Nobody goes to Tohoku. The region used to be known as Michinoku, meaning, quite literally, “the end of the road.” Even today, its six prefectures — Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Yamagata, Miyagi and Fukushima — are among the least developed for tourism in Japan. However, if you venture north, you’ll find that this region has its fair share of hidden gems. Early Edo Period poet Matsuo Basho recounted some of his highlights in his travelogue, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” Here are some of my own:
Any place with a population of 32 people, 240 monkeys and 600 deer is just fine by me. Kinkazan (meaning Golden Mountain) was traditionally regarded as one of the holiest places in Tohoku and for this reason, women were banned from the island until the late 19th century. Today, this tiny community welcomes anyone seeking a tranquil retreat far from the grind of daily life. There are no Internet cafes, no convenience stores and no tourist information office on the island. Hiking around is the best way to find some solitude. After a day out in the fresh air, you’ll be glad you reserved a room at Minshuku Shiokaze, an archetypal friendly, family-run minshuku with great food and fantastic panoramic views of the sea. The sound of the ocean will help lull you to sleep as you hit the futon.
From Sendai or Furukawa, both in Miyagi Prefecture, you can take the JR Ishinomaki Line to Onagawa. High-speed catamarans run from Onagawa to Kinkazan.
Soak away your stress. An onsen trip is one of the single greatest pleasures of life in Japan, and the Tohoku region has plenty of them. Zao Onsen, however, goes that extra mile. The Zao Quasi-National Park region is a popular spot with skiers in winter and hikers in summer. Its main draw is the dai-rotenburo (open-air bath). It costs only 450 yen (bring your own towel or it’s 350 yen extra) and is open every day until sunset, offering great views and a choice of three dipping pools. If one dip isn’t enough, Pension Boku-no-Uchi, a friendly family-run guest house in town, has quite possibly the hottest onsen bath in Japan to complete that essential yude-dako (boiled octopus) look.
Frequent buses run to Zao Onsen from outside JR Yamagata Station.
Explode those parochial stereotypes and get a taste for city life northern-style with a big night out in Morioka. The capital of Iwate Prefecture is one of the most happening towns in the north. No, really. Surprisingly compact to negotiate on foot, it has decent transport connections, some great dining, a nightlife and one of the nicest coffee shops in northern Japan. Make Ryokan Kumagai your base (there’s no curfew), get on your glad rags and head for Sara Sara opposite Iwate-koen, a chilled-out place for drinks and dinner, before heading over to Ana Kura, a friendly izakaya with a free banana for every customer (don’t ask). The next morning, Cappuccino Shiki, an atmospheric old-school coffee shop, is the place to jettison your hangover with a coffee-and-toast set breakfast.
A 2 1/2-hour journey from Ueno Station in Tokyo to Morioka on the Tohoku Shinkansen.
Avoid those crowds. While the coach parties are making a beeline for Lake Towada in Aomori Prefecture, Lake Tazawa in Akita Prefecture is still relatively undiscovered. Take a leisurely stroll around the deepest lake in Japan and, after watching the sun go down over its azure waters, take a long soak in the herbal bath at Heart Herb on the east side. Nearby is That Sounds Good! — one of the best pensions in Tohoku. The owners are big jazz fans and often host impromptu jazz sessions at night as well as providing some great home cooking. A short bus ride away is Nyuto Onsen, home to seven rustic ryokan. If you’re feeling daring, Ganiba Onsen is one of the few ryokan left that offer konyoku (mixed-sex) bathing.
Tazawa-ko Station is a 30-minute ride from Morioka and one hour from Akita on the Akita Shinkansen. Tazawa Kohan, the area’s hub, is a 15-minute bus ride from Tazawa-ko Station.
Got your conch shell and your voluminous white pantaloons? Right, now that you’ve got the look, there’s the small matter of taking the 5 a.m. wakeup call before you go hiking over the three sacred peaks of Mount Haguro, Mount Gas and Mount Yudono and spend half the day sitting under an icy waterfall to complete your yamabushi initiation. The Dewa Sanzan shrine, on the peak of Mount Haguro, offers intensive yamabushi courses for wannabe pilgrims brushing up on their fire rites. For the rest of us, Dewa Sanzan is simply a great place to do some hiking, sample good vegetarian food at a shukubo (a pilgrims’ lodge), or visit the trio of sacred peaks that have fascinated pilgrims for centuries. Conch shells optional. Hiking boots mandatory.
Take the JR Uetsu main line to Tsuruoka. Buses frequently leave Tsuruoka for the Haguro Center bus station, and some continue up to the summit of Haguro.
No tour of Tohoku is complete without a trip to Buddhist purgatory. Osoresan (the name itself means “fear”) is the most sacred — and possibly the spookiest — peak in Japan. The wingspans of ravens cast murderous black shadows over scores of tiny shrines adorned with children’s toys, while Jizo statues peer through clouds of sulfurous vapor over the craggy volcanic landscape. In July and October each year, the temple grounds are taken over by itako, wizened old women who are said to be able to look into the afterlife. It’s highly atmospheric stuff, although not for the faint-hearted. Those needing some light relief can bathe at the gates of hell at the temple hot springs.