Tohoku: The Birthplace of Fairytales
Located in the northeastern part of the main island of Japan, Tohoku is a land of rugged landscapes, natural wonders, with a rich cultural and spiritual heritage.
Comprising six prefectures, each with its own quirks and customs, Tohoku is an off-the-beaten-path destination for those seeking to immerse themselves in the beauty and traditions of Japan.
Follow in the poet Matsuo Basho’s footsteps, and experience the Narrow Road to the Deep North in its full splendor. From the dramatic coastline and fairytale-like forests to the ancient temples and dazzling festivals, Tohoku is a treasure trove of culture, history, nature, and artistic inspiration. Let’s take a closer look.
The Deep North – Tohoku (東北地方)
Wondrous forests, richly colored lakes, glorious castles, spiritual temple grounds, hot springs, and welcoming people – Tohoku is an often-overlooked treasure for curious visitors.
The place is teeming with mystical energy, so it’s no wonder Tohoku is the birthplace of many folk tales and myths – from Kappa and Oshira-sama to Zashiki-warashi.
Tohoku is Japan’s northeastern gem, a vast region comprising six prefectures that share a rich cultural heritage and resilient spirit:
Deeply spiritual, humble, and creative, the people of Tohoku always seem to find a way to persevere, whether through ages of harsh winters or terrible natural disasters.
Despite the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear accident, the people of Tohoku are rebuilding their communities, and tourism is thriving once again. The region offers visitors dramatic landscapes, historical sites, colorful festivals, and a range of outdoor activities.
Each prefecture has something unique to offer, so let’s start from the very north.
The word Aomori can be literally translated to Blue Forest. This fairytale name is more than fitting for this prefecture full of natural wonders and diverse sceneries. Located in the far north of Honshu, the main island of Japan, Aomori is the bridge between the cold island of Hokkaido and mainland Japan.
One of the most striking natural riches is Shirakami Sanchi (白神山地), a mountainous area and UNESCO World Heritage site located in Akita and Aomori. Covered with ancient trees and wildlife, it’s the last virgin forest of the type of beech that used to cover the whole area, preserved for centuries. The forest is home to several endangered species, including Japanese black bear, Tsugaru salamander, serow, and almost 90 bird species. Going further into the thick forest, adventurous visitors can also come across stunning waterfalls and deep-azure lakes that truly look out of this world.
The Aoike pond in Shirakami sanchi strikes visitors with a deep azure color and fairytale ambience.
If you go further north, to the northern hook-like Shimokita peninsula, you’ll reach what folk tales call “a gate to the Underworld”. The spectacular, yet ghastly view of steep rock cliffs and barren lands of Mount Osore (恐山, literally Fear Mountain) brought many pilgrims in search of spiritual experiences. The rocky landscape is the home of Bodaiji Temple – a place where grieving parents go to part with deceased children. Sacred sites of stone piles, stone dolls, and toy windmills are scattered across the area, as religious ways parents aid their children in entering paradise.
Toy windmills in Osore-zama stones
If you find yourself in Aomori in early August, don’t miss the opportunity to see one of the most famous events in Tohoku – The Aomori Nebuta (青森ねぶた奉り).
The festival features enormous illuminated floats, known as nebuta, constructed by local artisans and depicting legendary warriors and folktale characters. At night, lanterns and floats are paraded through the city streets, accompanied by taiko drums, flute music, and haneto dancers.
Aomori Nebuta Matsuri floats
In addition to deeply-rooted spirituality and glorious festivals, Aomori is also known for handicrafts like its decorative and utilitarian embroidery koginzashi and nanbu hishizashi, recycle weaving nanbu sakiori, and wood carvingtechniques of yawata-uma horse figurines.
While other Tohoku prefectures were also affected, Fukushima is most widely known for the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that struck its coast on March 11th, 2011. The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami cost more than 20,000 people their lives, and countless more their homes. In east Fukushima, it also resulted in a devastating nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
For years, the coastal parts of Fukushima prefecture waited deserted and overgrown in bushes and weeds, but thanks to heavy decontamination and restoration efforts, residents are returning to towns and villages of Fukushima. These days, you can even visit the heart of the disaster safely and tourism across the prefecture is blooming again. In a way, Fukushima is reborn and regrown, like nature in spring.
In addition to surviving a terrible event, Fukushima prefecture has a lot to be proud of. It’s the third-largest prefecture of Japan after Hokkaido and Iwate, after all. The prefecture is divided into three regions of Aizu, Nakadori, and Hamadori by mountain ranges, and its eastern side borders the Pacific. Fukushima is also the name of the capital, but coastal Iwaki is prefecture’s largest city.
Tatsuzawa Fudo Falls
Fukushima prefecture is home to several historic sites, including the ancient (3 – 7 CE) keyhole-shaped tomb Oyasuba Kofun.
If you want to experience the serenity of the Buddhist Pure Land Paradise, head over to the 12-th century Shiramizu Amidado temple and its incredible gardens and pond in Iwaki. It’s one of the National Treasures of Japan for a good reason!
Take the lovely 135-km railway line to the town Tadami, and immerse yourselves in the magical scenery – the four-hour ride is so beautiful it may seem to pass in a blink. It’s especially fairytale-like in the winter, and the local Furusato Snow Festival in Tadami is another great reason to visit during the cold season. It may not be as impressive or as famous as Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido, but it’s definitely a unique experience. Snow sculptures are on display across town, ranging from tiny detailed characters to full-size, gloriously crafted snow castles you can enter.
Sendai, the capital of Miyagi, is the largest city in Tohoku region. It’s got plenty of activities for everyone, especially during the summer. Nicknamed “The City of Trees”, Sendai is an ideal combination of nature, urban life, and history: Stroll through the lush greenery and busy, narrow yokocho alleys, taste local delicacies at izakayas, and admire the historic Sendai castle, once the base of operations of famous ruler Date Masamune and the very root of the city.
If you happen to be in Sendai in early August, don’t miss the Tanabata celebration. While this festival with a romantic backstory is held across Japan, the Sendai Tanabata festival (仙台七夕まつり) is one of the largest in the country. During the festivities, the city explodes with colors – every inch of the streets decorated with colorful streamers, paper strips, and origami cranes.
The Tanabata Festival in Sendai
While you’re there, enjoy two of Japan’s most scenic spots: Matsushima Bay and Mount Zao. Matsushima Bay is known for its 260 small pine-covered islands, so beautiful and diverse that it famously left the haiku poet Matsuo Basho speechless. It suffered great damage during the 2011 tsunami. Fortunately, it’s fully restored now.
The ancient pines of Matsushima
Mount Zao is famous for its iconic crater lake, scenic landscapes, and excellent skiing in winter.
Finally, cat lovers travelling to Miyagi – here’s a treat for you. Tashirojima, famously known as “Cat Island”, is located just off the east coast, not far from Sendai or Ishinomaki. This unique destination has more cats than humans – felines find this place a little paradise as there are no pet dogs and the little fishing village believed feeding cats brings good fortune for generations. There’s even a kitty shrine on the island.
Tashirojima, the Cat Island
This large prefecture boasts many hidden gems, but it’s best known for its long history and deeply-rooted spirituality.
Iwate is the second-largest prefecture in the country after Hokkaido (the difference is striking – Hokkaido, the only single-prefecture region of Japan, is 5 times the size of Iwate in land area). The capital of Iwate is Morioka, a gorgeous city of about 300,000 people.
The prefecture has the lowest population density of any prefecture on Honshu, making it an ideal place to escape the crowds and enjoy the breadth of nature.
Iwate prefecture centers around the Iwate volcano of the Ou Mountains
The history of Iwate prefecture is incredibly rich and I won’t pretend to understand it – but it’s easy to recognize distinct cultural heritage of its northern and southern regions, in the past divided as domains of opposing samurai families.
Wherever you go, you’ll come across ancient gardens, shrines, and temples, many now recognized as World Heritage Sites. One of the best known, now a small town but once a mighty capital, is Hiraizumi. After 100 years of prosperity, Hiraizumi was destroyed in 1189. However, its many temples, many of which were established in the 9thcentury, remain. Destroyed and rebuilt many times, the temples of Hiraizumi are another testament to Tohoku’s resilience.
Two temples stand out in Hiraizumi – Chusonji with its well-preserved golden hall that survived for centuries, and Motsuji with its newer buildings but surrounded with incredible paradise-like gardens. Visit Hiraizumi during the Fujiwara Festival in early May for a variety of events, from strongman contests to a procession that recounts the stories of the town’s ancient leaders.
Hiraizumi in Iwate
Akita prefecture, located in the northern part of the Tohoku region, offers a wide array of nature-based attractions. In this prefecture, life follows a natural rhythm, with many festivities adjusted to the agricultural calendar.
Known for its high-quality rice and fresh water, Akita is a leading producer of quality sake (Japan’s national alcohol drink). Besides the ingredients being extra good, Akita’s cold weather also helps enhance the cold-brewing process. Don’t miss the opportunity to bring home a bottle of Akita premium sake.
The world knows the name of the prefecture through the native Akita Inu dogs. People here needed reliable companions when hunting in the harsh winters of mostly mountainous Akita. Known as strong, fearless, smart, and loyal mountain hunting dogs, akita inu are even trained for police work in modern times.
Akita inu originate from the mountainous Akita prefecture
A big portion of the Shirakami mountain range covers Akita along with Aomori. Just like in Aomori, Shirakami mountain is ideal for hikers, trekkers, canoers, campers, and other nature lovers. The m
The Akita Kanto festival (秋田竿燈まつり, lit. pole lantern fest), which takes place in Akita City every August, is a sight to behold.
It’s a veritable light show: participants carry long upright bamboo poles with twenty to fifty lit lanterns on top. The festivities symbolize hopes for good harvest. It’s fascinating to witness the strength and agility of the people who bear huge poles on their palms, foreheads, shoulders and backs.
Kanto Festival lanterns in Akita are a spectacular view at night
Nestled west of Miyagi and Fukushima, Yamagata is a peaceful prefecture that offers views of snow-covered fir trees, good ski fields, and comfy hot springs around the active stratovolcano, Mount Zao (also a scenic spot in Miyagi).
The Dewa Sanzan (出羽三山), three sacred mountains in Yamagata, each with a shrine on or near its peak, were and still remain the spiritual centers of this prefecture. Each mountain is connected to a Buddhist stage of life, representing birth, death, and rebirth. They are named Haguro-san, Gas-san, and Yudono-san. Pilgrims visit the sites following that order.
Yamagata literally means “mountain shape” in Japanese, and the title is fitting. Yet another ancient temple, Yamadera, sits atop the mountain range Ou near Yamagata city. To reach the temple, you’ll have to climb 1015 steps – a true feat of strength. The incredible scenery and many stone statues scattered along the way make the deed much easier to handle.
If you find yourself in Yamagata city, make sure to visit the lovely Kajo park and Yamagata Castle remains. Midsummer nights are especially lively in Yamagata, as residents celebrate Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (山形花笠まつり). Festivities include traditional dances, drums, and many, many flower-adorned straw hats.
The Joy of Life and Untouched Nature
In conclusion, Tohoku is a region often overlooked by tourists. Unfairly.
With its natural beauty, rich history, and deeply spiritual culture, the six prefectures of Tohoku offer a truly authentic Japanese experience, and it’s worth visiting them all. From the magically azure lakes in Aomori to the cat islands of Miyagi, there’s something for everyone in Tohoku, so why not venture off the beaten path? In the next blog post, you can learn all about the best authentic Tohoku meals you must try!