How to plan a journey through the elemental landscape of Tohoku, Japan

Shaped by volcanic activity, coated in forests and squaring up to the Pacific Ocean, this region — once known as Japan’s ‘deep north’ — has a primal, frontier feel. Here’s how to plot an elemental adventure, journeying through fire, water, earth and wind.

Published 11 Mar 2021, 08:53 GMT
Lake Towada is the biggest caldera lake in Honshu, best approached on a leisurely amble along Oirase ...

Lake Towada is the biggest caldera lake in Honshu, best approached on a leisurely amble along Oirase Gawa.

Photograph by Getty Images

Tohoku’s wild, elemental beauty ignites the senses while simultaneously soothing the soul. This is a region that has faced intense hardship and come out fighting. Ten years ago, an earthquake reaching 9 on the Richter scale ripped through the region, causing one of the deadliest tsunamis of our time. Millions of people have worked tirelessly to rebuild Tohoku — and rebuild it they have, from its vibrant cities to its tiny, mountain-top villages. Nevertheless, this a still a place where Mother Nature reigns: where dense forests dissolve into windswept coastline; where volcanoes simmer and seethe; and where giant crater lakes ripple in the breeze. Tohoku, both past and present, is defined by the elements — and any trip to the region must be, too.

Playing with fire: visiting onsen & volcanoes

A remote and wind-lashed cape, the Shimokita Peninsula stands at the northernmost tip of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. At its heart is towering Mount Osore, one of the holiest peaks in the country and an active volcano of hissing vents and sulphurous wastes. Its name translates as 'fear mountain', and, according to folklore, it’s an entrance to the underworld. Some visitors go to the little temple in the caldera to pay their respects to the dead. Even for a non-believer, it’s an eerie place to linger and sense a smouldering presence deep within the Earth, below.

For another take on Tohoku's volcanic drama, bear south to Tamagawa Onsen. Unlike most onsen, which tend to inhabit idyllic woodlands or serene mountains, Tamagawa sits in a barren, lunar wilderness — the big draw here are the most acidic, and allegedly most restorative, hot springs in the country, measuring a scalding ph1.2. In between spells bathing in luminous blue pools, try out ganbanyoku (hot stone therapy), which involves lying on geothermally heated rocks before cooling down at night in the local ryokan.

Admission to Mount Osore costs, £3;, while a room and meal for two at Tamagawa Hot Spring starts from £170.

The famous Hirosaki Castle Park has been shaped over time by three castle moats, and is home to a staggering 5,000 cherry trees. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Down to earth: hiking, forest bathing & blossom viewing

Tohoku lays claim to some of the most sublime terrain in all of Japan — the trails of Towada-Hachimantai National Park are a good vantage point from which to witness this stunning geography first hand. In the north of the national park rise the Hakkoda Mountains — in winter, the domain of backcountry skiers — while in the south of the park is the vast bowl of Lake Towada. The biggest caldera lake in Honshu, it's best approached on a leisurely amble along Oirase Gawa – a stream that cascades through forests of beech, maple and cedar. These woodlands are a fine spot for some 'Shinrin Yoku’ – or forest bathing – the art of self-healing by spending meditative hours among the trees.

To see the more manicured side of Japanese flora, head to Hirosaki Castle Park. It's a celebrated place for sakura, the tradition of cherry blossom viewing, in which the blooming and withering of the blossom is a metaphor for the ephemerality of existence (it also looks very pretty). In spring, the waterways turn a rosy hue with fallen petals, while locals celebrate the passing of the harsh northern winter by picnicking under the stern watch of the 19th-century castle.

Admission to Hirosaki Castle Park costs £3.

Akiu Falls is an impressive180ft-high cataract that comes thundering out of the forest.

Photograph by Getty Images

Test the water: exploring the coastline

Tohoku’s coastline is as varied as it is spectacular, switching between jagged rocks and sweeping stretches of sand. Mutsu Bay, in the very north of the region, shows this changing geography to striking effect. Cast off in a canoe from the rugged Natsudomari Peninsula and paddle its calm waters, admiring the forested hills that come crashing down right to the water’s edge, and which in autumn are aflame in reds and oranges. Back on dry land, refuel on huge, succulent Japanese scallops, which are found in abundance in this area.

Travel south to immerse yourself in the balmy waters of Akiu Onsen. It's a much-loved hot spring resort, where the weary citizens of the nearby city of Sendai come to recharge in uniquely salty waters. Having emerged refreshed, join the crowds strolling the path beside Rairai Gorge — a narrow canyon at the heart of the village — or detour out of town to Akiu Falls, where a short hike brings you to the foot of a 180ft-high cataract, thundering out of the forest.

Sea kayaking adventures can be easily organised both from Mutsu city, and the remote Natsudomari Peninsula, with prices starting from £20 an hour.

Both wind and sea batter Matsushima's 260 islands, turning them, over time, into an ocean rock garden. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Up in the air: paragliding & helicopter tours

Immortalised in paintings and poetry, the view of Matsushima is one seared deep into the Japanese psyche: around 260 limestone islands strewn out at sea, each topped by a cluster of pines. It's even more stirring when seen from aboard a paraglider, soaring high on the thermals, at an altitude from which you can see the silhouette of Mount Zao, the suburbs of Sendai and the green arm of the Oshika Peninsula reaching into the Pacific.

Sendai is the largest city in Tohoku and it also serves as the launch pad for helicopter sightseeing tours covering the wider region. After flying out over the city's high-rises, itineraries can take many forms: in spring you might take a sakura-themed flight over rows of cherry trees, while autumn days might mean you navigate inland to the slopes of Mount Kurikoma — a mighty, 5,230ft summit whose slopes blaze golden and crimson with the dying of the year, earning it the name The Carpet of the Gods.

Paragliding tours over Matsushima depart from April to November and cost from £88 for 20 minutes, including a pilot, while helicopter hire starts from £6,000 for up to five passengers.

Plan your trip

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. 

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