Food and onsens in Tohoku, Japan
Mention Japan and the same images pop into everyone’s minds: Mount Fuji, Tokyo, Osaka Castle, and deer at Nara. That, my friends, is the basic version of Japan that everyone goes for. If you’re looking for a Japan that has food just as good, but with sights few of your friends have ever seen, you’ll need to explore a bit further than that.
Up in the northeast of part Japan lies Tohoku, a region around 2 hours away from Tokyo via the Tohoku Shinkansen. A coastal region, it’s famous for its unique seafood, volcanic region, and ski slopes in the winter. And let’s face it - most of us have been stuck in the city for the better part of a year. A visit to an idyllic mountainous resort is the perfect remedy.
Getting to Tohoku from Tokyo
Getting to Tohoku from Tokyo is pretty straightforward. Grab a JR EAST PASS for the Tohoku Shinkansen before heading down to Tokyo Station. You’ll be able to use this pass for 5 consecutive days, for passes purchased after 1 April 2021.
Once at Tokyo Station, look for the Tohoku Shinkansen (the light green line) and board it.
The journey should take about 90-240 minutes, depending on which part of Tohoku you’re visiting first. We recommend your first stop to be Sendai, the largest city in Tohoku.
These are roughly how long you’ll get to the stations from Tokyo, so you can set your alarm the moment the train leaves the station:
- Sendai Station: around 90 min (1 hour 30 min)
- Fukushima Station: around 90 mins (1 hour 30 min)
- Morioka Station: around 130 min (2 hours 10 minutes)
- Shin-Aomori Station: around 180min (3 hours)
Note: If you are heading to Yamagata or Akita, however, do note that there are specialised Shinkansens that you can take. Look for the Yamagata Shinkansen (purple line) or Akita Shinkansen (red line) for express trips to these stations.
- Yamagata Station: around 160 min (2 hours 40 min)
- Akita Station: around 240 min (4 hours)
Take a power nap once the train leaves the station, you’ll want to wake up once the train reaches the mountainous regions. Look out on the left side of the window and spot Mount Adatara and the Azuma mountains.
Transportation for getting around Tohoku
The best way to get around Tohoku is via car rental, but if you don’t have a license, you can also get a Tohoku Bus Pass. The Tohoku Bus Pass provides unlimited travel around Tohoku, and will even bring you across the different prefectures!
What Tohoku is famous for: Sakura, festivals, and winter slopes
Tohoku is made up of 6 different prefectures, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, Akita, Aromori, and Yamagata. Because there’s just too much to do in Tohoku, this article will focus on the onsens and food in the first 3 prefectures, and you can find unique experiences in the latter 3 prefectures here.
So, what’s Tohoku famous for? Right now, it’s popular for its food, volcanic scenery, and onsens. What we think it should be famous for are all the above as well as its summer matsuri (festivals), sakura hotspots (with pink flowers) during spring, and momiji hotspots (with red leaves) during autumn. Plus, of course, the magnificent ski slopes during winter. That’s right, there are good reasons to visit throughout the year, and we have the pictures to prove it.
Recommended: Yunokami Onsen
If you’re travelling into Fukushima via the Shinkansen, you’ll step into one of only 2 thatched roof train stations in Japan. The Yunokami Onsen Station will give you a taste of what to expect in Fukushima, with its homely and rustic vibes.
The onsens here have 8 different source springs, and with most inns welcoming of tourists, you’ll be able to head into any of them to enquire about daily usage rates. And if you’re just there to soak your feet, you may want to drop by the public foot bath at the Station itself, where you can watch the sakura leaves fall as the hot pools work their magic.
Recommended food: Kitakata Ramen
As with most food with locations in their names, the best Kitakata Ramen in the world is found in Kitakata, a city in Fukushima. While it may not be as famous outside of Japan, Kitakata Ramen is one of Japan’s 3 most popular ramens, alongside Hakata and Sapporo Ramen.
What makes Kitakata Ramen so special is its noodles, called "Hirauchi Jukusei Takasuimen". They’re thicker than the “normal” ramen noodles, being about 4mm wide, and flat. Plus, they’re more firm and chewy, which give the ramen an extra “bounce”.
Recommended: Hanamaki Onsenkyo
What’s so special about Hanamaki Onsenkyo? While Iwate is full of onsens all over, Hanamaki Onsenkyo consists of 12 separate hot springs that allow you to soak your weary bones in. From open-air au-naturale bath spaces with a view overlooking the rivers mountain to private hot springs in inns, you’ll be able to find a hot spring that fits your ideal.
Plus, once you’re done with the hot springs, you’ll be able to explore a rose garden with over 450 species of flowers, and discover more about the legendary poet Kenji Miyazawa, whose fairytales have inspired multiple animes.
Recommended food: Wankosoba
You’ll be able to finish at least 5 bowls of this, even if you have a small appetite. One of the most iconic foods in the Iwate Prefecture is wankosoba, which is soba (buckwheat noodles) served in bite-sized portions. It’s special because it’s essentially a soba buffet, where the dishes keep coming.
Wankosoba is typically served with side dishes such as sashimi or mushroom, and it’s an experience you must try for yourself - CNN reports that the record is 570 bowls in one sitting!
Ps. the trick to get the servers to stop serving more soba is to place a lid on your bowl (wanko).
Recommended: Soak in a 1,000 year old Onsen
If you’ve ever wanted to be a part of history, head down to Akiu Onsen when you’re in Miyagi. According to legend, Emperor Kinmei, the 29th Emperor of Japan, once suffered from a small boil that was immediately cured when he took a bath in spring waters from Akiu. Since then, the quality of Akiu Onsen has been praised across the country, and it’s now known as one of “Japan’s Three Hot Springs”.
Recommended food: Gyutan
If you find yourself in Sendai, the capital of Miyagi, you’ll have to try a Miyagi specialty: Sendai gyutan. The name “gyutan” is derived from the Japanese word 牛 (“gyu”), meaning beef, and the English word “tongue”. That’s right, the local delicacy here is beef tongue, and it’s done in several different ways.
From stews to yakiniku (barbecue) to sashimi, there are many ways to sample gyutan in Sendai. You’ll be able to take your pick too, with gyutan stalls all over the city.
Bonus: Pick the freshest seasonal fruits at JR Fruit Park Sendai Arahama
To make your visit to Tohoku complete, you can head over to JR Fruit Park Sendai Arahama, where there they grow 8 types of fruits, but over 150 different varieties of them! From kiwis to strawberries to apples and grapes, you’ll be able to pick the juiciest in-season fruits to bring home, or drop by the restaurant where you can savour creative desserts and drinks freshly-picked from the area.
Visiting Tohoku for the first time
Visiting Japan when travel resumes again is on everyone’s list. We understand. But let’s do better than the average traveller. Tohoku’s uniqueness sets it apart from the tried-and-tested destinations, and reignites our interest in the lesser-travelled aspects of Japan.
If you’re short of time, you may also want to explore a few of these options in Tohoku: