Relatively few Americans have visited Tohoku, the northeast region of Japan's main island. But for travelers wishing to go beyond the typical Japan itinerary, and for those interested in seeing this country as its natives do, a trip to Tohoku is in order.
For most Americans, travel to Japan consists of Tokyo and points west: In 2010, 66.7% of U.S. leisure travelers went to Tokyo, followed by Kyoto at 25.2%, Yokohama at 20.9% and Osaka at 16.2%.
The percentage of Americans visiting Tohoku was 4.7%.
And while Taiwanese and Korean tourists have discovered Tohoku, it is still predominantly a popular domestic tourist destination.
The Japanese come here to relax in hot spring resorts; to hike and bike or just enjoy the beauty of the snow-capped mountains and ice-blue rivers; or to walk in the serenity of hillside Buddhist temple sites, including the temples and gardens of Hiraizumi, Tohoku's first Unesco World Heritage Site and one of nine in Japan.
Visitors also flock here in the spring for some of the country's largest cherry blossom festivals and in the fall to bask in the fall foliage.
Hirosaki, the region's northernmost city, hosts Japan's largest cherry blossom festival, drawing 2.6 million visitors.
Year-round, Tohoku hosts other seasonal festivals, several of which include parades of ornate, colorful floats.
I visited during Tohoku's off-season, while the snow was still melting and one week before the late April sakura blossoms. Although this region was the site of major devastation from the earthquake and tsunami that struck here just over one year ago, most tourist sites were untouched.
Visitors should note that because Tohoku caters primarily to domestic tourists, there are very few signs in English or other languages, and it is often difficult to find a hotel staff member who speaks a language other than Japanese.
Sendai and beyond
Sendai is the region's largest city and a good launching point to explore Tohoku.
Just north of Sendai is Matsushima, a small coastal town known for its picturesque archipelago of more than 200 islands. These islands served to protect the main town from the worst of the tsunami.
Matsushima is home to Zuiganji, a Zen temple from the 10th century. The main temple is closed for renovations until 2018, but the grounds and other small temples and shrines still make it worth a visit, starting with the long approach to the main hall, lined with soaring cedar trees whose scent permeates the region.
In Hiraizumi, about a 90-minute drive from Sendai, is the Chuson-ji Temple. Built onto a hillside with swaying bamboo trees and offering sweeping views of the countryside, the temple grounds are home to a museum as well as the Golden Hall. Constructed entirely of gold in 1124, the hall houses the mummified remains of lords from four generations of the Fujiwara clan, which dominated Japanese politics from the ninth to 12th centuries.
Kakunodate, a town near Tohoku's west coast, has six samurai houses open to the public, including one that still has a 12th-generation samurai family living in it.
Ishiguro, the oldest of the six houses, is still home to the Ishiguro family, where an 11th- and 12th-generation samurai father and son greet and talk with guests about their family and give them a short tour of their home, which includes a museum of swords and armor of the samurai era.
Nearby, don't miss the cherry bark crafts museum, built in the style of the samurai houses. The regional craft is still done by local cherry bark artisans, called kabazaiku, one of whom demonstrates the art for visitors.
A visit to any part of Japan is not complete without a stay in a ryokan, where living areas feature tatami, a straw mat flooring; legless chairs and low tables with tea ceremony setups; and usually a futon mattress set up on the tatami for sleeping.
The most traditional ryokans have private dining rooms for groups, also with low tables and legless chairs -- note that traditional Japanese venues mean a lot of cross-legged sitting.
Some ryokans are more Westernized, with buffets; high tables and chairs; and hybrid rooms with tatami mats but Western-style beds.
At hot spring ryokans, the bathing experience, separated by gender, is a very ritualized process of washing the body thoroughly before entering the baths without clothing. There are usually both indoor and outdoor tubs.
The Japanese swear by the preventive and healing powers of the mountain-fed, hot spring water in Tohoku.
It is traditional to wear the same slippers and robe to dinner and around the resort that one wears to the baths.
Many ryokans in Tohoku are very reasonably priced, although because they are so different from Western-style resorts, it's difficult to assign them a star rating.
The Komagatake Kanko Hotel, a spa resort in Akita, is a very good bargain for $122 per night, per person for a room that includes an extensive dinner, a buffet breakfast and use of the spa pools.
And the locals assured me that this was much less than similar accommodations in Tokyo or Kyoto would be.
Follow Johanna Jainchill on Twitter @jjainchilltw.