Tohoku Region: Northern Tohoku

Tohoku Region: Northern Tohoku | Southern Tohoku

Northern Tohoku is known for several different things: the quality of its rice and rice by-products, especially sake (rice wine), the apples and Nebuta Festival of Aomori and the bijin (beautiful women) and Kanto festival of Akita. The area also has an abundance of ski and onsen (hot spring) resorts. And the further north you get from Tokyo, the less crowded these places are.

The Tohoku Shinkansen (bullet train) only reaches as far north as Morioka and from there you have to take regular express trains. The Seikan Tunnel, the longest underwater tunnel in the world, connects the Tsugaru Peninsula with Hokkaido.

Aomori Nebuta Festival

One of the giant illuminated floats at the Aomori Nebuta Festival


The gateway to Hokkaido to the north, Aomori city is known mainly for its annual Nebuta Festival, held on 3-7 August. Giant, colorful paper nebuta (effigies) are mounted on floats and paraded through the streets each night. Lighted from inside, these floats make a dramatic backdrop to the huge dancing, singing crowds of thousands of people dressed in festival attire: happi coats, yukata and straw hats decorated with flowers. Anyone who gets dressed up can take part in the festival.

It started, as did many festivals in Japan, as a ritual connected with the rice harvest. Also people would cast away paper images representing sickness, blight, bad weather or anything else that might prevent a good crop. Today, on the final night of the festival, the floats are cast out to sea in a continuation of this tradition.

Also in Aomori, the Munakata Shiko Memorial Art Museum displays works by this local artist, who was the most renowned of his day (he died in 1975, aged 72). His woodblock prints and paintings are in collections around the world.

Hirosaki, 30 minutes by train to the southwest, has its own Nebuta Festival which is held for a week from August 1. The remains of Hirosaki Castle can be seen in the park named after it, which is famous for its cherry trees. The city was an important Edo Period (1600-1868) castle town and much of the old atmosphere has been preserved. Mt. Iwaki to the west is often called Tsugaru Fuji, indicating its resemblance to the more famous mountain and its location at the foot of the Tsugaru Peninsula. The Tsugaru-Iwaki Skyline is a toll road to the summit, which is also the scene of an annual event known as oyama sankei. People carrying torches climb from Iwakisan Jinja shrine to the summit to watch the sunrise.

The desolate, hatchet-shaped Shimokita Peninsula is a destination for travellers who want to get away from it all. At its center is Mt. Osore, a volcano with Lake Usoriyama in its caldera. Women who have lost a child visit the Jizodo on the shores of the lake to pray for their souls (Jizo is a Buddhist bodhisattva, or spiritual being, and is regarded as the protector of children. Small stone jizo statues can be seen all over Japan, often draped with a red cloth and in large numbers). The mountain is sacred to itako (shamans) and the scene of an annual gathering at the end of July. The women, blind from birth, act as mediums for people who want to communicate with the dead.

Oirase Gorge

Waterfalls and mini rapids abound in the Oirase Gorge

To the south, on the border of Aomori and Akita Prefectures, is Lake Towada. The lake is at its best when the colorful autumn foliage surrounds it in a palate of red, orange and gold but it is popular year-round. The Oirase River flows north and then east from the lake to the Pacific. The first 14km or so are known as Oirase Gorge which is famous for its scenic forests, waterfalls and rapids. A road runs alongside the river but it is best seen on foot. It is one of the main attractions of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park.


Once the castle town of the powerful Satake family, Akita is now the main city on the north Sea of Japan coast. The remains of Kubota Castle can be seen in Senshu Park. The park is also home to the Hirano Masakichi Art Museum, which displays work by the distinguished artist Fujita Tsuguji, and is renowned for its cherry trees and azaleas.

It is also the site of the Kanto festival, held on August 4-7, which is the main event of the city's Tanabata Festival. Men balance huge 10m-high kanto, bamboo frames hung with dozens of paper lanterns to represent an ear of rice, on their heads, hands, hips and shoulders in a parade along the streets. They are accompanied by drumming and chanting.

To the north of the city, the Oga Peninsula is famous for its spectacular coastal scenery and some volcanic lakes. To the east are the clear blue waters of Lake Tazawa, at 420m the deepest lake in Japan. North of the lake, the Hachimantai highland area, on the border with Iwate Prefecture, is full of ski and onsen resorts. Two of the most popular are Fukenoyu and Goshogake. About 10km south of the lake, Kakunodate is an old castle town which retains some of the 350-year old samurai house. A popular souvenir is kabazaiku, craftwork made from cherry bark. Further south is Yokote, another castle town known for its winter festival in which children build kamakura, igloo-like snow huts.


Morioka is the prefectural capital and the end of the shinkansen line. Formerly a castle town of the Nambu family, it is known for its traditional Nambu tekki (ironware). Its main tourist attraction is the Chagu Chagu Umakko festival - children ride about 90 brightly decorated draught horses (uma) from Komagata Shrine in the village of Takizawa to the city on June 15. 'Chagu-chagu' is the sound made by bells hung on the horses. The towns of Hanamaki and Tono are known for their literary connections, the former being the hometown of writer Miyazawa Kenji, the latter made famous in the Tono Monogatari book of folktales.

On the Pacific coast is the Rikuchu Coast National Park. The park extends for about 180km, with dramatic sheer cliffs in the north and many bays and coves in the south. Jodogahama beach, near the city of Miyako, is particularly famous for its huge rock formations.

Punting down the river through Geibikei gorge

Punting down the river through Geibikei gorge

There are several places of interest around the city of Ichinoseki in southern Iwate and the nearby town of Hiraizumi. Genbikei and Geibikei are two gorges located on opposite sides of Ichinoseki. In particular, the larger Geibikei to the east has many steep cliffs and waterfalls. Motsuji and Chusonji are important temples in Hiraizumi, founded by the Buddhist priest Ennin in the 9th century. Motsuji was destroyed several times over the centuries in wars or by fire. The earliest existing records for Chusonji show that the present buildings were started in 1105. At its peak it had some 40 buildings but today only two remain from that period: the kyozo (sutra repository) and the Konjikido (Golden-colored Hall), a National Treasure. The latter is a mausoleum whose amazing interior is decorated with mother-of-pearl, precious stones and covered in gold leaf.

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