TOHOKU
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ITINERARY

Southern Tohoku Course

Captivating History and Local Charm in Southern Tohoku

Embark on a five-day journey to the deep north and discover Tohoku's countless charms. This course will take you to delightful destinations in four of the region's prefectures—Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata, and Fukushima. Boasting unspoiled natural beauty, rich history, enduring cultural traditions, and delicious local cuisine, southern Tohoku offers a wealth of memorable experiences within easy reach of Tokyo.

Encounter dramatic landscapes that inspired some of Japan's most famous poems. Float through stunning gorges by riverboat, and cruise Matsushima's emerald waters dotted with mystical pine-covered islands. Discover the town of Hiraizumi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site housing numerous historical treasures. Take a tour of Sendai's tucked-away bars to sample delectable local dishes and sip on award-winning sake. Climb your way through sacred forests to the ancient mountaintop temple of Yamadera. Wander the nostalgic streets of Ginzan Onsen, and wash away your worries in the hot spring town of Tendo Onsen. Journey to Aizu-Wakamatsu, a castle town brimming with traditional culture, to learn the way of the samurai.

So, pack your bags and hop on a Shinkansen bullet train. Departing from Tokyo, you'll be exploring Japan's northeastern heartland in less than three hours.

DAY 1

Your journey north begins at Tokyo Station, a key transit hub that connects the capital to major regions throughout Japan via the Shinkansen high-speed bullet train network. Head to the JR EAST Travel Service Center near the north exit to pick up your JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), a 5-day ticket offering unlimited travel on trains (including the Shinkansen bullet train) in the covered area. ,You will find an abundance of shopping and eating spots in the station, perfect for procuring snacks and drinks for the ride. For an authentically Japanese experience, grab yourself an ekiben-boxed meals specifically designed to be enjoyed and easily eaten on the train. Visit Ekibenya Matsuri, a store inside the station that offers an astounding range of regional ekiben from across Japan. Premium sukiyaki beef on rice, fresh sushi wrapped in bamboo leaves, octopus and vegetables in a ceramic pot, and a bullet-train-shaped bento lunch box are just a few of the tantalizing options to be discovered. Just be sure to make your decision in time to board your train!

From Tokyo, the Tohoku Shinkansen Yamabiko will take you to Ichinoseki Station in Iwate Prefecture in about two and a half hours. Having said goodbye to the city bustle, transfer to the JR Tohoku Main Line which will take you to Hiraizumi Station.

The town of Hiraizumi is a registered UNESCO World Heritage site that’s home to a number of well-preserved temples, gardens, and historical sites connected to Pure Land Buddhism. As the political and administrative center of northern Japan during the 11th and 12th centuries, the area once thrived under the rule of the powerful Fujiwara Clan. From Hiraizumi Station, set off on foot to discover this ancient town that is said to have rivalled Kyoto in its time. Peaceful beauty awaits you at Chuson-ji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site founded in 850 and the regional head temple of the Pure Land sect of Buddhism within Tohoku. A forested path up the slopes of Mount Kanzan leads to the tranquil temple grounds, home to more than 3,000 historical relics including National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties. You'll be dazzled by the Konjikido Golden Hall, an original structure from the 12th century bedecked in gold both inside and out. This small, luminous hall is dedicated to Amida Nyorai, the Buddha of Infinite Light. Spend an hour or two wandering the temple grounds and museum before descending the slope to return to town.

Next, take a visit to Motsuji Temple and find serenity gazing upon the exquisite garden. This breathtaking example of a Pure Land Buddhist garden is considered one of the most important sites in Japan's garden history. Stroll around the central pond to admire the harmonious design, where bridges, rocks, and trees are impeccably arranged to represent Buddha's Paradise. Literary enthusiasts will want to seek out the nearby stone monument with a poem inscribed by the haiku master Matsuo Basho. Before leaving, be sure to visit the temple's main hall to pray to Yakushi, the healing Buddha, for the well-being of you and your loved ones. Expect to spend thirty minutes to an hour exploring the grounds.

If time allows, take a stroll about town before returning to Hiraizumi Station. Keep an eye out for nambu ironware, a time-honored local craft developed in Iwate over four centuries ago. The iron kettles are particularly popular, and can be found in a variety of contemporary colors. Combining artistry, durability, and practicality, nambu ironware is testament to the quality of traditional Japanese craftsmanship is sure to make for a treasured memento of your trip to Tohoku.

From Hiraizumi Station, the JR Tohoku Main Line will take you to Morioka Station in approximately one and a half hours. Stay overnight in a hotel close to Morioka Station and rest up for the next day’s adventure.

Day 1 Schedule

Tokyo Station → JR Tohoku Shinkansen Yamabiko 53 / bento lunch onboard → Ichinoseki Station → Hiraizumi Station → Chuson-ji Temple Konjikido Golden Hall → Motsuji Temple → Hiraizumi Station → JR Tohoku Main Line → Morioka Station | Overnight stay near Morioka Station

DAY 2

Why not begin the morning with a stroll around Morioka to check out what the city has to offer? Highlights include the Morioka Castle Site Park, with impressive stone walls throughout the grounds. Although the castle no longer exists, this national historic site is popular for its natural beauty, with wisteria, hydrangeas, gingko trees, and cherry blossoms marking the changing seasons. The nearby Bank of Iwate Red Brick Building is also worth a visit for its elegant red brick exterior and grand wooden rooms built in 1911. Head back to the station via the Yugaose Bridge which offers excellent views of Mount Iwate on a clear day.

From Morioka Station, catch the Tohoku Shinkansen Yamabiko to Sendai Station in Miyagi Prefecture. Coin lockers are available to store your luggage near the Shinkansen Central Gate on the third floor.

Matsushima can be reached by way of the JR Senseki Line, disembarking at Matsushimakaigan Station. With 260 small pine-covered islands jutting out from the azure sea, Matsushima Bay's picture-perfect beauty has earned it fame as one of the three most scenic spots in Japan. The bay is also famous for its delectable oysters, anago (saltwater eel), and high-quality nori seaweed. Sample a range of fresh seafood at local restaurants or the stalls of the Matsushima Fish Market. Grilled oysters, fresh sashimi and sushi, clam ramen, and more-the choice is yours!

After lunch, why not head offshore and explore Matsushima Bay's islands up close? Cruise the waters on a 50-minute boat tour and enjoy the scenery that left even the master poet Matsuo Basho at a loss for words to capture its beauty. There's also adventure to be had back on land, with a few islands accessible by vermillion footbridges. Stroll across to Godaido, a small temple perched in the center of the bay that has become a symbol of Matsushima.

Nearby, Zuiganji Temple-considered one of the most important Zen Buddhist temples in northern Japan-is certainly worth a spot on your itinerary. Originally established in 828, it was later rebuilt by the samurai lord Date Masamune as his family temple. Unusually, Zuiganji features a watchtower and chirping "nightingale" floors designed to protect against intruders. Follow a cedar-lined path heading back to the entrance and you'll encounter caves where monks once lived and prayed.

From here, return to Sendai Station from Matsushimakaigan Station. After you’ve checked in to your hotel nearby, it's time to discover Sendai's nightlife with a bar-hopping tour of back-alley izakaya! Similar to a pub or tapas bar, izakaya offer a range of tasty dishes and drinks to enjoy with companions in a relaxed and cozy atmosphere. This is a quintessential part of Japanese food culture not to be missed.

Join your guide from Tohoku Local Secret Tours and spend a night eating and drinking like a local in Sendai's atmospheric alleyways: Bunka Yokocho and Iroha Yokocho. These narrow lanes lined with glowing red lanterns and nostalgic retro signage hark back to Japan's postwar Showa Era. Follow the lively voices of shop proprietors and patrons-and the aroma of grilled skewers and other delicacies wafting in the air-and you'll know you're in the right place. Often seating only eight to ten customers at a time, these intimate establishments will be even more welcoming thanks to your experienced guide.

Guided by a knowledgeable expert, you’ll visit three off-the-beaten-track izakaya and learn how to navigate the language barrier and etiquette while eating, drinking, and chatting with friendly locals. Each eatery has its own unique menu and atmosphere, allowing you to sample a variety of flavors, from familiar Japanese treats to more adventurous options. Keep an eye out for gyutan, a Sendai specialty of beef tongue that is often sliced and grilled over a charcoal stove. Local dishes are joined by izakaya classics such as gyoza dumplings, yakitori chicken skewers, fresh sashimi, and plenty more. If you're feeling overwhelmed by the options, who better to ask for recommendations than your local guide? Pair each dish with a refreshing glass of beer, local sake, whisky high ball, or any of the other beverages on offer. You’re sure to come away from the night with a newfound appreciation of Japanese food culture which you can put to good use in your future travels.

After eating and drinking your fill, make your way back to your hotel and rest up overnight for your next day of adventure.

Tour Information

Back-alley Bar Hopping in Sendai

Meeting time:
6:30 p.m.

Meeting place:
Entrance of McDonald’s Sendai Aobadori

Departure place:
Free to leave from the last stop on the tour

Language:
English

Duration:
About 2 hours and 30 minutes

Tour Price Includes:
1 drink and 1 dish at each of the three izakaya pubs

Day 2 Schedule

Explore the area around Morioka Train Station | Morioka Station → JR Tohoku Shinkansen Yamabiko 54 → Sendai Station → JR Senseki Line → Matsushimakaigan Station | Lunch | Sightseeing boat cruise in Matsushima Bay and Zuiganji Temple → Matsushimakaigan Station → JR Senseki Line → Sendai Station | Hotel check-in → Walk → Entrance of McDonald’s Sendai Aobadori (Back-alley Bar Hopping in Sendai) → Walk → Overnight hotel stay in Sendai City

DAY 3

Day 3 will take you inland to Yamagata Prefecture, famous for its snow, hot springs, and temples. From Sendai Station, a one-hour ride on the JR Senzan Line will bring you to Yamadera Station. Check your luggage into a coin locker, and embark on your adventure.

Popularly known as Yamadera, Risshaku-ji Temple is one of Japan's most famous sacred sites and offers breathtaking views of nature’s majesty from its mountaintop perch. At the foot of the mountain, Konpon Chudo Hall houses a ritual flame that is said to have been burning since the temple's founding in 860. From here, strap on your walking shoes and ascend the 1,000-step trail through a mystical cedar forest, said to release visitors from their worldly desires. Among the complex's many gems, the iconic red Nokyodo Hall jutting over the valley on a craggy boulder is particularly striking. Carry on to Godaido Hall to enjoy panoramic views across the mountain ranges. If visiting in summer, you're sure to notice the hum of cicada cries, immortalized in one of Japan's most well-known haiku by the master poet Matsuo Basho. You can easily spend a few hours exploring this enchanting mountain complex.

Upon your return to the modern world, stop at the nearby shops to reward yourself with local delicacies such as cherry ice cream or dashi soba noodles. These stores also sell Yamadera chikara konnyaku—"power" dumplings boiled in soy sauce that are a popular pre-climb snack for those looking for an energy boost.

Refreshed and recharged, it’s time for a 20-minute taxi ride to Tendo Onsen to check in to your lodgings for the night. This hot spring town is known for its prolific production of shogi (Japanese chess) pieces. Keep an eye out for the various shogi motifs that decorate the sidewalks, manholes, bridges, and even public footbaths along the charming streets.

Next, slip back in time to early twentieth century Japan with a visit to Ginzan Onsen, another beloved hot spring resort in Yamagata steeped in old-world atmosphere. Home to a flourishing silver mine in olden days, the town is now best known for its well-preserved century-old architecture and soothing thermal waters. Nestled in the mountains, the streets of this secluded getaway are home to quaint wooden inns that line each side of the central Ginzan River. Yukata-clad visitors stroll the pedestrian-friendly streets and small red bridges, framed by verdant green or blankets of snow depending on the season. Absent of cars and modern features, you'll feel as if you have slipped into a bygone era.

Travel to and from Ginzan Onsen in comfort with a private vehicle that will pick you up from your hotel around dusk. Upon arrival, you're free to wander the compact township at your leisure, immersing yourself in its nostalgic charms and capturing picturesque scenes on camera. Ginzan Onsen becomes especially magical once night falls, as retro gas lamps bathe the town in a warm glow. The town center also features cozy cafes and gift shops, where you can spend time sipping on a refreshing beverage, browsing souvenirs, and admiring the rustic wooden interiors.

Sit back and relax as your driver chauffeurs you back to Tendo Onsen, then head out to dine at To Yokocho, a contemporary take on traditional Japanese food stalls. Set indoors, it’s a collection of casual eateries each offering a variety of dishes prepared from locally sourced ingredients, including sushi, teppanyaki grilled delights, kushikatsu skewers, and hot pot dishes. Make your way from stall to stall, sampling the range of culinary specialties and local sakes. The communal layout of To Yokocho makes for a convivial atmosphere where you're sure to feel the warmth of Tohoku hospitality.

You’ll stay overnight in Tendo Onsen, with accommodation options including breakfast to fuel you up for the next day of your journey.

Tour Information

Ginzan Onsen Twilight Bus Tour From Tendo Onsen

Meeting Time:

4:30 p.m. or 5.30 p.m. *Differs depending on the season.

Meeting Place:

Hotel entrance

Duration:

About 4 hours

Tour Price Includes:

Round-trip pick-up and drop-off by private vehicle between Tendo Onsen and Ginzan Onsen.

Day 3 Schedule

Sendai Station → JR Senzan Line→ Yamadera Station | Yamadera Sightseeing | Lunch → Taxi → Tendo Onsen | Hotel check-in → Ginzan Onsen (Ginzan Onsen Twilight Bus Tour from Hotel) → Overnight stay in Tendo Onsen

DAY 4

Poetic inspiration awaits you on day four as you head to the Mogami River to cruise the currents immortalized in another of haiku master Matsuo Basho's iconic poems.

First, you’ll head to Tendo Station by the hotel’s shuttle bus.. From here, it’s a 40-minute ride on the JR Yamagata Shinkansen Tsubasa to Shinjo Station, where you can store your luggage in coin lockers to collect upon your return from your river cruise. Transfer to the JR Rikuu West Line and you will reach Furukuchi Station in just under 20 minutes. Furukuchi Port can be reached on foot or by local bus, which connects the station to Furukuchi Port within a few minutes.

At the port, board a boat and float gently down the Mogami River to enjoy majestic scenery in all directions. The surrounding gorge is worth a visit in any season, flushing pink with cherry blossoms in spring, bursting with lush green in summer, and blazing with orange hues in autumn. In winter, treat yourself to views of the striking snow-capped mountains while keeping your legs warm beneath a heated kotatsu table. The Mogami River was once a major trading route, carrying local rice and safflower from Tohoku to Kyoto and Edo (old Tokyo). As one of the fastest-flowing rivers in Japan, it left a lasting impression on Matsuo Basho, who penned a famous poem about its rushing waters. Enjoy this cruise through history while your boatman or boatwoman regales you with a traditional river song.

Disembarking at Kusanagi, you’ll then catch a local bus back to Furukuchi Station, and return to Shinjo Station via the JR Rikuu West Line to reclaim your belongings.

While in Shinjo, why not take the opportunity to stop for lunch and discover the city's noodle culture? Try torimotsu ramen, a nourishing noodle soup with a light soy-based broth topped with savory chicken organ meats. Another popular local specialty is handmade soba buckwheat noodles, which are exquisite in both texture and flavor. Enjoy them in a hot broth or with dipping sauce, accompanied by an assortment of pickles, tempura, mountain vegetables, or river fish.

From Shinjo Station, hop on the JR Yamagata Shinkansen Tsubasa for a two-hour trip to Koriyama Station. Here you’ll stay overnight near this convenient transport hub in the heart of Fukushima Prefecture. The region surrounding Koriyama city is known for growing premium rice and vegetables, which means an abundance of fresh seasonal delicacies and sublime sake. Spend the evening savoring Koriyama's local flavors at one of the restaurants around the central city, and you’ll be in gourmet heaven.

Day 4 Schedule

Hotel shuttle → Tendo Station → JR Yamagata Shinkansen Tsubasa 121 → Shinjo Station → JR Rikuu West Line→ Furukuchi Station → Local bus or by foot→ Tozawahan Funabansho (Furukuchi Port) | Mogami Gorge Basho Line boat ride | Kusanagi → Local bus→ Furukuchi Station → JR Rikuu West Line→ Shinjo Station | Lunch | Shinjo Station → JR Yamagata Shinkansen Tsubasa 150 → Koriyama Station → Overnight stay near Koriyama Station

DAY 5

Before returning to the modern pace of Tokyo, take a trip to the castle town of Aizu-Wakamatsu, once a center of samurai culture in northern Japan. Leave your luggage in a coin locker at Koriyama Station and ride the JR Ban-etsu West Line to Aizu-Wakamatsu Station-the journey takes around one hour and fifteen minutes.

Set in a picturesque valley, Aizu-Wakamatsu offers a compelling mix of history and tradition, unique local culture and cuisine, and soothing hot springs. The city is famous as the last stronghold of the samurai during the Boshin War, a civil war that broke out late in the 19th century which led to the overthrow of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate. More than a century later, much of the town's traditional heritage lives on. History and samurai buffs will welcome the opportunity to visit important historical sites while taking a time-travel-esque stroll through the old township.

Worked up an appetite? Try local favorites such as the hearty kozuyu scallop stock soup, curry-flavored yakisoba (fried noodles), Kitakata ramen (a delicacy from the neighboring city of Kitakata), chargrilled miso dengaku, or even horsemeat sashimi. Aizu is also known for producing delicious sake, with a number of local breweries scattered across the city. The people of Aizu also take pride in their traditional craftsmanship, with lacquerware, folk toys, and painted candles produced through time-honored techniques making for excellent souvenirs.

Start your tour at Tsurugajo Castle, formerly a key strategic castle in the Tohoku area. Although the castle has been rebuilt multiple times, the surrounding park's stone walls have stood since the beginning of its history. Admire the majestic castle tower, the largest in eastern Japan and the only one of its kind to feature a red-tiled roof. Enjoy panoramic views of the city from the tower's fifth floor, and admire swords and armor once wielded and worn by the castle's former rulers on display in the tower museum.If you're in the mood for a relaxing break, head to the Rinkaku Japanese Tea House within the castle grounds. Savor a cup of matcha tea paired with a seasonal dessert, and gaze out at the well-manicured garden, picturing in your mind’s eye the tea ceremonies that once took place within these walls.

Next, make your way to the Oyakuen Medicinal Gardens. Originally built as a villa for the regional lord, the grounds were later planted with medicinal herbs and vegetables, such as ginseng, in the 17th century. Take a walk through the tranquil grounds to appreciate the beautiful landscaping, abundant flowers, and glassy central pond of this designated National Scenic Site. There is also a teahouse where visitors can enjoy a refreshing cup of one-of-a-kind herbal tea.

To get a feel for how samurai lived, visit the Aizu Bukeyashiki, the former residence of a top-ranking Aizu retainer. The grounds feature an impressive manor with 38 rooms, where wax figures and informative displays offer a glimpse into how samurai families lived in bygone days. If you’re in an artistic mood, try your hand at traditional Aizu crafts—paint an akabeko, an iconic red cow toy with a bobbing head, or an okiagari koboshi, a lucky figurine that springs back up when knocked down. Combined tickets are available that include entry to the museum, a workshop, and unlimited rides on the city's adorable loop buses.

Those wishing to delve deeper into the city's history can visit the Byakkotai Memorial Hall and nearby gravesite. Learn about the Byakkotai, or "white tiger corps," a group of loyal young samurai who gave their lives while defending Aizu during the Boshin War. Next to the gravesite, you will find the intriguing hexagonal structure known as Sazae-do. This designated Important Cultural Property is a centuries-old wooden temple hall with a unique spiral staircase. Follow the winding steps lined with Buddhist statues to the top and back without ever passing the same spot twice—a remarkable architectural achievement.

Further outside of town, Aizu Clan School Nisshinkan is worth a visit for anyone interested in the institution that educated Aizu's elite samurai sons. Featuring Japan's oldest school pool and a martial arts gymnasium, visitors here can try their hand at essential samurai disciplines such as archery, tea ceremony, meditation, and horseback riding.

From Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, you’ll return to Koriyama Station via the JR Ban-etsu West Line. Be sure to collect your luggage and pick up any last-minute Tohoku souvenirs before boarding the Tohoku Shinkansen Yamabiko. The final ride of this memorable journey will have you back to Tokyo Station in just an hour and a half.

Day 5 Schedule

Koriyama Station → JR Ban-etsu-West Line→ Aizu-Wakamatsu Station | Tsurugajo Castle Tower | Rinkaku - Japanese Tea House | Oyakuen Medicinal Gardens | The Aizu Bukeyashiki - Samurai Residence | Byakkotai Memorial Hall | Sazae-do | Aizu Clan School Nisshinkan → Aizu-Wakamatsu Station → JR Ban-etsu-West Line → Koriyama Station → JR Tohoku Shinkansen Yamabiko 152 → Tokyo Station

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