Japan is a country full of incredible sights: the ancient temples of Kyoto and Nara; Tokyo’s glittering streets; the floating shrine gate at Miyajima; Beppu’s red, steaming hot springs. The only problem with this list of alluring sights? It completely ignores half the country. So it’s time to look a little further up on the map, and head into the great unknown: Tōhoku.
The Japanese have long considered the north of the country to be at best a charming backwater where people live simple, traditional lives, or at worst a harsh land of mountains and deprivation, where no self-respecting city-dweller would set foot.
But all that is changing now, as Japan – and the rest of the world – wises up to Tōhoku’s multifaceted charms. So here are a few reasons to veer off the tourist trail, and forge your own path northwards.
1. Take a side trip from Sendai
Tōhoku may be fairly rural, but don’t think your narrow road to the deep north will consist entirely of picturesque countryside and time-warped villages. There are plenty of bustling, exciting cities in the region, starting with Sendai.
Tōhoku’s largest city has many of the attractions and conveniences of Japan’s capital, but manages to keep a friendly, laidback feel sprawling Tokyo sometimes lacks. You can wake up in a capsule hotel (try the super-stylish nine hours), spend hours shopping (the region’s famous for its laquerware and kokeshi dolls), swing by an ancient temple or castle, chow down on Japanese cuisine (brave souls can try the local delicacy, gyū-tan – cow’s tongue) and, of course, waste hours at the Pokémon centre.
If you get tired of city living head out to Matsushima bay, dotted with islands straight out of a Hiroshige print. Alternatively, Yamadera (literally “mountain temple”) is under an hour away; there are over a thousand steps to the highest temple here, with stunning views across green mountains your reward. Shelve your pride before you arrive, though – you’ll almost certainly be overtaken by a few of Japan’s indomitable grannies on your way up.
2. Get spiritual at Hiraizumi
Compared to the south of Japan, there aren’t all that many religious sites in the north. Hiraizumi is the glittering exception, where you can see the remains of the Fujiwara clan’s glorious, Heian-era Buddhist buildings, the most impressive being the golden Konjiki-dō – worth the trip from Tokyo alone.
If Buddhism isn’t working for you, head even further back in Japan’s spiritual past and explore the region’s deep-running folk history. At nearby Geibikei, a glorious tree-lined gorge, you can take a boat trip down the river and be regaled with folk tales and songs.
Slightly further afield is the Tōno Valley, said to be home to kappa (sly water demons), zashiki-warashi (mischievous, prosperity-bringing child spirits) and other mysterious beings.
3. Soak in hot springs
Tōhoku has some of the best onsen in Japan, and they’re often in absurdly picturesque places. Take Nyūto Onsen, scattered up the side of a mountain deep in the “snow country” near Akita, where you can relax in a steaming hot outdoor bath, watching the snow melt even as it falls. Try Ganiba Onsen, one of the many inns in the area, where you can head down a wooded pathway to a secluded bath right in the forest.
Even further off the beaten track is the hot-spring town of Ginzan Onsen – it feels completely secluded and you’re pretty unlikely to see many other foreign visitors, but it’s easily accessible from Tokyo, Sendai and Yamagata. It definitely merits an overnight stay, so you can stroll through the gas-lit town in your ryokan’s yukata – possibly pretending you’re in Spirited Away – then head out in the morning for a hike to a waterfall, or an underground tour of the old silver mines. Ginzan-sō is a particularly good option, a couple of minutes’ walk out of the town so you can lie back in the outdoor baths and hear nothing but the calls of birds and the river flowing past.
4. Slurp your way through Morioka’s noodles
Friendly Morioka, with the beautiful, symmetrical Mount Iwate looming over it, is worth a stop for one thing in particular: noodles. You can slurp your way through jūwari soba (made with 100% buckwheat flour, giving it a more mellow taste than most soba), reimen (a cool summer dish of chilled noodles with kimchi) and ja-ja men (thick noodles in a hearty miso broth).
The ultimate challenge, though, is wanko soba – the tiny bowl of greyish noodles may not look much, but the second you’ve finished it another serving will be placed in front of you, then another, then another, until you concede defeat. And frankly, if you can’t manage at least forty bowls, you’re just not trying hard enough.
5. Live slow in Fukushima prefecture
Fukushima is still suffering from low visitor numbers in the wake of 2011’s disaster, but has been safe to visit for years by now. Swing by the lovely, low-key Prefectural Museum of Art for a dose of culture, head up Mount Shinobu for views across the city, and wander through Teramachi (“temple town”) for a hint of the old city, and you’ll wonder how long it’ll take everyone to remember this gem of a city.
Fukushima is also an excellent base for seeing the rest of this beautiful region. Head to nearby Takayu Onsen for a dip in sulphuric, milky blue waters, or visit the historic castle town of Aizu-Wakamatsu. Here, you can hop on the Tadami line and just watch the stunning scenery roll by as your train heads through small towns and villages scattered alongside rivers and at the foot of mountains.
6. Get festive at Tōhoku’s matsuri
Everyone knows that Japan throws a good matsuri (festival), and Tōhoku is no exception. February’s Kamakura festival sees the river in Yokote lit up with thousands of tiny lights, and the streets lined with igloos which you can duck into for sweet, warming drinks of amazake served by the local kids.
Usually on the same day, nearby Rokugo holds its Takeuchi matsuri, in which two groups of drunken locals battle each other in the snow with twenty-foot bamboo poles; the poles are then set alight for the final round – obviously. Eat delicious festival snacks like yakisoba (fried noodles) and ikayaki (salted, skewered squid), watch in amazement and stand well back.
If you prefer summer heat to winter cold, head to Sendai’s Tanabata festival and Akita’s Kantō festival. In Sendai the streets are filled with colourful paper streamers, while in Akita tall bamboo poles covered in lanterns are paraded through the streets. Most people arrive before the parade, though, when locals balance the enormous, heavy lanterns in one hand, on a hip, or even on their forehead. Aomori and Hirosaki hold Nebuta matsuri (Neputa in Hirosaki), in which enormous, handmade paper floats are paraded through the streets with riotous singing and dancing.
When the festivities have died down in Aomori, wander over to the harbour, look north across the Tsugaru Strait and wonder about the even greater unknown across the water: Hokkaidō. Maybe next time?
Rebecca flew between London and Tokyo with Finnair. If you want to do some research before you go, try checking your nearest JNTO office, and explore more of Japan with the Rough Guide to Japan. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.