The Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō), sometimes referred to as Ōu Region (奥羽地方 Ōu-chihō), comprises the following prefectures:
- Akita (秋田県 Akita-ken)
- Aomori (青森県 Aomori-ken)
- Fukushima (福島県 Fukushima-ken)
- Iwate (岩手県 Iwate-ken)
- Miyagi (宮城県 Miyagi-ken)
- Yamagata (山形県 Yamagata-ken)
It encompasses the entire northern end of the island of Honshū and comprises the ancient provinces of Mutsu (陸奥国Mutsu no kuni) and Dewa (出羽国 Dewa no kuni). It is mostly mountainous, with numerous basins, mountain valleys, and small coastal plains. Most towns and cities are concentrated along the Pacific and Sea of Japan coasts and in the centres of several basins. The Ōu Mountains (奥羽山脈 Ōu-sanmyaku) run north to south dividing the region through the centre. To the west, the Dewa Mountains (出羽三山 Dewa Sanzan) and the Echigo Mountains (越後山脈) run parallel to the coast. To the northeast, the Kitakami Mountains (北上山地) front the Pacific Ocean and are separated from the Ōu Mountains by the broad Kitakamigawa valley. In the southeast, the Abukuma River (阿武隈川 Abukuma-gawa) flows inland from the Abukuma Mountains (阿武山脈) along the coast. The region includes the Nasu and Chokai volcanic zones.
In ancient times the area was inhabited by the aboriginal people known as Ezo or Emishi (蝦夷), and it was only in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) that it came entirely under the control of the central government. Still economically underdeveloped, it is primarily an agricultural area, with rice as the primary crop (20 per cent of the national yield). Potatoes and apples are also grown, and dairy farming is increasing; forestry is essential.
The area off the Sanriku Coast (Aomori, Iwate, and Miyagi) is a fertile fishing ground. Coal production in the Jōban mining area stopped in 1976, but petroleum and natural gas are still tapped in Akita and Yamagata (as well as in Niigata and Hokkaido). The iron, steel, cement, chemical, pulp, and petroleum refining industries have been developing since the 1960s, in the areas surrounding the cities of Hachinohe, Akita, and Iwaki, and around Sendai.
The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami
On March 11, 2011, a massive magnitude 9.0 undersea earthquake struck the coast of Japan at 14:46 JST. One of the five most powerful earthquakes since records have been kept; its epicentre was 70kmoff the Japanese coast, the hypocenter about 32km deep. It triggered a tsunami that may have reached up to forty meters in height and was still up to nine meters high when it hit the coast of Tohoku, travelling up to ten kilometres inland. The destruction was apocalyptical: according to the National Police Association (PDF) 15,883 people died, 2,652 are still missing, 6,149 were injured, 126,538 homes were destroyed, and 272,315 half collapsed. The infrastructure along the coast of Tohoku was in shambles. Unfortunately, the tsunami resulted in several nuclear accidents, the worst of which took place in the complex of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. in Futaba (双葉郡), Fukushima Prefecture. While all four reactors of Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant about twelve kilometres south of Daiichi automatically shut down, the backup power and the containment systems at Daiichi were damaged, resulting in hydrogen explosions in three reactors and a level-7 nuclear meltdown, comparable in scale to the Chernobyl disaster. The Japanese government established a 20-kilometre evacuation zone around the crippled nuclear plant, displacing more than 100,000 Fukushima residents. Apart from the tragic human loss, the World Bank (PDF) estimated the total economic cost of the 2011 disaster might reach up to USD 235 billion (2.5 to 4 per cent of Japan’s GDP).
- 8,851,238 residents (October 2017)
- 66,889.55 square kilometres
- Population density: 130 inhabitants per square kilometre
- Main urban centres: Sendai, Aomori City, Hachinohe, Morioka
Ferries ply all around the coast of Tōhoku, and between Aomori in the extreme north of the region and Hokkaido. Local airports include Akita, Sendai, Yamagata, Hanamaki, Misawa, Aomori, Odate Noshiro, and Fukushima, so most parts of the region can easily be reached by domestic flights.
Trains for Tōhoku tend to run from Tōkyō. Several shinkansen facilitate the journey to the far north: the Tōhoku and Akita Shinkansen runs from Tōkyō through Sendai and Morioka to Akita; the Tōhoku and Yamagata Shinkansen runs from Tōkyō through Fukushima and Yamagata to Shinjo, and the Joetsu Shinkansen runs from Tōkyō through Omiya and Takasaki to Niigata. There are other lines too that avoid Tōkyō; for example a combination of the Tokaido, Kosei and Hokuriku Lines which runs from Osaka through Kyoto, Kanazawa and Toyama to Niigata.
Being further north, the temperatures in Tōhoku are cooler than the rest of Japan. The further north you go, the lower they get, and on average, temperatures are about five degrees lower than the rest of Japan. Typhoons are less of a problem, as fewer make it that far north, and those that do, are later than the rest of Japan (hence rainfall in Sendai peaks in September). Akita in the far north has little rain from typhoons, but being on the Japan Sea coast gets more rain all year round. A significant part of this falls as snow in the winter.
Sunshine hours falls dramatically for Akita, further north, while Sendai seems to have more regularly clear skies throughout the year. This is probably due to Akita getting more snow in the winter than Sendai, which is further south.
If you are travelling to this area in the winter, remember that you need to be prepared for sub-zero temperatures and that there may be fewer trains and buses when you get away from the main cities – make sure that you research your route before you go.
Things to see
Generally considered to be the backwoods of Japan, much of Tōhoku’s charm lies in its wilderness and unspoilt nature. The famous haiku poet Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉, 1644-1694) wrote perhaps his most famous work, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (奥の細道 Oku no Hosomichi), about his travels in the north of Japan. While the roads have got a little better since then, Tohoku is still a very rural area, and agriculture is still a significant source of employment. While the main cities are little different from those in the rest of Japan, the countryside still has more of the traditional folk culture of Japan, as evidenced by local matsuri and dances.
This prefecture makes up the tip of Honshū and is linked by numerous ferries to Hokkaidō, the next island. The weather on its east and west sides is entirely different – on the Japan Sea coast, higher rainfall and snowfall contrast with lower temperatures on the eastern Pacific side. Aomori is home to the world’s largest area of virgin beech forest (designated a World Heritage site)in Oirase (奥入瀬), Towada-Hachimantai National Park. Shimokita Peninsula (下北半島 Shimokita-hantō) and Tsugaru (つがる) are designated Quasi-national parks.
- Shirakami Mountains (白神山地 Shirakami-Sanchi), a UNESCO World Heritage famous for its virgin forests of Siebold’s beech; Oirase Valley
- Lake Towada (十和田湖 Towada-ko), the largest crater lake on Honshū, shares a border with Akita Prefecture
- Tsugaru Quasi-National Park (津軽国定公園 Tsugaru Kokutei Kōen)
- Shimokita Hantō Quasi-National Park (下北半島国定公園 Shimokita-hantō Kokutei Kōen) volcanic peaks and caldera lakes
- San’nai-Maruyama Ruins (三内丸山遺跡), dating back to 4000 to 5000 BCE, close to Aomori City
- Korekawa Ruins from the Jōmon period, close to Hachinohe
- Kamegaoka Ruins from the Jōmon period, close to Tsugaru
- Aomori Nebuta Matsuri (青森ねぶた祭り), one of the three largest summer festivals in Tōhoku
- Hirosaki (弘前): Hirosaki Neputa Matsuri, Hirosaki Castle (弘前城 Hirosaki-jō), the seat of the Tsugaru clan
- Iwaki Oyama Pilgrimage (Tsugaru)
- Hachinohe Enburi, a winter festival for a bountiful harvest.
Agriculture is highly essential in this area, which has fertile soil and ample water, making it a vital agricultural area. Inland regions have one of the highest levels of snowfall in Japan. The local lakes and mountains are some of the most beautiful in Japan, and many festivals (matsuri) add colour to the seasons.
- Akita Kantō (秋田の竿灯, Pole Lantern Festival) in Akita City held at the beginning of August
- Namahage (生剥), New Year ritual in which ogre masks are worn, similar to the Alpine “Perchta” in Southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia.
- Lake Tazawa (田沢湖 Tazawa-ko), at 423 meters Japan’s deepest lake; Lake Towada (十和田湖 Towada-ko)
- Oga Peninsula (男鹿半島 Oga-hantō)
- Towada-Hachimantai National Park (十和田八幡平国立公園 Towada-Hachimantai Kokuritsu Kōen), located in Aomori, Akita and Iwate prefectures.
- Mount Chōkai (鳥海山 Chōkai-san), the second tallest mountain in Tōhoku, also called “Akita Fuji”.
- Yokote Kamakura Matsuri (横手かまくら祭り), a midwinter festival with snow shrines
- Kiritanpo (きりたんぽ), pounded rice wrapped around Japanese cedar skewers and grilled.
Yamagata has been a centre of transportation for centuries, with ships coming and going across the Japan Sea. Its long history has left traces in ancient temples and shrines and traditional arts and crafts (particularly lacquerware and castings).
- Risshaku-ji (立石寺) Temple, also known as Yama-dera (山寺, “Mountain Temple”), a nationally-designated Place of Scenic Beauty and Historic Site close to Yamagata City.
- Kaminoyama Castle (上山城), also known as Tsukioka Castle, constructed by the Mogami Clan, later held by the Toki Clan.
- Bandai-Asahi National Park (磐梯朝日国立公園 Bandai Asahi Kokuritsu Kōen) stretching over Fukushima, Yamagata and Niigata prefectures and Zaō Quasi-National Park (蔵王国定公園 Zaō Kokutei Kōen) stretching across Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures
- Onsen (over 100 hot springs across the prefecture)
- Yamagata City (山形市): Yamagata Hanagasa Matsuri (山形花笠祭り, Flower Hat Festival)
- Tendō City (天童市): famous for shogi (Japanese chess) pieces and its Ningen Shogi Festival (human chess).
- Outdoor activities: paragliding, skiing, hiking.
Iwate has the largest land area of any prefecture except for Hokkaidō and is located on the Pacific coast of Japan south of Aomori. Well-known for seafood, the area has a magnificent coastline with high cliffs and sand-dune beaches. There are many ports along the convoluted coast for the active fishing industry. As with the rest of Tōhoku, the inland area is very unspoilt and mountainous, with ample forests. The area of Sanriku (三陸) corresponding to the coastline of modern-day Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures was destroyed by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, due to its irregular coastline amplifying the destructiveness of tsunami waves.
- Rias coast with many inlets
- Ōu Mountains (奥羽山脈 Ōu-sanmyaku): Mt. Iwate, Hachimantai, Appi Plateaus) for outdoor sports (skiing, snowboarding, onsen).
- Hanamaki City ((花巻市): the only airport, hot spring resort.
- Morioka Castle (盛岡城 Morioka-jō), also known as Kozukata Castle (不来方城), was the residence of the Nanbu Clan.
- Hiraizumi City (平泉町): Historic Monuments and Sites of Hiraizumi listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2011; Chūson-ji (中尊寺) Temple with the Konjiki-dō (金色堂) or”Golden Hall”; Mōtsū-ji (毛越寺) Temple; Kanjizaiō-in (観自在王院) Temple.
- Ryusendo Cave (龍泉洞): Limestone cave and dragon fountain cave.
The capital city of Miyagi is Sendai, located in the centre of the prefecture and location of the prefectures main airport and where all shinkansen pass through. Sendai is also considered to be the capital of the Tōhoku Region. The land rises from the Pacific coast to the mountainous inland region, where onsen offer relaxation for tired hikers and campers, and home to some of the most beautiful valleys in the country.
- Matsushima (松島): ranked as one of the Three Views of Japan, comprising a group of islands north of Sendai and famous for Matsuo Bashō’s haiku: “Matsushima ah!A-ah, Matsushima, ah! Matsushima, ah!”
- Minami Sanriku Kinkasan Quasi-National Park (南三陸金華山国定公園 Minami Sanriku Kinkasan Kokutei Kōen)
- Sendai City (仙台市): Sendai Castle, also known as Aoba Castle (青葉城 Aoba-jō), the seat of the Date clan; Mutsu Kokubun-ji (陸奥国分寺) Temple; Rinno-ji Temple Garden.
- Tanabata Matsuri (Sendai): more than two million visitors in early August.
The southernmost prefecture in Tōhoku, Fukushima Prefecture is a mountainous region with hundreds of onsen. The area has excellent water, and hence grows a lot of rice – and makes a lot of sake too. Apples, peaches and other fruit are produced, and there is ample room for hiking and camping. The prefecture has been heavily affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
- Aizu-Wakamatsu (会津若松): Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle, also known as Kurokawa Castle (黒川城 Kurokawa-jō), eventually the seat of the Matsudaira clan and a Tokugawa stronghold in the Boshin War of 1868.
- Iizaka, Azumatakayu and Tsuchiyu onsen
- Inawashiro-ko and Bandai Heights (Bandai Asahi National Park): camping, water-skiing and windsurfing, skiing and skating in winter