Discover the Dramatic Beauty of Northern Japan in Winter
Visiting Akita and Iwate in winter, you’ll find the area’s mountainous terrain, deep valleys and thick forests blanketed in a veil of lustrous white snow. These breathtaking vistas are worth the journey itself, but the abundance of hot springs, historical temples and shrines, local crafts, high-quality sake and uncrowded ski resorts make the region a snow and wilderness-lover’s paradise.
Start your Tohoku winter journey in Iwate Prefecture, accessible by shinkansen (bullet train), bus and plane from other major cities.
Second only to Hokkaido in land mass, Iwate offers everything from a ruggedly romantic Pacific Ocean coastline to picturesque countryside extending into the Ou Mountain range. Until the Meiji Restoration the prefecture was ruled by opposing samurai clans, which contribute to the rich history and culture of the area. The capital, Morioka, is a modern but relaxed city, with grand Mount Iwate as its backdrop. When visiting in winter, keep warm by dining on local specialties like Maesawa wagyu beef, jajamen and the famous wanko soba noodles.
Woven into a hillside and cradled by the surrounding forest, Chuson-ji Temple is a sprawling complex of Buddhist temples, halls and pagodas connected by a network of earthen paths. The original temple was constructed in 850, with further developments added by the powerful Fujiwara Clan in the 11th century, who wished to create a sanctuary of peace in the surrounding war-torn lands.
Feel a sense of calm sweep over you as your eyes follow the gentle shapes of Motsuji Temple’s expansive Heian-style garden. This Buddhist Pure Land garden is a place where temples, garden, and pond are unified as one. Although Motsuji lost its temples due to fire, its splendid Oizumi ga Ike Pond and surrounding garden have remained unchanged for 800 years.
After coming back to earth, it is time for a drink! Iwate is home to a highly skilled group of toji (sake makers) known as Nambu toji. Sample the mastery of these craftsmen, and see what goes on behind the scenes at a sake brewery at 130-year-old Tsukinowa. The brewery is known for using special mochi rice to produce their sake, providing it with its characteristic richness. As well as sampling their renowned sake varieties, don’t miss their house-made koji rice ice cream in seasonal flavours.
While in Morioka, make your way to Gosho Lake for sweeping views over the pristine waters. The lake is surrounded by woods and features several sightseeing spots. Morioka Handiworks Square, which showcases food and traditional crafts of the region is a local favorite, as is Tsunagi Onsen, known for its alkaline water that promotes digestion and glowing skin. In winter, the lake welcomes the arrival of over 34 species of birds, including swans, mallards and ducks.
In the morning set your alarm and make your way first thing to the two quaint stretches of open-air market stalls that make up Morioka Mikoda Morning Market. Find fresh local seasonal produce, homemade pickles and ready-made goodies like onigiri rice balls and tempura. The atmosphere is abuzz with friendly locals shopping for their weekly supplies.
Konyacho, which means “dyers’ town”, is a charming little area that runs parallel to the nearby Nakatsu River. Its notable features include retro buildings such as the Red Brick Bank and the Fire Lookout Tower, plus traditional craft shops dating back as far as 300 years. You can find nambu tekki ironware, woven bamboo goods, senbei (rice crackers), and, as per its eponymous name, shibori-dyed fabric and goods.
While Akita may be better known outside of Japan for its namesake husky-like dog breed rather than as a travel destination, Akita offers visitors a relaxed, rural experience of Japan; one that is full of festivals, hot springs, sake, indigenous history and ravishing snow-capped landscapes in winter. While on your travels, look out for local specialties such as inaniwa udon noodles, iburigakko (smoked pickles) and kiritanpo nabe, a hot pot filled with meat, vegetables and kiritanpo, sticks of pounded and grilled mochi rice.
The caldera lake Tazawako (Lake Tazawa) is the deepest in Japan at 423.4m, and with its gleaming azure waters it is certainly one of the most spectacular. In winter, the lake’s surroundings become draped in pure white snow, making it especially stunning. Aside from marveling at the vista, the area abounds in things to do and see, like checking out the mystical statue of Tatsuko, historical Goza no Ishi Shrine, and stopping at ORAE Kohan-no-Mori restaurant to take in the view and sip on locally-made craft beer.
A scenic 45-minute bus ride from Tazawako Station up Mount Nyuto, the hot spring wonderland of Nyuto awaits. Nyuto Onsen comprises seven separate ryokan inns, each surrounded by virgin beech forest, and each with naturally heated, mineral-rich waters. Some of the baths date back over 300 years, and are said to have been the favourite of local samurai. Nyuto Onsen is an idyllic spot to relish the nature-rich, peaceful surroundings and revive your body and mind.
Kakunodate, also located in Akita Prefecture, brings the mystery of the samurai era and culture to life. About an hour from Akita city by bullet train, the townscape has remained much unchanged since it was first established by a feudal lord in the Edo period. Spend at least a couple of hours exploring the many authentic bukeyashiki (samurai residences), their samurai armor artefacts, neat gardens, and local craft stores. Winter means less crowds and a fittingly austere atmosphere.
“Snow monsters” are a natural phenomenon that appear in winter in a few places in Japan, Mount Moriyoshi being one of them. When snow and ice build up on the branches of the fir trees on the slopes, they transform into imposing shapes, giving them their monster-like reputation. For the best view of the Moriyoshi snow monsters take the Ani gondola, a ropeway running from Sanroku Station to Sancho Station.
Join locals at the Akita Gojome Morning Market as they shop for seafood, wild mountain vegetables, green tea and other sundries and specialties of the region. Whether you’re looking to buy local produce, or just keen to browse, make sure you stop in to one of the restaurants selling ready-to-eat food such as sushi and fresh Akita oysters.
Art-lovers should be sure to pass by the the Akita Museum of Art. Designed by Tadao Ando, the building features the hallmarks of the award-winning architect: stark yet soft concrete, strong, clean lines, and subtly contrasting materials and textures. A winding staircase cascades around the entrance hall, with the room brightly lit by a triangular skylight; the museum shop overlooks an infinity pool-style water feature. The museum’s permanent collection showcases the work of several distinguished local Japanese artists, and the temporary exhibitions feature both local and international works.
When the head of the Satake clan, Satake Yoshinobu, was transferred to Akita in 1602 he ordered the construction of Kubota Castle. Its position atop a small hill gives it a unique vantage point over Akita city’s downtown area and boasts views right out to the Oga Peninsula. The castle was carefully restored after fire damage in the 1800s, and now has a well-deserved place on the list of “100 Fine Castles of Japan.” The castle’s location in the quiet confines of Senshu Park makes the spot perfect for an easy stroll on a winter’s day.
For those interested in tasting some of local brews head to Daisen—a famous sake-producing region of Akita—to visit Suzuki Shuzoten, which has been producing sake for over 300 years. Take a tour to learn about the sake-making process, marvel at the brewery’s traditional Japanese garden, soak up the charm of the nostalgic building, see samurai armor and other memorabilia, and of course, taste some of their fantastic sake. Winter is the perfect time to visit as you can watch the kurabito (brewery workers) in action.
The absence of crowds and relaxed pace of Iwate and Akita give visitors the time to fully absorb the unique nature and history of rural Japan. Both prefectures are easily navigable in winter, with the snow providing an extra sense of tranquility and accentuating their natural, wild beauty.