A few hours later I was in the frozen north of Japan, in Hirosaki city.
We dropped off our bags at Dormy Inn, a fairly new business hotel located not too far from the red light district I was familiar with from last time. Walking through town, I remembered details the neighborhood: The downtown shopping area, the central train station, even the gallery that sells tsugaru nuri products which I've grown fond of.
My mother-in-law moved again to a place on the outskirts of town, requiring either a bus or taxi for us. It was good to see her again, and her dog Barney (female). I don't get hugs from her (neither does Hitomi) but she prepares food for us and tea and whatnot for me, which is a sign of motherly love.
She smokes, and especially in winter, it's suffocating to be indoors. I cough just thinking about it. I'm delicate.
It was New Year's Eve when we arrived. NHK had their annual Red-White singing competition on television. I would have liked Red to win since I listen to mostly female singers. I was happy to see Perfume there and they did their (robotic) dance to their popular song, "Polyrhythm."
Back at the hotel, stayed up even later than midnight watching live concerts on our high-def, big screen LCD. And unlike the Akihabara hotel the rooftop bath had a nighttime view of the city and Mount Iwate, during the day.
January first is celebrated traditionally with a shrine visit. We got our fortunes–mine better than Hitomi's–and traffic safety stickers, reflective and designed for our bicycles. I struck the bell for 100 yen and it felt satisfying.
I had a good 2008. I simply wished for my health and Hitomi's.
We didn't have much planned for the remainder of the time. Hitomi wanted to go shopping (Montbell, pants, used books), we went to a movie. Hitomi and her mother went shopping; I had lunch with them. We saw Junko (her sister) briefly. What I came to realize (and should have accepted) was that at least her mother is not really interested in visiting the U.S. and probably wouldn't like it much anyway. And her sister's probably not too keen to visit either.
For dinner in town, we went out to a few Tsugaru-jamisen live houses, one run by a solo player, one run by a group of players (Yama no Uta) which we had been to before. They all serve food, though it's a bit more expensive, but there's no cover charge. And no (added) tax and tip.
For the last full day, Hitomi had thought of skiing or snowshoeing, but for the latter the conditions weren't ready yet, and I wasn't up for all the expense and trouble of ski rental. Instead we went to the countryside and visited Goshogawara (五所川原), home of the impressive "Standing Neputa". They're 22 meters high (7 stories) and are rolled down the streets of town during their summer festival. It would certainly be a sight to behold. But you can still see two of them kept indoors at a museum. We learned about the history and also watched (again) more shamisen music.
Next stop was the Kanko Shamisen Center on the local (and really old) Tsugaru Railway. The train station looks about 50-60 years old, with relatively no improvements and the waiting area was heated with a kerosene stove. Since we had missed the train, though, we instead took a taxi there to see the last performance of the day. The performance was nice but really just a standard set of songs. Still, they had confetti rain down at the end and the performers were charming and informative. (As an aside: Performers always ask the audience "Which prefecture are you from?" And when people mention, say, Kagoshima or Niigata, I want to point how, that, hey, I'm from the U.S. And so is my wife, but then Hitomi always says she's from Aomori, like she's still been living there up until now.)
On the way back to Goshogawara we took the "stove train", heated by coals and on the verge of being discontinued. One train car was reserved for a tour, in which some of the passengers heated pieces of squid on little grills provided. For some reason, Hitomi and I received a piece of squid and when I proceeded to heat it up on the grill, Hitomi asked me to knock it off since it smells bad.
A bus took us back to Aomori airport the next day. We had shipped a lot of our warm clothes off to Narita: In addition to being cold, I struggled to fix my headphones which were shorting out.