Lonely Planet Japan: Northern Honshu

Simon Sellars: Western Europe

Simon Sellars

In the second half of 2004 I was again on assignment for Lonely Planet, this time in northern Japan. I updated and rewrote the Northern Honshu chapter (35,000 words), and this was published in LP’s Japan guidebook in October 2005. I’m only including excerpts from my introductory and special-subject material, rather than accommodation and restaurant reviews or transport information.

Simon Sellars

Selected material from the Northern Honshu chapter published in Japan 9, Lonely Planet Publications, October 2005. Author: Simon Sellars.

Simon Sellars

Northern Honshu, Japan’s ‘back country’, is charming and atmospheric – if a bit misunderstood. It’s been described as the Japanese ‘deep south’ (even though it’s up north), a less developed, agricultural region habitually treated with suspicion by city slickers. But that’s an injustice: Northern Honshu has natural beauty in abundance and a gripping, well-preserved feudal past. Towns like Aizu-Wakamatsu, Tono, Hiraizumi and Kakunodate – apparently innocuous – shield potent rituals and traditions, and unearthing them is one of the joys of travelling through here.

Northern Honshu comprises Fukushima-ken, Miyagi-ken, Iwate-ken, Aomori-ken, Akita-ken and Yamagata-ken (collectively known as Tohoku), as well as Niigata-ken and the island, Sado-ga-shima. Tohoku was once called Michinoku, meaning ‘back roads’, and that sense of isolation has provided fertile ground for many of Japan’s most enduring myths and legends. The region also offers superb opportunities for hiking along spectacular coastlines and around spectral mountain ranges. Along the way you might encounter volcanic regions peppered with rotemburo (open-air, hot springs), an experience too sublime to pass up. Northern Honshu\ is also home to some scrumptious regional cuisine and a startling array of eclectic festivals celebrating Old Japan.

English isn’t widely spoken in Tohoku’s northernmost parts (actually, some of the dialects are impenetrable to southern Japanese), but it’s really not that difficult to get around for non-native speakers. You’ll find no shortage of friendly locals who’ll help to keep you on track, delighted to share the fruits of the land they love.

Simon Sellars

Matsuo Basho (1644-94) is regarded as Japan’s master of haiku, credited with elevating its status from comic relief to Zen-infused enlightenment. Basho was born into a samurai family and in his late teenage years served the feudal lord Yoshitada. When Yoshitada died, his wandering spirit began to direct his life. Moving to Kyoto and then to Edo, Basho found success as a published poet, but ultimately found acclaim to be spiritually unsettling. He turned to Zen and the philosophy had a deep impact on his work: many comparisons have been made between his haiku and Zen koan, short riddles intended to bring about a sudden flash of insight in the listener. Basho was also influenced by the natural philosophy of the Chinese Taoist sage, Chuangzi, and began to examine nature uncritically. Later, he developed his own poetic principle by drawing on the concept of sabi, a kind of spare, lonely beauty.

When he reached his 40s, Basho decided to give his career away in favour of travelling throughout Japan, seeking to build friendships and commune with nature as he went. He published evocative accounts of his travels, including The Records of a Weather-Beaten Skeleton and The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, but his collection, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, detailing his journey through Tohoku in 1689, is perhaps the most famous. Like many Japanese, Basho had initial misforgivings (‘I may as well be travelling to the ends of the earth’, he lamented), but the north’s special charms eventually rendered him lost for words, most famously on his encounter with Matsushima Bay – ‘Matsushima, ah! Matsushima! Matsushima!’ Basho famously wrote (although recent evidence suggests that anecdote to be apocryphal).

The Narrow Road, a mixture of prose and haiku called haibun, uses Tohoku – with its country traditions, natural beauty and way of life – as a metaphor for attaining an egoless state, a true communion with nature whereby the universe always remains. Nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in Basho’s visit to Hiraizumi, once a mighty feudal town that rivalled Kyoto, but which was destroyed virtually in a single stroke. Basho wrote: ‘Countries may fall, but their rivers and mountains remain. When spring comes to the ruined castle, the grass is green again.’

Some people, though, have tried to read even more into Basho’s life and work. In recent times, a bizarre theory has spread. It claims that Basho was actually a ninja spy for the shogunate, sent to Tohoku to report on any unrest that might be fermenting in the provinces; accordingly, his haikus are supposed to be coded missives. There’s no real evidence for this, but some of the arguments are intriguing. The conspiracy theorists point to the fact that Basho covered 2500km on foot in 150 days (sometimes 50km a day) at the ripe old age of 46; only certain ninja, they say, were able to accomplish this, using methods of running and walking that used minute amounts of energy. He was also able to gain access to high-level feudal territory, apparently impossible for ordinary people. Adding fuel to the rumours is the undeniable fact of the poet’s early employment history (many ninja were also samurai), as well as the nature of his birthplace, in the Iga province – home of the famous Iga Ninja school.

Readers are advised to do a search on the Internet: some sites offer The Narrow Road to the Deep North as a downloadable text file, translated into English, along with reams of scholarship.

Simon Sellars

In 1868 a group of 20 teenaged samurai, known as the Byakkotai (White Tigers), looked down upon Tsuruga-jo and saw it shrouded in smoke, concluding that imperial forces had captured the castle. Rather than surrender, they committed seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment). In reality it was the surrounding area that was ablaze and it would be weeks before the Aizu clan would fall; one lad survived and devoted the rest of his life to passing on the story. This strange tale greatly tickles Japanese sensibilities, with its tragi-comic blend of blind loyalty tempered by utter futility and a ruthless universe. To the outsider, there’s a dark side: Mussolini was so taken with the Byakkotai he donated a grandiose monument to commemorate the event. Topped by an eagle, it surveys the horizon from the top of Iimori-yama, surrounded by Byakkotai graves and the steady stream of Japanese tourists scanning the horizon to see what the White Tigers couldn’t: a fully intact castle.

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Date Masamune is the most famous figure in Miyagi’s feudal history. Nicknamed Dokuganryu (One-Eyed Dragon), after he caught smallpox as a child and went blind in his right eye, he combined military nous with commercial instinct, ranking among the most important feudal lords in Japan. He was also an aesthete with finely developed tastes in no theatre and calligraphy, and transformed Sendai into a major cultural centre.

Masamune became head of the Date clan at the age of 17 and quickly increased his territory through ferocious skill on the battleground. When Japan was wracked by civil war in 1598, Masamune sided with Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victorious faction; for his efforts, Masamune was granted control over the Sendai domain, and soon after moved his base of operations to the village of Sendai, in order to gain access to the port.

He constructed Aoba Castle in 1601 and then proceeded to build Sendai as a major focus of trade, constructing a salt works and ensuring the region supplied a considerable quantity of the country’s grain. He also oversaw the construction of a series of temples, shrines and other sites of spiritual significance. But Date’s rule was also remarkable for his developing interest in Christianity. This culminated in his dispatch of Japan’s first diplomatic envoy, seeking trade with Mexico and Europe as well as an audience with Pope Paul V.

Many predicted Masamune would soon rise to the shogunate and control the whole of Japan, but he was never fully trusted by his superiors, due to his unorthodox manner and singular leadership; it was suspected, for example, that Masamune’s European envoy was designed to drum up European support for an overthrow of the incumbent shogun.

But the people of Sendai always remained loyal to Masamune’s vision, even today, as illustrated by the recently built Miyagi Stadium: the roof of its west stand is modelled after the unique crescent symbol the warlord wore on his helmet.

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Japan’s famous manga comic books and anime cartoons remain highly popular today, with their influence spreading far beyond Japan’s shores to Hollywood and beyond. A few years back, local governments in Japan began to focus on this rich culture as a means to attract tourists. The town of Kawakami opened a manga museum in 1994, featuring rare editions of such manga classics as Astro Boy and Gigantor. Astro Boy’s creator, Tezaku Osamu (1926-89), is honoured in his birthplace of Takarazuka, which opened a museum focusing on his work. In Sakai Minato, bronze statues from famous anime line the streets. Ishinomaki is the latest town to initiate a manga policy, recently constructing a museum and various monuments devoted to the work of manga pioneer, Shotaro Ishinomori (1938-98).

The artist was born as Shotaro Ishimori, but later took the name of his hometown, Ishinomori (not to be confused with Ishinomaki, although both are in Miyagi-ken); when he graduated, he moved to Tokyo to work with Tezaku Osamu, whose style Ishinomori’s resembles, with its rounded, stylised lines. Perhaps Ishinomori’s most famous creation is Cyborg 009, which started life as a manga in 1963 and was turned into an animated series in the 1970s. Shotaro’s work for Cyborg 009 was characterised by innate humanity and pleas for racial tolerance and harmony; his cyborgs (part-human, part-machine) are a clear metaphor for people of mixed race and the prejudices they tend to labour under in a ‘mono-culture’ like Japan’s. Besides the museum, there are various statues and monuments to Cyborg 009 littered about Ishinomaki, brightening up this port town.

Shotaro’s work is still fresh today. He initiated many new techniques and adapted the work of US science fiction writers, including Ray Bradbury, thereby introducing them to Japanese audiences. He also led the way in ‘manga information’ – study aids for children in the form of cartoons – which helped to popularise manga and enable it to gain mass acceptance.

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At the beginning of the 20th century, a collection of regional folk tales was published under the title Tono Monogatari (Legends of Tono). They were compiled by Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), a prominent writer and scholar regarded as the father of Japanese folklore. The collection was based on interviews with Tono resident, Kyoseki Sasaki, who was born into a peasant family and who had committed to memory over a hundred densetsu, or local legends. What Yanagita and Saski unearthed immediately captured the nation’s imagination, bringing into rich focus the oral storytelling traditions of a region hitherto almost completely ignored.

The cast of characters and situations are truly weird and wonderful and draw heavily on the concept of animism, a system of belief that attributes a personal spirit to everything that exists, including animals and inanimate objects. One of the more striking tales concerns a simple village girl who married her horse. Amazingly, this was against her father’s wishes, so the father hung the horse from a mulberry tree and beheaded it. The girl, clutching the horse’s head, then flew off to heaven where she became Oshira-sama, the fertility goddess (today, Oshira-sama dolls are still important ceremonial objects for itako mediums).

Elsewhere, we have shapeshifting foxes; elderly folk who are cast off to the wilderness to die; impish water spirits, called kappa, who sumo-wrestle passers-by to the ground and who like to pull their victim’s intestines out through their anus (but who are somewhat dumb and can be fooled in the most basic of fashions); zashiki warashi spirits, who live in the corners of houses and play tricks on the residents; wild men who live in the hills and eat children. Throughout it all is a common theme: the battle with nature and the struggle to tame the elements – everyday features of rural life, of which Tono is an exemplar.

The Legends of Tono (2002, The Japan Foundation) is available for 2000 yen from the souvenir shop next to the Tono tourist information office.

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Stand aloof of the unknowing masses:
Better dismissed as useless than flattered as a ‘Great Man’.
This is my goal, the person I strive to become.

Kenji Miyazawa

Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) is one of Japan’s best-known writers of the 20th century. Born in Morioka, he lived there until his early 20s, although the town and the surrounding environment continued to influence him. Throughout Miyazawa’s life, Tohoku was very much the backwaters of Japan. Iwate-ken, in particular, was a land barely struggling to survive, as crops failed and new farming technology proved to be slow making its way north. On top of that, Miyazawa was the son of a pawnbroker and it caused him great anguish and deep shame to observe how his well-to-do family preyed on the poor by taking their property in exchange for lending them money. This experience, combined with an intense Buddhist faith, shaped his life’s work.

Miyazawa developed a wondrous cosmology whereby profound empathy is felt between the animal world, the human world and the world of nature. A man is forced to hunt bears to make a living, even though he loves bears and deeply understands their ways and customs; the bears, in turn, understand and respect the bind he is in. Another man chances upon a group of deer; captivated by them, he hides in the grass to observe and before long realises he can understand the deers’ ‘language’. Foxes boast about their knowledge of poetry and astronomy. Stars in the sky take human form and play the flute. A cellist, rejected from an orchestra because his playing is atrocious, finds peace with the animals who visit him at night to hear him play. This communication between the species has been understood as a plea for tolerance of other cultures, particularly as Kenji was writing during a time when Japanese society was becoming ever more closed off as the nation moved towards war.
Connections have also been made between Miyazawa’s work and the legends of Tono, and certainly the battle against the elements by poor people is a common thread, as is the belief in animism. But the Tono stories are filled with casual violence and an often antagonistic relationship towards the natural world. Tono’s legends depict foxes, for example, as a constant torment to humans, whereas Miyazawa overturns the common notion of foxes as cunning and devious and demonstrates that even the most entrenched stereotypes can be debunked – as in the scholarly fox mentioned earlier.

Ultimately, however, both realms are deeply infused with the rhythms and paradoxes of everyday Tohoku life. B and both are worthy additions to the library of anyone seeking to understand what makes the region tick beyond the platitudes of tourist brochures.

Simon Sellars

On the face of it, Morioka’s famous dish, wanko-soba, is unspectacular – it’s just buckwheat soba noodles served with side dishes like raw tuna, fish flakes and shredded chicken. It’s the way it’s presented that’s off the planet, a ritual deriving from peasant times, when the citizenry’s crops were failing and they only had soba to serve at dinner. Considering that’s all they had, Moriokans had to make it the best soba and they were highly offended if guests said ‘No more’, even if they were full.

At Azumaya restaurant I must have been taken for an obvious mark: as soon as I showed my face five waitresses rushed over. ‘Wanko-soba! This way please,’ one said, placing a smock over my head. ‘Special wanko-soba smock!’ She explained the origins of the meal and then brought out the sides. We went over the rules: she would bring out 15 bowls of wanko-soba at a time. As soon as I finished one, she would refill it with another. (The bowls are only small, more like large cups, and 15 equals one family-size noodle box.) She stressed there was to be no dawdling and made it clear she would keep refilling even if I begged her to stop. The only way it could end was if I placed a lid on the bowl.

‘It’s only plain noodle,’ she said, ‘so eat some side dish with each bowl. But not too much. You must leave room for wanko-soba!’ The first tray of 15 was brought out and I felt the eyes of the entire restaurant on me. I gobbled down one, then another. Soon all were gone. Light applause rang out. ‘More!’ my waitress urged me. ‘Eat!’ she bellowed, returning with another tray. I tucked in and applied some kind of paste from the side dish. After every few servings, I’d end up with white slop in the bottom of my bowl, which I had to constantly drain into a tub specially provided for the purpose. By the 20th bowl I was slurping like a madman under the constant pressure of my invigilator.

I tried to refocus as my waitress sweetly exhorted me to greater heights: ‘Come on, one more cup. Try for me, please’. But I was stuffed. After 40 bowls, I went for the lid and tried to jam it down over my bowl; she was onto me, her lithe hand flitting under mine to slop down more soba. If she beat me, I had to eat it; that was the rule. I slipped into a trance: wanko-soba…wanko-soba…must eat wanko-soba. After five more bowls I wanted to throw up. Again I went for the lid, but my reflexes were groggy. Again she beat me to the punch. Then I saw my chance: as my tormentor was distracted by laughter from a nearby table, I slammed the lid home to freedom. And slumped backwards, exhausted.

The guy next to me was on 100, his greedy eyes turned up expectantly as the waitress refilled his bowl. He stared at her with the hard, narrow need of a mainline junky. There was absolutely no question he was out to break the record.

In the end my waitress was gracious in defeat. She signed a certificate saying how many bowls I’d had and then took my photo. I stole a glance at Mr 100-plus; his chopsticks were a blur as he shovelled the greyish soba into his mouth…and then suddenly, he, too, jammed his lid home.

The record, by the way, is 500: that’s Moriokan hospitality, at it’s finest.

Simon Sellars


The Great Milky Way
Spans in a single arch
The billow-crested sea
Falling on Sado beyond


Sado-ga-shima, Japan’s sixth-largest island at 855sq km, is situated in the Sea of Japan. It’s a very popular destination for its natural beauty and atmospheric hiking (the southern and northern mountain ranges are connected by a vast, fertile plain), as well as for the eccentric reminders of its rich, evocative history. In fact, Sado has a sizable robot population, employed to demonstrate that unique culture to tourists. In medieval times, Sado was a place of exile for intellectuals who had fallen out of favour with the government. Among those banished here were Emperor Juntoku, no drama master Ze-Ami and Nichiren, the founder of one of Japan’s most influential Buddhist sects. When gold was discovered near Aikawa in 1601, there was a sudden influx of gold diggers, who were often vagrants pressganged from the mainland and made to work like slaves.

Today Sado relies on its booming tourist trade, but to escape the coach parties and uncover the island’s unhurried pace and natural scenery, you need to get right off the beaten track. This may well require your own transport and a minimum of two days. The best season to visit is between late April and mid-October; during winter, not only will the weather be foul, but much of the accommodation will be closed and transport will be slashed to a bare minimum.

The island is well furnished with guesthouses, youth hostels and camping, but you must book accommodation well in advance in the hectic summer months. Ask the tourist information offices for help if necessary.

At the time of writing, Sado was in the process of changing the names of some of its roads and districts. You are advised to double-check details with the latest information available from the Ryotsu tourist information centre; they’ll also mark up maps with the exact location of your accommodation choices.

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