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.
The pass provides huge savings to non-Japanese travelers, making it easier to explore this fascinating region of Japan when travel reopens. Earlier we gave you an itinerary to explore Akita, Aomori and Iwate, the three northern prefectures of Tohoku. Now, we’ve got a great itinerary introducing Tohoku’s three southern prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Yamagata.
This is a chance to explore a bit of history and culture as well as plenty of lakes, mountains and ocean scenery. So daydream now and see it for yourself later.
Day 1: Experience a real samurai town
Tokyo to Aizu-Wakamatsu takes just under three hours, changing from the Yamabiko Super Express to a local train at Koriyama. Historically, Aizu-Wakamatsu was a feudal castle town and a center of trade and production.
It was the site for the final battle of the Boshin War (1868-69) and the defeat of the Tokugawa shogunate. The loss at Aizu-Wakamatsu cinched the restoration of imperial power, and essentially, the downfall of the samurai.
You can spend the afternoon exploring some of that important history using the Aizu City Loop Bus (day pass: ¥600; single ride ¥210).
Iimoriyama, in the foothills on the eastern edge of the city, is the site of the graves of 19 adolescent samurai who committed seppuku (ritual suicide) toward the end of that final 1869 battle, believing their side had lost. Known as the byakkotai (white tiger force), these tragic boys are still championed for their loyalty, which is why their graves and other memorials at Iimoriyama remain a place of pilgrimage.
Nearby look for Sazaedo, a uniquely shaped Buddhist temple built in the 18th century. Visitors ascend and descend this four-story structure through separate spiral ramps.
Bukeyashiki, a 10-minute bus ride south of Iimoriyama, is a 19th-century samurai residential compound that gives insights into samurai lifestyles of the period, such as how families lived and passed the time. Visitors also learn about the families’ final days during the Boshin War. For example, one room contains life-sized mannequins depicting how a desperate mother killed her children and then herself in 1869, knowing imperial soldiers had breached the defenses.
Day 2: Explore charming Aizu
Don’t miss Tsuruga (White Crane) Castle, a 1960s reconstruction of the medieval castle destroyed by an imperial edict in the late 19th century.
The reconstructed castle contains displays of the history of the area and its role at the end of feudal rule. Wander the grounds to get a feel for feudal castle life. If you visit first thing in the morning, you might have a chance to watch kendo practice at Budokuden, the dojo (martial arts training hall) on the castle grounds.
Take the train from Aizu-Wakamatsu to Inawashiro and catch a bus to the Goshiki Numa trailhead. There is a leisurely trail along the Goshikinuma Ponds. A bus stop at the end will return you to Inawashiro station. It takes about 90 minutes to travel from Inawashiro to Sendai, changing to the Shinkansen at Koriyama.
Day 3: One of Japan’s most scenic spots
From Sendai, catch the Senseki line to Matsushima Kaigan station to visit Matsushima, regarded as one of Japan’s top three scenic spots thanks to the 260 charming pine-topped islands dotting Matsushima Bay. Scenic boat rides around the bay are especially popular; buy tickets for the tour of your choice at the Matsushima Kaigan Rest House.
Nearby is Kanrantei, a 400-year-old tea house with views of the boat pier and bay beyond. Savor traditional green tea while relishing the view.
Be sure to also visit Zuiganji, a temple founded by Ennin (Jikaku Daishi) in 828 and adopted by the warlord Date Masamune in 1609. Unusually, visitors are allowed to walk through the 17th-century temple building, which is more like a palace than a temple—don’t miss the room specially outfitted for Emperor Meiji’s 1876 visit. The museum next door, with its temple relics and Date family artifacts, and the 9th-century cliff face carvings in front of the temple are also distinctive features of Zuiganji.
Godaido, a small temple on a rocky outcrop overlooking the bay, is also associated with Zuiganji. Cross two precarious footbridges to get there. It is said that only the worthy can manage to get across.
One could spend an entire day at Matsushima, but travelers who leave early might consider a side trip to Shiogama Shrine between Matsushima and Sendai. One of the most important Shinto shrines in this region, founded in the 9th century, sits atop a hill accessed by a steep staircase.
Day 4: A temple high in the mountains
Before leaving Sendai, take the time to visit Zuihoden, the Sendai family mausoleum on a wooded hillside below Sendai Castle. The setting and the structures are stunning. If you’ve made an early start, consider also making a quick visit to Sendai Castle park. The castle is long gone, but many of its walls overlooking the valley remain.
Try to leave Sendai by early afternoon. Your next destination is Yamadera, an hour away. Yamadera means “mountain temple,” so you can probably guess what it is. The 9th-century temple was founded on the flanks of Yamagata’s Mt. Hoju.
Although there are 1,000 steps to climb to reach the highest structure, the ascent is not steep and can be done in around 30 minutes. The wooded mountainside is lovely, particularly in autumn when the foliage is at its most colorful, and the views of the valley below are breathtaking.
There are also temple buildings at the foot of the mountain and a “treasure house” containing the best of the temple’s ancient artwork. In the village below, stop for refreshment (Yamagata cherry soft cream is especially popular).
If you’re lucky, you might spot some benibana (safflower) hung to dry. These yellow flowers, resembling thistles, are a source of yellow and red dyes and were once a staple of the local economy, known for its dyed silk fabric. You can explore that further on Day Five.
From Yamadera to Yamagata is a quick 22-minute train ride.
Day 5: Modernization and survival
Before leaving Yamagata, take a stroll to Kajo Park, once Yamagata’s feudal castle site. While the castle no longer exists, some of its walls and moats remain and a couple of gates have been reconstructed. Also in the park is Yamagata Kyodokan, a local history museum housed in a Western-style hospital building originally built in 1878.
Try to catch the shinkansen from Yamagata to Yonezawa by noon so that you can be in Yonezawa for lunch. Yonezawa is another former castle town and was the seat of the Uesugi clan for four centuries.
A great lunch choice is Hakushakutei, a restaurant housed in the former villa of Uesugi Michinori, built in 1925. Get there on the city loop bus or catch a cab if you’re in a hurry. While dining on Yonezawa’s famous beef, take in the serenity of the traditional garden just outside the windows.
After lunch, wander through the former castle grounds just next door, now the site of Uesugi Shrine. The shrine honors Kenshin Uesugi (1530-1578), founder of the Uesugi dynasty and still revered as the patron of Yonezawa.
At the end of the 18th century, Yonezawa became famous for its textile production. Thanks to the efforts of Yozan Uesugi (1751-1822), who encouraged the development of sericulture, weaving and dyeing stimulated the region’s economy, which was effectively bankrupt when he took over as local lord.
It’s less than a ten-minute walk from Uesugi Shrine to the Yonezawa Textile Historical Museum, where visitors learn how textiles transformed Yonezawa’s economy and what makes their fabrics so unique even today.
If textiles are exciting to you, consider also visiting Dye and Weave Studio Wakuwaku-kan in western Yonezawa. With a reservation (Japanese language only), you can spend an hour weaving a small item or dyeing a handkerchief or scarf.
Alternatively, check out the Toko Sake Brewery (around the corner from the textile museum. Housed in a traditional building more than a century old, you can tour the brewery and learn about sake production in this area.
Over this five-day excursion, you can see sites related to over 1,000 years of Japan’s history, learn about the historical economy of the region and experience some of its breathtaking natural beauty. The return from Yonezawa to Tokyo by Shinkansen takes about two hours.
To ensure no disruption to your Tohoku region adventures, please check the Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization website for up-to-date information prior to your departure.
Have you been to any of these destinations? Let us know in the comments!