This group of six prefectures northeast of Tokyo is famed for its vast, rugged natural landscapes of mountains, lakes and hot springs and towns with feudal remnants.
To some, Tohoku may ring a bell of recognition as the area devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami of 2011. For others who have ventured through this northern area of Honshu, Tohoku likely represents something quite different – a tranquil place of national parks, steaming and secluded hot springs, and home to some of Japan’s most unexpectedly addictive sakes.
Tohoku is an ideal destination for second time visitors to Japan – or first timers looking for that ‘authentic’ holiday experience. You’ll be hard pressed to find an area of the country more suited to getting off the beaten tourist path. See below for our advice on this region’s best hot spring hideaways, picturesque rail journeys and famed festivals.
What to do in Tohoku
If you’re looking for hot springs, this rugged area – made up of six different prefectures – has them in abundance. For a postcard-esque hot spring town, visit Ginzan Onsen – where historic ryokans line up along a pretty river, and visitors totter tranquilly along the lamp-lit streets in their yukata and wooden sandals.
For a step even further back in time, however, you could try Nyuto Onsen. Nestled in a mountainside in Akita prefecture, this collection of small hot springs offers tourists a true escape. The soothing, mineral-rich milky waters of Tsuru-no-yu onsen, and its 400+ year old buildings are a welcome respite, offering a much needed time warp for those caught up in the digital age.
Festivals abound in Tohoku, so one of the best times to visit is during summer, when you’ll be able to witness two of Japan’s biggest and best. Visit Aomori prefecture to catch the Nebuta Matsuri, which involves enormous paper-crafted, colourful figures depicting images from Japan’s folklore, or the Kanto Matsuri in Akita Prefecture, where the daring participants balance enormous poles decorated with paper lanterns on their heads.
Hikers (and fans of Joanna Lumley’s Japan) will adore the seemingly untrodden trails of the Dewa Sanzan – three sacred mountains which represent birth (Haguro-san), death (Gas-san) and rebirth (Yudono-san). Pagodas and temples en route through this mountainous region offer weary walkers a constant stream of surprise stop offs. Summer and autumn are the best time to attempt these hikes, when the snow has long since melted from the mountaintops.
This largely unknown area of Japan is also home to some of the country’s most famous spaces of art and design. Visit the Aomori Museum of Art, designed by Japanese architect Jun Aoki, where you’ll find Yoshitomo Nara’s giant Aomori Ken dog, or pay a visit to Akita International University Nakajima Library to admire the cedar ceiling which resembles a giant, open umbrella – just two examples from Tohoku’s huge range of art museums, artist retreats and installations.
Whether you’re walking through the wetlands of Oze in Fukushima Prefecture, or visiting the Towada Hachimantai National Park for a breath of fresh air, you’ll find space to walk, think and breathe in the Tohoku region. As Matsuo Basho, Japan’s most famous haiku poet, said in his travelogue of Tohoku, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”:
Calm and serene /
The sound of a cicada /
Penetrates the rock.
How to get to Tohoku
It is possible to reach Tohoku’s major cities by bullet train. Alternatively, if you prefer to work to your own timetable, you can rent a car with a company such as Japan Experience – who offer easy-to-book car rental services even in Japan’s remoter cities.
Japan’s sightseeing trains also offer an alternative to the 200mph bullet trains. From 2017 the Shikishima cruise train will take passengers through all of Tohoku’s best sightseeing spots, or for those on a tighter budget try the Gono Line which runs adjacent to the Sea of Japan on Honshu’s east coast. Shamisen performances on board, combined with views of the billowing sea beyond, make this a memory-worthy ride.