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Exploring Tohoku’s natural splendour with JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)!

Exploring Tohoku’s natural splendour with JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)!

In a time like the present when many of us can't travel, we are only left with our imagination to wonder about our next travel destination. In other words, imagining where we would go once we can travel again. Though perhaps not as fun as actual travelling itself, it can be fun and enriching, and it’s also a good opportunity to plan our next adventure once we can travel again.

 

My ideal Tohoku trip will include a bit of everything so that it feels complete. If it were for the green season, my trip will include the following themes:

  • Visit famous attractions, such as the Three Great Views of Japan and UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
  • Witness amazing natural sceneries, such as sea views and natural greenery.
  • Engage in physical activity, like exploring new places on foot and hiking.
  • Staying in a hot spring town and enjoy a hot spring bath.
  • Travelling by railway!

 

The last point is an important one for me. I want my travel adventure to be a sensory experience, and travelling by trains is the best way to achieve that. It’s not just about getting from one place to another; it’s about the enjoying the travel itself. By travelling on the railroads, I can enjoy gazing at the changing scenery from the comfort of my seat as my train makes its way to my destination. Watching the scenery unfold before me gradually builds up the anticipation and excitement of travel itself, so train travel is simply the way to go for me.

 

This article is about my ideal railway travel in Tohoku; more specifically, where would I go in the region of Tohoku (東北) if I have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). It’s been quite a while since I last used it, and I’ve been aching to use it again if the chance comes again. It’s time for us to explore what Tohoku has in store for us especially in the green season, and how I would make full use of the consecutive 5-day pass.

 

Day 1: Tokyo (東京) → Miyagi (宮城)

E5 Series on the Tohoku Shinkansen. (Image credit: JR East/Shinoda)

 

My journey would start from Tokyo, where I would hop on board the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) from JR Tokyo Station (JR東京駅 Tōkyō-eki). The station is the starting point for multiple bullet train services that run throughout the country, and for JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) holders, this would naturally be where their journey starts. Not to mention, with the pass I get to kickstart my train travel with the E5 Series, my favourite among all bullet trains in Japan.

 

JR Sendai Station. (Image credit: Sendai Tourism, Convention and International Association)

 

My first stop on this train travel is JR Sendai Station (JR仙台駅 Sendai-eki), the main railway station to the city of Sendai (仙台市) in Miyagi Prefecture (宮城県 Miyagi-ken) and the main gateway to Tohoku. From here, I would proceed with my first travel destination, one that I’ve been meaning to visit for the longest time: Matsushima Bay.

 

Matsushima Bay (松島湾)

Matsushima Bay. (Image credit: JNTO)

 

Just a 40-minute train ride from Sendai is the beautiful Matsushima Bay. As one of the Three Views of Japan (日本三景 Nihon-sankei), and the only one in Tohoku, it is one of the highlights for travel for most travellers to Miyagi and Tohoku. This would definitely be my first destination in my bucket list, and one of high priority.

 

Matsushima is a group of islets that are covered with pine trees—the name translates as ‘pine island’, after all—and the view is nothing short of amazing. Imagine climbing up to a high spot to catch an endless panoramic view of verdant green islands on the azure-coloured sea on a clear day. Better yet, visitors can get different versions of this view depending on the time of the day. Visitors can come here during the day when they can have a wondrous clear view of the entire area in its fullest contrasting colours, or at sunset when the sky turns fiery crimson, and the whole area is cast in shadow.

 

Matsushima in midday and sunset. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

When I travel to a new destination, I want to witness a memorable view that I can’t get back home, and Matsushima definitely fits the bill. The sheer beauty of Matsushima’s view alone is enough to attract visitors from all over the world, including myself, and it’s the perfect way for me to kickstart my railway adventure.

 

Exploring caves on Oshima. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

And you know what I also always look forward to for any travel? Exploring a place on foot. Personally I believe that the best way to discover a new place is by walking, and visitors can easily visit three islets—Godaido (五大堂), Fukuurajima (福浦島) and Oshima (雄島)—by walking there from the mainland as they are connected by red footbridges. Not only can I enjoy the glorious view of Matsushima, but I can also enjoy the historical temple of Godaido, cross the iconic red bridge to Fukuurajima, and explore the caves of Oshima.

 

Fukuura Bridge that connects to Fukuurajima. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

And how would I end my trip to Matsushima? With a refreshing sightseeing cruise, of course! I have taken cruises several times in Japan before, and I always love the feeling of the breeze on my face as the boat makes its way along the water. To journey through the many islets in Matsushima is only the befitting way for me to wrap up my trip here before making my way back to Sendai.

 

A sightseeing cruise at Matsushima. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)

 

Day 2: Iwate (岩手)

For the next segment of my Tohoku train travel, I imagine myself heading northward to Iwate, Japan’s second largest prefecture and one steeped with rich history and culture, and unparalleled pristine greenery. This is because Iwate is home to one of the country’s most coveted treasures that has been on my to-go list for the longest time.

 

Hiraizumi (平泉)

Konjikido Hall in Hiraizumi. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Hiraizumi is a historical town that is home to historical monuments and sites designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites (世界遺産 Sekai-isan). The town, located on the southern side of Iwate, features many temples that showcase the influences of Buddhism and region’s feudal past. It is in this town where visitors will find some of the most prominent temples in the country, such as Chuson-ji (中尊寺) and Motsu-ji (毛越寺).

 

Motsu-ji. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Chuson-ji, built as early as the 9th century, is the most famous attraction in Hiraizumi. This is also where the Konjikido Hall is located, and like the famous Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto, the hall is completely covered in gold leaf.

 

Motsu-ji is the other major temple in Hiraizumi, and together with Chuson-ji, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. This temple is also steeped with rich history, and is located amidst a picturesque Jōdo (Pure Land Buddhist) garden that visitors can visit to enjoy some peace and tranquillity.

 

The garden around Motsu-ji in the green season. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

While the first segment of my trip involves nature and the sea view, the second is about Tohoku’s rich history and culture, and I can’t think of a better place other than the town of Hiraizumi. Not only can I learn a bit more about the history of the region, but I can also take it easy here and enjoy the peaceful green surroundings before the next leg of my adventure.

 

Geibikei Gorge (猊鼻渓)

Geibikei Gorge in the green season. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)

 

For the next part of Day 2, I would head over to Geibikei Gorge, one of the most popular attractions in Iwate apart from Hiraizumi. As one of the 100 Landscapes of Japan (日本百景 Nihon-hyakkei), it is yet another natural attraction that visitors should not miss when travelling in Tohoku.

 

Throwing lucky stones at Geibikei Gorge. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)

 

Imagine this: a relaxing boat ride along a serene river in a gorge, gazing at imposing limestone cliffs left and right with folk songs sung by the boatman in the background. Sounds like an experience I wouldn’t want to miss. Better yet, there’s something fun at the end of the river: throwing a lucky stone (運玉 undama) into a hole at the opposite bank of the river. Sounds like a fun challenge worth taking!

(Note: if you are visiting the gorge with the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) on a weekend, you can hop on the POKÉMON with YOU Train for free!)

 

Day 3: Aomori (青森)

For the third day of my trip, I am heading to Tohoku's northernmost prefecture: Aomori, famous for pristine natural beauty throughout the year and their fruits (Aomori is Japan’s top producer of apples, after all). When it comes to natural sceneries, Aomori is home to some of the best natural views in Japan.

 

Lake Towada (十和田湖)/Oirase Keiryu (奥入瀬渓流)

Lake Towada (left) and Oirase Keiryu (right). (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture/JNTO)

 

Spanning across prefectures Aomori and Akita (秋田) is Lake Towada, Japan’s largest caldera lake and one of the highlights of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park (十和田八幡平国立公園 Towada-Hachimantai Kokuritsukōen). Volcanic activity took place approximately 2,000 years ago, giving birth to this lake that sits approximately 400m above sea level.

 

Lake Towada during sunset. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

I am always partial towards caldera lakes in Japan. They always make for exquisite natural views, and no matter the season or even the time, they always look majestic. Lake Towada is one of the numerous caldera lakes that are still on my bucket list, and I imagine myself marvelling at this wondrous view when I come to Aomori someday. The peak season for visiting Lake Towada is during shinryoku (新緑) from May to June, when bright green leaves sprout after the end of spring; and autumn in late October, when the lake is surrounding by fiery red foliage.

 

A boat cruise on Lake Towada. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)

 

I wouldn’t stop at only Lake Towada when exploring the natural wonders of Aomori. Flowing out from the lake is Oirase Keiryu, a picture-perfect mountain stream that is immensely popular among hikers and nature lovers during the green season. It has also been touted as of the one of Tohoku’s top ‘power spots’, which are places that people visit to get in touch with nature and endow themselves with refreshing and healing energy.

 

Oirase Keiryu in the green season. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)

 

Oirase Keiryu also has picturesque waterfalls such as Kumoi no Taki Waterfall (雲井の滝) and Choshi Otaki Waterfall (銚子大滝). The sound of water falling is something I can’t quite experience back home, and this is another welcoming aspect when hiking along the stream.

 

Kumoi no Taki Waterfall (left) and Choshi Otaki Waterfall. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)

 

Summer in Japan can be especially muggy, but the climate is relatively cooler and less humid if visitors travel to Tohoku in early and late summer, so outdoor activities become a wholly enjoyable experience. To take part in outdoor activities is another theme I want to include in my itinerary, and I look forward to doing so during Tohoku's green season.

 

Lake Towada and Oirase Keiryu are some of the main highlights in Tohoku during the green season. With magnificent views, relatively easy hiking paths, and the soothing sounds of a serene forest and gentle flowing stream, it only seems like an obvious decision for me to include these two spots into my itinerary.

 

Day 4: Yamagata (山形)

For Day 4 of my trip, I will head southward from Aomori to the mountainous prefecture of Yamagata, yet another natural paradise of Tohoku. Why Yamagata? Because here lies another gem of an attraction with a spectacular view, one that exemplifies the importance of nature and spirituality in Japan.

 

Yamadera (山寺)

Yamadera. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)

 

Literally translated as ‘mountain temple’, Yamadera is a temple that sits in the mountains in northeastern Yamagata. It is one of the most important historical structures in Tohoku, for it is officially designated as a Historic Site (史跡 shiseki) and Place of Scenic Beauty (名勝 meishō). Visitors to Yamadera will come across historical structures such as the statue of Matsuo Basho, a Japanese poet who paid a visit in 1689, small statues of Jizo-san (地蔵さん), and the Godaido Hall (五大堂) where people will get a fantastic panoramic view of the surroundings.

 

Going up 1,000 steps to reach the temple. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Remember how I said I want something physical in my travel plan? This one is definitely a place with my generous share of physical activity. As the temple is perched high up the mountains, getting up there require visitors to climb up 1,000 steps. That’s the kind of challenge I don’t want to miss, especially when successful climbers are in for a reward with a breathtaking panoramic view of the town below.

 

Panoramic view of the town below from Yamadera above. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Kaminoyama Onsen (かみのやま温泉)

After climbing up 1,000 steps to Yamadera, I imagine myself being exhausted so for the next part of the day, I probably want to take it easy and just enjoy a leisurely stroll. Even better, a leisurely stroll and a hot spring stay somewhere nearby. Where else to enjoy both of them than at a hot spring town, namely Kaminoyama Onsen.

 

A footbath at Kaminoyama Onsen. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)

 

Kaminoyama is a hot spring town located at the foot of Mount Zao (蔵王山), and just 15 minutes away from Yamagata City (山形市) by shinkansen. It is one of Yamagata Prefecture’s most beloved hot springs, and some of the hot springs date back to the 15th century. In addition to popular hot spring inns (旅館 ryokan), Kaminoyama has footbaths (足湯 ashiyu) and public bathhouses (公衆浴場 kōshū yokujō) everywhere, and in the town centre there’s also a preserved samurai district.

 

Kaminoyamaonsen Station. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)

 

For this leg of the trip, I want to simply take it easy and enjoy a hot spring experience. Hot springs is something that can be enjoyed at any time throughout the year but in the green season however, hot springs are best enjoyed after long hikes where the steamy hot spring water have therapeutic effects on the tired body, making for a heavenly experience.

 

Day 5: Fukushima (福島)

Naturally, the last day is where I make my trip back to my starting point (in this case, Tokyo). This is the part where most visitors end their trip, but for me, since the pass allows me unlimited rides on JR trains in Tohoku, there’s just one more place I can visit before wrapping up my railway journey.

 

Goshikinuma (五色沼)

Goshikinuma. (Image credit: Fukushima Prefecture)

 

In Fukushima Prefecture (福島県 Fukushima-ken) lies Goshikinuma, a picture-perfect group of volcanic ponds formed when Mount Bandai (磐梯山 Bandai-san) erupted many years ago. The name literally translates as ‘Five Coloured Ponds’ but despite its name, there are a more than just five ponds. The main ones include Bishamonnuma (毘沙門沼), Bentennuma (弁天沼), Akanuma (赤沼), Aonuma (青沼), and Midoro-numa (深泥沼).

 

The different ponds at Goshikinuma. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

What fascinates me about Goshikinuma is how each pond has its own quirks. For example, visitors can rent a boat and enjoying rowing on Bishamonnuma, the largest pond among them, they can catch a glimpse of the many carps that live in the pond if they're lucky. For Akanuma, the water’s high iron content gives the surrounding plants a reddish tint. And for Aonuma, the water has a brilliant bluish-green hue.

 

Goshikinuma makes for an excellent place for visitors who enjoy walking trails or pristine natural views. For me, it’s the best place for me to have one last look at one of Tohoku’s best natural spots before wrapping up my trip with a train ride back to Tokyo.

 

Where would I stay for this trip?

If a trip features a destination in a different prefecture almost each day, visitors might think that they need to change accommodation often, which would be quite a hassle. Good news, however: they don’t need to do so when travelling in Tohoku. JR EAST’s railway connectivity is highly extensive in the region, so visitors can travel between prefectures very easily.

 

For my proposed trip explained above, I would only need three accommodations and the first one is a familiar name for frequent travellers to Tohoku, and is highly popular for its sheer convenience in location and value for money.

 

Hotel Metropolitan Sendai (ホテルメトロポリタン仙台)

Hotel Metropolitan Sendai. (Image credit: Hotel Metropolitan Sendai)

 

JR Sendai Station (JR仙台駅 Sendai-eki) is a major junction railway station in Miyagi Prefecture (宮城 Miyagi-ken) that serves as a hub for train travel in Tohoku. It is a stop for Tohoku Shinkansen and Akita Shinkansen, and travellers in the region are almost bound to pass through this station at some point in their journeys. For my first accommodation, I would like to base myself somewhere close to this station so that I can get to Matsushima Bay and Hiraizumi easily. And no other accommodation comes close to my ideal choice than Hotel Metropolitan Sendai.

 

This hotel is located right at the train station itself and has all the facilities I welcome for my stay: clean and spacious rooms, chic restaurants, and a central location in Sendai city too. By essentially staying at the hotel located in the station, I can travel to all two locations above without having to change accommodation each time. How convenient is that!

 

Hotel Metropolitan Sendai (ホテルメトロポリタン仙台)
Address: 1-1-1 Chuo, Aoba Ward, Sendai City, Miyagi 980-8477
Nearest station: JR Sendai Station (仙台駅)
Tel: +81-2-2268-2525

 

Hotel Metropolitan Morioka New Wing (ホテルメトロポリタン盛岡ニューウィング)

Hotel Metropolitan Morioka New Wing. (Image credit: Hotel Metropolitan Morioka New Wing)

 

For exploring the far northernmost parts of Tohoku such as prefectures Iwate and Aomori, it would be immensely helpful to have an accommodation somewhere in that region. For my second accommodation, I picture myself staying in Morioka, the capital city of Iwate, and one choice stands out for me: Hotel Metropolitan Morioka New Wing.

 

Hotel Metropolitan Morioka New Wing is only a 4-minute walk from JR Morioka Station (JR盛岡駅 Morioka-eki), which is another major railway station in Tohoku. It has all the amenities and services I need for my railway adventure, and it serves as the perfect pit stop for my trip to Lake Towada/Oirase Keiryu. But for those looking for the best location and convenience, there’s also Hotel Metropolitan Morioka which is located at JR Morioka Station itself.

 

Hotel Metropolitan Morioka (ホテルメトロポリタン盛岡)
Address: 1-44, Morioka Ekimae-dori, Morioka, Iwate 020-0034
Nearest station: JR Morioka Station (盛岡駅)
Tel: +81-19-625-1211

 

Hayamakan (葉山舘)

Hayamakan in Yamagata Prefecture. (Image credit: 葉山舘)

 

My third and final accommodation is all about rest and relaxation, unlike my first which was more about convenience and connectivity. And since this is for the last portion of my trip, I would choose one near central Yamagata so that I can visit Yamadera and Kaminoyama Onsen easily. Since I want a memorable hot spring inn experience on top of that, an immediate choice comes to mind: Hayamakan in Kaminoyama.

 

Kaminoyama Onsen has many hot spring inns, so why do I choose Hayamakan? Firstly, the inn offers plans for solo guests, and I almost always travel solo, so that’s a plus. It has rooms with private hot spring baths… another huge plus for me who values privacy. The location is just a 5-minute drive away from JR Kaminoyamaonsen Station and offers complimentary shuttle bus service for their guests (that’s called convenience). Multi-course kaiseki meals are also available (always a good thing).

 

In short, Hayamakan is a classy yet cosy hot spring inn where I can simply pamper myself after a long railway journey throughout Tohoku. It’s a place where I can finally relax, indulge in the inn’s hospitality, and experience Kaminoyama Onsen’s hot spring water.

 

Hayamakan (葉山舘)
Address: 5-10 Hayama, Kaminoyama, Yamagata 999-3242
Nearest station: JR Kaminoyamaonsen Station (かみのやま温泉駅)
Tel: +81 23-672-0885

 

Summing up my itinerary

A map of my travel plan. (Image credit: JR East)

 

My ideal railway trip around Tohoku would be one that includes a bit of everything, and with the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), it allows me to do all the above and enjoy railway travel on top of that. Because of unlimited train rides on JR trains in the region for 5 consecutive days, I can travel to places that would cost me a lot if I were to pay the ordinary fare instead.

 

Just look at how much I stand to save with the pass, based on this itinerary!

 

My trip’s ordinary fare grand total versus the pass.

 

The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

So if you are thinking of visiting the Tohoku region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. The pass also covers some JR Kanto and JR Tohoku buses. At only ¥20,000, you can save a lot of money if you travel extensively by trains in the region. It can also be used for automatic ticket gates, what’s more, foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass so your travel buddies who are based in Japan can now travel with you at a much-reduced price. Furthermore, the pass enables you to hop on the Joyful Trains for free!

 

So where would you go if you have the pass? The green season in Tohoku has arrived, and though most of us aren’t able to travel for leisure just yet, it’s always fun to dream about our next dream vacation, and that includes our next railway adventure!

 

Getting around Tohoku

Matsushima Bay is located in Miyagi Prefecture, just south of Sendai. Visitors from Sendai can take the JR Senseki Line (JR仙石線 Senseki-sen) from JR Sendai Station to JR Matsushimakaigan Station (JR松島海岸駅 Matsushimakaigan-eki). The trip from Sendai to Matsushima takes 40 minutes and costs ¥420 each way.

 

Hiraizumi is located in Iwate Prefecture, south of Morioka. Visitors from Sendai can take the Tohoku Shinkansen from JR Sendai Station to JR Ichinoseki Station (JR一ノ関駅 Ichinoseki-eki), and then transfer to the JR Tohoku Line (JR東北本線 Tōhoku-honsen) to JR Hiraizumi Station (JR平泉駅 Hiraizumi-eki). The trip from Sendai to Hiraizumi takes 35 minutes and costs ¥4,480. Take note that Chuson-ji Temple and Motsu-ji Temple are open from 8am to 5pm, and their entrance fees are ¥800 and ¥700, respectively.

 

Geibikei Gorge is located in the city of Ichinoseki, south of Morioka. Visitors coming from Morioka can take the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) from JR Morioka Station to JR Ichinoseki Station (JR一ノ関駅 Ichinoseki-eki), and then transfer to JR Ofunato Line (JR大船渡線 Ōfunato-sen) to JR Geibikei Station (JR猊鼻渓駅 Geibikei-eki). Upon reaching JR Geibikei Station, visitors can walk to the boat launch for five minutes. The journey from Morioka to Ichinoseki takes 40 minutes, and from Ichinoseki to Geibikei, it is another 30 minutes. The total train fare is ¥4,380 per adult.

 

Lake Towada/Oirase Keiryu is located in Aomori Prefecture. Visitors from Sendai can take the Tohoku Shinkansen from JR Sendai Station to JR Hachinohe Station (JR八戸駅 Hachinohe-eki) and then take the JR Tohoku Bus bound for Lake Towada. The bus also passes by Oirase Keiryu in its route. The trip from Sendai to Hachinohe takes approximately 1 hour 10 minutes and costs ¥9,440 each way. For the bus, the trip takes 1 hour 45 minutes and costs ¥2,720 each way. The JR Tohoku Bus is covered by the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) but take note: operates on a first-come-first-served basis, and reservations are not possible. You can check the bus timetable here.

 

Yamadera is located in Yamagata Prefecture. Visitors from Sendai can take the JR Senzan Line (JR仙山線 Senzan-sen) from JR Sendai Station to JR Yamadera Station (JR山寺駅 Yamadera-eki), and then walk for 5 minutes to the temple entrance. The trip from Sendai to Yamadera takes approximately 1 hour and costs ¥860 each way. Take note that the temple opens from 8am to 5pm daily, and entrance fee is ¥300.

 

Goshikinuma is located in Fukushima Prefecture. Visitors from Koriyama can take the Ban’etsu West Line (磐越西線 Ban'etsu-sai-sen) from JR Kōriyama Station (JR郡山駅 Kōriyama-eki) to JR Inawashiro Station (JR猪苗代駅 Inawashiro-eki). From there, visitors can take the bus that departs every hour and get off at Goshikinuma Iriguchi bus stop (五色沼入口). The train trip from Koriyama to Inawashiro takes 45 minutes and costs ¥680 each way. For the bus ride, it takes 30 minutes and costs ¥790.

 

Header image credit: JNTO/Herry Lawford/Yamagata Prefecture/Aomori Prefecture

 

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