The agricultural heartland of Japan, Tohoku lies in the northern part of the country and attracts visitors with onsen (hot springs), food, history, and design—all set among forests, mountains, lakes, and more natural beauty. The easygoing, quick-to-laugh people who call it home make it a welcoming destination where you can truly immerse in its distinctive culture. We recently sent AFAR contributor and Japanese author Yukari Sakamoto to experience the region for herself. She discovered everything from a serene hotel that’s also an architectural destination to the godfather of Japanese whiskey, along many with other inspiring attractions that are easily accessible by train (especially if travelers are using the Japan Rail Pass).
1. SUIDEN TERRASSE Hotel
Bliss for fans of architecture, books, and nature, architect Shigeru Ban’s first hotel, SUIDEN TERRASSE, includes a spa with natural hot springs, sake bars, a fitness gym, and not just one but multiple libraries. Rice paddies surround the property and plentiful floor-to-ceiling windows suffuse the elegant interior with the warm glow of natural light. The company behind the hotel, Yamagata Design, has its own organic gardens which provides the hotel restaurant’s ingredients. Both the Western dinner and Japanese breakfast feature vibrant, fresh vegetables, and local seafood and meat.
Of the many reasons to stay longer here, a top highlight is perusing the 2,000-book collection focusing on design, architecture, travel, food, and traditional crafts. It’s a true pleasure to cuddle up with a title (books are in Japanese and English) among the clean lines and simple-yet-inviting design of the building.
Throughout, you can spot Ban’s signature paper tubes. The concept dates to 1986 when he constructed his first buildings out of paper and cardboard tubes called shikan, used in Japan for temporary structures following natural disasters. These sturdy tubes show up everywhere in the hotel’s furniture, including chairs and guestroom bed headboards. If these are the kinds of design details that excite you, you’ll want to pay the entry fee to explore the neighboring children’s educational facility, KIDS DOME SORAI, also designed by Ban. Seeing kids at play inside the vast dome space brings the joy of the design to life.
Tsuruoka, Japan’s only UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, sits on a bountiful source of seafood, the Sea of Japan. The area also yields a rich cornucopia of meat, fruit, and vegetables, thanks to surrounding mountains and expansive farmland. At the restaurant Al- ché-cciano, Chef Masayuki Okuda serves Italian cuisine made using local ingredients in a rustic cabin that wouldn’t look out of place in the Italian Alps.
Okuda, a Tsuruoka native, has long been involved with Italy’s Slow Food International organization and his work with traditional vegetables that are at risk of becoming extinct was featured in the documentary Reviving Recipes. You can taste his creations from a menu that includes sea bass acqua pazza, pasta with homemade goat cheese and fresh figs, and a risotto of Haenuki rice and chestnuts—a playful twist on a traditional Japanese dish.
3. Gotenmori Ryokan Inn
Akayu Onsen, a hot springs resort in Nanyō, Yamagata, has a rich history dating back 900 years. The traditional inn Gotenmori ryokan has been there for 380 years since it was first built as a villa for samurai Sadakatsu Uesugi and his family. Spacious traditional rooms with tatami mats offer quiet spaces to unwind. (Some rooms have beds if preferred.) Director Hayao Miyazaki stayed here—look for his drawing of Totoro in the hot springs.
A dozen different baths include several outdoors for guests to soak and relax under the stars at night. Another serene way to commune with nature here is in Eboshiyama Park, directly behind the inn and home to hundreds of sakura (cherry trees), which you can see blooming in spring.
Dinner and breakfast are elaborate, colorful meals that a feudal lord would approve of, with local dishes such as Yamagata wagyu beef grilled over a hot stone and sansai (mountain vegetables}. Also known for grapes, the region has six wineries in the area and the ryokan offers a tasting of local wines before dinner.
4. Nikka Whisky Miyagikyo Distillery
Japanese whiskey is ranked among the best in the world and Nikka Whisky Miyagikyo Distillery is one of the top producers in Japan. A visit gives insight into the hard work of its founder and the father of Japanese whiskey, Masataka Taketsuru, who in 1918 was the first in Japan to study whiskey-making in Scotland. He directed the building of the Suntory Yamazaki distillery in Osaka and produced Japan’s first whiskey. In 1934, after traveling to Hokkaido and finding Yoichi’s environment similar to Scotland’s, Taketsuru built Japan’s first pot still and started Nikka Whisky there. Looking to expand his portfolio, the distiller explored Tohoku and established Miyagikyo Distillery there in 1969. One of the nearby rivers which is the source of production water is called Nikkawa—perhaps it was destiny.
The distillery near Sendai includes about two dozen buildings. Their dark red hue contrasts with the lush green background of the Sakunami mountain forest, giving it the feel of a quiet college campus. Nature was important to Taketsuru, so he had all the power lines buried underground, adding to the tranquility. The copper stills are wrapped at the top with a shimenawa, braided rice straw, and shide, white paper streamers, in a Shinto purification ritual.
Miyagikyo whiskies are heated at lower temperatures creating softer, rounder spirits with floral aromas, a contrast to the smoky, peaty whiskies of Yoichi in Hokkaido. Golden amber in color, the signature Single Malt Miyagikyo is smooth, light-bodied, and has delicate aromatics of a grassy meadow and citrus fruit.
A complimentary tour introduces fermentation tanks, pot stills, and production facilities. It includes a tasting of a whiskey and a fortified apple wine, while an onsite bar offers even more products. (The tour is in Japanese but there is an English language guide available with basic information. And reservations are recommended; visitors arriving without reservations can tour on a first-come-first-serve basis.) Whiskey aficionados will want to visit the store, as the offerings may include limited-edition items.
These four attractions are only a small sampling of the culinary delights, cultural offerings, historic sites, and pristine landscapes you’ll find in Tohoku. Muse to artists, poets, and samurai for hundreds of years, Matsushima just north of Sendai has 260 islands covered with pine trees. And throughout the region historical shrines and temples within stunning natural settings make fascinating, tranquil places to visit. Learn about these experiences and more on the Japan National Tourism Organization site to help inform your trip to Tohoku.