Tohoku was once known as Michinoku, "The Interior Road," the literal end of the line. The region's vastness and inaccessibility were immortalized by the wandering poet Basho in his epic work, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which had a profound impact on Tohoku's mystique and has lingered in the minds of the Japanese over the centuries. Tohoku gained its reputation of inaccessibility because of the rugged mountains that form its spine, the deep snowy winters of impregnable white, and the tenacity the land has shown against being tamed.

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Tohoku, which translates as "East-North," is the northern section of the main island of Honshu. Its boundaries encompass the six prefectures of Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Miyagi, Yamagata, and Fukushima. Tohoku and the island of Shikoku vie as the least touristed areas of Japan, and the region lags behind the rest of Honshu in industrialization and modernity.

Tohoku's assets are a combination of the preserved culture of classical Japan and natural, virtually unblemished scenic areas. Within its boundaries are three exceptional national parks: Bandai-Asahi (south-central), Rikuchu Kaigan (east coast), and Towada-Hachimantai (north-central). Matsushima, a miniature archipelago of pine-clad islands floating in coastal mist, has been a tourist destination since the mid-1600s. This area, east of Sendai, abounds with temples and shrines that have been sanctuaries for ascetics seeking their higher natures. In temporal contrast, Hirosaki, a small inland city that began as a castle town, is legendary for having the most beautiful women in Japan.

Whenever the climate of an area is harsh, it is predictable that the local festivals are often impressive, serving as psychological buffers against the realities of nature. Unsurprisingly, the festivals of this north country, especially the Nebuta, Tanabata, and Kanto, are some of the most spectacular in Japan. Folk art is thriving in the snowbound rural communities; the cottage industries of lacquerware and handmade copper and iron utensils are a way of life.

Tohoku is the best place to view an older, wizened Japan: a land of unpretentious villages and strong tradition where faintly but firmly beats the venerable heart of Japan.

The Land and Climate
Tohoku is like the spiny back of a mythical dragon rising from the sea. Gnarled volcanic mountains run north and south along its entire length. The Ou Mountains, the most extensive, run from the Shimokita Hanto peninsula in the north all the way south to Lake Inawashiro-ko, virtually dividing Tohoku into two, a Pacific half and a Japan Sea half. The Sanriku Kaigan coast along the Pacific is punctuated with numerous bays and tiny fishing villages and harbors. Infrequently, tsunami, tidal waves generated by submarine earthquakes, inundate this shore. The Japan Sea side is more tame, with long sandy beaches and shifting sand dunes.

The Kitakami Basin in the northeast is sandwiched between the Ou and Kitakami mountains that face the Pacific. A gap of 150 km along the east coast between the Kitakami and Abukuma mountains holds Sendai-wan Bay and the relatively expansive Sendai Basin. In the Abukuma Mountains are the headwaters of the Abukuma-gawa River, which flows inland and northward until it meets the sea at Sendai-wan Bay.

Along the west coast, the pattern is repeated. The Dewa Mountains rise in the northwest, wherein lies a gap of 50 km between these and the Ou Mountains of the interior. The Noshiro and Akita plains fan out from the western slopes of the Dewa Mountains and face the Japan Sea. In the southwest are the Echigo Mountains, which stretch southward into the Chubu District. The Nasu and Chokai volcanic zones parallel the central and western mountain ranges. Their activity is responsible for the formation of the beautiful caldera lakes of Towada-ko and Tazawa-ko. Mounts Bandai, Gassan, and Iwate are all active volcanoes that are regularly climbed. These volcanic areas abound in hot springs and mineral baths, and small, rustic resorts lie at the end of mountain trails.

The Climate
Weatherwise, Tohoku is similar to Vermont in the U.S., or to northern Germany. Winters are long, snowy, and cold; summers are about three degrees cooler than in southern Honshu; and spring and autumn are glorious. The Japan Sea side measures its snow in meters, while the Pacific coast is more moderate and usually recieves only light dustings. The mountainous interior has frequent heavy snowfalls; if you enjoy flying down mountains instead of grunting up them, try skiing the slopes of Hachimantai even as late as early June. The small basins between the mountains have varied and unique climates of their own and can provide an oasis of warmth and sunshine, even while blinding snow rages in the mountains above. Be prepared for cool mountainous traveling, rapid changes in temperature due to altitude, and a fair amount of rain. Homes, and most inns, are not centrally heated in winter, so if you plan to visit at that time, bring thermal underwear.

The Yamato Japanese occupied the southern lands, and as settlers fanned out, they slowly moved to the more hostile environs of Tohoku. At one time, the Ainu (see the introduction to the Hokkaido chapter) controlled this area, and their presence is still evoked by numerous place-names. The Taga-jo Monument, erected in 762 at the site of Taga-jo Castle a few kilometers from Sendai, proclaimed that the frontier controlled by the Ainu was only 78 km to the north. For centuries, Tohoku functioned as a series of garrison towns marking the northern limits of the Japanese empire. Its inhospitable land was home to soldiers, warlords, and a few farmers. Religious zealots seeking seclusion also came here, as evidenced by Zuigan-ji Temple, established near Matsushima in 828 by monks of the Rinzai-shu sect who used nearby caves as meditation chambers. 

In short, Tohoku was a forgotten backwater that did not come into prominence until Masamune Date built his castle, Aoba-jo, at Sendai in 1602. The Date clan then ruled the largest fiefdom north of Edo under the Tokugawa Shogunate. With Date, a man of vision, sitting at court, Japanese culture flowed into Tohoku. Date oversaw the rebuilding of Zuigan-ji, which initiated an infusion of art and architecture into the region. Basho, the haiku poet, chose Matsu-shima as a subject for his immortal works, distinguishing it as a living still life of peace and serenity. His works firmly established southern Tohoku as a destination of unsurpassed beauty, and the flow of tourists has continued ever since.

A Fantastic Voyage
Under the auspices of Masamune Date, one of the most amazing seafaring adventures of all times was initiated. For reasons that still remain unclear, Date procured the release of a Franciscan missionary, Padre Sotelo, from Ieyasu Tokugawa. Some historians speculate that Date was a secret Christian, while others feel that his patronage of Sotelo came from the more secular desire to master advanced European manufacturing techniques. Date allowed Sotelo to preach Christianity openly for a while and then sent Sotelo and Tsunenaga Hasekura, a close court advisor, on an expedition to Rome. A violent storm had washed a British ship ashore at Uraga and, using it as a model, Date built the first Japanese open-sea craft, appropriately named the Date Mura. With Sotelo and Hasekura aboard, it set sail with a ship's company of 150 in September 1613. Cruising across the Pacific, with a stop in the Philippines, the Date Mura arrived in Acapulco, Mexico in January 1614, marking the first recorded voyage of the Japanese across the Pacific. Sotelo and Hasekura continued their voyage to Europe on a Spanish ship. Hasekura was welcomed at the court of Philip III of Spain and was received by Pope Paul V at the Vatican. He was converted to Christianity, toured Europe for a time, and returned to Mexico in 1618. The awaiting Date Mura carried him back across the Pacific, arriving in Japan during August of 1620. Little is known of the Japanese crew making the voyage, but taking into consideration that Japan had no historical tradition of deep-water sailing, a voyage of this magnitude was truly monumental.

Modern Times
Tohoku prospered under the Date clan for 270 years, becoming one of the country's largest rice producers. The Meiji Restoration brought an end to the clan rule, and Tohoku once again slipped into obscurity. Once Tohoku was an established region the Meiji government neglected it, turning its attention instead to newly acquired lands in Formosa and Korea and to taming Hokkaido. Tohoku was left to fend for itself. In 1907, Tohoku University was founded at Sendai, providing a long-awaited institution of higher learning for the populace. Sendai came under American bombardment in WW II, and its heavy industries were devastated. Finally, after the war, the Japanese paid increasing attention to Tohoku, and vast land-reclamation projects, industrial complexes, and a sorely needed transportation system were developed.

Today, Tohoku is slowly catching up to industrialized Japan. Japanese businesspeople and office workers are "imported" from Tokyo and other larger cities to help develop the urban areas. The faces of Tohoku's larger cities are changing, becoming more scarred and stained by industrial growth, but the mountains and deep inland villages remain as quiet enclaves of tradition populated by easygoing people.

Arts and Crafts
Although Tohoku is becoming inundated with industrialization, it still produces handmade, age-old crafts. Some outstanding examples are: kogin, embroidery in white cotton thread on lengths of cloth, a speciality of Hirosaki; nambutetsu, substantial ironware from Morioka, including kettles produced from hand-fired forges; kaba-zaiku, lunch boxes; and chabitsu, tea chests fashioned from cherry bark, a special product from Kakunodate in Akita-ken Prefecture. All of the handicrafts from Tohoku carry a wealth of tradition, a simple but unique design, painstaking craftsmanship, and authenticity born of age and custom.

Wooden Toys
Simple wooden toys called kijigangu are made by craftsmen in the villages and spas throughout Tohoku. Kiji originally referred to the wood used, and kijishi were the craftsmen who roamed the countryside carrying their portable lathes, rokuro, over their shoulders. They moved from one area to another, carving their wares from oak, maple, and camellia as they went. At the beginning of the Edo period, these craftsmen began to settle down, many establishing themselves in the spa towns of Tohoku, where they sold their wares to travelers, a tradition that continues to this day. Some noteworthy examples of kijigangu are kokeshi, simple wooden dolls with cylindrical bodies and round heads. They are the most famous type of kijigangu, and they head the list of the most sentimental souvenirs that can be offered by the Japanese. Farmers would traditionally carve kokeshi for their children, who would paint in the faces. The results were touchingly individual renditions. Today kokeshi are made all over Japan, but the best and most valued come from Tohoku.

An Izume-ko-guruma is a small kokeshi doll suspended between two large wheels; the doll sways as the toy is pulled along. This toy recounts the time when farmers carried their children into the fields in large straw baskets called izumeko. Other toys include: wooden merry-go-rounds; kendama, an internationally known toy fashioned from a stick with cups at one end designed to catch a ball secured to it with a string; and various koma, tops. A rounded one called zuguri goma is designed to be spun on snow. These colorful and fascinating toys, usually cylindrical or spherical, are painted with concentric circles of yellow, red, purple, green, and black. Kijigangu are found throughout Tohoku, but Naruko in Miyagi-ken Prefecture is the largest center, housing more than 60 families of kijishi, selling their wares in numerous shops.

Another excellent example of woodwork is the Miharu-goma, a wooden toy horse made at Miharu-machi, Tamura-gun, Fukushima-ken Prefecture. In an age when toys have become miniature electronic marvels made of plastic, these earthy toys, carved from wood by hand, become more and more desirable.

Delightfully colored handmade balls created from cloth and paper, these artful folk toys are exquisitely wound and embroidered with thread. Many areas of Japan produce temari, but Tohoku has an especially lively and thriving tradition. The balls were at one time used in children's games, but today they make colorful decorative objects in many Japanese homes. This art was at one time considered a pastime for courtesans of feudal lords, but today temari are made by rural women as a cottage industry. Temari of various designs come from throughout Tohoku, but the most famous include: kukemari, from Hachinohe in Aomori-ken Prefecture; goten-mari, from Honjo in Akita-ken Prefecture; and gote-hana-mari, from Tsuruoka.

Tsuchi ningyo, earth dolls, are colorful unglazed clay dolls, some of the oldest traditional toys in Japan. Tsuchi ningyo originated in Fushimi in Kyoto and were sought after as health talismans by pilgrims. This demand spread their manufacture all over Japan, and exquisite specimens were made by many artisans in the Tohoku region. Today, only one surviving family makes the dolls, the Haga family living in Sendai, Miyagi-ken Prefecture.
  Daruma are papier-mâché good-luck dolls that are manufactured throughout Japan. Sendai produces the Matsukawa daruma, which protects dwellings against fire. This unusual daruma has a face framed in blue and is speckled with plum blossoms. It depicts the god of good fortune.

This art creates fantastic masks made of wood, or more commonly, of papier-mâché. One of the most common represents a tengu, a long phallic-nosed goblin. In Takashiba, a small village on the outskirts of Koriyama in Fukushima-ken Prefecture, a group of five families specializes in omen manufacture. They carry on a 400-year-old tradition, passing on their cultural legacy from one generation to the next.

Tohoku, buffeted by strong winds, has a long, venerable history of kite making. One of the most finely painted and artistically rendered kites is the Tsugaru-dako, made in Hirosaki. This is a rectangular kite depicting a samurai and a dragon. The frame is made of cedar, and the corners are secured by nails.

Akita-ken Prefecture produces three famous kites. The Yuzawa-dako and managu-dako are both produced in Yuzawa. The first is a long slender kite and the second features a face with disproportionately large eyes. The third kite, Noshiro-dako, features a fantastically painted face of a Kabuki actor. This kite has a special string attached that produces a humming sound when the kite is airborne.