Japan: A Closer Look at Tohoku – Part 1

Dec 1st, 2008 | By Shane Sakata | Category: Featured Articles, Regional Travel Resources

Tohoku is Japanese for “northeast” and the region occupies the northern area of honshu, Japan’s main island.  Hokkaido is Tohoku’s neighbor to the north, while Chubu lies to the southeast and Kanto to the southwest.  Six prefectures (provinces or states) make up the the Tohoku region: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata.  Part 1 of Japan: A Closer Look at Tohoku will provide you with travel planning resources and information about the Akita, Aomori & Fukushima prefectures.

Tohoku was settled between the seventh and ninth centuries and is home to almost 10 million people.  It is an industrial and agricultural area of Japan that once provided the country with twenty percent of it’s rice and is home to great natural beauty – in fact one writer calls Tohoku Japan’s best kept secret.

Things to Do & See in Tohoku

Akita Prefecture

Akita sits on the Japan Sea on the western side of Japan and is surrounded by mountains on to the north, east and south.  The prefecture has an abundance of fertile farmlands and is known as a rice farming region.  Visitors can enjoy the areas scenic beauty year round  by booking a stay at one of the Akita area onsen (hot springs) that are located in close proximity to the ocean, mountains and even in apple groves.  Activities include golf in the spring & summer and skiing each winter.

  • Namahage - Oga Peninsula JapanSee the deepest lake in Japan, Lake Tazawa-ko.  the lake is 423.4 meters deep with a visibility to approximately 30 meters which makes is Japan’s second most transparent lake, secon only to Lake Mashu in Hokkaido.
  • Visit the Oga-hanto Peninsula and the Oga City where you will find a scenic coastline in the shape of an axe and stunning sunsets.
  • Lake Towada-ko is crater lake that sits at the top of a 400-meter-high mountain on the border between Aomori and Akita. There are four scenic observation points around the lake’s shore of you can take a tour via sightseeing boat for a different vantage point.
  • The Akita-kanto Matsuri (fesitval) each August features lanterns made from ears of rice that twinkle in the night sky like the Milky Way.
  • The Kamakura (snow hut festival) in Yokote each February features over 100 hollowed out mounds of snow that are lit from within and house people eating grilled rice cakes and drinking amazake (a traditional sweet, low-alcoholic drink made from fermented rice).
  • Namahage-sedo Festival in Oga each February features people dressed as demons wandering through the town to drum music offering blessings
  • Home to the Shirakami-Sanchi, another UNESCO World Heritage site famous for it’s beech tree forest and the 87 species of birds that can be found there.

Aomori Prefecture

Aomori is the northernmost prefecture on the main island of Honshu and is the eighth largest prefecture in Japan.  The swan is the prefectural bird and is considered a harbingers of winter by the people of Aomori. The area is home to historical ruins and an beautiful natural beauty.

  • Sannai Maruyama Ruins JapanVisit ruins from the Jomon period (4-5 thousand years ago) at the Sannai Maruyama Historical Site.
  • The Aomori Nebuta Festival takes palce in early August each year and features about 20 nebuta (giant human-shaped floats) that are paraded down the streets the sounds of taiko drums, flutes, and haneto dancers shouting the traditional cry of “rassera”.
  • Take a ride on the Tsugaru Railway, a  20.7 kilometers long and spans just 12 stations.  The railway operates a special “Windchime Train” from July to August,a”Cricket Train” from September to October, and a “Heater Train” from November to March.
  • The Hachinohe Grand Festival takes place in late July and early August and features approximately 20 large floats and shrine columns parading through the streets of the city.
  • It is said that the souls of the dead gather on Osore-zan (Mount Fear).  Rituals to communicate with the dead are held here every year in July and October.
  • Hotokegaura Coastline(Sai Village) This 2 kilometer long coastline offers a breathtaking view of fantastically shaped volcanic green tuff rocks, some as tall as 100 meters.  Erosion has has created tall standing rocks are reminiscent of a gathering of praying Buddha.  Located two hours by car from Ominato JR Station.
  • Hirosaki Castle, designated as a historic sites, was built in the beginning of the 17th century and is said to be at it’s most beautiful when the Cherry Blossoms are in bloom from late April to the beginning of May each year.
  • See many of the areas sight by following the Apple Route in the fall or spring when the colors of the area are at their peak.

Fukushima Prefecture

Fukushima is the southernmost prefecture in the Tohoku region and is the third largest prefecture in Japan. It is home to more than 130 onsen (hot springs) and a variety of other great things to do and see.  Located about  200 kilometers from Tokyo, it takes about 1.5 hours by shinkansen (bullet train) to get to Fukushima.  Major Cities include Fukushima, Koriyama and Shirakawa.

  • Tsurugajo Castle Visit the Aizu Sake Factory to see how sake was manufactured during the Edo Period.
  • Learn about the samurai cultures at Tsurugajo Castle, located in Aizu-Wakamatsu, the oldest town in Fukushima Prefecture.
  • Visit the line of fruit farms at the base of Mt. Azuma-Kofuji or take in a 360 degree panoramic view from the crater.
  • Take a horse-drawn carriage tour of  Kitakata, an area that produces sake, miso (soy bean paste) and is famous or it’s ramen, lacquerware and Paulownia woodwork.
  • Visit the area surrounding Lake Inawashiro-ko.
  • Take in the Waraji Matsuri where huge straw sandals are paraded through the street or one of the other festivals in Fukushima.
  • Explore the city of Kariyama .

Odd Facts & Trivia From Tohoku

Lake Tazawa-ko is said to be home to a guardian spirit in the form of a dragon who was once a girl of rare beauty named Tatsuko.  She desired eternal youth and prayed to the Goddess Kannon for one hundred days and one hundred nights. On the final night, the goddess told her to drink water from the spring in the north and her desire would be fulfilled. She found a spring among moss-covered stones and drank its water. The more water she drank, the thirstier she became. Before she knew it, she had turned into a dragon and went deep into the lake where she lives as its guardian sprit. This is the legend of Princess Tatsuko.  (source: Akitaweb)

When you visit the Oga-hanto peninsula look for the boulder that resembles Godzilla.

Fukushima Prefecture lies between 139 and 141 degrees east longitude and 37 to 38 degrees north latitude – the same latitude as southern Greece and San Francisco,California .

Dr. Hideyo Noguchi (1876-1928), famous for his research into yellow fever and whose portrait is depicted on the 1,000-yen note, was born in Inawashiro,Fukushima

Trip Planning

For an overview of the region and to explore more of what there is do do in Tohoku take some time to browse through the Tohoku Guide.

Read Part 2 of Japan: A Closer Look at Tohoku to learn more about Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata Prefectures and “Cut & Paste Japan Trip Planning” for other great resources on travel, culture and current events throughout Japan.

Image Credit: Flickr, 104 Oga Peninsula Shinzan – Namehage, Hazy day, Japanese Castles II

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  1. Also not to be missed in Aomori is the Tomb of Jesus:
    One of the stranger things you’ll see in Japan…

  2. Now there’s a new one for me Chris (and definitely on the strange side) - have you been?

    I wonder if the documents that the article mentioned ever existed at all and if they did what happened to them. It sounds like an urban legend created by some overzealous missionaries to me…

  3. I’ve passed through there (it’s quite a sight to see the big blue official road sign proclaiming “Tomb of Jesus”) but didn’t do the full tour. There’s a lot of interesting and conflicting information on the net about the town, and quite a bit of speculation regarding ancient links between the Japanese and the Jews…

    The Towada Hotel by the lake is wonderful to stay at. Built originally for the winter olympics in the early 1930s (which didn’t happen due to the Manchuria invasion), it never opened and was mothballed until the late 1990s when they fully renovated and opened it. The website is http://www.towada-hotel.com/

  4. [...] Tohokuo region of Japan includes six prefectures - in Japan: A Closer Look at Tohoku - Part 1 you learned about some of the sights and activities that can be enjoyed by visitors to Akita, [...]

  5. I lived in Tohoku for a year, near Sendai. It’s an amazing place with fantastic food, beautiful scenery, and some really great people. It’s interesting how a lot of Japanese people I know and have met in Tokyo know very little about the region.

  6. Billy - You were very fortunate to live outside of Tokyo and I envy that experience. I think that there is way more to learn and see than what Tokyo has to offer and that is a big part of why I am working to pull this series together. I hope to get out and explore more of the country in the new year.

  7. I lived in Akita for a year while studying abroad. I went to many of the festivals you mentioned, and even participated in the Kanto matsuri living one of those 40kg bamboo poles adorned with lanterns. Fun stuff ^^. I’ve yet to write about it though.

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  15. [...] painted with traditional Japanese motifs or simply varnished these wooden dolls originated in the Tohoku region of northern Japan during the Edo period [...]

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