Guide to Japan’s Akita Prefecture

Akita Japan Thesmartlocal

Winter is a pretty wild concept for most of us Singaporeans. 2018’s brief 22-degree weather had some of us whipping out our heat-techs and winter coats, but that’s not what I’m on about. I’m not even talking about the kind of winter that really just means shivering your butts off without any snow to compensate for the cold – I mean being shin-deep in snow, having your hair almost frozen, and lots of snowball fights. Lots.

Yeah. That kind of winter.

If, like Elsa, the cold never bothered you anyway, then Northern Japan’s lesser-traversed region of Akita is waiting for you to come explore. Just a 1-hour flight from Tokyo, here’s what it’s got in store.

1. Get up close with the legendary snow monsters at Ani Ski Resort

When I first heard we were going to see snow monsters, I had no idea what to expect. Was I finally going to meet the legendary Yeti?

Alas, I wasn’t about to break the internet by coming into contact with the Abominable Snowman. Turns out, the snow monsters we were in for weren’t going to bite our heads off or anything.

ani ski resort snow monsters

Also known as juhyo, they’re actually giant fir trees covered in snow and ice as a result of massive snowfall come wintertime – and there’s no better place to hunt them down than at Ani Ski Resort.

After a hearty lunch of some horse meat curry (yep, we had that), we were all fueled up for a long day ahead. Aside from getting up close with the snow monsters, skiing down Mt. Moriyoshi – home of the resort – was also on our agenda.

ani ski resort snow monsters cable car

A sea of snow monsters on our Gondola ride up the mountain

Standing amidst the trees with snow mercilessly pelting down was truly something for us to remember. In that moment, I finally knew what The Starks meant with the whole ‘winter is coming’ bit.

ani ski resort sledding

We even had our very own makeshift sleds to get back down, with tumbles aplenty

Next up: skiing. Now, I’ve only ever seen the sport on TV looking easy-peasy, but being the noobs we were, it definitely took some getting used to.

ani ski resort skiing gear

At least I had the pro-skier look down pat

Thanks to a bunch of instructors who held our hands along the way (literally), we managed to get the hang of it by the end. I might have fallen one too many times, but I’d strap on the skis for another round any day.

ani ski resort skiing

Ani Ski Resort
Address:  Kaginodaki-79-5 Anikaginodaki, Kitaakita, Akita 018-4624, Japan
Telephone: +81 186-82-3311

2. Snuggle with adorable Akita Inus at Akita Dog Visitor Centre

There are many things I love in the world, and what constantly tops the list is one thing: Dogs. In the context of Japan, many of us might picture an adorable Shiba Inu in a bandana collar – but there’s another breed waiting for you to coo over.

Ladies and gents, I present to you the Akita Inu.

akita dog visitor centre

Commemorating my meet-and-greet with Ako-chan

Our first dog-stop for the day was Akita Dog Visitor Centre, which is right around the corner from Odate Train Station. Here, we got to meet its resident superstar, Ako-chan. We had to try our best to suppress our squeals so that we didn’t end up scaring the poor pup, and it was all smiles when we managed to sneak in some selfies while here.

The dog centre typically does not allow direct interaction with the dogs, but you’ll still be able to pet and feed them treats through a wooden fence.

furusawa hot springs akita inu

Akita Inus are banned in Singapore due to our hot climate, so here’s one of your few chances of meeting these fluffy doggos IRL

If the visitor centre just won’t do, you can head over to Furusawa Hot Springs, which is a 5-minute drive away, to meet Hana-chan and Haru-chan. We only got to see Hana-chan during our visit, but with her enthusiasm and adorable face, we weren’t complaining. You can also get some treats to feed the dogs here.

Though they might look like Shibas at first glance, it didn’t take much for us to spot the difference. These dogs are way larger and fluffier, which made them perfect for a good ol’ cuddle. Needless to say, my throbbing dog-loving heart was appeased.

Note: Do drop the centres a call to check if the dogs are in before your visit as they might be out for walks.

Akita Dog Visitor Centre
Address: Next to Odate Station; 1-3-1 Onari-cho, Odate, Akita, Japan
Opening Hours: 9AM-3.30PM (Closed on Mon, Tue, Thur, Fri)

Furusawa Hot Springs
Address: 27 Niizuna Odate City, Akita 017-0032, Japan
Telephone:+ 81 186-48-4295

3. Experience Japanese culture first-hand at a farmstay

sakakoshimai farmstay akita

The whole team with Yamauchi-san and his family

I’ll tell ya right now that there’s no better way to experience a new city than to live it up with the locals. So if you’re looking for accommodation during your visit to Akita, consider booking a stay with Yamauchi-san and his family at Sakakoshimai Farmstay.

After a well-needed trip to the onsen to wind-down and clean ourselves up, we headed back to the house for dinner. And oh, we weren’t just going to be eating dinner – we were going to make it. On the menu? Kiritampo – a traditional rice dish that’s unique to Akita.

kiritampo making

Kiritampo is made from freshly pounded rice, which we then shaped around a skewer for grilling

By the time our grilled rice skewers were ready, so were our tummies, so we settled in for a night of dinnertime festivities. This included a dance performance by Yamauchi-san.

sakakoshimai farmstay akita yamauchi-san

Japan and its people are known for their immense hospitality, and our hosts surely didn’t disappoint. We were greeted with warm smiles and cordial chatter from the moment we stepped foot into their home, and it was heartwarming to see all of us sharing conversations despite the obvious language barrier.

If you’re worried about not being able to communicate during your stay here, rest assured you’ll still be well taken care of. The 4 of us only knew a smattering of Japanese, but we managed to get through the night with the help of sign language and a nifty translator.

sakakoshimai farmstay japan

Our breakfast spread that was waiting for us in the morning

If you find yourself in Akita during Spring or Summer, you can even help Yamauchi-san with grape picking in his vineyard or harvesting vegetables at the farm.

Book a stay at Sakakoshimai here.

4. Hand make traditional wooden ‘magewappa’ bento boxes

making magewappa

We’ve seen Japanese bento boxes all over the internet, but beyond shaping Rilakkuma out of cheese, seaweed, and the like lies an intricate artform not many know of. We’re talking about the boxes themselves, and Akita has its very own kind: the magewappa.

These are crafted from Akita Cedarwood, which is steamed and bent into shape before being carefully crafted together by hand. We got to have a go at making these boxes ourselves, which made us realise that a lot of work goes behind making each individual container.

making magewappa akita

Voila -proud magewappa-makers with our sensei, who helped us along the way

We got to experience this at Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten, a quaint family-run store in Odate’s city centre. We learned that, though made from all-natural material, these sturdy bento boxes can withstand time if properly maintained – some of the staff here have been using their boxes for over 10 years!

magewappa akita

Be sure to drop by if you’re looking for a special gift to bring back home

Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten
Address: 1-chōme-12-27 Onarichō, Odate, Akita 017-0044, Japan (5-min walk from Odate station)
Opening Hours: 10.30AM-8PM (Closed on Tuesdays)

5. Chill over food and drinks in an igloo at Towada Winter Festival

towada winter festival food carts

Gorging on street food sure helped us from freezing our socks off in the cold. The Towada Winter Festival lights up the night every February in Akita, with rows of food stalls selling everything from mozzarella-stuffed sausages to pipin’-hot yakisoba (fried noodles).

But if you’re looking to warm your tummy in a less conventional way, head over to the festival’s igloo bar – also known as a kamakura.

towada winter festival kamakura igloo bar

Almost everything on the inside was constructed out of snow and ice – down to its cups

towada winter festival igloo bar

This marked our first time in an actual igloo – and a very hip one at that

Despite the delicious grub and one-of-a-kind bar experience, our highlight of the night had to be the festival’s fireworks show. I could write you an essay about it but I will never be able to do it justice – just trust me when I say that this is something that you absolutely cannot miss.

towada winter festival fireworks

O. m. g.

Watching giant fireworks which were accompanied by a sweet Japanese ballad go off right in front of my eyes had me feeling all sorts of emotions. Not going to lie, I sort of wanted to cry (out of joy, of course). Beautiful light fixtures and snow sculptures can be found around the festival grounds too, so make sure to explore the space for some cool photo-ops.

Towada Winter Festival
Address: Lake Towada Shore Yasumiya Event Site, Yasumiya Towadakohan, Towada-shi, Aomori 018-550, Japan
Opening Hours: 11AM-9PM (Weekends, PH) | 3PM-9PM (Weekdays)

Note: The festival is only open in February.

6. Watch a kabuki performance at Japan’s oldest wooden theatre

Korakukan Theatre

Kabuki refers to the ancient art of Japanese theatre, which dates back to the 17th century, and Korakukan Theatre is the oldest wooden theatre you’ll find in Japan. This was built way back in 1910, and the interior still retains the theatre’s original architecture till today.

Korakukan Theatre interior

See the walkway in the middle? That was where vendors would sell snacks and drinks during performances

Though the theatre didn’t have any ongoing shows while we were here, we got to enjoy an interactive behind-the-scenes tour of the space. We learned that the mechanics of the theatre hasn’t changed one bit aside from being re-engineered for maintenance. That meant no fancy machinery or technology – the show is still run manually by the crew.

Korakukan Theatre stage

The stage rotates every time there’s a scene change

Korakukan Theatre akita

Meanwhile, our guide Colin was working hard to move the platform from below. It takes 4 people to move the stage together! (We helped too, of course…) 

And to really get into the mood, we donned some costumes and had a go onstage. Fun fact: It’s common for actors to cross-dress as both male and female characters during performances.

Korakukan Theatre japan akita

I got to wear an elegant kimono that was reserved for senior actors at the theatre

Korakukan Theatre
Address: 2 Matsunoshita Kosakakōzan Kosaka Town, Kazuno-gun, Akita, Japan
Opening Hours: 9AM-5PM
Telephone: +81 186-29-3732

Note: Performances are not held from December through March, though guided tours are scheduled during this time.

Akita – a family-friendly destination to visit in Japan

akita japan travel thesmartlocal

Prior to our adventure, Akita was a sleepy town that merely existed on the map – in reality, it’s anything but that. From sliding down snowy mountains to snuggling with Akita Inus and trying not to cry from watching fireworks, our trip was nothing short of eventful.

Japan stays on top of almost every Singaporean’s list of travel destinations, but there’s more to see aside from the familiar sights of Tokyo or Osaka. If you’re looking for something slightly off the beaten track, be sure to pen Akita down in your books. It’s also only a 1-hour domestic flight from Tokyo, which makes it a great destination that isn’t inconvenient to visit.

lake towada akita

Akita’s iconic Lake Towada

While we don’t doubt that the city has something to offer no matter the season, we say that winter is the best time to visit. This is good news for families with kiddos, ‘cuz it’s just in time for the December holidays. Every location we visited is family-friendly with activities suitable for travellers of all ages. Plus, the youngins will be looking forward to knocking “Seeing snow IRL” off their bucket lists.

Sure, the cold might take some getting used to, but that’s not something a coat and fuzzy socks can’t fix. 😉

Find out more about travelling around Akita here

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