NORTHERN HONSHU

NORTHERN HONSHU

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Northern Honshu
NORTHERN HONSHU is one of one of the more isolated and unspoiled parts of Japan. Known to Japanese as Tohuku, it embraces Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Yamagata, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures and is known for heavy snows, strong winds, and scenic beauty. Most of the region is covered by mountains and large tracts of wilderness. There are three national parks, and seven quasi national parks but few large cities.

Northern Honshu is also known for its interesting folk customs and festivals and large number of hot springs, some of which have traditionally been places where men and women bathed together. The people here are regarded as friendly but unsophisticated. Few non-Japanese travel around this area and foreign visitors should be prepared for few English speakers.

Websites: Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Wikitravel Wikitravel Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Shimokita Peninsula

Shimokita Peninsula (northern tip of Honshu) is the northern most extension of Honshu. Here you can find feral horses, the world's northernmost wild monkeys, itako (blind female shamans) and some of Japan's last remaining wilderness. On the western side of the peninsula is Hotokegauru, a three-kilometer expanse of coastline with 100-meter-high cliffs.

Access to the area is through the town of Noheji. The main transportation hub and accommodation place is Mutsu. From there you can get buses to Ohata and from there to Yagen Onsen. Websites: Wikitravel Wikitravel ; Japan Guide Japan-Guide ; Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Osorezan (in the middle of Shimokita Peninsula) is a composite volcano with smoking vents and clear, yellowish crater lake fed by streams that run bright yellow with sulfur. Only one kind of fish can survive in the highly acidic water. Around the lake are hissing fumaroles and sulphur-coated rocks. The mountain was discovered in the 9th century by a Buddhist monk who had a vison of the mountain in a dream.

Mt. Osorezan is regarded as one of three holiest mountains in Japan along with Mt. Koya and. Mt. Hiei. The landscape is bleak and punctuated by strange rock formations. On the shore of the lake is a Buddhist temple, Entsuji, which hosts a festival in late July that features mediums who communicate with the dead. A red arched bridge marks the border between the real world and the realm of the dead.

Shaman at Osorezan: Entsuji, a Buddhist temple near the crater lake in Osorezan, a composite volcano in the middle of Shimokita Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan, hosts a four-day festival in late July that features itako who communicate with the dead.

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itako
Itako are shaman or mediums that have traditionally been blind or sight impaired old women that were called upon by bereaved family members to communicate with the dead. They embrace folk religion and animist traditions but also call upon Buddhist and Shinto gods for help. Each itako has her own gods that she calls upon. Some use aids such as beads and stringed bows to call the gods.

During the festival the women sit in blue tents and people who want to communicate with dead loved ones form lines to meet with the old women, who charge ¥3,000 per spirit per 30 minute session. Some work at shrines and others work at their homes outside the festival times. Some moonlight as fortunetellers.

During a seance with an itako known as Kuchiyose, the itako receives the death date of deceased person and it relation to the customer. She than rattles prayer beads, goes into a trance and sings to call the spirit to possess her. The spirit usually thanks the petitioner, wishes god fortune and life and discusses personal matters. The itako usually claims that she doesnn’t t know what she said while in the trance. They say that while they are in a trance it feels like they have been grabbed by a powerful force and moved to someplace where they can watch themselves.

The seances last about 10 minutes. Through the medium, the spirit usually says something like, "I am very sorry for having died before my parents, but I am glad that you have come here. I am OK, and hope you are too." See Itako, History, Religion...; Folk Beliefs; Ki, Feng Shui, Shaman Websites: Japan Guide Japan-Guide ; Japan Times itako article Japan Times ; Wikitravel Wikitravel

Aomori

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nebuta
Aomori (northern tip of Honshu) is the main town in northern Honshu. Home to 288,000 people, it was heavily bombed in World War II and almost completely built from scratch after the war. It has the atmosphere of a large, sleepy fishing town despite its modern buildings. Aomori's main attraction is the Nebuta Festival held in early August when huge lit-up. paper-mache figures (nebuta) are drawn on floats through the streets at night.

At first glance Aomori doesn’t seem so extraordinary but with a little exploring you can uncover traditional sake houses with story tellers and shamisen players as well as craft shops that sell handed-painted samurai-head kites, wooden kokeshi dolls and traditional papier mâché carp.

Ferries to Hokkaido leave daily. They take about 3¾ hours and cost ¥3,500. The daily hydrofoil tales 1¾ hours and cost ¥5,000 to ¥6,000. Aomori is also the jumping off point for Towada National Park, Mt. Hakkoda (popular with hikers and skiers, and Cape Tappizaki (with good views if Tsugaru Strait).

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Aomori Art Museum
Websites: Aomori Prefecture site Aomori Prefectural government Aomori City site Aomori City ; Nebuta Festival Official Site Nebuta Festival ; Map: Misawa Life Misawalife.com Hotel Web Sites: JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There:Aomori is accessible by air and by bus and by train. The limited express from Tokyo takes 10 hours. It takes about 6 hours total if you take the shinkansen as far north as it goes into Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture and then switch to limited express. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Aomori Museum of Art opened in July 2006. Designed by Jun Aoki, it is a modernist but understated structure with a permanent collection that includes works by Rembrandt and Kandinsky. The heart of the museum is the stunning Aleko Hall, which boast four large paintings---including A Wheatfield in a Summer Afternoon--- that Marc Chagall created as backdrops for the 1942 ballet Aleko, choreographed by Massine and inspired by a Pushkin poem.

Aomori Museum of Art has numerous works by local artists and is designed to be a place, where people come and eat and drink and hang out as well as view art. One of the most popular objects at the museum is the three-story-high large sculpture of an Aomori dog by local artist Yoshitomo Nara. The Munakata Shiko Memorial Museum has an interesting collection ofwoodblock prints, paintings and calligraphy by Aomori artist Munakata Shiko. Website: Aomori Museum of Art Aomori Museum of Art

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Sukayu Spa (near Aomori) is famous for its 1,000-person mixed-sex cedar bath where both men and women bath naked together. People who are shy about their bodies can hide their private parts with a towel. The atmosphere is very mellow and most people seem more interested in enjoying the soothing water than looking at the naked bodies around them. Many years ago, many baths in Japan were coed. Sukaya is one of the few remaining ones. It is fairly large and has special permission from the government to be coed. Website: Secret Japan Secret Japan ; Onsen Express Onsen Express

Seikan Rail Tunnel (between Tappi Saki Honshu and Fukushima Hokkaido) is the world's longest railway tunnel (33½ miles under the ocean). Opened in March 1988, it was bored 787 feet below sea level (lowest in the world) and 328 feet beneath the sea bed. The Chunnel between Britain and France has a longer undersea section but the overall length of the tunnel is less.

Tours of the tunnel are offered at the Yoshioka-katei station, located 145-meters below sea level, and Tappi-katei station. The tour includes walks through the maze of service tunnels and passages, and a look at some of the tunnel's machinery. To take the tour you need to take the rapid train (kaisoku ) The rapid express doesn't stop at the stations that offers the tour.

Websites: WikipediaWikipedia ; Seikan Tunnel Aomori Government Map:Japan Lifestyle Japan Lifestyle Japan Lifestyle ; Japan Visitor Japan Visitor

Near Aomori

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Hirosaki Castle
Hirosaki (20 miles south of Aomori) is a charming town with a small but beautiful castle, samurai houses and a wealth of local handicrafts. The original castle was built in 1611 and rebuilt in the 19th century. It is surrounded by a stone wall and a moat filled with lily pads and part of a 49-acre park with 5,000 cherry trees. Overlooking the town is Mt. Iwaki, 1,625-meter-high sacred volcano popular with pilgrims and hikers.

Websites: Hirosaki Tourism and Convention Bureau Hirosaki Tourism and Convention Bureau Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Web Sites: JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net ; Hirosaki Tourism and Convention Bureau Hirosaki Tourism and Convention Bureau Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Hirosaki is accessible by air and by bus and by train. The limited express from Tokyo takes nine and a half hours. It takes about five and half hours total if you take the shinkansen as far north as it goes into Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture and then switch to limited express. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

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Lake Towada
Lake Towada (20 miles southeast of Hirosaki) is the third deepest lake in Japan. The main feature of Towada Hachimantai National Park. it is a crater lake encircled by wooded shorelines and steep cliffs. Because it so beautiful it attracts large crowds.

Yasumiya is the main accommodation center. Cruises on the lake between Nenokuchi and Yasumiya pass by the many pine-clad islets that dot the lake. Oirase Gorge, extending for nine miles on the eastern shore of the lake, is known for its autumn colors, waterfalls, boulder-strewn river, mountain scenery and good hiking trails.

Towada Hachimantai National Park is also the home of the Hachimantai Plateau, a large tableland covered by swamps, virgin forest and alpine plants. The plateau is also noted for its volcanic activity and hot springs.

Websites: Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Japan Guide Japan-Guide Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO ; Hachimantai Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Web Sites: JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Lake Towada is accessible by bus from Aomori and Hirosaki and other cities in northern Honshu. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Hotokenuma Wetland (near Misawa and Lake Ogawara in eastern Aomori Prefecture) is one of the best birdwatching spots in northern Japan. It is the breeding place of around 1,000 march warblers as well as Japanese reed bunting and Swinhoe’s yellow rail. Numerous other species of birds can be seen here.

Shirakami-Sanchi Mountain Range (between Aomori and Akita Prefectures) is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. Covering 130,000 hectares, it embraces unique beech tree forests, moss-covered rocks, Akita-sugi cedars and 1,086-meter-high Mt. Futatsumori, a popular hiking destination. The forests---which contain 400-year-old trees and is so dense the sun has difficulty penetrating through the canopy--- was model for the forest in Hayao Miyazaki’s film Mononke-hime. Pine trees have been planted for protection from winds. Good sake is brewed in the area and stored in caves.

Website: JAL Guide to Japan JAL ; UNESCO World Heritage site: JAL UNESCO website Aomori Prefecture site Aomori Prefectural Government ;

Akita Area

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Mt. Chokai
Akita (on the Sea of Japan about 100 miles south of Aomori) is large commercial and industrial city with about 300,000 people. It is also a place where old ways endure. About 80 percent of the town’s land is occupied by rice paddies and mountain forests. Sixty percent of children live in three generation households

Akita often receives of more than a meter of snow in the winter. Yokote in Akita is famous for its kamakura snow huts which are featured at the town’s snow festival in February. The huts typically stand three meters tall and have a diameter of 3.5 meters. In early August it hosts the famous Kanto Matsuri (Pole of Lanterns Festival), in which 12-meter-long bamboo poles holding 40 to 50 candle-lit paper lanterns and weighing to 50 kilograms are carried by individuals who do fancy steps as they try to balance the lanterns on their foreheads, shoulders, chins and hips.

Akita doesn't have much to see. Shimin Market, near JR Akita Station, is lively place. It is filled with locally-caught fish and locally-grown fruit and vegetables. Around 100,000 people visit the market every month. Most of the 92 stores are run by descendants of the original owners.

Websites: Akita City site Akita City Akita Prefecture site Akita Prefectural Government ; Akita Fan Akita Map: Encarta Encarta Hotel Web Sites: Akita Fan Akita ; JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net ; Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Akita is accessible by air and by bus and by train from Tokyo (six hours) and Osaka (12 hours) and other Japanese cities. Akita has its own shinkansen line which the main northern line in the late 1990s. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Odate (Akita Prefecture) is the home of the Jukai Dome, a dome large enough to cover a baseball field made completely of wood. Completed in 1999, it is made of roughly 1,700 tons of Akita cedar wood and covers roughly the same size space as the Tokyo Dome. It is built so it can withstand the huge snowfalls that hit the area without the use of any pillars. Studies have shown that pound for pound wood is stronger than iron. Website: Web Japan Japan Atlas

Oga-Hanto Peninsula(north of Akita) is somewhat reminiscent of Ireland. Jutting 20 kilometers into the Sea of Japan, it features grassy slopes and a rugged coastline. Cape Nyudo-zaki has a lighthouses and nice views. The Oga Suizoko-kan Aquarium has a wide variety of fish. Website: JNTO article JNTO

Lake Tazawa-ko (east of Akita) is the deepest lake in Japan at 423 meters deep. It doesn’t freeze over in the winter, something which local people attribute to the lovemaking prowess of a dragon. Many people use the lake for watersports and as a starting point for hikes to 1,623-meter-high Komaga-take. Websites: JNTO article JNTO ; Lake Tazawa Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotels: Japanican Japanican.com ; Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

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Nyuto Onsen Area (eastern Akita Prefecture, reached by bus from JR Tazawako Station on the Tohuku-Alita Shinkansen) is wonderful hot spring areas with delightful outdoor baths set among splendid Alpine scenery, which is particularly striking when it is covered by thick layers of snow which remain until April. Nyuto means “nipple.” The area is so named because nearby Mt. Nyuto looks like, you guessed it, a nipple.

Some of the baths have clear water. Some have a reddish tint. Others are grayish. Each bath is said have curing powers for a different ailment. Most of the onsen have segregated indoor and outdoor baths for men and women and a large outdoor bath for both men and women. Many are open late into the night and allow guest to drink sake while they are taking a soak. Websites: Official Nyuto site nyuto-onsenkyo.com ; Japan Guide Japan-Guide ; Japanese Guest Houses japaneseguesthouses.com

Kakunodate (east of Akita) is a pleasant small town with a well-preserved samurai district. A number of the houses are open to public. Websites: Japan Guide Japan-Guide ; JNTO article JNTO ; Kakunodate Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Sendai

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Sendai (two hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen) is the largest city and the most important commercial center in the Tohuku (northern Honshu) region. With a population of about 1 million, this former castle town is located on the northeast coast of Honshu and sometimes called the "capital with the groves" because of its wooded parks and forested hills. There aren't many sights but is a pleasant place to stroll around.

In early August Sendai host the Tanabata Star Festival which features street decorations of bamboo poles with streamers, banners, ribbons and flowers of almost every imaginable color---all made with washi paper.

Orientation and Information: Sendai is an easy place to get around. The main train station is close to downtown and city is lad out in a grid. Many department stores and banks are located on Aoba-yama Hill. The main shopping area is around Ichibancho-don and Cho-dori. Kokubuncho-don, west of Ichibancho-don, is the main entertainment district.

Sendai Tourist Association: ☎ (022)-268-9577. The main tourist office is on the 2nd floor of JR Sendai station (☎022-222-3269). Sendai has a single line subway system. It is possible to buy a pass for ¥600 that allows unlimited bus travel for a single day.

Websites :Sendai Traveling Information Sendai Tourism and Convention Bureau Sendai City Official home page City.sendai.jp Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Sendai City maps Sendai City Subway Map: Urban Rail Urbanrail.net Hotel Web Sites: Sendai Traveling Information sentabi.jp JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Sendai is accessible by air and by bus and by train from Tokyo (four hours) and Osaka (Eight hours) and other Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

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Sights in Sendai: The ruins of Aoba Castle on Aoba Hill are the main attraction in the city. At the site is an exhibition hall with a display of swords and reconstruction of the castle with computer images. Other sights include the Zuihoden Mausoleum, built in honor of Date Masamune, the warlord who built the town's castle and the Sendai City Museum. Sendai is also the jumping off point for trips to Matsushima Bay and historic Hiraizumi.

The Sendai Mediatheque Project is a modern architectural piece that draws large numbers of visitors. Designed by Toyo Ito and opened in 2001, it a room-less structure made of concrete slabs and steel plates and supported by unique helical columns which are visible from the outside through double panes of glass. Sunlight striking the roof is directed through the building by optical devises. With the pillars functioning as vents the temperature of the building is kept at comfortable levels regardless of the season.

Sendai Area

Matsushima Bay (20 minutes from Sendai) is considered one of Japan's "Three Best Views" along with Miyajima Island near Hiroshima on the coast of Western Honshu and the sandspit at Amonohashidate. Scattered across the bay are over 250 strange shaped islands and islets, many of which are capped with stands of pine trees. The famous haiku poet Basho composed a piece about the islands that simply went: "Matsushima ya/ aa Matsushima ya/ Matsushima ya."

Most of the islands are uninhabited although shrines can be found on some and bridges link others. Near the shore of Matsushima is the Temple of Zuiganji which is placed elegantly among the cedar trees, cliffsides and caves where Zen monks spent many hours in meditation. In the inside are some beautifully-painted screens and wonderful woodcarvings In one room 20 samurai killed themselves after their Lord’s death. Godaido shrine lies on the last island on a chain of small islands connected by arching bridges.

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Matsushima Islands
Ferries and sightseeing boats allow tourists to view the sights. A 50-minute cruise through the islands cost ¥1,400, plus ¥600 more if you want to go to the top decks where the best views are. An additional ¥100 will get you some seagull feed that you can toss to the seagulls (many people do this). In Matsushimamachi, the town where you get the boats there is a glass museum with a small collection and a museum with mechanical music machines.

Matsushima-kaigen station on the Seneki line is only 500 meters from the harbor where the boats leave. There is accommodation in Matsushima (often expensive) and Sendai. Restaurants in the are famous for oysters and hoyas (sea squirts).

One of the best ways to explore the rugged Miyagi coastline and the bay is by kayak. In the town of Onagawa, an ecotourism firm called Earth Quests sponsors kayaking trips for about ¥7,000 a day into sheltered bay and along the coast. The water is very clear and the coral, seaweed and shells in the sea are just as stunning as the pines, jagged rocks and beaches on the land.

Beginners trips last one day and cover about 10 kilometers and included a visit to an oyster farm. Experienced kayakers can embark on multiday tours that involve camping on islands with monkeys and deer. The trips are sometimes called off when the seas are too rough. For more information check the Earth Quest website at www.h5.dion.ne.jp/

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Matsushima island
Websites : Japan Guide Japan-Guide; Wikipedia Wikipedia Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Web Sites:Sendai Traveling Information Sendai Tourism and Convention Bureau JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Matsushima is 30 minutes from Sendai by train or bus. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Onahama (in Iwaki, 60 miles south of Sendai) is the home of new walk-through aquarium. The 2,050 ton tank is divided into two sections: one that simulates the Kuroshio warm current and the other that simulates the Oyashio cold current. Both currents meet in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture. The aquarium has 1,143 species of sealife and has a virtual reality wooden boat experience. Website: Hotel Pacifico Hotel Pacifico

Tamura (Fukushima Prefecture) is a small town a few miles inland from the Pacific that several interesting sights, including Isozaki shrine, built into a cliff face; Hoshinomura Tenmodnai, one of Japan’s largest astronomical observatories; and several caves with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites reached by a network of stairways illuminated with colored lights. Takine Goten, a cave with a spectacular 400 square meter chamber with a slanted waterfall, is particularly awesome. Tourism Office: (0247)-81-2136, website: www.city.tamura.lg.jp (Japanese only)

Hiraizumi (50 miles north of Sendai) is an old city laid out like Kyoto by the Fujiwara clan, an influential family of warlords that used to live here. It's main attraction in Chusonji Temple. Founded in 1109, it contains the Golden Hall coated with black lacquer and gold foil and inlaid mother of pearl and was created as a representation of the Pure Land, or Buddhist paradise. Hiraizumu has been nominated for the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

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Rikuchu-Kaigan
Coastal National Park
The Golden Hall houses 11 images of Buddha and the mummified remains of members of the Fujiwara clan. The temples also houses a sutra treasury and a temple treasury with scrolls and coffins. Other sights include Motsu-ji Temple and Takadachi Gikei-do Hall. Nearby is a Takkoku no Iawaya, a temple and garden built into a cave on the side of a cliff and a couple of scenic gorges.

Websites:Hiraizumi Tourism Association hiraizumi.or.jp Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Website: Hiraizumi Tourism Association hiraizumi.or.jp Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Hiraizumi is 30 minutes from Sendai by train. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Tono (30 miles northwest of Hiraizumi) is known best for its association with old folk tales and supernatural beings. Attractions include a folk village, a temple with a lion people rube for good luck and a traditional farmhouses with quarters with people and horses.

Rikuchu-Kaigan Coastal National Park (north of Sendai) runs for 110 miles along the Pacific Ocean. Noted for its narrow beaches and terraced shores, this relatively inaccessible park has remained largely unspoiled. The northern part of the park features rugged scenery and caves. The southern part boasts hundreds of beautiful bays, inlets and sandy beaches.

Miyako is a small city at the Rikuchu-Kaigan Coastal National Park. Jodoga-hama beach is a pleasant white sand beach with some nice hiking trails. There are expensive boat trips to local fishing villages. Other interesting spots in the general area include Mt. Iwate-san, a 2,039-foot-high volcanic peak with many hiking trails, and Ryusen-do Cave, a stalactite cave with an underground lake. Websites: Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; JNTO PDF file JNTO

Yamagata

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Yamagata (north of Aizu-Wakamatsu, west of Sendai) is an industrial town with 250,000 people. There isn't much to see. It is a useful jumping off point for trips to Dewa Sanzan, Mt. Yao and Yamadera Temple. Yamagata Prefecture boasts the highest snowfalls in Japan. On the Japan Sea side of the mountains around Yamagata city snow depths sometimes reach 18 feet. Skiing is often possible well into April and snow can be seen as late as July.

Snow trekking and snow trips are offered in the winter in the mountains through beech and larch forests. The snow is often so deep that hikers with snowshoes sink knee deep in snow that reaches the tree tops. Tracks of hares, foxes and sometimes monkeys are seen but you have to be lucky to see the animals themselves. Mt. Haguro in Yamagata Prefecture was given a three-star rating in the 2009 Michelin Guide on the basis of it cedar-lined road and links to Shugendo mountain asceticism.

Websites: Welcome to Yamagata Yamagata Prefecture Tourism and Yamagata Kanko Hotel Web Sites: Welcome to Yamagata Yamagata Kanko JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Yamagata is accessible by air and by bus and by shinkansen train from Tokyo (two and half hours) and Osaka (Six and a half hours) and other Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Yonezawa (southeastern part of Yamagata prefecture) is a small castle town with 100,000 people that is spread out over 54.9 square kilometers. The Azume and Iide mountains surround the city. These mountains have beautiful Alpine scenery, 10 hot springs and five ski resorts. During the winter people go on snowshoeing tours here.

Websites:Yamagata Prefectural government site Yamagata Kanko Hotel Web Sites: JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: href="http://www.lonelyplanet.com/japan/northern-honshu/yonezawa/transport/getting-there-away">Lonely Planet

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Mt. Zao in the summer
Dewa Sanzan (north of Yamagata) is a cluster of three sacred peaks---Mt. Haguro-san, Mt. Gas-san and Mt. Yudono-san---that for centuries have been pilgrimage destinations of yamabushi (mountain priests). It is possible to hike one or two of the mountains in a day. Many people stay at the 30 shukubo (temple accommodation) in the town of Toge.

Websites: Yamagata Prefectural government site Yamagata Kanko ; Wikitravel Wikitravel < /a> ; Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet ;

Mt. Zao (southeast of Yamagata) contains several lofty volcanic peaks and many good hot springs. Popular with mountain climbers in the summer and skiers in the winter, the mountain is known for an unusual meteorological phenomena that occurs in the winter and covers entire trees with unusual silver ice crystals.The hoar-frosted, pure white trees are called juhyo ("snow monsters”).

In the summer many hikers head to the beautiful Okayama crater lake that was created by an eruption 400 years ago. Located in a bowl with a lip that rises above the crater, it is said to change colors five times a day but is usually jade green.

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Mt. Zao monsters
The popular ski resort of Appi and traditional Yamagata Zao Onsen provide access to the juhyos and crater lake. Zao Onsen (45 minutes by bus from Yamagata) is a Swiss-Alps-style village with a wonderful onsen. To reach the crater lake you can take hiking trails or a cable car ride.

Websites: Yamagata Prefectural government site Yamagata Kanko Samurai Dave blog Samurai Dave ; Mt. Zao Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO ; Hiking and Getting There: Japan Hike Japan Hike

Yamadera (15 minutes by train from Yamagata station) means mountain temple. Visitors here hike to the 40 temples on a hillside, the highest of which is reached by a climb up 1,100 steps. The temples are built among the steep rock faces, which were regarded as a kind of interface between the real world and spirit world. The first temple, was founded in 860. It contains the “flame of belief” which is said to have burned continuously for more than 1,000 years. On the trail leading uphill from this temple is a “good luck tree” filled with ¥1 coins. Further up is the Godaido pavilion, a wooden viewing platform with a great view of the valley below. Websites: Yamagata Prefectural government site Yamagata Kanko Wikitravel Wikitravel

Aizu-Wakamatsu and Bandai Plateau Area

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Aizu-Wakamatsu (175 miles north of Tokyo) is an old castle town with many old merchant houses and attractive old storehouses as well as few well preserved samurai houses. Tsuruga Castle dominates the center of the city. From the top of the 36.5-meter-high keep are wonderful views of the town. The castle itself as built in the 1960s. It is a concrete reconstruction of wooden castle that once stood here.

Aizu-Wakamatsu is a convenient starting point for excursions into the Bandai-Azuma Mountains. This You can sample local sakes by doing a brewery hop. Many of the town’s 13 sake breweries are located near one another in the downtown area. Aizu-Wakamatsu is also known for its kites, ginseng, lacquerware, and candles with hand-drawn flowers.

Websites: Aizu-Wakamatsu city site aizuwakamatsu.fukushima JNTO article JNTO Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO ; Hotel Web Sites: JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) >Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Aizu-Wakamatsu is accessible by air and by bus and by train from Tokyo (two and half hours) and Osaka (six hours) and other Japanese cities. From Tokyo you take the shinkansen north to Koriyama and change to JR local trains. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

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mud volcano at Goshogake onsen
Bandai Plateau (near Aizu-Wakamatsu) of Bandai-Asahi National Park is the second largest plateau in Japan after Daisetsuzan in Hokkaido. It is dotted with more than 200 lakes created by the eruption of Mt. Bandai, a volcano that still emits sulfur-smelling smoke. There are many well equipped camping areas and hiking trails.

Mt. Bandai last erupted in 1988. When it erupted catastrophically thousands of years ago it blasted peaks away peaks, filling in canyons and creating the Bandai Plateau. During the winter hikers with snowshoes head to the crater of Mt. Bandai to see the unusual yellow-orange frozen waterfall created from frozen iron- and sulfur-rich water that looks more like melted wax than frozen water.

Websites: Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Japan-I Japan-I ; Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO ; Getting There: There are buses to the trail heads from Aizu-Wakamatsu. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Lake Inawashiro (near Aizu-Wakamatsu) is the third largest lake in Japan. Located on the south of the Badai Plateau. It is a good summer resort with several fine beaches and several areas which rent boats and sponsor sightseeing boat trips. Websites: JNTO article JNTO ; Lake Inawashiro Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO

Niigata

Niigata (on the Japan Sea) is an important port and industrial city with 440,000 people. It receives the world's only regular North Korean ferry as well as regular passenger-carrying ships from Vladivostok, Russia, which is almost due west of Niigita. To accommodate the Russian visitors road signs are written in Cryllic and one luxury hotel is adorned with Russian-style onion domes. The North Koreans have connections with Japanese Korean residents that are loyal to Pyongyang. A row of historic machiya houses is being restored in the Murakami district of Niigata.

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Niigata was struck by devastating earthquakes in 2004 and 2007. The two hour ride from Tokyo on the bullet train pass through 14-mile-long Daishimizu tunnel, one of the longest railroad tunnels in the world. Niigata Prefecture is known for producing Japan’s best rice and sake. Most of the people are old.

Niigata is a jumping off point for Sado Island. The Yamakoshi area of Niigata is famous for its rice paddies., Many of the paddies damaged in the 2004 earthquake have been restored.

Websites:Niigata Prefecture site Enjoy Niigata Niigata City site city.niigata.jp ;Niigata Visitors and Convention Bureau nvcb.or.jp Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Web Sites: Niigata Prefecture site Enjoy Niigata ; Niigata Visitors and Convention Bureau nvcb.or.jp ; JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Niigata is accessible by air and by bus and by train from Tokyo (two hours) and Osaka (six hours) and other Japanese cities. There is a shinkansen line between Tokyo and Niigata. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Sado Island

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Sado Island (a one hour jet foil or 2½ hour ferry ride from Niigata port) lies in the Sea of Japan about 25 miles offshore of central Honshu in Niigata prefecture. The fifth largest Japanese island, it is famous for its gold mines, traditional dances, Kodo drumming colony, sweet persimmon sherbets and puddings, spectacular performance of Noh theater and the Sado Crested Ibis Conservation Center.

Sado Island lies just of the coast of Niigata. It is known for its harsh winter, self-contained local culture and as a disposal point for vagrants, criminals and Korean slave laborers. Gold and silver were discovered in the 16th century. Excavated holes in mountains and man-made crevasses remain as indicators of the mining that was done here. Over the years the island has served as a convenient place to exile disgraced military leaders, troublesome nobles and disruptive religious leaders such as Nichiren, the founder of an important Buddhist sect.

The two most well-known taiko drum ensembles are Kodo, a group that lives on a rural commune on the island of Sado in rural Japan; and Ondekoza, another Sado-Island-based ensemble that requires its drummers to exercise hard everyday.

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Ondekoza was founded on Sado Island in 1970. Its name means "demon drum." Members were required by their leader, Den Tagayasu, to run marathons to build up strength and stamina and abstain from tobacco, alcohol and sex so their energy could be channeled into their music. The group once participated in the Boston Marathon.

Kodo was formed in 1981 to study, preserve and spread taiko music. It evolved from Ondekoza after Tagayasu left the group. In 1988, Kodo built their own village in Ogi, on the southern part of Sado, where their members still live to day in an environment regarded as close to nature and spirits. Outsiders can join the community but have apply for a “two-year apprenticeship," which requires total physical, mental and spiritual commitment.

Kodo consists of 12 to 14 members (including a couple of women). They spend about a third of their touring Japan, a third touring the world and third practicing and composing on Sado Island. Each year during the Earth Celebration they host musicians from all over the world. Kodo means "children of the world."

Websites:Sado Tourism Association Visit Sado Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Wikitravel Wikitravel Map: Wikitravel Wikitravel Hotel Web Sites: JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Sado Tourism Association Visit Sado Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Sado Island is accessible by air and by regular ferry and hydrofoil from Niigata. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Ryotsu (Sado Island) is the main town and accommodation center of Sado Island. Sitting on the shores of Lake Kamo, it is reached from the sea by a narrow inlet and shadowed by the towering peaks of the Kimpoku Range.

Sights on Sado Island include the Sado Kinzan Gold Mine (closed in 1989 and now the home of a underground museum); Senkaku-wan Bay (with impressive rock formations); and a number of charming fishing towns. Perhaps the nicest thing to do is wander around the countryside.

The island is dominated by two parallel, but offset, mountain ranges. On the flat fertile land between the ranges small rice farms produce some of Japan's finest and most expensive rice. Yajima and Kyojima are a pair of small, rocky islets visited by tourists. Yajima (Arrow Island) is known fir its high-quality bamboo, used in the past for making arrows. Kyojima (Sutra Island) is associated with a legend about Nichiren, the founder of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. A lovely red, arch bridge connects the two islands.

Image Sources: 1) May Japanese Guest Houses 2) itako 3) Aomori City site 4) Aomori Museum site 5) Onsen Express 6) 7) Hirosaki City site 8) 9) Akita Prefecture site 10) 11) Sendai City site 12) 13) Wikipedia 14) Japan National Parks site 15) 16) Yamagata Prefecture 17 ) Samurai Dave blog 18) Aizu Wakamatsu city 19) Niigata city site 20) 21) Sado Island site

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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