Tohoku roadtrip: summer excursion off the beaten path

Originally published in Connect magazine, October 2015. Check out my illustrated and annotated itinerary here!

The Grandfather Cedar (Jijisugi) and five-Level Pagoda at Mount Haguro, Yamagata Prefecture.

The Grandfather Cedar (Jijisugi) and five-Level Pagoda at Mount Haguro, Yamagata Prefecture.

We set off on the 112, that graceful route through the mountainous heart of Yamagata prefecture, one sunny day in August. Sailing through the mountains we ooh and aah at the familiar, but seasonally effervescent scenery of the Dewa Sanzan, and peer for the cloud-covered Gassan. Stretches of road twixt tunnels harbor a host of microclimates, from blue sky to soaking squall. As we leave the mountains behind, we also leave the offending weather, and throw on sunglasses with glee, eyes peeled for the giant torii gate heralding the entrance to Hagurosan. We take the ramble through towering cedars, along small wooden shrines, over the vermilion bridge, past Jijisugi - the Grandfather Cedar - to the five-level pagoda. The beautiful wooden obelisk stands placidly, watching the centuries go by, unfazed by us, the noisy insects, or the encroaching technology of night-time floodlights and chattering shutter sounds. Distracted by attacking insects (we’ll be et altogether!), we beat a hasty retreat to the car and get back on the road.

Skimming stones on Lake Tazawa at a perfect dusk.

Skimming stones on Lake Tazawa at a perfect dusk.

The next morning we roll north from Tsuruoka City, along coastal Route 7, stopping to count all sixteen wave-beaten Buddhas carved into the coast near Mount Chōkai. We soon cross our first prefectural line into Akita, wherein we discover delicious soba in the Samurai-society surrounds of Kakunodate, the jewel-like, aquamarine waters of Dakigaeri Gorge, and all four seasons circumnavigating Lake Tazawa through rain, chill, and pastel dusk by the warm shore. We skim stones, the sky’s soft colors broken by the ripples, or gaze hypnotized at the lake waters lapping (with low sounds by the shore).

Over another few hills, we spend the night in the only AirBnB listing in the region (real beds!). The next morning takes us around and up the mountain to Nyuto Onsen, a remote network of hot spring inns scattered atop a pungent sulfuric peak. Dodging the mixed baths occupied by older Japanese gentlemen, we enjoy a ramshackle rotenburo at Maguroku Ryokan, and the more coherently segregated baths at Kuroyu next door.

The rustic and sulphuric beauty of Nyuto Onsen in Akita Prefecture.

The rustic and sulphuric beauty of Nyuto Onsen in Akita Prefecture.

Back down by the shores of Lake Tazawa, we have a straight shot north to Lake Towada, on the Aomori border. Of course, when I say straight, I mean a dramatically twisting, turning, climbing, and careening mountain road through the Towada-Hachimantai National Park. I blast the Princess Mononoke Symphonic Suite as we drove through thick forest and misty peaks (‘tis a land of gods and demons). We reach the second lake by mid-afternoon, and rediscover civilization in a bustling hamlet on a spit of land out into the water. Paddling and skimming stones, we watch the clouds move across and, thankfully, away.

Straddling the Akita-Aomori border, the lakeshore drive brings us to the mouth of the Oirase Stream Gorge. Walking through the lush greenery of the stream path is a refreshing diversion and the riverside air is fresh and cool. Back in the car, the valley leads us on our way to our next stopover with a JET pal in Towada town. We enjoy the banter (now I understand what an Irish accent is, I guess since you’ve been together a few days…) and share tales of inaka-city JET-life.

Heavenly greenery meets hellish rockscape at the temple grounds of Osorezan.

Heavenly greenery meets hellish rockscape at the temple grounds of Osorezan.

Aomori continues rainy the following day, prompting us to give in to the elements and purchase shoddy plastic coats from Daiso. It lashes, all the way north along the axe-handle of the Shimokita Peninsula, to its lush, mountainous head. We arrive at Osorezan, the tempest reaching a suitably end-of-the-world pitch for this barren, sulfurus scar across the landscape. The temple was founded there as the landscape is said to reflect the meeting point of hell and paradise, represented by the sulphur-spewing, steaming rock amidst the verdant, peak-ringed lakeshore. The driving rain gives the whole experience a hellish flavor, as we observe how classically Irish it is carrying on one’s tourist agenda regardless of all weathers (sure, it’s just like visiting the Cliffs of Moher). The very Japanese saving grace here lies tucked away in two sheds in the main courtyard of the temple. For behind their steamy sliding doors, lie small, but scorchingly hot baths, fed fresh from the turbulent geology outside. “Smug” doesn’t do justice to our post-onsen glow as we hurry back to the car.

Rainy day at the entrance to the underworld; Osorezan, Aomori Prefecture.

Rainy day at the entrance to the underworld; Osorezan, Aomori Prefecture.

Gamely intending to cut across the peninsula’s axe-head, we take a rollercoaster of a road through mountains, vales, and low hanging clouds and branches. When we eventually come to a junction, and GPS signal, we realized how little ground we had covered, as the crow flies, and we decide to ditch the nauseating twists, turns, and climbs, for the sea air along the coast. We arrived into Oma, Honshu’s Malin Head (up in Donegal like, the northern most point of Ireland?) and take the obligatory photos at the lands-end monument. With no sign of Hokkaido behind the clouds, we are lucky to discover the town’s festival is in full swing. The fresh, sea air, the wild dance, color, and spectacle, and the greasy/delicious festival food really hits the spot after a day of tedious driving, and more tedious weather. Sadly, the weather has the last laugh, forcing the postponement of the festival fireworks. We spend the night in Mutsu town in the kind hospitality of a Tatami Timeshare JET. Glad to sleep on a real bed, I brace myself for the next day’s mammoth drive.

Going as far as can be gone to the north of Honshu; Oma, Aomori Prefecture.

Going as far as can be gone to the north of Honshu; Oma, Aomori Prefecture.

We max the revs of my faithful WagonR and make good time on the expressway south, our main delay coming at the queue for hot dogs at a services somewhere in Iwate prefecture. Our only venture for the day is the World Heritage Site at Hiraizumi, with a centerpiece of the most ornate, most gilded and most grand little structure I have seen in Japan. Housed in its own buildings, with no photography, Chuson-ji is a treat for eyes. Particularly annoyed that I had forgotten my Goshoin book, I miss many glorious temple stamps in Hiraizumi alone. The road onwards takes us through Miyagi prefecture and eventually, the junction for Yamagata comes in sight.

This loop by no means encapsulates all of Tohoku’s promise, but it just goes to show that with but a little planning, a lot of spontaneity and a hell of a lot of driving, you will find sublime beauty around every corner, o’er every mountain, in every forest, and by every sparkling shore.