Japanese Prefectures – Fukushima (福島)

Fukushima – Hawaiian resorts, nature in its purest form and amazing castles

Welcome to the prefecture of Fukushima. A prefecture that suffered greatly during the 2011 Tōhoku Disaster but has since found hope and is simply beautiful. Take a look around and discover lush marhslands, amazing castles, a little bit of Hawaii and volcanic sceneries.

Lake Inawashiro, one of the biggest lakes in Japan.

Lake Inawashiro, one of the biggest lakes in Japan.

Geography and history

The Fukushima prefecture is the southernmost and last prefecture of the Tōhoku region. It is the third largest prefecture in Japan and is bordered by the Pacific Ocean in the east, the prefectures of Miyagi and Yamagata in the north, the prefecture of Niigata in the west and the prefectures of Gunma, Tochigi and Ibaraki in the south. Fukushima is divided in three regions: Aizu, Nakadōri and Hamadōri. the Aizu region is in the west and contains a lot of mountains, lakes and lush nature. Nakadōri is the heart of the prefecture and is known for its agricultural strength. Hamadōri is the region in the East that borders the Pacific Ocean. This coastal region was hit the most by the 2011 Tōhoku Disaster. The capital of the Fukushima prefecture is Fukushima City and it is located in the Nakadōri region of the prefecture. The prefecture is mostly known for its sake, lacquerware and an assortment of fruits like pears, peaches and cherries.

Fukushima

A map of the regions in Fukushima

As most prefectures in the vicinity, Fukushima was also part of the Mutsu Province until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Two barriers were made to defend ‘civilised Japan’ from the barbarians in the north. Sadly, there are no remains left of these barriers and you will only find stone monuments where the barriers used to stand. In 1882, the so-called ‘Fukushima Incident’ happened after the appointment of Mishima Michitsune as governor. This appointment was opposed by two groups of activists who came together and formed their own party called the ‘Fukushima Jiyūtō’ or the Liberal Party. They thought Mishima had a secret mission and were afraid that he would try to get rid of them. After a lot of political dancing, activists of the Jiyūtō were attacked during their sleep by agents of the government and their opposition was weakened strongly.

A stone monument where the Shirakawa Barrier used to be.

A stone monument where the Shirakawa Barrier used to be.

Of course we cannot talk about the history of Fukushima without mentioning the 2011 Tōhoku Disaster that happened on the 11th of March in 2011. On this day a massive earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 occurred off the coast of the Miyagi prefecture. The tsunami that followed hit the Hamadōri region in Fukushima with an unopposable strength and destroyed lives and buildings. In total, 1,817 residents of the Fukushima Prefecture are confirmed dead or missing. In 2015, a report confirmed that the entire disaster was the cause of 15,894 deaths, 6,152 injured and 2,562 people missing. After the disaster, it was clear that the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was damaged. The outer housing of two of the six reactors exploded and partially melted down. This is seen as the biggest nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl disaster and is the second disaster that received the level 7 event classification of the International Nuclear Event Scale. Level 7 is the highest level on this scale. To this day, a safe zone with a radial of 20 kilometres around the area still exists.

Explosion of one of the reactors at the Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

Explosion of one of the reactors at the Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

Must-see locations

The first location we recommend is Aizuwakamatsu. This castle town is located 100 kilometres west of the nuclear powerplants and the area around it didn’t have a higher radiation level than before the accident. Aizuwakamatsu is surrounded by lovely natural scenes, mountains and rivers. This town is very old and has a lot of cultural attractions that are simply amazing. You can visit the burial mounds or kofun that were made in the fourth century CE, take a look at the fascinating Aizuwakamatsu Castle, which is a replica sadly, or take a stroll between the old samurai houses that are still maintained. Do you want to relax? Visit some of the old onsen that are spread out over the town. People who like Japanese gardens should visit the Aizu Matsudaira’s Royal Garden, a garden that was designed in the 1380’s and has a more than 400 different kinds of medicinal herbs. The garden pond called Shinji no ike, is shaped like the kanji for heart (心) and will provide you with peace and harmony. This old town is definitely worth a visit for those among us who want to see some cultural and natural beauty.

The lovely Aizuwakamatsu Castle.

The lovely Aizuwakamatsu Castle.

Do you want to see some more untamed nature? Go visit the Bandai Region in the Fukushima prefecture. This region is located in the western part of the prefecture and houses a great amount of hiking and walking trails and places to ski at. The entire region is actively volcanic and because of that, the views you’ll get while hiking are breathtaking and raw. In the centre of the region stands Mount Bandai, a volcano that erupted for the last time in 1886, giving it a very iconic appearance. Due to the eruption, the landscape became dotted with ponds and highlands with lovely scenery and amazing trails were created. These highlands are called the Urabandai which literally means ‘behind Bandai’. To the south of Mount Bandai, you can find one of the biggest lakes in Japan, Lake Inawashiro, and north of Mount Bandai is Mount Azuma, a unique volcanic mountain range that towers above the horizon.

Mount Bandai dwarfing the countryside.

Mount Bandai dwarfing the countryside.

Iwaki used to be a coal mining town that lost its shine when oil started to be used even more in Japan. As a way to fix this, Iwaki built the Spa Resorts Hawaiians to draw in tourists and save the town. This resort is without a doubt unique and if you are passing by, make sure to take a look inside the first themepark ever built in Japan. The mascots of this themepark are the dancing Hula Girls and they are a popular sight in the prefecture. After the 2011 disaster, they toured the prefecture and kept hope up for the inhabitants of Fukushima. Beside watching the dancing performance, the themepark has a lot more entertainment to offer. Spa Resorts Hawaiians is divided in different parts. The Water Park is filled with different pools and slides. You can also visit two different onsen, one unisex indoor onsen in the Spring Park and another gender separated one outside that is said to be the biggest outdoor onsen in Japan. The last park, Vir Park, is mostly used for dancing lessons, massages and much, much more.

One of the many indoor pools at Iwaki's Spa Resorts Hawaiians.

One of the many indoor pools at Iwaki’s Spa Resorts Hawaiians.

Finally, we want to show you the Oze National Park. It’s a natural paradise. This National Park only 100 kilometres north from Tokyo, is known for its Ozegahara Marshlands and the Onezuma Pond. By using perfectly maintained walking trails, you can discover this beautiful park yourself and be amazed by its pure atmosphere and lovely colours. The Ozegahara Marshlands are six kilometres by one kilometre in size and are guarded by Mount Shibutsu and Mount Hiuchigatake. Because the walking trail isn’t that long, it is one of the most popular walking trails in the park. In late May and early June, white skunk cabbages sprout out of the ground delivering a stunning sight of the Marshlands. The walking trails pass through, around and over the park, making it easy to enter and leave the park where you want. You can even stay the night in one of the cosy mountain huts. It’s a place that is on Inari’s bucketlist, that’s for sure.

Mount Shibutsu towering over the Marshlands.

Mount Shibutsu towering over the Marshlands.

How to get there?

Being close to Tokyo, Fukushima is very easy to reach. You can get there by plane, by Shinkansen, by train or by bus. If you rather want to go by car and be free, you can easily reach everything in the prefecture. There are simply no reasons not to take a look at this hidden pearl. Just make sure not to enter the safe zone around the Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

A map including the safe zone and the levels of radiation.

A map including the safe zone and the levels of radiation.

So do you want to visit Fukushima now? We hope that we have showed you the different reasons to visit this lovely place. If you want to know more about travelling to Fukushima, leave a comment, send us a mail or please visit this page.

We will be back with another Japanese prefecture in October when we will tell you more about Ibaraki.

Japanese Prefectures – Yamagata (山形)

Yamagata – Skiing, pilgrimages and time to relax

Welcome in the prefecture of Yamagata, a mountainous region with a spiritual and natural history. Join us in our trip and discover the different reasons to visit this lovely prefecture.

Yamagata

A typical sight in the Yamagata prefecture.

Geography and history

Yamagata is located in the north-western part of the Tōhoku region and is bordered by the Sea of Japan in the West, the prefectures of Niigata and Fukushima in the South, the prefecture of Miyagi in the East and the prefecture of Akita in the North. All of these borders are natural borders made by various mountain ranges. Due to Yamagata’s mountainous geography, the biggest share of its population lives on the central flat plain around the capital of Yamagata City. Besides having a lot of mountains, about 17% of Yamagata’s land is registered as Natural Parks. The prefecture is mostly known for its fruit, especially the Yamagata cherry and pear are famous.

A map of Yamagata.

A map of Yamagata.

As expected, the history of this prefecture is again comparable with the history of the other prefectures in this region. Yamagata was originally inhabited by the indigenous Ezo people who basically were all native people living in the northern part of Japan. This day, these people are called the Ainu. Up until the start of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Yamagata was part of the Dewa Province and was ruled by the famous Fujiwara clan. They transformed what is know Yamagata City into a flourishing castle town that thrived thanks to its production of the red safflower and its post station. After the Meiji Restoration, the prefecture got its name and grew out to be the prefecture it is today. It is interesting to note that Yamagata is known for its dialect, Yamagata-ben, sadly, in most of Japan it is seen as a lesser form of Japanese and it is often used in popular media to create the setting of a backwards and rural town.

Yamagata City.

Yamagata City.

Must-see locations

The first location that is simply a must-visit is the Yama-dera, which is literally a temple on top of a mountain that looks out over Yamagata city. This temple was founded in 860 as a temple for the Tendai school of Buddhism and a way to bring Buddhism to northern Japan. To get to the temple on top of the mountain, you have to hike up a mountain trail for 30 minutes and you’ll see an amazing temple complex and view over the city. Along the path are various small temples and once you arrive at the top, you can find the famous Kaisando Hall that was built in memory of the founder of the temple. There is also the Godaido Hall that has an observation deck where you’ll get an amazing panoramic view of the valley.  If this climb of about 1,000 steps is too difficult, you can always enjoy the different shops, buildings and Konponchudo Hall, which is the main hall of Yama-dera. This wooden building is the oldest of the complex and it is said that the flame that is burning inside, has been burning since the founding of the temple. For the people with an interest in Japanese poetry, the famous Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō once visited this place and wrote a haiku about it.

The breathtakingly beautiful Yama-dera.

The breathtakingly beautiful Yama-dera.

There are quite some mountains in Yamagata, so of course there are also quite some mountain shrines. The most famous ones in Yamagata are without a doubt Dewa Sanzan. These three mountains are a centre of the Shugendo school like Kumano Kodō and each have a shrine on its top. The followers of this school do pilgrimages from mountain to mountain in a specific order.The first mountain is called Haguro-San and it represents birth, the second one is called Gas-San and it represents death and the third one is Yudono-San and represents rebirth. This Shugendo centre is also known for its extreme test of belief and endurance. At the Churenji and Dainichibo temples, two monks have preserved themselves as mummies with the help of an extreme diet and meditation. Even though this practice is forbidden today, these two monks are seen as living Buddhas.

A five-story pagoda on the route to one of the three mountains.

A five-story pagoda on the route to one of the three mountains.

This one is for the winter sport lovers out there. Mount Zao is a mountain on the border between Yamagata and Miyagi. During the winter it transforms in one of the most famous ski resorts in Japan and one of the only places to see ‘snow monsters’. These snow monsters are actually trees that are fully coated in snow and ice, transforming them in silhouettes of monsters on the ski slopes. The longest ski course starts at the place where most snow monsters are and is 10 kilometres long. After skiing your heart out, you can always relax in the local onsen and enjoy the snow monsters that are lit up from a distance. During the rest of the year, you can visit the local onsen town and Okama Crater that we talked about in our article about the Miyagi Prefecture.

A collection of snow monsters!

A collection of snow monsters!

The last location that simply is a must-see is the hot spring town called Ginzan Onsen. This secluded town is found in the mountains of the Yamagata prefecture. It used to be a town that was built close to a silver mine. These days however, it is a famous relaxing town filled with different onsen houses and historical ryokan, or Japanese inns. The buildings are made in a historical architectural style with a lot of wood and  plaster, reminding the visitors of a Japan that used to be. One ryokan however, is redesigned by the Japanese architect Kuma Kengo and was rebuilt in a modern style, turning it into an exception of the normal street view in Ginzan Onsen. Tourist can also hike on a natural path and find the old silver mines that have a part that is accessible for visitors. The path winds past a beautiful waterfall and gives a stunning view for nature lovers.

The town with the modern ryokan designed by

The town with the modern ryokan designed by Kuma Kengo.

How to get there?

Yamagata has two airports that have connections with Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Sapporo. Furthermore, due to the extensive railroad network in the Tōhoku Region, you can easily get to most places in the Yamagata. You can even get there by Shinkansen from Tokyo. If you’d rather go by car, it’s possible to hit the road and reach most places. Be careful however, because there are a lot of mountains in Yamagata, it can be hard to reach some places and it is definitely advisable to research the accessibility of the places you want to visit!

A roadmap of Yamagata.

A roadmap of Yamagata.

This was our short intro to Yamagata. We hope that we have showed you the different reasons to visit this lovely place. If you want to know more about travelling to Yamagata, leave a comment, send us a mail or please visit this page.

We will be back with another Japanese prefecture in July when we will tell you more about Fukushima.

Japanese Prefectures – Akita (秋田)

Akita – Relax and be a samurai. Just watch out for the demons.

Welcome to another entry in the Japanese Prefectures column. Today you will join us on our journey to the Akita prefecture. What’s on the program? Festivals, demons searching for lazy children, tons of hot springs and samurai villages.

Akita

Typical view in the Akita prefecture.

Geography and history

Akita shares its borders with the Sea of Japan in the west, the prefecture of Aomori in the north, the prefecture of Iwate in the east, the prefecture of Miyagi in the southeast and the prefecture of Yamagata in the south. On its coastline, you can find the Oga Peninsula, famous for its Namahage Festival and much more. The eastern border is defined by the Ōu Mountains, the longest mountain range in Japan with a length of about 500 kilometers. The prefecture’s industry is mostly focused on agriculture, fishing and forestry but it is especially known for its rice farming and sake brewing. It is also the prefecture with the highest consumption of sake. Akita City is the capital of the prefecture and has a population of about 317,236 people. It’s a lively city with an amazing variety of cultural activities and festivals. Lastly, Akita is thought to be the origin place of the Akita inu, the cutest dog in existence.

The Akita prefecture.

The Akita prefecture.

Akita’s history is quite comparable to the rest of the prefectures located in the Touhoku Region. Being isolated due to the mountain ranges on its borders, Akita was only made part of the Japanese empire around 600 CE. The native people were conquered around 658 by Abe no Hirafu, a governor of the Koshi Province located south from modern day Akita. He built a fort along the Mogami river and made Akita part of the governed land. During the Japanese mission to drive the native inhabitants away from the Touhoku region, Akita city was established as a base in 733. After years of different clans having control over the prefecture, it was finally reconstructed in 1871 into what is now known as the Akita prefecture.

Akita Castle.

Akita Castle.

Must-see locations

Akita has so many places that must be visited and things to do that it is impossible to mention all of them in this article. That is why we decided to pick the most important ones for you.

First of all, let’s focus on the city of Akita, the capital of the prefecture. This old city borders the Sea of Japan and, as said before, has quite a lot to offer concerning culture and festivals. You can also find a lot of interesting historical sites in the city. For starters, you can always visit the Akita Castle that was the base of operations in the region for centuries. After having been under control of different clans, a lot of historical artifacts can be found here. The city of Akita also houses a nice collection of museums for those who value culture and art. It is recommended to visit the Akita Museum of Art if you visit the city. But Akita is mostly known for its Kanto Festival that takes place from the 3rd of August until the 6th. During this festival long bamboo poles with an array of paper lanterns attached to them are paraded through the city. Performers balance these poles on their heads or hands and create a superb festival feeling.

The Kanto Festival in Akita City.

The Kanto Festival in Akita City.

For travellers with an interest in Japanese folk tales, Oga Peninsula is the place to be. This peninsula is home to the Namahage Museum and Namahage Festival. Namahage are typical Japanese demons or oni. Their appearance is that of a man wearing a demon mask and a straw cape and armed with a knife and a wooden bucket. Their purpose is to berate the lazy children or those with bad behaviour. They march in pairs or threes past the houses and stop at every door, looking for children that they can punish. In the museum, you can find different dolls of the different Namahage. During the annual festival that takes place on New Year’s Eve, people dress up as Namahage and visit the different people. After receiving sake and mochi or ricecakes, they leave the house and bless the family with eternal good health, a good catch and a splendid harvest. Next to the folky vibe that exists on the Oga Peninsula, it is also the perfect place for sightseeing and hiking. The peninsula hosts an amazing nature and if you’re lucky, you’ll even see the Godzilla Rock. Which is a rock, shaped like Godzilla. Yes. A Godzilla-shaped rock.

Different Namahage.

Different Namahage.

Oh, you’ve always wanted to know how samurai lived and what they did every day? If that’s the case, you might want to visit Kakunodate. This city used to be a castle town that was established in 1620. Today you can’t find the castle anymore but the old samurai district and merchant district that were built around it, are still there and still look the same. This is one of the best places in Japan to witness the old samurai architecture. And if that’s not enough, it is also one of Touhoku’s most popular cherry blossom spots. More than a million visitors visit Kakunodate yearly and enjoy hundreds of beautiful trees that are losing their blossoms.

A view of the Samurai District.

A view of the Samurai District.

Lastly, Akita also has a vibrant and beautiful environment. This is seen in Hachimantai, a mountainous region in northern Akita. You will not only find a volcanic landscape there, but the region is also filled with rustic onsen or hot springs. You can find a great number of different onsen but our favourite is probably the Nyuto Onsen, which is a collection of eight different onsen. One is even ranked as best of the best and is definitely a must-visit. Its name is Tsurunoyu Onsen and its ryokan, or Japanese inn, was built during the Edo Period (1603-1867). It is a hot spring at its best. If you would rather go hiking, a trip to Mount Hachimantai is recommended. This mountain has a collection of hiking trails that offer some of the best sightseeing spots in the region combined with a breathtakingly beautiful landscape.

One of the Nyuto Onsen in Hachimantai.

One of the Nyuto Onsen in Hachimantai.

How to get there?

You can travel to the Akita prefecture by many ways. By train, you can take the Akita Shinkansen from Tokyo and there are also smaller lines that take you to Akita from different places in the Touhoku region. If you have a rental car, you can always take the Touhoku Expressway. This expressway runs from Kawaguchi, near Tokyo,  to Aomori through the entire region. And finally, you can always take the plane to one of the two different airports in the Akita prefecture.

The best roadmap of Akita we could find.

The best roadmap of Akita we could find.

This was our short intro to Akita. We hope that we have showed you the different reasons to visit this lovely place. If you want to know more about traveling to Akita, leave a comment, send us a mail or please visit this page.

We will be back with another Japanese prefecture in June when we will tell you more about Yamagata.

Japanese Prefectures – Miyagi (宮城)

Miyagi – Pine islands, painting-like environment and Sendai, home of the Date clan

Miyagi is not just the name of our favourite karate teacher but also the name of the fourth Japanese prefecture. It is home to the biggest city in the Touhoku region, Sendai, an amazing canvas of autumn colours, small islands filled with pine trees and is rich with Japanese history, specifically the Sengoku period. Join us on our trip to the Japanese Miyagi prefecture.

zao mountains miyagi

The Zao mountain range in Miyagi.

Geography

Miyagi shares its borders with the prefectures of Iwate in the north, Akita in the north-west, Yamagata in the west and Fukushima in the south. The only body of water on its borders is the Pacific Ocean. Along this coastline is the famous Sanriku Coast, a rocky coastline filled with countless bays and cliffs. Tiny islands dot the coastline and deliver a certain serenity combined with the openness of the ocean. Sadly, a number of these natural wonders were destroyed during the Touhoku Disaster in 2011 and are lost to both nature and time. Today, we know that the Sanriku Coastline was actually an amplifier for the strength of the tsunami due to its countless bays, coves and cliffs, making the tsunami larger and stronger. Miyagi was also the prefecture that was hit the worst by the disaster. A lot of places were rebuilt because it is thought that tourism is the best way to repair the region. For instance, in 2012 23% of Miyagi’s land area was assigned as Natural Parks, so if it’s nature you’re looking for, this is the place to go to. The capital of the Miyagi prefecture is Sendai, the largest city in the Touhoku region, and it has a population of just over 1 million people.

A map of Miyagi.

A map of Miyagi.

The history of the region is quite comparable to the history of the surrounding prefectures. During the biggest part of Japanese history, Miyagi was part of the Mutsu Province, the province that was made by taking the land from the local Emishi people. During the Sengoku period (1467 – 1603 CE), a period known for a lot of fighting and fragmentation of larger provinces, it was ruled by the Date clan, a strong ally of the Tokugawa family. They created the city of Sendai. During the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), the province formerly known as Mutsu was divided into 4 smaller provinces. What later would be known as Miyagi was part of the Rikuzen province but in 1871 the Sendai prefecture was established and a year later, its name was changed into the Miyagi prefecture.

A statue of Date Masamune, the leader of the Date clan.

A statue of Date Masamune, the leader of the Date clan.

Must-see locations

Miyagi has so many places that must be visited and things to do that it is impossible to mention all of them in this article. That is why we decided to pick the most important for you. We do have to say that there is a island completely devoted to cats. This island is called Tashirojima and it was already a topic in one of our articles about ‘6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan’. If you want to read more about it, just click here.

The first location that you simply must visit is the city of Sendai and its surroundings. A castle, historical sites, temples, local food, nature, this city just has it all. Sendai is the place to visit if you are interested in the rich history of the Sengoku period. Historical sites from the Date clan are spread out through the entire city. The most important one is the Zuihōden, the tomb of Date Masamune who was the leader of the Date clan. You can also find a lot of artifacts from the Date clan such as Date Masamune’s armour in this beautiful city and her museums. Of course, there is more to see here than history. Around different onsen resorts you can enjoy the natural beauty of the region. One of the three greatest waterfalls, Aiku waterfall, is found in the lush autumn forests surrounding the city. Last but not least, a must-visit location about 40 kilometers from the city of Sendai is Kinkasan. This small island is one of the three most holiest places in the Touhoku region. It is told that if you visit the Koganeyama shrine on this island three years in a row, you’ll never have financial problems again.

Sendai, the largest city in the Touhoku region.

Sendai, the largest city in the Touhoku region.

It wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t an amazing natural sight or location in Miyagi. Enter Matsushima, a collection of small islands covered in pines. In total, there are about 260 small islands that you can cruise around by boat. These islands are part of the Three Views of Japan and should be visited by everyone who visits Japan. Thankfully these islands were not damaged a lot by the Touhoku Disaster and only a few islands like Chōmei-ana collapsed. The Miyagi prefecture has established four unique viewing points to look at the small and beautiful islands. These viewing points are the Magnificent View or sōkan (壮観) at Otakamori, the Beautiful View or reikan (麗観) at Toyama, the Enchanting View or yūkan (幽観) at Ogidani and the Grand View or ikan (偉観) at Tamonsan.

Two of the Matsushima islands.

Two of the Matsushima islands.

Just 70 kilometers away from Sendai we find an astonishing gorge called Naruko Gorge. This gorge is located in the north-western part of Miyagi and only 2 kilometers away from the small onsen town Naruko. You can walk through the breathtaking nature around and in the gorge on two different trails. The first one is called the Naruko Gorge Walking Trail and it runs along the two kilometer long gorge. It is definitely the most scenic route but sometimes it is closed due to the possibility of falling rocks. The second trail is the Ofukazawa Walking Trail that passes past the Ofukazawa Bridge and runs through the forested area around the gorge. The best time to visit the Naruko Gorge is during the autumn, especially from the end of October until the beginning of November. All the trees change their colours and the gorge transforms in a natural canvas with warm colours.

A breathtaking view over the Naruko Gorge and the Ofukazawa Bridge.

A breathtaking view over the Naruko Gorge and the Ofukazawa Bridge.

The last location on our list is the Okama Crater, an old volcanic crater that is now the home of one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The Okama Crater is located in the Zao mountain range in south-west Miyagi on the border with the Yamagata prefecture. The name is derived from the shape of a typical Japanese cooking pot called a kama. The lake is also called the Goshikiko or Lake of Five Colours due to the different shades of emerald green during the different times of the day. Due to its highly acidic water, no animals or plants can survive in and around the lake. To get to the Okama Crater, you can go by foot, take a ski lift or go by car to a viewing deck. It is recommended though to visit the crater during the spring or summer. In the winter it is not possible to hike to the crater and you can only watch it from afar.

The Lake of Five Colours.

The Lake of Five Colours.

How to get there?

As most prefectures in the Touhoku region, you can easily reach Miyagi from Tokyo or other big cities in Northern Japan. You can get there by train thanks to the great amount of train lines that run through the prefecture, by car, by plane to the Sendai airport or even by boat. The possibilities are enormous.

The roads in Miyagi.

The important roads in Miyagi.

This was our short intro to Miyagi. We hope that we have showed you the different reasons to visit this lovely place. If you want to know more about traveling to Miyagi, leave a comment, send us a mail or please visit this page.

We will be back with another Japanese prefecture in May when we will tell you more about Akita.

Japanese Prefectures – Iwate 岩手

Iwate – Temples, history and a lovely beach

Welcome to the third installment of “Japanese Prefectures”. Last month we told you more about Aomori, today the Iwate prefecture will be our chosen prefecture. Iwate is mostly known as the home of the famous World Heritage Site of Hiraizumi, a collection of Buddhist temples of the Pure Land school. The main industry revolves around communication and semiconductors and the Iwate blueberries are to die for. This prefecture was hit by the 2011 Touhoku Disaster and was badly damaged with costs ranging to ¥371.5 billion or €2.9 billion.

Iwate

A beautiful view of Iwate.

Geography

Iwate is the easternmost prefecture of Honshu, the main island of Japan, and is bordered by the Aomori prefecture in the north, the Akita prefecture in the west and the Miyagi prefecture in the south. The only body of water on its border is the Pacific Ocean in the west. The border with the Akita prefecture is mostly defined by the Ou mountains. This mountain range still contains active volcanoes and Mount Iwate dwarfs most of them with its 2,038 meters. The much older Kitami Mountains run through the middle of the prefecture and haven’t been active for a long time. In between these mountain ranges flows the Kitakami River. Its fertile basin is where most of the large cities, industrial parks and farms are located. Besides these defining geographical elements, Iwate is mostly covered by forests and has a fair amount of warm water resources. During the past, the prefecture was mostly used for the mining of gold, iron, coal and sulfur but this has stopped. The famous cities are its capital, Moroika, with the Moroika Castle, Oshu City with its Fujiwara themed park and Kitakami City with beautiful old cherry trees.

A nice map of the Iwate prefecture.

A nice map of the Iwate prefecture.

What now is known as the Iwate prefecture used to be part of the home of the Emishi people, a group of people who are believed to be the descendants of the Jōmon people. Thanks to the Emishi it took the Japanese government, or Yamato, quite some time to occupy any part of what would become Iwate. It was one of the last provinces that was conquered. Because they couldn’t be conquered by the normal means of warfare and occupation, the Yamato had to try other ways to take the region. With the help of trade, the Emishi became dependent on the Yamato for valuable goods and after a covert operation to burn the crops and kidnap the Emishi women and children, the original people of the region surrendered. The leaders that survived the years of battles were taken to the Emperor and beheaded. As a result of this violent act, the Emishi people were enraged and kept battling the Yamato for twenty or more years until finally the Emishi were defeated. Until 1876 it was known as the Mutsu Province but during the Meiji Restoration the Iwate prefecture was created.

The Emishi.

The Emishi.

Must-see locations

Iwate has so many places that must be visited and things to do that it is impossible to mention all of them in this article. That is why we decided to pick the most important for you.

The most famous location is Iwate in the World Heritage Site of Hiraizumi. As said before, this is a collection of five Buddhist Pure Land sites from the late eleventh and twelfth century. Four of these sites are temples and the fifth site is Mount Kinkeisan, a summit used for sutra burials. The most famous temples are the Chūson-ji and the Mōtsū-ji. Both were founded by the Fujiwara Clan, a clan who ruled most of Northern Japan during the twelfth century. Chūson-ji is famous for its Kojiki-dō, or Golden Hall, that contains the mummified remains of leaders of the Northern Fujiwara Clan. It is a wooden building completely covered with gold leaf. Mōtsū-ji is the location of two ancient temples ruins. This beautiful temple complex used to have 50 pagodas and 500 monasteries at the height of its glory but all was burned in 1226 and was never rebuilt. The new temple was created during the eighteenth century and is located in a Pure Land garden containing both ruins and the new temple.

The beautiful Golden Hall of Chūson-ji.

The beautiful Golden Hall of Chūson-ji.

The next must-see location is the Esashi Fujiwara no Sato or the Fujiwara Heritage Park located in Oshu City. As mentioned above, the Fujiwara clan was the ruler of most of Northern Japan during the twelfth century. This theme park is built as a typical city during that time. Many buildings in this 20 hectare park are reconstructions of the buildings you would have seen during the twelfth century. It’s a true paradise for people who are interested in Japan’s history. You can even enjoy the food that was typical during the rule of the Fujiwara clan. A walk around the park takes about two hours and is certainly worth it.

The view in Esashi Fujiwara no Sato.

The view in Esashi Fujiwara no Sato.

With more than 10,000 cherry trees planted along the Kitakami River, the Tenshochi Park in Kitakami City is definitely worth the visit. It is even among the top three cherry blossom spots in the Touhoku region. The trees form a two kilometer long flowery tunnel for two weeks in late April and can be seen during a nice walk or by taking one of the many sightseeing boats that float past the beautiful trees. During the walk you can eat amazing food or participate in festival events. So if you are in the Iwate prefecture during the last weeks of April, make sure to visit this amazing park and see the beautiful cherry trees in bloom.

The amazing tunnel of flowers.

The amazing tunnel of flowers.

The last location in this list is the Jodogahama Beach, or the Pure Land Beach, at Miyako City along the Sanriku Coast. The scenic beauty of this place combines sharp, white rocks with green pines and an amazingly blue sea. The landscape was named after the Pure Land, the Buddhist paradise, thanks to its beautiful scenic value and once you see the view, it’s quite logical that this beach is ranked among the 100 Best beaches of Japan.

The lovely Jodogahama Beach.

The lovely Jodogahama Beach.

How to get there?

Iwate is very easy to reach. You can get there by plane, train, bus, boat or car. The Hanamaki Airport can be reached from Osaka and Sapporo. Because of the two high-speed shinkansen and seven local lines, going by train is also a good option. Iwate also has quite some ports so if you want to go there by boat, go ahead. It might take some time but the view might be worth it.

How to get around in Iwate.

How to get around in Iwate.

This was our short intro to Iwate. We hope that we have showed you the different reasons to visit this lovely place. If you want to know more about traveling to Iwate, leave a comment, send us a mail or please visit this site.

We will be back with another Japanese prefecture in April when we will tell you more about Miyagi.

Japanese Prefectures – Aomori 青森

Aomori – Nature, history and festivals

Today it’s time for another entry in our column “Japanese Prefectures”. Last time we told you more about Hokkaido, today the Aomori prefecture will be our chosen prefecture. Aomori is mostly a traditionally industrialised prefecture known for its forestry, farming and fishing. It is even Japan largest producer of apples! Besides this it is of course also known for its culture and nature. Aomori has a magnificent giant Buddha, amazing festivals and a lot of history.

Mount Iwaki in Aomori

The lovely view from Mount Iwaki – often known as Aomori’s Mount Fuji.

Geography

The Aomori prefecture is the most northern prefecture of Honshu or the main island of Japan. It is bordered by the prefectures of Akita and Iwate in the south, the Sea of Japan in the west, Hokkaido and the Tsugaru Strait in the north and the Pacific Ocean in the east. Aomori has three peninsulas in the Tsugaru Strait. First of all is the axe-shaped Shimokita Peninsula in the east which northwestern tip is the northernmost part of Honshu. The second peninsula is the Tsugaru Peninsula in the west, which is one of the poorest and remotest areas of Japan. In between these two peninsulas lies the smaller Natsudomari Peninsula. The capital is Aomori City and other popular cities are Hirosaki City and Hachinohe City. The prefecture has a relatively cool climate with an average temperature of 10 degrees Celsius. Due to the Ou Mountains that go through the prefecture from the north to the south, a difference in climate between the west and the east part of Aomori is noticeable. The east has a lot less sun during the summer months and stays relatively cool while the west has its fair share of monsoons and hard winters.

The map of Aomori.

The map of Aomori.

Aomori used to be the northern part of the Mutsu prefecture. This prefecture was run by the Hirosaki clan. They decided to create a seaport on the northern coastline and because it was surrounded by beautiful green woods, it was called Aomori, which literally means green forests. After the beginning of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the prefecture Aomori was created and Aomori City was established. During the following years it quickly grew and swallowed surrounding cities making it the biggest city in the prefecture. At this moment, the prefecture has a population of about 1,373,164. The Aomori Prefecture is one of the prefectures that were affected by the tsunami in March 2011, where it hit the east coast.

Hirosaki Castle- the old seat of the Hirosaki Clan.

Hirosaki Castle- the old seat of the Hirosaki Clan.

Must-see locations

Aomori has so many places that must be visited and things to do that it is impossible to mention all of them in this article. That is why we decided to pick the most important for you.

The first of these places is its capital, Aomori City. As we have mentioned before, this city was first a seaport that throughout the 19th and 20th century grew out to be the biggest city of the prefecture. Before the tunnel between Honshu and Hokkaido was built, this city was the only point where you could take a ferry to Hokkaido. Even though it lost a big part of its tourist crowd after the tunnel was built, it still has its fair share of must-see places and events. Aomori City has quite some fish markets spread out through the city. Here you can find the freshest and tastiest fish in the entire prefecture. It is also the home of the Aomori Museum of Art which has a great variety of modern and older art. But most people come to this city to see the Nebuta Matsuri during the summer, a festival where people march through the streets carrying 24 giant floats. These floats often depict gods, historical figures and popular characters from modern tv shows. We will definitely tell you more about this festival in our article about “Japanese holidays and festivals in July”.

A typical float during the Nebuta Matsuri.

A typical float during the Nebuta Matsuri.

The following place is a World Heritage Site in the Aomori Prefecture. Shirakami Sanchi or the Shirakami Mountains is an extensive mountain range in the west of the prefecture. In the center of these mountains is the last virgin beech forest of Japan, making it a World Heritage Site. It is home to a lot of popular hiking destinations ranging from the Anmon Falls, which are a set of three beautiful waterfalls, to the Juniko or twelve lakes, which are a collection of small lakes connected by hiking trails. The center of the mountain range, the World Heritage Site, is seldom visited by tourists but if you want to visit it, a permit is required. This is done to maintain the beautiful forest and to protect it from too much people walking underneath its magnificent trees.

One of the astonishing waterfalls in Shirakami Sanchi.

One of the astonishing waterfalls in Shirakami Sanchi.

As mentioned before, the Aomori Prefecture also has a historical value. Close to its capital, you can find the Sannai Maruyama Historical Site, which is an archeological site aging from the Jōmon Period (14.000 – 300 BCE). During the survey of the site an old Jōmon village was discovered underneath the ground. Entire longhouses, storage pits and above storage houses were excavated and this site has been important for finding out how this indigenous Japanese people first became sedentary. Besides these architectural findings, a lot of objects were found here as well. Things such as pots, burial jars, woven baskets etc. were found and are being displayed for the visitors. If you want to take a look at how the Jōmon people lived thousands of years ago, here’s the place to be.

A nice view over the Sannai Maruyama Historical Site.

A nice view over the Sannai Maruyama Historical Site.

The last must-see in the Aomori Prefecture is the Showa Daibutsu, the largest bronze seated Buddha in Japan. This statue is located in the Seiryuji Temple in Aomori City and was built in 1984. Measuring roughly 21,35 meters in height it is even taller than the Daibutsu in Nara. The modern Seiryuji Temple is also worth visiting. It has a beautiful five-story pagoda and is home to a lot of smaller Buddhist statues. The entire temple complex with the Showa Daibutsu as a must-see artifact, is most definitely the place to add in your travel schedule.

The beautiful Showa Daibutsu.

The beautiful Showa Daibutsu.

How to get there?

Getting to Aomori is quite easy. You can get there by plane, train, bus or car. Since Aomori City has its own airport you can fly there form almost any other Japanese airport. If you want, you can also take the Shinkansen from Tokyo and be in Aomori in only four hours. By bus it will take a lot longer of course, in eleven hours you can be in Aomori. Once you arrive in Aomori, you can rent a car to get everywhere or use public transportation. Thanks to its extensive road network, any place in Aomori is easy to reach.

Excessive road network.

Excessive road network.

This was our short intro to Aomori. We hope that we have showed you the different reasons to visit this lovely place. If you want to know more about traveling to Aomori, leave a comment, send us a mail or please visit this site.

We will be back with another Japanese prefecture in March when we will tell you more about Iwate.

Japanese Prefectures – Hokkaido 北海道

Hokkaido – nature, hot springs and bathing monkeys

Today marks the start of our new column “Japanese prefectures” in which we present to you the different prefectures of Japan and show you that every prefecture has its own reasons to visit. Every month we will tackle one prefecture for you until we have written about all 47. We will start with the northernmost and second largest island of Japan, Hokkaido. This island is mostly known for its unspoiled nature, hot springs and the Ainu people.

The different prefectures and regions of Japan

The different prefectures and regions of Japan

Geography

As said before, Hokkaido is the northernmost and second largest island of Japan. It is also the largest prefecture. Hokkaido is separated from the rest of Japan by the Tsugaru Strait or the Tsugaru Kaikyō, however it is connected through an underground railway. The island borders the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotks and the Pacific Ocean. Hokkaido itself is often compared to northern Europe and has its fair share of mountains and volcanic plateaus. It also has quite some national parks and hot spring resorts. The most popular cities are its capital Sapporo and the two core cities Hakodate and Asahikawa. The climate is considered cooler than the rest of Japan and it is a  popular destination between May and August because of the lack of the typical Japanese rain season.

A map of Hokkaido

A map of Hokkaido

The island was first mentioned in the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest book of classical Japanese history that was published in 720 CE. Hokkaido was mostly settled by the Japanese during the last 100 years. Because of this the cities and architecture in Hokkaido are more modern than the rest of Japan. There were of course already some settlements but it was mostly inhabited by the Ainu people. The Ainu are thought to be the indigenous  people of Hokkaido and Russia. They live in a shamanistic culture with their own language and customs and are quite different from Japanese culture. They are extremely fascinating and Inari Press will definitely write about them in future articles.

The Ainu people

The Ainu people

Must-see locations

Hokkaido has so many places that must be visited and things to do that it is impossible to mention all of them in this article. That is why we decided to pick the most important for you.

As we have mentioned before, Hokkaido is the place to be for onsen lovers and at Jigokudani Monkey Park, the biggest onsen lovers are wild monkeys. The Jingokudani Monkey Park is, as you can derive from the name, a park that is the natural habitat of a group of Japanese Macaques. The name literally means “Hell Valley”, this is a common name that is used for Japanese valleys with volcanic activity. Most people visit this place to see the monkeys and it is recommended to visit them during the months of January and February. The area is covered in snow during that time of the year and you’ll most definitely be able to get the perfect view.

Just chillin'

Just chillin’

Hokkaido is also known for its national parks. The largest of these parks is Daisetsuzan and with its 2.267 square kilometers, it is even bigger then some of the smaller prefectures in Japan. You can go there to hike or observe the local wildlife. The park is home to several rare species and has the largest population of brown bears in Asia. If you’re more of a chill-out person, you can always visit one of the many onsen in the park. The autumn colors and  snow here are the first to be seen in Japan each year.

Beautiful Daisetsuzan.

Beautiful Daisetsuzan.

If you are more into the city life, we recommend Sapporo. Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido and is the fifth-largest city in Japan. It is very popular thanks to its beer, ramen and annual snow festival. You can even visit the local Sapporo Brewery. People who love Japanese cuisine, should certainly visit the Curb Market, you can find almost everything concerning food here. If you want to experience the nightlife, Susukino is the place to be. It is the largest entertainment district north of Tokyo and is packed with bars, karaoke shops and more.

The city of Sapporo.

The city of Sapporo.

As the final item on this list we decided to go above the clouds. The Unkai Terrace is a must-see place where you get the opportunity to literally sit above the clouds. There is even a small restaurant there so it is possible to have your breakfast while observing the clouds underneath. The Unkai Terrace is only open from mid-May to the end of October and is most definitely a place that you must see.

Breathtaking.

Breathtaking.

How to get there?

Going to Hokkaido is actually very easy. The only land link to the main land of Japan is though the Seikan Tunnel, so most people travel to Hokkaido by plane. The biggest airport in Hokkaido is the New Chitose Airport but there are six more airports throughout the island. Once you are on the island, you can always use the well-developed railway. It is recommended though to rent a car since most cities are only accessible by car.

How to travel around in Hokkaido.

How to travel around in Hokkaido.

This was our short intro to Hokkaido. We hope that we have showed you the different reasons to visit this lovely place. If you want to know more about traveling to Hokkaido, leave a comment, send us a mail or please visit this site.

We will be back with another Japanese prefecture in February when we will tell you more about Aomori.