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.
Image by Rebecca Hallett
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.
Ginzan Onsen © weniliou/Shutterstock
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.