Most travelers don’t make it up to Aomori, Iwate and Akita—the three northernmost prefectures of Honshu, the main island of Japan. Yet there you can find remote hot springs with bubbling mud pools, cascading waterfalls, lush forests and clear-blue lakes in ancient volcanic calderas. Here is a three-day itinerary exploring Japan’s untouched mountain range in the Towada-Hachimantai National Park, which sprawls across all three prefectures.
Day 1: The deep forests of Iwate
From Tokyo, it takes just 2 hours on the Tohoku Shinkansen to reach Morioka—the picturesque prefectural capital of Iwate. Morioka is dominated by its Edo-era castle site, which serves as a reminder of the times when Morioka housed the mighty Nambu clan. From here, we will start our exploration of Japan’s national parks. The best way to do this is by renting a car from one of the many shops around the station. Don’t worry about driving in Japan if you aren’t used to it— Toyota Rent a Car, for example, has a full English website; signage is bilingual, and drivers in Japan are careful and considerate. Read our full guide on what you need to rent a car in Japan.
Hiking in Amihari
After a short 50-minute drive from Morioka, we reach the visitor center of Amihari. The parking lot serves as the starting point for many of the hiking routes. Step inside for a map and some guidance—the staff here has poured a heart-warming amount of love in outfitting the park’s visitor center, complete with stuffed animals, mountain range models, maps, manga drawings of the local fauna and cute interactive games.
On a clear day, the panorama terrace of the visitor center reveals breathtaking views of the Kitakami Plain and the Morioka cityscape. Depending on your timing, the mountains might be colored in deep hues of orange and red of koyo—the changing of leaves in autumn. This is celebrated with much enthusiasm all across Japan. If you come in May, you might see dots of cotton-candy pink all the way down to the valley as the wild cherry trees bloom.
Lunch: Japanese beef and dairy at Koiwai Farm
Head outside of the park for a specialty lunch at the nearby Koiwai Farm, one of Japan’s largest dairy farms. Most Tokyoites that visit will easily recognize the name as Koiwai-brand butter and milk products can be found in supermarkets across Tokyo. Due to its cool climate with ample rain, Iwate Prefecture is thought to have some of the best grass in Japan for cattle to graze on, which in turn makes for excellent beef and dairy. Lunch prices start around 1,000 yen.
The farm also offers laidback and family-friendly activities, like small rides, handicrafts and a petting zoo. Entrance is 800 yen and includes the petting zoo but some activities have an extra fee. Open 9 am to 5 am (closes earlier in winter).
Stay overnight at Hachimantai Onsen Resort
After a long day of hiking, at often cooler temperatures than in Tokyo, join the locals in one of their favorite pastimes: an onsen soak. Onsen, or hot springs, are generally separated by gender, but baths are shared and the dress code is nude. Stripping bare is thought to remove barriers of status (and also nationality) between bathers, so step in and warm up.
We stayed at Daiwa Royal Hotel, which is located outside the national park in Hachimantai. The resort has a generous indoor bath and a beautifully landscaped rotemburo, the outdoor bath. If you were unlucky with the weather and had a rainy day, you might finally appreciate the beauty in it. Bathing under the roof, half your body submerged in hot water, watching the rain drip from the trees and hit the water’s surface is a truly Japanese experience.
For those that don’t want to splurge on a four-star hotel, there are a number of smaller and cheaper pensions with hot spring facilities at the foot of Mt. Hachimantai and around Amihari, both inside and outside of the national park.
Day 2: Mt. Hachimantai and natural hot springs in Akita
The Aspite Line: Japan’s most beautiful mountain road
The foot of Mt. Hachimantai is the starting point of one of Japan’s most famous roads, the Aspite Line, which will take you to the peak. And it is a sight to behold. In spring, blooming cherry trees line the first part of the road. In summer, alpine flowers bloom on the meadows. In autumn, ranging hues will make you want to sing the colors of the wind.
The Aspite Line is closed for driving during the winter months due to heavy snowfall, but as the season transitions back to spring, the road reopens and visitors can drive through the tunnel of meters-high compacted snow.
Hike the peak of Mt. Hachimantai
Once you reach the rest house, meet up with a mountain guide for a hike (reservation required) to the peak at above 1600 m. Note that the weather on the peak can be completely different from what you experience just a half hour prior at the foot of the mountain! It might be a lot cooler, foggy or raining, so bring a rain jacket, warm clothes, gloves and a hat, depending on the season. Note: the road closes from early November to mid-April.
The hike follows a well-maintained path and isn’t too steep, making it an easy activity for most ages and fitness levels. Your guide will take you past the “Dragon Eye”, a mysterious mountain pond that freezes into a dazzling steel-blue color with a white center from late May to early June, resembling the eye of a giant beast. The walk also reveals plenty of Japanese flora—and with some luck fauna, like the Japanese serow or even an Asian black bear—which your guide will point out to you in English. A lot of the plants here are endemic, some endangered and all are pristine, so needless to say, don’t collect any specimens or flowers in the national park or disturb the animals.
Goshogake Onsen Nature Trail: A hike amidst boiling mud volcanoes
After you descend from the peak, drive down the mountain toward Goshogake Onsen. While most visitors come here to bathe, leave the onsen for now and instead head for the nature trail. You will see signage for it in both English and Japanese. The trail is free, takes around 30–40 minutes and winds you through an impressive, almost-alien landscape of bubbling mud pools, sulfur smells and boiling lakes.
Halfway, you will see a traditional Tohoku-style house on your left. There is actually a small shop inside, run by an elderly Japanese lady that sells snacks, sundries and local fruits from the forest. Give the saru nashi (literally “monkey’s pear”) a try if they are in season. This small, green fruit tastes similar to kiwi and makes a great snack.
Stay overnight at Lake Towada
From the onsen, it is about a 90-minute drive to Lake Towada, where we spent the night. If you plan on staying here overnight, note that you are now entering one of the more remote areas of Japan. This crystal clear and vast mountain lake is located deep in Aomori Prefecture and the nearest convenience store from the town is 25 minutes by car. For those that stay at the Lake View Hotel, the hotel restaurant might be an obvious choice.
For those that really want to splurge, the Towada Hotel is nestled at the side of the lake, out of town. Built 80 years ago, it is a piece of Japan’s cultural heritage. The old main part of the building is fully made from Akita cedar in artistic lattice patterns and its impressive entrance hall is one of the area’s most famous sights.
Day 3: Explore Aomori’s caldera lakes and waterfalls
Volcano lake canoeing
Rise and shine on Lake Towada, which is also part of the expansive Towada-Hachimantai National Park. We meet up with our canoe guides in the morning and after a short briefing we are on the water exploring one of Japan’s clearest lakes. The lake formed in a massive volcano caldera and is over 300 m at its deepest point. The visibility is incredible on a sunny day and you can see fish darting around under your canoe. Close to the rocks, look out for little gobies that sit on them under water. The canoe tour will take you along rock islands on which you’ll find small Shinto shrines and hawk nests.
The shoreline is dotted with quiet, tiny bays that make you feel like you just entered a more temperate version of Jurassic Park. The English-guided tour takes around two hours and costs 6,000 yen per person. There is an additional 1,000 yen fee during the high season in summer.
Ravine hiking amidst waterfalls
We finish off our tour of Northern Japan at Oirase Gorge. If you ever wondered where Hayao Miyazaki got inspiration for his magical forest worlds, the woods surrounding this stream might be the answer. A natural walking trail follows this gently babbling brook all the way from its source, Lake Towada to Yakeyama, about 14 km in length. Waterfalls seem to randomly cascade every few hundred meters over the rocks of the ravine—some a mere trickle, others more robust. Mossy rocks and giant trees dot the way. Don’t be deterred by the bear warning signs—there are plenty of these signs everywhere (but do exercise a normal amount of caution). Japanese bears are rather shy and will keep away from humans if you hike in while making plenty of sounds, for example, by talking to each other.
To walk the whole ravine will take you over 4 hours. Alternatively, you can drive to different rest houses and check out the remarkable waterfalls along the road.
Oirase Gorge is around 90 minutes by car to Hachinohe. From there, you can take a direct Shinkansen back to Tokyo in about 3 hours. As you disembark in Tokyo Station, the crowds will probably hit you harder than ever, and make you wonder why more Tokyoites don’t make their way up north.