|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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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