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Hirosaki Castle historical site

The best of Tohoku, Japan

Lisa Wagstaff heads to Tohoku to discover Japan’s world-famous culture, monuments and stunning scenery.

My Japan Airlines flight is seamless and the fastest bag claim I’ve experienced – even with my oversized snowboarding bag. I am out of the airport and on a train to Tokyo in record time. From Tokyo, it’s an easy bullet train to Sendai, the capital of the Tohoku region.

Tohoku is located in the northern part of Japan’s main island, Honshu. As a lover of the outdoors and Japanese culture, I was drawn to its six prefectures of Fukushima, Yamagata, Miyagi, Iwate, Akita and Aomori, known for their natural beauty.

You could spend a few days in Sendai alone checking out the bright colours of the Zuihō-den Mausoleum or cuddling a fox at the Miyagi Zao fox village or spotting ‘snow monsters’ on Zao Mountain, but I choose to head north by bus to visit Matsushima, regarded as one of the top three most scenic places in Japan.

Orange sunrise, golden temple

Arriving at Matsushima early in the morning, the orange and yellow streaks of sunrise still glow across the 260 islands of the beautiful bay. The small islands have formed into interesting and unusual shapes, and I gaze at them from Godaido, a small Buddhist temple. If you'd like to see them up close, they are also viewable through a number of boat tours

After visiting Zuiganji Temple, I try the snack of choice in Matsushima: white fish cakes that the kids can cook over an open grill.

In Hiraizumi – an hour-and-a-half north – is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Chusonji Temple. It is my favourite historic site in Tohoku with a museum and 15 pagodas, each dedicated to different prayers, like a pavilion to pray for eye health (maybe I won’t need laser eye surgery?). The museum holds a number of invaluable Buddhist relics preserved for over a thousand years, but most impressive of all is the Golden Hall, completely decorated with gold leaf and gold dust, adorned with mother of pearl, hand-carved birds and gold coins.

I have lunch at a nearby Buddhist restaurant. Being vegan doesn’t look so bad in Japan, with tofu served in four equally delicious ways alongside a variety of mushrooms and miso soup.

Japanese Vegan Lunch

Vegan Lunch

Japanese Vegan Lunch

Exploring Chusonji

Snow-blanketed Iwate

As an adult, I still get a surreal fairytale feeling upon seeing snow and as we enter the Iwate prefecture that nostalgia is in overdrive. The burnt-orange hills of southern Tohoku change into white layers as thick and delicious as cake frosting. The countryside is overwhelmingly beautiful and just when I think my day cannot get better we arrive at Appi Kogen Ski Resort.

The night skiing at the resort is phenomenal, with access to plenty of terrain and three chairlifts to take you three-quarters of the way up the mountain. The last four days at Appi have been of the bluebird variety, but there is still around 10 centimetres of untouched powder right under the chairlift and I ecstatically plough my board through it. I only see a handful of other riders and cherish the serenity of the peaceful night and having the mountain to myself.

It's easy enough to board straight into the Appi Grand Hotel for a buffet dinner with cheese and chocolate fondue before heading back to my room. It is huge, especially by Japanese standards, with two beds, plenty of space for a rollaway bed and a bathtub for soaking my sore muscles. The best bit, though, is the stunning view of the mountain out my window.

Appi Ski Resort

Bedroom view from Appi Grand Hotel

Hitting the rails

Japanese rail is great not only for its efficient bullet trains but also its scenic routes. For a quirky locomotive experience, I caught a stove train in Goshogawara, in the Aomori prefecture, famous for its Aomori Apples. I’m greeted by a fish-like smell as coal is shovelled into the pot-bellied stoves; its source is the dried squid that locals (and me) cook on the grill over the coals. I feel very adventurous as I nibble on the squid strips – it's like a fish-flavoured jerky. The atmosphere of the train is so jovial it's hard to stop smiling. Whether that's because of the local apple juice or the sake being sold on the train, I can't tell.

Hitting the rails

In the Akita prefecture I take the Akita Nairiku Railway down to Takanosu. From the window I enjoy the beautiful snow-coated countryside, even considering for a moment if the farmers groom the snow. The train is decorated with the Akita dog, with canine-themed seat fabric, dog portraits along the walls and a life-size poster you can get a photo with.

The most efficient way to get around by train is with the JR East pass, offered only to international visitors. It costs less than the return bullet train to Tokyo (which it covers) and can be used any five days within two weeks.

My last day in Tohoku is spent visiting the Hirosaki Castle historical site. The complex's red bridges contrasting with the bright snow make for exquisite photos. I hire a VR headset to view the three seasons in the park: rich maple trees announce autumn, cherry blossom trees and pink moats colour spring and winter blankets the world in white.

It's also here that kids can dress up as a samurai or in a furisode (formal kimono). After a big day exploring sitting down to a traditional meal and music from the three-stringed shamisen is exactly what I want to be doing.

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