Written by Sera J wright @photography_byron_bay
Japan has been on my list of countries to visit for a long time. I lived and worked in the snow for 7 snow seasons, one in NZ and the rest in Australia, so Japan was always somewhere that was talked about among snowboarders as one of the best places to visit. Not just for the incredible snow, but for the food, the culture and the natural beauty. I’d always planned to do a snow season in Japan, but life got in the way.
When I was asked by Japan National Tourism Organisation if I wanted to visit and photograph my way through the Tohoku Region of Japan I immediately said yes. The trip was planned for the end of November, beginning of December which is the change over from Autumn to Winter. So I was thinking it was either going to be beautiful colours of the Autumn leaves everywhere or a Winter wonderland of snow (if the snow happened to come early). How lucky I was… I got both!
Tohoku is a region of Japans main island – Honshu Island. Located north of Tokyo it’s known for it’s mountains, skiing, snowboarding, lakes, streams, temples, forests and volcanoes. With some of the most beautiful natural scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on, to say I was completely blown away was an understatement. I knew I would love Japan.. but visiting this part of Japan made me actually fall head over heels in love with Japan. It was so much more than I ever expected. I am someone who Googles and researches a destination prior to visiting by searching Instagram and Google images to know what to expect and believe me photos really don’t do it justice, you need to see this place with your own eyes.
Japan is so easily accessible from Australia and the rest of the world. I flew direct out of Brisbane to Narita airport in Tokyo (one of Tokyos two international airports), an 8hr and 45minute flight. With all the screens and mod cons on International flights these days the time goes so fast it feels much quicker than 8hrs 45mins.
There’s so much more to Japan that just Tokyo and it’s world renowned ski resorts (yes I am now planning a trip and coming back for a snowboarding trip and a visit in Cherry Blossom season and another trip in Autumn). The Japanese people are some of the kindest, happiest and most polite people I have ever met. The country is rich in culture, natural beauty and the food really is some of the best in the world (Japanese food has long been a favourite of mine, so I was in heaven). Plus their vending machines are next level.. hot drinks, hot food, everything you can imagine. I got to ride on the Bullet Train (another bucket list item ticked off the list) from Sendai to Tokyo, travelling at over 350km per hour through Japans beautiful countryside. I only spent 5 nights in Japan so this was a quick trip, a brief taste of what the Tohoku region of Japan has to offer.. and it left me wanting more. I cannot wait to come back again already and do some more exploring. It’s like no other country on Earth.
Here’s a quick rundown of the places I visited and stayed during my 5 nights in the Tohoku Region of Japan..
STAY: Hotel Via Inn, Akihabara, Tokyo
Located in a quiet street in the suburb of Akihabara, this hotel is the perfect spot to base yourself while you set out to explore Tokyo. Close to train stations and the city.
~ Shibuya Crossing ~
We only had one night in Tokyo, as this trip was mainly organized to explore the wonders outside of Tokyo. But the one must see place on everyones list should be Shibuya Crossing. Shibuya Crossing is rumoured to be one of the busiest intersections in the world, it’s known as one of the fashion centres in Japan, particularly for young people and as a major nightlife area. It’s full of life and colour and one of the best people watching places I have ever been. One of the best places to sit and watch over the intersection is the second level of the Star Bucks Café. You sit right above the intersection and watch the city come alive. The streets surrounding Shibuya crossing are full of restaurants, bars and shops to keep you entertained for hours. Well worth a visit even if you’re only in Tokyo for a few hours.
STAY: Hotel Towadaso – Traditional Ryokan (Japanese Style Inn)
This was my favourite place to stay in Japan. Mainly for the fact I got to stay in my own traditional Japanese room. Located just a 5 minute walk from the shores of Lake Towada is where we stayed in a Ryokan. A Ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese Inn that originated in the Edo period (1603–1868), when such inns served travelers along Japan’s highways. Featuring tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata (a kind of casual kimono – which I changed into upon arrival and wore around the hotel, to the onsen and to dinner). Rooms have their own toilet and shower, your living room has a low table and floor seats where you can enjoy a warm green tea. When you arrive back from dinner the staff have pulled your bed – a futon mattress – out of the cupboard and made it neatly on the floor. This is the way to truly experience some Japanese culture. I bathed in the hotels indoor and outdoor Onsen while snow was falling silently around me from the night sky. We wore our Yukata to dinner where we were treated to one of the most delicious Japanese meals I have ever tasted. A mixture of absolutely everything, from fresh crab, sashimi, noodle soup, beef tataki (thinly sliced, marinated and lightly seared to perfection – the best way to eat beef, a must try), wakame, Japanese salad and a handful of different sweets. This hotel has both western rooms and Ryokan rooms, but I would highly recommend experiencing staying in a ryokan at least once on your stay in Japan.
Hotel Towadaso – Japanese style room & Dinner at the inn restaurant
~ Hirosaki Castle ~
Hirosaki Castle is a hirayama-style Japanese castle constructed in 1611. Surrounded by a moat and with over 2600 Cheery Blossom trees in the castle grounds, it is one of Japans most popular Cherry Blossom spots. The Hirosaki Castle grounds are beautiful to visit in any season. As we were there at the end of Autumn the leaves were all shades of red and orange, a picture perfect cultural experience.
~ Sukayu Onsen ~
Located in the mountainous area of the Aomori Prefecture you will find the 300 year old Sukayu Onsen. We drove up snow covered mountain roads, past pines and cute little Japanese houses. In winter this is one of the most beautiful drives. There are three baths, a female only, unisex and a male only where the water flows directly from the source underneath the bathhouse. You can stay overnight here at the Ryokan, a traditional Japanese style hotel. The Inn restaurant serves up some delicious food, perfect after a long hot soak in the onsen.
The air is filled with the smell of stalls offering local cuisine for sale – its not long since breakfast so I opt for a refreshing Crushed Strawberry Ice…
~ Oirase Mountain Stream ~
This place totally blew me away. I had seen photos of the stream before but seeing the pure natural beauty of this place with your own eyes is a must do. Oirase Mountain Stream stretches for around 14km through Oirase Gorge and mainly runs parallel to the winding road, surrounded by virgin forest rich in variety, containing white cedar, Japanese beech, and maple trees.
The crystal clear water cascades over spectacular rock formations, towering waterfalls plunging into the stream below at every turn. We were lucky enough to visit at the turn of the season.. all the colours of the Autumn leaves with a light dusting of fresh snow covering the rocks and ground around us. You can hike or cycle the full length of the stream, with so many beautiful spots to take photos it might take you a while. This is high on my list of places to revisit next time I am in Japan. It is simply breathtaking.
~ Lake Towada ~
Lake Towada, located on the border between Aomori and Akita prefectures, is the largest crater lake in Honsh? island, Japan. It lies 400 meters above sea level and is 327m deep surrounded by some of the prettiest scenery. We visited in the morning after a night of snow and autumn leaves showing through and found the most perfect jetty to view the lake from.
STAY: Hotel Metropolitan Morioka
Located in down town Morioka, this hotel was the perfect place to rest our weary heads after a long day of exploring. The rooms are neat and comfortable, the bath tubs small but deep (this is the first thing I did when we returned from our big day of experiencing the surrounding area).
SEE: ~ Nyuto Onsen ~
Situated in the deep mountain forest area of the Tazawa Kogen plateau you will find the Nyuto Onsen, one of Japans most popular hot spring resorts. With over 7 different hot spring inns the opportunities are endless. Each Hot Spring Inn offers something different. We visited Tsurunoyu Onsen Hot Spring, known for its cloudy milk like waters (as seen in the photo below). You can stay at the Inns overnight where they have freshly cooked Japanese meals. Experiencing soaking in a hot spring, outside in the snow must be one everyones bucket list.. I know it was mine!
The drive upto Nyuto Onsen is one of the most stunning I have ever seen. The snow had started falling early this season, so the drive up the mountain was nothing short of magic. I felt like I had stepped out of the closest into Narnia. Snow falling silently onto the pine forests, as the bus winded its way through the mountain roads, through viaducts and past deep gorges, arriving at a cute wooden Inn covered in snow, an icy cold stream running straight through the middle of it. This is Japan.
~ Lake Tazawa ~
Situated in the Akita Prefecture is the mesmerising Lake Tazawa, a caldera lake of the most beautiful blue colour. Surrounded by snow capped mountains (in winter) and the most beautiful deciduous trees, it is the deepest lake in Japan at 423 metres. The area is a popular vacation area all year round, from sailing, jet-skiing and camping. It’s also where you can find the golden statue of Tatsuko standing in the water of the lake, a legendary princess who was transformed into a dragon, for she wished for eternal beauty. Many Onsens and Resorts can be found in the mountains above the lake. We visited as the snow had started to set in, it looked particularly moody and mysterious, somewhere I would definitely like to revisit on my next trip.
~ Kakunodate (samurai village) ~
Kakunodate is a town worth visiting on your travels through the Tohoku Region. Founded in 1620 it is a former castle town and samurai stronghold and is still known today for its samurai traditions and it’s hundreds of weeping cherry trees. The samurai houses and architecture are simply beautiful. Most are owned by descendants of the samurai warriors, however there are some residences still open to the public. There are also Kimono houses here, where both male and females can be dressed in the traditional antique kimono and take a walk around the ancient town. This is one of my favourite experiences on my trip to Japan. I’ve never felt more beautiful being dressed in the traditional Kimono, standing in the street as light snow began to fall. It truly was a magical experience.
STAY: Hotel Monteray Sendai
Located in the heart of Sendai this hotel is the perfect place for an overnight or extended stay. The rooms are spacious, it’s straight across the road from the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) station and surrounded by endless restaurants and the shopping district.
~ Yamadera Temple ~
Located in the mountains northeast of Yamagata City you will find Yamadera Temple. The temple grounds extend high up a steep mountainside, where numerous temple buildings are perched high on the side of the cliffs. To get to the top you walk along a stone path made of 1000 steps through beautiful gardens and past many monuments. It’s well worth the walk to the top to see the view over the mountains and the valley below.
~ Chusonji Temple ~
Chusonji temple is a Buddhist temple, established in 850, located in the Iwate Prefecture in the town of Hiraizumi and is one of UNESCO world heritage sites. Located inside one of the buildings is Konjikido, the Golden Pavillion, is a hall completely cover in gold. You cannot take photos inside the hall, so unfortunately I cannot show you just how incredible it is.. so you’ll just have to go and see it for yourself! The temple grounds are dotted with many temples and traditional buildings surrounding by manicured gardens and towering pine trees. It has a beautiful sense of peace and calm to it.
~ Geibikei Gorge ~
Last but not least this was my favourite experience in the Tohoku region. The sheer natural beauty of this place totally took my breath away, literally.
Geibike Gorge is a 2km gorge formed by the Satetsu River, located just outside the town of Hiraizumi in the Iwate Prefecture. Autumn is the best time to visit, with leaves every shade of the red and orange rainbow. To experience the Gorge you take a 90 minute ride on a flat bottomed boat navigated by a boatman with a pole. So no motor, no noise. The river is so still and shallow, surrounded by soaring cliffs of over 100mtrs high. At the end of the Gorge you can walk along the riverbank and across a footbridge to really take in the natural beauty of the place. The gorge is so silent, the only noise is the sound of the pole touching the water as the boatman steers it along.. until the return journey when our guide started singing the most beautiful traditional Japanese song. I was sitting up the front of the boat, feet dangling over the edge, soaring cliffs either side, listening to the most beautiful song echoing off the cliff walls. It was this moment that took my breath away, and I also shed a tear, as I was so overwhelmed of just how beautiful this experience truly was.
Every season in Japan is different, from snow in winter, all the colour of the autumn leaves, cherry blossoms in spring and the greenery of summer. Each of the places i visited would have a very different each season. I only got a small taste of what Japan and the Tohoku region has to offer but from what i have seen i cannot wait to come back and explore some more.
If you have any questions about the Tohoku region of Japan please feel free to comment below or send me an email.
See you in Japan sometime soon.