What makes Japan so amazing to travel in is the variety—with every new prefecture, city or village you find something unique. Consisting of 47 prefectures, including 43 traditional prefectures, two urban prefectures (Osaka and Kyoto), one territory (Hokkaido) and the Metropolis of Tokyo, Japan has a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of surprises to unearth. If you’re thinking of venturing outside of the obvious, here are some highlights to help you pick your prefecture!
We’ve divided them by region, with this first part travelling up to the northernmost parts of Japan for Hokkaido and Tohoku! If you are after snow, hiking, onsens and amazing festival—this is the region for you!
It’s own region and technically a territory, Hokkaido is a winter wonderland with famous skiing areas like Niseko, plenty of delicious foods to keep you warm and stunning scenery throughout the year.
- Noboribetsu: The island’s most famous onsen area, it has 9 kinds of water and is ranked among the world’s most exceptional hot springs. Surrounded by forests and mountains you can try the benefits of sulphur, salt and iron, as well as visitng Hell Valley, where sulphurous gas seeps from the grounds.
- Furano Lavender Fields: Covering the landscape in swathes of purple, the lavender farms are free in Hokkaido, with a backdrop of mountain ranges you can enjoy the lovely views with plenty of cafes and cart rides.
- Blue Pond: A result of works on the Biei River to protect towns from volcanic mud flows, this pond is a stunning glassy blue and you may recognize it from computer backgrounds around the world.
Festival: The Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival) is world famous, with giant snow sculptures, ice displays and plenty of performances, it’s a great time to see the island in all its glory.
Food: Hokkaido ramen is the perfect thing to warm you up on a cold day: a tonkotsu base seasoned with soy sauce, salt or miso—each coming from different areas. Hokkaido is also considered the birthplace of miso ramen—head to Ramen Alley in Sapporo to try the different kinds, butter and corn make a great addition!
Famed for rice and fruit production, onsen and stunning scenery, Tohoku is a snowy wonderland in winter and a cool escape in summer. With 6 prefectures, the mountainous terrain is home to active volcanoes, beautiful bays and lively cities with famous festivals and dozens of speciality dishes to try.
Aomori – 青森県
The northernmost prefecture on Honshu, Aomori is filled with forests, farming and fishing and is famous for apples.
- Hirosaki Castle: Retaining many of it’s Edo-period features, Hirosaki’s castle was listed as one of Japan’s 100 finest castles and is one of Japan’s most famous cherry blossom spots with over 2600 trees.
- Aomori Showa Daibutsu: The tallest seated Buddha in Japan weighs in at 220 tons and is 70 ft tall—so although it was only built in 1984, it’s a pretty impressive sight nonetheless.
Festival: Nebuta Festival – Held in the first week of August, glowing floats are paraded through the city accompanied by dancers chanting the traditional Rassera. One of the 3 biggest festivals in Tohoku, it is an amazing sight and is believed to originate from the efforts to attract the attention of enemies in battle.
Food: Apples – Aomori is the biggest apple producer in the country, half the country’s apples come from here. You can eat them as nature intended, try delicious apple juice or in all sorts of desserts and even pick them in August!
Iwate – 岩手県
Home to a thriving onsen scene, great skiing and a busy fishing industry, Iwate is famed for its Buddhist temples and also has an active, but very quiet, volcano.
- The Hiraizumi Temples: Numerous Buddhist temples fill this city, with some built as the foundation for a peaceful Buddhism based realm, some built in rockfaces and some believed to be over 1300 years old.
- Genbikei Gorge: A stunning natural gorge you can order “flying dango” to be sent across by rope basket and even take a boat to enjoy the views from the water.
- Mount Iwate: Technically active but not considered dangerous, Mt. Iwate is a great hike offering one of the best scenic views in all of Iwate. It has 6 trails to choose from, but best check the activity status just in case!
Festival: Northenmost Ama Festival –Here you can see the female free-divers known as ama catching sea urchin and abalone, as well as trying fresh seafood and seeing the sea urchin catching contest. At the Chagu Chagu Umakko, elaborately dressed horses are paraded through the town during rainy season.
Food: Wanko soba noodles are almost an all-you-can-eat contest for soba. Served in small bowls as tradition after a festival once ran low, you can stack up your mini-bowls as you go, and when you’re done place a lid on top as a signal.
Miyagi – 宮城県
Combining natural beauty with lively cities and festivals, Miyagi has plenty of unusual sights, including cat island as well as amazing onsen towns, great seafood and a stunning bay area.
- Cat Island and Fox Village: A small island an hour away from the mainland by ferry—Tojima has one thing going for it, and it’s cats. Hundreds and hundreds of cats. If you prefer foxes, head to Zao: this mountain sanctuary has very photogenic foxes living wild—you can see cubs in spring and get much closer than usual!
- Matsushima Bay: With islands and temples alike, this area is famed for it’s stunning bay views and you can enjoy scenic boat tours around the islands.
- Zuihoden Mausoleum: A faithful replica of the 1637 original, this mausoleum complex sits among the trees and is the resting place of the founding daimyo of the Sendai domain.
Festival: Sendai Tanabata – This festival is a large-scale celebration of the star festival, with fireworks, decorations and parades all taking place in the green city of Sendai.
Food: Roast cow tongue is a local favorite as well as oysters—with plenty of fishing all seafood is good here!
Akita – 秋田県
Known for rice brewing and sake distilleries, Akita has the highest consumption of the drink and is also the home of the popular dog of the same name. Famous for its hot springs and festivals—it’s a year-round prefecture.
- Lake Tazawa: Surrounded by onsens perfect for winter, this lake is an amazing getaway and is popular with Japanese visitors from far and wide.
- Kakunodate: A small preserved town with samurai houses, it is likened to a little-Kyoto with a museum dedicated to the author of the first Japanese illustrated guide to anatomy.
- Namahage Folklore Museum: A great place to see the unusual costumes and characters from Japan’s sometimes terrifying folklore of Namahage who encourage hard work in the young, before being given sake and food.
Festival: The Akita Kanto Festival – Celebrated in early August and is one of the three main Tohoku festivals. Hoping to bring a good harvest, locals carry 200 bamboo poles with either 24 or 46 lanterns topped with gohei and parade down streets. For things more terrifying, catch the Namahage Sedo Festival where locals dress as demons.
Food: Kiritanpo nabe is a simple hotpot dish with mashed rice formed into cylinders (the kiritanpo). You can also try the Hata-hata Zushi which is a scaleless fish found mainly in Akita.
Yamagata – 山形県
A great spot for skiing surrounded by Mt. Zao’s snow monsters, Yamagata is a rural prefecture with great festivals and plenty of places to soak away the aches from a day’s hiking or skiing!
- Ningen Shogi/Human Chess: In late April you can see a game of human chess (like Harry Potter) with local people dressed in traditional 400-year-old costumes, surrounded by cherry blossom.
- Dewa Sanzan: Three mountains which form a traditional Shinto Pilgrimage, this trail is the oldest history of mountain worship in Japan. It includes a stunning 5-story pagoda at the base of Mt. Haguro too.
- Yama Dera: Follow a thousand-step climb through dense cedar forests to the temples carved into the mountainside. With amazing views and plenty of treasures within, it’s a rewarding hike to say the least.
Festival: Hanagasa Festival –Wearing hats adorned with flowers, over 10,000 dancers participate in this dance led by decorated floats in the city streets. Once uniform dances, they now incorporate a variety of styles and trends and it attracts over 1 million spectators, taking place in the first week of August. The Kasedori Festival is smaller and definitely more unusual—locals wear straw coats which must be seen to be fully appreciated.
Food: Famed for its pears and cherries among other fruits. Soba is also a local specialty thanks to the clean water sources and can be found at many street stalls served fresh on wooden boxes (called itasoba).
Fukushima – 福島県
Japan’s third largest prefecture, Fukushima stretches 15okm inland and is known as the fruit kingdom, as there is a different variety to be picked every month. With less then 10% of the prefecture still affected by the disaster, there is more than enough to see and explore!
- Goshiki Numa: The five colored lakes were created during a volcanic eruption in 1888 and each have their own distinctive hue thanks to the mineral deposits left by Mount Bandai’s eruption. A 4-km walking path allows you see to see all five, which change color throughout the year, ranging from reddish-green to cobalt blue.
- Ouchijuku: A former post town connecting Aizu and Nikko, this town has retained it’s Edo-period charm. Since travelers had to journey on foot by law, these towns provided food and accommodation. There are thatched houses, unpaved roads and traditional inns and restaurants serving local favorites like soba and grilled fish.
- Kitakata: Head to this area for museums and craftwork and try Kitakata ramen, made with sardine and pork-bone broth, it is one of the top three, alongside Sapporo and Hakata. There are over 100 ramen shops in town!
Festival: Iizaka Fighting Festival – One of the three top fighting festivals in Japan, here you can see large mikoshi (portable shrines) paraded through town to taiko drumming, before they charge into each other in front of the main Hachiman Shrine.
Food: Kozuyu is a clear soup made with dried scallops, konyaku jelly noodles and vegetables. Each family has their own recipe passed down through generations and it is served on special occasions like New Year.