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3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region

3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region / Northern Tohoku / Discover another Japan: Route 40 degree North Latitude!

Where does one start an adventure into some of the least-touched, most spectacular northern parts of the main island of Japan? Go straight to the barren northernmost tip to find Mt. Osore-zan, whose name in English literally means "terror mountain"? To the west coast to explore the World Heritage beech forests of the Shirakami Mountains? To the east coast to tour craggy coastlines? Or to the fantastic Lake Towada-ko at the center? The three prefectures that make up the far north of Japan's main island have some of the country's most outstanding mountain and coastal scenery. But there is culture to be found, too, in such places as Kakunodate, known for its samurai mansions, the castle town of Hirosaki with its genuine castle keep, and Hiraizumi, where a culture like Kyoto's once shone.

Horse Country and the Princes of the Northern "Capital"

Iwate Prefecture

Morioka, capital city of Iwate Prefecture, is accessible by the Shinkansen bullet train in 2hrs. 30min. This is an excellent location to start an exploration of places where the snow falls deep in winter, giving way to verdure and cherry blossoms in May, and intense red and yellow leaves in the fall. Indeed, the vast expanses of untouched scenery and deserted mountain roads of the three prefectures of northern Tohoku will make you wonder why people would ever say Japan is a small and crowded island nation. This is where you will find Japan's legendary natural beauty -- the source of its spirituality and artistic inspiration for generations -- gloriously intact. Scattered throughout the prefectures, too, are historic towns and cities. One of them is Hiraizumi, which you can reach by getting off the Shinkansen four stops short of Morioka, at Ichinoseki. Hiraizumi was for a century from 1094 the glittering "capital city" of the north built by a warrior clan called the Fujiwara. Having acquired vast territory in the north, the Fujiwara fashioned its own version of Kyoto at Hiraizumi with palaces and gardens, as well as prosperous temples. But events turned against the Fujiwara, and the northern princes were destroyed in 1189 along with their once-splendid capital. All that remained was a paradise-style garden of the Motsuji Temple, and the Golden Hall of the Chusonji Temple, which enshrined the remains of the first three Fujiwara lords. If you visit the Golden Hall today, you will still be able to make out traces of the gold leaf that covered its walls and the mother-of-pearl inlay in its lacquered pillars -- a potent reminder of Hiraizumi's former glory. This designated national treasure is now protected inside a concrete building. From Hiraizumi, one is urged to explore the lovely two-kilometer-long scenic Gembikei Gorge before heading for a night's lodgings at Hanamaki or Osawa Hot Springs. Never mind if snow is in the air. Such atmospheric inns as those at the Osawa Hot Spring are the perfect place to enjoy the patter of snowflakes on an oiled paper umbrella as you luxuriate in an outdoor hot-spring pool.

Tono

Next, take a detour to fascinating Tono. Tono Monogatari, a collection of mysterious folk tales, made Tono famous and it is one of the rare places in Japan where you can have a storyteller drop by your inn to spin yarns of old in the colorful local dialect. Traveling around the seven villages that make up modern-day Tono is also a chance to see old thatched farmhouses and weathered wooden gates leading to quiet country shrines. Tono's Denshoen museum complex has excellent displays on the way of life in Tono's famous L-shaped houses: people lived in the long part of the "L" while horses were sheltered in the short part. Horses provided an income for the farmers of Tono, where rice was hard to grow. A special affection for horses will be felt at Tono's plentiful rustic shrines. In 1765 a terrible famine struck Tono. To appease the souls of its victims, a priest carved the faces of 500 of Buddha's followers on boulders that lay tumbled in a mossy ravine. This ravine is now one of the most exquisite places to see in Tono, indeed in Japan. After 200 years the faces of Buddha's disciples have all but been worn away, but their voices can still be heard in the whisper of the waters that flow unseen beneath the stones. From Tono take a further detour to the Sanriku Fukko National Park which is a stretch of rugged coastline. Here the famous spots are the Jodogahama Beach with its white clusters of rock and graceful red pines, and the grottoes of the coast.

The Samurai and the Craftwork Makers

Morioka to Kakunodate

Finally to Morioka. This populous city with its three rivers and distant snow-capped mountains is a place where you can "breathe." The remains of its former castle give a hint at its history, but most people who come to Morioka today are interested more in the sophistication of its crafts. Lovers of hand-made objects will feel bathed in an air of wholesome refinement at the folkcraft complex, where such superb local crafts as Nambu ironware and sturdy cinnabar lacquerware are displayed alongside fine folkcraft items from all over Japan. It has spawned a proliferation of craftwork and antiques shops in its vicinity. Also visit Konya-cho, the riverside area of textile dyers, where interesting shops sell the likes of kettles, bamboo craftwork, handmade paper, and old-fashioned rice crackers. From Morioka it is a two-hour drive to another former castle town, that of Kakunodate, with its relics of samurai culture and fine cherry-bark craftwork. It is said that at one time the samurai of Kakunodate became so poor their lord set them to making craftwork. Utilizing the abundant local cherry trees, they crafted cherry-bark tea caddies, tobacco pouches, writing boxes and hair ornaments, which were shipped to the capital and sold. In spring you will love to walk down the streets of Kakunodate's preserved district to see the old weeping cherries that ornament the gardens of old samurai mansions. You will be able to see inside some of these old houses, and also trace the nation's first tentative yearnings after Westernization at the "high collar" mansion in the Aoyagi House. Heading north from Kakunodate, and passing lovely Lake Tazawa-ko, you can head for the hills and the Nyuto Onsen group of "hidden hot springs," where the Tsuru no Yu with its thatched-roof lodge lit by oil lamps -- once for the recreation of samurai -- is now an exotic inn.

Oceans of Trees

Shirakami-sanchi Mountain Range, Lake Towada-ko, and Hirosaki

In northern Honshu the expansive forests of beech trees are called jukai, or "oceans of trees." One of these beech-tree oceans can be found in the Shirakami-sanchi, a mountain range in western Aomori that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its rare ecology. But without going as far as Shirakami-sanchi, you may also see impressive beech forests on the mountainous route from Lake Tazawa-ko to the Nenokuchi area of Lake Towada-ko. Lake Towada-ko and the Oirase-gawa River leading from it are simply two of the most beautiful places on earth. Lake Towada-ko is a grand sight in any season, but is especially rich in beauty when the leaves turn to red and yellow in autumn. See it from its high roads or from excursion boats that depart from Nenokuchi. The Oirase Mountain Stream meanders away from Lake Towada-ko, tripping over small rocks and past mossy boulders along a ravine embraced by delicate vegetation: maples bowing, ferns shimmering, the clear waters dappled with soft light. Though a road runs along considerable stretches of the river, the best way to appreciate the beauty of this typical Japanese scenery is to sling on a backpack and walk. The center of culture in Aomori is the city of Hirosaki, which is worth visiting for the chance to see its genuine castle keep -- one of only 12 original keeps still standing in Japan -- and the Saishoin Temple with its 300-year-old five-story pagoda. In autumn, it is harvest season for the hundreds of apple orchards around the foot of Mount Iwaki on the outskirts of Hirosaki. Big and juicy, unblemished Aomori apples go to markets all around the country, making up over half of the nation's supply. In Hirosaki and other parts nearby you may also come across exquisite examples of the most famous craft in Aomori: Tsugaru-nuri lacquerware, which has a surface that shines in a mosaic of colors as if inlaid with precious stones.

The Mountain of Terror

Osore-zan

It is said that the spirits of the dead gather at the shores of the pale green lake in the center of the desolate mountains known collectively as Osore-zan, or Mount Terror. Osore-zan is at the northernmost part of the northernmost prefecture on Honshu, the main island of Japan, and if you go to this place with its barren landscape and volcanic steam, you will immediately see why it is thought to be the edge of the living world. Children's toys, pinwheels, flower offerings and statues of the Jizo bodhisattva decorate the shores of the lake. They have been left by people who come to console the souls of the dead, especially children, who are said to be stranded here in this netherworld waiting for a chance to cross the Japanese River Styx. If you visit during the July festival of the local Osore-zan Bodaiji Temple, you will see female mediums called Itako passing on messages from the dead.