This Q&A with Gene Miyake, managing director of NON-STOP Travel, sheds light on the Tohoku Region of Japan, a natural wonderland where contemporary tourism highlights blend with ancient rituals and ultimate relaxation.
We heard that you participated in Japan National Tourism Organization's Tohoku FAM trip. How was it?
My last FAM Trip took place in November 2019, a few months before the world shut down for two whole years. It was an incredible and very memorable week spent in the Tohoku region. I was able to immerse myself in the “authentic” Japanese experience. Pleasantly different from the “Big City” experience of Tokyo or Osaka.
After meeting my fellow travelers in Tokyo, including Mr. Ryoji Aso, Director of Japan National Tourism Organization, a short one-hour flight brought our entourage to Aomori. Tohoku is very easy to get to from Tokyo and Osaka.
What charms of Tohoku did you experience while there and what was the most memorable place to visit in Tohoku?
Mt. Haguro in Yamagata prefecture was magical! We took part in a Yamabushi pilgrimage of “rebirth.” The Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa — the collective name for Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono — are a revered place for the ascetic religion known as Shugendo. Shugendo is an ancient Japanese mountain faith that blends aspects of nature worship with Buddhism and other faiths. In the ancient belief of Shugendo, we attract the spirits of the gods and Buddha into our souls before emerging reborn by training in the mountains.
First, we dressed in traditional Shiroshozoku white garments, a shime necklace and gave blessings at an altar. Our entourage headed through the Zuishomon gates and down Mt. Haguro’s famous stone stairways — the steps of pilgrims that dates back more than 1,400 years. After a two-hour hike through mountains and formal worship at Haguro Shrine, it was time for some much-needed nourishment.
Our group dined on Shojin Ryori, the most incredible Buddhist vegetarian cuisine consisting of locally sourced mountain herbs, wild vegetables and mushrooms. For a carnivore, it was surprisingly delicious and fulfilling.
We also enjoyed a soak in the natural hot spring onsen baths in Lake Towada on the border between Aomori and Akita prefectures. Stripping off all your clothes and inhibitions to bathe in the mineral-rich goodness of a geothermal hot spring is a treat to the senses and to your health. There are many traditional Japanese inns and hotels with hot springs throughout Tohoku.
How about outdoor and adventure experiences in Tohoku?
They say you do things out of your comfort zone when you’re on vacation or, in this case, a super-charged FAM Trip. On a picturesque Lake Towada, our small group enjoyed an adventurous canoe ride with gorgeous scenery all around. After spinning around in circles for ages, I’m happy to report that no one ended up in the lake! We also hiked the Oirase Gorge in Aomori, which was covered in crimson and gold fall foliage. Tohoku is paradise for nature and culture lovers.
What was the local Japanese cuisine like?
For dinner we were treated to authentic robatayaki cuisine (grilled skewered protein and vegetables dinner). The fresh and delicious seafood was procured from the Sea of Japan, the Pacific Ocean, and Tsugaru Bay — which is unique to Lake Towada and located in the center of the North Tohoku region. The charcoal-grilled dishes brought out the deliciousness of the giant clams, sweet ayu river fish, prawns and locally sourced pork.
A teppanyaki (an iron griddle) dinner of Yonezawa beef from Yamagata was also memorable and fantastic. I didn’t know that Tohoku region is a producer of premium wagyu beef. Enjoying this local delicacy in person among the people who preserved these tastes and textures for centuries is unlike anything you can experience anywhere else. Even Tokyo.
Sake tasting is another culinary experience that you cannot miss in Tohoku. Sake is produced throughout Tohoku; the region is prime for high-quality rice production, which translates to excellent rice wine. Each region is known for specific flavor profiles, which tend to pair particularly well with local specialty foods.
The people of Tohoku have adapted to the harsh and long winters by being extremely flexible and creative in their daily lives. A small example is the numerous types of pickled radishes they prepare every fall. My favorite is a smoked variety, iburigakko, dried by smoking over the open hearth in the house. However, as with other Japanese pickles, it pairs perfectly with a warm bowl of white rice. It is the simplest things that often bring the most pleasure when traveling.
In Tohoku, you’ll find more subtle edible luxuries that showcase the stories, customs, and ethos of the people behind Japan’s drinking and dining traditions.
What is the best season to visit Tohoku?
Tohoku is a year-round destination, thanks to its myriad attractions and variety of activities that make the most of its diverse climate. Choosing the best time to visit depends largely on a traveler’s preferred activities. The warmer months, for example, are ideal for hiking and walking. Every spring, cherry blossoms grace many parts of the region, while the summer provides a verdant palate of colors and the trees turn rich hues of red, orange and yellow in the autumn. Skiing is a big draw in the winter, thanks to the region’s multiple ski resorts. And, of course, Tohoku’s traditional temples and many other attractions are worth visiting throughout the year.
Why should U.S. consumers visit Tohoku?
You will experience a genuine brand of hospitality in off-the-beaten-path Tohoku, such as unique cultural experiences steeped in history combined with amazing local foods.
Travelers from the U.S. will experience the charm of Japan’s countryside, very different from the big city experiences of Tokyo and Osaka. Moreover, unlike the old capitol city of Kyoto, there is something very rustic about the entire Tohoku region.
Tohoku is a natural and cultural haven. Graced with glistening lakes, soaring mountains and comforting hot springs, the region provides a peaceful, uncrowded setting to experience outdoor activities, local traditions, culinary delicacies and one-of-a-kind annual events that date back centuries. It is the perfect destination for travelers interested in lesser-known destinations that offer memorable nature- and culture-based experiences. The region is home to postcard-perfect small towns and laidback cities, with all the comforts and amenities a traveler might need. The region is divided into six prefectures, each with its own appeal.
Have you sent any customers to Tohoku?
Yes, we have sent hundreds of clients to the Tohoku region since 2015. We have created a combination, TOHOKU & HOKKAIDO tour which includes, Sendai, Matsushima, Kesennuma, Morioka, Oirase, Towada, Hirosaki and Aomori.
I highly suggest you work with a knowledgeable tour operator who can make suggestions about Tohoku based on your clients’ preferences. NON-STOP Travel creates many unique group tours as well as custom tours for the first-timer to Japan and for the repeat Japan visitor looking to go the off-the-beaten-path route such as the Tohoku region.