Just like a cinematic picture reel, Tohoku presents a show-stopping display of spectacular landscapes that changes throughout the seasons. From the pastel pinks of springtime cherry blossoms to the verdant freshness of summer, and vibrant colours of autumn foliage to the magical white wonderland in winter.
This northeastern region of Japan is breathtakingly beautiful. But, it does not see many tourists because of its relatively remote location in the northern part of Japan. That is why the best way to explore Tohoku is to rent a car.
In this Tohoku travel guide, we are going to take you on an exciting route that covers Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, Aomori, Akita, Yamagata and neighbouring Niigata. Delightful gourmet food, amazing sightseeing spots and authentic cultural experiences await you on this journey.
Are you ready for the Ultimate Tohoku Road Trip? Here are 10 of the Best Pit Stops for a most memorable Tohoku experience!
NIIGATA: PRISTINE NATURE & TOP-QUALITY RICE
Blessed with clean air, pure water and wet fertile lands, Niigata is famous for producing some of the finest rice in Japan. It is also a nature lover’s paradise as there are many magnificent nature spots to admire while driving along scenic meandering roads, especially during winter time.
1. Discover Japan’s Heritage Of Metal Craft
Unknown to many, Niigata is home to a proud heritage of metalworking. The traditional techniques of Tsubame city’s metalwork goes all the way back to the Edo period and today, its products are highly-regarded all over the world. One good place to discover more about the heritage of Japan’s metal craft industry is at the Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum.
At the museum’s newly-established workshop laboratory, visitors can even get hands-on and learn how to hammer copperware and make small metal items using traditional metalworking techniques.
Another fascinating site where you can hone your metal craftmanship is at Sanjo Kaji Dojo. Since ancient times, Sanjo city has a long history of Japanese blacksmithing. At this training hall, you can learn how to make your own Japanese knife using traditional tools and equipment from expert local blacksmiths. This is a rare chance!
2. Enjoy A Farm-to-Table Dining Experience With The Locals
While driving through Niigata, stop by the nostalgic rural city of Tokamachi for an authentic local experience like no other.
Tokamachi is renowned for its fragrant fluffy rice and delicious seasonal vegetables. Feed your belly and soul on a half-day Home Cooking Experience organised by HOME away from HOME. Hosted by local mothers, learn how to cook traditional dishes using fresh seasonal ingredients. You will also get the opportunity to visit a local farmer and try your hand at harvesting vegetables. It will be a memorable lunch chatting with the local moms while enjoying the special homemade meal.
FUKUSHIMA: ALL THE CHARMS OF JAPAN
As the third largest prefecture in Japan, Fukushima has all the elements that Japan is famous for. Ample natural beauty, historical sites, excellent Onsen waters, amazing food and fun leisure activities; there is a bit of everything for everyone. Although Fukushima is a mere 90mins Shinkansen train ride from Tokyo, it is more exciting to explore the prefecture’s many attractions with a rental car.
3. Traverse down one of the Top 100 Best Roads in Japan
From Niigata en route to Fukushima, take the Bandai Azuma Skyline for a journey that would blow your mind away. The famous Bandai Azuma Skyline is a scenic driving route that gently meanders through the Azuma mountain range and is voted one of the Top 100 best roads in Japan.
Magnificent views of rolling mountains, rugged volcanic landscapes and dramatic ravines surround drivers on this 28.7 km road. Autumn is the highlight when the foliage transforms into an endless patchwork carpet of red, orange, and yellow.
Along the way, take a break at the Jododaira, an alpine plateau that is located at an altitude of 1500 metres. While you stretch your legs at the Jododaira Visitor Center, the sweeping views of the Azuma mountains and the fresh mountainous air will also freshen you up. For the adventure seekers, you can even take a 1-hr hike around the crater of Mt. Azuma Kofuji.
MIYAGI: LAND OF BEAUTIFUL CONTRASTS
The idyllic countryside of Miyagi is flanked by the bountiful Pacific ocean and the majestic Zao mountains on each side, making it a haven for nature lovers. Its long history with farming and fishing also created a food paradise for gourmet travellers. Miyagi’s capital of Sendai is a bustling metropolis but despite being a big city, one can still see remnants of its feudal era back when the samurai ruled.
4. Take A Therapeutic Soak In A Hot Spring Used By Royalty
No trip to Japan is complete without a good onsen soak. Fortunately, just a short drive from Sendai, is the famed Akiu Onsen Village. With a history dating back about 1500 years, this quaint onsen village is a nostalgic trip back in time.
During the reign of the 29th Emperor Kinmei, he fully recovered from his skin illness after bathing in the healing waters of Akiu Onsen. From then on, it was listed as one of three royal hot springs in Japan. From shared onsen facilities to private ryokans, and even a public bath house, there are plenty of options for visitors to enjoy a blissful soak in the nutrient-rich natural hot spring waters.
After soothing your aches and worries, take a relaxing stroll along the promenade and enjoy the idyllic view of the Natori River. The surrounding region also boasts the impressive 55m-high Akiu Otaki Falls and scenic hiking trails.
If you are feeling peckish after all that exploration, fill your tummy with the yummy goodness of local seasonal vegetables at ORGAN vegan café. More time to spare? Savour some delicious Japanese wine at the charming Akiu Winery set amidst rows of vineyards. Order a cheese and meat platter made with local ingredients to go along!
5. Have A Hearty Breakfast At A Local Fish Market
The coastal town of Shiogama is one of the busiest fishing industries in the country and the vibrant fish markets here are brimming with the freshest catch daily. Head down to the historical Shiogama Fish Wholesale Market to taste some of the best-quality local seafood at affordable prices!
There are more than 90 stalls in this busy market selling all types of wonderful bounties from the sea – tuna, swordfish, hairy crabs, octopus, Matsushima oysters and plenty more.
One of the market’s specialties is the Kaisendon, which means to make your own seafood rice bowl. Top your rice and miso soup set with heaps of your favourite seafood purchased from different stalls for a scrumptious breakfast that will warm your stomach and soul.
IWATE: HOME TO TWO WORLD HERITAGE SITES
Ruled by prominent samurai families until the 1870s, Iwate prefecture has a a wealth of history and cultural heritage to discover. It is also endowed with a vast expanse of untouched wilderness and in 2019, 5% of its total land area has been designated as National Parks in order to preserve its natural ecosystem.
One particularly gorgeous nature attraction of Iwate is the Geibikei Gorge. This picturesque 2km-long gorge is surrounded by towering limestock cliffs and is best appreciated on a tranquil boat ride steered by a master boatman using only a long wooden pole.
6. Marvel At A World Heritage Temple From The Heian Period
After decades of devastating warfare, the Chuson-ji Temple was constructed in the 12th century by Prince Fujiwara no Kiyohira to comfort the spirits of those who have died in the war and to spread the teachings of Buddhism.
Built in the peaceful mountains of Hiraizumi town, this more than 1000-year-old temple has been designated a World Heritage Site since 2011. It contains the largest collection of Heian Buddhist art in eastern Japan, with more than 3,000 national treasures and important cultural properties. The highlight of the Chuson-ji temple has got to be the elaborate, gold-bedecked Konjikido Golden Hall. This original structure from 1124 has withstood the ravages of time and even an accidental fire. Today, it still stands impressively as a time portal into the glories of the temple’s past.
AOMORI: WHERE ANCIENT TRADITIONS MEET THE ABUNDANCE OF NATURE
Located at the northern tip of Tohoku region, Aomori is known for its unique culture and well-preserved traditional customs. Throngs of visitors flock to this charming prefecture to catch a glimpse of its many summer festivals, especially the most famous one of all – the spectacular Neputa Matsuri summer festival. The richness of the land also produces some of the best crops in Japan, such as Aomori’s world-renowned delicious apples and a treasure trove of fresh seafood!
7. Explore Tsugaru Traditions Through Immersive Cultural Activities
This interactive living museum in Hirosaki City will get culture-buffs all excited. The Tsugaru-han Neputa Village is created to let tourists discover the rich culture of the Tsugaru people and is also dedicated to Hirosaki’s most famous festival, the Neputa Matsuri.
For those who are unable to witness the splendour of the actual festival in August, the beautiful illuminated lantern floats from the parade are on display here all year round. These huge floats feature intricate paintings of beautiful women, mythological warriors and local folklore. It is a feast for the eyes.
You can also experience drumming the Taiko (big Japanese drums), learn how to play the Shamisen (three-stringed traditional Japanese instrument) and try your hand at making traditional Tsugaru handicrafts!
AKITA: RECONNECT WITH NATURE
With rugged mountainous terrain, healing hot springs and powdery snow-covered ski slopes being its main attractions, Akita prefecture attracts many outdoor enthusiasts seeking a piece of this haven. A lesser-known secret is that Akita produces some of the finest sake in Japan and has 37 sake breweries dedicated to brewing the perfect sake. Do try their local sake when you are here!
8. Be Mesmerised By The Deepest Lake In Japan
As Japan’s deepest caldera lake, the impressive cobalt-blue Lake Tazawa spans a diameter of about 20 kilometers and has a depth of 423meters. Although it is located in a rather remote area, it’s worth the drive. Not only is it a scene of absolute tranquility, there are plenty of attractions around as well.
At the northern end of the lake, you will find a bright red Torii gate and the historical Goza-no-ishi Shrine where feudal lords used to frequent. Sightseeing boats and rental bicyles can be found at its eastern end.
And, over at the western end lies the famous golden statue of Tatsuko. This local legend tells of a beautiful girl whom, in the pursuit of everlasting beauty, was cursed and turned into a dragon. She then sunk to the bottom of Lake Tazawa and became its protective guardian.
9. Go On A Secret Hot Spring Escapade In The Mountains
Just a short drive away, tucked away in the mountainous depths of Towada-Hachimantai National Park, is the secret haven of Nyuto Hot Spring Village. Hardly known outside of Japan because of its inaccessible location, this hidden cluster of onsens is a gateway to paradise. Flowing up from deep beneath the primeval beech forest, the hot spring waters here date back to the Edo period when feudal lords visited for its curative powers.
Each of the seven hot spring inns located here have their own unique water source and mineral composition. For an indulgent onsen experience, get the all-inclusive pass which takes you around all seven hot springs on a shuttle bus so that you can soak to your heart’s delight!
YAMAGATA: MORE THAN JUST A WINTER WONDERLAND
The finale of this epic Tohoku road trip ends off at the Yamagata prefecture, famed for its phenomenal snow-covered trees that are affectionately known as “snow monsters.” If you are visiting during other seasons, do not worry as there are other attractions all-year-round. Hot springs, an abundance of luscious fruits, impressive castle ruins and a thriving traditional craft culture are waiting to be discovered.
10. Indulge Your Taste Buds With Top-End Premium Wagyu Beef
The appeal of Wagyu beef is unanimous among meat lovers and Yonezawa beef takes the top three rank of most famous Wagyu brands in Japan. Only Wagyu cattle that meet strict industry standards and are raised in the Okitama district get to be certified as genuine Yonezawa beef.
Richly marbled with a delicate meat texture, the flavourful fats melt in your mouth with a lingering buttery-sweetness.
The best place to savour this exquisite beef is at Tokiwa, the oldest beef specialty restaurant in Yonezawa city. Established since 1894, they meticulously select the beef cuts and serve only the best. Whether enjoyed Sukiyaki-style or charcoal-grilled, the richness of the Yonezawa beef will leave you craving for more.
Before you leave Yamagata Prefecture, take a last stop to the magical Ginzan Onsen Town nestled in the mountains of Obanazawa city. Reminiscent of old Japan, it is one of Japan’s prettiest onsen towns and feels like you have time-travelled to a bygone era. Spend a night here if you can because when night falls, the ryokans lining the river comes aglow and the streets get illuminated by gas lights. Stroll the nostalgic streets in a traditional yukata and check off your bucket list!
TOHOKU ROAD TRIP TRAVEL TIPS
- Use the ETC (electronic toll collection) card for a fuss-free journey. For foreigners who do not speak Japanese, you can pass through toll booths conveniently as the payment is automatically deducted.
- Set your mind at ease with the all-you-can-ride Tohoku Expressway Pass! Available exclusively to foreign visitors, you can enjoy unlimited drives along the expressways of the Tohoku region for travel periods from 2 to 14 days.
*Note that the Tohoku Expressway Pass does not include the toll from Niigata to Fukushima.
- Rent a car from a trusted car rental company that allows you to return at multiple prefectures. You may not end off at the same location where you started the journey and it would be a hassle to drive all the way back.
- Get a GPS navigation system in English (if you do not understand Japanese) because it really is much easier to be guided in a language you are comfortable with.
- Drive with caution when are on the mountain roads in Tohoku. The sharp curves and narrow lanes are hazardous, and it is easy to collide into incoming vehicles or tree branches jutting out from the sides.
- Be extra careful when driving during winter season. Tohoku gets a lot of snowfall during winter and the snowy roads get slippery.