Tales from Tohoku: Life-changing memories from a truly special region of Japan

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This month we observe the 10th anniversary of the 11th of March 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and the incredible effort millions of people all over the world have put into recovering this northern region of Japan. Tohoku is where you’ll find unspoiled landscapes, fascinating local culture, unforgettable festivals and historical treasures. To mark Tohoku’s recovery, we asked some of our InsideJapan teammates to share their stories of times spent exploring the region.

We’ve been running trips all over Japan since 2000, and we’ve offered trips to Tohoku since pretty much day one. Tohoku has always represented everything that makes Japan so special, and the untainted beauty and culture of this largely rural region is only outshone by the friendly people that make it. Whilst most visitors head south from Tokyo, there are plenty of reasons to head north. We offer two tours that do just that: A Northern Soul and Northern Highlights.

A small purple train glides over a snowy landscape in wintry Niigata
Uetsu Line, Yamagata/Ban’etsu Line, Niigata

Traversing By Train and The Power Of The Unplanned

By Alastair Donnelly, InsideJapan Co-Founder

In October 2004 Niigata prefecture was struck by a large earthquake. As a consequence, my group tour, with whom I had spent 12 days exploring the further reaches of the Tohoku region, was unable to take the direct route back to Tokyo. Instead, we set out on what is still my most memorable train journey in Japan.

The route hugs the coast, with harbour inlets and jagged cliffs to one side, and the soaring mountains of the Japanese Alps to the other. Traversing Honshu island through the heartlands of Tohoku provides a view of rural Japan that visitors to the mega cities of the eastern seaboard are oblivious to. Our rickety two-carriage “one-man densha (train)” – so called because it is operated by just one person – meandered along the banks of the Agano River. These are the trains you see in Studio Ghibli animations, part of a vast network that spans the entire country, connecting rural communities and providing access to the noisier, faster-paced towns and cities of the “other” Japan that is always just a train ride away. It’s a short leg of our journey, and after just an hour we are pulling into the station at our next destination, Shinjo.

Before setting off we all have a vision of what our travels to come will be. We anticipate those special moments. But what we imagine will leave the deepest impression, rarely does. An unplanned, eight-hour rail journey across Tohoku… Now that was really special.

The view across Lake Towadako, with bushes in the foreground and stunning blue skies above
Towada-Hachimantai National Park, Akita

Lasting Love On The Shores Of Lake Towadako

By Robert Moran, Insider Tour Leader and Sustainability Co-ordinator

I have been to Tohoku several times, but it was in early 2020 that I travelled back to beautiful Lake Towadako with my fiancée. We were staying in a hotel on the shore and got up especially early to catch the morning light across the lake. The outdoor bath gave us an incredible panoramic view, with mountains on all sides. Towadako is pretty much unspoilt!

After the bath we walked along a small footpath that leads around the shore of the lake to a small pier. We were the only people there. This vast volcanic caldera-turned-tranquil lake was incredibly peaceful and pretty with the mountain tops catching glimmers of light and shimmering reflections in the water. We listened to the birds sing and talked about how we would walk along Oirase gorge later that day. As clouds disappeared into blue sky, I pointed out one of the impressive mountain peaks in the distance. When my fiancée turned back to me, I was on one knee and proposed. The location and setting couldn’t have been more perfect. She said “yes”. We hadn’t even had breakfast yet!

I can’t think of many more perfect moments than this and I don’t think I could have found anywhere better than Tohoku to propose.

Single skier in red jacket rides the ski lift at Zao Onsen, with snowed trees at either side
Zao Onsen, Miyagi

Stunning Slopes and Stripping Off For The Snow Monsters

By Aaron Boothe, Senior Travel Consultant

Back in 2015, I moved to Sendai. I had only heard of the place due to the tsunami, but was moving out to teach English (on the JET programme). Little did I know that soon after arriving in Sendai, I would be sitting without any clothes, in a hot spring bath, surrounded by deep snow looking out over the mountains!

Sendai is a great city and winter was definitely my favourite season. The heavy snow meant that I could head to nearby Zao Onsen at the weekends and hit the slopes for some snowboarding. Although bitterly cold, the sun was shining and Zao’s famous “Juhyo” snow monsters were on show – trees frozen in ice and snow and taking various strange forms. I had been to an onsen before, but never to a “rotenburo” outdoor onsen and was a little concerned about the transfer from the changing room to the outdoor baths in sub-zero temperatures.

As I slid open the door to the outside, the cold hit me. With the snow falling, I made it to the bath pretty quickly, sank in up to my shoulders and was quickly warmed up. All I had on was a small towel on my head. I sat and gazed from the water, completely relaxed overlooking the snow monsters on the mountain below. Those monsters aren’t scary at all. Bliss.

Proud tourist with his certificate for completing the Wanko Soba noodle challenge
Wanko Soba Noodle Challenge, Iwate

Slamming Back Soba With Salarymen and Working Off The Lunch of a Lifetime 

By Ben Guest, Senior Travel Consultant

When travelling Japan, train is usually the best way to go – but driving past the open farmlands, little villages, big mountains and valleys of Akita and Iwate provide many amazing memories. Along with rural Japan come traditions and cultural quirks that differ from region to region – or even from town to town!

One memory that sticks out for me is the local delicacy of Wanko Soba. We pulled into Morioka to drop off our car and catch the train once again. Before heading off though, we strolled to a little place for a lunch. I barely got a “konnichiwa” in before being ushered over to a table laid out with various small (but pretty looking) dishes and a team of salarymen. In a flash, the servers were chanting and filling our bowls with noodles. As I tried to keep up with the people around me scooping bowls of noodles into their mouths, I was told that there was a prize for guzzling 100 bowls – my target was set.

With the encouragement of the people around me, the cheering and the clink of lids on bowls as other people completed their own challenge, I reached my goal in what can only be described as the funniest and one of the friendliest eating experiences of my life. I received my charm and certificate. I thought I would never eat soba noodles again!

That afternoon, cycling between the peaceful temples and gardens of Hiraizumi, I enjoyed a sense of achievement even if I was a little heavier. Sometimes in Japan, while soaking in the beautiful countryside and beautiful temples, the things you remember most are your lunch and the people you encounter.

Snow-covered samurai graves at the top of Iimori hill in Aizu-Wakamatsu
Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima

Modern Mythology and Learning The Legacy 

By Grant Ekelund, Senior Travel Consultant

The winter sun shone bright in the clear sky as my friends and I navigated the snowy steps up Iimori hill in western Aizu-Wakamatsu. This mountain town in central Fukushima prefecture – and its unassuming hill – have secured a spot in Japanese history as a symbol of devotion and dedication.

At the top of the hill, we came upon a memorial with 19 graves; the final resting place of young samurai who thought that the flames rising from Tsuruga Castle meant that their home had fallen to the army of the Emperor, and the forces of modernisation. The young men chose to die rather than submit. Now their graves look out over their town and reconstructed castle, a monument to their story.

Walking back down to town, we visited one of the few pagodas around Japan that you can enter – a spiralling ramp takes you all the way to the top! Aizu-Wakamatsu is one of those places where history becomes present, and where the names and stories of those who came before are more visible to our modern eyes. Fukushima is synonymous with events from modern history, but the beauty of the region, the diversity of the coast and mountains, and the cultural history that flows from it, quickly supersede any reason not to visit. I can’t wait to go back and discover more.

Woman leans over fresh fish below neon lights at Furukawa Fish Market, Aomori
Furukawa Fish Market, Aomori

Fantastic Feasts And Where To Find Them

By Anna Sears, Sales Team Leader

I had never been to Aomori, but the moment I stepped off the train, it felt familiar. It reminded me of cities I had lived in – a normal place with normal people. Aomori is a quiet, unassuming city – and yet, there are some unexpected pockets of delight that make the stop well worth it. The most famous is the Nebuta Festival, with its fiery (and almost magical), larger-than-life lantern floats.

But it was my visit to Furukawa fish market for a lunch of Nokke-don (a regional specialty of DIY sushi bowl) which was the biggest surprise for me. Stepping in off the nearly deserted streets in the middle of a sleepy summer weekday I found a bustling, but pristinely clean, working fish market. It was vastly different from the chaotic old Tsukiji in Tokyo, which was always packed to the gills with tourists.

I collected my bowl of rice and roamed from stall to stall, building my customised sushi bowl with some of the many fresh and delicious looking options on sale at the market. It is the memory of brief encounters and the most amazing lunch, piled high with the freshest quality fish, that will stay with me for a long time. I have eaten some incredible meals in some incredible places across Japan, but this experience topped the lot.

For more short stories and travel inspiration from Tohoku and Japan, sign up for the Ultimate Journey: a no-holds-barred adventure through two decades of memories, each one contributed by a long-standing member of our team.

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