I’ve been writing about Japan for almost 30 years, yet even I didn’t begin exploring Tohoku until a decade ago. Perhaps it’s because Tohoku, the huge northern expanse of Honshu island covering six prefectures, doesn’t have the famous historic treasures that lure travelers to Kyoto and southern Honshu. Nor does it have the romantic reputation of Hokkaido to the north, considered Japan’s last frontier.
Yet Tohoku is every bit as beautiful as Hokkaido, with a rugged, mountainous terrain, which, coupled with spectacularly snowy winters, has isolated the region and contributed to the preservation of its traditions. In fact, Tohoku was so far removed from the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Kamakura, that the powerful Fujiwara clan was able to set up a kingdom of their own here in Hiraizumi, chosen for its location at the junction of two rivers and on the main road leading from Kyoto to the north. Hiraizumi reached its zenith in the 11th and 12th centuries, when it rivaled Kyoto in splendor. Today, Kyoto is Japan’s most famous destination, while Hiraizumi is a small village with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. Yet the area boasts some famous historic sites, including Chusonji Temple, with a treasure house containing 3,000 cultural objects and works of art; Konjikido, an elaborately decorated building famous throughout Japan for its decorations of gold leaf and mother of pearl; and Motsuji Temple with its traditional garden.
© Iwate Tourism Bureau
For me, however, it’s Tohoku’s natural beauty that speaks to me the most. One of my favorite spots in all of Japan is along the Oirase Stream, a clear, gurgling mountain stream that courses over moss-covered boulders and down waterfalls as it flows from Lake Towada 42 miles to the Pacific. Flanking the stream starting at Lake Towada is one of the prettiest hiking trails in the country, an 8-mile path shaded by maple, oak, and beech trees.
On my last visit to Lake Towada, however, my job as the author of Frommer’s Japan dictated that I spend the day in a car with staff from Aomori Prefecture as I inspected nearby hotels, Japanese inns, and restaurants. The only glimpses I had of the Oirase Stream and its inviting trail was from the window of a speeding car, and I looked at it longingly, like an alcoholic in rehab. By the time I checked into my hotel, which was located directly on the Oirase Stream, it was 8pm and already dark. I was scheduled to depart the hotel the next morning at 8am.
So I arose the next morning at dawn and hit the trail. As it turned out, I had the trail and stream gloriously to myself. Usually there are other hikers, not to mention buses that disgorge tourists at scenic overlooks, but at this time of the day the only other person I encountered was a photographer. It’s for moments like this that I travel, and since being alone in nature is a spiritual experience for me, I felt like I was in paradise on earth.
Although Tohoku may not be on the itinerary of most international travelers, that could change: Hiraizumi is on the tentative list as a UNESCO World Heritage site. My advice: go before everyone else does.