5 reasons to visit Tohoku once Japan reopens for tourism

Tohoku, the historically isolated region of northern Japan, will be among the best places for international travelers to visit, especially for spiritual and natural adventures, once Japan reopens to tourism.

Written about by the legendary haiku poet Matsuo Basho in his masterpiece Oku no Hosomichi in 1702, Tohoku has been known in Japan since ancient times for its beautiful landscapes, sacred mountains, healing hot springs, and unique rituals.

However, the lack of public transportation, convenient facilities for tourists or tourist information – and language barriers for non-Japanese speakers – in many parts of the region have always made access difficult. Less than 2 percent of international visitors to Japan arrived here before the pandemic.

2020 was supposed to be the start of a new era for Japanese tourism’s best kept secrets after a decade-long government project to turn it into an international tourism destination in time for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.

Tohoku has been named among National Geographic’s “Best Travel 2020” and Lonely Planet’s “Best Travel 2020” destinations. Fukushima Prefecture topped The Guardian’s list of the 20 best places to visit in 2020.

2020 wasn’t quite as expected, however, during the pandemic, the region has evolved further into a fun and laid-back adventure wonderland. Tohoku added accommodations, services, and itineraries, and lowered language barriers.

Here’s a look at the five reasons why Tohoku is the place to go once borders reopen:

1. New housing

Many new accommodations will be available in the midst of dynamic and pristine nature and in regional cities. IHG Hotels & Resorts, the major international hotel operator, is making its largest investment in Japan in at least 15 years in Tohoku, demonstrating its confidence in the region’s potential. Three resort hotels will open in February under the ANA InterContinental, ANA Crown Plaza and ANA Holiday Inn brands, adding more than 1,000 rooms in the Appi Kogen district in the heart of the area, the mountain resort that National Geographic describes as “delightfully uncrowded” in its article for Best 2020 flights.

ANA Intercontinental Appi Kogen Resort_ALTB - Photo courtesy of Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

Among a number of lavish amenities across the region, GLAMPic allows you to privatize a small mountain at the foot of the famous Zao Mountains for around €200 or $200 per night. Other new openings include a stylish city hotel, the Grand Bach Hotel, in Sendai, Tohoku’s largest city, with 151 modern rooms; Wanoi Kakunodate, a small private hotel with three luxurious rooms built in a renovated storeroom, in the samurai quarter of Kakunodate; and a popular Japanese business hotel chain Daiwa Roynet Hotel branch with 204 comfortable rooms in Yamagata, the core city of Yamadera climbing.

2. New services and tracks

New services and itineraries, as well as upgraded facilities, are ready to allow international visitors to enjoy and immerse themselves in the rich nature, culture and traditions of this “deep Japanese” region like never before. The Michinoku Coastal Trail, the new national park built on a 1,000-kilometre stretch of scenic Sanriku coast devastated by the tsunami, and completed in 2019, is impressive. This diverse walking path has made several major appearances in the international media and even reached the finals of the British Travel Writers Association’s 2020 International Tourism Award.

Azuma Adatara Ryozen Matsukawaura_ALTB - Photo provided by Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

Designed for carbon-neutral exploration on foot, bike and kayaking, the Japan Eco Track Fukushima is now thoroughly and comprehensively designed in English with detailed practical information. The route passes through scenic, dynamic volcanoes, ancient hot spring resorts such as Tsuchiyu Onsen, rural areas and the coast. The Sannai Maruyama site, which was recognized in July as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site along with its neighboring archaeological sites, is now fully multilingual for international visitors and equipped with innovative digital how-to tools. The archaeological site, consisting of a clone settlement and a museum with approximately 1,700 artifacts excavated from the site, allows you to discover how people lived in the early and middle Jomon period (between 3900 BC and approximately 2200 BC).

Sannai Maruyama site_ALTB - Photo courtesy of Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

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3. Easy to transport

Transportation is easier than ever. Shinkansen bullet trains connect Tohoku with the metropolis of Tokyo and even the northern island of Hokkaido through an undersea tunnel across the Sea of ​​Japan. In 2021, the new 359-kilometer Sanriku Expressway on Sanriku’s long-isolated Pacific coast will be completed linking the northern port city of Hachinohe with Sendai, Tohoku’s largest city. For slower travel through Tohoku, several new scenic trains are in service now. The Shikishima luxury sleeper train debuted in 2017 and allows travelers to see all parts of Tohoku in total comfort. The Tohoku Emotion Train, the gastronomy train launched in 2013, operates in the most beautiful part of the Sanriku Coast in North Tohoku and serves great meals prepared on the train from fresh, local ingredients. For more eco-friendly travel, electric vehicle charging stations are being set up all over Tohoku to make it possible to rent and drive one. (Car rental outlets are located at all major train stations.) Rental bikes, including solar-powered e-bikes, are available in many places, letting you feel and breathe the fresh air of Tohoku and immerse yourself in the serene landscape.

4. One of the greenest areas in Japan

Tohoku is one of the greenest places on Earth with more open space than most other places in Japan. The qualities that placed Tohoku among the world’s top destinations according to major international media before the pandemic – such as the lack of crowding and abundance of open spaces surrounded by a dynamic and diverse nature – will be more appreciated than ever after the pandemic.

Goshikinuma Lake_ALTB - Photo courtesy of Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

Tohoku is a vast and wild area (about 67,000 square kilometers or about 26,000 square miles) with plenty of space for relaxation and social distancing. Forests cover seventy percent of the area, while the proportion is 67 percent for Japan, which ranks third in the world in terms of the ratio of forests to land. The population per square kilometer is 129 in Tohoku compared to 337 nationwide. Tohoku is more attractive than ever as a place to relax and breathe fresh air.

5. Wellness Onsen

Tohoku is where you can enjoy the ultimate wellness retreat in Onsen, Japan’s famous hot spring baths. Feeling well-being is more important than ever. This volcanic region is famous for its range of healing hot spring baths in unique natural settings. Nyuto Onsenkyo and Matsukawa Onsen are located in the scenic mountainous areas of Towada-Hachimantai National Park, while Koganesaki Furofushi Onsen and Minamisanriku Onsen are located right on the coasts, offering stunning ocean views. It’s also easier in Tohoku to find affordable private hot spring baths in ryokan and hotels around the area in Tohoku.

Nyuto Onsenkyo_ALTB - Photo provided by the Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

About Tohoku

The northeastern Tohoku region of Japan is a vast and wild region that includes six prefectures: Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Yamagata, and Fukushima. This rural area has historically been isolated due to limited transportation and some of the heaviest snowfall in the world. Isolation allowed Tohoku to develop a unique culture with its own distinct traditions, with very limited influence from the outside world. After a decade of government efforts to make it an international holiday destination, this best-kept secret of Japanese tourism is finally ready to take center stage, offering lush landscapes, serene winter wonders, unique spiritual experiences and outdoor adventures on world class.

Tohoku is notably accessible from Tokyo. Close to the hour and a half express train, the plentiful nature of the area, vast rice fields and pretty villages immediately immerse visitors in the warm rural landscape reminiscent of the Ghibli films. At the time of writing, Japan currently has entry restrictions in place in an effort to contain the global pandemic. Please see the Coronavirus Advisory Information of Japan National Tourist Office for updates on entry restrictions.

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