Against a backdrop of lingering snow, the cherry blossoms dazzle—the Tohōku region of Japan offers this unique spring spectacle to the traveler who ventures this far north. Occupying the entire northern part of the main island of Honshu, Tōhoku is a wild region that offers travelers plenty in the way of adventure.
Tōhoku Region, Japan
Traditionally seen as a remote part of Japan, the Tōhoku region boasts varied and beautiful landscapes, with rugged coastlines and a mountainous interior. It possesses rare gems such as the pines of Matsushima Bay and Lake Towada, which nestles in a volcanic crater.
The climate is harsh, and the winters long and cold, but the natural beauty of the area inspired one of Japan’s greatest poets. In the 17th century, Matsuo Basho spent five months traveling the northern provinces on foot, inspiring his famous book The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Basho would have admired (and perhaps climbed) Mount Iwate (6,686 feet or 2,038 meters), and the flat-topped Mount Hachimantai (5,292 feet or 1,613 meters), which offer visitors guided trekking and, on clear days, unsurpassed views. Down at sea level, he would have experienced the wonders of nature at Iwai Cape.
He may have let the eroded limestone forms enchant his eye or looked upon the Ryu no Matsu (Dragon Pine Tree), which still stands, a silent testament to the resilience of the region and its people. Although severely damaged by the Tōhoku tsunami, a piece of it remains today, its shape suggesting a dragon climbing to the heavens.
Further inland, another tree lays a claim to fame. In the province of Fukushima—where the tidal wave damaged the nuclear power station—the town of Miharu boasts a weeping cherry tree over one thousand years old, with branches stretching 65 feet (20 meters) or more in all directions.
For the sightseer, there are temples and shrines of course, beginning with the astonishing Sazae-do in Fukushima Prefecture: a wooden temple to the Goddess Kannon built in the shape of a three-storey double helix. Or the Chuson-ji, in Iwate, with its Golden Hall, situated in an ancient forest, the whole area is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
A visit to onsen, or natural hot springs, is a must in any part of Japan, and the Tōhoku region has many, with Nyuto Hot Spring Village being a favourite of mine.
Surrounded by a thick forest of beech trees, it is home to seven traditional inns (ryokan), each with similarly traditional Japanese wooden architecture and housing its own hot spring. The water is channeled into indoor baths, but Tsurunoyu Onsen is an exception: an open-air hot-spring bath with milky white water boasting medicinal properties, and unforgettable ablutions.
With its history of warring clans, not to mention the conflicts of yore with the Emishi (an ethinic group that lived in Tōhoku from the seventh to 10th century), castles are another common feature of the landscape. Though the most famous one, Hirosaki in Aomori, may be hard to make out in spring because of the riot of pink blossoms from the two thousand six hundred cherry trees around it.
The Ne castle, also in Aomori, is interesting because it predates the great era of castle-building, and is a skillful reconstruction of the original mainly wooden edifices. While the Morioka castle in Iwate has become a peaceful ruin in a beautiful park.
I have a personal love of Aomori Prefecture within Tōhoku, where the warmth of the inhabitants is matched only by the broadness of their Japanese dialect, often unintelligible to my untrained ears.
Aomori offers an unmatched Tōhoku travel experience in the form of the Nebuta festival. The word nebuta refers to the huge lantern floats that are carried through the streets of Aomori city, borne by scores of men in traditional haneto costume. The floats generally depict fierce warrior figures, with the lantern-sculptures bringing to life whole scenes from mythology, complete with humans and beasts.
The long winters in Aomori, which traditionally would have kept people indoors, may have facilitated the emergence of this lantern art and the many festivals of light in the region. What’s more, Tōhoku has a remarkable heritage of handicrafts—ceramics, lacquerware, textiles, metalwork, bamboo crafts, and exquisitely detailed wood carvings all still thrive there.
But the northeast is not just wild nature and places to see, it has urban attractions too. Sendai, the largest city in the Tōhoku region and the largest north of Tokyo, suffered catastrophic damage following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, but its million or so inhabitants demonstrated their yamato damashi, or Japanese spirit, and restored their city to its former vibrancy.
In winter, the trees are beautifully decorated with lights for the ‘Pageant of Starlight’. In all seasons, the Kirin brewery offers factory tours, where visitors can sample Japan’s most famous beers—the slightly sweet trademark lager, or the dark, smooth ale. Every September, the Jozenji Street Jazz Festival sets the town swinging and boogying for two days straight.
Japan’s Tōhoku region is like a frontier—to the north, Hokkaido’s wide expanses, almost Siberian winters and dairy farms. To the South, central Japan, the cradle of the Japanese nation and astounding architecture in Tokyo and other big cities. But just as Basho was enchanted by its magic, Tōhoku is bound to leave its mark on any visitor today.
Against a backdrop of lingering snow, the cherry blossoms dazzle – the Tōhoku region of Japan offers this unique spring spectacle to the traveler who ventures this far north. The Tōhoku, or northeastern region, of Japan occupies the entire northern part of the main island of Honshu. In 2011, the world watched in dismay as it suffered a natural disaster of unprecedented magnitude. On the 11th of March of that year, the Tōhoku earthquake occurred some 70 kilometers off the mainland, triggering a gigantic tsunami. The Tōhoku tsunami devastated coastal areas, causing the loss of almost 20,000 lives, and leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless. These events are poignantly documented in the 2011 film, “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom.”
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This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.