There is a famous bronze statue of a dog outside of Shibuya Station, near a popular waiting spot. The statue is to remember Hachiko, a loyal dog that waited outside the station for his owner to return from work, and when his owner passed away due to sickness, Hachiko continued to wait for his return. Hachiko kept his vigil for several years until he eventually passed away. Today, Hachiko is a symbol for loyalty and fidelity.
Few people might know that Hachiko belongs to the Akita breed, a native Japanese breed that is descended from Matagi hunting dogs that went after bears and wild boars. Even fewer people might have visited the Akita Prefecture, where the dog breed is named after. I did a three-day tour of the Tohoku region, including Akita Prefecture, and here are my top five to-dos when planning a trip out from Tokyo.
Top 5 things to do in Northeast Japan, Tohoku:
#1 – Onsens (Hotspring Baths)
There are amazing hot-spring baths in the region. Hikage Hotspring in Odate boasts more than 120 years of history and one can see the judicious use of cedar wood in its construction. Walking along its anachronistic timber corridors, you can see black and white photos from yester-years framing the walls.
The milky water at Hikage has a reputation for its healing properties, and many guests travel far and wide to stay here to recuperate from sports injuries or old ailments. It reportedly has three to five times as much mineral content as the average onsen. The mineral crystallization can be seen along the edges of the pool.
If you’ve ever felt awkward at a public onsen bath, Hikage Hotspring offers several private onsen rooms which you can reserve for yourself and your partner for exclusive use, including an outdoor onsen. This extends also to the dining rooms if you prefer some privacy during meal times and not mingle in the main dining hall. The resort is so large that it is easy to get lost in its maze-like corridors. My personal tip is to use the hand-drawn maps stuck on the walls at critical junctions.
You get to enjoy the amazing onsens in the Tohoku region longer throughout the year because of the higher latitudes. There is just nothing better after a day of skiing or walking through snow than a soak in an onsen.
#2 – Great outdoors for skiing and hiking
The Tohoku region has excellent powder snow for skiing and snowboarding, comparable to Hokkaido. Even in mid-late March, dry fresh powder would fall throughout the day. The slopes of the Hachimantai Mountain in Iwate Prefecture offer great training for beginners, and skiers can learn safely and quickly here. Advanced skiers can take to the backcountry, which local and foreign skiers are slowly discovering the beauty of the Hachimantai area.
In addition to skiing, from April 15th onwards, the famous Aspite lines in Hachimantai opens and visitors would be able to experience driving through snow corridors several meters high on both sides; There are few places in the world to experience the Aspite corridors.
Staying a night at Hachimantai Mountain Hotel & Spa Resort gave me a peek to what is available year round; The Hachimantai area offers great summer and autumn hikes with splendid vistas. Locals hike in autumn to see the fall colours in the hills first; Apparently, the fall colours are richer and more intense than other places in Japan. Due to the low light pollution in the area, the mountain is also popular for astrophotography.
#3 – D.I.Y. your own cedar wood bento box and geothermal dyeing
In Odate City, Akita Prefecture, a great souvenir is a bento box called magewappa. Thin strips of cedar are bent to make these containers that are ubiquitous in traditional Japanese meals, especially in Akita Prefecture. Rice keeps especially well as the cedar wood allows it to breathe, and the aroma of the wood adds to the food within. The satisfaction of making something beautiful with my own hands was one of the best experience in Akita Prefecture. There is also an entire range of magewappa products available at the shop.
Alternatively, one can also try geothermal dyeing in Hachimantai. Geocolor is the only place in the world where geothermal steam is used to dye cloth. The natural minerals and high steam temperatures infuse the fabric with colours and bestow it a progressive colour graduation that is difficult to replicate elsewhere. Visitors can arrange for a session where they can try to tie-dye their own patterns and use the geothermal steam to develop the colours. Local flora and fauna provide much inspirations for the die-dye patterns; some of the samples really do look like flowers.
#4 – Eating Bear Stews and Kiritanpo-Nabe
That’s right – bear stew. It’s not typically associated with Japanese cuisine, but in Akita Prefecture it’s a local delicacy that is not to be missed. The rich meaty aroma which emanates from the pot is quite unlike other meat stews, and the primal attraction is real. Frankly I only hesitated a moment before learning that there is an overpopulation of bears in the Akita Prefecture, and that the food in front of me was hunted the good old fashion way; I would’ve found it distasteful if the bear had been trapped or bred for food.
Bear hunting dates back centuries for the Matagi people, the indigenous group in the Akita Prefecture region. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the ancestors of the Akita dogs were Matagi hunting dogs. The dogs were used to track and keep bears at bay until the hunters came. Even today, the Matagi people still hunt for bear with a special government license. There is more than three times the acceptable number of bears in the Akita Region, and hunting them is a safe and humane way to cull the population. The consequences of overpopulation can be worse for the bears, not to mention how dangerous it is if bears were to spill over to the populace.
Kiritanpo Nabe is a regional specialty that also has its roots to the Matagi culture. Kiritanpo nabe is a Japanese style hotpot that has grilled rice cakes added to it. According to Matagi folklore, hunters would add rice grains to their stews when out for their hunting expeditions, as a convenient one-pot camp meals. This evolved to be the kiritanpo-nabe today, which you can try in and around Akita Prefecture.
#5 – Getting Cultured
When weather turns on you, the local museums are worth a visit to learn about the unique local history and culture. My personal favourite among these are the Korakukan Kabuki Theatre, which happens to be Japan’s oldest wooden theater. Here, you get to go behind the scenes to explore the backstage, and even go underneath the stage to see trapdoors and how the stage can be rotated during a performance.
Ever wonder what happens to your handphone when you get rid of it? Visit the Kosaka Mine Office to learn how the smelting plant recycles the electronic waste you throw away into six tonnes of gold and 500 tonnes of silver annually. The visit gave me a fascinating insight to the massive amount of wealth that the mining company had brought to the town – historically Kosaka Town was built just to support this the mining business. The Kosaka company remains today as a viable business because it uses a cutting-edge smelting technology to recycle these precious metals from electronic wastes.
Lastly, the Taiko Drum Museum in Kita-Akita City houses the largest Taiko drum at 3.71 meters, as certified by the Guinness World Record. The museum itself is rather underwhelming, unless you get to hear the local perform it for you. The best way to experience the Taiko drums is during the local festival which happens over two days from 14th and 15th July every year, as the they bring out and perform on the streets, to pray for rain.
My 3D2N itinerary out from Tokyo
Day 1: Tokyo > Morioka Station > Fudo Waterfalls > Miso Cafe Motomiya > Matsukawa Hotspring > Hachimantai Geocolor > Night @ Hachimantai Mountain Hotel & Spa
Day 2: Hachimantai Mountain Hotel & Spa > Kosaka Town – Kourakukan Theatre and Mine Office Museum > Furusawa Hotspring (Akita dogs) > Lunch @ Hokusyu > Odate City – Magewappe Bento Box > Night @ Hikage Hotspring
Day 3: Hikage Hotspring > Kita-Akita City – Taiko Drum Museum > Lunch @ Shikari, Matagi Museum > Aniai Station > Kakunodate Station > Tokyo