The northern part of Japan's main island of Honshu is called Tohoku. Throughout the past century, Tohoku's rugged terrain and snowy winters isolated it from the modernization that seized most of Japan, preserving its natural beauty and traditions. Tohoku boasts three national parks, nine quasi-national parks and numerous hot-spring spas, some large and popular and some rustic and unspoiled. Historic sites and unique traditional folk dances, songs and festivals round out the many attractions Tohoku has to offer.
On the Pacific Coast
is the largest city in this area and also serves as the commercial and cultural
center of Tohoku. Once a castle town, with the ruins of Aobajo Castle on the crest
of a hill still serving as a main attraction, the city is surrounded by wooded
hills and blessed with groves of trees that provide green oases throughout the
metropolitan area, earning it the nickname "capital with the groves." Sendai is
famous throughout Japan for its gala Tanabata (Star) Festival held in August.
It also serves as the gateway for Matsushima and historic Hiraizumi.
Matsushima is celebrated, along with Miyajima and Amano-Hashidate, as being one of the three most scenic spots in Japan. Its reputation stems from its scenic bay, dotted with 260 islets eroded into unique shapes by the sea and the wind and covered with twisted pine trees. It also boasts northern Japan's most famous Zen temple, Zuiganji Temple, now a National Treasure.
Hiraizumi is a historic town, constructed more than 900 years ago by the powerful Fujiwara clan with so many palaces and temples that it rivaled Kyoto in its splendor. Today only Chusonji Temple, founded in 1105, remains, but it signifies one of the country's finest examples of late Heian architecture. The temple's Konjikido Hall, once coated with black lacquer and gold plate, has a resplendent interior and houses 11 images of Buddha.
Rikuchu-Kaigan (Coast) National Park extends 180 km (111 miles) along the Pacific coast, noted for its unspoiled, diverse scenery of narrow beaches and terraced shores remarkably free of development due to difficult access. Natural geographic features divide the park into three sections. The northern part is marked by rugged scenery, with the Kita-Yamazaki area and Ryusendo Cave representing the most impressive natural attractions, while the southern part is characterized by a coastline filled with hundreds of bays, inlets and fine sandy beaches. The central region of the park mixes features of both the southern and northern parts, with Jodogahama Beach most representative of the scenery here.
Lake Towada and Oirase Valley
capital of Aomori Prefecture, serves as the gateway to Towada Hachimantai National
Park and to Hokkaido.
Hirosaki, the western base for trips to Lake Towada, has a history stretching back 400 years as a castle town. Hirosaki Park, on the site of the old castle, is famous for its cherry trees and still contains several historic buildings.
Lake Towada is one of the major attractions of the national park. The third-deepest lake in Japan, the crystal-clear Towada is encircled by steep cliffs and a wooded shoreline famous for its autumn colors. One-hour cruises between Yasumiya and Nenokuchi are recommended for the best views of the surrounding scenery.
Oirase Valley, which extends 14 km (8 miles) from the eastern shore of Lake Towada at Nenokuchi, is the highlight of a trip to Lake Towada. The Oirase Stream courses through its length, rushing over boulders and cascading into waterfalls under the leafy branches of Japanese beech and other deciduous trees, making a hike on the trail that flanks the river even more delightful in autumn.
Hachimantai Plateau features extensive virgin forests, swamps, alpine plants, and hot springs, all evidence of the plateau's volcanic origins and testimony to current volcanic activity.
Lake Tazawa, with a depth of 423 m (1,395 feet), is the deepest lake in Japan, yet has a circumference of only 20 km (12.5 miles). It's popular for swimming in July and August and for rides by rental bike around its circumference. Visible from the lake is Mt. Komagatake,a 1,637-m (5,400-foot)-high dormant volcano popular with hikers. Skiing is also popular in the area.
Kakunodate, a former castle town, is sometimes called the "Little Kyoto of Tohoku." Rows of old samurai houses, some of them open to the public, form a charming historic district, while the town's famous cherry trees, including 400 along the Hinokinai River, put on a spectacular display in spring.
Lake Inawashiro, the fourth-largest lake in Japan, is located to the south of the Bandai Plateau. Fine beaches, sightseeing boats, and rental boats make this summer resort one of the most popular in the area.
Aizu-Wakamatsu is another convenient starting point for an excursion to the Bandai-Azuma Mountains. It's an old castle town, with Tsuruga Castle still dominating its center and several old merchant homes, attractive storehouses and samurai houses (some open to the public) lending it a historic charm.
Bandai Plateau of Bandai-Asahi National Park, the third largest in Japan, consists of three areas. Most popular is the Bandai Plateau, dotted with more than 300 lakes and ponds created by the eruption of Mt. Bandai. It's a year-round vacationland, with well-equipped campgrounds and hiking trails.
Yamagata, capital of Yamagata Prefecture, is the transportation hub of the district and serves as a gateway to Mt. Zao.
Zao, with lofty peaks of volcanic origin and soothing hot springs, is
the haunt of mountaineers in summer and skiers in winter. In February, entire
trees along the skiing slopes are coated with ice, presenting a spectacular, photographic