At the end of the 13th century, Italian Marco Polo wrote “The Travels of Marco Polo” (also known as “Il Milione” or “Le Livre des Merveilles”). and introduced Japan as Zipangu, a country full of gold. Although the reason why he described Japan as a “golden country” is not clear, it is certain that once Japan had a glorious Golden Age of Culture.
The Tohoku region, the northeastern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu, was well known throughout the country for yielding gold and also even in foreign countries in ancient times. In the early 12th century, gold mined in the region was accumulated by the independent and powerful local rulers, the Oshu Fujiwaras, in Hiraizumi and contributed to creating the distinctive and sophisticated culture of Hiraizumi. Hiraizumi was said to rival the then capital Kyoto in grandeur and sophistication.
Later, haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) visited Hiraizumi and impressed by the melancholy ruins wrote two poems in “Oku no Hosomichi” (“Narrow Road to the Deep North”),: Natsukusa ya tsuwamono-domo ga yume no ato (The summer grasses – for many brave warriors the aftermath of dreams. ((c) Donald Keene)), Samidare no furinokoshite ya hikarido (Have the summer rains come and gone, sparing the Hall of Light? ((c) Haruo Shirane))
The northern Tohoku region is a large area with sparse population and a cold climate. However, it touches the heart of travelers, being blessed with picturesque landscapes and onsen hot springs. It is hard to see all at one time because of the size of the region. This time we mainly introduce areas that are convenient to visit by public transportation.
Some 900 years ago, an elegant city with numerous temples and gardens started to be built in Hiraizumi. Hiraizumi was the regional capital of the Hiraizumi “golden culture” that the Oshu Fujiwaras created and a trendsetting place of Japan’s Buddhist culture. The Oshu Fushiwaras ruled the northern Tohoku region and their realm was effectively independent from the central government Imperial Court. With strong military force and political neutrality, they established a unique regime and culture, being free from political intrigue. They prospered during the four generations from Kiyohira to Motohira to Hidehira to Yasuhira over the course of a century. People in Kyoto admired Hiraizumi, thinking it was a sophisticated city sparkling brilliantly with gold.
Fujiwara no Hidehira hid Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189), who was a warrior pursued by the ruler Minamoto no Yoritomo, but after death of Hidehira in 1189, Yoshitsune committed suicide. Ultimately, also, in 1189 the Oshu Fushiwaras met a rapid ruin. Exactly five centuries later, in 1689, Matsuo Basho visited Hiraizumi and found that the ruins were now simply a broad stretch of land with almost no sign of the former glory.
There are expectations that the ruins of Hiraizumi will be designated a World Heritage Site. Although many structures were lost due to wars and fires, historical remains are still scattered round about. Touring using bicycle rental is convenient.
It is said that Chusonji Temple was founded by Jikaku Daishi, a monk of Enryakuji Temple in Hiei-zan, Shiga Prefecture, in 850 AD. Fujiwara no Kiyohira, the first of the clan, greatly enlarged the temple complex in the early 12th century and built Konjiki-do (Golden Hall) in 1124. All of the hall except its roof was covered with gold leaf, which indicated the incredible wealth and power of the Oshu Fujiwaras. Most of the temple complex’s some 3,000 national treasures and important cultural assets are now housed in Sanko-zo, the Treasure Hall.
The second-generation ruler Motohira started building and his successor Hidehira completed Motsuji Temple. Although it was burned down several times in fires, it is said that its magnificent buildings and gardens were superior to their counterparts in Kyoto. The restored garden is a typical example of a Jodo (Pure Land) garden, landscaped around Oizumi-ga-ike Pond, and is said to be the most beautiful garden built in the Heian era (794-1185).
Gembi-kei is a 2-km gorge of the Iwai River and is designated a national natural asset. A promenade through woods provides striking views of the gorge. Geibi-kei is a 2-km valley of the Satetsu River, surrounded by 100-meter-high cliffs. An excursion cruise is available.
Morioka flourished as a castle town and has produced several great figures: poet Ishikawa Takuboku, poet Miyazawa Kenji, politician Hara Takashi and diplomat Nitobe Inazo. It is also a junction to the Hachimanti and Sanriku areas.
Koiwai Farm is located on the southern foothills of Mt. Iwate. Visitors enjoy horse riding, cow milking and sheep and dog shows. You can also enjoy eating meat, butter, cheese or cheesecake produced on the farm.
Kakunodate is a castle town built by the lords of Ashina in the early Edo Era (1603-1867). After the Ashinas died out, the Satakes became the lords of Kakunodate. Streets in the town turn at a right angle along the way, which was a method to prepare for battle in times of war. Kakunodate, which is called “Little Kyoto,” retains many warrior residences from those days of old. Aoyagi Samurai Manor, which is famous for its elegant gate, has six museums in its 3,000-tsubo (9,900 sq. meters) precincts. Armor and swords passed down for generations, art works and treasured articles are on display. The Ishiguro residence is the oldest and the most prestigious warrior residence remaining in Kakunodate. Its black fences are sophisticated. The Iwahashi and Matsumoto residences were used for shooting of the film “Tasogare Seibei” (“The Twilight Samurai”). Old weeping cherry trees, which fascinatingly bloom in spring, are said to be transplanted from Kyoto in the 17th century and many of them are designated national natural treasures.
Hachimantai is a plateau straddling Iwate and Akita prefectures. A road runs near the peak and access by bus is convenient. There are moors and ponds and virgin forests and alpine plants can be seen. Hiking, nature walks and skiing there are enjoyable.
This is the deepest lake (425 m) in Japan. Pleasure cruises and cycling around the lake are fun.
This 1,637 meter-high mountain is famous for lovely alpine flowers. Visitors can go to the eighth station by bus and enjoy casual hiking.
-Hakkoda Mountain Range
Hakkoda-san is a mountain range consisting of the northern Hakkoda range of ten mountains and the southern Hakkoda range of six mountains. There are walking trails around Sancho-koen Station (“peak park station”) of Hakkoda Ropeway.
Kenashitai moor is a treasure house of aquatic plants. Steep steps above Shimo-Kenashitai moor command a breathtaking view. Although boardwalks are maintained in the moors and easy for walking, mountain gear is necessary.
Jigoku-numa Pond near Sukayu Onsen spa is an explosion crater lake. Even now sulfurous acid gas and hot water gush from the bottom.
Botanical Gardens, Tohoku University:
Botanical Gardens, Tohoku University is home to 600 plants growing in Hakkoda. There are six ponds including Tsuta-numa Pond in natural forests around Tsuta Onsen spa and walking trails are maintained.
-Lake Towada and Oirase Gorge
Lake Towada is a beautiful caldera lake surrounded by the outer rim of a crater. Oirase Gorge starts at Nenokuchi of Lake Towada and 14 km long. Promenades along the gorge offer picturesque views of streams and cascades. It is especially beautiful during the season of fresh green leaves and in autumn.
Hirosaki boasts old samurai residences reminding visitors of the once-flourishing castle town and Hirosaki Castle, which is the only castle still keeping a castle tower in the Tohoku region. A large number of cherry trees in Hirosaki Park on the castle grounds are in spectacular full bloom from late April to early May.
Although it is cold in winter and sometimes suffers damage from cold weather, the Tsugaru area has been blessed with abundant seafood and forest products. In the past it flourished by trading with China, Hokkaido and the Tokugawa government. Author Dazai Osamu (1909-1948) was born here and the house in which he was born remains in Kanagi. The scenery of rice paddies in Tsugaru is attractive and restful to the eyes.
The Shirakami Mountain Range lies between Aomori and Akita prefectures. Possessing large virgin breech forests, it is designated a World Heritage Site. Although Anmon-no-Taki Falls are easy to access on foot and popular for sightseeing, some places are dangerous and visitors need to be careful and watch their step. The road is sometimes closed due to dangerousness.
Osore-zan is one of the Three Sacred Mountains in Japan along with Koya-san in Wakayama Prefecture and Hiei-zan in Shiga Prefecture. The intense smell of sulfur in the air, barren landscape and blue and quiet Lake Usoriyama create an otherworldly atmosphere. It is famous for itako, mediums who are said to be able to call up spirits of the dead to communicate with them.
Rei-men, or cold noodles, is a popular dish in Iwate. The cold and smooth texture of the noodles is very tasty.
Wanko-soba, which is buckwheat noodles famous for the style of eating in which waiters keep putting a batch of noodles in a bowl without interruption until eaters signal to stop, and jaja-men, which is udon-noodles with slices of cucumber and leek and niku-miso (miso paste with meat) on the top, are also popular.
Jappa-jiru, a local food of Tsugaru, Aomori, is stew of bony parts of fish, carrot, Japanese radish, burdock and other vegetables. Mutsu Bay, Aomori, is famous for cultured scallops, and restaurants serves fresh ones.
Hachinohe is proud of its squid catch, which is the largest in Japan, and is also well-known for fresh seafood such as sea urchins and sea squirts. Some 60 shops serve the local food at Hasshoku Center in Hachinohe. The morning market in Hachinohe is famous, and so, too, are apples of Aomori.
Kiritampo is Akita’s specialty, which is made with new rice, mashing it coarsely, putting it on stick, and baking it. Kiritampo stew is a dish of kiritampo and vegetables in soup using local hinai-chicken broth, soy sauce and sake. Inaniwa udon-noodles originated in Inaniwa village, Akita, three centuries ago. Its thin, firm but smooth texture makes it popular. Akita is also well known for its local sake.
Japan is full of hot springs, and, especially, the northern Tohoku region is blessed with “authentic” hot springs. Although there are few large-scale spa resorts, it is full of quiet spas good for relaxation and medical treatment, and secluded hot spring spots. The quality of the waters is dense and there are many beneficial effects.
Sukayu Onsen, Aomori, is located in the western foothills of Mt. Odake of the Hakkoda-san range and has a 300-year history. Its famous 80-tsubo (260 sq. meters) “Sennin-buro,” meaning a bath large enough for 1,000 people, is mixed bathing but has a time for women only. There are also gender-segregated baths.
Tsuta Onsen, Aomori, was built in 1918. Hot springs bubble up under the bottom of the baths, which are made of wood and create a restful atmosphere.
Koganezaki Furo-fushi Onsen, Aomori, has open-air baths near the coast, which is rare in the Tohoku region, and day-trip use is available. On clear days, sunset over the sea can be seen.
Komaki Onsen, Aomori, which covers approximately 730,000 sq. meters, spreads out on the south side of JR Misawa station. It is a huge resort facility with four hot-spring hotels and various leisure facilities, as well as Japan’s largest rock bath, measuring some 4,000 sq. meters.
Tazawako Kogen Onsen-kyo, Akita, stands on the Tazawa Plateau, which commands a view of Lake Tazawa and offers views of Mt. Chokai in the distance, surrounded by picturesque landscapes.
Nyuto Onsen-kyo, Akita, is popular for its rustic atmosphere and good water directly from the source. Located at the foot of Mt. Nyuto on the northeast end of Lake Tazawa, there are seven inns ensconced in beech forests. Tsuru-no-yu Onsen is the oldest in the Nyuto Onsen-kyo. Tae-no-yu Onsen has sophisticated interior decoration, which is quite surprising, considering it is in mountains, and popular for its excellent meals.
Tamagawa Onsen, Akita, features water that is strongly acidic, renowned for its beneficial effects. You can see numerous people lying on rocks heated by geothermal heat to warm their bodies therapeutically.
Summer is the best season for festivals, which are held to pray for the repose of souls or to pray for the productiveness of grain. Participants enthusiastically dance and put on spirited performances to enjoy the short summer in the Tohoku region to the fullest extent.
Morioka Sansa Odori is annually held in Morioka City, Iwate, from August 1st to 3rd. Dancers elegantly dance to the accompaniment of peculiar rallying cries, and drums are beaten. Parades are held around Chuo Street.
Nebuta Festival, Aomori, is annually held from August 2nd to 7th and attracts more than 3.6 million people every summer. Magnificent floats in the shape of warriors are pulled around the city, all the time surrounded by frenzied dancers. Some ten floats are on display in “Nebuta-no-Sato Village” and visitors here can experience highlights of the festival at any time.
Hirosaki Neputa is held in Hirosaki from August 1st to 7th every summer. Fan-shaped floats and doll-shaped floats parade about the city.
Goshogawara Tachi-neputa is annually held in Goshogawara City, Aomori, from August 4th through 8th. Tall floats, the largest of which is more than 20 meters high, are pulled around the city.
The Kanto Festival is annually held in Akita City, Akita, in early August. Bamboo poles hanging lanterns represent rice ears and lanterns represent straw rice bags. Local men balance poles on their forehead, lower back and shoulders to pray for a good harvest. Real poles are displayed in Akita City Minzoku-Geino-Densho-kan and visitors can pick them up and carry them to realize their weight.
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