Northern Honshū (Tōhoku)
Stretching out above Tokyo is the fabled Tōhoku (東北; Northeast) – starring Miyagi, Yamagata, Iwate, Fukushima, Akita and Aomori Prefectures – where ice monsters and river imps inhabit the imagination (but hopefully not the onsen). Hugging the west coast is Niigata Prefecture, a skiing and hiking wonderland that also includes the rugged and remote island of Sado-ga-shima.
Three national parks, alternating between thick mountain forests, stark volcanoes and coastal marshes, offer year-round outdoor pursuits, while the spectacular caldera lakes of Tazawa-ko and Towada-ko welcome summertime pleasure-seekers. Stylish Sendai is the pick of the prefectural capitals for those seeking an uncomplicated urban fix.
Feudal-era remnants are present in numerous places – Hiraizumi and Kakunodate being the most historically notable – and traditional cultures are alive and well.
This region suffered greatly in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and some coastal areas along the glorious Sanriku Kaigan, in particular, will welcome your visit as they continue to rebuild.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Northern Honshū (Tōhoku).
This holy shrine at Osore-zan's summit is a moving, mesmerisingly atmospheric and beautiful place honouring Jizō Bosatsu, protector of children and a much-loved deity in Japanese mythology. It's also said to be located at the entrance to hell: a small brook that flows into the beautiful crater lake, Usori, is said to represent the legendary Sanzu river, which souls must cross on their way to the afterlife. Fittingly people visit to mourn lost children or to commune with the dead.
The 2446 stone steps through ancient cedars to Haguro-san's summit (419m) have been smoothed by centuries of pilgrims. The climb, taking up to two hours, passes Gojū-no-tō (五重塔), a beautiful wooden five-storey pagoda dating from the 14th century. At the top marvel at the San-shin Gōsaiden (三神合祭殿), a vivid red hall that enshrines the deities of Dewa Sanzan's three mountains.
Looking like a modernist sculpture, the geometric white facade of the Aomori Museum of Art was designed to blend in with the landscape when blanketed with snow. The permanent collection features works by Aomori icons, including pop artist Yoshitomo Nara (and his 8.5m-tall dog) and master printmaker Munakata Shikō, alongside international artists. The showstopper is four huge ballet backdrops painted by Marc Chagall, which hang on the walls of the gallery's central atrium. Contemporary temporary exhibitions are elegantly staged.
Accessible from July to September, Gas-san (1984m) is the highest of Dewa Sanzan's sacred mountains. From Hachigōme (八合目; eighth station) the route passes through an alpine plateau to Kyūgōme (九合目; ninth station) in 1¾ hours, then grinds uphill for another 1¼ hours to the top.
Accessible from May to October, Yudono-san (1504m) is the spiritual culmination of the Dewa Sanzan trek. Coming from Gas-san it's a short walk from the stream bed at the end of the descent to Yudono-san-jinja.
The 'Temple of Standing Stones', more commonly known as Yamadera, rests atop a rock-hewn staircase weathered over the centuries by unrelenting elements. At the foot of the mountain, guarded by a small lantern, is the sacred flame, Konpon-chūdō (根本中堂; ¥200), said to have been transported from Kyoto many centuries ago.
Tōhoku’s finest Zen temple, Zuigan-ji was established in AD 828. The present buildings were constructed in 1606 by Date Masamune to serve as a family temple and the Hondo (main hall) has been beautifully restored to its former glory. Visitors pass by a series of dark-wood chambers illuminated by golden doors painted with exquisite images of flora and fauna. Nearby the excellent Seiryūden (temple museum) has a number of well-preserved relics from the Date family, including national treasures.
Established in AD 850 by the priest Ennin, the Chūson-ji complex was expanded by the Ōshu Fujiwara family in the 12th century. A total of 300 buildings with 40 temples were constructed. Ironically, the family's grand scheme to build a Buddhist utopia was destroyed when a massive fire ravaged nearly everything in 1337. Only two of the original structures, the Konjiki-dō and Kyōzō, remain, alongside more recent reconstructions. The sprawling site is reached via a steep cedar-lined avenue.
Excavation of this site turned up an astonishing number of intact artefacts from Japan's Jōmon era (10,000 to 2000 years ago), which are on display at the museum here. Clay figures, jade beads and large chestnut pillars head the collection, and there are also some reconstructed dwellings. Sannai Maruyama is approximately 5km west of JR Aomori Station. City buses leaving from stop 6 for Menkyō Center stop at Sannai Maruyama Iseki-mae (¥300, 20 minutes).