Five Natural Places to Love in Post-Tsunami Tohoku, Japan
I’m letting the secret out: Tohoku, a region in Japan most widely recognized for the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated its eastern shore in 2011, has another reason to be known: for its outdoors. Dotted with mountains, gorges, waterfalls, lakes, and fields, this northern area of mainland Japan offers a superabundance of scenic pursuits for any nature-loving soul. Call me biased (this region has been my home for the past 1.5 years), but Tohoku has some of the most beautiful and at times most surprising nature a person could ask for. As warm weather slowly melts its way into the region and with Tohoku in great need of economy-boosting tourist dollars, now is a perfect time to appreciate the beauty of northern mainland Japan.
Below are my five favorite nature spots in Tohoku: a mountain, two lakes, a gorge, and a waterfall. Each place has the power to captivate, cleanse, and leave a person a little more awed by Japan. These locations can easily be reached by car or by a combination of train and bus (Lake Tazawa can be reached directly by bullet train). Tohoku is a gem. Explore it!
The moment I laid eyes on Akiu Waterfall was the moment I fell in love with Japan. Akiu Waterfall is a worthwhile daytrip from Tohoku’s biggest city, Sendai. The trail to the waterfall’s overlook begins with a path leading to a shrine. Past the shrine, the trail continues down steps through trees until it reaches a wooden observation deck. Straight ahead, across a green valley, the 55m high Akiu Falls gushes. Go during the daytime. A second trail to the foot of the falls closes before dusk. If you love waterfalls, then you will certainly fall in love with Akiu, and you may just fall in love with Japan at the same moment. I did.
Located in central Akita prefecture, Tazawako (ko meaning lake) is the deepest lake in Japan. It is also perhaps the most sexual body of water in the country. As legend holds, Tazawako’s water never freezes because two dragons are making love at the bottom of the lake. Don’t question the dragons’ stamina, just enjoy the electric blue water benefit of the wide, circular lake (The bright blue hue of the water is reason enough to visit Lake Tazawa.). Tazawako is pretty in any season, but nothing beats a sweat-drip Japanese summer like swimming or paddling swan-shaped boats in the lake’s cool water. Tazawako has a small beach area, a camping area with cabin rentals, bicycle, paddle boat and rowboat rentals, and a few noodle restaurants and snack shops. Don’t miss the other side—take the road that circles the lake to the opposite side where a golden statue of a lady stands in the water. There you will also find a shrine and a large, stately red torii gate on the shore. In any season, Tazawako is worth a daytrip or a few days stay.
Mount Chokai, an inactive volcanic peak, stands majestic amidst the flat rice fields and small mountains of Northern Yamagata and Southern Akita prefectures. The mountain with a likeness to Mt. Fuji can be admired from miles and miles away. Mt. Chokai is a distant beauty, but to fully appreciate its wonder, get up close. Climb it.
Chokai is best hiked in late summer (ideally mid July through August) when most of the winter snow has melted from the peak. Even in August we hiked over a small section of snow. The hike takes about eight hours roundtrip. Bring all of the hiking essentials, including sun protective layers and, in Japanese fashion, a sweat towel to drape around your neck. Public restrooms and a small restaurant and gift shop sit beside the parking lot at the trail base.
The hike up Mount Chokai is moderate at times, strenuous at others, beautiful at all times and extremely rewarding. Only ten minutes into the hike, I had to whip my camera out—to the left, wavy green foliage-wrapped mountains stretched into a deep gorge. Keep climbing, the good looks continue. Flowers dot the trail at times, as does snow and moving clouds. A hut and a small alpine lake midway up the mountain provide a good resting point. On the last stretch of the trail, hikers scramble over rocks to reach the summit. From the top, clouds float down below and the Sea of Japan stretches out to the west. It is a hike I wrote home about.
Geibi Gorge in southern Iwate prefecture is a pocket of serenity. There are no walkways on which to view the gorge. Instead, everyone boards wooden flat-bottomed boats and takes a 1.5 hour (roundtrip) ride along a small, clear river into the back reaches of the rocks. Even though we visited on a warm autumn day, the gorge’s boats run year-round. Once on the boat, passengers take off their shoes in a corner and sit down on the boat’s cushion-lined floor. Then all that’s left to do is relax as the waterman steers the boat through limestone cliffs, trees, and pebble-bottomed water full of friendly carp.
Halfway through the trip, everyone steps off the boat for an allotted 30 minutes to explore the small area of land and the rock cliffs in the back of the gorge. Here you can buy rocks and throw them across a small stretch of water at a hole in the cliff. If you land a rock, your dreams will come true. Each boatman serenades his passengers with a song or two on the ride back to the dock. Too soon the boat ride ends and it’s time to step back into shoes and leave the magic of Geibi Gorge.
Okama Crater Lake
If witnessing Akiu waterfall was the moment I fell in love with Japan, laying eyes on Okama Crater Lake was my renewal of vowels with the country. This bright emerald lake sits in a large, volcanic rock formation in Zao National Park, Yamagata prefecture. Okama Lake is one of those natural wonders that makes you exclaim things.
To reach the lake, ride a one-person chairlift up a hillside. You can choose either a roundtrip ticket to ride the chairlift on the return, or a one-way ticket to hike back down a short hillside path. Go on a clear, fall day. If there is fog on top of the mountain, you will only see dense cloud, and the crater lake will be left to the imagination. Wear comfortable shoes; there is a ridge-top path along the mountain to walk while lake-gazing. At different parts of the day, in sun and cloud, the lake changes hues. Allow an hour or two to take it all in.
Okama Crater Lake is a place that makes you love Japan, makes you love planet earth, clears your mind and makes you happy to be alive. Come to think of it, all five of these Tohoku nature spots have that very same effect.