Tohoku is a region of stunning natural beauty found just to the north of Tokyo. Made up of 6 prefectures (Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata), Tohoku is bursting with hot springs, snowy mountains, ancient castles and precariously-perched mountain temples. To help discover these little-known gems in Japan, I’ve pulled together my top 5 places to visit in the Tohoku region.
Onsens In The Snow
Among the mountains of Aomori and Akita you can enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience of bathing in outdoor hot springs as the snow falls on the trees all around you. In an area known as Nyuto Onsen-kyo (or Nyuto Onsen Village) there are 7 onsens that offer a range of traditional outdoor and indoor pools for bathing. For an onsen experience soaked in history head to Tsurunoyu Onsen, the oldest in the region, which is famed for its milky outdoor pools and samurai lodges that now provide guest accommodation.
Hirosaki Castle & Cherry Blossom
Hirosaki Castle is a fascinating example of 17th century architecture, particularly as the long-standing castle has faced challenges including fire and earthquakes. The castle was originally built with 5-storeys but after being struck by lightning had to be rebuilt with just 3-storeys as 5 had become prohibited. Today the castle stands some 70 metres from its original location as the foundations are presently being reinforced. The castle will be painstakingly replaced in its original position by 2023!
Hirosaki Castle is also famed for its cherry blossom; an incredible 2,600 cherry blossom trees bloom all around the castle grounds in the springtime. With some of the pink-leafed trees aged more than 300 years old the Japanese Government have named the castle one of the 100 best spots for cherry blossoms in Japan. Photography enthusiasts in particular will enjoy capturing the castle and Gejobashi Bridge in a floral frame.
Yama-dera Mountain Temple
In the Yamagata prefecture you can visit the unique Risshaku-ji (or Yama-dera) Mountain Temple. Built in 860 by the Buddhist Tendai Sect, the temple is perched on the side of a stunning mountain and can only be reached by climbing 1000 steps. It’s an incredibly scenic and rewarding climb though as more than 40 shrines line the way and you’ll discover incredible views of the valley from Godaido Hall at the top.
Yama-dera also made an impression on respected poet Basho who wrote a haiku about the stillness and silence of the area. You can find a copy of it inscribed in a rock on the lower temple grounds.
Explore A Samurai Village In A Kimono
To really feel like you have stepped back in time you must visit the traditional Samurai village of Kakunodate in Akita. Many of the houses in Kakunodate (known as ‘Little Kyoto’) are owned by descendants of Samurai warriors and 6 of them are open to the public so that you can learn more about the lives of these families.
To look the part as you wander these fantastic preserved buildings women can wear kimono and men the elegant robes of Samurai. It’s quite an intricate procedure to be dressed in a traditional kimono, even with 2 ladies dressing you it takes at least 15 minutes to get the layers just right. Once on, however, you immediately feel more elegant, perhaps because you can’t help but stand more upright with all the weighty fabric wrapped around your waist!
The Temple of 500 Disciples in Morioka
Morioka, the capital city of Iwate Prefecture, has a whole street of temples that were built as part of a defence strategy. Hoonji Temple, known as The Temple Of 500 Disciples, stands out because of the interesting tales about its occupants. The 500 disciples are a collection of wooden statues, arranged in various poses and grimaces, that line the walls of the temple, but if you were to count them you would discover only 499. Where the last one went no one knows. Perhaps it is us visitors who are intended to make up the numbers?
This post was originally written for the JNTO website.