From tip to toe: how to explore Tohoku's dazzling landscapes by rail in 10 days

Take a railway odyssey from the tip of Honshu – Japan’s main island – through the wild landscapes of Tohoku, disembarking to see buzzing cities, ancient temples, and a coastline recovering one decade on from the 2011 tsunami.

Published 19 Mar 2021, 17:16 GMT
Lake Tazawa is Japan's deepest body of water, plunging to an astonishing 423 metres.

Lake Tazawa is Japan's deepest body of water, plunging to an astonishing 423 metres.

Photograph by Getty Images

Day one: Aomori

Aomori stands at a crossroads — in one direction, Shinkansen (bullet train) services extend south into Honshu, in the other they dive under cold northern seas to reach the island of Hokkaido. That said, you could happily lose a day here before boarding an onward train; catch a whiff of Tohoku’s ancient past at the Sannai Maruyama Site, which showcases 6,000-year-old relics of Japan's Jomon period (unearthed here during the construction of a baseball pitch). The city's signature attraction, however, are its nebuta — illuminated floats paraded through the city in a summer festival of dancing and drumming. Visit out of season and you can see them in peace and quiet, housed inside Nebuta Museum Wa Rasse, by the harbour. Before catching your next train, make sure to take a side trip to Furukawa Market, where stalls sells mounds of fresh fruit and vegetables and the build-your-own sushi bowls will likely be the biggest and best you've ever tasted.

Nebuta Festiva is a celebration of fire that attracts more than three million revellers every year, held in summer in the vibrant city of Aomori.

Photograph by Getty Images

Day two-three: Hachinohe, Kakunodate, Lake Tazawa and Nyuto Onsen

From Aomori, it's a short, one-hour hop on the Tohoku Shinkansen to Hachinohe. This port city suffered greatly from the 2011 tsunami, with the wave sweeping fishing boats out of the harbour and depositing them on the streets. Today the fishing industry has recovered, as you'll see (and likely smell) should you head one of the city's boisterous markets. Weekdays see locals perusing the stalls near Mutsu-Minato station, while on Sunday the action moves to Tatehana Wharf (squid and mackerel are a must-try). If you fancy something a bit more sedate, the city tourist board can put you in touch with local fishermen who prepare their guests a hotpot of fishy delicacies on the wharfs, served with stories from the high seas. Hachinohe is also the starting point of the Michinoku Coastal Trail, Japan's newest hiking route — opened in 2019 — which follows Tohoku's wild, windswept coastline for more than 600 miles.

After a morning munching on freshly-caught fish, catch a 90-minute train from Hachinohe on the Tohoku and Akita Shinkansen lines. The destination is sleepy Kakunodate — a beguiling slice of bygone Tohoku, with streets lined with samurai houses, and rickshaws rolling under cherry trees. Spend a day poking about ancient manors stocked with a lethal array of samurai weaponry. Kakunodate is also a base for day trips to Lake Tazawa — 15 minutes along the Akita Shinkansen line. The lake is Japan’s deepest; take a morning stroll along the shore to see snowy mountains mirrored in its waters (watch out for the dragon that’s said to inhabit the depths). From Tazawa, it’s a further 45-minute bus ride uphill to Nyuto Onsen — one of the most atmospheric hot springs in Japan — with a cluster of creaking ryokan (some centuries-old) huddled around milky white pools.

The ancient city of Hiraizumi, with its ancient temples and vast, glassy lakes once rivalled Kyoto for its beauty.

Photograph by Getty Images

Day four-five: Hiraizumi

Departing Kakunodate, it’s a two hour Shinkansen ride to Ichinoseki, followed by a 10-minute train journey to the little town of Hiraizumi. In the 11th century, this was one of Japan’s cultural heavyweights — a northern rival to Kyoto, built on gold mining wealth. Although razed to the ground in the late 12th century, there are still relics from its heyday to explore — notably the temple complex at Chuson-ji, and the gardens of Motsu-ji, a Buddhist paradise. An equally heavenly spot is Geibi Gorge, one hour’s train ride east of town. Here, punters helm wooden boats through a steeply-sided limestone canyon – it’s especially glorious in autumn, when coppery leaves cascade from the clifftops to be swept along on the current.

Nyuto Onsen is one of the most atmospheric hot springs in Japan, with a cluster of creaking ryokan (some centuries-old) huddled around milky white pools.

Photograph by Getty Images

Day six: Rikuzentakata

Iwate Prefecture was severely impacted by the 2011 Tsunami — the fishing town of Rikuzentakata lost over 1,600 people, and almost all buildings were swept away. Today, it’s the site of the Iwate Tsunami Memorial museum, which gives scientific context to the disaster, as well as housing exhibits — such as destroyed cars — bearing testimony to the power of the waves. To get there, it’s a three-hour train ride from Hiraizumi, changing at Ichinoseki, a city certainly worth pausing, particularly in spring time when trees sag under the blossom-heavy boughs. Another moving sight is the Miracle Pine — the only survivor from a coastal woodland of 70,000 trees, it’s since been converted into a sculpture.

Hundreds of forested islands dot the bay of Matsushima, renowned across Japan for its beauty.

Photograph by Getty Images

Day seven-eight: Kesennuma, Ishinomaki and Matsushima

Ken Watanabe is one of Japan's greatest actors, starring in Inception, Batman Begins and the Transformers franchise. Seeing the city of Kesennuma devastated by the tsunami, he wanted to play a part in its own transformation, setting up a K-Port cafe, gallery and event space by the docks. It's a quick 30 minute train ride from Rikuzentakata to Kesenuma, and a short amble onward to the cafe from the station. Inside, Japanese curries and pizzas loom large on the menu, but the undisputed highlight is the daily fax from Ken Watanabe, a short missive to staff and customers sent from wherever he is in the world at the time.

From Kesennuma, catch the trains of the Kesennuma and Ofunato Lines south — both uprooted by the tsunami, they’ve since been restored so trains trundle once again by the blue bays and islands of the Pacific. Disembark four hours later in the rejuvenated town of Ishinomaki. Here you’ll find Ishinomaki Laboratory — founded in 2011 as a community workshop for locals rebuilding their hometown, it’s since evolved into a high design furniture brand. Time your visit right, and you might arrive for Ishinomaki's Reborn Art Festival, a biannual programme of art and culture to mark the post-tsunami renaissance of the region. Previous editions have seen art installations taking up residence among the forested shores of the Oshika Peninsula, concerts held on the beaches and conceptual food events centred on local seafood. The next day, take a 40-minute train ride from Ishinomaki to Matsushima: a bay strewn with pine-topped islets that’s especially beautiful as the sun sets in the western hills.

Sendai is the largest city in Tohoku, known for its 17th-century castle and excellent restaurant scene. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Day nine-ten: Sendai and Yamadera

It’s about 30 minutes by train from Matsushima to Sendai: the de facto capital of Tohoku. Coincide your visit with Tanabata — the ‘star festival’ in August — when parades snake through streets adorned with streamers, and the finale is a fireworks display illuminating the Hirose River. Be sure to try the town’s signature gyutan (beef tongue) — Aji Tasuke is a local institution, where you can watch it grilled on the counter before your eyes. On your last day, take a daytrip from Sendai to Yamadera, one hour west by train, where Buddhist temples teeter spectacularly on forested slopes. A short walk from the station will take you to the foot of 1,000 steps ascending the mountainside — the reward at the top is a panoramic view over the hills of Tohoku.

If you happen to have an extra couple of days, consider continuing onwards from Sendai into Fukushima Prefecture. Here lies a hiker’s paradise, from the Bandai Plateau, peppered with lakes and lush, forested slopes, to Mount Azuma, where views down into its enormous crater are a stark reminder of the power of Mother Nature. While in Fukushima, a visit to the hot spring town of Tsuchiyu is also a must. This onsen resort, damaged in the 2011 tsunami and further maligned from years of low visitor numbers, has turned itself around to become one of the nation's star attractions. Now leading the charge on hot spring towns using their geothermal advantages to generate clean energy, the town also plays host to huge tanks of freshwater prawns. These giant crustaceans have turned the area into a foodie hotspot (the ramen is particularly delicious).

Plan your trip

Getting there and around
From the international hubs at Tokyo, you can catch domestic flights to Aomori and Sendai. Tohoku’s extensive rail network is easy to use, although high-speed Shinkansen can be considerably more expensive than local services. The JR East rail pass can help keep costs down with five days costing from £135.

When to go
Tohoku can be visited year round – spring is cherry blossom season while summer sees boisterous festivals in towns like Sendai, Aomori and Akita. Autumn colours can be spellbinding, while winter is the time to visit ski resorts like Zao Onsen.

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