Exploring The Tohoku Region of Japan

Travel Features Japan
Exploring The Tohoku Region of Japan

Japan is full of many wonders. If you’re in Tokyo and are eager to see more of the fantastic sides of this captivating country, there’s a great solution: the bullet train. It’s one of the more understated yet undeniably awesome realities about Japan.

Otherwise known as the “Shinkansen,” the bullet train, whose sleek design emulates a kingfisher bird, maxes out around 200 mph and connects all four of Japan’s main islands. It is so accessible, fast, and efficient that it makes one wonder why it isn’t more of a thing here in the United States. It is pricier than standard subway fare but occupies a decent middle ground between that and airfare—only with the bonus of front-row seats to Japan’s legendary countryside, easy access to all of the country’s charms, Wi-Fi, and, perhaps most importantly, more comfortable seating.

The Tohoku Line, part of the JR East Railway Company, covers the Tohoku region comprising the upper third of the main Japanese island of Honshu. The Tohoku Line has its southern end in Tokyo and terminates in Aomori at the northern end. Buying passes is simple at the various JR East Stations found throughout Tokyo. With your ticket in hand, it is as easy as boarding your car, finding your seat (all seating is assigned on the bullet train, so check your stub), and enjoying the ride. The train comes in different varieties, from the no-frills yet comfy coach cars to the fully decked-out GranClass trains with swanky interiors offering spacious seating, drinks, light meals, and plush blankets and slippers. Curated excursions exploring different slices of Japanese culture are also available, including food tours, sake trips, and even a Pokémon-themed trip in a Pikachu train for the traveler that’s gotta catch ’em all.

Tohoku is one of the more underrated parts of Japan, with massive, bustling cities replaced with some of the most breathtaking Japanese nature and compelling local experiences found in the entire country. With discoveries in all four seasons, there isn’t a wrong time to visit Tohoku—exploding clouds of pink during the cherry blossoms of spring, warm temperatures and idyllic seaside towns making for a perfect summer getaway, trees bursting with autumn hues from the beaches to the thick inner forests during fall, and the snowy, picturesque mountains that hit perfectly within the cozy waters of a warm “onsen,” a traditional Japanese hot spring, in the winter. On a journey north from Tokyo, check out these stops.

Fukushima and Yamagata


The first stop heading north, Fukushima, translates to “happy island,” and with places like the charming, light-hearted Kataoka Tsurutaro Art Garden and lush parks with a wealth of eye-popping trees, it’s a perfect name. Those trees bear ripe, ready-to-pick delicacies like berries and peaches year-round to such an extent that Fukushima Prefecture is also known as the “Fruit Kingdom.” Hike to Mt. Shinobu to find the Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art, hosting a collection of modern American and Japanese art along with storied Impressionist works from creators like Monet and Gauguin. On the mountain’s east side, see if you can spot any human faces beginning to peek out of the stone facades making up the centuries-old Buddhist engravings of Iwaya Kannon. Climbing the central peak, you might be surprised by the sight of the massive straw sandal, or “waraji,” greeting you at Haguro Shrine on the summit. This sandal, weighing over two tons, is paraded into the city as the centerpiece of the city’s Waraji Festival, marking the arrival of summer in the prefecture.

If you’re looking for a beautiful spring scene, you can’t go wrong with a literal mountain full of iconic Japanese blossoms. Mt. Hanamiyama and its Hanamiyama Park, translating literally as “flower watching mountain” on the outskirts of town, is arguably the best place to see cherry blossoms in all of Japan. Get lost in the limitless shades of pink and white beaming from the massive varieties of the famed flower blooming alongside adorable views of Fukushima City. For more spring scenery, there is also the over 1000-year-old Miharu Takizakura, one of Japan’s “three great cherry trees” that puts puts on an entrancing light show in the peak months.

Due west of Fukushima lies Shirakawa Lake. Watch how the melted snow in the spring turns the water into an otherworldly teal tone, and the unassuming leafy trees in the lakebed begin to get submerged, creating a magical scene where the treetops look as though they are floating just above the crystalline surface. Hop onto the Bandai-Azuma skyline in the Azuma mountains here, and watch on both sides for the lofty vistas that gave this road the nickname “the road that runs across the sky.” 

Take the Yamagata Shinkansen into the interior of Honshu from Fukushima Station to find the fairy tale town of Yamagata, surrounded by lovely mountains that make for a magical destination in the winter. Stop by Risshaku-ji, where those who dare take the 1000-step trek to the top will find an incredible cliff-top view as their reward. A stay in an onsen is recommended in Yamagata, perhaps most notably within the soothing warm waters of the hot spring village at Zao Onsen Ski Resort. In addition to some exhilarating skiing, take in the majestic views from the cable car and go visit the “snow monsters” on Mt. Zao, frost-covered trees that are an endearing fixture during the cold months. If you happen to be here in the fall, don’t miss the outstanding reds and yellows of the quiet forest wrapped around nearby moon-shaped Dokko Marsh as well.



Sendai is the largest city in Tohoku and is a perfect example of Japan’s mesmerizing ability to merge nature into its cities. Grab some hyotan-age, a fried fish ball that is a popular delicacy here, and explore the tree-lined streets, waterfalls, gorges, and temples in and around the city. In the spring, head a little southwest of town on the banks of the Shiroishi River to Hitome Senbonzakura, which translates to “one thousand cherry trees at first glance,” to find precisely that awaiting your stunned gaze. In the fall, the Izumisei district to the west boasts unbeatable color in a city known for its foliage. If you’re looking for a bite to eat, check out JR Fruit Park Sendai Arahama. The lively market, with its pleasing assortments of fresh fruit, produce, and a cute cafe, also comes with a heartwarming story. Tohoku was very badly affected by Japan’s 2011 earthquake, and the park, constructed by the JR East Rail Company in a hard hit area to assist with recovery efforts, is today an outstanding example of resilience and community within Japan.

Take a train slightly southwest to Matsushima to observe one of the “Three Scenic Views of Japan.” Coming from a renowned list compiled in 1643 by scholar Hayashi Gaho, Matsushima is the only one of the three in Tohoku and is easily accessible via a short train ride from Sendai. Matsushima is a quaint seaside village perfect for a summer trip, with a refreshing breeze, tasty sushi, and ice cream to greet you. You might be struck by the sight of all the tiny objects sticking out in the distance as you get near the water—this is the namesake famous view, an innumerable amount of small, pine-tree-filled islands (“Matsushima” translates to “pine islands”) numbering in the hundreds that continue endlessly into the horizon. Many trails connected to the mainland are available here to be traversed at your leisure, each coming with attractive photo opportunities with the gorgeous greenery from the peaceful, swaying pines juxtaposed next to the inviting blue sea. For a more in-depth look at the celebrated coastline, board one of the many passenger boats available in the area.

Hiraizumi, just north of Sendai, is also a must-stop for Chuson-ji, especially in the spring or autumn. A fascinating, ornate temple complex dating back to the 9th century, Chuson-ji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is filled with surprises and beauty within its trails of phenomenally detailed pagodas tucked within peaceful, colorful gardens. Don’t miss the glory of Konjiki-do, whose brilliant exterior and interior were constructed with shimmering, lustrous gold leaf.

Morioka and Akita

Mt. Iwate, Morioka

The central and northwest parts of Tohoku are known for their rice cultivation. During the early summer, see if you can spot the “suikyo,” or water mirrors, whose striking reflections, formed in the fields from melted snow and rainfall, that are often visible from the train heading to Morioka. Once you’re in town, start things right by heading to Azumaya and try the local delicacy known as “wanko soba.” The dish is one bite of noodles with a sauce prepared in a small bowl, and the restaurant will continuously refill the bowls until the customer says otherwise. It isn’t uncommon for establishments to have contests to see how many bowls can be consumed by hungry customers, so come see how many bowls you can stack up with a good appetite. If you’re here during the summer, take advantage of seeing the Sansa Odori Festival, where the city becomes consumed in the rhythms of over 10,000 taiko drummers and dancers filling the streets of Morioka, and is one of the highest profile events in Tohoku. The massive Mt. Iwate practically dominates the city skyline, and in the fall, head over to the Iwate range and watch the crimson reds, burnt oranges, and deep yellows of the ubiquitously vibrant fall foliage.

Dog lovers should go to Akita, whose eponymous dog breed is the same as Hachiko, whose story made him arguably the most famous dog in Japan. Hachiko, who was brought to Tokyo in the 1920s, used to meet his master at the train station every day to accompany him on his commute home. After he passed away, Hachiko still waited in the same spot every day for nearly 10 years, and is remembered as an enduring symbol of loyalty within Japan. The welcoming glows of the Kanto Festival are not to be missed, as the streets fill with softly lit lanterns dangling from dazzling kanto poles that are skillfully balanced by performers all over the body—on the head, feet, chest, hips, and elsewhere. The kanto, which can tower up to 40 feet tall and weigh up to 100 pounds, with the lights numbering in the dozens, makes the balancing act all the more impressive. Each kanto has a unique arrangement and look and whose movement through the streets is thrilling to watch alongside the merry dancing, drumming, and celebration joining them in the streets. Visitors can still get a taste of the party at the Minzoku Geinou Densho-kan museum if you’re not around during the festival, with kanto poles and other elaborate lighting structures providing a window into the local culture to be marveled at.

Aomori and Hakodate

Nebuta Festival

Heading north, but before hitting Aomori, go slightly southwest towards Hirosaki in the spring towards the town’s namesake castle. Here, the overwhelming number of cherry blossom petals fall with such density that their unbroken pink shades form a “flower moat” in the water around the castle, making for a blended explosion of pink when mixed with the surrounding trees. Fall and winter are also fantastic times to see nearby Lake Towada, whose bright cerulean waters and dense forests and mountains are great places to view shades of autumn or a pristine, snow-filled wonderland during the cold months.

Aomori is filled with plenty to do for more creatively-minded travelers, with places like the Aomori Museum of Art, which hosts loads of Japanese modernist works, or the Nebuta Museum Wa Rasse, where constructed floats derived from Japanese gods, mythology, and figures from Kabuki theater line the halls awaiting stunned travelers. These floats, constructed with wire frames on colored papier-mache, take over a year to make and come to life during the Nebuta Festival in the fall, one of Japan’s most prominent fire festivals. Be amazed watching these floats, which double as giant, elaborate lanterns whose lights accentuate the incredible detail, fire up the wild streets into a festive frenzy with dancers, chanting, music, and merry rhythms. The party ends with a literal bang—the floats deemed the best are then placed on boats for a parade in the water with a spectacular fireworks show above them marking the festival’s conclusion.

If you’re willing to spring a little extra, buy a ticket to Hakodate in southern Hokkaido (the Tohoku Line doesn’t cover this part of the trip, so you’ll need an additional purchase if you only have a Tohoku pass). Hakodate is the terminus of this portion of the JR East Line, but service is planned to extend to Sapporo by 2030, fully connecting all of Japan’s major cities by bullet train. Hakodate, a serene coastal town tucked within the isthmus of a small peninsula, offers one of Japan’s “Three Scenic Night Views” at the summit of Mt. Hakodate overlooking the town. Grab some delicious, fresh seafood during the daytime, admire the ocean breeze, and then either hike or take the three-minute cable car to the summit at night to get immersed in the unforgettable view of the vivid city lights of Hakodate flanked on both sides by the vast Pacific.

John Sizemore is a travel writer, photographer, yoga teacher, and visual entertainment developer based out of Austin, Texas. Follow him on Instagram at @sizemoves. In his downtime, John likes to learn foreign languages and get immersed in other worlds, particularly those of music, film, games, and books in addition to exploring the world.

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