Tohoku awaits: the wonders of northern Japan
The soaring sea cliffs of Kitayamazaki
Towering 650 feet above the crashing waves of a 5-mile stretch of Sanriku Coast in Iwate Prefecture, is Kitayamazaki Cliffs. Observation decks set up at the northern end of the cliffs take you as close as it is safe to the edge, offering up a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean. Down by the shore, sightseeing boat cruises near Shimanokoshi Station on the Sanriku Railway line, bring you nearer to the roaring waves for a close inspection of the cliff face, spectacular sea stacks and magnificent rock arches.
The steam-filled ravine of Oyasu Gorge
Steam swells forth from crevices and bubbling water spews forth from cracks at the bottom of Oyasu Gorge, an almost 200-feet-deep ravine in the southwestern corner of Akita Prefecture. Stroll along the walkway that runs adjacent to the Minase River to feel the spiraling mist wrap you in a warm embrace. To immerse yourself fully in the experience, stay at one of the hot spring inns dotted around the area.
The natural skyscrapers of To-no-Hetsuri
28 million years of weathering and erosion carved this natural cliff formation in Fukushima Prefecture’s Okawa Hatori Prefectural Park. A designated national monument of Japan, To-no-Hetsuri (which means “tower cliff overlooking a river” in the local Aizu dialect) is a colossal expanse of bare rock stretching more than 650 feet wide. Walk across the suspension bridge from the other side of Okawa River for a dramatic face-to-face with these towering rocks.
When sakura blooms in Saigyo Modoshi no Matsu Park
A springtime Saigyo Modoshi no Matsu Park in Miyagi Prefecture, is awash with pink cherry blossoms. Framed against a backdrop of the pine-covered islets of Matsushima Bay, this stunning display from some 260 sakura trees creates a magical view over what is widely regarded as one of the top three most scenic landscapes of Japan.
The lingering legacy of geisha
To this day, maiko (trainee geisha) are still performing song and dance in Yamagata Prefecture’s Sakata city. This form of entertainment is a remnant of the cultural exchange between Kyoto and Tohoku, when Kitamaebune cargo vessels carried goods from the former Japanese capital city to the remote north. These young women perform almost daily to audiences here, continuing a rich, unbroken tradition of the region. Their fluid movements, accompanied by the strumming of a three-stringed shamisen and song, unfold stories of love, regret and loss.
The twin waterfalls of Myojin Falls
Located deep in the woods of the Aizu district in Fukushima Prefecture, Myojin Falls has a view that’s worth a trip off the beaten track. Cascading from a height of almost 33 feet and spanning 26 feet wide, the waterfalls pound heavily into the river beneath. The seasons bring dramatic change to the foliage and colors of Myojin Falls, making it wonderfully scenic destination throughout the year.
Yamagata Hanagasa Festival
For three days every August, Yamagata Prefecture erupts into a frenzy of song and dance as the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival takes places. One of Tohoku’s four major festivals, this event boasts about 10,000 traditionally-clad performers in a swindling variety of colors and designs. The dancers brandish sedge hats decorated with artificial benibana safflowers, an important Yamagata-sourced export used for dyeing kimono and as a lip stain for geisha.
Visitors are welcome to join certain parts of the parade to get a firsthand taste of the tradition.
The snow monsters of Mount Hakkoda
Mount Hakkoda is the collective name of the 16 volcanic mountains in south-central Aomori Prefecture. In winter, this area is overrun with majestic frozen tree guardians known as “snow monsters.” Moisture in fog and clouds get caught in piercing winter winds, coating the evergreen fir trees in granular rime frost. As the layers of frost increase, the trees grow into intimidating bulbous ice sculptures until spring returns.
Hirosaki Castle and the life of samurai
First built in 1611 and rebuilt in 1810, Hirosaki Castle in Aomori Prefecture is the only castle in Tohoku to be built in the Edo era (1603-1867), when the samurai were an important military class in feudal Japan. A visit to the castle offers up intriguing insights into the life and times of these fierce warriors.
In winter, the precinct around the castle transforms into a snow-blanketed magical wonderland. Handcrafted lanterns light up the dark nights during the Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival in mid-February, and the streets become filled with snow statues and food stalls serving local delicacies.
Mount Haguro’s five-storied pagoda
Built in 1372, Tohoku’s oldest five-storied pagoda is an entirely wooden structure constructed without a single nail or metal. Although almost 100 feet high, it is dwarfed by the surrounding centuries-old cedar trees.
The pagoda is located at the foot of Mount Haguro, one of the three Dewa Sanzen sacred mountains of Yamagata Prefecture—and it is the starting point of a pilgrimage for practitioners of shugendo (mountain worship).