Tohoku Travel: 10 Must-See Destinations to Experience the Nature and Culture of Tohoku

Japan’s remote Tohoku region is located in the north of mainland Honshu, and is blessed with vast natural beauty and a wealth of cultural treasures. In this article, we’ll introduce our recommended Tohoku travel destinations to help you plan your Japan itinerary. From the cherry blossoms of Hirosaki Park to the autumn foliage of Naruko Gorge, plus the samurai estates of Kakunodate and Ghibli-esque hot springs of Ginzan Onsen, there’s guaranteed to be a destination you’ll want to visit in Tohoku!

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Aomori Prefecture: Full of Nature and Culture Spots

Oirase Gorge: A Verdant, Relaxing Area with Clear Streams

Oirase Gorge is one of the most scenic areas in Aomori Prefecture. It’s a place to enjoy the seasonal beauty of azure blue skies, gentle mountain streams, fierce waterfalls, verdant forests, and unique rock formations and landscapes. Most people visit Oirage Gorge between May and June when the area comes alive with spring verdure, and between late October and early November when you can enjoy Oirase’s fall foliage.

Hirosaki Castle: The Top Spot for Cherry Blossoms in Aomori

Hirosaki Castle, which is known as the best place for cherry blossoms in Aomori Prefecture, was built in 1611 by the second head of the Hirosaki clan, remaining their main residence and the locality’s center of power for 260 years. The area around the castle eventually became Hirosaki Park, where the local residents now go to relax. Starting in late April, the area comes alive with people from all around who visit the park to admire its roughly 2,600 cherry trees in bloom.

The castle keep that was rebuilt in 1810, together with the three watchtowers and five castle gates that retain their form from the time the castle was first built, have been designated as Important Cultural Properties of Japan.

Iwate Prefecture: Enjoy Its Deep History

Chuson-ji Temple: A Gorgeous Cultural Treasure That Embodies the Splendor of the Oshu Fujiwara Clan

Chuson-ji, part of the Hiraizumi World Heritage Site (designated in 2011), is an ancient temple that was founded in 850. After its founding, Kiyohira, the first lord of the Oshu Fujiwara Clan, undertook a 20-year construction project of an extensive complex on its grounds that was dedicated to the memory of all those who lost their lives in all the battles that raged throughout the Tohoku region during the latter half of the 11th century.

The highlight of the temple complex is Konjikido, built in 1124. It is a dazzling hall covered inside and out with gold leaf, and it contains an enshrined image of the Amitabha Buddha. It is the only building that remains intact in its original form today.

Sankozo is a treasure hall that houses more than 3,000 Chuson-ji treasures, including many National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties. Be sure to pay a visit so that you can experience a bit of the dazzling culture of the Heian period that blossomed throughout these lands back when the area was known as “Mutsu.”

Miyagi Prefecture: Nature Abound

Matsushima: A Stunning Scenery Created by the Many Islands of Matsushima Bay

Matsushima is considered one of Japan’s three most scenic spots, together with Amanohashidate in Kyoto Prefecture and Miyajima in Hiroshima Prefecture. Made up of 260 islands dotting the calm Matsushima Bay, the view over Matsushima is simply stunning. Take a ride on a cruise to see it all up close. 

There are four viewing points located in the north, south, east and west of Matsushima Bay to get a great look at the entire area.

The Godaido temple hall, considered a symbol of Matsushima, was rebuilt in 1604 by Date Masamune, one of Tohoku's most famous and popular warlords, and is now a designated Important Cultural Property.

There is a lot to see in Matsushima, so if you’re ever in the area, be sure to take your time to enjoy it.

Naruko Gorge: A Picturesque Ravine with Sheer Cliffs and Unique Rock Formations

Naruko Gorge is located in the city of Osaki in northwest Miyagi Prefecture, at the border of Yamagata Prefecture.

It is a V-shaped gorge created by the Daiya River, a tributary to the Eai River that flows from northern to central Miyagi Prefecture, and has sheer cliffs that are up to 100 meters tall and 2.5 km long.

The Naruko Gorge Ofukasawa Trail is a wonderful hiking path where you can enjoy fresh verdure between late April and early July, and colorful fall foliage between late October and early November.

You can enjoy panoramic views of the Ofukasawa Bridge from the observation platform at the Naruko Gorge Rest House, so be sure to check it out if you’re ever in the area.

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Akita Prefecture: Learn More About Northern Japan's History and Culture

Kakunodate: The Little Kyoto of Michinoku And Its Many Samurai Houses

This is a popular tourist area among both Japanese and foreign tourists who come to enjoy the charming townscape consisting of numerous old structures like samurai houses, all located in a compact, historic area that’s just 2 km in diameter. The main street has been designated as an Important Preservation District of Historic Buildings by the government and is protected as a cultural property.

Kakunodate's scenery offers something different with each season, from the spring cherry blossoms to the early summer fresh verdure, the colorful fall foliage, or winter snowscapes. However, the area is particularly famous for its cherry blossoms. During the cherry blossom season, which lasts from late April to early May, many tourists gather to enjoy the beautiful contrast between the black walls of the samurai houses and the pale pink of the weeping cherry blossoms.

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Nyuto Onsen: Enjoy the Seasonal Beauty of the Village

Nyuto Onsen, located at the foot of the Nyuto Mountains, northeast of Japan's deepest lake, Lake Tazawa, is one of Akita Prefecture's most famous hot spring villages. There are seven hot springs and seven inns in the area which is surrounded by virgin Japanese beech forests. Every inn draws its water from a different source, so each hot spring has a unique texture and benefits. They all accept day-trip visitors, so why not make a day of it and visit as many as you can? The village is located in the middle of the beautiful nature of Akita, which offers something unique and beautiful with each season.

Yamagata Prefecture: Spend a Great Time in the Vast Outdoors

Ginzan Onsen: Where Warm Gaslights and Hot Spring Steam Create a Nostalgic Atmosphere

One of Yamagata Prefecture's most famous onsen hot spring villages, Ginzan Onsen is a charming tourist destination where 100-year-old wooden structures line the banks of the Ginzan River. The greatest appeal of Ginzan Onsen is its retro townscape full of delightful retro buildings, cobblestone streets, and gaslights that engulf the village in warm light during the evenings. When you’re at Ginzan Onsen, you feel as if you’ve traveled 100 years back in time.

The best time to visit Ginzan Onsen is in the winter when the snow-covered village looks magical with all the steam from the hot springs and the warm light of the gaslights hanging above it.

Recommended Hotel in Ginzan Onsen: Ginzanso

Risshaku-ji Temple: The View Will Leave You Breathless

Risshaku-ji Temple, which was founded in 860 by Jikaku Daishi, a priest of the Tendai school of Buddhism, has long been revered as one of Tohoku's most sacred places.

The temple is affectionately referred to as "Yamadera" (mountain temple) as it has structures on the side of a steep mountain, including the Konpon Chudo hall (a national treasure), the Nio gate, the Godai-do hall, and the Kaisan-do hall.

Risshaku-ji is also famous as the place where Matsuo Basho, a famous Japanese poet, composed one of his most famous poems: "Deep silence, the shrill of cicadas, seeps into rocks."

The Godai-do hall, which was built to appear as if it was protruding out of a sheer cliff, enshrines the Godai Myo-O (Five Great Wisdom Kings) and is said to be the place where Jikaku Daishi prayed for peace on earth. It is the best viewing spot in the entire temple complex, offering amazing views of townscapes and the surrounding mountains.

Fukushima Prefecture: Fantastic Views, Hot Springs, and More Await

Ouchi-juku: Travel 400 Years Back in Time

Ouchi-juku, which is nestled among the mountains of Shimogo in the Minami Aizu District of Fukushima, was built 400 years ago as a post town on the road connecting the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima to Imaichi in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture.

There are more than 30 thatched roof houses found along the road here, making you feel as if you’ve traveled back to the time when the town was first founded. Ouchi-juku became a registered Important Preservation District of Historic Buildings in 1981.

The Miharashidai observation deck on top of a hill called Mt. Yudono offers amazing panoramic views of the thatched roof houses on both sides of the road, and is a popular photo spot.

Sightsee Around Tohoku!

The Tohoku region is full of beautiful natural landscapes that offer you something different with each season, and all it takes is just one trip for you to want to revisit the region again and again. When you do, we hope that this guide will help you plan the perfect Tohoku trip.


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Tohoku Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

A Tokyo native who likes to read and visit art museums and is fascinated by the history and culture of other countries. After realizing the importance of learning from history, Okada is now going back to studying Japanese and world history.
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