A Northern Soul: The best of northern Japan

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Despite being a huge fan of his home city, Fukuoka, InsideJapan Tour Leader Mark Rawlins swaps the south to see the highlights of northern Japan in autumn.

A Northern Soul Tour

Autumn in Matsushima

One of my favourite tours at InsideJapan is ‘A Northern Soul’. I was lucky enough to be given the chance to run this tour to northern Japan last autumn – and along the way I made some of my most cherished memories since arriving in Japan five years ago.

The tour (as the name suggests) takes you to the north of Japan, far from the well-trodden ‘Golden Route’. It travels through no less than six prefectures including two of the largest, Iwate and Niigata.

Travelling through northern Japan

Unconventional sea travel in Japan

Beautiful scenery surrounds the pagodas

They sit on opposite sides of the main island of Honshu, one on the Pacific, the other on the Sea of Japan. As a result, not only does the tour head on the ‘deep road to the north’, as Matsu Basho – Japan’s most famous poet – noted, but also from coast to coast. The stark contrasts of the route are awe-inspiring as you travel over the spectacular mountain ranges that slice through the centre of the country.

Spot a variety of flowers, fauna, and natural features on the way against a backdrop of grandiose volcanic mountains, ancient gorges in Hiraizumi, and Matsushima’s stunning bay (listed as one of the top three views of Japan).

Traditions in northern Japan

Kokeshi doll maker in Japan

Every day brings something new in northern Japan – for generations the north was considered by the southern Japanese as an almost separate country. In turn, they have developed unique culture beyond the familiar temples and shrines. Traditional experiences in these areas include paper-making, gold panning, and even taiko drumming lessons. I particularly liked painting my own Kokeshi doll, in the land famous for this centuries old classic toy.

My favourite stop on the tour was actually a traditional temple though! Chuson-ji temple was built by the Fujiwara family in the 12th century and the original ‘Golden Hall’, containing the mausoleums of three generations of this powerful feudal family still stands. It more than deserves its status as a World Heritage Site.

There is an ancient Noh theatre stage in the same temple complex that was built to appease the gods with performances of myth and legend. Those who do have an interest in Matsuo Basho, or Japanese haiku in general, can sip matcha tea in the very teahouse that Basho himself stopped at during his pilgrimage north. Taken together, there are few greater sites of historical or cultural importance than this small sanctuary amongst the ancient cedar trees.

A trip to Ishinomaki

Ishinomaki memorial

The visit to Ishinomaki, devastated during the March 2011 tsunami, has a peculiar feel of both sadness and inspiration. Seeing the impressive rejuvenation project and the enduring smiles of the local people is enough to stir any soul. Towards the end of the tour there is a chance to take part in my favourite experience of all – a visit to a local high school on the former penal-colony of Sado Island. The school recently won a national championship in the performance of local traditional dance, and are both shy at the rare interaction with non-Japanese visitors and proud to show off their incredible discipline and skill.

I would highly recommend preparing a little something from home in anticipation of meeting the children, perhaps a calendar of the Scottish highlands, pin badges from Lake Michigan, or photos of the Australian Gold Coast. Whatever it may be, it’s guaranteed to bring a smile, and ensure the memories of this magnificent trip last long in the minds of both yourselves, and your welcoming hosts.

We love Tokyo and Kyoto (obviously), but if you’d like to get beyond the Golden Route to explore northern Japan, have a look at our two week Northern Soul small group tour.

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