From the neon lights of Tokyo to the shrines of Kyoto and the dazzling architecture of Osaka, Japan is filled with world-class and world-famous destinations. But dig a little deeper beyond these commercial hubs and you’ll find places like Tohoku, an underrated — and still largely undiscovered — gem rich with attractions both natural and manmade. Nestled on the northern shores of Honshu Island, this striking locale boasts everything from cherry snow huts and sushi to an island where cats outnumber people six to one. Here’s everything you need to know about Tohoku, Japan, and why it belongs at the forefront of your travel radar.
The Vibrant Seasons
Though merely an hour and a half north of Tokyo via bullet train, Tohoku feels worlds away from urban sprawl, entrenched in some of the most lustrous natural landscapes in Japan. As the seasons change, the region morphs from one vibrant hue to another, affording unparalleled views and unforgettable experiences. In the fall, the foliage is some the world’s best, as maple trees, beech trees and Japanese maples erupt with shades of red, orange, amber and yellow. Drink it all in alongside the Yagen Mountain Stream or at Hakkoda Mountain, where a tram will whisk you overtop a kaleidoscope of color.
Come spring, cherry blossoms bloom in April and May, while summer is prime time for hiking, cycling and exploration, capped off with a soak in an onsen, aka Japanese hot springs. These mineral-rich waters promote wellness and healing, perfect for soothing muscles after a day of physical activity.
Winter is a particular highlight, as the tranquil landscape gets blanketed with soft white snow, stove-heated trains serve as quaint transport in northern Aomori, frost-covered trees can be viewed via snow tractor in Miyagi Zao and ski resorts in Inawashiro feature adrenaline-pumping slopes. Don’t miss the snow hut festival in Yokote. Taking place mid-February, these igloo-like snow domes provide comfortable and unique nooks for folks to gather and sip fermented rice drinks.
Art and Architecture
The storied region is steeped in history, and thanks to its diverse landscape and distinct prefectures, it’s a part of Japan that really has something for everyone. Art enthusiasts should check out the Aomori Museum of Art, a distinctly designed space with striking white walls and a contemporary, modular motif filled with funky sculptures. For history buffs, the Tohoku History Museum does a nice job of delving deep into the area’s lore, covering everything from the Paleolithic Period to present day.
Architecture is especially prominent as well, as evidenced by a surplus of palatial world heritage sites, temples and monasteries scattered throughout, including the majestic Yamadera Risshakuji Temple, perched 1,015 steps up a mountain. This one dates back to the year 860, when it was built to look over the Tendai Buddhism faction. Technically comprised o several different monuments and shrines, the temple also contains a Buddhist torch that’s been burning for a millennia. Another place to marvel at is the Saifukuji Kaisando, an old Buddhist temple built in 1534. Here, the ceiling of the main hall features the work of Ishikawa Uncho, nicknamed the “Michelangelo of Echigo.” The immaculate and intricate ceiling consists of numerous wood carvings colored with mineral paints.
Food and Beverage
As with many other notable cities and regions in Japan, food and drink is an integral facet of Tohoku culture, and a huge draw for visitors looking for pristine sushi or sake. In fact, the Miyagi prefecture is home to the densest collection of sushi restaurants in the whole country, which means there’s no shortage of fresh fish to savor. Some highlights include Hama Sushi, Kappa and Fuku Sushi, an impossibly cozy parlor outfitted with lots of light wood.
Ramen, soba noodles, grilled meats and rice are other local staples, all in abundance. For the latter, trek to Niigata, Tohoku’s rice-producing region, unless you prefer your rice to be potable, in which case you should swing through Fukushima. Here you’ll sip your way through sakes brewed in a variety of different styles, contingent on weather conditions and regional geography. The prefecture’s pure water, high-quality rice crops and cold winters endear it particularly well to sake production. In the Iwate prefecture, visitors can even make their own sake and lavel at the Sekinoichi Sake Brewery.
Another regional speciality is sasa kamaboko, a bamboo-shaped dish consisting of ground and roasted fish paste (traditionally derived from flounder). Produced throughout Tohoku, it’s best sampled in any number of shops in Sendai, where familial recipes have been perfecting the stuff for generations.
Wildlife in Tohoku is unlike wildlife experienced anywhere else. For instance, this is probably the only place on Earth where you’re likely to find islands primarily populated by cats. On the small island of Tashirojima, off the coast of Miyagi, stray cats outnumber the people, thus earning it the nickname “Cat Island.” The huge feline population thrives due to the local belief that feeding cats brings wellness and good fortune, thus comprising a uniquely sustainable eco-system between the island’s 100 or so human residents and its nomadic cats. It also helps that there are no pet dogs on the island, either. There’s even a cat shrine in the middle of the island and themed lodges that resemble cats.
Elsewhere in Tohoku, there’s a lesser-known mountain village near Shiroishi known for its six types of foxes, earning the area the nickname “Fox Village.” One of the best places in Japan to see free-roaming foxes, the village consists of a sprawling nature preserve that allows visitors to enter and explore. Travelers can even purchase food to feed the foxes, and there’s a fox shrine in the park as an homage to the animals importance in Japanese folklore.