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For some reason I have always thought of Japan as being a winter travel destination for it’s superb skiing or maybe during spring when the Cherry Blossoms bloom.
Newsflash!!! During my recent trip however, I was quickly convinced that this region, known as Tohoku, has many more goodies up her sleeve rather than just loads of snow and Cherry Blossoms.
Tohoku, consists of six prefectures in the north of Japan’s largest island, Honshu. I was fortunate to visit three of these: Akita, Iwate and Aomori and experience the abundance of green lush countryside, conifer covered mountains, pristine mountain lakes and streams, hot springs and the patchwork of rice paddies, which were a sight to behold.
But not only spectacular countryside but a whole lot of interesting places to see including quirky art galleries, handicraft villages, Samurai towns, Saki and Soy Sauce factories, farm-fresh food markets and history-filled museums.
So here are ten very good reasons to visit Northern Japan in summer:
Mountains covered with conifers, lush green forests, farmlands patch-worked with rice paddies, gushing rivers and streams, thundering waterfalls, tranquil mountain lakes, gardens of fragrant flowers and dappled green foliage on Japanese Maples, Willows and Weeping Cherry trees.
Hot Springs or Onsens are abundant in the Tohoku region. They range from indoor, outdoor or a combination of the two and more often than not offer breathtaking scenic vistas. Most Onsens are segregated between male and female, however for those who have no inhibitions with nudity there are also mixed-sex Onsens in some areas.
I highly recommend the Onsen experience in summer as it is known to have therapeutic remedies and is great for the hair and skin. After a long day sightseeing or hiking it is sheer bliss!
Where I partook in an Onsen experience: Prince Hotel Shizukuishi in Iwate and Prince Hotel Lake Towado in Aomori.
The beautiful tranquil mountain lakes speckling Northern Japan offer summer visitors a range of water activities such as boating, fishing, swimming, paddle-boat hire and kayaking or canoeing.
I visited the mysterious Lake Towada in Aomori Prefecture, a double caldera lake, which was formed by volcanic activity. The lake is quite often shrouded in cloud and mist which gives it a lovely dream-like appearance.
My accommodation at Lake Towada was at the majestic lodge-like Prince Hotel Towada located on the shores of the lake right near the jetty where the ferry crosses from the other side of the lake.
Food experiences in Northern Japan range from a bounty of fresh seafood and fish, Wagyu beef, orchard fruits such as apples, peaches and cherries, Japan’s national drink – Saki brewed from rice, all types of noodles: Soba, Ramen, Udon, Somen and Yakisoba, pale coloured lagers for beer lovers, lightly fried vegetables in batter called Tempura, Sashimi and Sushi of course, River Eel or Unagi and Miso soup.
For the sweet tooth there are plenty of delicacies to devour, including all types of hard lollies in interesting flavours, creamy custards, ice cream with flavours like black sesame and green tea, Japanese biscuits Nanbu Senbei, chocolates and cheesecakes.
My food experiences were many and varied. Extremely popular in Northern Japan is the Wanko Soba Noodle challenge in Iwate, which is an “all-you-can-eat” noodles contest, where the waitresses top up your bite-sized bowls as you down them and you hit the counter at your side so you don’t lose count! The winner on the particular day that I visited devoured 102 bowls! Wanko Soba Noodles are served with various condiments, which are very tasty.
Where I partook in the Wanko Soba Noodle challenge: Hatsukoma in Morioka City, Iwate.
For history buffs there is plenty of history in Northern Japan with museums packed with memorabilia, displays and information; temples and shrines in Iwate prefecture such as Motsuji, Chusonji and Hiraizumi Temples; Morioka Castle Ruins; Nebuta Warasse Museum with dioramas tracking the history of the Nebuta Festival, floats used and artists that designed the floats; a traditional Nambu Magariya or ‘L’-shaped farmhouse where farmers and horses lived together in Takazawa; Japanese drumming and dancing performances; and Japanese tea ceremonies.
Then there are art galleries such as the Towada Art Center featuring some modern art displays including Ron Mueck’s “Standing Woman”; Rice Paddy Art in Inakadate village; Japanese crafts at Morioka Handi Works Square where you can have a DIY interactive craft lesson.
Hiking or trekking during the summer months is extremely popular in Tohoku region. The area is teeming with volcanic calderas, hidden hot springs, and pristine virgin forests. It’s also home to some of the best non-technical, multi-day hikes in Japan.
For starters there is Mt Iwate which is a conically shaped active volcano, towering over Morioka City and offers one of the best panoramic views in the entire Tohoku area. The hike is 21 Kms return so you would need to dedicate an entire day for this one.
But for those who only want a half day hike, try strolling around the paths that surround Lake Towada, which has some of the prettiest scenery; or the 14Km Oirase Gorge walk which can be broken up into manageable segments with gorgeous babbling streams and waterfalls along the way.
Oirase Gorge is located right near Lake Towada, where we stayed at the Prince Hotel Towada.
Tohoku has some of the most beautiful and challenging golf courses in Japan set amongst hilly terrain with mountain vistas and green lush fairways.
Amongst the best is the Shizukuishi Golf Course which has 36 holes and is located on the doorstep of the Prince Hotel Shizukuishi. But there are many more including Aomori Country Club and Towada International Country Club in Aomori.
Some of the biggest and best festivals happen in summer in Japan. In the northern Tohoku region, the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri sees giant, light-up floats travel through the city of Aomori; Akita holds the Kanto Matsuri, during which performers balance giant poles festooned with paper lanterns on parts of their bodies; and Iwate honours their stoic draught horses in the Cangu-Cangu-Umakko Horse Festival in Takazawa.
Kakunodate is a quiet town in Akita Prefecture which used to be a stronghold for Samurais and is famous for its refined and elegant atmosphere. It is not only popular for Samurai traditions but also for its abundant weeping cherry trees which bloom in spring.
The Samurai district consists of large streets and courtyards which housed 80 families dating back to the 17th century. The architecture of these Samurai houses is considered as some of the best in Japan. There are also a few Samurai residences in their original untouched state that are accessible to the public for viewing.
Kakunodate is approximately 48 Kms from Shizukuishi in Iwate where we stayed for two nights at the Prince Hotel Shizukuishi.
Northern Japan’s rugged mountain landscapes, forests, lakes, rivers and streams mean that there are many opportunities for adrenalin junkies. As such it affords adventurous travellers with a truly authentic Japanese experience long missing from the more well-worn tourists trails.
You can see the terrain on foot with multi-day hikes and treks; gondola rides will take you deep into the mountainous terrain; horse riding into verdant green forests; try a hands-on farming experience; trout fishing in mountain streams; canoeing or kayaking in mountain lakes and rivers; soak in hot springs in the middle of nature; ATV or quad bike tours; and zip-lining to name a few.
Fly into Tokyo and spend a few days visiting this fascinating metropolis prior to catching a flight or bullet train to the north. There are plenty of places to visit in Tokyo that will keep you entertained day and night.
How I got to Tohoku: I flew with ANA All Nippon Airways international flight from Sydney to Tokyo, a domestic flight from Tokyo to Akita Airport, then caught a shuttle bus (supplied by my hotel) to Shizukuishi. The closest train station is at Shizukuishi town. You can catch the bullet train from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori in Aomori City, then catch local trains to the Tohoku region. On the return trip I flew with ANA All Nippon Airways from Aomori Airport to Tokyo, then returned to Sydney.
Where I stayed in Tohoku:
There are few travel experiences in my lifetime that could match the beauty, the cultural stimulation and the food immersion of Northern Japan. My senses overflowed with new tastes, aromas, vistas, sounds of nature and the soft touch of the gentle people in this land. Tohoku you have captured a piece of my heart!
For more information on travel to Northern Japan visit Japan National Travel Organization in Australia.
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Kathy was a 50 something year old when she started up this blog 6 years ago, but has since turned over another decade and is now in her early 60s. She is married with two adult children and lives on the Tweed Coast of New South Wales, Australia. Kathy enjoys living life to the fullest and loves to keep fit and active by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Some of her interests include reading, photography, travelling, cooking and blogging! Kathy works part-time as a freelance writer but her real passion is travelling and photographing brilliant destinations both within Australia and overseas and writing about it.
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