Japan: Changing faces, shifting landscapes

Tohoku may have been devastated by an earthquake and tsunami, but recovery in this off-the-radar region has been swift. This is an intriguing land of national parks, ancient forests and hot springs, where traditions and modernity blend seamlessly

Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:51 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 14:53 BST
Japan: Changing faces, shifting landscapes

Tomiyama Kannon-do temple, Matsushima.

Photograph by Pól O Conghaile

A mystery sound. I first hear it while huffing and puffing up the rigorous 2,446 stone steps of Mount Haguro. It's like a horn. Followed by a drum beat.

It throws me because I've spent an hour or more rising and falling with this ancient path, seduced into mountain mindfulness by another, repetitive soundtrack — the clump of my boots, the croaking of hidden toads, a gentle wind gossiping through centuries-old cedar trees.

The air carries an earthy whiff after an afternoon rain, and I've encountered barely a handful of other hikers. At the top, my plan was to photograph the musty temples of this sacred peak, and to leave before the bugs started biting.

But something about that sound fixes me. Hunkered down near one of Haguro's shrines, I hear it again. A low horn blow. Followed by a drumbeat. Then, out of the forest, comes a woman wearing a flowing silky dress. And another. Soon a group is walking towards me — several women in impossibly white robes and an older man
in more traditional costume, trailed by a small band of onlookers. They pass me, turn towards the shrine, and the man and one woman go inside. There, he chants and she dances, waving her arms like tree branches in the wind.

I drift with the rest of the crowd towards the steps. The other women in white wait there, in meticulous formation. One of the onlookers, a man holding a tiny baby, strikes up a conversation in English. It's a group of meditation dancers, he tells me. They've come from a city — although, I don't quite catch which one — and their art combines ancient and modern dance. "You are lucky," he says. Moments like these don't happen very often. When they do, it feels like life's cogs and levers have temporarily clicked into place.

Mount Haguro, in Japan's Yamagata Prefecture, is my first stop on a tour of Tohoku — a region in the north of Honshu, Japan's largest island. It's one of three Sacred Mountains of Dewa, where an esoteric tradition of mountain worship ('Shugendo') dates back 1,400 years. Today, you might still spot yamabushi (mountain monks) wandering in their white robes. They're distinct from the dancers I chance upon, however.

For yamabushi, tough rituals like sleep deprivation and icy waterfall purifications continue an ascetic tradition that peaked with the sokushinbutsu — monks who tried to turn themselves into mummies. After intense training, meditation and diets of tree bark and root, these men were buried alive in cedar boxes with breathing tubes and bells they could ring. When the ringing stopped, the tombs were sealed. Later, the boxes were unearthed to see if natural mummification had indeed taken place. It's unknown how many tried, but more than a dozen or so are said to have become 'living buddhas'.

Within a couple of hours, I'm back down the mountain, checked into my sparse little shukubo (temple lodging), scoffing a feast of miso soup, pickles, bamboo shoots, tempura vegetables and green tea prepared by a landlady who shuffles between paper screens, and crashing out on a futon on tatami mats. The next day, I'll be on a bullet train. It feels like I've stepped through several centuries in a single afternoon.

Tohoku is a group of six prefectures just a few hours north of Tokyo, but it feels a world away. Swept by Siberian Highs, its winters are harsh, its landscape rugged, its people have a reputation for stubborn resilience. One evening, during a cultural show at Hoshino Resorts Aomoriya, I watch a musician beating the daylights out of his shamisen, a stringed instrument similar to a banjo.

"They used to go door to door and play for money," I'm told at the show. "Because the weather was so bad, they had to play really hard so people could hear them over the wind."

Some city dwellers dismiss Tohoku as a backwater. Others see a rustic, introverted region of unspoiled national parks and hot springs, a place to reboot yourself away from Bladerunner cityscapes, somewhere you can sleep better.

There's truth in all that. But there's a lot more to it, too. Tohoku stretches from the cosmopolitan city of Sendai, on the east coast, to the frigid, tuna-thick waters around Omaand the Tsugaru Strait in the north.

Tohoku will forever be known, of course, for the events of 11 March, 2011. On that morning, an earthquake of magnitude nine — the strongest ever recorded in Japan
— struck off the eastern coast. It was followed by a cataclysmic tsunami that burst through coastal defences, chewed up beaches and scoured cities, and a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. Leaving more than 18,000 dead or missing, it remains the biggest mass loss of life in Japan since Nagasaki.

"People felt the earth shake in Tokyo, too," one local from Sendai tells me. In Tohoku, I find people to be reserved, slow to discuss personal lives, but details still drip through — how electricity blacked out on the opposite coast, how they struggled to call loved ones while conserving power in their phones. Fukushima on fire was "like a disaster movie", I hear. Japan developed 'a ghost problem' with multiple reports of sightings following the disaster, Richard Lloyd Parry writes in Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan's Disaster Zone.

"It came right up to here," says Stefan Ramos of Matsushima Tourism, pointing to a high-water mark near Zuiganji Temple in Miyagi Prefecture. I've arrived here having criss-crossed the countryside from Mount Haguro, to find workers putting the final touches on rebuilds ahead of a summer festival.

From where we're standing, there are views of a bay packed with 260 islands. It ranks as one of the 'Nihon Sankei' — or Three Views of Japan — listed by the Edo scholar, Hayashi Goto. Local tourists flock to Matsushima Bay, cramming the seafront on weekends, and Stefan and I enjoy a slice of kasutera, a type of sweet pound cake, and hojicha, a roasted green tea, before joining a cruise around the islands. The pine-studded rocks acted as something of a natural breakwater in 2011, I learn, leading to a relatively low loss of life in the area. With a hazy glow on the horizon, it looks like a mini Ha Long Bay.

The naked truth
Travelling in Tohoku proves easy. Train station signs are in Japanese and English, and everything runs to schedule. When I pick up my Japan Rail Pass at Narita Airport, I'm served by a super-polite attendant with a Snoopy pen slotted into her waistcoat pocket. Last year, one of Japan's bullet train operators apologised when a train left 20 seconds early.

In the stations, I start by picking through the shops and cafes, looking for an ekiben (bento box) for the journey, or if the wait is long, a station curry. Then I go and find my carriage number on the platform, line up, and enjoy the sense of order. A beautiful bullet train might whoosh into the station, its streamlined nose bringing out the boy in me. Inside, seats are plush, legroom generous, and passengers begin snoozing, flicking through phones, working on laptops or watching the world go by. Seat signs exhort us to 'please be considerate of other passengers while using your computer (keyboard noise etc.)'. A conductor in perfect suit and peaked hat bows before walking down the aisle.

Shinkansen can travel at up to 200mph. Outside, I watch the landscape whizz past — from squeezed suburban houses to reflective rice paddies or tractors turning soil, from snow-frosted peaks to stumpy hills bulging like giant bits of broccoli. My ears pop when we pass through tunnels, and every now and then, someone will open their ekiben, sending a smell of rice, fish or pickles wafting through the cabin.

When I'm not on a train, there are walks and bike rides to enjoy. In Aomori Prefecture's Towada-Hachimantai National Park, I cycle along the Oirase River in a 10-mile gorge running down from Lake Towada. The short stretch is riddled with waterfalls, and I take a morning to scoot along, stopping whenever I sense a photo.

It's summer, everything a super-saturated green, and the scenes are idyllic — older men setting up easels to paint or tripods to photograph, couples walking by the water, cyclists reviving themselves with slurpy bowls of udon noodles with mizuna and egg.

There are flashes of the 21st century, too. Sipping a cup of coffee at a cafe overlooking Lake Towada, I meet a man wearing a bright red blazer and several anime figures pinned to his tie. I ask to take his photo, and he obliges by squatting down and posing with a toy gun — just like the protagonist of the popular manga series Lupin III. "My name is Lupin!" he smiles.

Travelling from the UK, where months can mulch together in a grey fug, I love learning about Tohoku's dramatically distinguished seasons. In early summer, the gorge is giddy with dappled light, spring-cleaned waterfalls, splashes of pink azalea and brilliantly green maple and beech leaves.

In my room at the riverside Oirase Keiryu Hotel, a loupe — or small magnifying glass — has thoughtfully been left on the desk. I bring it along for a closer look at the miniature worlds of moss, tree bark, or baby ferns uncoiling by my feet. Summer is also a time for surprising festivals in Tohoku, when towns explode into life with parades of vivid lantern floats, pounding taiko drums and energetic dancers. Floats are painstakingly assembled with washi paper and wire frames over the preceding year, before being unleashed in wild, almost Brazilian-style seasonal blow-outs.

Then comes autumn, with its fall foliage, burnt-toffee smells oozing from katsura trees (yellowing leaves release maltol as they break down; the same molecule released when sugar is burnt to make caramel), and a huge harvest of Fuji apples.

At my hotel, a buffet restaurant called Aomori Apple Kitchen is a hymn to this red, rough and super-juicy fruit, and I devour everything from cider to pie to duck and apple salad. "It's a balance of sweet and sour," a staff member tells me matter-of-factly when I quiz her.

After autumn, winter comes down like a jackboot. Tohoku can be carpeted in white, and I'm told you need snowshoes to pass along these paths. Finally, there's spring, when the Japanese appreciate the cherry blossoms as much for their confetti of colour as their fleeting, transitional nature.

In the middle of all this — the sharp seasons and rugged northern landscapes — are Tohoku's onsen. The region is famous for its hot springs: mineral-rich waters I find as warm as 43C. At the Oirase Keiryu Hotel, widescreen picture windows look out on the forests and river, there are hot tubs on balconies, and a faint pong of sulphur in the air. I'm the only Westerner among the pods of guests shuffling around in yukata robes, and I'm playing etiquette roulette.

"Where are you from?" asks the bald man holding a tiny white towel over his privates. He's sitting on a ledge where the onsen overlooks forest and river, while I wallow uncertainly in the water. I tell him, and we get chatting. He's self-employed in Toyko, and is here among the rising steam and rustling leaves to plug out from work.

"Are you travelling alone?" he asks. I nod. "Hopefully your wife isn't too…" he trails off, shaping his fingers into devil-horns on top of his head. As we step back inside from the hot waters, making our way back towards yukata robes and slippers, he comments on my bathing manners.

"It's good for the other bathers," he says, wandering off to weigh himself. I hang back to read over the rules and check what I've missed. Then I see it: the hand towel! I've spent our entire conversation with my towel underwater. This is considered dirty in Japanese onsen, as the diagrams clearly show. While in the water, you're supposed to put your towel on your head. But of course, the nice man didn't say anything directly. He planted a hint to set me on the path towards self-improvement.

"How was it?" the shuttle bus driver asks when I emerge schooled and refreshed from the forest baths. "Good!" I say. Encouraged, he continues the conversation, speaking Japanese into a little translation device dangling from a lanyard around his neck. It replies, Siri-like, blurting out English.

"If you can gain sports," it chirps. Noticing my quizzical expression, the driver's enthusiasm turns to dismay. He tries again. "If you can leave, the bus," it says. "Aha," I say.

We're in the late stages of sunset now, driving back through the forest towards the hotel. Soon, I'll be on a shinkansen back to the neon-splashed chaos of Tokyo. The mystery sounds of Mount Haguro, the pine-prickled islands of Matsushima Bay, the Oirase Gorge and the awesome apples of Aomori will all be notes on a page. I wanted to learn more about Tohoku, this rugged, off-radar region, but I have one overriding takeaway: The more I travel, the less I know.


Getting there & around
British Airways, Japan Airlines and ANA fly direct to Tokyo from Heathrow. Finnair flies to Narita International Airport via Helsinki. 

Average flight time: 12h.

A Japan Rail Pass enables unlimited travel on all JR and most shinkansen trains for seven-, 14- or 21-day periods. Tourists must purchase these outside Japan, buying an 'exchange order' and taking it to a JR EAST Travel Service Center for validation. Prices start from Y29,110 (£200) Ordinary Class or Y38,880 (£267) Green Class. Make seat reservations in advance where possible. 

When to go
With temperatures around 20C, late spring and early autumn are safe bets. Winters can drop to 1C (though beautifully snowy), and 26C summers see more visitors and higher rates. The 2019 Rugby World Cup takes place in Japan from 30 September to 2 November.

Where to stay
Hoshino Resorts Aomoriya

Oirase Keiryu Hotel

Shukubo Kanbayashi Katsukane.  

Hotel Shintomi-tei.

More info



How to do it
Inside Japan Tours has a 14-night 'Northern Highlights' trip including accommodation, a night on Mount Haguro and some private guiding from £2,660 per person (excluding flights). 

Follow @poloconghaile

Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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