Northern Honshū Travel Guide

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.

What to see in Northern Honshū

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.

Akita

One of the few large cities on the northwest coast of Japan, modern Akita (秋田) is an important port and industrial centre with access to some of the country’s few domestic oil reserves. Though it was founded in the eighth century, almost nothing of the old city remains and Akita’s few central sites – three contrasting museums – can easily be covered on foot in half a day. With its airport and Shinkansen services, however, Akita makes a convenient base for the region. The small town of Kakunodate, a short train ride to the east, has a preserved street of two-hundred-year-old samurai houses, while you can soak in luxury at Nyūtō Onsen, a group of hot springs at the end of the Sendatsu-gawa valley, 10km northeast of Japan’s deepest lake, Tazawa-ko.

The city of Akita is also home to the last of the great Tōhoku summer festivals, the Kantō Matsuri (Aug 3–6) – though it’s a pleasantly low-key affair compared to events in Sendai and Aomori. During the festival, men parade through the streets balancing tall bamboo poles strung with paper lanterns, which they transfer from their hip to head, hand or shoulder while somehow managing to keep the swaying, top-heavy structure upright.

Dewa-sanzan

Pilgrims have been trekking up the slopes of Dewa-sanzan (出羽三山; also known as Dewa-san), one of Japan’s most sacred mountains, for more than a thousand years. It’s an arduous rather than difficult climb, taking in ancient cedar woods, alpine meadows and three intriguing shrines where yamabushi (mountain ascetics) continue to practise their secret rites.

A lumpy extinct volcano with three peaks, Dewa-sanzan faces the Sea of Japan across the famously prolific rice fields of the Shōnai plain. Many people take the road up its first peak, Haguro-san (羽黒山; 414m), but it’s well worth slogging up the 2446 stone steps from the bus stop, among venerable cedars, to reach the impressive, thatch-roofed Gosaiden, which enshrines the deities of each of the three mountains. Dewa-san’s middle shrine perches atop Gas-san (1984m), with spectacular views in clear weather, though otherwise it’s the least interesting of the three mountains. If time is short, you might want to skip round by road to Yudono-jinja, on the third peak, visiting a couple of rather grisly mummified monks en route.

Today Dewa-san and its three shrines fall under the Shinto banner, but the mountain was originally home to one of the colourful offshoots of Esoteric Buddhism, later unified as Shugendō. The worship of Dewa-san dates from the seventh century, when an imperial prince fled to this area following the death of his father. In a vision, a three-legged crow led him to Haguro-san (Black Wing Mountain), where he lived to the ripe old age of 90, developing his unique blend of Shinto, Buddhism and ancient folk religion. Later the yamabushi, the sect’s itinerant mountain priests (literally “the ones who sleep in the mountains”), became famous for their mystic powers and their extreme asceticism – one route to enlightenment consisted of living in caves off a diet of nuts and wild garlic. Though once fairly widespread, the sect dwindled after the mid-nineteenth century, when Shinto reclaimed Japanese mountains for its own. Nevertheless, you’ll still find a flourishing community of yamabushi around Dewa-san, kitted out in their natty checked jackets, white knickerbockers and tiny, black pillbox hats. They also carry a huge conch-shell horn, the haunting cry of which summons the gods.

The best time to see yamabushi in action is during the area’s various festivals. The biggest annual bash is the Hassaku Matsuri (Aug 24–31), when pilgrims take part in a fire festival on Haguro-san to ensure a bountiful harvest. At New Year, Haguro-san is also the venue for a festival of purification, known as the Shōreisai, which combines fire and acrobatic dancing with ascetic rituals.

Echigo-Tsumari

Every three years the mountainous, rural and relatively unspoilt Echigo-Tsumari region of Niigata-ken hosts a spectacular international art festival, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, from mid-July to early September (the next will be in 2012). Artists from all over the world are invited to exhibit their work, with previous standouts being Cai Guo Quiang from China, who reconstructed an old Chinese climbing kiln, and Rina Banerjee, who, inspired by the Taj Mahal, converted a school gymnasium into a giant birdcage. For more details check out w www.echigo-tsumari.jp.

Even if you’re not in Japan during the festival, a visit to this region is still a rewarding journey. The main places to head for are Tokamachi, Matsudai and Matsunoyama, all of which have fascinating permanent exhibition facilities built for the past triennials and plenty of sculptures and other artworks sited in paddy fields and on hillsides. The best way to get around is to hire a car, although during the festival there are also free bikes available at all the main sites. Otherwise you can travel here by local train from either Echigo-Yuzawa on the Niigata Shinkansen route or Saigata on the Joetsu line.

By the far the most memorable lodging experience is spending a night in one of the art pieces. Serbian Marina Abramovic’s Dream House (夢の家; t 025/596-3134, w www.tsumari-artfield.com/dreamhouse;), a refurbished century-old farmhouse, is one great option, while the architectural genius House of Light (光の館; t 025/761-1090, w www11.ocn.ne.jp/~jthikari; Tokamachi-shi), designed by James Turrell for the purpose of meditation, stuns with its retractable roof and slick, modern interior. Both are short taxi rides from Tokamachi Station and are open from April to December.

Hiraizumi

For a brief period in the eleventh century the temples of Hiraizumi (平泉), around 120km north of Sendai and now a quiet backwater, rivalled even Kyoto in their magnificence. Though the majority of monasteries and palaces have since been lost, the gloriously extravagant Konjiki-dō and the other treasures of Chūson-ji temple bear witness to the area’s former wealth and level of artistic accomplishment. Hiraizumi also boasts one of Japan’s best-preserved Heian-period gardens at Mōtsū-ji, while a boat ride along the nearby Satetsu-gawa, between the towering cliffs of Geibikei gorge, provides a scenic contrast.

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine Hiraizumi as the resplendent capital of the Fujiwara clan, who chose this spot on the banks of the Kitakami-gawa for their “paradise on earth”. At first sight it’s a rather dozy little town on a busy main road, but the low western hills conceal one of the most important sights in northern Honshū, the gilded Konjiki-dō, which has somehow survived war, fire and natural decay for nearly nine hundred years. You can easily cover this and the nearby gardens of Mōtsū-ji in a day, staying either in Hiraizumi or Ichinoseki, or even as a half-day stopover while travelling between Sendai and Morioka.

In the early twelfth century, Fujiwara Kiyohira, the clan’s first lord, began building a vast complex of Buddhist temples and palaces, lavishly decorated with gold from the local mines, in what is now Hiraizumi. Eventually, the Fujiwara’s wealth and military might started to worry the southern warlord Minamoto Yoritomo, who was in the throes of establishing the Kamakura shogunate. Yoritomo’s valiant brother, Yoshitsune, had previously trained with the warrior monks of Hiraizumi, so when Yoritomo turned against him, Yoshitsune fled north. Though at first he was protected by the Fujiwara, they soon betrayed him on the promise of a sizeable reward, and in 1189 Yoshitsune committed suicide (although according to one legend he escaped to Mongolia, where he resurfaced as Genghis Khan). Meanwhile, Yoritomo attacked the Fujiwara, destroying their temples and leaving the town to crumble into ruin. Bashō, passing through Hiraizumi five hundred years after Yoshitsune’s death, caught the mood in one of his famous haiku: “The summer grass, ’tis all that’s left of ancient warriors’ dreams.”

The flight of Yoshitsune to Hiraizumi is commemorated with a costume parade during the town’s main spring festival (May 1–5), which also features open-air nō performances at Chūson-ji. Other important events include an ancient sacred dance, Ennen-no-Mai, held by torchlight at Mōtsū-ji on January 20, May 5 and during the autumn festival (Nov 1–3).

Chūson-ji

The Fujiwara’s first building projects concentrated on Chūson-ji (中尊寺), which had been founded by a Tendai priest from Kyoto in the mid-ninth century. Of the temple’s forty original buildings, only two remain: Konjiki-dō (the Golden Hall) and the nearby sutra repository, Kyōzō. They sit on a forested hilltop, alongside a number of more recent structures, on the main bus route north from Ichinoseki and Hiraizumi stations (20min and 5min respectively).

From the main road, a broad avenue leads uphill past minor temples sheltering under towering cryptomeria trees, until you reach the first building of any size, the Hon-dō, at the top on the right-hand side. A few minutes further on, set back on the left, a concrete hall shelters Chūson-ji’s greatest treasure. The Konjiki-dō (金色堂) is tiny – only 5.5 square metres – and protected behind plate glass, but it’s still an extraordinary sight. The whole structure, bar the roof tiles, gleams with thick gold leaf, while the altar inside is smothered in mother-of-pearl inlay and delicate, gilded copper friezes set against dark, burnished lacquer. The altar’s central image is of Amida Nyorai, flanked by a host of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and guardian kings, all swathed in gold. This extravagant gesture of faith and power took fifteen years to complete and was unveiled in 1124; later, the mummified bodies of the four Fujiwara lords were buried under its altar.

Behind the Konjiki-dō, the second of Chūson-ji’s original buildings, the Kyōzō, is not nearly so dramatic. This small, plain hall, erected in 1108, used to house more than five thousand Buddhist sutras written in gold or silver characters on rich, indigo paper. The hall next door to the Kyōzō was built in 1288 to shelter the Konjiki-dō – and now houses an eclectic collection of oil paintings – while, across the way, there’s a much more recent nō stage where outdoor performances are held in summer by firelight (Aug 14), and during Hiraizumi’s two major festivals in spring and autumn. Finally, the road beside the entrance to the Konjiki-dō leads to the modern Sankōzō (讃衡蔵), a museum containing what remains of Chūson-ji’s treasures. The most valuable items are a statue of the Senju Kannon (Thousand-Armed Goddess of Mercy), a number of sutra scrolls and a unique collection of lacy metalwork decorations (kalavinkas), which originally hung in the Konjiki-dō.

Mōtsū-ji

Hiraizumi’s other main sight, the Heian-period gardens of Mōtsū-ji (毛越寺), lies eight minutes’ walk west from Hiraizumi Station. In the twelfth century the Fujiwara added to this temple, originally founded in 850, until it was the largest in northern Honshū. Nothing remains now save a few foundation stones and Japan’s best-preserved Heian garden, the Jōdo-teien. The garden’s main feature is a large lake, speckled with symbolic “islands”, in the midst of velvet lawns. There are a few simple buildings among the trees and ancient foundation stones, but otherwise the garden is simply a pleasant place to stroll. You’ll find flowers in bloom in almost every season, including cherry blossom, lotus, bush clover and azaleas, but the most spectacular display is in late June, when thirty thousand irises burst into colour. As you leave the temple gate, pop into the small museum on the left, which is most of interest for its photos of Mōtsū-ji’s colourful festivals, including the sacred Ennen-no-Mai dance, and a poetry-writing contest in Heian-period dress, which takes place on the last Sunday in May.

Sado-ga-shima

For centuries, the rugged, S-shaped island of Sado-ga-shima (佐渡島) was a place of exile for criminals and political undesirables; though even today it has a unique atmosphere born of its isolation and a distinct cultural heritage that encompasses haunting folk songs, nō theatre and puppetry, as well as the more recently established Kodô drummers. It’s a deceptively large island, consisting of two parallel mountain chains linked by a fertile central plain that shelters most of Sado’s historical relics. These include several important temples, such as Kompon-ji, founded by the exiled Buddhist monk Nichiren, and a couple of bizarre, hi-tech museums where robots perform nō plays and narrate local history. The Edo-period gold mines of Aikawa, on Sado’s northwest coast, make another interesting excursion, but the island’s greatest attractions are really its scenery and glimpses of an older Japan.

Sado also has a packed calendar of festivals from April to November. Many of these involve okesa folk songs and the devil-drumming known as ondeko (or oni-daiko), both of which are performed nightly during the tourist season in Ogi and Aikawa. Throughout June, nō groups perform in shrines around the central plain, while the island’s biggest event nowadays is the Kodô drummers’ international Earth Celebration, held in Ogi.

Brief history of Sado-ga-shima

Since before the twelfth century, Sado was viewed as a suitably remote place for exiling undesirables. The most illustrious exile was the ex-emperor Juntoku (reigned 1211–21), who tried to wrest power back from Kamakura and spent the last twenty years of his life on Sado. A few decades later, Nichiren, the founder of the eponymous Buddhist sect, found himself on the island for a couple of years; he wasted no time in erecting temples and converting the local populace. Then there was Zeami, a famous actor and playwright credited with formalizing nō theatre, who died here in 1443 after eight years in exile.

In 1601, rich seams of gold and silver were discovered in the mountains above Aikawa. From then on, criminals were sent to work in the mines, supplemented by “homeless” workers from Edo (Tokyo), who dug some 400km of tunnels down to 600m below sea level – all by hand. In 1896 Mitsubishi took the mines over from the imperial household and today they’re owned by the Sado Gold Mining Co., which continued to extract small quantities of gold up until 1989.

Central Sado

Sado’s central plain is the most heavily populated part of the island and home to a number of impressive temples, some dating back to the eighth century. Two routes cross this plain linking Ryōtsu to towns on the west coast: the main highway cuts southwest from Kamo-ko to Sado airport and on to Sawata, served by buses on the Hon-sen route (line 1), while the quieter, southerly route takes you through Niibo (新穂), Hatano (畑野) and Mano (真野) along the Minami-sen bus route (line 2). The majority of historical sites lie scattered across this southern district – for many of them you’ll need your own transport or be prepared to walk a fair distance. One solution is to rent a bike.

Sado’s most accessible and important temple, Kompon-ji (根本寺), is located a few kilometres south of Niibo village; buses from Ryōtsu run here fairly regularly during the day. Kompon-ji marks the spot where the exiled Nichiren lived in 1271, though the temple itself was founded some years later. If you can get there before the coach parties, it’s a pleasant stroll round the mossy garden with its thatched temple buildings filled with elaborate gilded canopies, presided over by a statue of Nichiren in his characteristic monk’s robes.

On the eastern outskirts of MANO (真野), Myōsen-ji (妙宣寺) was founded by one of Nichiren’s first disciples and includes a graceful five-storey pagoda. Nearby Kokubun-ji (国分寺) dates from 741 AD, though the temple’s present buildings were erected in the late seventeenth century. If you follow this side road south, skirting round the back of Mano town, you come to a simple shrine dedicated to Emperor Juntoku. He’s actually buried about 800m further up the valley, but the next-door Sado Rekishi-Densetsukan (佐渡歴史伝説館) is more interesting. This museum is similar in style to Ryōtsu’s Sado Nō-gaku-no-sato, though in this case the robots and holograms represent Juntoku, Nichiren and other characters from local history or folk tales. The museum lies about thirty minutes’ walk southeast from central Mano and about ten minutes from the nearest bus stop, Mano goryō-iriguchi, on the route from Sawata south to Ogi (line 4).

A few kilometres north along the coast from Mano, Sawata (佐和田) serves as Sado’s main administrative centre. Sawata is not the most alluring of places, but if you happen to be passing through around lunchtime, pop along to the Silver Village resort, on the town’s northern outskirts, to catch the fifteen-minute display of bun’ya, a form of seventeenth-century puppetry performed by a couple of master puppeteers.

Children of the drum

In the early 1970s a group of musicians came to the seclusion of Sado-ga-shima to pursue their study of traditional taiko drumming and to experiment with its potent music. A decade later the Kodô Drummers unleashed their primal rhythms on the world, since when they have continued to stun audiences with their electrifying performances. The name Kodô can mean both “heartbeat” and “children” – despite its crashing sound, the beat of their trademark giant Ōdaiko is said to resemble the heart heard from inside the womb.

The drummers are now based in Kodô village, a few kilometres north of Ogi, where they have set up the Kodô Cultural Foundation. Apart from a two-year apprenticeship programme, the drummers hold occasional workshops (Kodō juku) which are open to anyone with basic knowledge of Japanese. Each year, usually the third week of August, they also host the three-day Earth Celebration arts festival when percussionists from all over the world and a friendly multinational audience of several thousand stir up the sleepy air of Ogi. Details of Kodô scheduled tours and the next Earth Celebration are posted on their website.

North Sado

Sado’s northern promontory contains the island’s highest mountains and some of its best coastal scenery. Aikawa, the only settlement of any size in this area, was once a lively mining town whose gold and silver ores filled the shoguns’ coffers. The mines are no longer working, but a section of tunnel has been converted into a museum, Sado Kinzan, where yet more computerized robots show how things were done in olden times. North of Aikawa there’s the rather overrated Senkaku-wan, a small stretch of picturesque cliffs; it’s better to head on up the wild Soto-kaifu coast to Hajiki-zaki on the island’s northern tip. Not surprisingly, this area isn’t well served by public transport, particularly in winter when snow blocks the mountain passes; to explore this part of the island you really need to rent a car or be prepared to do a lot of cycling.

Ogi

Sado’s second port is tiny Ogi (小木), situated near the island’s southern tip. This sleepy fishing town is best known for its tub boats, which now bob around in the harbour for tourists, and the annual Earth Celebration hosted by the locally based Kodô drummers, during which the village’s population almost doubles. But the area’s principal attraction is its picturesque indented coastline to the west of town. You can take boat trips round the headland or cycle over the top to Shukunegi, a traditional fishing village huddled behind a wooden palisade.

The tub boats, or tarai-bune, were originally used for collecting seaweed, abalone and other shellfish from the rocky coves. Today they’re made of fibreglass, but still resemble the cutaway wooden barrels from which they were traditionally made. If you fancy a shot at rowing one of these awkward vessels, go to the small jetty west of the ferry pier, where the women will take you out for a ten-minute spin round the harbour. The jetty is also the departure point for sightseeing boats which sail along the coast past caves and dainty islets as far as Sawa-zaki lighthouse.

Buses run west along the coast as far as Sawasaki (line 11), but the ideal way to explore the headland is to rent a bicycle. After a tough uphill pedal out of Ogi on the road to Shukunegi, turn right towards a concrete jizō standing above the trees. From here continue another 300m along this sideroad and you’ll find a short flight of steps leading up to the Iwaya cave (岩屋) – the old trees and tiny, crumbling temple surrounded by jizō statues make a good place to catch your breath. Further along the Shukunegi road, next to a still-functioning boatyard, the Sadokoku Ogi Folk Culture Museum is worth a brief stop. It contains a delightful, dusty jumble of old photos, paper-cuts, tofu presses, straw raincoats and other remnants of local life. Behind, in a newer building, there’s a relief map of the area and beautiful examples of the ingenious traps used by Ogi fisherfolk.

From here the road drops down steeply to Shukunegi (宿根木) fishing village, a registered national historic site tucked in a fold of the hills beside a little harbour full of jagged black rocks. The village itself is hardly visible behind its high wooden fence – protection against the fierce winds – where its old wooden houses, two of which are open to the public in summer, are all jumbled together with odd-shaped corners and narrow, stone-flagged alleys.

Ryōtsu

Sitting on a huge horseshoe bay with the mountains of Sado rising behind, Ryōtsu (両津) is an appealing little place and makes a good base for a night. The town revolves around its modern ferry pier (両津埠頭) and bus terminal, at the south end, while there’s still a flavour of the original fishing community in the older backstreets to the north, among the rickety wooden houses with their coiled nets and fishy odours. Much of the town occupies a thin strip of land between the sea and a large saltwater lake, Kamo-ko, which is now used for oyster farming.

The Sado Nō-gaku-no-sato museum (佐渡能楽の里), on the south shore of Kamo-ko lake, celebrates Sado’s long association with nō. There’s nothing in English, but the masks and costumes are enjoyable, as is the short performance by remarkably life-like robots, who are admirably suited to nō’s studied movements.

South to Towada-ko

Japan’s third-largest lake, Towada-ko (十和田湖), fills a 300m-deep volcanic crater in the northern portion of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park. The steep-sided, crystal-clear lake rates as one of northern Honshū’s top tourist attractions, but for many visitors the real highlight is the approach over high passes and along deep, wooded valleys. Though there are four main access roads, the most attractive route is south from Aomori via the Hakkōda mountains, Sukayu Onsen and the picturesque Oirase valley. For this last stretch it’s the done thing to walk the final few kilometres beside the tumbling Oirase-gawa, and then hop on a cruise boat across to the lake’s main tourist centre, Yasumiya.

Many roads around Towada-ko are closed in winter, and public buses only operate from April to November. During the season, however, there are regular services to the lake from Aomori, Morioka, Hachinohe, Hirosaki and (to the south) Towada-minami, a station on the line between Ōdate and Morioka. It’s best to buy tickets in advance on all these routes.

Towada-ko

Two knobbly peninsulas break the regular outline of Towada-ko, a massive crater lake trapped in a rim of pine-forested hills within the Towada-Hachimantai National Park. The westerly protuberance shelters the lake’s only major settlement, Yasumiya (休屋), which is also known somewhat confusingly as Towada-ko. Roughly 44km in circumference, the lake is famous for its spectacularly clear water, with visibility down to 17m, best appreciated from one of several boat trips that run from early April to the end of January, though sailings are fairly limited in winter. Once you’ve navigated the lake, the only other thing to do in Towada-ko is pay a visit to the famous statue of the Maidens by the Lake (おとめの像), which stands on the shore fifteen minutes’ walk north of central Yasumiya. The two identical bronze women, roughcast and naked, seem to be circling each other with hands almost touching. They were created in 1953 by the poet and sculptor Takamura Kōtarō, then 70 years old, and are said to be of his wife, a native of Tōhoku, who suffered from schizophrenia and died tragically young.

About 20km east of Towada-ko along Route 454, the town of Shingō is home to Kirisuto No Haka (Christ’s Grave), a grave with a huge wooden cross which was built here in 1935 to commemorate an unusual local myth. The story goes that Jesus came to Japan as a 21-year-old and learned from a great master, before returning to Judea to spread the wonders of “sacred Japan”. It was these revolutionary teachings that led Jesus to the Cross, though that’s where the tale takes another odd twist; it was actually Jesus’s brother who was crucified at Calvary, while Christ himself escaped to Shingō, where he married, had several children and lived until the ripe old age of 106. A small museum displays mysterious scripture which apparently proves the story’s legitimacy, though it doesn’t give too many details about the man who discovered it, Banzan Toya, the nationalist historian who created the tale in the 1930s at a time when Japan was funnelling substantial manpower and money into attempts to prove Japanese racial superiority; other historians of the day managed to discover Moses’ grave in Ishikawa-ken and uncover the fantastic tale of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and Star of David directly from the Emperor of Japan.

Not to be outdone, Toya had more discoveries up his sleeve. Just a few minutes’ walk west from Christ’s Grave lie the Ooishigami Pyramids. According to other ancient writings “discovered” by Toya, the Japanese built pyramids tens of thousands of years before the Egyptians and Mexicans. Both pyramids look a lot like little more than a bunch of huge boulders, although the top of the second pyramid is a great spot for a packed lunch. The grave and pyramids are a short, well-signposted walk west of the town centre.

The Tōno valley

The town of Tōno is set in a bowl of low mountains in the heart of one of Japan’s poorest regions, surrounded by the flat Tōno valley. The people of Tōno and the farmers of the valley take pride in their living legacy of farming and folk traditions, embodied by the district’s magariya – large, L-shaped farmhouses – and a number of museums devoted to the old ways. But the area is perhaps most famous for its wealth of folk tales, known as Tōno Monogatari; there are references to these legends throughout the valley, alongside ancient shrines, rock carvings and traces of primitive cults, which help give Tōno its slightly mysterious undercurrent.

To make the most of the Tōno valley you really need your own transport – head to Tōno to hire cars or bikes. There are also some local buses that run from outside the station, but the only really useful routes are those heading northeast to Denshō-en and Furusato-mura.

If you plan to spend the day cycling around the valley, you can stock up on picnic supplies at the Topia shopping mall, a block from the station. The ground floor of the mall has a well-stocked supermarket as well as a small farmers’ market selling very fresh and cheap fruit and vegetables, complete with biographical notes and photographs of the farmers (and their families) who brought the produce to market.

The legends of Tōno

When the far-sighted folklorist Yanagita Kunio visited Tōno in 1909, he found a world still populated with the shadowy figures of demons and other usually malevolent spirits which the farmers strove to placate using ancient rituals. The following year he published Tōno Monogatari (published in English as The Legends of Tōno), the first book to tap the rich oral traditions of rural Japan. The 118 tales were told to him by Kyōseki Sasaki (or Kizen), the educated son of a Tōno peasant, to whom goblins, ghosts and gods were part of everyday life.

People in Tōno still talk about Zashiki Warashi, a mischievous child spirit (either male or female) who can be heard running at night and is said to bring prosperity to the household. Another popular tale tells of a farmer’s beautiful daughter who fell in love with their horse. When the farmer heard that his child had married the horse, he hanged it from a mulberry tree, but his grieving daughter was whisked off to heaven clinging to her lover.

Probably the most popular character from the legends, however, is the kappa, an ugly water creature which, while not being unique to Tōno, seems to exist here in large numbers. You’ll find kappa images everywhere in town – on postboxes, outside the station; even the police box is kappa-esque. The traditional kappa has long skinny limbs, webbed hands and feet, a sharp beak, and a hollow on the top of his head that must be kept full of water. He’s usually green, sometimes with a red face, and his main pastime seems to be pulling young children into ponds and rivers. Should you happen to meet a real kappa, remember to bow – on returning your bow, the water will run out of the hollow on his head and he’ll have to hurry off to replenish it.

Tōno

Tōno (遠野) itself is a small town set among flat rice-lands, with orchards and pine forests cloaking the surrounding hills. Although it’s mainly a place to make use of for its hotels, banks and other facilities, there are a couple of museums to see before you set off round the valley. Allow a couple of days to do the area justice.

From Tōno Station it’s an eight-minute walk straight across town and over the river to the Tōno Municipal Museum (遠野市立博物館) at the back of a red-brick building which doubles as the library. This entertaining museum gives a good overview of Tōno’s festivals, crafts and agricultural traditions.

Walking back towards the station, turn left just across the river for Tōno Folk Village (とおの昔話村). The “village” consists of several buildings, including the ryokan where Yanagita Kunio stayed while researching his legends, and an old storehouse containing more dramatizations of the stories.

Yamagata

Few tourists make it to Yamagata (山形), a large, workaday city ringed by high mountains, and those that do are usually just passing through. Apart from a couple of engaging museums, Yamagata’s prime attraction is as a base for visiting nearby Yamadera’s atmospheric temples, and Zaō Onsen, which provides excellent opportunities for summer hiking and winter skiing, and is known for its beguiling “snow monsters” – fir trees engulfed in wind-sculpted ice and snow. In early August (5–7), the city turns out for its major festival, the Hanagasa Matsuri, during which yukata-clad women wearing flowery hats perform a slow, graceful dance, making this otherwise unexciting city a worthwhile stop.

Yamagata City

Central Yamagata occupies a grid of streets lying northeast of the train station. Its southern boundary is Ekimae-dōri, a broad avenue leading straight from the station as far as the Hotel Castle, from where the main shopping street, Nanokamachi-dōri, strikes north to the former Prefectural Office (文翔館), about twenty minutes’ walk from the station. This imposing, European-style building of stone and ornate stucco dominates the north end of Nanokamachi-dōri. Originally built in 1911, the interior has been magnificently restored, particularly the third floor with its parquet-floored dining room and elegant Assembly Hall.

From the Prefectural Office, head west to the Yamagata Art Museum beside the castle walls. This modern museum boasts a small collection of major European names, such as Picasso, Chagall, Renoir and Monet, but unless there’s a special exhibition of interest it’s not really worth the entrance fee. Instead, cross the train tracks to enter Kajō-kōen (霞城公園) by its beautifully restored East Gate, the only remnant of the former castle. The City Museum, or Kyōdokan (郷土館), occupies a delightful, multicoloured clapboard building in the park’s southeast corner. Erected in 1878, this museum originally served as the town’s main hospital, and its exhibits include a fearsome array of early medical equipment and anatomical drawings, including a guide to pregnancy rendered as woodblock prints.

On the city’s southeastern outskirts, the pretty little pottery village of Hirashimizu (平清水) has a surprisingly rural atmosphere. There’s just one main street and a small river running down from the hills, which provides local potters with their distinctive, speckled clay. If you explore a little, you’ll find several family potteries with showrooms (daily 9am–5/6pm), such as Shichiemon-gama (七右衛門窯), which offers visitors the chance to throw a pot or two.

Yamadera

The temple complex of Risshaku-ji, or Yamadera (山寺) as it’s more popularly known, is one of Tōhoku’s most holy places. It was founded in 860 AD by a Zen priest of the Tendai sect and reached its peak in the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Today around forty temple buildings still stand scattered among the ancient cedars on a steep, rocky hillside. The temple lies close to Yamadera Station, which is on the JR Senzan line between Yamagata and Sendai.

From the station, cross the river and follow the road right, past shops selling walking sticks, snacks and souvenirs, to where you can see the temple roofs on the slopes of Hōju-san. Ignore the first two flights of steps to your left and take the third staircase up to the temple’s main hall, Kompon Chūdō. This impressive building, dating from 1356, shelters a flame brought from Enryaku-ji, the centre of Tendai Buddhism near Kyoto, 1100 years ago and which has supposedly been burning ever since – as you peer inside, it’s the hanging lantern on the left-hand side. Walking back west along the hillside, you pass a small shrine and a solemn statue of Bashō who, travelling before the days of coach parties, penned a characteristically pithy ode to Yamadera: “In the utter silence of a temple, a cicada’s voice alone penetrates the rocks.” He sits across from the modern Hihōkan, which houses a fine collection of temple treasures.

A few steps further on, San-mon marks the entrance to the mountain (daily 6am–6pm), from where over 1100 steps meander past moss-covered Jizō statues, lanterns and prayer wheels, and squeeze between looming rocks carved with prayers and pitted with caves. It takes about forty minutes to reach the highest temple, Okuno-in, where breathless pilgrims tie prayer papers around a mammoth lantern and light small bunches of incense sticks. Before setting off downhill, don’t miss the views over Yamadera from the terrace of Godai-dō, perched on the cliff-face just beyond the distinctive red Nōkyō-dō pavilion.

Yamadera village consists mainly of expensive ryokan and souvenir shops; some of the latter have steaming vats of konnyaku balls boiling outside which make for a good warming snack on a cold day. Trains run hourly to both Yamagata (¥230) and Sendai (¥820); however, if you need accommodation, Yamadera Pension (山寺ペンション) is the most attractive option. It’s in a half-timbered building right in front of the station, with a decent restaurant downstairs that specializes in handmade soba.

Zaō Onsen

Roughly 20km southeast of Yamagata city, Zaō Onsen (蔵王温泉) is the main focus of activity in the Zaō quasi-national park, an attractive region of volcanoes, crater lakes and hot springs. In winter (Dec to late March), the resort offers some of Japan’s best skiing, with a dozen or so runs to choose from, as well as night skiing and onsen baths to soak away the aches and pains. Non-skiers can enjoy the cable-car ride over Juhyō Kōgen, where a thick covering of snow and hoarfrost transforms the plateau’s fir trees into giant “snow monsters” (juhyō).

Head southeast from the bus station for ten minutes and you will reach the Zaō Sanroku Ropeway (蔵王山麓ロープウェイ), which whisks you up to Juhyō Kōgen. The juhyō are at their best in February, though you can see photos of them at other times of year in the Juhyō Museum (daily 9am–4pm; free), located in the ropeway terminal building. A second ropeway continues up from here to Zaō Jizō Sanchō Station at 1661m. This top station lies between Sampō Kōjin-san (1703m) and Jizō-san (1736m), just two of the peaks that make up the ragged profile of Zaō-san. In the summer hiking season (May–Oct) you can follow the right-hand (southeasterly) path over Jizō-san and Kumano-dake (1841m) for spectacular views and a fairly rugged hour’s walk to the desolate, chemical-blue Okama crater lake (お釜).

There are a number of ski runs in the area, and a shuttle bus (mid-Dec to late-March; ¥100) moves skiers and snowboarders between them. Consult the Skier’s Guide maps, available at the tourist office, for the difficulty level of each run (green is beginner, red is intermediate and black is advanced). There is a variety of passes available for day and night skiing, with prices ranging from ¥4200 to ¥11,500. Passes include access to all 38 chairlifts; the use of the ropeways and cable cars costs extra.

To recover after skiing, the area has plenty of public baths where you can have a good, long soak. The unforgettable Dai-rotemburo (大露天風呂), overflowing with steamy sulphur-laden water, is large enough to ease the aching muscles of more than two hundred visitors at once.

Top image: Matsushima bay © Thanya Jones/Shutterstock

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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