Top five spiritual adventures in Tohoku, Japan

From hikes up sacred mountains to breathtaking views of cherry blossom, discover the natural beauty of this remote region on a slow-paced trip.

Published 5 Feb 2021, 11:00 GMT, Updated 19 Feb 2021, 01:21 GMT
Built over a thousand years ago, the Yamadera temple is a picturesque spot in the mountains ...

Built over a thousand years ago, the Yamadera temple is a picturesque spot in the mountains of the Tohoku region.

Photograph by Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

Comprising the six northernmost prefectures on Japan’s main island of Honshu, Tohoku is a rugged land where natural highlights, from pristine forests and remote hot springs to snowy peaks and crater lakes, set the scene for thousand-year-old temples, ancient shrines and lively festivals. Little wonder it was featured in the National Geographic's Best Trips 2020 list as a top destination for adventure.

And yet, less than 2% of the country’s international travellers come here. Due to its remote position and heavy snowfalls, this region has historically had minimal influence from the outside world, resulting in well-preserved traditions and ancient customs.

This, along with its serene landscape, make Tohoku perfect for adventures with an element of spirituality. Thanks to national efforts to complete rebuilding projects after the 2011 earthquake in time for the Olympics, now is a great time to start considering the region as a place to celebrate the long-awaited resumption of international travels once the time is right.

Akiu Shrine, in Sendai, Tohoku’s hub city, is a popular place to pray for victory, or good luck, in matters of health, exams, love or anything one desires.

Photograph by Toru Hanai

1. Michinoku Coastal Trail

Stretching 620 miles across the Pacific Coast, this long-distance hiking route is the country’s newest national park, completed in 2019. Connecting the city of Hachinohe, in Aomori prefecture, with Soma City in Fukushima, the trail takes in mountain trails, rice fields and low-lying foothills and offers hikers a glimpse into lesser-known Japan. Spring and autumn are the best time to set off and, as completing the entire route on foot takes around 44 days, most visitors opt to tackle stretches at a time. Try not to miss the Jodogahama volcanic rock formations in Miyako Bay and the Miracle Pine monument in Rikuzentakata.

The new long-distance Michinoku Coastal Trail, which stretches across the Pacific Coast, allows travellers to explore a new side of Japan.

Photograph by Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

2. The holy mountains of Dewa Sanzan

Dewa Sanzan is a collection of three sacred peaks: Haguro, Gassan and Yudono, believed to represent birth, death and rebirth respectively. The mountains are central to Shugendo (a folk religion based on mountain worship that fuses Shinto and Buddhist traditions) and have been worshipped for centuries by yamabushi mountain priests, whose white outfits and conch shells keep ancient traditions alive. Mount Haguro, the lowest of the three, peaks at just 1,358ft, but it’s significant as the gateway to the other two: climb the 2,446 steps — with a stop at a 14th-century five-storey pagoda, located along the way — to reach its summit, where Sanjin Gosaiden enshrines the gods of the three mountains, or continue your hike up Gassan and Yudono mountains. For the full experience, you can also train in self-development and enlightenment with Yamabushi monks.

Travellers visiting Dewa Sanzan can train in self-development and enlightenment with Yamabushi monks.

Photograph by Haguro Tourist Association

3. Hirosaki Park

As springtime begins, Japan waits patiently for the first flushes of pink. Its famed cherry blossom season falls between late March and early May, lasting just 10-14 days in each location: beginning in the south of the country, the blossoms bloom northward as the weeks go by. Hirosaki Park is one of the best places to see the ephemeral blush-tinted blooms between late April and early May, when some 2,600 cherry trees burst into colour, framing the 17th-century Hirosaki Castle. The secret to the park’s beautiful flowers? Its pruning technique: the area is Japan’s biggest producer of apples, and when farmers pruned weak cherry trees the way they pruned apple trees, they found the trees regained vitality. Make time to wander around the annual Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival, where locals drift between stalls, hire rental boats and relax beneath centuries-old trees laden with blossom.

Hirosaki Park, which boasts some 2,600 cherry trees, is one of the best cherry blossom spots in Japan. 

Photograph by Hirosaki City

4. Ski resorts

Regular snowfall and off-the-beaten-path resorts make Tohoku one of Japan’s best ski regions. With a huge variety of terrain, Zaō Onsen Ski Resort has great beginner and intermediate runs, as well as nightly illuminations throughout January and February. Further north, Tazawako Snow Resort is Akita’s largest winter sports destination, with pistes for all levels plus panoramic lake views. Backcountry skiers are well catered for, too, with options including cat skiing in Hachimantai. During a one-day guided backcountry trip, you’ll be picked up from your accommodation in Hachimantai or Appi and taken to the best spots for powder snow. After a day on the slopes, you’re also in the best place for apres-ski — Tohoku is Japan’s premier sake region. Kanpai!

Tohoku one of Japan’s best ski regions, with various ski resorts to discover including Zaō Onsen Ski Resort and Tazawako Snow Resort.

Photograph by Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

5. Train rides

Fast, frequent and clean, Japan’s rail services are among the best in the world. Travelling by train is also a comfortable way to see more of Tohoku, from its dramatic coastlines to its hulking mountains, and there are numerous options to choose from. Shiki Shima, the ultra-luxurious sleeper train, accommodates up to 34 passengers in 17 suites and has a five-star lounge. For foodies, the gastronomic Tohoku Emotion train runs between Hachinohe and Kuji and serves local delicacies based on fresh seasonal ingredients, such as sea urchin, mountain grapes and shiitake mushrooms. Or how about soaking your feet in a relaxing foot bath on Toreiyu Tsubasa, a bullet train that connects Shinjō and Fukushima? If you love live music, meanwhile, a ride on Resort Shirakami will be just the ticket — watch the scenery whizz along while listening to the famous local tsugaru shamisen performance.

A ride on Resort Shirakami. Travelling by train is a great way to see more of Tohoku, from its dramatic coastlines to hulking mountains.

Photograph by Said Karlsson

Essentials

Tohoku is easily accessible from Tokyo via the Shinkansen bullet trains (it takes about 90 minutes to reach Sendai, the region’s hub city). The JR Tohoku Shinkansen line runs as far north as Aomori. 

Japan currently has entry restrictions in place in efforts to contain the global pandemic. Please see coronavirus advisory information by the Japan National Tourist Office for updates on travel restrictions: japan.travel/en/coronavirus

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