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Beyond the brochure: 5 days of spring with the new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

Beyond the brochure: 5 days of spring with the new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku Chihō) is an area made of six different prefectures which make up most of Northeast Japan. Easily accessible from Tokyo, it is one of the best places in the whole country to explore if you want to traverse the countryside, ride a variety of unique trains, and experience the cherry blossom season to the fullest between mid to late April. In fact, few will dispute that Tohoku is home to many of the best Hanami (花見 flower viewing) spots in all of Japan, with numerous locations from which you can lay out a picnic mat and enjoy a shower of pink petals fluttering in the breeze.

 

The renewed JR EAST PASS has been upgraded to allow commuters to use the automatic ticket gates, which allows greater ease and convenience in transit. However, this meant that the pass had to be changed to a consecutive day pass from a flexible one, since the latter required in-person checks at each station’s manned gates. (Image credit: JR East) 

 

One of the best ways to cover every inch of this wonderful region is with the affordable JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), which along with unlimited rides on the JR train network throughout Tohoku, also gives you full coverage of the Kanto Region (関東地方 Kantō-chihō), including the Greater Tokyo Area and on the Narita Express (NEX). While it used to be very popular as a flexible 5-day pass, an overhaul of all the Rail Passes of the JR East group in April 2021 has seen it being repurposed as a 5-day consecutive pass alongside several other upgrades. 

 

With this powerful cost-saving pass, no cherry blossom tree in Tohoku is out of reach—while they all don't bloom at the same time, you’ll still be able to catch a few spots in the span of just five days! If you plan to travel in the first half of April, we recommend visiting the spots in Southern Tohoku where it gets warmer earlier, while for the second half of April, we recommend visiting the blooms in Northern Tohoku. Nonetheless, here's how you can zip through the different prefectures while getting the chance to visit some of our most recommended cherry blossom spots in Tohoku using the JR EAST PASS!

 

Day 1: Tokyo → Fukushima

Calm your mind and relax your soul with a palette of pink petals. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

After purchasing your JR EAST PASS from a vending machine, head on over to Tokyo Station to board a shinkansen bound for Fukushima Prefecture (福島県 Fukushima-ken). From Fukushima Station 福島駅 Fukushima-eki), you can board a 15-minute shuttle bus to get to our first Hanami spot of the trip, the aptly named Hanamiyama (花見山).



Hanamiyama is the top flower-viewing spot in Fukushima City (福島市 Fukushima-shi), having been planted and cultivated by the local townsfolk for over 60 years. Here you’ll be able to witness trees and flowers in just about every shade of pink on the colour spectrum, thanks to the tremendous variety of plants and flowers on show. Besides the ubiquitous Yoshino Cherry Blossoms ( ソメイヨシノ Somei Yoshino) which are best viewed in the first half of April, other flowers such as plum blossoms and forsythia also bloom here. Bring a friend, pack a few drinks and bento sets, and sprawl on a picnic mat here for the perfect spring day. 

 

Before the day is up, take a short 20-minute shinkansen ride up north to stay the night at our next stop, Sendai City (仙台市 Sendai-shi).

 

Day 2: Fukushima → Sendai

A never-ending tunnel of cherry blossoms by the riverside. (Image credit: Miyagi Prefecture / JNTO)

 

There is an abundance of sights and activities in Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture (宮城県 Miyagi-ken), and largest city in the Tohoku Region. Feast on local delicacies such as gyutan (牛タン) and zunda (ずんだ), or take a half hour train out of town to Matsushima Bay (松島湾 Matsushima-wan), one of the Three Great Views of Japan! 

 

Another half an hour south of Sendai lies another spectacular cherry blossom spot worth a tick on every traveller’s checklist: the Hitome Senbonzakura (一目千本桜)!

 

Stretching a staggering 8km between Ogawara Station (大河原駅 Ōgawara-eki) and Funaoka Station (船岡駅 Funaoka-eki) is a seemingly endless row of cherry blossom trees, nestled alongside the Shiroishi Riverbank (白石川岸 Shiroishigawa-dutsumi). Senbonzakura literally translates to “One thousand Cherry Blossoms”, and that’s exactly what you can expect here, complete with a magnificent view of the Zao mountain range in the background on a clear and sunny day. The sakura here is best viewed in the first half of April each year.

 

The stretch is also filled with a number of locales and activities to enhance your Hanami experience, such as a festival with food stalls, illuminations, and even a cherry blossom tunnel cable car that runs everyday! There is so much to see and do here during the peak season, so check out Hitome Senbonzakura's handy English page here!


Day 3: Sendai → Akita

Travel back in time in a beautifully preserved Samurai District in Kakunodate. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

 

The next shinkansen line we’ll be taking is the Akita Shinkansen (秋田新幹線). From Sendai Station (仙台駅 Sendai-eki), this bullet train can bring you to Akita Station (秋田駅 Akita-eki) in about two hours, but we’ll be taking a stop along the way for a side trip to the village of Kakunodate (角館町 Kakunodate-machi).

 

Both a beautifully preserved samurai district town and an ideal spot to view Shidarezakura (枝垂桜 Weeping Cherry Blossoms), Kakunodate is certainly a must-visit town of Akita Prefecture (秋田県 Akita-ken), especially if you’re around during the spring season. 

 

Still retaining the air of the Edo Period, this 400-year old town has maintained much of its original buildings and has evolved into the beautiful cherry tree townscape it is today, thanks to cultivation by the former samurai clans who once lived here. 

 

Abundant in rows of Shidarezakura which bloom fullest around the Golden Week holidays (the last week of April and first week of May), don a kimono and take a stroll along the town’s main street called Samurai House Street (武家屋敷通りBukeyashiki-dori) to get a glimpse of a life back in time.

 

Day 4: Akita → Aomori (Resort Shirakami)

Relax and unwind on the Resort Shirakami. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

After three days of zipping around at light speed on bullet trains, it’s time to slow things down a bit and enjoy the sights go by in the pioneer of Joyful Trains: the Resort Shirakami. Connecting the cities of Akita and Aomori (青森市 Aomori-shi) together via the Gono Line (五能線 Gonō-sen), the Resort Shirakami is actually a group of three unique trains which run at different times in the day—the Aoike (青池), Buna (橅), and Kumagera (くまげら). 

 

Spend the day leisurely riding the Resort Shirakami as you dine on your ekiben (駅弁 train bento) in colourful-themed carriages that wind around the perimeters of the Shirakami-Sanchi (白神山地) mountainside and the Akita coastline. Be sure to also check out some pit stops along the way such as Aoike (青い池) or Koganezaki Furofushi Onsen (黄金崎不老ふ死温泉). A comprehensive guide to this wonderful Joyful Train as well as how you can go about making the most of your experience can be found here!

 

Day 5: Aomori → Tokyo

At its peak, the moats of Hirosaki Park become completely blanketed in pink sakura petals. (Image credit: JNTO)

 

Aomori Prefecture (青森県 Aomori-ken) is famous for many things—foremost among them is their apples. Right across the street from Aomori Station is A-Factory, a factory-shopping center hybrid building which showcases and sells a myriad of products produced from Aomori apples, such as cidre, sweets, and of course, apple pie. Not too far from A-Factory is the Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE (ねぶたの家 ワラッセ Nebuta no ie Wa Rasse), a place exhibiting the history of Aomori’s Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り), in which a procession of building-sized paper lantern floats are paraded by festival-goers every year.

 

A 40-minute train ride south of Shin-Aomori Station (新青森駅 Shin-aomori-eki) is the city of Hirosaki (弘前市 Hirosaki-shi), home of one of the most spectacular sights of the cherry blossom season. Hirosaki Park (弘前公園 Hirosakikōen) is the flowering ground of thousands of cherry blossom trees, so much so that during full bloom in the last week of April the moat and streams around the park become carpeted in fallen sakura petals. The resulting sight is one of a kind, dream-like, and truly beautiful beyond comparison.

 

Once you’re ready to say farewell to Tohoku, hop aboard the Hayabusa (はやぶさ) on the Tohoku Shinkansen at Shin-Aomori Station, which will bring you all the way back to Tokyo as you fly by the many prefectures you have visited during your trip.

 

How much do you save?

Information based on Hyperdia

 

Total cost: ¥50,310 

- JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) price: ¥20,000

= Savings: ¥30,310!

 

With a well-spread and robust itinerary, the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) remains one of the easiest rail passes with which you can potentially save a gargantuan amount of money. While it is a bit of a shame that the latest iteration of this pass loses flexibility on pass usage  over a two week period, from the numbers shown above it is undeniable that the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) retains its amazing value. The Tohoku Region is a large area with comprehensive train and shinkansen coverage, so this rail pass is a must-get for anyone planning to book a trip to this area. 

 

Header image credit: JR Times

 

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