Region - northern Tohoku
Explore an ancient culture of forests through traditional crafts and cuisine
Immerse in the wild beauty of primeval forests, rushing streams and mountain meadows
Discover the little-known prehistoric origin of Japanese culture and psyche
Take in the atmosphere of Kakunodate’s world-famous historic townscape
Unwind in one of many onsens (hot springs) with styles to suit all tastes
Celebrate with the locals at heart-warming winter festivals
The northern Tōhoku region, comprising the prefectures of Akita, Iwate and Aomori, occupies the northern end of Honshu. Among the most sparsely populated areas of Japan, the northern Tohoku (together with Hokkaido) has traditionally been regarded as a frontier in Japanese history. The wild environment, long cold winters and cycles of natural disasters (e.g. earthquakes) have resulted in a regional culture that is particularly resilient, innovative and rich in traditions. At the same time, the region has been socio-economically marginalised through much of Japanese history, and now faces immense challenges from population decline.
The Tohoku region is progressively opening up to international tourism after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. The northernmost Tohoku region were spared the worst effects of the disaster, and are home to popular destinations such as Kakunodate with its Samurai houses, Hirosaki with its castle and cherry blossoms, and the beautiful Lake Towada and Oirase Gorge. However, most of northern Tohoku remains off the mainstream tourist trail. It is a region where you can really get away from it all and experience a truly ancient and warm Japanese culture.
Much of northern Tohoku is covered by temperate and subarctic forests of great beauty. The regional culture strongly reflects this environment, particularly in its craft and food traditions. Northern Tohoku is one of the craft ‘hotspots’ of Japan, including lacquerware, woodwork, bamboocraft, wickercraft and textiles—most of which relate to the rich forest environment of the region. The region’s cuisine showcases sansai or Japanese ‘bushfoods’ (wild plants and mushrooms collected in forests and meadows) and wild meats including bear and deer. The region is, not surprisingly, the birthplace of the Japanese bushcraft tradition—a couple of blacksmiths still remaining in the region continue to handcraft traditional Japanese bushknives with their legendary quality and versatility.
The most fascinating aspect of northern Tohoku’s culture is its direct link with the Jomon culture—Japan’s amazing prehistoric civilisation. The Jomon people lived in harmony with their forest environments, and without warfare, for over 14000 years. Archaeological investigations have revealed that northern Tohoku was one of the main centres for the Jomon civilisation—therefore it is not surprising that the regional traditions today still retain many aspects of this prehistoric culture. The traditional culture of northern Tohoku may therefore contain clues as to how humans can live sustainably into the future. Explore the many archaeological sites and museums of northern Tohoku for a journey into the past, and contemplate our common future.
Northern Tohoku is also a walker’s paradise. Opportunities for easy to moderate-grade hikes abound, whether along cool, rushing streams, forests ablaze in autumn tints, or across mountain meadows with wildflowers of all sorts. The gentle and green landscapes of northern Tohoku are sure to soothe and refresh your soul. The volcanic origin of Tohoku’s landscape makes the region an onsen haven—take your pick from a carefree soak in an onsen ryokan with views to the forests to a more challenging bathing experience in a communal unisex country onsen.
The harsh winters of northern Tohoku have resulted in a rich tradition of winter festivals. Unlike the world-famous Sapporo Snow Festival, most winter festivals of northern Tohoku are smaller, traditional events deeply rooted in the local culture. Many of the festivals encapsulate people’s wishes for good health and bountiful harvests in the year ahead, in a region where human survival posed many challenges. Traditionally, the festivals have played a role in keeping regional communities together through the hardships and isolation of winter. These days, locals and large numbers of visitors mingle as the festivities climax, and unwind over simple country foods and hot sake at the street stalls. Some, such as Yokote’s Kamakura (snow igloo) festival have become world famous. The winter festivals of northern Tohoku are a heart-warming experience that will make you forget the chill.