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Tohoku

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East Asia : Japan : Tohoku
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Tōhoku (東北, literally "East-North") is the northeastern region of Japan's Honshu island.

Understand[edit]

Traditionally a poor rural backwater with a harsh climate, today's Tohoku offers the traveller some of the best scenery in Japan. In winter, the Snow Country (Yukiguni) of the western Japan Sea coast racks up some of the highest snowfall figures in the world, which also means great skiing and lots of hot springs to warm up in. Tohoku also has many castles and samurai residences, making it a good place to take in some history. It also serves as a good backup plan for cherry blossom viewing, since the trees blossom a few weeks later here than they do in Tokyo/Kyoto.

Prefectures[edit]

Tohoku Region
Akita
Japan Sea and a famous breed of dog
Aomori
the northernmost part of Tohoku
Fukushima
Tohoku's prefecture nearest to Tokyo
Iwate
famous for Wanko soba
Miyagi
surrounding Sendai
Yamagata
famous for Sakuranbo cherries and La France pears

Cities[edit]

  • Aomori — northernmost city in Honshu
  • Hiraizumi — historical site with several large temples
  • Hirosaki — the cultural capital of the North
  • Miyako — while the town itself is nothing spectacular, it's near the beautiful Jodogahama beach
  • Morioka — capital of Iwate with beautiful rivers
  • Sendai — capital of Miyagi and the largest city in Tohoku. It enjoys the epithet Mori no Miyako, "The Forest City", due to its dense tree lined thoroughfares and forested public areas.
  • Yamagata — featuring the mountain temple of Yamadera

Other destinations[edit]

Ohata River, Shimokita Peninsula

Itineraries[edit]

Talk[edit]

Information in English tends to be sparse in rural Tohoku, since foreign travellers are few in these parts; most people are also apprehensive around foreigners even if you can speak Japanese.

The rural Tohoku accent, known as zūzū-ben for its characteristic feature of turning all "s" sounds into "z", can be difficult to comprehend at times even if you do understand Japanese. Most people are however well versed in school-standard hyōjungo, and English is also somewhat spoken by urban youth.

Get in[edit]

By plane[edit]

There are no major airports in Tohoku and most travellers arrive via Tokyo. Sendai and Akita airports do field some international flights, mostly to China and South Korea.

By train[edit]

The Tohoku Shinkansen connects Tokyo, Sendai, Morioka and Aomori, with spur lines to Akita and Yamagata. It will take 1 hour 40 minutes from Tokyo to Sendai via the all-reserved Komachi and Hayate service, which run nonstop after departing Omiya in Saitama prefecture. Trains will eventually run through to the new Hokkaido Shinkansen to Hakodate in 2015.

By ferry[edit]

Ferry services connect ports in northern Tohoku to Hokkaido and Nagoya.

Get around[edit]

Tohoku is large, mountainous and sparsely populated, and getting around in the boondocks can be time-consuming.

By train[edit]

Tohoku's main train artery is the Tōhoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) bullet train line on the east coast, connecting Tokyo to Aomori via Sendai, Fukushima, Morioka and Hachinohe, with spurs to Yamagata and Akita. An extension across the strait to Hakodate in Hokkaido is under construction, but will not open until 2015.

Outside the Shinkansen network, rural train services in Tohoku, known affectionately as donko, are slow and infrequent. It's not unusual to have waits of 2 or even 4 hours between trains, especially for services crossing the sparsely inhabited interior, and buses are often a faster option for intercity travel. The scenery along the twisty mountain routes can be stunning though.

While JR has a near-monopoly for connecting all major towns together, the stretch of ordinary track between Morioka and Aomori now belongs to a private company, and there are bits and pieces of private railways around the larger towns.

JR East Rail Pass[edit]

The JR East Rail Pass [1] lets you travel for free on all JR East lines including the Tohoku Shinkansen and its spurs, and is a good option if you plan to travel extensively by train. There are three durations, 7-day pass (¥28,000), 14-day pass (¥48,800) and a 4-day Flex Pass (¥28,000). The 4-day Flex Pass can be used any four days within a one-month window.

The JR East pass covers the area around and North of Tokyo on Honshu, including Nikko for instance, and can be used on the Shinkansen north-bound from Tokyo. Unlike the Japan Rail Pass, it covers the private Izu-Kyuko Railway from Ito to Shimoda, limited express trains from Tokyo to Nikko and Kinugawa via the JR and Tobu Railway lines, local Tobu Railway trains from Shimo-Imaichi to Nikko and Kinugawa, and the Hokuetsu Railway between Echigo Yuzawa and Naoetsu; however, it cannot be used on the Tokaido Shinkansen to go to Kyoto and Osaka.

If you're not in a hurry, you may also want to consider the cheaper Seishun 18-Kippu.

By bus[edit]

Especially for traveling west-east, buses are often a faster and sometimes even cheaper alternative to trains. For example, traveling by train from Morioka to Hirosaki takes around 4 hours even if you time your connection right, while a direct, hourly bus covers the same distance in just over 2. Buses usually leave from major train stations, and the largest operator is JR Bus Tohoku [2].

By car[edit]

Tohoku (in particular north of Sendai) is one of the few areas in Japan where you might want to rent a car. Rental car outlets are conveniently located near the train stations in the major cities, as this is the way local business travellers get around. When planning your trips, figure on your average travel speed on the road being around 60km/h. All sight-seeing spots have parking available, which is inexpensive as compared to the cities in the south. Note that in winter, many roads are closed entirely, and even major arteries can be temporarily blocked by heavy snowfall.

For long distance travel, the Tohoku Expressway more or less follows the route of the Shinkansen, but it's a solid 10 hours of driving for the 900 kilometers from Tokyo to Aomori. A good starting point for exploring Tohoku is Morioka, which can be reached by train from Tokyo in 2 1/2 hours on the Hayate or Komachi service.

See & Do[edit]

Hot spring hopping in midwinter, Shirabu Onsen

Most visitors come to Tohoku for hiking, nature, history and hot springs, not necessarily in that order. Highlights include the temples of Hiraizumi, the holy mountains of Dewa Sanzan and the secluded hot springs of the Shimokita Peninsula. Heavy snowfall also makes this a top skiing destination in winter, but due to longer access times from the main cities, the resorts tend to be less developed (and less crowded) than those around Nagano.

Eat[edit][add listing]

Thinly sliced well-marbled Yonezawa beef, about to be cooked as sukiyaki

Originally peasant food for long winters, Tohoku food tends to be strong flavoured and salty, and the area is famous for its pickles. In mountain regions you will certainly have a chance to sample sansai-ryōri (山菜料理), prepared from herbs and plants harvested from the forests and hillsides. Rice from Tohoku is also famous, with Miyagi's sasanishiki (ササニシキ) and Akita's Akita-komachi (秋田小町) being the flagship varieties.

Tohoku is an important fruit production area and produces most of Japan's apples (Aomori), pears (Yamagata), cherries (Yamagata) and peaches (Fukushima). Yonezawa in Yamagata is famed for beef, and beef tongue is a specialty of Sendai. Akita is best known for kiritanpo (きりたんぽ), a hot pot with pounded rice and a chicken stock. Horsemeat is commonly eaten in mountain regions of Iwate.

Drink[edit][add listing]

Unlike the shōchū-swilling south, Tohoku is sake country and manufactures some fine rice wines.

Get out[edit]

  • Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido is a short hop away from Tohoku's northern tip. You can also get an overnight ferry from Sendai (the capital of Miyagi prefecture) to Tomakomai port in Hokkaido.
  • A wide network of buses, trains, bullet trains and ferries connect Tohoku with the rest of Japan

Off the Beaten Path[edit]

  • Tashirojima (田代島) is a small island off the coast of Ishinomaki city(石巻市) in Miyagi prefecture. It is populated by roughly 100 people, most of whom are over 80. The island's main attraction is its sheer number of cats, shipped in from the mainland to hunt mice that were threatening the islands silkworm industry. The industry has long since died, and the cats have continued to breed. There is also a camping/holiday home area of the island with cat shaped buildings all designed by famous manga authors. The island also, rather poignantly, host to many "haikyo" or abandoned buildings, including two school buildings, which were built during the height of the islands prosperity.
  • Zao onsen (蔵王温泉) in Yamagata prefecture is a quaint onsen town with winding streets and sulphurous streams running all over the town. It has a decent sized ski resort between late december and late april and can be skied all over in a few days. Perfect for beginners and intermediates. The wonderful smelling hot onsen pools all over town make perfect apres ski. However, the best out door onsens are open from april when the resort becomes a hiking destination.



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