Tohoku, Japan’s Treasureland
Tohoku, 東北 (literal meaning ‘Northeast’) is the northernmost region of Japan’s main Honshu island, consisting of 6 large but relatively sparsely populated prefectures of great natural beauty. It also has a rich folklore tradition and many sites of historical importance, with a recent marketing campaign branding the region – for good reason – as Japan’s ‘Treasureland’.
Tohoku wasn’t well-known outside Japan prior to 2011, even to many who’d actually been to Japan as it’s never been the first thing on the tourism radar – the tsunami unleashed by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the Tohoku coast on 11th March 2011 changed that forever.
Following the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, I was a regular volunteer with an NPO based in the Ishinomaki area of Miyagi Prefecture (more on those experiences in my post here). It’s also a region I’ve travelled through multiple times as a tourist, full of natural beauty and fascinating historical sites and local folklore, with a traditional atmosphere and rugged people, and it’s close to my heart. They’ve picked themselves and their shattered lives back up and rebuilt their broken towns, and the useful volunteer work I was able to contribute to is long since finished – but so much, so many, were lost, and full recovery (if such a thing could actually ever even be declared) will take many years yet. At this point, the best thing anyone can do to help the process is to visit Tohoku, spend your money with local businesses, spread the word of its beauty, and above all show the people of Tohoku that you know they’re still there. A couple of years after the tsunami my parents visited while I was living in Tokyo, and we went up to Fukushima to see the cherry blossoms at Hanamiyama Park. Strangers repeatedly struck up conversation with us throughout the day, and my Mum eventually remarked that the people up there were much friendlier than in Tokyo – perhaps true in any given year, but at that particular time much of the world’s population wouldn’t have been willing to go anywhere near Fukushima, so the locals were probably just glad to see us there.
At time of writing things are certainly much closer to normal, but you can still help Tohoku towards recovery by visiting and I always encourage anyone heading to Japan to include Tohoku – and now I have this blog which people do sometimes use to help plan their Japan trips, and so I’m using it to encourage you to visit Tohoku. To that end, here’s my guide to where to go in the region.
Obviously there’s a lot more to Tohoku (and each of its constituent prefectures) than listed here; this list is not exhaustive, and these are just the places and things I’ve been to and can recommend from personal experience, plus a few I haven’t but which are famed as major draws of the region.
For something a little different, the Shimokita Peninsula fits the bill. The peninsula’s northern end is formed by the volcano Osorezan, which translates as Mt Fear or Mt Dread. The caldera lake in the volcano’s crater is an otherworldly place, and rightly so – this is the gateway to the underworld. The Sansu-no-kawa river which drains Lake Usori is like a Japanese River Styx, and blind mediums called Itako perform an annual ritual at Bodaiji temple on the lakeshore in which they channel the spirits of the dead to communicate with the living.
The lake is poisonous, the shore desolate, and jiso statues stand in testament to the departed souls of children. The finishing touch is the soundtrack of cawing provided by the enormous crows who perch on the statues and fix you with their beady eyes as you contemplate this solemn place.
It really is unlike any other place in Japan, and well worth the 2.5 bus & train journey from Aomori City – not to mention, the coastal scenery from the train’s also lovely and Osorezan is another good spot for the autumn colours. For more pics of Osorezan plus access details see my post here
Another one I haven’t been to but which is too famous to omit, Hirosaki Castle’s known as one of Japan’s very best places to see the cherry blossoms in spring. For more details see here
The final resting place of Japan’s favourite tragic heroes Yoshitsune & Benkei (a bit like a samurai version of Robin Hood & Littlejohn, but with way more beheadings and no happy ending), Hiraizumi’s also home to some of Tohoku’s most impressive temple complexes including the golden Konjiki-do. It’s easy to visit as a day trip from Sendai, but I actually stopped off there during this ridiculous journey from Sapporo to Kyoto by local train.
The sparsely populated Tohoku coastline is one of rugged beauty, an absolutely gorgeous stretch of cliffs and headlands, islands and beaches. Running down the Pacific coast of Iwate & Miyagi prefectures, it took an absolute beating in the 2011 tsunami, with towns like Minamisanriku (Miyagi) and Kessenumma & Kamaishi (Iwate) suffering immense damage. The towns have been slowly rebuilding though, and the last missing link in the transportation network is due to be reconnected in spring 2019. Kamaishi will host two games of the 2019 Rugby World Cup at the newly-constructed Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium, which I recently visited while researching my new website for the Rugby World Cup, see here.
I visited Minamisannriku in the course of volunteering in Tohoku, and the devastation was simply stunning (see here); in no other place did I feel the crushing sense of loss so heavily as there. But they have persevered and rebuilt, and the coast remains as beautiful as ever – as with Onagawa (above), they’d love to welcome you on the Sanriku coast and your visit can only help the local economy recover. If this article persuades anyone to go, it was worth writing. If you’re a rugby fan coming to Japan for the World Cup, do try and get up to Kamaishi for a game – the matches in question aren’t between title contenders (namely Namibia vs Canada and Fiji vs Uruguay), but the atmosphere should be something special. I’m looking forward to it.
A beautiful caldera lake you can visit via a short bus ride from Tazawako Station on the Akita Shinkansen (one stop before Kakunodate, coming from Tokyo). It’s a popular camping spot, and the autumn colours are gorgeous – the timing of which should be just right for rugby fans visiting Japan for the World Cup (especially if you attend a game in Kamaishi and stay in Morioka, as Kamaishi is 2 hours east of Morioka while Tazawako is an hour west).
A small town with an old samurai quarter known for its spring cherry blossoms and autumn colours; perhaps not the most exciting or spectacular place, but it is nice and being just one shinkansen stop (or four local train stops) beyond Tazawako you can easily visit both in a day (again, especially if you base yourself in Morioka for a couple of nights).
Tohoku’s biggest city, and the 2nd-largest Japanese city north of Tokyo (after Sapporo). Sendai isn’t exactly jam-packed with sightseeing of its own, but it’s a tidy & friendly town with good eating, shopping & entertainment which makes a great base for visiting Matsushima, Ishinomaki & Onagawa, Hiraizumi, and Yamadera.
Ishinomaki & Onagawa
Not exactly tourist towns, but close to my heart – this was the area I was volunteering in following the 2011 tsunami. The damage in Onagawa was simply staggering, with entire concrete office buildings having been picked up by the sea and then deposited on their sides or completely upsidedown, and all the smaller buildings simply obliterated including the train station (along with the tracks). This small town of 7000 was hit hard, losing some nine hundred people that day as well as its entire fishing industry.
Those lost can never be brought back, but the life and economy of the town can – there’s now a handsome new station and the line’s fully restored; it’s a short (25-minute) train ride of pretty coastal scenery from Ishinomaki, and when you get there you’ll find a town reborn. The area that was devastated has been redeveloped as a waterfront commercial and recreational district, with no seawall blocking the ocean views – rather, the schools and residential districts have been moved to higher ground.
One of my old co-volunteers now runs the Sugar Shack bar, so please take a picturesque train ride to Onagawa and drop in on Sugar Shack for a drink (and check out the other local businesses too), they’ll be most pleased to see you there – honestly if even a single person does so after reading this then it was worth writing it.
Famed as one of the ‘Three Views of Japan‘ (along with Amanohashidate in northern Kyoto Prefecture and Miyajima island near Hiroshima), Matsushima is a bay filled with many small pine-clad islets lying halfway between Sendai and Ishinomaki; you can easily visit Matsushima and Onagawa together as a day trip from Sendai.
Yamadera literally means ‘Mountain Temple’, and that’s exactly what Yamadera is. The full name is Risshakuji (立石寺, Standing Stone Temple), but Yamadera’s far more commonly used. Some 1200 years old, it’s one of the coolest temples to visit in all Japan with an upper area accessed via a steep half-hour climb up the mountain. The hike’s well worth the effort, with rewarding views across the valley from some beautiful hillside temple structures. For more pics of Yamadera plus access details see my post here
This one’s strictly for chess geeks, and even then only those who’re interested in the Japanese shogi variant – this is where most of Japan’s traditional shogi sets are carved. I’m a chess geek so I went to check it out, it’s not worth going miles out of your way for but you don’t need to as it’s one of the stops between Yamagata city and Aizu-Wakamatsu (see below).
Yamagata’s most famous ski resort in winter, and a popular hot spring resort year-round. I haven’t been so only know it by reputation – see here for more.
These 3 sacred mountains are places of pilgrimage, renowned for their natural beauty and dramatic scenery. Again I haven’t personally been, but they’re too significant to not mention; see here for details.
Hanamiyama Park (Fukushima City)
A beautiful hillside park on the edge of the city, easily accessed from Fukushima Station by taxi or shuttle bus during cherry blossom season. Hanamiyama literally means ‘Flower Mountain’, and the park’s a famous cherry blossom spot. If you’re a few days late for the cherry blossoms in Tokyo, jump on the shinkansen up to Fukushima instead (this is exactly what I did with my parents when they visited one April)
A former samurai castle town with various historical sites to visit, Aizu-Wakamatsu is Fukushima’s most famous tourist destination. In addition to the castle you can visit several museums and preserved samurai mansions – they’re fairly spread out, but the tourist info office at the station can equip you with maps & bus information.
How to Get to Tohoku
It’s dead easy using the Tohoku shinkansen, which features these two awesome-looking trains:
The green one goes to Aomori & Hokkaido, the red one to Akita (if you’re not going that far you might still get these trains, or maybe the regular white ones).
The best way to do it is to get the JR Pass for unlimited train travel for a flat fee for 7, 14, or 21 days. See here for details.
Any questions about Tohoku? Give me a shout below and I’ll get back to you. For more Japan posts click here
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