One of the downsides of living in Japan is being unable to use the JR Rail Pass. For those coming to Japan, the JR Rail Pass is a pass for temporary visitors that covers the entirety of the JR train network at a reasonable price and for a specific number of days.
Thankfully, discounts for foreign residents pop up now and then. For example, these excellent selective regional passes can be purchased by residents of Japan holding foreign passports. More recently, JR East has been offering discounts on
Here are five of my favorite East and Northern destinations covered on the JR East Shinkansen.
1. Kanazawa (Ishikawa)
Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture is always my top recommendation for anyone looking for a quick weekend getaway with access to a good range of cultural and historical sites. Located 2.5 hours away from Tokyo via shinkansen, Kanazawa is a city as charming as Kyoto without the crowds (other than cherry blossom season and autumn).
Once home to the Maeda family, one of Japan’s most powerful clans, Kanazawa still carries the historical aura of the Edo period in the backdrop of a modern atmosphere. In Kanazawa, you will find one of the best contemporary art museums in Japan—the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, design hotels and breweries. Additionally, the city is home to a wide range of eateries from international cuisine to some of the finest (and Michelin blessed) examples of kaiseki (traditional multi-course Japanese cuisine).
There are two historical districts: Naga-machi street houses Nomura-ke, a restored samurai residence now serving as a museum displaying the surroundings of a samurai family. On the other hand, Higashi Chaya-gai resembles the Gion district of Kyoto and once served as Kanazawa’s entertainment and geisha district.
2. Chuson-ji Temple (Iwate)
Chuson-ji Temple in Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture is an impressive and spiritually moving temple complex dating back to the 9th century. Alongside Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture, Chuson-ji is included among the cultural heritages of Japan registered with the UNESCO heritage List.
The main draw of Chuson-ji Temple is Konjikido Hall which is often compared with the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. It is entirely covered in gold and has the mummified remains of leaders of the Fujiwara Clan, who significantly contributed to the expansion of the temple complex.
Sankozo Museum located on the temple grounds, features thousands of cultural properties, including Buddhist statues and scriptures. The beautiful and lush forest surrounding Chuson-ji adds to the already serene atmosphere with unassuming and modestly built wooden temple structures.
3. Towada (Aomori)
Towada city is located by the largest caldera lake in Honshu, Lake Towada and Oirase Stream.
In summer, Towada serves as a refuge from the overwhelming summer heat of urban Japan. It is a perfect outing for those wishing to combine nature, culture, hiking and art in one trip.
It has a vibrant atmosphere dominated by the Towada Art Center, featuring both indoor and outdoor art displays spread across town, earning it the nickname of the “art town.”
For its relatively small size, the city is also home to a remarkably high number of cozy or stylish cafes run by young entrepreneurs or longtime residents (such as the tiny Marine Blue Cafe right by the lake famous for its pies).
Towada is easily accessed by direct JR bus from Aomori and Hachinohe Shinkansen stations. A frequent bus service connects Towada to numerous stops along the Oirase Stream. The stream is accompanied by an almost entirely flat 8-kilometer long hiking trail passing by multiple waterfalls. Alternatively, the Towada Shrine expanding from the lakefront to the hills offers a shorter but refreshing morning hike.
4. Yamadera Temple (Yamagata)
Visitors to Yamadera are first greeted by the San-Mon Gate before facing the 1015 steps that lead to the temple. The surrounding forest offers a great distraction from otherwise steep stairs, and the expansive views of the surrounding region from Godaido Observation Deck make it all worth it.
The temple’s lower grounds also feature a statue of famous Japanese poet Basho who visited the temple in 1689. The visit inspired him for some of his most cherished haiku lines:
Such stillness, the cries of the cicadas, sink into the rocks.
5. Kamikochi (Nagano)
Nature does not get more scenic than Kamikochi in Nagano Prefecture. The scenery featuring Kappa Bridge with the backdrop of Hotaka mountains is almost as iconic as the famous shot of Mount Fuji with Chureito Pagoda in the foreground.
Kamikochi, located in Chubu Sangaku National Park, makes a perfect base both for challenging peak hikes or long strolls along the picturesque Azusa river. Moreover, it is an excellent region where one can access iconic nature scenery without enduring challenging climbs (such as the hike from Kappa Bridge to Myojin Pond).
There are numerous hotels in the region but camping is also an excellent and affordable option. The best way to get to Kamikochi by public transport is to take the express train or Shinkansen to Matsumoto and then change to a local train or bus.
What do you think of my list? Do you have any recommendations that anyone should use their half-price Shinkansentickets on? Let us know in the comments