On a whole, these days tourism in Japan has never looked healthier. At the same time, some of the country’s outlying areas have faced their own set of tourism challenges. Following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that ripped apart the Tohoku region, many of the region’s cities faced double devastation, as much of the area’s tourism industry was also heavily affected.
Now — seven years after the Tohoku quake and two years after the Kumamoto temblor — the areas have shown an unbelievable level of resilience, and in terms of tourism plenty of the areas are back in action. However what they need now is an injection of tourism, which is why both areas are well worth exploring on your next Japan adventure.
The sheer accessibility, fascinating cultural diversity and natural beauty, choosing where to travel in Japan can be overwhelming, so why not consider somewhere that will benefit from your visit? From the snow capped mountains, and scenic coastlines of Tohoku up north, to the steaming volcanic hot spring hideouts of Kumamoto down south, there’s so many adventures to be hard, here’s just a taster.
Many of these areas are best accessible by car so if you do have to chance to get an international license or have your license it’s easier to get around, however public transport is still a rather viable option.
1. Sanriku Coast
The Sanriku Coast is a stunning untamed rocky coastline, a sprawling shore that stretches over 200 kilometers across the Tohoku region. Touching Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures facing out onto the Pacific Coast, its natural beauty is impressive in photos but amplified so much more when witnessed in real life.
Off the coast is where you’ll find Tashirojima — aka “Cat Island” — a small rural isle about an hour from Miyagi’s Ishinomaki City. For breathtaking natural beauty you can’t look past the Kitayamazaki coast in Iwate Prefecture. Home to a number of observation decks, it’s the perfect place to view the incredible beauty of Unosu Cliff, five perfectly lined up, 200-meter-high cliffs that look like naturally crafted pieces of sculptural art.
Over its lifetime, this site has faced its fair share of natural challenges but March 11, 2011 was one of the most devastating. During the tsunami, entire towns along the cost were were washed away along with tens of thousands of lives (15,895 confirmed dead as of February 2018), and although it may take a while to rebuild completely, many of the roads connecting many points of interest and tourist spots were rebuilt in just months, making it relatively easily accessible.
Given how big the area is, how to get there really depends on where you want to start and finish. Although many train lines were damaged during the quake, JR East and Sanriku railway lines are now in operation. For those with a license, rental cars are an excellent way to get around. You can pick one up in Sendai and the Sanriku Expressway is probably the most convenient route.
In the southern Iwate Prefecture, along the Sanriku Coast you’ll find Rikuzentakata one of the areas hardest hit by the events of March 2011. Although a majority of the city was swept away, it’s a fascinating place to visit as the city has been rebuilt on a preventative raised platform. In 2014, the area utilized a type of massive-scale conveyor belt system that carried rock from the Kesen River to the center of the town.
Known as the miracle pine, a 200-year-old, 27-meter-tall tree that managed to survive the tsunami became a proud symbol of the town’s resilience. It died 18 months after the events due to salt toxicity, however it’s since been preserved as an iconic sign of strength and pride. The tree stands tall now in its original position overlooking the coast.
The best way to get to the city is is to catch a bus from Sendai station to Rikuzentakata, the trip takes around three-and-a-half hours.
For one of the ultimate sightseeing experiences — and one of the best places to really embrace your budding inner nature photographer — is Matsushima Bay. Located around half an hour from Sendai it’s considered one of Japan’s most incredible natural spots. The bay is home to a cluster of around 260 pine-covered islands large and small scattered along the water.
One tip is to visit during dawn when the sky is sun-dyed almost psychedelic tinges of purple and orange. You can explore by sightseeing cruise, too.
Thanks to its positioning along the coast, the bay managed to dodge any major natural damage following the 2011 earthquake and many of the stores, restaurants and other tourist-centric destinations were able to reopen quickly. However, ever since the quakes, the area has been struggling to recapture its tourist market. According to news reports, in 2016 the area was just hitting 80 percent of the pre-tsunami level which is a let down considering the rest of the country has seen a massive influx in the tourism levels in the years following the disaster.
One of the best ways to get to Matsushima is to catch the Senseki line from Sendai before getting off at Shiogama and then the cruise boat to Matsushima.
If it’s sake and samurai you’re after, consider a visit to Aizu-Wakamatsu, a historic, mountain-flanked destination in Fukushima. Based around Tsuruga Castle, this castle town is famous for crafting some of the most incredible nihonshu (Japanese rice wine) in Japan, plenty of which comes from the iconic Suehiro Sake Brewery. Founded in the mid-1800s the brewery has been perfecting its blend through eight generations of sake masters.
Luckily, a large portion of the town managed to avoid radiation contamination and the area’s levels now comfortably sit at pre-earthquake levels. For the ultimate in hiking and skiing, head to Mt. Bandai, a dormant volcano that towers over the area looking a little like Mt. Fuji. Also be sure to visit Ouchijuku an old post town seemingly frozen in the Edo period, the time in which it truly flourished.
From many of Japan’s major cities, best way to get to Aizu-Wakamatsu is to ride the JR Tohoku Shinkansen to Koriyama station and switch to the JR Banetsu-sai line, which will take you to Aizu-Wakamatsu station.
If you do find yourself in Tohoku, chances are you’ll pass by or through Sendai at some point. Often referred to as the “city of trees” its laid back charm makes it a city definitely worth exploring. Sendai is famous for gyutan, a locally perfected dish of beef tongue, which can be found on pretty much every corner of the city.
The only thing maybe more ubiquitous than gyutan is the city’s dedications to Date Masamune, one of most powerful feudal lords in Japan, a man you can learn more about at the Zuihoden Mausoleum. The city is also home to one of the biggest statues in the world — the Sendai Daikannon, which stands 100-meters tall to the north of Sendai.
From the rest of the country, the best way to access the city is via the Tohoku shinkansen. If traveling via Tokyo, you can also consider the bus: the JR Bus Tohoku and Tohoku Kyuko travel to Sendai from Shinjuku station regularly.
6. Kumamoto City
The capital of Kumamoto Prefecture, the city is home to a rich and fascinating history, and is also an excellent jumping off point for exploring the natural diversity of Kyushu. One site worth visiting is Suizenji Garden, a Japanese style landscape garden designed to be a recreation of Japan’s 53 post stations, where you’ll find a mini-Mt. Fuji.
In April 2016, the area was hit by an earthquake that devastated the nearby towns of Minamiaso and Mashiki, as well as the city itself. The famous Kumamoto Castle unfortunately suffered quite serious damage, however visitors can still admire the structure from afar. The castle hopes to reopen its main keep by the spring 2021, but a full recovery is estimated to take around 20 years. That said, many of the area’s other main attractions remain open and easily accessible.
From the rest of Japan, the easiest and most time effective way to get to Kumamoto is to fly into Aso Kumamoto Airport. Many of Japan’s domestic carriers fly into the airport regularly.
One of the nation’s most famous hot spring resorts is Beppu Onsen, featuring a huge variety of thermal waters, this steamy corner of Japan is also home to one very unique bath experience — the Beppu sand bath. A sand bath is where visitors are buried to their neck in naturally heated volcanic sand. It’s said that the combination of sweating out all the toxins in your body and the pressure of the sand feels like somewhere between getting a full body massage and onsen bath combined.
The area was affected during the April quakes, however a month after suffering some damage the main tourist sites were repaired and thoroughly checked for safety. The area has returned to its former glory and is ready to welcome guests once again. So there’s really been no better time to visit.
The best way to get to the area is by rental car or bus, the city’s Kamenoi Bus is the best way to get around Beppu. If flying into the area, the closest airport is Oita Airport, which is serviced by a number of Japan’s domestic carriers.
For a landscape that looks quite literally out of this world, Mount Aso is the place to go. This still-active volcano sounds a little dangerous but there are precautions in place for if it gets a little busy. After years of eruptions, the mountain’s surrounding landscape looks like the surface of the moon, jagged, crevasse-filled and scattered with small, gray-black, meteor-like stones.
Just by the mountain sits Aso City, home to some very interesting accommodation options. Clustered on the Aso Farm Land resort are 450 earthquake-resistant houses were made from polystyrene and designed to look like manju (flour and rice cake filled with red beans), a classic Japanese sweet. They look flimsy, but these half-bubble shaped cabins managed to withstand the April 2016 completely unharmed. A bit of a tourist draw card themselves, they’re worth a visit thanks to their architectural ingenuity and strangely quaint beauty.
The trains tracks between Kumamoto and Aso were damaged during the quakes, so the best way to get to the area is by car or bus. Grab either the Yamabiko or Kyushu Odan bus Kumamoto to get to Aso station. Otherwise you can take the JR Hohi line from Kumamoto to Higo-Ozu station, then switch to the bus from there.
Head deeper into Kumamoto’s valleys and you’ll find the steam surrounded town of Tsuetate Onsen, a hot spring village known as “Kyushu’s inner sanctum.” Once a luxury hideout for Japan’s elite, the town remains relatively untouched since its Show-era glory days. Potentially the closet experience you’ll ever get to time travel this town is frozen in time, yet its healing hot spring baths (and there are plenty of them) remain as invigorating as ever.
Thankfully the area managed to avoid any damage from the earthquakes, however if you’re looking for a little rest and relaxation after scaling the jagged mountains of Aso, a follow up stay here is definitely worth adding to the itinerary. For further exploration into Kumamoto’s hot spring culture, be sure to bookmark this guide by InJapan.com.
Similar to Aso, the best way to get to the area is to take the JR Hohi line from Kumamoto to Higo-Ozu station, then switch to the bus from there.