The Complete Guide to Tohoku: Exploring the History and Charms of Japan’s Northern Mainland
The Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu is one of Japan's most remote yet fascinating areas. While often skipped over, Tohoku’s deep history, stunning natural landscapes, and unique cultural heritage make it a must-visit for anyone touring the country. In this article, we’ll explore the charms of each of the six Tohoku prefectures as well as their climate, history, and access from Tokyo. Use this guide as a jumping off point to start planning the perfect Tohoku travel itinerary!
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Where Is Tohoku?
Tohoku is the northernmost region of Honshu (main island of Japan), made up of Aomori Prefecture, Iwate Prefecture, Akita Prefecture, Miyagi Prefecture, Yamagata Prefecture, and Fukushima Prefecture. It stretches for 170 km from east to west, and for 410 km from north to south, for a total area of 67,000 ㎢. That’s 18% of all Japan, and 30% of all of Honshu!
You’ll find a lot of mountainous regions parallel to the Ou Mountains, which run across central Tohoku from north to south. It’s one of the many reasons why different parts of Tohoku, from the Pacific Ocean side to the Sea of Japan side, have very diverse climates, seeing different amounts of snow and rainfall. Because Tohoku is located a fair way up north, it’s much colder than the rest of Japan, with cooler summers and winters that often result in big stretches of vast snowscapes. The Tohoku region is long, so its northern and southern parts can differ temperature wise by as much as 3-4 degrees. That’s why the people of Tohoku get to enjoy cherry blossoms and autumn foliage longer than anyone else.
About the Prefectures That Make Up Tohoku
Located at the northernmost tip of Honshu, Aomori Prefecture is surrounded by the sea at all sides except the south. Its total area is 9,646 ㎢, making it the 8th largest prefecture in Japan. The Ou Mountains run through the center of Aomori, dividing it into west Aomori—where the Tsugaru region is located—and east Aomori, the southern part of which boasts its own unique climate, culture, and scenery. Across the Tsugaru Straits in the north lies the island of Hokkaido, which is connected to Aomori through the Seikan Tunnel. To this day, Aomori remains the only prefecture directly connected by a road to Hokkaido. This northern prefecture is also famous for its heavy snowfall and winter sports.
Among Aomori’s points of interest is the mountainous Shirakami-Sanchi region (UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site), Lake Towada, the Oirase Gorge, and other popular nature spots.
Located in northwestern Tohoku, Akita Prefecture looks over the Sea of Japan to the west. Its total area is 11,638 ㎢, making it the 6th largest prefecture in Japan. The Ou Mountains form the border between it and Iwate Prefecture, joining many other mountainous areas in Akita, like the Dewa Sanchi range. Akita is known for its heavy snowfall, exemplified by Yokote City’s famous Kamakura Snow Festival.
Points of interest include Lake Tazawa, the deepest lake in all of Japan and known for its crystal-clear waters; the Kakunodate Samurai Residences, a designated important preservation district of historic buildings; and the Nyuto Onsen hot springs.
Located in northeastern Japan, Iwate Prefecture stretches for 122 km from east to west and for 189 km from north to south, giving it a kind of oval shape. Its total area is 15,275 ㎢, making it the second largest prefecture in all of Japan. Most of Iwate is made up of mountains, the most prominent ones being the Ou Mountains which form the border between it and Akita Prefecture in the west. The Kitakami Mountains run parallel to them in east Iwate.
The 708-kilometer-long Iwate coast overlooks the Pacific and boasts many different geographical features and beautiful scenic spots. The Sanriku Railway, which runs along this coast, offers some of the best views in the prefecture.
Iwate’s main tourist spots include Hiraizumi, a designated World Cultural Heritage Site; Ryusendo Cave, considered one of Japan’s three greatest limestone caverns; and the city of Tono, called the birthplace of various folktales and legends.
Located in southwestern Tohoku, Yamagata is known for its mountains, which cover 75% of the prefecture. Its total area is 9,323 ㎢, making it the 9th largest prefecture in Japan. Yamagata has been blessed with ocean views, mountains, rivers, and other natural wonders, all of which offer something different depending on the season. The famous poet Matsuo Basho composed many poems about places in Yamagata while traveling through the region. The poems can be found in his Oku no Hosomichi, known in English as "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" or "The Narrow Road to the Interior."
Yamagata’s main points of interest include Risshakuji Temple, which Basho praised in his work; the retro hot spring town of Ginzan Onsen; and the Three Mountains of Dewa, a sacred site in Japanese mountain ascetism.
Located in southeastern Tohoku, Miyagi Prefecture looks over the Pacific Ocean to the east while facing the Ou Mountains to the west. It’s a place surrounded by nature, with a total area of 7,282 ㎢, making it the 16th largest prefecture in Japan. Its seat of prefectural government is the city of Sendai, the prefecture’s most developed area where over 50% of Miyagi’s population lives. Miyagi’s vast woods have over the years earned it the nickname of the "Forest Capital.”
Miyagi’s main tourist spots include Matsushima, one of the Three Views of Japan; Naruko Gorge, known for its many hot spring towns; the powerful Akiu Great Falls; and other enchanting nature landscapes. Yamagata is also home to the Sendai Castle Ruins, Zuihoden Temple, and other places connected to the Sengoku period general Date Masamune, who ruled these lands over 160 years ago.
Tohoku’s southernmost prefecture, Fukushima boasts many mountains, highlands, lakes, ocean views, and other natural wonders. National and quasi-national parks make up 12% of Fukushima’s total area, which stands at 13,784 ㎢, making it the 3rd largest prefecture in Japan. The Abukuma Highlands, which run through the prefecture from north to south, together with the Ou Mountains, divide Fukushima into three areas, each with its own unique climate and scenery which have greatly influenced how they developed.
Fukushima’s main points of interest include nature spots such as Lake Inawashiro—the 3rd largest lake in Japan in terms of surface area—and the Urabandai Highlands. You’ll also find here Ouchi-juku, a post town that thrived during the Edo period; Tsuruga Castle, considered a symbol of Fukushima; Mt. Iimoriyama, where the Byakkotai—a group of teenage samurai who fought in the Boshin War—committed suicide; and other historical spots connected to the turbulent period between the Bakumatsu and the early Meiji periods.
Learn Tohoku’s History to Enjoy the Region Even More!
During the Paleolithic period, the Tohoku region had a very chilly climate and vast coniferous forests stretched across the land. The Tohoku people of the time mainly sustained themselves through hunting using rock spears and knives.
Between the early and mid-Jomon period (6,000 - 4,200 years ago), the Jomon culture thrived in Tohoku. If you’re ever in the area, visit the Sannai-Maruyama Special Historical Site, the largest Jomon remains in all of Japan, to see how the people of the time lived and to learn more about the landscape back then.
During the 7th century, under the Ritsuryo Code, Japan moved to a centralized government system, but its influence did not reach Tohoku, which the imperial court came to call “Emishi.” The central government aimed to take Tohoku by force, spending the 7th and 8th century conquering and subjugating it and destroying Tohoku’s power base.
Since the 10th century, powerful families aiming to unify all of Japan started emerging and consolidating their power. Around the mid-11th century, the Northern Fujiwara clan took control of Tohoku, with their stronghold being located in Hiraizumi in modern-day Iwate Prefecture, which quickly became the area’s cultural center. In 2011, the Hiraizumi area became a designated World Cultural Heritage Site, and you can visit the city of Oshu today to admire the flowery opulence of the Fujiwara palaces, temples, and castle ruins.
From the late 15th to the late 16th centuries, different clans vied for the power of Tohoku, until the Sengoku period general Date Masamune emerged and quickly took control of half of the region, earning himself the nickname of “The Conqueror of Oshu.” Masamune’s stronghold in Sendai, Aoba Castle, was completed in 1601, and served as the Date clan’s residence and the seat of government for the Sendai domain for the next 270 years.
Starting in the 17th century, Japan entered the peaceful Edo period, which lasted for 260 years. Once the Meiji government was established, Tohoku became embroiled in the Boshin War fought between supporters of the emperor and the new order, and those of the shogun and the old system. Many places connected to the Boshin War can still be found in Tohoku, like Tsuruga Castle, which is also considered a symbol of Aizuwakamatsu.
The Tohoku region has many more historical and sightseeing spots, all of which you will enjoy more once you know the actual stories behind them.
Tohoku’s Climate Brings With It Ever-Changing Nature Scenery!
Spring (March – May)
North Tohoku remains chilly for a lot of the year. It’s not unusual for it to experience snowfall until late March. However, in south Tohoku, mid-March is the start of spring, with early to mid-April being a time when cherry trees start to bloom. It usually takes Tohoku cherry trees until early May to achieve full bloom, though. If you’re planning to go cherry blossom viewing, make sure to bring a light coat with you or something else to keep warm, as the temperatures in Tohoku tend to drop significantly at night.
The average spring temperature in Sendai, the biggest city in Tohoku, is 11℃, with the average rainfall being 101.5 mm.
Summer (June – August)
Summer right before the rainy season is the best time to sightsee Tohoku. The last stretch of the rainy season is when the weather can get a little temperamental, with torrential rains falling throughout the region, so please watch out for that if you’re visiting Tohoku then. Once the rainy season is over, though, everything tends to calm down. On the Sea of Japan side, you can experience dry, warm winds coming down from the mountains around this time, bringing with them high temperatures. However, on the Pacific side of Tohoku, cold and humid winds bring with them dark clouds, rain, and low temperatures to the coastal areas. Mornings and evenings can get pretty chilly there, so if you’re planning to visit Tohoku at that time, make sure to bring a shawl or something else you can wrap around yourself.
The average summer temperature in Sendai is 23℃, with the average rainfall being 171.2 mm.
Autumn (September – November)
Once the summer heat is gone, the autumn rain front moves southward through Tohoku while typhoon winds move northward. The Pacific side experiences the most rainfall in September, while in October, the high mainland pressure begins to move, spreading all over Tohoku and bringing with it clear weather. In a typical year, Tohoku experiences autumn foliage from mid-October to early November. The latter month is also when snow starts to fall in the region.
The average autumn temperature in Sendai is 16.3℃, with the average rainfall being 87.1 mm.
Winter (December – February)
During winter, days get shorter on the Sea of Japan side of Tohoku while snowfall increases. Snow clouds bump into Tohoku's mountains and rise above them, covering the area along them with lots of snow in the process. As the winter pressure gains strength, even the flatlands start to see plenty of snow. On the other hand, seasonal winds bring with them dry weather to the coastal and plain regions of Tohoku’s Pacific side. The cold weather does often result in snow, but it’s rare for the snow to hold for too long on the southern Pacific coast.
The average winter temperature in Sendai is 4.1℃, with the average rainfall being 55.8 mm.
*Source on Sendai average temperatures and rainfall: Japan Meteorological Agency (as of 2020).
Access from Tokyo
Every Tohoku prefecture has an airport that accepts flights from all over the country, so the easiest way to get there is by plane. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the number of flights to Tohoku has dropped, so if you were planning to fly there, please double check the most up-to-date flight information. Also, depending on your destination, it might be easier to travel to Tohoku via shinkansen rather than plane. For one, bullet trains aren’t as vulnerable to inclement weather, and with the Japan Rail Pass, they are cheaper than flying.
Access to Aomori Prefecture
There are currently six flights a day from Haneda Airport to Aomori Airport. Each one takes about 85 minutes and costs anywhere between 8,600 and 38,190 yen. You can save money by taking an early flight, but you have to reserve one beforehand and there is a fee if you cancel your reservation, plus a few other terms you should read up on before deciding to go with this option.
A shinkansen trip from Tokyo Station to Shin-Aomori Station takes about 2-3 hours and costs 17,470 yen. That’s a little expensive, but a lot of discounts are available out there, so you can save some money by looking around for a deal.
Access to Akita Prefecture
There are currently nine flights a day from Haneda Airport to Akita Airport. Each one takes about 70 minutes and costs anywhere between 8,090 and 35,890 yen. You can save money by taking an early flight, but you have to reserve one beforehand and there is a fee if you cancel your reservation, plus a few other terms you should read up on before deciding to go with this option.
A shinkansen trip from Tokyo Station to Akita Station takes about 3 hours and 40-50 minutes, and costs 17,780 yen. That’s a little expensive, but a lot of discounts are available out there, so you can save some money by looking around for a deal.
Access to Iwate Prefecture
There are currently no direct flights to Iwate from Tokyo, so the easiest way to reach the prefecture is via shinkansen, regular train, or express bus. A shinkansen trip from Tokyo Station to Morioka Station takes about 140-195 minutes, and costs 14,810 yen. That’s a little expensive, but a lot of discounts are available out there, so you can save some money by looking around for a deal.
Access to Yamagata Prefecture
There are currently two flights a day from Haneda Airport to Yamagata Airport. Each one takes about 65 minutes and costs anywhere between 6,700 and 22,690 yen. You can save money by taking an early flight, but you have to reserve one beforehand and there is a fee if you cancel your reservation, plus a few other terms you should read up on before deciding to go with this option.
A shinkansen trip from Tokyo Station to Yamagata Station takes about 2 hours and 30-50 minutes, and costs 10,640 yen. That’s a little expensive, but a lot of discounts are available out there, so you can save some money by looking around for a deal.
Access to Miyagi Prefecture
In the past, there used to be regular flights from Haneda Airport to Sendai Airport, but currently there are none. The only way to reach Miyagi Prefecture is via shinkansen, regular train, or express bus. A shinkansen trip from Tokyo Station to Sendai Station takes anywhere between 95-135 minutes, and costs 11,210 yen. That’s a little expensive, but a lot of discounts are available out there, so you can save some money by looking around for a deal. However, some deals may not be applicable to Miyagi-bound shinkansen trains, so please remember to double check this before making your reservation.
Access to Fukushima Prefecture
There are currently no flights from Tokyo to Fukushima, but the prefecture can be reached via shinkansen, regular train, or express bus. A shinkansen trip from Tokyo Station to Fukushima Station takes about 95 minutes, and costs 8,580 yen. That’s a little expensive, but a lot of discounts are available out there, so you can save some money by looking around for a deal.
Come Explore the Tohoku Region!
The Tohoku region, which takes up a third of Honshu, has a lot to offer, like two World Heritage Sites, beautiful nature, history, tradition, cultural treasures, charming hot spring towns, and many other points of interest. If you ever get the chance, make sure to visit Tohoku.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.