Follow the road to the deep north
Japan's most poetic landscape and the gateway to the Buddhist afterlife.
Tohoku is a large region in the northeast of Japan’s main island Honshu; it’s rugged, mountainous terrain and rows of river lowlands make up almost one-fifth of Japan’s total area. Harsh winters keep the resident population low but visitors, among them Japan’s most famous poet Basho, have been enjoying some of the country’s most beautiful scenery for centuries.
Despite the blow to numbers after the Fukushima nuclear accident, tourism to the Tohoku region is starting to thrive as people catch on to the superior skiing, onsen (hot spring baths) and other outdoor activities available.
Yamagata is probably the region’s most visited area, known for the remote Zao Onsen ski resort which is one of the only places where you can see Japanese ‘juhyo’ or ‘ice monsters’ – trees at the top of the mountain that look like monsters when covered in snow. Yamagata prefecture is also home to Yamadera temple, a scenic mountain temple where Basho composed one of his most popular haiku: ah this silence / sinking into the rocks / voice of cicada.
Iwate prefecture also boasts a popular ski resort, Appi Kogen, which has excellent off-piste routes and an extended ski season lasting until early May. Iwate is also famous for wanko soba, tiny bowls of soba noodles that are served one after the other (usually about 60 bowls for the biggest eaters).
Sendai in Miyagi prefecture is the biggest city in the Tohoku region. During the summer, the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri attracts thousands of visitors to see the huge colorful streamers paraded throughout the streets. The Kanto Matsuri in Akita is another impressive festival where performers balance long bamboo poles decorated with paper lanterns on their hips, shoulders or foreheads (no hands allowed).
Adventurers following Basho’s narrow road to the deep north will eventually reach Aomori prefecture at the northern tip of Honshu. The remote Shimokita Peninsula is the site of Osorezan or ‘Fear Mountain’, a barren, sulfurous landscape pockmarked by steaming holes that is known as the entrance to the Buddhist afterlife.