Photo story: the essential experiences of Tohoku, East Japan

From relaxing hot springs and engaging kabuki theatre to exhilarating ski runs, Tohoku offers some of Japan's most indelible experiences.

By Ben Weller
Published 31 Mar 2020, 12:29 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:13 GMT
The snow-streaked mountains of Zao Onsen take on the appearance of charcoal drawings during the winter ...
The snow-streaked mountains of Zao Onsen take on the appearance of charcoal drawings during the winter months.
Photograph by Ben Weller

A rail journey through Japan’s relatively under-explored Tohoku region provides a unique perspective on the area, enabling travellers to stop and engage with spectacular mountain scenery, vibrant culture and adventure activities. This vivid photographic portrait of Tohoku, shot on a five-day train odyssey, features steaming hot springs, towering ‘ice monsters’, heaped bowlfuls of ramen and colourful kabuki theatre.

Zao Onsen is home to a dense proliferation of traditional onsen (hot springs) that are perfect for relaxing in after a day of exploration.
Photograph by Ben Weller

Zao Onsen

Zao Onsen is named for Mt. Zao, a cluster of volcanoes straddling Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures. The volcanic activity feeds the hot springs of the resort, and has created a natural playground for hikers, skiers, snowboarders, and photographers. The smell of sulphur fills the air in Zao, steam billows from channels and pipes that carry hot spring water throughout the town, and on cold days the entire village seems shrouded in mist. Most hotels and inns in the town have onsen on site, and there are also public baths scattered throughout the town. Some of these are simple affairs, two rooms segregated by sex, where you bring your own towel and drop Y100 (73p) in the box at the door. Genshichiro is a mountainside onsen with indoor and outdoor baths. Luxuriating in steaming hot spring water amid the cold mountain air is an indelibly joyous experience.

The mountain resort town of Zao Onsen provides ample winter sports and hot springs experiences, and in summer is a hiking hotspot.
Photograph by Ben Weller

Ski country

Spread over undulating mountains on the eastern cusp of Yamagata Prefecture, Zao Onsen is Tohoku’s best-loved ski resort. Its 25 runs are mostly fairly gentle, but what they lack in steepness they make up for in length — the longest extends for nearly six miles, slaloming through dense forests and alpine meadows. 

Juhyo are conifer trees covered in snow, taking on fantastical shapes and populating the slopes around Zao Onsen.
Photograph by Ben Weller

Snow business

Skiers and snowboarders can also swoosh past the local population of ‘juhyo’ — meaning ‘ice monsters’. Less of a hazard than you might expect, these are actually conifers, coated with snow and ice and contorted into surreal shapes by the raging mountain winds. 

The steam baths and hot springs of Zao Onsen provide a welcome respite from the snowy winter weather.
Photograph by Ben Weller

Hot stuff

Whether you’re weary-limbed from the trails or the piste, Zao’s hot springs are a welcome sight at the day’s end. There are a few to choose from — Kawarayu and the luxurious Shinzaemon no Yu are both popular. Summer visitors should, however, make for Zao Onsen Dai Rotenburo — an open-air pool set in a little valley, where bathers stew in steamy waters, idly gazing up at the forest canopy. 

The ramen in Tohoku is some of the best in the world, with the Deluxe at Kajimaya Ramen being one of the finest exponents.
Photograph by Ben Weller

Local flavour

The true test of any establishment in a tourist town is whether the locals go there. At Kajimaya Ramen in Zao Onsen, you’ll find locals and travellers dining together, a motley mix of snowboarders and pensioners communing over good food. The Deluxe is a bowlful of flame-broiled cuts of pork, bamboo shoots, sprouts, a boiled egg and miso. The proprietors are four friends who work together in the open kitchen, then hit the slopes after serving lunch.

Kabuki is a traditional Japanese theatre form, combining storytelling, music and elaborate costumes to preserve and share ancient folklore.
Photograph by Ben Weller

High drama

Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese theatre. The acting is characterised by exaggerated delivery and stylised movement to help express meaning to the audience, as the Japanese spoken can be somewhat archaic. Kuromori Kabuki is an outdoor folk kabuki performance held each February at Kuromori Hie Shrine. The annual performances began around 1730 as offerings to the gods for bountiful harvests in the year ahead. It continues to this day, with local performers staging ‘plays in the snow’, as they’re called.  

Traveling around Tohoku via rail provides an opportunity for more leisurely exploration and offers unique perspectives of the region.
Photograph by Ben Weller

Getting around

The JR EAST PASS is a versatile regional pass especially designed for overseas visitors. It facilitates a two-to-four-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo to Tohoku, and provides five days of unlimited travel around areas such as Tohoku, Yamagata Zao, Akita Shirakami, Shinjuku, Akihabara and many others. It costs from £142 per adult when buying in Japan. 

To book ahead of travelling to Japan, visit JR EAST Train Reservation

The Welcome Suica e-money card enables travellers to take the subway, trains and buses with a single tap, and can also be used in many affiliated shops across Japan. JR-EAST HOTELS offers unique discounts to rail travellers. Collected points can be used for discounts on accommodation or exchanged for points with affiliated partners. 

This content is created for our partner. It does not necessarily reflect the views of National Geographic, National Geographic Traveller (UK) or its editorial staff.

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