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Tohoku Gains Michelin Stars in New Online Green Guide

December 14, 2016

Michelin has released an online Green Guide to the Tohoku region. Not sure where Tohoku is? It refers to the part of Japan’s main island Honshu north of Tokyo, and is known for its bounteous nature of mountainous terrain, lakes and volcanoes, harsh yet beautiful snowy winters, and vestiges of traditional medieval samurai culture.

Similarly to its famed Red Guides which rate hotels and restaurants, Michelin's Green Guides review and rate other tourist attractions. The new online Tohoku guide builds on the content of the paperbound 4th edition of the English and French language “Michelin Green Guide Japan”, adding a whole host of new destinations to the existing content on Tohoku.

The guide introduces over 50 tourist destinations and facilities in over 20 major cities in the Tohoku region including Matsushima, Shiogama, Ginzan Onsen, Hiraizumi, Hirosaki, and Kakunodate, and adds a grand total of 31 new tourist destinations and facilities in lesser-known Tohoku cities such as Kakunodate, Yamagata and Aizu Wakamatsu.

Among them, Kakunodate samurai residence district and Yamadera temple (Risshakuji temple) have been awarded 2 stars and the Miracle Pine in Rikuzen Takata which survived the 2011 tsunami has been granted 1 star. Some of the newly added online destinations will also be added to the forthcoming 5th edition of the paperbound guide.

Like its Red Guides, featured destinations for the Green Guides are evaluated against strict criteria and given a recommended rating from zero to 3 stars as follows: “Interesting” (★), “Recommended” (★★), and “Highly recommended” (★★★). With 3 stars apiece, the guide’s top picks for the Tohoku region are Matsushima City and its attractions of Zuigan-ji, a former daimyo (samurai lord)’s residence with a stately cedar-lined driveway and a nightingale floor, and the scenic views over Matsushima Bay (both pictured).

Recent years have seen a marked increase in the number of European tourists visiting Japan. Between January and October 2016 the number of foreign visitors to Japan reached a record high of 20 million people, 4 years ahead of the Japanese government’s target of 2020.

The number of French travellers to Japan this year is also at its highest ever, pushing past last year’s annual total of 214,228 to reach 220,500 by the end of October. Like other European tourists, French visitors tend to prefer solo travel and visit destinations off the traditional Golden Route all over Japan, hence the value of the guide, which has been released in both English and French.

By providing up-to-date information on the Tohoku region’s traditional historical buildings and magnificent nature, it is hoped that the new guide will help tempt more overseas visitors to discover this as yet relatively unexplored and untouched corner of Japan.

The guide highlights Tohoku’s key selling points as follows: “Still little known to Western tourists, the stunning region of Tohoku... will introduce you to a more rustic and authentic side of Japan. … [T]he region unveils an amazing diversity of landscapes. For example, it boasts no less than three National Parks, a UNESCO world heritage natural site and some of Japan's finest onsen (hot springs). Tohoku is also home to outstanding national treasures including castles (Hirosaki, Aizu-wakamatsu), temples (Zuigan-ji, Chuson-ji, Churen-ji, Yamadera), mausoleums (Zuiho-den, Entsu-in) and ancient samurai districts (at Kakunodate and Hirosaki).”

So, where does the guide recommend? Other than the three 3-starred locations in Matsushima, the guide also assigns 2 of its coveted stars to the following destinations:

Tohoku Destinations with 2 Michelin stars (★★)

Nyuto Onsen
Yamadera (Risshakuji)
Samurai district of Kakunodate
Oirase Gorge
Gosai-den
Chuson-ji
Zuiho-den
Osaki Hachiman-gu
Shiogama Fish Market
Shiogama-jinja
Entsu-in
Churen-ji
Mt Haguro
Domon Ken Photography Museum
Shirakami Sanchi
Homma Residence
Sendai City Museum

Of these, the following are 6 top picks for attractive natural, religious and historical spots:

 

Chuson-ji

 

A Buddhist temple founded in the 9th century, now a UNESCO world heritage site, at its peak it comprised 40 buildings. Now only Konjiki-do remains, but its fabulously opulent altar, covered with gold leaf and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, is well worth a side-trip to marvel at.

Oirase Gorge

 

A 2hr 40min, 8km/5mi walking trail in the heart of Towada-Hachimantai National Park which follows the valley of the Oirase River, skirting Lake Towada and involving two spectacular waterfalls, this peaceful spot is also popular with native Japanese hikers and nature-lovers.

 

Nyuto Onsen

A group of 7 onsen (hot springs and hotels) tucked away in a rustic riverside hamlet steeped in charm on the slopes of Mount Nyuto, it guarantees guests and visitors an authentic stay - not to mention the most relaxing soak ever - in Japan's rugged countryside.

Photo: japan-guide.com

Samurai district of Kakunodate

 

A magnificently preserved district of samurai abodes, each of which is set in a garden planted with weeping cherries and other century-old trees. Six are open to the public, of which the 2 most noteworthy are Ishiguro house, the oldest and still inhabited, and Aoyagi house.


Yamadera (Risshakuji)

 

This group of temples clinging to the mountainside - one of them is even on stilts - is one of a kind. Accessed by 1,015 steps, it was founded in 860 and its great claim to fame is that it was visited in the 17th century by the famous Japanese haiku poet Basho.

Shirakami Sanchi

 

A 130,000ha mountainous zone stretching along the border between the two prefectures of Akita and Aomori, its central zone (17,000ha) has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains an unspoilt beech grove that is the only one of its kind in the world.

 

Tours to Tohoku

If that is enough to whet your appetite for Tohoku, why not try one of the following specialised tours? InsideJapan Tours’ Northern Highlights tour takes in all the must-see sights of Tohoku, including picturesque Nyuto Onsen, ancient samurai town Kakunodate, and Matsushima’s island-studded bay views, with 14 nights costing from £2820 per person (twin share).

Japan Journey’s independent travellers’ trip The Great North Tour is a 9-night self-guided tour with a total of 2 days exploring the sights of Matsushima such as Rinzai-ji and Zuigan-ji temples, islands (via the picturesque red painted bridge) and a bay cruise in Matsushima Bay, followed by a relaxing hike along the Oirase mountain stream near Lake Towada before finally crossing onto Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, to visit Sapporo, Furano and Noboribetsu Onsen. Prices for 3* hotels start from £1,299 pp (twin/double room).

Responsible Travel offers not one but two Tohoku options. Its 13-day guided small group Japan walking holiday passes through Nikko’s UNESCO World Heritage sites and the Oze marshlands in Nikko National Park before 2 days hiking in Dewa Sanzan’s three sacred peaks with nights at temple lodgings and 1 day each in Kakunodate and Nyuto Onsen, each assigned 2 stars in the Michelin Green Guide. Prices start from £3445 for 14 days.

Alternatively, for a Tohoku blowout, try the Northern Japan Tour which offers all the Tohoku sights, sounds and smells you could possible want - or handle. It starts with 2 full days in Hiraizumi, the Kyoto of the north, home of illustrious temples and shrines such as goldleaf-covered Chuson-ji temple, winner of 2 stars in the Michelin guide.

This is followed by visits to traditional hot spring town Naruko and stunning Naruko Gorge; a guided tour of Ishinomaki, one of the worst-hit towns in the 2011 tsunami; and a day each in Michelin-starred Matsushima Bay and Sendai.

The final leg of your grand Tohoku adventure is a few days spent in little-known Niigata prefecture visiting a dairy farm, a crater lake, and a summer villa and experiencing world-famous Kodo taiko drumming and a tub boat ride on remote Sado Island, all bookended by a few days in Nikko and Tokyo. Prices are from £3405 for 15 days excluding flights.

Finally, for a summer trip to Tohoku, try Japan Deluxe Tours' Tohoku and Summer Festival Tour. This unusual tour takes participants on a magical journey through 3 unique festivals: Kanto Festival in Akita, Nebuta Festival in Aomori, and Tanabata Festival in Sendai, as well as encompassing many key Tohoku destinations highlighted by the Michelin guide, including Matsushima, Yamadera, Kakunodate, Hiraizumi, and Oirase. It departs in July for 11 days and costs around £3237.

For more information to help plan your trip to Tohoku and to use the guide see the website: http://travelguide.michelin.com/asia/japan/tohoku

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JNTO Partners