6 things to do in Tōhoku

To immerse yourself in its wild nature, ancient crafts, diverse cuisines and spiritual roots, you need to head beyond the capital: take the bullet train north, to the vast landscapes of the Tōhoku region.

Rebecca Hallett
31 January 2023
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Travel Guide Tohoku Japan

1. Pick fruit at Hirosaki City Apple Park

Aomori Hirosaki City Apple Park (Ben Weller)

At the northern tip of Honshū, Aomori prefecture is the centre of Japan’s apple production. As you stroll the streets of Hirosaki, a pretty castle town, you’ll spot cafés serving apple juice and cider, bijou bakeries with their own unique apple tart recipes, and grocery shops proudly displaying huge, juicy Fuji apples.

Head just out of town, towards the gentle slopes of Mount Iwaki, to visit the scenic Hirosaki City Apple Park. Each spring the park’s 2300 trees bloom in delicate whites and pinks, creating a beautiful vista against the backdrop of the snow-capped mountain. Visit in summer or autumn to enjoy the apple harvest, and see which of the 80 varieties is your favourite.

2. Watch wooden crafts being made

Kawatsura Lacquerware Traditional Craftsmen Center (Ben Weller)

The southwest of Aomori prefecture is a wild and beautiful place of precipitous peaks and over 90% forest cover. It’s here that you’ll find Nishimeya, a village famous for its beech handicrafts, which visitors can learn about and even try making at the BUNACO workshop. The meditative experience takes around an hour and a half, after which you can browse the tablewares and home goods in the shop, and enjoy a leisurely meal at the cosy café.

Head south into Akita prefecture to learn about another traditional craft: Kawatsura lacquerware. Most items take at least six months to create, each stage completed by a master of their craft. As well as admiring antiques and buying some of these stunning crafts, at the Kawatsura Lacquerware Traditional Craftsmen Center visitors can try their hand at being a makie-shi or chinkin-shi for the day – the artisans who apply gold leaf or gold dust in decorative patterns.   

3. Sample local produce       

Il Regalo (Ben Weller)

Tōhoku’s natural larder is full to bursting, with everything from apples and walnuts to oysters and sansai (wild mountain vegetables). In Yamagata’s rolling countryside, Natural Cafe is the perfect spot to experience this abundance with farm-fresh food. Alternatively, head for Bandai-Asahi National Park in Fukushima prefecture, where you can try organic vegetables and local produce transformed into warming Italian dishes at Il Regalo.

For a deeper dive into Tōhoku’s culinary traditions, visit Yamamo Brewery. Founded in 1867, this miso and soy sauce producer harmoniously blends their culinary history with cutting-edge techniques. Learn more on a brewery tour, and taste the delicious results of their experimentation in the on-site restaurant.

In a verdant natural setting, west of Sendai city in Miyagi prefecture, the Nikka Whisky Distillery is a must-visit for any fan of the drink. Free tours and tastings are available, but you can also book a whisky-mixing workshop to learn more about how to achieve the perfect blend for which Nikka is so famous.

4. Discover the healing qualities of Ginzan Onsen

Ginzan Onsen (Ben Weller)

As you walk beneath the gas-lamps of Ginzan Onsen, wearing a yukata and geta from your ryokan, you may find it hard to believe that this was once home to one of three major silver mines in Japan. The bustling 17th century town is still a popular year-round destination for domestic and international visitors, who enjoy soaking in mineral-rich springs, hiking in beautiful unspoiled countryside and enjoying multi-course kaiseki meals.

The picturesque town’s main street follows a canal, criss-crossed with bridges and lined with traditional bathhouses. Visiting feels like stepping into a historical novel, or perhaps a film – Notoya Ryokan is rumoured to be one of the inspirations for the fantastical bathhouse in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away.

5. Discover Ryusenji Temple

Ryusenji Temple (Ben Weller)

Near the scenic ruins of Nihonmatsu Castle, a famous springtime blossom-viewing spot, Ryusen-ji offers a window on the life of Buddhist priests. Established in 1460, it’s one of the oldest temples in Fukushima prefecture, and a perfect spot for peaceful contemplation.

Visitors can enjoy a guided tour of the Soto-sect temple and its grounds with the head priest, who then leads a zazen meditation session. He stresses that the proper techniques – how to breathe, how to sit – are simply tools to aid your relaxation and mindfulness. Taking a moment to calm your body and mind in these serene surroundings, under the attentive instruction of the head priest, is a unique and memorable experience to have while in Japan.

6. Admire the beauty of Goshikinuma

Ryusenji Temple (Ben Weller)

Found in the dramatic mountainous landscapes of Bandai-Asahi National Park, Goshikinuma is also known as “the mysterious lakes”. Every visit brings a different experience, with the startling colours of these dozens of pools changing depending on the weather, the season, and many other factors.

The unique landscape was formed when Mount Bandai erupted in 1888, creating craters and laying down mineral deposits which turned the water bright green, blue or red in places. In the 1910s, a local man named Endō Genmu began reforesting the area, planting hundreds of trees with his own hands and at his own expense. He was even buried here, in a peaceful spot between Ao-numa and Yanagi-numa ponds.

A 3.6km loop trail takes you past all the main pools on lakeside boardwalks and sun-dappled forest paths. Stop at the largest pool, Bishamonnuma, to rent a rowboat and admire the bright water from a different perspective.

Goshikinuma (Shutterstock)

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