You won’t find many English speaking visitors traveling the Japanese region of Tohoku, but only a couple hours away from Tokyo by the bullet train, it beckons travelers to Japan to explore. Ever since the 2011 earthquake that rocked Tohoku the region has been in recovery mode. Now as the Tokyo 2020 Olympics rolls around and they’re more than ready to welcome tourists keen on a new region of Japan to explore.
Tohoku has long been known in Japan for its natural landscapes, cultural events, food, and interesting sights. Best of all, unlike the more popular destination in the country, traveling to Tohoku feels unique and Japanese. Far from the madding crowds, visitors can find cultural and natural reprive. It remains one of our favorite areas to explore in Japan and we can not wait to return.
Why Should You Travel to the Tohoku Region?
Tohoku is Easily Accessible from Tokyo
It doesn’t take much effort to get to this Northeastern region of Japan. Cities like Sendai can easily be reached in under two hours from Tokyo on the famous Japanese Shinkansen trains. Other places like Akita and Aomori are reachable in under four hours from Tokyo, while Morioka and Fukushima can all be reached in about two hours. The thought of traveling such a distance in such a short time baffles me, but leave it to the Japanese to be ultra-efficient!
These short distances mean that you can visit even Fukushima and Sendai on a day trip from Tokyo! Although, I would highly suggest taking your time and exploring the Tohoku region for as long as your schedule allows, and that’s because…
Tohoku Feels Like Japan
I love Tokyo, I really do. It’s amazing that one of the largest cities in the world can captivate visitors so much. Tokyo is clean, has an extensive metro system, and there are a million things to do.
However, with all it’s flashing lights and robot cafes it can sometimes feel like a huge spectacle rather than the cultural experience that makes Japan such a special place to visit.
It doesn’t take long to get out of Tokyo and into parts of Japan that still feel unexplored and unique. Tohoku is made up of six different prefectures. Miyagi, Fukushima, Yamagata, Akita, Iwate, and Aomori. Each has it’s own cultural identity and offers visitors a chance to truly travel to a different land.
Aomori, the most northern prefecture in Japan before Hokkaido, for instance, is famous for apple production, fresh-caught seafood from the northern coast, and some stunning natural landscapes
Akita, has world-renowned festivals and tantalizing four seasons, while Yamagata has beautiful skiing in the winter and unique hiking opportunities in the summer.
Tohoku has World Class Festivals
Speaking of festivals, Tohoku has plenty of them throughout the year. When we visited we were pleasantly surprised to be there during Setsuban, a festival that casts away the evil spirits before spring.
More specific to Tohoku are festivals like the Akita Kanto Festival in Akita City, a festival celebrated in hope for a good harvest. It’s this festival that sees some 200 bamboo polers carry fifty-kilogram lanterns on poles on their head, shoulders, and lower backs through the streets of Akita.
Or there’s the Aomori Nebuta Festival in Aomori where you’ll see “Nebuta” or floats of a brave warrior-figures carried through the center of the city, while dancers and drums parade the streets.
Some other fantastic festivals in Tohoku are the Kirosaki Cherry Blossum Festival, the Aizu Festival, and the Iwate Snow Festival!
Tohoku is Culturally Unique
I was amazed in just our short four days traveling Tohoku how many temples and shrines we were able to explore. Chusonji Temple in southern Iwate Prefecture, for instance, is a large scale temple built in the 12th century. The purpose of this temple complex was to console those who died in wars. It’s a place of peace based on Buddha’s teachings.
The Shiwa Inari Shrine, is a shrine in the middle of the Japanese cedars, and is a place of tranquility in the forest resembling that of Kyoto’s famous Fushimi Inari-Taisha. In Yamagata, visitors can find the magical Mount Haguro Five Storied Pagoda that is 1400 years old and is still a place for practicing Shugendo.
These are just a few examples of the unique cultural sites visitors can enjoy in Tohoku, but there is something interesting in every town and city in this region.
The Food in Tohoku is Amazing
Japanese food is already considered to be one of the best cuisines in the world, and that is only emphasized in Tohoku.
Hot pot dishes and soups are a staple of winter in northern Japan, while noodle dishes like soba and udon feels smoother than usual due to the exceptionally clean water. Dreaming of seafood and sushi in Japan? You can find plenty of it in Tohoku where fishing is huge. We’ve never had better oysters than the ones we had in a small Izakaya in Sendai!
If you want to try Wagyu Beef while in Japan (and you should!) then head to Yamagata where Yonezawa beef literally melts in your melt.
I should also mention the sake, which is Tohoku is known for. High-quality sake is made here from the pure water of the Tohoku forests. Tohoku’s sake even won first place in the 2019 Sake Competition.
Tohoku Produce is as Fresh as it Gets
I’m giving all the credit to beef, seafood, and noodles, but I definitely can’t forget to mention the fresh produce in the Tohoku Region which is the ideal place for fruit lovers in Japan. Aomori Prefecture is famous in Japan for its delicious apples. You can head to the A-FACTORY in Aomori and see exactly how they make apple cider, beer, and wine too!
Meanwhile, Yamagata is known for its sweet cherries, and the peaches in Fukushima are said to be presented to the Imperial household.
Tohoku is where Akita dogs come from!
Have you heard of an Akita Inu dog before? These beautiful creatures originate from the Akita prefecture and are a common dog to see around the area. They are beloved throughout Japan so much that in 1931, the Akita was officially declared a Japanese Natural Monument.
You may have heard of the story of Hachikō before. Hachiko (or Hachi) was a loyal Akita who was known for being so loyal to his owner in the 1920s that he waited for him at Shibuya station every day, even following his death for nine years! You can watch the Japanese movie about him, or tune in to the Richard Gere version.
You Can Enjoy Plenty of Hotsprings in Tohoku
Japan is well known for its onsens. Visiting a Japanese Onsen while in Japan should be at the top of your things to do in Japan list!
An onsen is a Japanese hot spring where visitors are typically separated by sex and can soak naked in the warm geothermal water, usually outside. It’s so relaxing especially during the winter months and unique cultural experience. You’ll find onsens all over Japan as it is a volcanically active country and there are thousands scattered throughout Tohoku. We enjoyed a view in Hanamaki Onsen, the largest hot spring resort area in Tohoku. It was the perfect thing to do after a day out in the winter weather, though onsens are great to enjoy any time of the year.
Don’t be shy! Everyone in an onsen is naked and no one cares. You may not wear a bathing suit in an onsen and some traditional onsens even ban tattoos, due to Yakuza, so check accordingly if you have tattoos. Onsens are separated by sex and you are required to wash your body before entering. Watch some YouTube videos before visiting if you are concerned, or check our detailed how-to guide.
There are Beautiful Castles and Stunning Nature
One of the main reasons foreigners and Japanese alike travel around Japan is for the beautiful castles.
Japan saw a need for castles in the 15th century when Japan consisted of small independent states. These states fought and built castles for defense. Now only a handful of these original castles remain. There’s, of course, the beautiful Himeji castle and Matsumoto castle, but Tohoku has it’s very own.
Hirosaki Castle is the most famous castle to see the cherry blossoms at in all of Tohoku, but even if it’s not cherry blossom season it’s well worth a visit!
In addition to stunning castles, Tohoku is also known for its stunning natural features. Places like Juniko Twelve Lakes is a bright blue pond that is almost too beautiful to be real, while Shirakami Sanchi is one of the largest old-growth beech forests in the world. Lake Okama is a crater lake in the Zao Mountain range that is a perfect place to hike in the summer and Lake Towada is one of the largest caldera lakes in the world.
In such a populous country like Japan, it’s hard to believe that you can have this much nature around, but then again Japan is one of the most forested countries in the world!
Every Season is Amazing
There really is no bad time to visit Japan and traveling to Tohoku in spring, summer, autumn, or winter will prove that.
During the Tohoku winter, you’ll find light fluffy powder snow (or what I call Japow). You can find snow monsters and snowboard around Zao Onsen or walk through the snow corridor of Hokkoda.
Summer brings about warm weather and endless festivals. It’s when you can step into Japanese nature and go hiking or float downstream on the Oirase River.
Springtime in Japan means Sakura (or cherry blossoms) which you can expect to find in cities like Sendai. It’s now you’ll want to venture around Hirosaki Castle and Aizuwakamatsu.
Autumn is another fantastic time to visit Tohoku as the trees turn deep red, orange, and yellow. Autumn is another great time to go trekking or enjoy Jogokunuma Pond.
Don’t just take my word for it though, venture away from the main Japanese sights and travel to Tohoku!
Quick Travel Tips for Japan
- Capital: Tokyo is the capital of Japan while Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido.
- Currency: The Japanese Yen(¥) is the currency of Japan. Most places in Japan do not accept credit card and it’s always advisable to have cash on you.
- Visa: Most visitors can enter Japan visa-free for 90 days – check with your embassy.
- What to Pack: It all depends on when you visit Japan. See our full Japan packing list here.
Japan Travel Planning Resources
- Packing Guide — Check out our Japan Packing List to help pack your bags and ensure you don’t leave anything at home.
- Protect Your Trip — We don’t travel without travel insurance, and neither should you. You never know what can happen while traveling, so it’s best to be prepared. HeyMondo provides excellent short-term and long-term travel insurance plans.
- Travel Adapter – Make sure you find a good adapter to keep your personal electronics charged. Otherwise, you may be paying for a cheap one once you land. Purchase one here.
- Book an Experience – See all the best Japan experiences and tours here.
- Get a Japan Rail Pass (Buy Here) – They make traveling around Japan so much easier and cheaper. Read all about if it’s worth it here.
- Travel Shoes – Allbirds are the ultimate travel shoe. They are sustainable and last forever while looking good. Read our full Allbirds review.