A memorable 4-day train trip to explore Tohoku
With a single JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can enjoy a memorable journey through the beautiful Tohoku region in Japan. This area was voted as one of the top 10 most beautiful destinations in the world by Lonely Planet in 2020, so we couldn’t wait to check it out.
With just a 4-day trip, you can explore many famous landmarks, experience the culture and traditions of Tohoku, and of course, try out the delicious dishes the region has to offer.
In addition to regular trains or the shinkansen bullet trains, for us on this trip, besides the emotional experiences of the famous landmarks we visited, some of the most memorable parts were the fun and unique Joyful Trains. It's hard to forget trying the foot bath on Toreiyu Tsubasa for the first time, or playing with adorable Pikachu on the POKÉMON with YOU Train. We also had a wonderful time on the Resort Shirakami, the pioneer Joyful Train, as well as the restaurant train, TOHOKU EMOTION, which gave us one of the best lunches we ever had.
We had an enjoyable 4-day trip to the Tohoku region in September, and in this article we will share our itinerary and trip highlights.
Day 1: Tokyo → Toreiyu Tsubasa train → Ginzan Onsen → Morioka
We started the trip with Yamagata Prefecture, which is famous for its onsen hot springs, such as Ginzan Onsen, Akayu Onsen or Tendo Onsen. During this trip, we decided to visit Ginzan Onsen, which is well-known in Japan. To get there, we rode the the Toreiyu Tsubasa, a bullet train dedicated to Yamagata’s hot springs: it even features a hot spring for your feet on board the train!
The Toreiyu Tsubasa is a foot bath bullet train. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
Running on the Yamagata Shinkansen Line between Fukushima Station and Shinjo Station, the Toreiyu Tsubasa train has many local features. The exterior of the train is painted blue and green, representing the sky and land here, while the interior compartments are decorated in warm and vibrant colors. The train consists of six cars, with Cars 11 to 14 being passenger cars, Car 15 a place for drinks and snacks called Yuagari Lounge, and Car 16 being the star foot bath car.
Inside the Toreiyu Tsubasa’s foot bath car. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
Car 16 was definitely the most special feature of the train. It is equipped with hot tubs so that passengers can enjoy the ashiyu (足湯 foot bath) while looking at the scenery outside. For only ¥450, you can book a 15-minute foot bath session, which comes with goodies like a small towel and bag that you can keep. Tickets are limited so hurry on to the counter at Car 15 to purchase them as soon as you board the train.
Seat on the Toreiyu Tsubasa. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
The passenger cars are decorated with crimson tones, the ceiling and partitions feature stylized designs of cherry, grapes and pears, popular fruits of Yamagata. The seats are very large, made from traditional Japanese tatami mats, and the blue seat cushion with patterns of Yamagata specialties, such as cherries, shogi (将棋 Japanese chess), and Hanagasa Festival hats (Hanagasa Festival is the biggest summer festival in Yamagata).
Yamagata’s famous Ginzan Onsen. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
To get to Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉), we took the Toreiyu Tsubasa to JR О̄ishida Station (大石田駅). From there, we took a bus to Ginzan Onsen, which took about 40 minutes.
Unlike the usual pictures of Ginzan Onsen in winter when the whole town is covered in snow, Ginzan Onsen in the summer brings a sense of the freshness of a resort town in the middle of the mountains. Japanese-style inns (旅館 ryokan) are located along the two sides of the stream, connected by small bridges across the stream, just like the scene from the famous movie Spirited Away by Studio Ghibli.
Ginzan Onsen is beautiful even in rainy weather. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
Although there was light rain when we visited, this quaint small town in the middle of the majestic mountains of Yamagata offers a nostalgic atmosphere, separated from the bustling noise of the city.
Day 2: Morioka → POKÉMON with YOU Train → Geibikei Gorge → Hiraizumi → Morioka
On day 2, we decided to visit the famous Geibikei Gorge and Hiraizumi Town, as well as experience another interesting Joyful Train – the POKÉMON with YOU Train.
The POKÉMON with YOU Train. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
The Joyful Train that we took this time is the POKÉMON with YOU Train. The train takes Pikachu as its main image with eye-catching bright yellow color. In addition to its unique design, the POKÉMON with YOU Train also has a very special meaning. It was created to bring smiles to children in the area devastated by the 2011 Great Earthquake and Tsunami, as well as contribute to the economic recovery here by attracting tourists. The train operates on the JR Ōfunato Line between Ichinoseki Station and Kesennuma Station.
Inside the POKÉMON with YOU Train. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
The train has only one car for passengers, while the other car is a playroom, all in an eye-catching bright yellow. As soon as you board the train, you will be greeted with Pikachu and Pokéball decorations everywhere, from decks, ceilings, curtains, seats to souvenirs and snacks. About 15 minutes after the train departs, the playroom will be opened. Don’t forget to remove your shoes before entering the room!
Taking a boat ride along Geibikei Gorge. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
We took the POKÉMON with YOU Train to JR Geibikei Station (猊鼻渓駅), and Geibikei Gorge (猊鼻渓) was only a 5-minute walk away. Geibikei Gorge in Iwate Prefecture has a majestic beauty made up of limestone cliffs along the Satetsugawa River. Along the 2km length of the river are beautiful cliffs tens of meters high. Whether you come here at any time of the year, you will be surprised by the beauty here, cool green summer, vibrant red autumn, white snow winter or spring with wisteria.
Try tossing undama at Geibikei Gorge. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
We bought a ticket for a boat tour along the cliffs. The boats here have no engines and the boatman only uses a pole to steer, something not easy to see in a modern country like Japan. During the trip, the boatman will perform folk songs and tell you interesting stories about the salmon's journey up the river around October. After 30 minutes, we reach the innermost part of the river.
Visitors will have about 30 minutes to stroll around and especially try throwing undama (運玉 lucky stones) from this riverbank into a small hole on the opposite bank. There are ten types of undama engraved with characters that mean happiness, luck, love, wealth, etc, and it only costs ¥100 to buy five stones. The small hole in the cliff does not seem very far away, but it is not easy to throw the stones into the hole. Try your luck when you visit!
Off to Chusonji Temple. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
After Geibikei, we went to Hiraizumi Town to visit Chusonji Temple, one of the oldest historical temples in Japan. It is located in the middle of a large mountainous area, in a pure and airy space. Chusonji is actually the common name for a large temple and 17 smaller temples located on a hill. The path to the temple is nearly 1km long, flanked by a row of tall cedar trees, called Tsukimi-zaka, which means "The Road to See the Moon".
On the way to Konjikido. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
One of the highlights of the temple is Konjikido, a Buddhist hall built in 1124, meticulously carved with gold leaves both inside and outside. There are many maple trees on the grounds of the temple, so if you have a chance, do not forget to visit this place in the autumn (around late October to early November) to admire the spectacular view as the maple leaves turn to a brilliant red colour.
Day 3: TOHOKU EMOTION
After 2 days of walking, on the 3rd day we decided to take it slow, so we spent the whole day experiencing another Joyful Train, the TOHOKU EMOTION restaurant train.
The TOHOKU EMOTION, a fine-dining restaurant train. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
The TOHOKU EMOTION is a fine-dining restaurant train that has been in operation since October 2013, with the aim of promoting the railway and tourism industry in the region, by introducing of excellent food made from local produce in a luxurious and classy space. The train runs between Hachinohe Station and Kuji Station on the JR Hachinohe Line, and the trip takes about 2 hours, running along the Sanriku coast in the eastern Tohoku region.
Enjoy beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean from the window as you eat. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
In places with beautiful scenery, the train will slow down so you can admire the beautiful natural scenery while slowly enjoying the delicious food or taking souvenir photos. We were very surprised and touched to see the local volunteers waving welcome flags as the train passed.
Red carpet awaits you. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)
From the outside, the train has a striking design with pictures of white brick walls, large windows and hanging lights on the doors. The staff will greet you from the front door and will enthusiastically guide you to your reserved seat. On good weather days, you can even step on the red carpet to get on the train!
The dining car and open kitchen on the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
The train consists of 3 cars, can carry up to 48 passengers. The first car has separate dining compartments (each seating up to four people), followed by an open space kitchen that allows visitors to observe the chefs preparing dishes and finally a restaurant with 20 seats.
Our delicious lunch on the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
When we rode this train, the dishes were mainly European-style dishes made from local produce. The menu is frequently changed (once in about 3–6 months), so you can come back to try different menus. During this trip, dishes were handled by chef Harata Ken of the Italian restaurant "trattoria LIPAGIO" in Hirosaki. The quality of the dish was unquestionably fresh and delicious.
Desserts on the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
While the journey from Hachinohe to Kuji offered the atmosphere of a romantic restaurant, the return trip from Kuji to Hachinohe gave us the feeling of being in a café, with loads of delicious pastries and desserts. First, you will be served a standard dessert set, which includes a white chocolate with the TOHOKU EMOTION train logo, served with ice cream, sponge cake, and mango jelly.
Desserts on the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
Next, you can go to the carriage with the kitchen counter to enjoy a buffet with a variety of cakes, tarts and fruit jelly. There are also a wide variety of beverages, mainly tea, coffee and non-alcoholic juices that you can try with desserts.
*As a COVID-19 precaution, for restaurant trains like the TOHOKU EMOTION, items from the buffet area will now be brought to customers on an order basis instead.
Day 4: Aomori → Resort Shirakami → Hirosaki → Tokyo
After a “fully-stuffed” day on the TOHOKU EMOTION, we continued our journey to explore the Tohoku region. Our final destination was the northernmost prefecture of Aomori, which is famous for its fresh apples and seafood. We also rode another Joyful Train, the Resort Shirakami.
Floats inside the Nebuta Museum WA RASSE. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
After arriving in Aomori City, we first visited the Nebuta Museum WA RASSE, which is a 3-minute walk from JR Aomori Station (青森駅). This is an interesting museum dedicated to the city's famous Nebuta Festival, usually held annually in early August. The festival is famous for its giant Nebuta floats. Each year, participating teams will bring to the festival the most beautiful floats to parade on the streets with a large number of people dancing together to chant "Rassera rassera, rasse rasse rassera".
Get your pick of apple souvenirs at A-FACTORY. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
Right next to the Nebuta Museum WA RASSE is A-FACTORY, a complex that includes a cider production facility, specialty shops, souvenirs, restaurants and cafes. Aomori is famous for being one of the largest apple-producing prefectures in Japan, so at A-FACTORY, you can easily see many specialties made from apples.
Tasty apple gelato at A-FACTORY. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
In particular, do not forget to try the apple-flavored gelato at the store "gelato natura due", made from a variety of apples with varying levels of sweetness and sourness. The second floor is a restaurant and bar where you can try a variety of cider made at A-FACTORY.
Delicious scallops at Auga Shinsen Ichiba. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
On this trip, we had the opportunity to visit Auga Shinsen Ichiba (アウガ新鮮市場) fish market, located in the basement of Auga Festival City shopping mall. The market has many stores selling a variety of fish, seafood, vegetables and processed foods. Fresh seafood is imported directly from Aomori Port. You can find just about any type of seafood here, from seaweed to Pacific bluefin tuna, to raw octopus and to Aomori's famous scallops. In particular, the market also has many eateries serving fresh seafood. We decided to try a dish with Aomori's famous scallops, which was delicious beyond imagination!
The Resort Shirakami Buna train. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
Next, from Aomori, we went to Hirosaki City by the first ever Joyful Train, the Resort Shirakami. The Resort Shirakami has three different versions: Buna, Aoike and Kumagera. The names of the versions are named after the features of the Shirakami-Sanchi UNESCO World Heritage Site that the train goes around.
During this trip, we had a chance to try the Buna train, which in Japanese means "beech tree". This is the newest train, refurbished in 2016 with green color to show harmony with the beautiful nature here. The interior of the train is also special, made of the famous cedar wood of the Akita region where the train passes. The bright tones inside the train also bring passengers a feeling of comfort and warmth. There is also free wifi on board!
Roomy seats on the Resort Shirakami. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
All Resort Shirakami trains have four cars. You can choose to sit in carriages with two double rows of seats with ample legroom, or a carriage designed into separate compartments. The train windows are very wide, allowing you to comfortably admire the beautiful natural scenery where the train passes.
Apple-picking at Hirosaki Apple Park. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
We took the train to JR Hirosaki Station (弘前駅), and in Hirosaki, we visited two famous places: Hirosaki Apple Park and Hirosaki Castle Park. At Hirosaki Apple Park, there are about 2,300 apple trees of 80 different apple varieties. From the park, you can also see Mount Iwaki from afar. From August to November, visitors can experience picking apples of different varieties depending on the season, such as Natsumidori apples in early August, Orin apples and Fuji apples in November.
Hirosaki Castle Park. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
Hirosaki Castle Park is famous as one of the three most beautiful cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan with more than 2,600 cherry blossom trees. Including many old trees with the age of more than a century, especially Japan's oldest Yoshino cherry blossom tree, was planted in 1882. This time we went in the summer, but the scenery is still very beautiful.
Where to base yourself for this trip
Morioka City. (Image credit: Iwate Prefecture)
During this trip, we stayed for 4 nights at Morioka City in Iwate Prefecture. This city is not only the centre of the Iwate prefecture, but also almost the centre of the Tohoku region, which means it can save you a lot of time while traveling. You can stay here during your visit to Tohoku without worrying about carrying bulky luggage from one place to another, or having to check in and check out every day.
Top: Hayabusa and Komachi bullet trains on the Tohoku Shinkansen and Akita Shinkansen. (Image credit: JR East)
Bottom: Oirase Keiryu, Lake Towada, Lake Tazawa, Kakunodate Samurai Residences. (Image credit: Japankuru and Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization)
In addition, from JR Morioka Station, visitors can easily connect to many other areas via the Tohoku Shinkansen and Akita Shinkansen bullet trains to travel to many popular tourist destinations like Oirase Keiryu Gorge and Lake Towada in Aomori Prefecture, or Lake Tazawa and Kakunodate Samurai Residences in Akita Prefecure. This time we could not go to these beautiful places, but we would love to visit again!
Dining in Morioka
Moreover, the night activities in Morioka are also bustling. Don’t miss Morioka's three famous noodle dishes: wanko soba, reimen, and jajamen. You can also chill at the pubs in the city.
Attempting the wanko soba challenge. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
Wanko Soba is considered one of the most interesting challenges and experiences when it comes to Morioka cuisine! Unlike regular soba noodles, wanko soba is served in small bowls with just a bite-sized portion pf noodles, along with a variety of "toppings" such as scallions, ginger, sashimi, and pickled vegetables. The challenge here is, how many bowls can you eat continuously! When the challenge begins, the staff will continuously pour the noodles from the small bowls into your bowl, and you will have to eat them as soon as the noodles are placed in the bowl. This process continues until you say you can no longer eat and use the lid of your cup again.
You can try Wanko Soba and challenge yourself at Azumaya. Try to hit 100 if you can (the record for women is 570, and the record for men is 500).
Azumaya Honten (Main Branch) (東家本店)
Address: 1-8-3 Nakanohashi-dori, Morioka-shi, Iwate 020-0871
Access: From JR Morioka Station, take a local bus Morioka Bus Center, then walk 3 minutes.
Reimen at Seirokaku. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
Reimen (冷麺 cold noodles) is present in many parts of Japan, but Morioka's cold noodles have a very different taste with noodles made from potato flour. Normally, people will enjoy reimen after eating yakiniku (焼肉 Japanese-style barbeque) since it helps to balance the flavours. This time we decided to have a hearty dinner in Morioka with barbecue and reimen at Seirokaku (盛 楼閣), a restaurant right in front of JR Morioka Station After the delicious yakiniku we finally got to enjoy the reimen!
Address: 2F GEN Plaza, 15-5 Morioka Ekimae-dori, Morioka, Iwate¥
Access: From JR Morioka Station, walk 2 minutes.
Business hours: 11:00–02:00
Jajamen at Pairon. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
Finally, don’t forget to try jajamen. Inspired by Chinese zhajiangmian (炸酱面) noodles, as well as Korean jjajangmyeon (짜장면) noodles, Jajamen is considered to be one of the dishes you must try it when coming to Morioka. The main ingredients of Jajamen are minced meat and miso, and thick white noodles are almost identical to udon. Served with sliced cucumber, green onion and red ginger. Noodles and ingredients above will be mixed, add soy sauce, vegetables and spices such as garlic, chili oil, vinegar to taste, you have a perfect Jajamen noodle!
Turn your last bites of jajamen into chitantan! (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
Don’t finish the noodles without trying to make chitantan (ちたんたん egg drop soup). When you have some mixed noodles left, you can tell the staff that you want to eat chitantan, the staff will give you some raw egg. After breaking the egg into the noodle bowl, the staff will pour hot broth into the bowl of noodles. When the eggs are just cooked, it's time to enjoy chitantan!
A favourite place to eat this noodle dish is Pairon (白龍), a famous restaurant that specializes in serving jajamen. The restaurant has four branches in Morioka City, including a branch at the Fesan shopping mall next to JR Morioka Station, which is very convenient for commuting.
Pairon (Fesan Branch) (白龍フェザン店)
Address: 1F Fesan Odense-kan, Morioka Station Building, 1-44 Morioka Ekimae-dori, Morioka-shi, Iwate 020-0034
Access: Directly connected to JR Morioka Station
Business hours: 11:00–21:30
Explore Morioka’s vibrant nightlife. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)
Morioka is also a fairly modern city in the Tohoku region with a vibrant nightlife. During your stay, you can explore the famous Nakadori night town with its countless izakaya pubs and bars, attracting a large number of locals and tourists. In addition, you can spend time walking along the banks of the Kitakami River and explore the restaurant - beer bar with a unique youthful design that has been loved by young people recently.
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you intend to experience travel to Tohoku, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains and Joyful Trains) in the valid area for any 5 days of your choice within a 14-day period. At only ¥19,350 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Aomori (~¥33,000), and the 5 days do not have to be consecutive.
Header image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh