Why Tohoku’s Many Colors Make it One of Japan’s Most Inspiring Destinations
From pink cherry blossoms and emerald forests to hot springs in the silvery snow, the kaleidoscopic hues of this Japanese region are a magnificent setting for outdoor activities, vibrant culture, and more.
The Tohoku region is rich with the dazzling hues of nature, no matter the time of the year. A visit to this group of prefectures in the northern part of Japan rewards with gorgeous scenery, delicious food, traditional crafts, and culture—all awash in color. And, with about 75 percent of the land here being mountainous, hiking is a popular pastime, so there are many trekking trails and onsen (hot springs) from which to take in the rainbow of tones. Whether you want to spark creativity by meditating on the many beautiful shades of the world here or to simply bask in their presence, this corner of the globe is full of inspiration and seemingly endless opportunities for exploration, relaxation, and more.
As winter falls upon Tohoku, snow blankets the land white. Even for locals, the striking juhyo ice monsters of Mount Zao in Yamagata are a sight to see in person. Wind blows snow that collects on trees to create these monsters, a wonder that can only be made by nature. Skiers get a thrilling pass down the mountain among the stark white snow statues, while visitors can take in the view from the ropeway that snakes its way through the sleek frozen figures. When evening comes, lights bring the ice creatures to life, in beautiful contrast to the black skies and creating a mystical scene.
At the end of winter, snow produces otherworldly sights here. The area sees a rich amount of snow, so much so that some of the roads close for several months in winter only to be meticulously carved out in spring. The resulting snowy white canyons with high walls, reaching up to thirty feet in some spots, are magnificent. The Hakkoda Snow Corridor in Aomori, a five-mile road, connects the cities of Aomori and Towada from April 1 until early May. The grandiose Sukayu Onsen, famous for its therapeutic hot springs, lies at one end of the snow corridor. A large mixed-gender public bath, it’s housed in a rustic wooden structure built in 1917. For a luxurious stay, consider the Hoshino Resorts Oirase Keiryu Hotel that includes a hot spring surrounded by a frozen waterfall in wintertime.
The charming hot springs village of Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata is especially photogenic in the snow. Wooden ryokan inns line the river in the pedestrian-only part of the town. In the evenings the gaslights add warm hues and small footbridges crossing the river create a cinematic winter scene. Part of the experience is to wear yukata (a cotton kimono) and a traditional jacket to stroll the streets. A visit here is like stepping back in time, yet old-meets-new after architect Kengo Kuma breathed new life into the 100-year-old Fujiya ryokan. Kuma expressed his signature use of natural materials with an expansive use of bamboo in this minimalist inn.
Spring (tree and vegetable) flowers
While not as famous as sakura (cherry blossoms), yellow rapeseed blossoms also define the spring landscape for the Japanese. One spot to see the vibrant nanohana, as they’re called, is at the Koiwai Farm near Mount Iwate. The farm, renowned for its dairy products, dates back 130 years, so be sure to savor some soft serve there.
A sign that spring is around the corner is when aromatic ume or plum flowers perfume the air, followed by the celebrated cherry blossoms bursting onto the scene. One of the rewards of viewing the pink blooms in Tohoku is the dramatic backdrop of snow-covered mountains, big blue skies, and historic buildings.
Originally built in 1611 in Aomori, the three-story Hirosaki Castle’s current structure was built in 1810. Located within the Hirosaki Park, its five moats and nine bridges add character to the landscape. And with more than 2,500 sakura trees, it’s one of Japan’s most famous locations for celebrating the blossoms in spring.
When in Aomori, you can find multicolored traditional crafts. In Hirosaki, visit the Hirosaki Kogin Institute to see Kogin sashi, an embroidery technique that uses colorful thread to add stylish patterns to fabric while also strengthening the material. Kogin sashi stitches are said to resemble snow on the ground.
Stop by Utsuwa no Mise Osakaya, a fifth-generation store in Aomori city, for Tsugaru Vidro handmade glassware in vivid colors inspired by the seasons, from winter white landscapes to autumn foliage. Anmd Aomori Tsugauru nuri lacquerware, with shades of red, green, gold, and black adorning chopsticks and tableware, make a colorful addition to any meal.
Summer’s green lakes, forests, and moss
Towada Hachimantai National Park, located between Aomori, Akita, and Iwate prefectures, is home to a natural phenomenon called the Dragon Eye. For about two weeks each year from late May into June as the Kagaminuma pond snow melts, it reflects the sky and creates a bright blue circle with a large patch of snow in the middle that is said to look like the eye of a dragon.
Eight miles of hiking trails along the Oirase Gorge mountain stream in Aomori allow visitors to immerse themselves in many green shades, including upwards of three hundred varieties of moss. Fed from Lake Towada, the clearwater river includes numerous waterfalls and bubbly rapids that add negative ions to the air, believed to benefit to one’s health. Also a source of negative ions, the form of Japanese ecotherapy Shinrinyoku, literally forest bathing, emerged in the 1980s as a way to relieve stress by connecting with nature—something you’ll have plenty of opportunities to do here too.
Between Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures, the Okama Crater, is a caldera lake on the Mount Zao range. The Five Color Lake, as it’s also called, changes colors depending on the sunlight, from a vivid emerald to blue. At 6,000 feet above sea level, the view from the top of the mountain with the skies below is stunning. When here, you can spend an evening surrounded in green at the nearby Gaga Onsen. Nestled in the mountains, the inn has open-air hot springs overlooking the river.
Autumn leaf peeping and more
Float above a magnificent carpet of red, yellow, and orange leaves on the Hakkoda Ropeway (a 1.5-mile long gondola ride) as it travels up Mount Tamoyachi in Aomori. In particular, miniature maple momiji (autumn leaves) are renowned for their blazing red hues. Towada Hachimantai National Park, a volcanic plateau between Iwate and Akita, has majestic landscapes, alpine flora, fauna, lakes, and marshes. Volcanoes here are a source for the oldest onsen in Hakkoda, Sukayu Onsen, and others that dot the region, the perfect spots to recuperate after hiking.
There’s no shortage of colorful culture in Aomori in the fall either. In early August each year, colossal sculpture lanterns made from washi paper of all colors are lit up from within and paraded through the streets in the evening during one of Japan’s most famous festivals, the Nebuta Matsuri. The Nebuta Museum Wa Rasse, which boasts a striking architectural façade, recreates the ambience with dim lights so visitors can experience the energy from the floats year round. Aomori is also renowned as the birthplace of the colorful and energetic Tsugaru-shamisen music, lively music from a three-stringed instrument that’s distinctively rhythmic and percussive. The folk tunes are a fitting soundtrack for a place so blessed with natural and cultural beauty.
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