While these three cities are among the most popular destinations for tourists, there are other regions of the country worthy of being discovered—unique destinations that offer culture, beauty and excellent cuisine. At the top of everyone’s list of must-see places to see should be Tohoku, a remote area located on Honshu Island in the northeast region of the country. Tohoku offers a level of authenticity that is not found at many other popular tourist destinations in the country.
Famous for its beautiful coastline, pristine lakes and spectacular snow-capped mountains, the Tohoku region should be at the top of the list for every visitor to Japan. An island with the Pacific on one side and the Sea of Japan on the other, here you will find natural hot springs and a region world-famous for its food, especially its fresh-caught seafood and locally-grown, high-quality rice.
There are many experiences offered in Tohoku that are both authentic and unique and not to be missed the next time you visit Japan.
Here are a few suggestions worthy of your consideration:
Stay in A Ryokan With An Onsen
Several luxury-level traditional Japanese inns, called Ryokans, are found within the Tohoku region. Featuring luxurious accommodations and onsen fed from natural hot springs, a visit to one of these will offer a relaxing and therapeutic experience.
An architectural wonder, the Shonai Hotel Suiden Terrace in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture, was designed by world-renowned Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. The contemporary hotel, which appears to be floating in the middle of a rice paddy field, offers three wings offer a total of 143 spacious guest rooms and suites. The restaurant features organic farm-to-table cuisine. Breakfast is complimentary for all guests.The stunningly beautiful hotel features floor-to-ceiling glass walls that overlook the serene rice paddy fields. Guest rooms offer western-style beds with high quality linens, and such modern conveniences as flat screen televisions and Toto toilets. Its onsen, which is fed by a natural hot pumped from 1,200 meters below the ground, are luxurious, with separate facilities for men and women. The adjacent fitness center is stocked with Technogym cardiovascular equipment. One unique feature of the ryokan is a library with approximately 1,000 books for guests both young and old to enjoy. Its books can be read freely anywhere throughout the sprawling facility.
Adjacent to the Shonai Hotel Suiden Terrace is an elaborate indoor activity center for children. Called the Kids Dome Sorai, the facility is an all-weather children’s play center with playground equipment as well as a comprehensive arts and crafts facility where children can create projects with 200 kinds of tools (including 3-D printers and laser cutters) and 1,000 different materials.Chikusenso Mt. Zao Onsen Resort & Spa is located at the foot of Mt. Zao. If you love nature and want an authentic, luxurious Japanese experience, this is the place for you. The resort is a haven of peace and serenity as it is surrounded by a lush forest, streams and rivers. The 66,000-square-meter traditional ryokan offers beautifully decorated guest rooms and suites, many of which offer spectacular views of Mt. Zao and the natural beauty of the forest.
Guest rooms are equipped with traditional wooden tubs while suites also offer private onsen on covered outdoor terraces. The resort’s ryokan offers spacious indoor and outdoor onsen on wooden decks overlooking the forest and a stream below. There are also two private outdoor onsen available by reservation for overnight guests.
The resort has a beautiful restaurant, called Kamajin at Chikusenso where its Executive Chef, Kiyokazu Naoi, prepares Kaiseki-ryori, a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner with creative interpretation. Highlights of the meal may include Sendai beef, fresh and seasonal vegetables and seafood from Miyagi Prefecture. Breakfast is also served here and features sand pot-cooked rice directly sourced from farms in the region.
With only 30 luxurious guest rooms and suites, Saryo Soen in Sendai in the Miyagi Prefecture is a traditional ryokan that was constructed in 1991. Its guest rooms and suites are very traditional with floors that are covered with tatami mats. Rooms are prepared each evening with traditional futon beds while bathrooms are equipped with high-tech Toto toilets. Its immense suites have outdoor terraces, private onsen and wooden tubs. Elaborate meals are served in beautifully decorated private dining rooms and breakfast and dinner is included in the nightly rate. The inn offers both indoor and outdoor onsen that are fed by a hot spring.
Dine On Fresh, World-Class Seafood
Bordered on one side by the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan on the other, the Tohoku region is renowned for offering some of the best seafood in the world. As a result, restaurants here are able to offer a wide range of fresh fish and shellfish on a daily basis.
One of the top restaurants in Tohoku is Daruma Sushi, a family-owned and operated restaurant in Sakata, Yamagata. The restaurant, which is worthy of a Michelin star rating, is the longest-running sushi establishment in the entire prefecture and dates back to the late 1930’s.
Atsushi Suzuki, the owner of the restaurant and a third-generation master sushi chef, expertly prepares mouth-watering delicacies from abalone to tuna, amberjack and sole.
If there’s room, try to get a seat at the sushi bar so you can watch the master chef in action. You will marvel at how quickly Suzuki’s hands move as you watch him expertly prepare each dish.
Visit A Sake Brewery
As Tohoku is world-renowned for its rice production, it is also famous for its sake production. Tohoku Meijo Co. in Sakata is an award-winning family-owned brewery that manufactures craft sake with pure spring-fed water and the high quality locally grown rice. The brewery is famous for being one of the only ones to produce kimoto method sake. The brewery’s staff continues to stir its sake by hand during the fermentation process, a traditional method that dates back to the company’s founding in 1893.
Tohoku Meijo Co. is one of the top 5% of all sake producers in the country. In 2018, its sake received six gold medals at the International Wine Challenge. The brewery offers both a museum and tasting room that is complimentary and open to the public six days a week (closed on Monday), year round except December to January 20.
Visit a Whisky Distillery
Whisky production started in Japan during the second half of the 19th century. Since then, the spirit has become wildly popular with little left to be exported due to voracious appetite of the domestic market.
One of the top manufacturers in the country, award-winning Nikka Whisky, offers a distillery in Sendai City in Miyagi that welcomes visitors. Nikka Whisky was founded by Masataka Taketsuru, who traveled from Japan to Scotland in 1918 where, as an apprentice, he learned how to produce malt whisky production and Coffey grain whisky. Launched in 1940, Nikka Whisky today produces several single malts including Yoichi and Miyagikyo, and several barrel whiskys, including The Nikka 12 Years Old, Rare Old Super Nikka, Nikka Coffey Grain/Malt and other spirits including gin and vodka.Surrounded by mountains and at the junction of two pristine rivers, the Miyagikyo Distillery offers a museum where visitors can learn about the history of the company. The distillery also offers tours and tastings where guests are treated to a complimentary sampling of three different and delicious spirits (apple wine, a single malt and a blended whisky). Additional blends can be tasted for a nominal fee. There is a retail store where you can buy a full range of Nikka Whisky’s products.
Nikka Whisky’s museum, tour and tasting room are free and open to the public all year except during the Christmas holiday period that extends into early January.
Climb Mt. Hagura Mountain With A Japanese Mountain Priest
No visit to Japan is complete without a spiritual journey. In the Yamagata Prefecture, it is possible to hire a Yamabushi mountain priest who will guide you as you trek up the sacred Mt. Haguro (also referred to as Haguro-san), one of the “Three Mountains of Dewa”. On the same trek experienced by pilgrims each year, you can also pay homage to the mountains. As you climb the 2,446 steps, you will pass through an ancient cedar forest with trees that are up to 1,000 years old. You will also see an ancient five-story wooden pagoda, waterfalls and streams. The experience is both magical and exhilarating and one you will never forget.
Once you reach the top of the mountain (about two hours later) there is a Dewa Shrine where you can witness a worship ceremony and experience the traditional cuisine of Buddhist monks in an authentic Shojin Ryori restaurant. Here, you will enjoy a traditional and delicious vegetarian kaiseke meal that features dishes prepared by an expert Buddhist chef who uses ingredients collected from the surrounding forest. Foraged delicacies are seasonal and may include mushrooms, knotweed, edible flowers, nuts and seasoned tofu. There are few places in the entire country where it is possible to have an authentic and spiritual experience such as this.
How To Get There
The best way to get to Tohoku from Tokyo is by air or train. ANA (All Nippon Airways) offers regularly scheduled service from Haneda to Shonai Airport. Another option is to travel by bullet train on the speedy Tohoku Shinkansen train which offers luxurious “Gran Class” top grade cars. Rivaling the first class cabin of an international airline, the Gran Class cabin offers comfortable electronically-controlled oversized leather seats, Wi-Fi, complimentary meals and beverages. Reservations are necessary as the service is highly popular, so be sure to book tickets in advance.
Carrie Coolidge is a Pursuitist contributor based in Manhattan. From 2009 to 2011, Carrie served as Co-Editor of Luxist, the luxury lifestyle website at AOL where she ran the Luxist Awards, a program that honored the very best in fine living. From 1996 to 2009, Carrie was a Staff Writer at Forbes magazine, where she covered real estate, personal finance and the insurance industry, among other areas. Carrie is also the author of six books, including "The Business of America is Business". Follow her on Twitter: @carriecoolidge