Seasonal splendor in Japan's Tohoku region

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The Okama crater lake on Mount Zao, an active volcano.
The Okama crater lake on Mount Zao, an active volcano. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya
It was the second day of my visit to Japan's Tohoku region, and our first stop, Osaki's Naruko Gorge in the Miyagi prefecture, was stunning in its arboreal splendor.


At the gorge's visitor center, busloads of tourists took advantage of the Technicolor surroundings for group portraits, selfies and landscape shots in the early-morning sunlight.

Nature was staging a spectacular seasonal production, but this wasn't springtime, so it wasn't a backdrop of cherry blossoms that filled out the tourists' viewfinders. Instead, we were taking in the vibrant reds, oranges and greens of fall foliage during a fam trip hosted by Luxury Travel Japan.

Ancient forests and onsens

Of course, there are cherry blossoms in Tohoku, which comprises six prefectures in northeastern Japan: Aomori, Akita, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata. In fact, Fukushima is home to Miharu Takizakura, a 1,000-year-old specimen whose flowers are said to spread out in a manner reminiscent of waterfalls.

But as evidenced by our excursion to view the Naruko Gorge's fall foliage, the Tohoku region offers natural wonders year-round.

For example, there was Dewa Sanzan, which is the collective name for the Gassan, Haguro and Yudono mountains. Hiking routes to Dewa Sanzan are said to date as far back as 1,400 years. We took a short hike among the scores of ancient cedar trees (300 to 500 years old) on Mount Haguro, stopping briefly at the five-story pagoda said to be the region's oldest, completed in 937 and restored in 1372.

In Yamagata it was a considerably longer, and more vertical, journey to another historical structure. We scaled 1,015 steps to reach the top of the Yamadera temple complex, dating to the ninth century, and the journey proved worthwhile: From within the Godaido building, we took in clifftop views that earned Yamadera its designation as one of Japan's national historical sites.

Equally impressive was our visit to the Okama crater lake on Mount Zao, an active volcano. The kilometer-wide lake's emerald-green water was perhaps a bit subdued under the overcast sky; a group taking a more leisurely pace likely could have waited for more photogenic sunlight that day, but we had much more to explore.

While I'm on the subject of geothermal phenomena, onsen hot springs are a huge draw for Tohoku. On the first night of the fam, we stayed at the Ohnuma Ryokan in the Naruko hot springs village, which boasts nearly 400 spring sources. Our ryokan (traditional inn) had its own onsen just down a hill, so at dawn our group made its way there: ladies first, then the men's session.

As an onsen novice, I had a lot of questions about etiquette and so on — you're getting naked with strangers, after all — and thankfully Ohnuma offered a helpful guide, rendered in manga cartoon drawings. (In short: Preserve modesty with the provided washcloth, rinse off before getting in, limit your soak to about 15 minutes to avoid heat exhaustion.)

Ohnuma Ryokan offered modest comforts, but we also inspected a few of the region's luxury ryokans.

The Chikusenso resort and spa offers 32 rooms over five floors at the foot of Mount Zao. In keeping with the resort's sylvan surroundings, decor in the common spaces and accommodations incorporate indigenous materials.

The 11-room Matsushima Sakan Shoan, meanwhile, sits on a peninsula stretching into Matsushima Bay. Like Chikusenso, the property emphasizes traditional ryokan elements, with what could be an important difference for clients: Both ryokans featured accommodations offering Western-style beds as opposed to the traditional tatami mats.

Nightly rates at Chikusenso begin at about $180 for weekdays. At Matsushima Sakan Shoan, rates begin at about $290. Both properties' rates include two meals.

Handmade traditions

While Western touches have informed the accommodations we visited in Tohoku, other aspects of our trip seemed fully steeped in tradition.

For instance, at the Akiyu craft center, we tried our hand at decorating kokeshi dolls, bowling pin-like wood carvings decorated using watercolor inks and fine-tipped brushes. Armed with 8-inch blank carvings, a few inks (red, yellow, black and blue) and one brush, none of us came close to achieving the sharp, clean lines boasted by even the smallest of the professionally painted dolls, which were about 3 inches tall.

At the Moritami Shuzo Honke sake brewery in Sendai, it was easy to imagine the brewing process being much the same as the one employed five generations ago by owner Mori Tokuhide's ancestors (barring a digital thermometer and some climate-control equipment in the rice-fermentation room).

As a result, production and distribution are modest, and the resulting sake can be somewhat delicate; after a tasting I was especially keen on one of the seasonal offerings but was told that particular variety was too temperature-sensitive to survive the trip back home.

Not long afterward, we were on our way back to Tokyo, having concluded our sampling of Tohoku's fall attractions. Other visitors might be lured by spring's cherry blossoms; summer's myriad festivals, such as the region's flagship Aomori Nebuta Festival spotlighting gigantic, illuminated nebuta paper dolls; or the kamakura snow huts and ice sculptures of winter. Truly Tohoku is a destination for all seasons.

Getting there

From Tokyo's main rail station, visitors can take the Tohoku Shinkansen high-speed train to several stops in the region: To Sendai, in Miyagi prefecture, it's about a 90-minute ride, and just over an hour beyond that to the northernmost Aomori prefecture.

Luxury Travel Japan can arrange for private transportation, create personalized tour itineraries and more. See http://luxurytraveljapan.jp.

For more on Tohoku, visit http://en.tohokukanko.jp.

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