Japan's Tohoku offers a laidback road trip rich in history and traditions

  • Asia & Oceania
  • Thursday, 06 Feb 2020

The Takayama Inari Shrine snakes like a dragon on the wintry landscape.

The ancient Samurai mansions, with their exhibits of armour and artefacts, were interesting, but we kept getting distracted by snow falling outside. Our dismay at the raindrops that greeted us when we disembarked from our bus in the Samurai district of Kakudate had turned into sheer delight as it started snowing, more and more heavily. The Japanese garden in the compound of the old Samurai mansion was soon blanketed in white, and we simply couldn’t look away.

We were in Tohoku, which literally means North-Eastern region, in the north of Japan’s main island, Honshu, on a trip organised by Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO).

Sendai, the biggest city in Tohoku, is only an hour-and-a-half away from Tokyo on the Shinkanshen, but this remains an under the radar destination for tourists, which means that for now it is blissfully free from crowds.

Comprising six prefectures - Miyagi, Fukushima, Aomori, Akita, Iwate and Yamagata - the Tohoku region is where people go to experience winter. Though Hokkaido is way more famous for skiing holidays among international visitors, Tohoku is a popular destination for the Japanese as this region gets the highest amount of snowfall.Snow started falling and blanketed the garden at the Samurai mansion in Kakunidate, an old Samurai district in Tohoku.Snow started falling and blanketed the garden at the Samurai mansion in Kakunidate, an old Samurai district in Tohoku.

But everywhere we went in Tohoku in early January, locals were lamenting that the snowfall this year had been unseasonably low, yet another casualty of climate change.

They said that during this time of the year, no surface would have been uncovered by snow and there would even be snowstorms.

For us Malaysians though, there was enough snow and snowing, and we had the best introduction to Tohoku’s winter, stalking snow monsters at Mount Zao

Snow monsters or “juhyo” are actually trees covered with layers of frost and windblown ice, which turn them into hulking shapes on the mountain slope.

We ascended to the top of Mount Zao on a cable car with skiers in their full gear, and were greeted with falling snow and freezing temperatures... but not many dramatic snow monsters as winter this year had been unseasonably mild, and the trees were not laden with enough ice yet.

But it was fun enough traipsing through ankle-deep snow, and experiencing snow falling around us atop Mount Zao.

This volcanic area is also known for its hot springs (called onsen in Japanese), and soaking in the outdoor onsen looking out to Mount Zao at our ryokan was my top Tohoku winter experience.

The temperature was below zero and it was all quiet and still at dawn, and the onsen was wonderfully warm and relaxing.

Tranquil sites

From Mount Zao, we drove up further north. It’s rural Japan and the pace is much more laidback, and our first stop was at Chuson-ji Buddhist Temple in Hiraizumi.

Fukishima prefecture, where the 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11, is in Tohoku. And on March 18 that year, Chuson-ji’s bells tolled for an hour-and-a -half for the victims. The Fujiwara lord Kiyohira founded the temple as part of a pledge before Buddha to honour the spirits of the dead.

That same year, Chuson-ji was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site and our guide said it brought some measure of comfort to grieving locals for the temple is an important spiritual site.

Chuson-ji is renowned for its gold-gilded hall - completed in 1124 - and collection of ancient Sutra.

   Chuson-ji temple is a Unesco World Heritage site, and its bells tolled for an hour-and-a-half in March 2011 for the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami victim in nearby Fukushima.Chuson-ji temple is a Unesco World Heritage site, and its bells tolled for an hour-and-a-half in March 2011 for the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami victim in nearby Fukushima.

In winter, it was most pleasant to walk up the forested pathway to the temple atop Kanzan hill and explore its serene surroundings.

Another famous religious site in Tohoku is the Takayama Inari Shrine in Tsugaru, Aomori.

It’s similar to the Fujimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, but without the hordes of visitors.

To get to the shrine, you will walk pass 201 torri gates that snake uphill like a dragon.

In Aomori, we also visited the Hirosaki Castle. Almost all Japanese castles were dismantled after 1868 when samurai rule came to an end or burnt down in World War Two. Hirosaki Castle is the only castle that was built during the Edo Period (1603-1867) that remains standing in Tohoku.

It’s located in Hirosaki Park right in the town centre, and visitors can rent a multimedia kit to experience the park and castle in different seasons.

Hirosaki Castle is famous as a cherry blossom viewing site in Tohoku, and we saw what the park looked like during spring through our multimedia lens.

Hirosaki’s Tourism Department’s executive director Jun Ogasawara who developed the multimedia programme was happy for us to experience Hirosaki Park in the different seasons, but he was most proud that we were able to see the video of the town’s 10-year project to move the castle using a traditional method to enable repair work on its stone foundation.

Local traditions

   A craftsman carries on the tradition of carving Namahage masks.A craftsman carries on the tradition of carving Namahage masks.It’s locals like Ogasawara that made our Tohoku trip so enjoyable and enlightening.

They generously shared their local pride and traditions.

In Akita, we were introduced to Namahage folk tradition when men in gory masks barged in on our dinner with throaty screams.

It’s a local New Year Eve ritual when Namahage - played by men in masks - would descend on the villages from the mountains and storm into homes to check on children and wives. The head of the household would protect his wards and assure the Namahage that they have not been lazing away.

In 2018, Oga no Namahage was designated a Unesco intangible cultural heritage though it’s mostly the elderly who play the role of the Namahage now as most young men have all migrated to the cities. But it’s a tradition that visitors can learn about at the Namahage Museum and the Oga Shinzan Museum.

Visitors to the Oga Shinzen Folklore Museum can watch a reenaction of the Namahage's visits to village homes.Visitors to the Oga Shinzen Folklore Museum can watch a reenaction of the Namahage's visits to village homes.

Another beloved Akita local icon is the Akita dog; the most famous being Hachiko who waited faithfully for his owner at the railway station for 10 years till his passing. Hachiko’s statue at the Shibuya station is one of Tokyo’s most popular sites, but Akita dogs originated in Tohoku.

There’s a museum dedicated to Akita dogs in Akita, and owners would bring their dogs here.

Further up north in Aomori, at the northmost tip of Honshu, one of the best local winter experiences is to ride the stove train operated by the Tsugaru Railways since 1940.

It was freezing cold outside but the coach was warmed by charcoal stoves. The best part of riding this train was grilling dried cuttlefish on the stove, and though grilled sotong smells strongly anywhere in the world, it’s still the yummiest treat.

It was just one of the many delightful surprises of experiencing winter in Tohoku.

AirAsia operates four flights weekly into Tokyo Narita Airport, as well as seven flights weekly into Tokyo Haneda Airport from Kuala Lumpur.

For information on available flights, go to airasia.com.

For more information on Tohoku, visit japan.travel/en/.

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