Here is Tohoku, the northern part of Japan’s main island, Honshu. It starts just an hour and a half from Tokyo, but it feels less like a different country than a more intense version of the Japan you know. Tohoku is a region of wild mountains, heavy skies, and yet there’s also a certain lightness and grace in the traditions you experience and in the people you meet. It’s the kind of place where the Japanese go to feel more connected to their roots, to feel more Japanese. It’s the kind of place where you, the visitor, are also welcomed behind the sliding door.
Not every mountain in Tohoku has an ancient temple or fabled onsen hot spring retreat on it, but an unlikely number of them do. Tsurunoyu Onsen, with its milky waters, and Yamadera temple, which inspired the great poet Bashō more than 500 years ago, are two of the most iconic destinations of their kind in all of Japan.
Tohoku is surrounded on three sides by water—the crashing surf of the Sea of Japan, the windswept waves off the northern lip of the land, the tranquil bays off the Pacific. These waters are the nursery for so much of what is good on land. The most expensive tuna in Japan—including the fish that recently sold for $3.1M at a Tokyo auction—comes from the Tsugaru Straits near the fishing fleet city of Oma.
Urban Tohoku is where the region’s ancient foodways show up on late-night plates. From Sendai’s charcoal-grilled beef tongue wizards to Akita’s yakitori skewer specialists, the cooking talent eases the hungry, the happy, and the weary to their next stop. And if you’re lucky, the revelers will raise a glass of sake—maybe brewed from the indigenous rice strains of Tohoku—and toast your great wisdom at having come north.