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 and Regions
- 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
- Dewa Sanzan — three mountains holy to the ascetic cult of Shugendo
- Kinkazan — small island with a shrine and hiking trails
- Matsushima — one of Japan's Three Great Views
- Mount Bandai
- Naruko — famous for its hot springs and kokeshi dolls
- Shimokita Peninsula — featuring the scenic Yagen Valley as well as Mount Osore, the mythical entrance to Hell
- Towada-Hachimantai National Park — scenic Lake Towada, gorgeous Oirase River Valley and the hot springs of Hachimantai Plateau
- Narrow Road to the Deep North — in the footsteps of haiku poet Matsuo Basho
Information in English tends to sparse in rural Tohoku, since foreign travellers are few in these parts; the positive side to this is that people will go out of their way to help you.
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. Younger people are, however, universally versed in school-standard hyōjungo.
The Tohoku Shinkansen connects Tokyo, Sendai, Morioka and Hachinohe, 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. The line remains under construction and is inching towards Aomori, from where it will eventually tunnel under the sea to Hokkaido.
Tohoku is large, mountainous and sparsely populated, and getting around in the boondocks can be time-consuming.
Tohoku's main train artery is the Tōhoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) bullet train line on the east coast, connecting Tokyo to Hachinohe via Sendai, Fukushima and Morioka, with spurs to Yamagata and Akita and an extension to Aomori under construction.
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 Hachinohe now belongs to a private company, and there are bits and pieces of private railways around the larger towns.
JR East Rail Pass
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. There are three durations, 5-day pass (¥28,000), 10-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.
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 .
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
Most visitors come to Tohoku for hiking, 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.
Tohoku has not made very many contributions to the Japanese culinary scene, although (as always in Japan) even the smallest hamlet will boast something it claims to be famous for. But in mountain regions you will certainly have a chance to sample sansai-ryōri, 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) as the flagship variety.
Unlike the shōchū-swilling south, Tohoku is sake country and manufactures some fine rice wines.
- Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido is a short hop away from Tohoku's northern tip.
This page was last edited at 01:27, on 18 February 2009 by Ian Sergeant. Based on work by Jani Patokallio, moof, Christopher Bishop, Jose Ramos, Todd VerBeek and Evan Prodromou, Wikitravel user(s) Episteme, WindHorse and InterLangBot, Anonymous user(s) of Wikitravel and others.