Discover Tohoku, Japan's secret spectacular region! From Sendai to Oirase Gorge, Dakigaeri Valley to the Snow Monsters of Zao. Cultural charm, local festivals & more. Our starter guide includes recommended sights, activities, accommodation, and transport tips!
Main image: PIXTA
The Tohoku region in the northeast of Japan's main island of Honshu is a hidden gem with amazing and intriguing sights to see.
For example, you've probably heard of the largest city in Tohoku, Sendai City, located in Miyagi Prefecture. Aomori Prefecture's Oirase Gorge is so pretty that one would be forgiven for thinking they've wandered into a fairytale when stepping in!
Dakigaeri Valley down in Akita Prefecture is a must-see site for autumn leaves, and the impressive frozen "snow monster" trees of Yamagata's Zao Juhyo continue to attract curious visitors from all over the world. These are but a few of the more well-known sights in the region.
Tohoku is also full of cultural charm. Local festivals like the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri and Sendai Tanabata each have unique themes and traditions to discover.
Does the plethora of potential things to see and do in the region intimidate you from planning a trip there? That's what we're here for!
We've compiled a starter list of recommended sights, activities, accommodations, and local foods in the six prefectures of Miyagi, Aomori, Yamagata, Akita, and Fukushima for your handy reference.
As a bonus, we also share notes about Tohoku's climate and other useful transport tips. We're confident this list will allow you and your travel group to spend more time having fun than planning for it!
Essential Information About Tohoku Before Your Trip
Weather and Climate
Compared to the Kansai and Kanto regions, Tohoku is located farther north and thus temperatures are lower than usual all year round. The climate is generally cool and dry.
Spring (March to May) is quite a bit colder, with an average temperature of about 10°C (50°F). In fact, for northern prefectures like Aomori facing the neighboring island of Hokkaido, the coldness can persist until late March, and it may even snow during this period.
In these regions, cherry blossom season starts from mid-April to late May, slightly later than usual.
If planning your visit in these months, bring a jacket or coat along, just in case. However, don't fret too much about wearing winter boots. Just a pair of comfortable sneakers will serve you very well!
Also, your coat doesn't have to be winter-grade since the weather starts warming up halfway through April. The main goal is to avoid catching a cold when gallivanting outside and upsetting your carefully plotted itinerary!
Summer begins from June and the weather is much warmer during this time. However, due to the fact that it also coincides with the monsoon season, the temperature remains an average of 20°C (68°F).
Even during the peak of summer in July and August, the average temperature is a comfortable 25°C (77°F) - quite cool compared to the weather in Tokyo at the same time!
That may also be why many local tourists travel to Oirase Gorge and Lake Tazawa in Tohoku during summer to avoid the stifling heat back home. Do note that it sometimes hits a sweltering 30°C (86°F) in Tohoku, so public transport and indoor facilities often have cold air-conditioning switched on.
You could pair short-sleeved outdoor gear with a light jacket for occasions when you may need to step indoors. Since it may rain during this time, having a raincoat handy may be useful as well.
Autumn descends upon the region from September to November and the weather turns chillier during this time, averaging 15°C (59°F). Since this is also when green leaves start turning yellow in the area, Oirase Gorge and Dakigaeri Valley become popular spots for autumn leaves viewing.
Tohoku sees snow in early winter (December to February) and the temperature drops to between 0-5°C (32-41°F) during this time.
Snow accumulates easily in mountainous regions and its excellent quality supports the many well-known ski resorts in the area.
This period is also peak season for tourism in Tohoku as visitors swarm into the region to feast their eyes on the incredible winter views in Ginzan Onsen and Ouchi-juku, not to mention the many other interesting sights to be discovered from the sightseeing trains available here as well.
Staying warm and comfortable should be your top priority when packing for a visit this season. Nevertheless, since indoor facilities often have heaters running, layering up is probably the way to go for quick adjustments when necessary!
How to Get to Tohoku
Flights to Tohoku
Each of the six prefectures in Tohoku is served by a major airport, namely: Sendai Airport, Aomori Airport, Akita Airport, Yamagata Airport, Fukushima Airport, and Iwate Prefecture's Hanamaki Airport.
These airports are accessible by direct or transfer flights from Tokyo and even from several countries abroad. The number of available flights may have been reduced due to the pandemic, but more flights are likely to be added as time goes by. Keep this in mind when planning for your next Tohoku trip!
Of all the airports in Tohoku, only Sendai Airport is directly connected to a train station, whereas the others offer highway bus services that will take you to a variety of destinations.
For example, buses in Aomori Airport can take you to Aomori City or Hirosaki City, Akita Airport has buses that go to Akita Station, Yamagata Airport has direct buses to Ginzan Onsen, and so on.
From Tokyo: Shinkansen or highway bus
If you're already in Tokyo, it's easy to simply hop on a Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train or highway bus to get to Tohoku.
The Shinkansen will take about one to three hours depending on your destination, the farthest station of Yamagata taking about three hours and 40 minutes. One-way tickets start from 10,000 yen.
Highway buses are much more economical in comparison. Taking a Shinkansen to Aomori's Hachinohe Station, for example, will cost about 16,990 yen one-way, whereas a highway bus ticket starts from 7,800 yen, though it does take the bus about five to 10 hours of traveling on the road to arrive.
Nevertheless, since these are usually night buses, all you have to do is close your eyes and wake up at your destination the next morning, fresh and ready to begin your day of sightseeing. Definitely something to consider for the budget conscious!
(Pro-tip: Always look up the official websites of train and bus operators for the latest ticket prices first to avoid price shock!)
Getting Around Tohoku
One of the best ways to travel around Tohoku on a self-guided tour is by rail.
Taking into consideration how big the region is and how far apart places of interest are from each other, trains will save you a lot of money as long as you get a comprehensive transit pass like the JR East Pass, which allows you to enjoy unlimited rides on valid railway lines for five days. The Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass), which also offers unlimited rides on JR lines, is also an excellent way to see this region.
It's definitely easier to squeeze more sights into your itinerary when you're not held back by budget constraints!
Rent a car
Or if you have an international driver's license, renting a car is another convenient way of getting around.
With your own vehicle, you're not restricted to where the trains take you, and it's trivially easy to rent a car for this purpose from any of the Tohoku airports.
This is absolutely the best way to get around for those traveling with families or intending to visit places off the beaten track.
Word of caution: Traffic laws in Japan are strictly upheld and you will likely be briefed about them when signing the rental form so listen very carefully!
Driving in winter is also a lot harder than what it seems, especially if you're from a country that doesn't see much snow. Make sure you're fully equipped with all the necessities before setting off!
Must-See Tourism Attractions in Tohoku
1. Miyagi Prefecture
Sendai and Zao are among the most popular tourist destinations in Miyagi.
In case you didn't know, Sendai is the biggest city in the Tohoku region and it only takes about 1.5 hours to get to Sendai from Tokyo by Shinkansen.
Scenic natural sights like Naruko Gorge and Okama abound in Sendai. You'll also catch glimpses of history here and there, since the city of Sendai was founded by feudal warlord Masamune Date during the Sengoku period of Japan (1467 to 1615 C.E.).
Traces of Date's historic presence can be found in such well-known buildings as Sendai Castle and Zuihoden Temple.
Sendai Airport is an international airport with direct flights to and from many major cities worldwide, so this is an excellent place to begin your Tohoku trip!
Each season in Miyagi Prefecture is charming in its own special way. If you're visiting in spring, don't miss the sakura of Hitome Senbonzakura at Shiraishi River Embankment. The grand Sendai Tanabata Festival held in summer is another must-see sight. Autumn is best spent at the observatory deck in Naruko Gorge, admiring the vivid fall leaves. And don't forget about the legendary Juhyo "tree monsters" that appear on Mount Zao during winter!
All in all, this is a great place to do sightseeing at any time of the year.
Must-See Scenic Spots in Miyaki Prefecture
Recommended Hot Spring Areas in Miyagi Prefecture
Recommended Seasonal Activities and Festivities in Miyagi Prefecture
Recommended Experiences & Activities in Miyagi Prefecture
Recommended Accommodations in Miyagi Prefecture
Recommended Souvenirs and Foods in Miyagi Prefecture
2. Aomori Prefecture
Another prefecture with a large land area, Aomori is home to amazing natural sceneries like the virgin forests of Shirakami-Sanchi, serene streams of Oirase Gorge, and the volcanic Hakkoda Mountains, making it perfectly ideal for sightseeing no matter the season.
Hirosaki Castle is covered with sakura blooms during spring that can be quietly admired with a cup of warm coffee in hand at Hirosaki Park's Starbucks cafe - the most beautiful Starbucks in all of Japan.
The Aomori Nebuta Festival, held in August, is another must-see major event in the region. The biggest highlights include the brightly decorated large floats that will be paraded before onlookers who have come from all over Japan and the world. No wonder it's known as one of Tohoku's top three festivals!
Local cuisine is another highlight in itself. The refreshing and sweet-tasting Aomori apples are probably the first things to come to mind when considering food produced here.
Once you're actually here, some farms allow you to pick your own apples, and you'll find a wide variety of food, snacks, and desserts made with Aomori apples for your tasting as well.
Other local delights to keep an eye out for are the fresh and tasty Oma bluefin tuna, yakisoba (Japanese fried noodles) with soup, and miso curry milk ramen. Don't leave Aomori without trying something at least once!
Must-See Scenic Spots in Aomori Prefecture
Recommended Hot Spring Areas in Aomori Prefecture
Recommended Seasonal Activities and Festivities in Aomori Prefecture
Recommended Experiences & Activities in Aomori Prefecture
Recommended Accommodations in Aomori Prefecture
Recommended Souvenirs and Local Foods in Aomori Prefecture
3. Akita Prefecture
Next to Aomori is the prefecture of Akita, a peaceful and idyllic land of countryside villages surrounded by greenery.
The area is steeped in rich cultural history that can be seen in its unconventional festivals like the terrifying Namahage Festival and Kanto Festival, celebrated in hopes of gleaning a good harvest.
These activities offer all who take part an excellent opportunity to do a deep dive into the native traditions of Japan.
Akita is also known for producing good rice grains, which are best experienced by trying out local cuisine like kiritanpo (pounded rice on skewers). Don't forget that this is also the origin of the Hinai jidori (premium chicken meat), which means the chicken dishes here will be something to look out for.
The name "Akita" is also synonymous with another well-known global celebrity - the Akita dog! Fans of these loyal canines will be glad to know there's an Akita Dog Visitor Center and Akita Dog Museum here that sells adorable Akita dog-related accessories and allows you to interact with actual Akita dogs as well, if you so please!
As with all other Tohoku prefectures, Akita has plenty of breathtaking vistas to behold, no matter the season. Spring is a great time to drop by the olden streets of Kakunodate Bukeyashiki for the beautiful sakura blooms. Nairiku Jukan Tetsudo is a train service that takes you through the forests of Akira during summer when nature is at its most luxuriant. Autumn leaves are best enjoyed at Dakigaeri Valley. And the icy waterfall at Oyasukyo is a fantastic sight that's not to be missed if you happen to be nearby during winter! No matter when you decide to visit, there's always something new for you to look forward to.
Must-See Scenic Spots in Akita Prefecture
Recommended Hot Spring Areas in Akita Prefecture
Recommended Seasonal Activities and Festivals in Akita Prefecture
Recommended Accommodations in Akita Prefecture
Recommended Souvenirs and Foods in Akita Prefecture
4. Yamagata Prefecture
Home to a host of outstanding natural sights and cultural buildings, Yamagata is a popular destination for visitors, especially during the winter season.
Fans of Japanese animation may recognize the hidden scenic site of Ginzan Onsen, used as a backdrop in the globally renowned animated film Spirited Away. The veil of snow that descends on the hot spring and its surroundings every winter is evocative of an era long-past.
A poignant scene greets you everywhere you turn, filling you with awe and appreciation. On the border between Miyagi and Yamagata is the must-see winter wonder of Zao Juhyo, where rows of tall, wintering trees covered by snow and ice in various shapes make them seem like an army of monsters looming imposingly over the whitened landscape. Skiing is another popular activity to try during this period. Don't forget to relax your senses after a busy day by soaking your fatigue away in one of the hot springs in the area!
Tucked away on the slopes of Yamagata's Hojuzan is a mountain temple officially known as Risshakuji, one of the prefecture's most well-known spiritual energy recharging spots. A special feature of this temple that draws many to visit is how it seems to simply stand suspended over the mountain cliff when viewed from certain angles, framed by the mesmerizing view of primitive forests surrounding it. You have to see it to believe it!
As you tour around Yamagata, you'll likely find local delights such as Yonezawa beef, konjac, and imoni (taro and meat soup) in shops as well, awaiting your hearty patronage.
Must-See Scenic Spots in Yamagata Prefecture
Recommended Hot Spring Areas in Yamagata Prefecture
Recommended Seasonal Activities and Festivals in Yamagata Prefecture
Recommended Experiences & Activities in Yamagata Prefecture
Recommended Accommodations in Yamagata Prefecture
Recommended Souvenirs and Foods in Yamagata Prefecture
5. Fukushima Prefecture
The southernmost prefecture of Tohoku, Fukushima is charmingly old-fashioned and full of stunning sceneries like Ouchi-juku, also known as the Fukushima edition of the world-famous Shirakawa-go.
Walking between rows upon rows of traditional thatched houses along its main street seemingly transports you into a time where folklore and fantastical sights abounded - although fantastical sights can still be had here and now, especially in winter when the houses and streets are covered in thick layers of pristine, white snow!
Urabandai, a complex of lakes and marshes is another place to look out for. The changing seasons give its water surfaces a different look at different times of the year, each with its own magical charm.
There's also Mugenkyo, a ravine that becomes enshrouded by mist under certain special conditions. Drifting through the river on a boat amidst the mist can make you feel somewhat closer to the divine and this is a must-see experience of a lifetime if you can catch it.
Speaking of experiences, you'll also find more of such activities at Aquamarine Fukushima, an aquarium that's been decked with educational displays and exhibits prepared for both local and international visitors to enjoy.
A good idea to understand Fukushima better is to go on a foodie tour in the prefecture since there are more than 100 authentic Kitakata ramen shops all around and every scenic place of interest will have a regional restaurant or two with their own spin on the local dish of wappa meshi (rice and toppings in round wooden containers) or soba noodles with leeks.
Even if your sightseeing stretches all the way to midnight, there's always a cool mug of beer or warm plate of enban gyoza (dumpling platter) awaiting you at an izakaya (Japanese-style bar) around the corner. Travelers of all palates and preferences can rest assured there's always something that tickles their fancy in this prefecture.
Must-See Scenic Spots in Fukushima Prefecture
Recommended Experiences & Activities in Fukushima Prefecture
Recommended Accommodations in Fukushima Prefecture
Recommended Souvenirs and Foods in Fukushima Prefecture
6. Iwate Prefecture
Iwate is a place of elegant views and lesser-known pristine landscapes, home to amazing sights like UNESCO World Heritage Site Hiraizumi and Jodogahama Beach, lakes of vivid hues that seem to lie forgotten by most of the world.
The otherworldly views to be found in Geibikei Gorge and Ryusendo Cave are also worth the effort taken to reach them. Enhance your trip by following a guided tour or two and letting the professionals tell you more about how these beautiful sights came to be!
As the birthplace of Kenji Miyazawa, a highly influential Japanese novelist who wrote such classics as Night on the Galactic Railroad, Hanamaki Town is chock-full of shops and places of interest related to the prolific author. A must-see for fans of Japanese literature for sure.
Fan of sakura blossoms? Then you'll love Kitakami Tenshochi, a stretch of riverside road about two kilometers (about 1.24 miles) long lined with sakura trees that has the reputation of being one of the region's most popular sakura viewing spots in spring.
Along the way, you'll also see about 300 koinobori (carp streamers) fluttering in the wind, coming together with the pretty pink blooms to deliver a satisfying experience that is every bit as Japanese as one can imagine.
Must-See Scenic Spots in Iwate Prefecture
Recommended Seasonal Activities and Festivals in Iwate Prefecture
Recommended Experiences & Activities in Iwate Prefecture
Recommended Accommodations in Iwate Prefecture
Recommended Foods & Souvenirs in Iwate Prefecture
Translated by: Huimin Pan
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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