Why Northern Japan is a fabulous place to Travel
“It’s so green”, murmurs the gentleman seated next to me, as our plane descends into the regional airport of Akita in Northern Japan.
It is just over an hour since our take off from Haneda Airport, views over the Tokyo skyline spectacular – the clear day showing off Mt Fuji in all its glory. Yet the landscape now is a vibrant patchwork of forest and precison neat rice fields – another world all together.
The scene mid-summer is green – and as I am about to find out; clean, welcoming, historic, rustic, fascinating and very much why Northern Japan is a fabulous place to travel.
On previous visits our family has been thrilled by the temples in Kyoto, enjoyed exploring every corner of Tokyo, skied the Alps of Nagano. Yet the Regional Areas (known as prefectures) are unchartered territory – Northern Japan is where you should be visiting for a taste of Japanese Culture off the beaten track.
I hesitate to make comparisons between countries, however if pressed I would say first impressions make me think of New Zealand (replace the rice fields with wheat fields).
A seamless transfer from our dawn flight from Sydney via ANA (their 787 Dreamliner aircraft are superb); we arrive in Akita in time for morning tea.
Tohoku Region of Japan (North East Region), comprises six prefectures on Japan’s largest island of Honshu.
We visit Akita, Aomori and Iwate – as yet unspoiled by major tourism – one of those destinations you really need visit …now as it won’t stay a secret for long!
I cover quite a bit of ground in five days in ‘Rustic Japan‘ – yet leave feeling there is so much more to discover…
The western side faces the Sea of Japan and has abundant flowing rivers, flatlands, and expanses of rice growing on fertile farmlands (even in the heat of Summer it was green, everywhere). High mountains surround the northern, southern and eastern sides. The inland areas are blanketed with heavy snowfalls in the winter – thus Akita (& Iwate) is known for Skiing in Winter (26 Resorts) and Cherry Blossoms in Spring.
WHAT TO DO
A former castle town and samurai stronghold (often called ‘little Kyoto’). While Kakunodate Castle no longer remains, the town is famous for samurai tradition and the magnificent Cherry Tree display in Spring (late April-early May) – remarkably unchanged since 1620, the samurai district still has some of the best examples of Japanese samurai architecture.
The village is charming, we stroll and view local craftsmen, enjoy a variety of Japanese cuisine (my pick is black sesame ice cream), the gardens are verdant and the museums manageable for even the youngest travellers.
Akita Museum of Art
Designed by renowned architect Ando Tadao. The museum exhibits a large collection of work by Fujita Tsuguharu (1886-1968), also known as Leonard Foujita, who is arguably Japan’s most famous Western style painter. The Akita Museum of Art is one of the few places in the world to exhibit a collection of his works, and features his twenty meter long mural “Annual Events in Akita”, illustrating Akita life in the four seasons, on permanent display as the museum’s focal piece.
(This attraction escaped my attention this time, on the list for my next visit)
Part of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park and is the largest caldera (volcanic crater) lake on Honshu.
Lake Towada-ko is at the top of a 400-meter-high mountain on the border between Aomori and Akita. A peaceful retreat for hiking and enjoying the natural beauty, well known for the Autumn colours. We spend the night at the Prince Hotel Towada, the mist rising across the Lake at first light is otherworldly – other guests are Japanese, seeking the peace and Onsen experience.
AKITA IS BEST FOR
Everyone…a relatively hassle free opportunity to get out of the well worn travel route and into the Japanese countryside. Even if you travel no further within the Region you will be well served having visited the area surrounding Akita.
Lake Towada (& Oirase Stream) are stunning natural beauties – however I suggest a driving holiday with a languid time frame as they are off the beaten track.
Fly – 60 min from Tokyo Haneda to Akita Airport, and 40 min by bus from the airport to JR Akita Station.
Morioka is the Capital (2.5 hours North of Tokyo by Shinkansen) – Iwate Prefecture gives visitors to enjoy historical sites (Hiraizumi – Temples), Hot Springs (Onsen), nature (Autumn colours, cherry blossom in Spring), action (golf, skiing, watersports, hiking).
WHAT TO DO
Our visit coincides with a local Festival (Chagu Chagu Umako Horse Festival), which on the face of it doesn’t sound like my cup of tea – yet surprises are in store.
We are dropped a few kilometres from the start of the ‘parade’, as the sun climbs higher the vast blue of sky highlights Mt Iwate in the distance – snow just still visible on the peak. Our path takes us along rice fields, past a cluster of Media gathered to capture the colourful event. We reach Sozen-jinja Shrine just as the families finalise their horses and costumes.
200 years ago farmers first organised this event to celebrate the concluion of the hard toil of rice planting.
Today it is a vibrant morning offering an insight to the local community – I feel honoured to be a part of it – my suggestion is to watch the beginning of the parade and enjoy morning tea before visiting the golden Shrine – a magical morning.
The air is filled with the smell of stalls offering local cuisine for sale – its not long since breakfast so I opt for a refreshing Crushed Strawberry Ice…
Have you heard of the tradition of the Wanko Noodle challenge? Neither had I, and it is an Iwate dining experience like no other.
Not for the faint hearted, guests are invited to consume as many bowl of Soba Noodles as they can (a member of our group makes it to 102..) – a certificate issued when you reach 100+ (my efforts a paltry 4 bowls…). A great value ‘when in Rome’ experience.
Several restaurants across Morioka specialize in Wanko Soba.
We take a tour through the process of making this Japanese national drink at Asabiraki Shuzo (award wining brewery) – however the highlight is tasting at the tour culmination. I ask if it is appropriate to drink Sake hot or cold – the tip; the finer the brew should be sampled cold – so now you know.
We make the regional specialty biscuits (peanut, best eaten warm), craft wooden horses (a surprisingly therapeutic activity), and admire centuries old techniques of iron teapot skill. It is a fun location I know my boys would enjoy.
We stay at Shizukuishi Prince Hotel, nestled on the edge of a 36 hole Golf Course & Ski Resort. The Onsen (Hot Baths) overlooks the forest – the guest rooms (recently renovated), offer a fabulous perspective of the surrounding countryside.
Everyone – families will love the variety of activities, skiers will be spoilt for choice and golfers can choose from many stunning (& challenging) courses.
By train – Two hours 30 minutes from Tokyo Station to Morioka Station by the JR Tohoku Shinkansen Line.
The Northernmost region on Honshu, containing the world’s largest virgin forest of beech trees (named a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Reminders of ancient times still abound. Cherry Blossom in this region is said to be so magnificent many Japanese state the experience as the one they would most like to have before dying…
WHAT TO DO
An easy walking trail follows Oirase Stream, stunning in every season – we visit in Summer when Waterfalls are cascade and the cooler air is welcome. The trail is 9 kilometers long and takes about 2.5 hours to walk one way – winding among trees which, while a lush green in spring and summer, turn brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange from late October through early November. We visit enroute to Lake Towada.
Aomori Nebuta Festival
Said to have begun by Shogun Generals to distract enemies. Held in August, a parade of massive Lantern Floats are pulled through the streets.
If you visit at another time of the year kids of all ages will love the colour of Nebuta Warasse Museum, dedicated to showcasing this festival – marvel at the paper art displayed on past floats, learn about the techniques passed through the generations, have fun hands on with the Taiko Drums.
The Rice Paddy masterpieces are certainly uniquely Japanese, farmers in the small village of Inakadage use coloured rice (during summer plantings) to create field sized artworks.
Towada Art Centre
At the permanent exhibition in Towada Art Centre (fabulous glass walkways connect the buildings), 22 works by 21 artists from 12 countries such as Yoko Ono,Choi Jeong Hwa and Australian Ron Mueck are exhibited.
Most of them are large art installations. We lunch at the Cafe, fresh and european style – the adjoining shop sells quality local art and craft.
Make sure you sample some of the Apple Products in Aomori, this is the home of the Fuji Apple, first grown here in the 1930’s.
Leisurely Travellers – I can imagine returning when time is not of the essence. I suggest a driving holiday to this Region to be the easiest way to get around and offering the best flexibility. Distances between the different areas are not particularly long by Australian standards, however too far to add to a brief visit.
Aomori City – fly – 80 minutes from Haneda Airport to Aomori Airport. Train – Shinkansen from Tokyo is 3.5 hours.
Lake Towada – 3h 20 min from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori Station by JR Tohoku Shinkansen Line then 135 mins bus to Towada-ko (it stops at Oirase Stream along the way).
WHERE TO STAY IN TOHOKU
Prince Hotels & Resorts are situated in prime locations throughout the Tohoku Region – we stayed in two of their properties (41 throughout Japan).
Prince Hotel Shizukuishi – Ski Resort in Winter and Golfing/Hiking in Summer – stunning mountain location, excellent food & beverage, beautiful Onsen.
Prince Hotel Towada – Open Spring to end of Autumn – a charming lakeside location, perfect for exploring the local nature trails, lovely Onsen in-house, superb restaurant.
There is much to explore in Northern Japan. As an adjunct to oft visited larger cities I would absolutely recommend time spent in beautiful,uncrowded Regional Japan. Where nature dominates and the people are welcoming.
There are not many destinations left in the world where you can say you were there first… that is why Northern Japan is a fabulous place to Travel