniture, and other products. A corridor of hanging exotic fabrics, interior design of a “shell house model,” installation of the brand’s clothes worn by people and captioned with their commentaries, and a huge gallery of original drawings are among the impressive displays.

Minagawa developed his fashion brand minä in 1995 until the name was changed to minä perhonen in 2003, coined from the Finnish words for “I” and “butterfly.” The designer acquired a special empathy toward Finnish lifestyle and culture during his travels around the Nordic countries. Primarily focusing on textile design, Minagawa and Tanaka work on hand-drawn patterns that imbue joy, vitality and individuality connected to the user’s senses of memory and fantasy. Clothes and products grow and change over time and become part of one’s life. As Minagawa expressed, “Those memories eventually become seeds of new creativity that are sown on the soil of society, where they continue to produce new things.”

Some rare and remarkable works by famous artists Yayoi Kusama, and Aomori natives Yoshitomo Nara and Shiko Munakata can also be viewed in separate galleries. Nara’s giant Aomori-ken (Aomori Dog) statue, seated 8.5 meters high and 6.7 meters wide at the outdoor vestibule on the museum’s west side, resembles a Great Buddha looming over the viewers. The overwhelming work is regarded as the museum’s iconic symbol.

Tucked in the green foothills of the Hakkoda Mountains, the Aomori Contemporary Art Centre (ACAC) run by Aomori Public University, was established in 2001 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Aomori City. It serves as a creative center for linking international networks, such as artist-in-residence programs, exhibitions, and educational activities. Outdoor sculptures by renowned Japanese and foreign artists like Tatsuo Kawaguchi, Saburo Muraoka, Péter Pal, and Zoltán Balanyi scatter around the forested premises, refreshingly breathing the force of nature webbed in art.

Internationally acclaimed architect Tadao Ando designed the building based on the concept of “invisible architecture.” The complex is buried deep in the woods without upsetting the undulating topography. The three main buildings: Creative Hall and Residential Hall, which were designed to resemble bridges, and the horseshoe-shaped Exhibition Hall, with a gallery and an outdoor amphitheater, harmonize peacefully with the thick trees and sounds of birds. The pond in the center of the amphitheater beautifully reflects the skies, foliage and the multifarious geometry of the architecture. Ripple effects on the water bounce delicately on the extended ceiling of the library terrace, embracing a wholistic space for meditation. Many of the artworks completed at ACAC were conceptualized through inspirations drawn from the natural light and green surroundings.

Exploring more nature at the Hirosaki Apple Park, Natsudomari Peninsula, and Oirase Gorge, followed by a sip of cool local Oirase beer or apple cidre while overlooking the picturesque Aomori Bay Bridge and Promenade completes this colorful northern sojourn.