Exploring Japan’s Deep North: 5 Things to Do and See in Tohoku

Photo: Syuzo Tsushima on Flickr

Exploring Japan’s Deep North: 5 Things to Do and See in Tohoku

Danelle Acker Bundy

When you think of places to visit in Japan, the first image is one of towering buildings in Tokyo or ancient temples in Kyoto. But I’d like to argue that the best place to visit in Japan is the remote area of Tohoku. Tohoku is Japan’s northern region and has a much lower population density than other areas in Japan. This means an abundance of untouched beauty and landscapes that look like they are straight out of a Ghibli film.

Hagurosan, Yamagata

Hagurosan, Yamagata

The way of life in Tohoku is slow and steady, practically another world than Tokyo or Osaka. There are rice fields as far as the eye can see and cedar trees replace skyscrapers in the skyline. It’s quieter and emptier, but every bit as magical as the more populated areas of Japan.

If it’s your first time to Japan or even if you have lived here for a while, you might not be aware of all that Tohoku has to offer. Here are some of the top sites and activities that you can find in Japan’s Great North.

Festivals


Akita Canto Festival

Akita Canto Festival

Summer in Japan isn’t complete without some festival food and a parade. Tohoku is famous for its summer festivals, especially Sendai’s Tanabata, Aomori’s Nebuta, Morioka’s Sansa Odori and Akita’s Kanto festival. If you like fireworks, Omagari’s firework festival in Akita is one of the largest in Japan. In addition to these large festivals there are many smaller festivals with long and interesting histories, and if you can’t decide which festival to see, the Tohoku Rokkonsai Festival combines all of the 6 major festivals into one.

If you’re visiting in winter, Tohoku has many festivals centered around snow and snow sculptures. Zao Snow Monster festival in Yamagata relies on the natural snow “monsters” that are formed when the snow covers the large cedar trees. Akita has several snow festivals that revolve around the local culture, including Yokote’s Kamakura festival where you can see handmade ice houses.

Onsen


Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata

Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata

It makes sense that onsen are so popular in Tohoku; not only do they complement the slow way of living, but are also the best way to combat the cold weather. Tohoku has an abundance of natural hot springs and most of them are 500 yen or cheaper.

Akita’s Tsurunoyu Onsen is famous for its milky sulfurous water. Sukayu Onsen in Aomori is another famous sulfur bath that is also mixed gender. If you’d like to travel back in time, check out Aoni onsen in Aomori. This old fashioned ryokan and onsen is lit by oil lamps. There are even onsen that are free of charge and completely outdoors, like Kappa-no-yu in Aomori and Okuhachikurō Onsen in northern Akita.

There are many small towns dedicated to onsen in Tohoku. Naruko Onsen in Miyagi and Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata are two popular onsen towns where you can stay overnight in a ryokan or hop around to all of the onsen that are offered throughout the day.

Hiking


Bandaisan. Fukushima

Bandaisan. Fukushima

Practically any spot in Tohoku is hike-worthy, but there are several famous areas that will make for excellent experiences in the great outdoors. Shirakami Sanchi is an UNESCO World Heritage site that borders Aomori and Akita. This Beech protected forest is especially popular to hike during the autumn leaf season.

Another notable hiking and pilgrimage location is the Dewa Sanzan in Yamagata, which is made up of the three sacred mountains Gassan, Hagurosan, and Yudonosan. Bandaisan in Fukushima and Towada Lake in Akita are two other hiking areas made beautiful by the volcanos that erupted there thousands of years ago.

Gassan, Yamagata

Gassan, Yamagata

Skiing


Tohoku has no shortage of snow and the scenic atmosphere is worth the trip alone. There are many great ski resorts big and small, and because of the lack of people, many are inexpensive and crowd-free.

Zao Ski Resort in Yamagata and Appi Ski Resort in Iwate are two of the biggest and most famous.

Tazawako Ski Resort, Akita

Tazawako Ski Resort, Akita

Tazawako Ski Resort in Akita is another great option that makes a great day trip. Once you’re done hitting the slopes, you can hop over to Nyuto Onsen for a soak.

If you don’t want to mess with long lines, don’t forget to check out some of the smaller ski areas that are scattered all over the region.

Historical Sites


Yamadera, Yamagata

Yamadera, Yamagata

There are many unique historical sites in Tohoku that are worth a visit.

You can climb 2446 steps to reach the pagoda on Hagurosan, which is listed as one of Japan’s national treasures. Kakunodate in Akita was once an important samurai village and is now one of the most popular spots in Tohoku to view cherry blossoms. Hirosaki Castle in Aomori is another famous historical spot that’s also famous for it’s sakura trees. Yamadera, which literally means “mountain temple” is a temple nestled in a mountain in Yamagata that can be reached by a short climb up 1000 steps.

Hagurosan, Yamagata

Hagurosan, Yamagata

These are just some suggestions to get you started on your journey to Tohoku, but there’s much more to find if you do a little research and exploring. When planning your trip, keep in mind that the public transportation isn’t as widely available as it is in the southern regions of Japan. A car is a welcome companion and will allow you to explore much more.