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Introducing Northern Honshū (Tōhoku)

May’s gentle showers, collected, become the rushing Mogami River...

Matsuo Bashō, 1644–94

Northern Honshū remains less travelled than much of the rest of Honshū – a shame, since its rugged mountains, deep valleys, rushing rivers and friendly people make it rich and rewarding for travellers. Numerous dormant volcanoes make for numerous hot springs, and its clean water and high-quality rice have made the area synonymous with sake.

Some of Japan’s most curious customs and oddest traditions are alive and well here, as is pride in the area’s fascinating feudal past. Travellers who take the time to step off the shinkansen trail into the less travelled areas will find jaw-dropping beauty, incredibly kind people and well-preserved examples of the life of olden days. Anyone familiar with the ordered neon chaos of Tokyo will find Northern Honshū a refreshing and revitalising change. Paradoxically, thanks to the shinkansen and excellent local trains, this remote region is remarkably accessible, with many of the prime skiing, rafting, boating, onsen or hiking opportunities only a few hours away from Tokyo.

The area is comprised of Fukushima-ken, Miyagi-ken, Iwate-ken, Aomori-ken, Akita-ken and Yamagata-ken (collectively known as Tōhoku), as well as Niigata-ken and the island Sado-ga-shima. Tōhoku was called Michinoku, meaning ‘back roads’, and that isolation has helped to keep ancient traditions alive in the era of the internet and HDTV (high-definition television).

While English isn’t widely spoken in Tōhoku (and its northern dialect is impenetrable even to many native Japanese), you will meet helpful, kind locals who often happily go out of their way to assist a traveller in need.