Travel Guide Asia Japan Honshu Tohoku



Tōhoku, in northern Honshū, is a scenic rugged area. This traditional region consists of six prefectures (ken): Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata. Tōhoku retains a reputation as a remote, scenic region with a harsh climate. In the 20th century, tourism became a major industry in the Tōhoku region.




Tōhoku, like most of Japan, is hilly or mountainous, with the Ōu Mountains running north-south. The inland location of many of the region's lowlands has led to a concentration of much of the population there. Coupled with coastlines that do not favor seaport development, this settlement pattern resulted in a much greater than usual dependence on land and rail transportation. Low points in the central mountain range fortunately make communications between lowlands on either side of the range moderately easy.

Tōhoku was traditionally considered the granary of Japan because it supplied Sendai and the Tokyo-Yokohama market with rice and other farming commodities. Tōhoku provided 20 percent of the nation's rice crop. The climate, however, is harsher than in other parts of Honshū due to the stronger effect of the Siberian High, and permits only one crop a year on paddy fields.






Sights and Activities

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.


Shirakami-Sanchi (白神山地?, literally white god mountain area) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern Honshu. This mountainous, unspoiled expanse of virgin forest straddles both Akita and Aomori Prefectures. Of the entire 1,300 km², a tract covering 169.7 km² was included in the list of World Heritage Sites in 1993. Siebold's beech trees make up a large portion of the forest. The World Heritage Site area has never been opened to human activity or trails other than mountain climbers' paths, and is planned to be protected in this state. Permission is needed from Forest Management to enter the heart of the Shirakami-Sanchi. Fishing requires permission from both the Fishing Cooperative and Forest Management.



Events and Festivals

Traditional Festivals

  • Japanese New Year (January 1) - the most important holiday in Japan. Although there are lots of customs and traditions most of them are done in the private. This is mainly a family holiday and Japan can feel very empty as almost everyone goes home. Travelling in Japan in during this time is difficult because everything is shut down.
  • Seijin No Hi (2nd Monday of January) - the coming of age holiday for Japanese women which 20. Traditionally families will buy any young woman how turned 20 in the last year a kimono. On this day almost all Japanese women will ear a kimono.
  • Hin Festival (March 3) - Also known as doll festival the Hin Matsuri festival is meant for young women. In early february families with daughters put dolls in order to make the women happy and healthy later in life. On Girls Day, on March 3, the dolls are put away until next year.
  • Shichi Go San Festival (Novermber 5) - Boys who are 3 and 5, and girls 3 and 7 are taken to a shinto shrine in traditional Japanese dress. The children are brought there to pray for good luck, good health and wealth.

National Holidays

  • Golden Week - Is quite often referred to as the "Japanese Spring Break." It is a combination of many state holidays, including Showa Day, Greenery Day, Children's Day, and Constitution Memorial Day in order to give a full week off. It takes place during the first full week of May. Everyone gets this week off in Japan so it is very bad time to travel because everything is crowded, expensive and most hotels will be full.

Other Events and Festivals

  • O-Bon (Festival of the Dead) - Usually held in August, this festival is observed nationwide in Japan. Buddhist tradition dictates this is the day the dead return to earth to visit their relatives. Lanterns are hung outside homes and offerings to the spirits are made. In the evening, people float the lanterns on the river to help guide the deceased back to their resting place.
  • Hanami and Cherry Blossom Festivals - A tradition all over Japan, Hanami literally means viewing flowers. Picnic under the beautiful flowing trees in any public park during this special season. Usually lasting for only two weeks in March, the sakura (cherry blossom) schedule changes a bit every year, so it’s hard to nail down exactly when to come.



Getting There

By Plane

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

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 Hayabusa service, which run nonstop after departing Omiya in Saitama prefecture.

By Boat

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



Getting Around

By Train

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.
The JR East Rail Pass 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. The cost of the pass is ¥22,000 for any five days of travel within 14 days.

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 Ticket.

Note: Starting on 1 April 2016, the JR East Rail Pass will be split into two regions. The new JR East Rail Pass - Tohoku Version will cost ¥20,000 for any five days of travel within 14 days, with the valid travel area focused on Tohoku in addition to the greater Tokyo area.

By Car

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.

By Bus

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.




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.




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



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