Trip report: Tohoku (Miyagi, Iwate, Aomori, Akita)
Replies: 21 - Last Post: Mar 27, 2013 1:03 AM Last Post By: Tokyo_girl
Jun 9, 2012 9:55 AM
For those who can't be bothered to read it all, my highlights:
- spending two days on the Sanriku coast in Iwate, seeing the cliffs and rocks and hearing and seeing what has happened one year after the tsunami
- an afternoon at Osorezan, taking in the sounds and smells of the surreal and almost extraterrestrial surroundings, combined with an onsen soak. loved it.
- lunch at Tsuru-no-yu Onsen after a morning of soaking in the hot water, by the river in the sun with a beer
I've decided to write this out so extensively as the last edition of LP's Japan Guide does not include three provinces of the Tohoku region: Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima. I have posted previously about this and sent in an email to LP but unfortunately there has been no response whatsoever.
The Tohoku region is stunning, and I'm very very happy that I've spent some of my time there and managed to see so much. Because of the limited information in the books, but also because it is difficult to find good information online about accessability etc, especially of the coastal areas, I hope the inside information will be useful to others considering heading that way, I've really loved it. (and I know at least one person will be interested in the inside).
I've made it as complete as possible, but if any questions on whatever I've written, please let me know. Happy to help :)
Oh, and pictures will follow soon to give some visuals alongside it all (see sig line for link)
Jun 9, 2012 9:58 AM
1The below will follow my route (each prefecture in a new post, so hopefully it will be readable) and will include some general comments on places and more specific information on places to visit, accessibility etc.
I used Japanese everywhere I went, which made it a lot easier as I don’t think there’s a lot of English spoken by people locally (so unfortunately I can't say well how easy/difficult this region is for non-Japanese speakers).
I made a point of visiting the tourist information office in each new destination to get my questions answered and to sort out the next day as I had nothing planned ahead. This worked extremely well. Information given was useful and extensive, and especially handy because I hardly ever found a place with internet/computers to use for additional information.
Transport is few, yes, but connections do make sense so it is possible to cover a lot of ground without rushing. I feel I took my time at many places (could have gone a lot faster) and never felt rushed. However, this route did take an average of 2/3 hours travelling daily. The JR East Pass helped a lot, though for the days from Miyako to Aomori I had to use a lot of buses and private trains so this got more expensive than expected. In Tohoku all shinkansen travel is on reserved-seat basis, so you need to be sure what train to take (but can be booked 10 minutes in advance if necessary). I focused on rural areas along the coast, taking in some mountainous parts, and mostly skipped the cities.
Jun 9, 2012 10:00 AM
2Iwate-ken (for Hiraizumi & Morioka I have used the ’95 guidebook as a base)
Nice town to visit on the way further north though no need for me to spend more than a few hours – I enjoyed Chūson-ji most, which is nicely located up on a hill. The most choice for lunch places is on the main road (from the station walk straight ahead, and turn right at the traffic lights), though the signs to the temple from the train station point you into a different road (also possible, takes you past an archaeological site, but not much else).
Hourly local trains connect Hiraizumi with Morioka
Morioka had a very nice feeling about it, I only spent an evening and a very short morning here but I liked it a lot.
Accommodation: Taishōkan (Y3900), basic but clean minshuku
Dinner: Yakitori Akira, very sympathetic and fun small yakitori place with a few tables and a counter. The chef will suggest nice yakitori to try. Around Y3000, including drinks.
Miyako is accessible by train (and bus) from Morioka which takes about 2 hours. There are roughly 4 trains a day there, spaced about 2/3 hours apart. My train was at 11:09 (the second of the day, there is one at 6 or 7am, I think). View is a lot of forest and tunnels.
This train line used to continue south to Yamada but I don’t think this train line is back up as there was no mention anywhere of connections continuing on from Miyako. Miyako has a small tourist information office in the train station which was helpful in providing directions etc. Next to it are lockers.
Main attractions in Miyako are the rocky beach at Jōdogahama and the local fish and veg market. The latter is a 10-minute walk from the train station, but was not so impressive when I was there (closed Wednesdays).
To go to Jōdogahama there are buses from the train station about once an hour (slightly more often in the morning) for Y170, which take about 20 minutes. The bus passes out of the center through areas of Miyako that have been completely wiped out by the tsunami before reaching the bus stop at the ‘Terminal Building’, from where you can walk down to the beach (about 15 minutes). From the Terminal building there is a sightseeing boat to see the coast that way. A little bit further down towards the beach is the Marine House where a small motorboat will take you around to the beach as well as to a cave (advertising focuses on that). Trip takes about 20 minutes for Y1500 (gets less per person if you are with more people I think, this was for 1). Fun ride.
Accommodation was more difficult to find than expected. Many hotels are booked up because of construction workers working in the area (everywhere you look there is work being done). The sixth place I tried (list provided by the Morioka travel information office) finally had a room available (booked on the morning of my arrival): the Miyako Central Hotel Kumayasu, a clean and basic business hotel. Y6400, including breakfast (Y800) for a single room. It’s about 10 minutes’ walk from the train station.
Quite a few options around for dinner, mostly izakaya’s. I recommend the Hamayū (浜ゆう) izakaya, 2 blocks from the hotel (towards the train station, on a side street left). Nice food and very friendly owners. Around Y2500, with one drink.
The private railway company Sanriku Tetsudo runs a train from Miyako to Omoto (小本); Y750, about 35 minutes. In Omoto there are shuttle buses to the Ryūsen-dō (didn’t go myself). From Omoto a bus connects to the train station of Tanohata (田野畑); Y380, 30 minutes (the train for this part is not expected to be operational until spring 2014). From Tanohata you get back on the train from Sanriku Tetsudo to Kuji (久慈); Y900, 50 minutes.
The train follows the coast somewhat but unfortunately you don’t see much of it and it’s a lot of tunnels. The 2005 LP of the coast mentioned the village Tarō as well as a destination but what I saw from the train was that it is mostly wiped out. The main attraction in the region is the Sanriku Kaigan National Park so it’s a shame you are not able to see more. A car would definitely be a better way of travelling this coast.
A highlight on the coast is the cliffs at Kitayamazaki (北山崎). From Tanohata there are ‘tourist taxi’s’ to take people to the cliffs, which run at set times (to connect with incoming bus/trains) and leave Kitayamazaki again about an hour later. A return trip is Y1600, Y800 one way. The drive there takes about 20 minutes, and you see a bit more of conditions in that area – there’s a lot of work being done on roads etc which is encouraging. At Kitayamazaki there are three lookout points which give you a good view of the cliffs and a small visitor center.
Kuji is a small town which hasn’t sustained any visible damage and it’s fairly easy to navigate. I only stayed overnight, and didn’t see much of the town except for the exhibition hall for the local matsuri and a temple & shrine close by. Other attractions in the town are apparently an amber museum and an aquarium.
Miyako tourist info office had provided me with a phone number of the Kuji office (0194-52-211) who gave some phone numbers of hotels etc. There are quite some options (I have a list available if anyone is interested), and I was worried that Kuji would be as difficult as Miyako in securing accommodation so I booked this a day ahead (from Miyako). First try immediately worked though, a very basic ryokan 5 minutes’ walk from the train station, Mizugi Ryokan, with single rooms for Y3000.
Dinner was at a recommended izakaya, Iwamasa (いわまさ), around the corner of the ryokan which had good food at the counter, around Y3000 including drinks.
Jun 9, 2012 10:03 AM
(the 2011 LP does cover these regions and most destinations but I found the information very limited, so I will add anything useful about these destinations here as well).
There is not a lot of transport on the peninsula. From Shimokita/Mutsu (10 minutes apart) there are only 4 buses during the week (9am, 11am, 2pm, 16:45 (not in October)). Buses back are on a similar schedule (10am, 1pm, 15:50, 17:30 (not in October)), Y750, 40 minutes.
Osorezan was stunning, a highlight of my trip. Take your time walking around, taking in all the sounds and smells and definitely try out the onsen!
Mutsu is very limited for places for food if you are looking for anything outside lunch and dinner hours (between 2 and 5:30pm basically). There’s a supermarket across the road from the bus terminal which sells bento’s and other food.
Accommodation was at the Wakinosawa Youth Hostel. Really nice place. Quiet, but very friendly owners who cook good food. Recommended to have dinner & breakfast included as there are no facilities at all close by. From Mutsu (JR bus stop just down the road from the bus terminal where the Osorezan buses stop) there are 3 buses daily on weekdays (7:15, 12:45, 16:40). The drive takes around 1,5 hours (Y1790). If you take the last bus you won’t be able to have dinner at the YH so you need to take food with you (or eat in Mutsu).
There’s a range of other buses around the peninsula, of which I have a timetable if anyone is interested. I didn’t take any of them.
At Wakinosawa I spent a day walking along the coast which was really really nice and a much-needed day of not much travel, the owners can provide maps. There are also trails going into the mountainous area away from the coast. Pretty coastline and easy to walk along, you may sometimes see monkeys (nihonzaru) or Japanese serows (nihonkamoshika).
From Wakinosawa (5/10 minutes by car) there is a ferry twice a day to Aomori (8:30 & early in the afternoon I think, 1 hour, Y2540). If you’re lucky, you can see dolphins on the trip over. The train station in Aomori is a 5-minute walk from the ferry terminal (follow the tracks to the left, outside the terminal building).
Hirosaki surprised me – I didn’t know much about it, last minute change of plan, and the descriptions in the 2005 and 2011 LP guides are quite contradictory but neither includes much information on sights. There is much more of interest there than I had expected. The city itself, though, I found a little difficult to navigate and feels strange – it’s very clean and tidy but also felt empty during the day.
Aside from Hirosaki-jō and Zenrin-gai with Chōshō-ji (under renovation at the moment, so I didn’t go in, but it was nice walking along the street with the many many temples), I really enjoyed the Fujita Kinen Tei-en, a pretty Japanese garden (entrance Y300; you can get a combination ticket with the castle for Y500) with a view towards Iwaki-san. To the north of the park surrounding Hirosaki-jō are some nice samurai houses, of which you can visit 3 free of charge (I only visited two, Itō-ya and Umeda-ya).
I stayed at the Hirosaki YH, a fairly central place but it felt a bit impersonal. I found it difficult to find a cheap place to eat in Hirosaki. Many many izakaya’s etc, but in my experience those turn out as Y3000 dinners and I wanted something much less. Ended up at a ramen-place which was on the ground floor of the Renaisse Avenue, on the main street. The main evening part of the city is in the southeast part as seen from the castle park.
Free internet is usually available at the information center across from the castle park, but was broken when I was there. I ended up a few streets along at the shimin kaikan 市民会館 (I think that is what it was called), where there’s a library/study room on the 2F with very sloooow internet (also the first time in a week that I had found something, but I hadn’t looked for it. None of the used accommodation had available computers).
There’s a good tourist information office in the train station and they helped me with a lot of information on Hirosaki and my next destination, Jūni-ko.
There is a touristic JR train (Resort Shirakami train) that travels from Hirosaki & Akita that stops here (this is the only direct option, otherwise you need to transfer somewhere along the way), which takes about 2,5h from Hirosaki (about 5/6 trains a day I think). Depending on which train you get, they are kind of entertaining. From Hirosaki to Jūni-ko I was on a train which had screens fitted in all the cars which showed the view from the camera at the front of the train, and at one part there was a live shamisen performance on board the train (also shown on the screens). The train has good views of the coast, once it’s there and the main sights are pointed out (and the train slows down).
Jūni-ko station is very tiny, but has lockers (also in the shop across the road you can store luggage, and get simple meals) and a window that acts as a tourist information office though I’m not sure how well they can provide information.
There is a bus up to the area (takes 15 minutes) about 6 (in winter)/8 (in summer) times a day (connecting with the trains, I think), Y350 one way. The last stop is where the main things are, and there are maps of the area provided near the Mori no Hakubutsukan Kyororo, which is a souvenir shops and sells udon/soba/curry rice. There are plenty of trails going around the area of lakes, though it’s not recommended to go off on the trails that are going further away when alone because of bears in the area. It’s also possible to hike up to the mountain from here (about 3 hours according to the map). The part around the bus stop is very touristy, but it gets better (quieter) when you head on to the trails (there’s a ‘recommended course’ so may be smart to also walk along on other trails).
Accommodation turned out to be relatively expensive, there are some ryokans & minshuku in the area but prices start from Y8000/10000 and I decided to travel on to Akita in the late afternoon/evening to stay overnight instead.
Jun 9, 2012 10:04 AM
4Akita-ken - only adding to what’s in the guidebook.
Dinner was at a very Akita restaurant around the block from the hotel, Nagaya (秋田長屋酒場) which has big Akita demons and taiko drumming outside. It’s quite an experience, very traditional interior and a huge menu with lots of local food. There is a Y500 table charge (maybe just at the counter, I’m not sure, though the counter area is probably one of the best places from where to see the action happening in the restaurant). About Y3000/3500 with one drink.
Accommodation was the Tazawa-ko YH, an old and basic YH which also acts as a ryokan but the food was great.
Jun 9, 2012 10:04 AM
Sendai was nicer than I expected as I had imagined it to be quite grey and industrial, but it’s easy to get around, modern and a lot in the city (but only spent the evening there). I stayed at Chitose YH, a nice place, clean, friendly people and about a 15-20 minute walk from the train station.
Trains to Matsushima Kaigan (on the JR Senseki line) are very regular, every half hour or so, and it’s about a 35 minute trip. Walking about 20 minutes left (following the road) from the train station you come to the Sōkanzan (双観山) look-out point which has quite a nice view and is away from the crowds and tour buses. There is not a lot of tsunami damage at Matsushima apart from some small things, but everything is business as usual. Easy to find your way, just follow the crowds ;-) On the corner of the entrance to Zuigan-ji (left hand side) is a nice place to have dango.
Jun 10, 2012 3:48 AM
6Wow, what a great trip. I think this is the first comprehensive Tohoku trip review I have seen on the TT. Any time I am there I am not really on public transport, so it's of limited use to travellers.
My guess is Kuji probably has more places available because the damage there was so much less than in Miyako.
In Miyako, did you go up to Jodogahama and back to Miyako to stay the night?
Was there provision for getting on and off the buses around Tanohata to enable you to see the Kita Yamazaki cliffs etc?
When I stayed there I stayed at a kokumin shukusha between Kuji and Miyako - Eboshi. It was quite cheap with really good food - I am not sure if is back operational again though - it would have been above the tsunami level.
Miyako I think the tsunami reached almost 40meters. Really encouraging to hear it is on the way back.
Jun 10, 2012 4:47 AM
7Congratulations Machiruda well done!
Your Tohoku report is exactly what many among as are hoping for.
You are visiting very interesting areas with limited travel (if any) reports in English.
Wish you to enjoy many new destinations in Japan and to share your findings with us.
Jun 10, 2012 5:11 AM
8Just a PS from me ....
From time to time people ask about off the beaten track places - Tohoku, parts of Hokkaido, Japan Sea side, parts of Kyushu, Shikoku and the islands.
It'a a delight to actually have someone come back to the board with such detailed and useful information.
LP! This is what YOU should be doing!
Well done Machiruda!
Jun 10, 2012 7:57 AM
9oops, forgot one - from Tanohata the 'tourist taxi' takes you to the Kitayamazaki cliffs. You then have about an hour or so to walk around the lookout points to see the cliffs before the taxi drives back to Tanohata station at the designated time.
I think the idea is that the taxi takes several different people at once (not necessarily travelling together) so acts like a shuttle bus with set times etc. Except that I was the only one there using this facility (as at many other places).
I did see some Taiwanese and Hong Kong tourists (on the Japan Sea side), but only on the 9th day of this 10-day trip did I see non-Asian tourists. Hopefully that will pick up soon.
Jun 14, 2012 2:32 PM
Jun 14, 2012 3:46 PM
11Machiruda will have her own answer but..
If you take out a map, you will Find that Miyako where Machirdua was on the coast is further from Fukushima daiichi than Tokyo.
Tohoku is very big. Fukushima and Iwate are the two biggest prefectures on Honshu.
Sendai which is closer is still outside the 80km exclusion zone set by the US embassy.
Radiation levels are readily available, the MEXT site will have them and they are being substantiated by other sources. The WHO released data recently which found radiation very close to Daichi - in places such as Namie and Tomioka higher than expected, but in general radition levels are not high.
Food is being tested rigorously, large areas of land are not being cultivated.
If you are coming as an adult tourist for a limited time in places out of the exclusion zone, radiation is not an issue, it is an issue for the people living closer by the exclusion zone, particularly those with rapidly multiplying cells - the pregnant and small children.
I have recommended it here many times in the many threads that ask about radiation here, but Peter Sandman, http://www.psandman.com/ puts risk into an academic light which makes illuminating reading.
http://www.psandman.com/articles/risk.htm This page is particularly useful.
Jun 14, 2012 11:57 PM
12I completely agree with t_g - it's not an issue in the areas that I visited, which are far away from the nuclear site. what I notice is that people pay more attention to where there food/veggies come from, and of course that's difficult to do when you are travelling and dependent on restaurants.
but I also believe that travelling in this particular area for a few days doesn't put you at risk. Living near Fukushima would be a different thing of course.
Jul 21, 2012 4:46 AM
Jul 21, 2012 11:35 AM
14glad to be of help cindy :)
if you are only going to see Osorezan 2 nights will be plenty - from Mutsu the bus takes about half an hour/40 minutes or so, and I spent about 2 hours walking around and in the onsen. so in half a day you can see the mountain/temple.
i didn't spend time in Mutsu itself other than waiting for the connecting bus for 2 hours - it seemed quite dull and empty, but I think it comes alive a little more in the evening (I saw a few streets with quite a few 'snacks' and restaurants so they must be open at night).
there are of course other places to go and see on the peninsula. I would ask for information at the tourist office in Shimokita (assuming you are going to the peninsula by train), they have quite a bit of information, and more than at the Mutsu busterminal - it seemed. Also a better chance there to be able to manage in English. my impression was that there isn't a lot of English spoken, but I'm sure you'll manage to get to the places you want to go to :)
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