The Tohoku region of Japan is mountainous, remote and mysterious. Yet, while mountains may define the area, there is also plenty of water.
Tohoku’s mountains are volcanic and the craters of some long-dead volcanoes are now lakes. Stunning rivers, some narrow and fast, carved their way through stone to form dramatic gorges. Others, wide and slow, snake their way across fertile farmland on their way to the sea. The region is flanked by two bodies of water: the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean, each with distinctive shorelines that have been shaped by different geologic forces.
Here are five different boat rides you can experience across the region that allow visitors to enjoy the waters of Tohoku and the beautiful scenery that accompanies it.
1. Matsushima (Miyagi Prefecture)
Matsushima, which translates as “Pine Islands,” lives up to its name. It is a bay dotted with 260 little pine tree-covered islands that have long been regarded as one of Japan’s top three most scenic spots. Perhaps one of the best-known early travelers to Matsushima was famed haiku poet Matsuo Basho who, in 1689, was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the area that he could only repeat the word, Matsushima, again and again.
Several sightseeing cruise options are available to visitors (from ¥1,500), including 30 and 50-minute cruises departing from and returning to Matsushima Kaigan Rest House. It’s also possible to take a one-way boat from Shiogama through the bay to Matsushima Kaigan Rest House. This is roughly the route Matsuo Basho used to approach Matsushima. This boat departs from Marine Gate Shiogama, a 10-minute walk from Hon-Shiogama station.
All of the cruises have Japanese and English announcements of the various named islands passengers can see in the picturesque bay. The bay also has a thriving oyster farming industry and lots of fun and friendly sea birds trailing the boats hoping for a handout.
2. Sagakei (Miyagi Prefecture)
Just north of Matsushima, in an area often referred to as “Oku Matsushima” (inner Matsushima) but technically in Ishinomaki Bay, is Sagakei, a place of white sandstone cliffs in weird formations only visible from the waters of the bay.
Although Sagakei is not technically a gorge, the Sagakei boat ride is regarded as one of Japan’s three best gorge boat tours. Departing from Oku-Matsushima Pleasure Boat Information Center, a 10-minute taxi ride from JR Nobiru Station (relocated inland after the 2011 tsunami), the hour-long tour boat (JPY2,000) operates on a flexible schedule depending on passenger numbers (min. 3; max. 15).
The captain provides a vivid running commentary (in Japanese only) that covers the damage of the 2011 tsunami, flora and fauna of the area and the history of the cliff formations.
Besides the various cliffs carved by wind and water, there are sea caves, pine trees sending their roots along the rocks, gulls, and cormorants galore. Where erosion has cut a channel through the rock, the captain takes pains to make sure passengers can see how wind and water work their way through.
On weekdays when there aren’t many passengers, the boats will take only two passengers for ¥6,000 for the trip. As a countermeasure against the corona virus, reservations are required at least one day prior to your planned boat trip.
3. Geibikei (Iwate Prefecture)
The only way to see Geibikei Gorge is to be poled up the Satetsu River that runs through it on a traditional wooden boat. The narrow gorge is about two kilometers long and is flanked by dramatic cliffs rising 50 to 100 meters. The 90 minute round trip (¥1,800) is quiet and leisurely.
Toward the top of the gorge, visitors can get off the boat and stretch their legs by walking a little further upstream. At a sharp turn of the river, high water has carved a small niche in the cliff a couple of meters above the river’s usual level. Visitors can purchase marble-sized ceramic beads with various kanji (Japanese alphabet) characters for luck impressed in them and try to lob the beads across the river and into the niche. It’s tougher than it looks, but occasionally someone does get lucky.
On the return journey, the ferryman sings a traditional boatman’s song.
Geibikei boat launch is about a five-minute walk from JR Geibikei station on the JR East Ofunato line or a 42-minute bus ride from Ichinoseki Station.
4. Tazawa-ko (Akita Prefecture)
Nestled in the mountains of northern Akita, Tazawa-ko is Japan’s deepest lake. The crater lake is 423 meters (1,388 feet) deep, roughly the equivalent of Chicago’s Trump Tower. Between the depth of the lake and its mineral content, the lake’s water is strikingly blue.
During warmer weather (mid-April to early November), a sightseeing cruise boat takes visitors on a 40-minute circuit of the lake (¥1,220), passing by the most exciting parts of the shoreline, and affording spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.
The most famous lakeshore sites are the Goza-no-Ishi Shrine, with its vermillion torii gate at the water’s edge, and the golden statue of Tatsuko, Tazawa-ko’s own “Lady of the Lake.” According to local legend, centuries ago, a beautiful young woman named Tatsuko, looking to preserve her beauty forever, drank from a spring near the lake. But, unfortunately, she greedily drank the spring dry, and as a result, was transformed into a dragon doomed to live forever in the depths of the lake as its guardian.
The lake is a 15-minute bus ride from JR Tazawako station.
NOTE: As of July 20, 2021, the ship that ferries passengers for this trip on Tazawa-ko is now undergoing maintenance and repairs.
5. Towada-ko (Aomori/Akita Prefectures)
Japan’s largest crater lake is Towada-ko, which sits on the border of Aomori and Akita prefectures. At Towada-ko, visitors can get on the water from mid-April until early November in guided canoe trips, paddle boats, or sightseeing cruises. There are two sightseeing cruises available (from ¥1,430). One completes a circuit departing from Yasumiya, while the other carries visitors between Yasumiya and Nenokuchi, the lake’s outlet.
The rim of the caldera towers several hundred meters above Towada-ko’s water level and, in some places, plunges dramatically into the lake. The lake consists of two craters, one within the other. Two peninsulas jut into the lake from its southeast shore, remnants of the secondary volcano, which last erupted about 1,100 years ago. The lake is much deeper inside the smaller crater, known as Nakaumi. Some boat passengers say they can sense the eerie change of depth.
Towada-ko is most easily accessed by private car, but there is also JR Bus service from both Aomori and Hachinohe.
These are just a sampling of the fun, and scenic boat rides visitors to the Tohoku region can enjoy the rivers, lakes and coasts of this beautiful and rugged part of Japan. 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!