The JR East Pass for the Tohoku region provides anyone holding a non-Japanese passport, including residents of Japan, five days of unlimited travel from Tokyo around the zone of the pass for just ¥20,000.
It’s a great bargain and a great opportunity to explore this amazing region of Japan when travel re-opens. In fact, there’s almost too much to see and do in such a short time. Thankfully, we’ve made the perfect itinerary for a great introduction to the Tohoku region to let you daydream now and see it for yourself later.
Day 1: Explore Iwate’s cultural heritage
Traveling from Tokyo to Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture by Yamabiko or Hayabusa shinkansen (bullet train) takes about three hours (you’ll need to change to a local train at Ichinoseki). Once there, rent a bicycle just outside the station or use the local circuit bus to explore Japan UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the 9th-century temples and gardens based on Pure Land Buddhism, one of the earliest forms of Buddhism introduced into Japan. Hiraizumi is said to have been one of Japan’s three greatest cities a thousand years ago.
The two must-sees are Motsu-ji and Chuson-ji. The temple complex at Motsuji disappeared long ago, so there aren’t even records of what it looked like, but the remaining pond and gardens are about as close to heaven on earth as one can get. Chuson-ji, a mountaintop temple complex, is home to Konjikido, a small yet ornate temple covered in gold leaf said to have inspired Marco Polo to call Japan the “land of gold” in The Travels of Marco Polo.
Nearby is Genbikei Gorge, a beautiful valley known by nature lovers for its scenic bridge and vibrantly blue water. The Hotel Itsukushien overlooks the river just above the gorge and has a pick-up service from Hiraizumi. It takes 30 to 45 minutes to walk the path through the gorge, crossing the river on the suspension bridge; a perfect hike before dinner. In the morning, have a hearty breakfast and take a taxi to Ichinoseki station.
Day 2: Experience the samurai lifestyle of Akita
From Ichinoseki you’ll be traveling to Morioka station in Iwate Prefecture. From there, you’ll need to transfer to the Akita shinkansen for Kakunodate station. The journey takes about two hours, but the views will keep you glued to the window.
At Kakunodate, pick up a walking map at the tourist information center located in a traditional warehouse in front of the station.
Kakunodate is a former castle town and has one of Japan’s best-preserved 19th-century samurai residential districts. Six former samurai homes and their walled gardens are open to visitors in a beautifully preserved district of wide avenues shaded by tall pines, cedars and weeping cherry trees.
Drop by the Kakunodate Cherry Bark Woodcraft Museum to learn about Akita’s history of woodcraft. Kakunodate also has remnants of its 19th-century merchant district, including a soy sauce brewery open to visitors. Enjoy a big bowl of the local udon noodles for lunch.
At the end of the day, head to Akita station to stay at one of the nearby business hotels. For dinner, try Kiritanpo-ya, outside the station’s west exit. They specialize in kiritanpo, pounded rice shaped into a cylinder and usually served in a hot pot with meat, veggies and mushroom. A distinctively Akita dish.
Day 3: Dogs or coasts of Akita and Aomori
There are two options for traveling from Akita to Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture: the inland and coastal routes. The inland route will take you through Odate station. It takes about 90 minutes from Akita to Odate and 40 minutes from Odate to Hirosaki.
Dog lovers may prefer the inland route, which allows a stop at the Akita Dog Visitor Center just a couple of minutes’ walk from Odate station. Open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (5 p.m. from November to March), there is information about these fluffy canine cousins of Hachiko (of Shibuya Crossing fame) and even the chance to spend time with them.
For those who prefer spectacular sea views from the comfort of a train, there is the JR East Resort Shirakami train that snakes along the coast on its way to Hirosaki. This is a very special train with only six daily runs, so plan to catch the first one at 8:20 a.m. (the next one departs at 10:50 a.m.). The train deliberately slows as it passes through the most scenic areas, giving passengers plenty of time to enjoy the views. The train arrives in Hirosaki at 12:48, making this trip the perfect opportunity to enjoy a bento box lunch on a train.
Hirosaki is also a castle town with an excellent castle park. It’s beautiful in any season, though most spectacular in spring when the park’s 2,600 cherry trees show off their multiple shades of pink blossoms.
Tsugaru-Han Neputa Village, just northeast of the castle park, is a great place to learn about Hirosaki’s major annual Neputa (nighttime float) Festival held every summer and Hirosaki’s history as a regional center. There are also regular shamisen (traditional stringed instrument) performances and the chance to watch artisans making local crafts.
Hirosaki was one of the earliest Japanese cities to modernize and it has preserved several beautiful Taisho-era buildings. Two are on the grounds of Hirosaki City Hall, just south of the castle. Nearby is a Madurodam-like display of one-tenth scale models of many other structures. Don’t miss the 1904 Aomori Bank Memorial Hall, just a block away.
Day 4: Ancient history and seafood in Aomori
From Hirosaki, you’ll need to travel 40 minutes by train to Shin-Aomori station. Take a taxi to the nearby Sannai-Maruyama Archaeological Site (admission ¥410) to explore life in Japan’s prehistoric Jomon Period (14,000–300 BCE). There is also a bus that heads there, but it is slow and (apparently) not that frequent.
Based on extensive excavations, pit houses and other area structures have been reconstructed and allow visitors to envision life in Japan’s early days. Don’t miss the iconic watchtower. Many imagine the Jomon people, largely hunter-gatherers, to be just a step up from cavemen, but these reconstructions reveal a fairly sophisticated lifestyle.
Move on to Aomori Gyosai Center, a couple of blocks from Aomori station, for a late lunch of seafood nokke-don (rice bowl with toppings), an Aomori specialty. To buy a meal, you’ll need to buy a sheet of tickets for ¥1,500 just inside the door. You can swap those tickets for a bowl of rice and lots of fresh seafood toppings to make your customized nokke-don meal.
Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the area around the station. You’ll have fantastic views as far as Hokkaido during a clear day from the top of the A-shaped ASPAM building, which is also home to shops selling Aomori products as well as a theater featuring documentaries on Aomori.
At the Wa Rasse Nebuta Museum, learn about the famous Nebuta Festival and see the latest nebuta floats.
While the origins of Hirosaki’s Neputa Festival and Aomori’s better-known Nebuta Festival are similar, the nature of the internally-lit wood and paper floats paraded through the streets at night are different. Neputa floats tend to be fan-shaped with mythical scenes painted on them, while nebuta floats are gigantic shapes of scenes on a pre-determined theme for each year.
If you have time, do a dry apple cider tasting at A-Factory, a trendy display center for Aomori produce (especially apples and cider), complete with a restaurant, coffee shop and dockside views.
In the late afternoon, head to Hachinohe station, less than 30 minutes away by shinkansen. The yokocho (alleyways) with their lively bars are the best place to spend the evening and a great chance to meet the friendly locals.
Day 5: Morning markets, soba and crafts in Aomori
Hachinohe has a bustling fishing port that is famous for its morning markets, where sushi for breakfast is an option. The Mutsu Minato Eki-mae Morning Market has fresh seafood, farm produce and traditionally processed foods. Travelers visiting on a Sunday should be sure to visit the Tatehana Wharf morning market, full of bright energy and other morning market delights.
All the towns in the region with names ending in “nohe” were originally horse-raising communities. As you can surmise, there is a lot of equine history and culture in the area.
Head to the Nejo Castle site to make your own Hachinohe Yawata uma (horse) figurine. Nejo Castle predates Japan’s main castle building period of the 15th and 16th centuries, and its grounds have a very different shape and feel.
Head 30 minutes by shinkansen to Morioka for a late lunch of its famous wanko soba. Each little bowl of soba is a single mouthful, and many diners challenge each other to eating contests to see who can eat the most bowls. Even the waitresses cheer on guests as they slurp bowl after bowl.
Check out the Iwachu Casting Works near Kawakubo station to watch artisans preparing famous Nanbu cast iron pots and pans. You can explore the full range of these fantastic items in the showroom. You’ll come away with a much greater appreciation for the rustic art and maybe a new teapot or wind chimes.
The return trip to Tokyo is just under three hours, just enough time to review your journey and reflect on its delights.
Where to buy the JR East Pass for the Tohoku region
The JR East Pass for the Tohoku Region can be purchased at the JR East Travel Service Centers at any of these stations: Tokyo, Ueno, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa, Hamamatsucho and Yokohama. Non-Japanese passports must be presented in order to make the purchase.
One of the best places to get the pass is at the Japan Rail Cafe in Tokyo station. Operated by JR East with multilingual staff, travelers can pick up a rail pass, get tourist information and have a bite to eat. Those making an early start can visit Tokyo for a few days beforehand and then designate their departure date as the effective start date of the pass.
This itinerary allows visitors to explore several periods of Tohoku’s long and rich history, learn about local products and handicrafts as well as experience other aspects of the region’s diverse cultural and culinary variety. Throughout the trip, visitors will be able to enjoy the area’s picturesque scenery through the train window, perhaps smiling at both its natural beauty and the amazing bargain represented by the JR East Rail Pass.
Do you plan on traveling to the Tohoku region when it’s safe to travel again? Have you been before? What are some of the spots to visit that didn’t fit in this itinerary? Let us know in the comments!
NB: The tourist facilities, restaurants, shops and services mentioned in this post may be subject to sudden closures or changes in business hours. Please check the relevant websites for updates before your departure.