When the famous poet Matsuo Bashō set out on his travels along the “narrow road to the deep north” in 1689, he commented, somewhat despondently, “I might as well be going to the ends of the earth.” Even today, many urban Japanese regard the harsh, mountainous provinces of NORTHERN HONSHŪ as irredeemably backward. Not that it’s all thatched farmhouses and timeless agricultural vistas, but certainly rural traditions have survived here longer than in most other parts of the country. However, it doesn’t take long to discover the region’s huge array of festivals; nor do you have to delve much deeper to find the rich heritage of folk tales and evidence of ancient religious practices that give parts of northern Honshū a deliciously mysterious tang.
Northern Honshū, or Tōhoku as much of the area is known, was the last part of Japan’s main island to be brought under central control. As such, it boasts more in the way of military sights – ruined castles, samurai towns and aristocratic tombs – than great temples or religious foundations. The one glorious exception is north of Sendai at the seemingly insignificant town Hiraizumi, whose opulent Golden Hall (Konjiki-dō) is a highlight of any tour of the region. By way of contrast, the archetypal north-country town lies not far away at Tōno, often referred to as the birthplace of Japanese folklore, where goblin-like kappa inhabit local rivers and fairy children scamper through old farmhouses. Much of this is now heavily commercialized, but it’s still worth exploring Tōno’s more secretive shrines, with their references to primitive cults. Darker forces are also at work much further north where souls in purgatory haunt Osore-zan’s volcanic wasteland on the hammer-head Shimokita Hantō. In summer, pilgrims come here to consult blind mediums, while over on the west coast the holy mountain of Dewa-sanzan is home to yamabushi, ascetic priests endowed with mystical powers.
The region is also characterized by its splendid scenery, ranging from prolific rice fields and cosseted orchards to wild, rugged coastlines and the pine-crusted islands of Matsushima Bay. The central spine of magnificent mountains provides excellent opportunities for hiking and skiing, notably around Zaō Onsen in Yamagata-ken and the more northerly Towada-Hachimantai area. Both are noted for their flora and fauna, including black bears in remoter districts, while Towada-ko itself is a massive crater lake accessed via the picturesque Oirase valley. The World Heritage-listed Shirakami-Sanchi mountains, on the border between Aomori and Akita prefectures, are equally beautiful, and remote enough to remain undeveloped. In Sado-ga-shima, a large island lying off Niigata, dramatic mountain and coastal scenery provides the backdrop for a surprisingly rich culture – a legacy of its isolation and the infamous characters once exiled to the island.
JR offers a variety of special rail tickets covering the Tōhoku region. Although there are good transport links between the main cities (including a recently extended Shinkansen service to Aomori), you’ll need to allow plenty of time to explore the more remote corners of northern Honshū – this is one place where car rental is definitely worth considering. Public buses can be sporadic at the best of times, with many services stopping completely in winter, when heavy snowfalls close the mountain roads. In general, the best time to visit is either spring or autumn, before it gets too busy and while the scenery is at its finest, though the uplands also provide welcome relief from summer’s sweltering heat. Note, however, that early August sees thousands of people flocking to Tōhoku’s big four festivals in Sendai, Aomori, Hirosaki and Akita. If you’re travelling at this time, make sure you’ve got your transport and accommodation sorted out well in advance. Apart from ski resorts, many tourist facilities outside the major cities shut down from early November to late April.
Top image: Matsushima bay © Thanya Jones/Shutterstock