As a tourist destination, Japan is on most people's travel list. Just mention the country, and well-seasoned travellers will spout off their favourite ramen or sushi shop, the wonderful breakfast they had at the Tsukiji Fish Market, and may even show you photos of them at the famed Shibuya Crossing.
But mention the name Tohoku and it may draw a blank stare from most people. If you say Fukushima - one of the prefectures that make up the Tohoku region - you get a flash of recognition, and perhaps the question - is it safe?
After all, the Fukushima prefecture came under the global spotlight in 2011, when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake - the most powerful ever in Japan - occurred off its coast, triggering a tsunami that wiped out buildings and took many lives. It also led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
By now, however, only the no-entry zone around the nuclear plant is unsafe. This makes up only 10 per cent of the third-largest of Japan's 47 prefectures; the remaining 90 per cent is safe to visit.
And what a great place it is to visit. Fukushima, together with the six other prefectures making up the Tohoku region, is beautiful. This region, located in the northeastern to the northernmost part of mainland Japan, is blessed with hot springs, lakes, and a beautiful countryside. Majestic mountains and flowing rivers can be seen everywhere.
When AsiaOne visited in late April, the cherry blossoms were still in full bloom, adding to Tohoku's beauty. Due to the region's geographical location and climate, the cherry blossom season starts and ends a few weeks later than Tokyo. As a bonus, some of the cherry blossom parks we visited have been designated as some of the best places in Japan to see these wonders.
Indeed, Tohoku was a delightful revelation - from the picturesque views, unique food experiences, and incredibly polite and hospitable people we met.
So if you're planning a trip to Japan, keep Tohoku in mind. Just about an hour away from Tokyo via the Tohoku Shinkansen, the region has much to offer in every way. Do note that it may be best to plan your trip with a reputable travel agency if you want to explore the region to ensure a more seamless experience.
Here are some highlights from Fukushima, Miyagi, Akita, and Iwate prefectures to pique your wanderlust. It is by no means an exhaustive list of what this bountiful region has to offer - the best thing you can do is experience it for yourself.
One of the highlights of a spring visit to Japan is the chance to see beautiful cherry blossoms. In Tohoku, here are some of the best places to see them:
Considered by many as the single most beautiful cherry tree in Japan, the Miharu Takizakura in Fukushima certainly lives up to its reputation.
The term takizakura literally means 'waterfall cherry tree' in Japanese, and gazing up at the 12-metre tall tree, it is easy to see why. It has drooping branches filled with cascading cherry blossoms which blooms in late April or early May.
The tree is more than 1,000 years old and was designated as a natural treasure in 1922.
This municipal park located by the Kitakami River is one of the three best cherry-viewing spots in Iwate prefecture.
Walk along the promenade and be surrounded by someiyoshino cherry trees which bloom around mid- to late April.
Apart from the cherry blossoms, you can also go on a boat ride, carriage ride, and carp streamers (koinobori) over the Kitakami River.
Morioka Castle Site Park
In 1663, Morioka Castle in Iwate was completed as the permanent residence of the Nambu leaders. However, when the age of samurais ended, the castle was eventually demolished.
In 1906, it was revived as Iwate Park and when it celebrated its centenary in 2006, it became known as Morioka Castle Site Park. Designated as a National Historic Site, it is enclosed by beautiful granite walls and is the home of about 200 cherry trees. It is considered one of the hundred best cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan.
Uniquely, this National Natural Monument at the Morioka district courthouse is known as the rock-splitting cherry tree.
Now over 360 years old, this massive cherry tree has grown in middle of the crack of a huge granite boulder.
There are varied attractions in the Tohoku region, ranging from the natural to historic.
This privately-owned field located southeast of the centre of Fukushima City was turned into a park in 1959 by its landowner. He generously opened up the park so that visitors can enjoy the beautiful flowers like magnolias, hyacinths, daffodils, cherry blossoms, and even tulips.
Visitors can choose three routes up and down the park that can be completed in 30, 45, and 60 minutes. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes - the routes will take you up natural unpaved paths and can be slippery and steep in some spots.
When you get on top though, the view of the satoyama landscape, the city below, and the mountain beyond, is so worth it.
At the castle town of Shiroishi in Miyagi, visit the castle of the Katakura clan, who served the feudal lord Date. Here, you can explore the three-storey structure that was reconstructed from its original building plan. Find out how they used structures in the castle to defend themselves from enemies, and picture how they kept a lookout from the tower.
For those who want to feel like a samurai, you're in luck. They have armours and swords that they allow you to try - it's a great photo opportunity too!
Zao Fox Village
If you've ever harboured the fantasy of being amid foxes, this place is definitely for you. For a small admission fee, you can enter an enclosed area where foxes can roam freely. The foxes here are used to humans and will normally walk across the ground or stay in their perches.
For 100 yen, you will be given a bag of food which you can feed the foxes at a designated area. Be careful to not approach the foxes or try to touch them though, as they may bite!
Hachimantai Aspite Line
Drive through this 27-kilometre road that straddles Iwate and Akita soon after winter to see the snow wall that built up during that season. Closed during winter, it reopens in spring. This allows visitors to see the beauty of both winter and spring - the corridor of snow representing winter, and the cherry blossoms at the base of Hachimantai representing winter.
During the other seasons, it's still a great place to visit to see spectacular mountain views all around. In the fall, instead of snow-capped mountains that you see during winter and some time in spring, you will see a panorama of colourful beeches and maples.
Cherry blossoms are not the only flowers in Japan that have a short period in which to bloom. Katakuri, or dogtooth violets, take about seven years to grow, and fully bloom only for about a week or two.
You can get a glimpse of these pretty violet flowers in Nishiki in Akita, where they grew naturally in Saimyohi chestnut park in an area over four times bigger than Tokyo Dome.
Enter a real samurai residence at Kakunodate, a smaller version of Kyoto. Feel like you're back in the Edo period as you walk along its streets lined with black wooden fences and beautiful cherry blossom trees.
If you go in September, you may be able to catch the Festival of Kakunodate, where giant floats ram into each other as 'negotiation' for passing rights, until one of them can pass by.
For those who like winter sports, head over to Iwate's premium all-season resort, the Hotel Appi Grand, which boasts very fine, powdery snow which they call Aspirin snow and 21 different runs ideal for skiing and snowboarding.
With its natural resources and geography, Tohoku is a great place to enjoy sushi due to its delicious rice as well as fresh seafood.
This top quality rice is also the reason why you will find universally acclaimed sake brands' breweries located here.
Fruits are also abundant here, from Aomori apples, Yamagata cherries, Fukushima peaches, and even strawberries. Try your hand at picking strawberries at the Salad Farm near Hachimantai.
When in Sendai, try its specialty, gyutan, where thinly sliced cow tongues are seasoned and grilled.
For a unique dining experience, try the Morioka specialty wanko soba at the Azumaya Soba Shop. Once you settle in, you will be given cup after cup of small servings of soba - until you cover your bowl with its lid to signify that you are done. This is served with side dishes such as tuna sashimi, chicken, or mushroom with grated radish. After your meal, you are given a special certificate which indicates how many bowls you ate. The record is 559 bowls by a man and 499 bowls by a woman!
Onsens abound in Tohoku and the rest of Japan. We take a look at two of them here.
At the picturesque town of Iizaka, known for its onsens, hot water from the springs is said to have appeared around the second century.
There are nine public bathhouses here, all with pretty high temperatures, with the Sabako-yu the most popular one. You can choose from the many traditional Japanese inns, also known as ryokans, in the town.
Nearby, you will also find a beautiful field of peach blossoms and if you're lucky, you will get to try the onsen tamago - egg cooked by dipping it into a hot spring - which is given to visitors for free.
At the largest onsen sanatorium in Tohoku, you will find locals laying out mats on the radioactive rocks by the hot spring vent from which all the water of Tamagawa's hot springs originate.
This single vent spews out about 9,000 litres of 98-degree celsius water in one minute. It is believed that breathing in the air here can help people with high blood pressure, skin disease, asthma and more.
Special thanks to Tohuku District Transport Bureau