I took my first long trip in Japan and went up the coastlines to Tohoku. With just one exception, I did it all by local roads (no expressways) so I had a chance to see countryside and many stunning coastlines up close. In my typical travel fashion, I had no fixed schedule but just drive in the direction of my goal until I get tired.
The weather was forecasted to be snowy. My vehicle is equipped with four wheel drive and studless winter tires and chains just in case. Did you know that Aomori prefecture has the world’s highest annual snowfall?
I have been planning for this trip for a long time. Even though I spent part of my childhood in the Midwest, I’m still enthralled by snow. I wanted to see a lot of it, and my wish was granted.
My plan called for following the coastlines of the Sea of Japan and Pacific sides the whole way and going far North in honshu and I could, travelling on local roads the whole way and avoiding the expensive expressways. I managed to keep to these goals with a couple of exceptions. My trip started on February 4th and ended on February 9th.
Day 1 – Tokyo to Niigata
The first day was uneventful. From Tokyo through Gunma to Niigata was not so interesting and I did not take any pics. What was notable as I was passing through the famous ski resort Yuzawa, how many of the massive ski resorts were closed due to lack of snow.
Once I got to Niigata, I met some locals in a bar and they were telling me that this is the first time in years that there was no snow on the streets in Niigata city. For me, this was my fourth time to this city and each time it was snowy. The first day was a bit of a disappointment as I was really looking forward to seeing some snow.
Niigata has always served as a first stop, or hub on my trips up north in the past. One of the advantages of this city is that it has very affordable accomodations. I managed to stay in a business hotel right in the heart of town for only 2,300 yen – or about $21 USD. It was nothing luxury of course, but clean and in a central location just a few minutes walk from the main station.
I have been trying to learn more about Japanese sake, and every time I have been in Niigata, I always stop at the Ponshukan (Sake Museum) right at the station. You can taste many varieties for only 100 yen for a small cup. They have a good description of what you are tasting. I tried a range from dry to sweet.
After Ponshukan, I stopped by a local izakaya that I had been to before. It was not the type of place where you see foreigners, and a regular there started up a chat with me. I told him about my itinerary and he was also a fan of road trips and he was also excited about my journey. After some food and drinks, he invited me to his local whisky bar – one of those secluded places you would never find, or dare to go into without the help of a local.
Day Two – Niigata to Oga
So far, I was disappointed that I did not see snow yet, however on day two I got lucky. The first part of the day was clear, and I reached the Sea of Japan coastline at Murakami. The winds were very high, and suddenly there was strong rain, thunder and lightning.
The Sea of Japan coastline is fascinating. I love the sea, and every place I go to gravitate to the coastline. The coast here is some of the most rugged I have ever seen, and the waves are particularly fierce. These pictures do not do it justice, but when you look at them notice that he water is totally white showing how turbulent the waters are.
By noon, the temperature dropped suddenly from 5C to 0C and the heavy snowfall started.
All along the coastline are small and rugged fishing villages. However, you rarely see any people outside due to the extreme conditions. Japanese infrastructure along the coast is well built up with many wave barriers.
The sun was setting and the snowfall was turning into a blizzard. I took a stop to find some local hotels online, but there were not so many in the immediate location. Unlike the US, there are not such a concept of roadside hotels so you almost always have to go looking in the cities.
It was starting to get dark and high winds and snowfall led to very poor visibility and I was beginning to get worried. However, I remembered from the last I was in Oga by train two years ago that there was this old hotel that looked abandoned by the station. I arrived there to check it out again and there were no lights on and it still looked abandoned. I went to the front of the hotel and watched for signs of life, and somebody walked into the hotel so I later went in and asked for a room. The owner must have been 80 years old and reeked of alcohol, spoke a thick Tohoku dialect which I could not understand. After some time, he reluctantly gave me a room for which he demanded cash payment. I think there was only one other guest that night. Although it appeared old and shabby on the outside, the room was clean and surprisingly well maintained.
Day Three – Tour of Oga Peninsula and stop at Akita
My third day turned out to be the real highlight of the trip. I got to see the one of the main reasons I made it up here again – the rugged coast of the Oga Peninsula. I had been in the area a year ago, and was fascinated about the area. But that time it was by train and public transit options are very limited so I vowed to return again. While the peninsula is a popular destination in the summer, seeing it in winter is a whole different experience. Conditions later made me go off of my originally planned course.
I woke up to a see a fresh blanket of snow that had fallen overnight. The weather report said that up to 40 centimeters of snow had fallen over Akita prefecture. I cleaned the snow off the car and made my way to the peninsula.
It was a morning of fierce wind and snow, sometimes a near whiteout condition followed by clear spots. I made my way around the peninsula passing villages as the locals were clearing out the snow. I could not help but think that I am the only tourist for miles; just about everything is closed. However, it was a fascinating site to see the snow against the rugged coastline.
As I progressed, I was rewarded with more views of the fierce beauty that is the Sea of Japan coast. On one of the stops I took, the ocean was like a cauldron. It was a mesmerizing site – could have watched it for hours if not for the cold winds.
One of the famous tourist sites is a large Namahage statue – a demonic mask image that is famous here. More here about Namahage
Weather was turning extreme with heavy snowfall, very low visibility and rapidly falling temperature, so I cut short my trip up the coast from Noshiro and made my way inland via Odate to stay the night in Aomori.
As a rule, I avoid travel after dark and especially in extreme weather conditions, so my objective was to make it to Aomori around 5pm, check into the a hotel and have a meal. I stopped at a roadside station to make a hotel booking in Aomori city and continued on my way.
Once I arrived in Aomori, I went to full tourist mode and had a Cheeseburger and beer at a local area of converted warehouses called A-Factory. I had been to Aomori a year ago and saw many sights, so my only objective this time was to stay here the night before moving on further up north.
Overall, it was a very busy day of driving – about 8 hours behind the wheel in pretty intense driving situations. However, it was a wonderful day – the stunning views of the rugged coastline from the driver’s seat were unforgettable.
Day 4 – Aomori up to Mutsu then to Miyako
The objective the day was Mutsu, one of the most northern points on honshu. I did not really know what there was to see there, but just to go north as I could practically go given the driving conditions..
In the morning I woke up to see a fresh blanket of snow. While the conditions seemed extreme to me, it was a normal day for locals. Everyone is well equipped with snow tires, and traffic just flows just like an everyday commute.
After some time in the snow, I started to get pretty comfortable with driving in these conditions. I could not see much as most attractions are close this time of the year, so I just enjoyed the challenge of the drive, but then again that was my purpose from the start.
I stopped at a park by the side of the Bay of Mustu. The bay was very calm, compared to the scenes of the rugged coast.
Mutsu is famous for seafood – notably scallops and a type of hairy crab. I drove around the city a bit. There was not so much to see this time of the year.
I then made my way south to see how far I could made it down the Pacific side before calling it a day. One of the major cities I passed through was Hachinohe, which was one of the most industrial places I have ever seen – huge factories everywhere and I had to battle the roads with trucks. It was a bit traumatic. After I got out of town, I manage to see some wildlife – migratory swans that make there way down from Siberia were taking a rest at a lake.
So, I just kept driving down south through Miyako prefecture to stay the night in Miyako city. Miyako and neigboring Iwate prefectures are among the least visited prefectures in Japan. I have seen a few places on my last train trips and I think that image of being a boring place might be unfounded.
Miyako city turned about to be a pretty small place. I arrived after dark and had a walk around. Most places were closed but I found a place to eat – a gyoza chain restaurant (Osaka Osho) and had plate of gyoza and a beer, and went back to my room for night.
Day 5 – Miyako to Ishinomaki via Kamaishi
Day 5 would be my last scenic stretch along the coast of the Pacific side. I had been to both Ishinomaki and Kamaishi before, but this time I would get a totally different look by car.
I saw some really somber views on this route. The impact of the tsunami in March 2011 as a result of the great kanto earthquake is very tragic, but the sheer breadth of the tragedy never seems to be sufficiently grasped by the rest of the world. Although it was 9 years ago, the impact is still very visible, and the rebuilding still in progress.
From my drive down from Miyako along the Iwate Pacific coast, I saw nonstop reminders of the disaster. In the picture below, what looks like a prison wall is really a sea wall that is a common sight everywhere up and down the coast. The vast extent of the infrastructure projects, many are still in progress, was quite amazing.
My first sightseeing stop was just outside of Miyako. The Taro Kanko Hotel was been preserved in its damaged condition to serve as a memorial to the tragedy. The hotel is open to tour groups and they serve a very nice meal at the top floor restaurant. For everyone else, it is closed, but to see it from the outside is really frightening to imagine the power of the waves that bent the steel structure and devastated three floors up.
I then stopped by the Sanriku Fukko National Park to see Jodogahama Beach. It was named by CNN as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. It sure lived up to its reputation.
All along the 250km journey, I saw massive infrastructure projects building massive sea walls. I tried to take some pictures from the car, but there is no way you can appreciate it unless you see how many there are and the sheer size of these walls.
I also stopped by to see some of the public housing that still provides temporary shelter to those displaced 9 years ago.
Every town along the way that was affected has a memorial to remember the loss. I stopped by in Kamaishi. I had been there last year by train where I saw a lot of the local area, so I did not want not need to revisit those areas, but you can check out my last visit here.
This time, I went to visit one of the memorials and the stadium that was one of the venues for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. This event was a big deal for the city, and seen as a symbol of their rebirth. Kamaishi has a long history of tsunami disasters, and as a major steel producing center during the war, a target of allied bombing. Kamaishi has a history of always bouncing back. Check out this short documentary of the city by NHK – Kamaishi: The Resilient City of Steel.
The Rugby Stadium was just nearby. It was quite impressive against the rugged mountains. Just off the main car park, there was this beautiful wall with shell art created by students to thank everyone for their support in Kamaishi’s revival.
Finally, I called it a day and drove to Ishinomaki for the night, the hardest hit city of them all. If you remember the pictures of houses on fire floating across a field, it was there. I was here last year and saw the remnants of the port that was completely devastated but under reconstruction.
I took a very long route on my way from Miyako to Ishinomaki. I hugged the coast all the way, and took very small mountain roads where the maximum speed was 20 km/h at the most. When you drive on these roads, they look like one way but they are not. You have to be constantly on the lookout for vehicles coming the other way.
I continued by journey through the mountains and was rewarded with many stunning views. The best part about it was that was the only one enjoying it and was like I had such a stunning place all to myself.
After seeing the fierce nature of the Sea of Japan, just a few days ago, the contrast with the serene sights of the Pacific Ocean reminded me of the meaning of pacific.
I finally arrived in Ishinomaki just after it was getting dark. I had a hard time to find my hotel as it was actually in a hilly residential area.
The hotel that I stayed in at Ishinomaki was called “Frontier Hotel”. I was a little suspicious from the descriptions and it had no Tripadvisor ratings, but the location was good and the price was very cheap. When I got there, it looked like a prison, but it is actually a repurposed temporary housing for the tsunami victims. It seemed a proper way to understand what I just saw today. It’s actually nice inside, and in a good location, appropriately high on a hill. I only stayed in the city this time because I had already visited twice before, and I have found that the cheapest accomodation in Japan is always in the secondary cities like this one.
Day 6 Ishinomaki to Tokyo via the Fukushima disaster zone
Day 6 was a sobering day as I passed through the Fukushima disaster zone. I had no idea of what to expect.
After all of this natural beauty, I was now in for a real shock. It is perplexing that Japan has some of the strictest environmental protection regimes in the world, at the same time it is host to one of the most terrible violations of the natural environment in recent history. Yes, the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
As I made my way to the town of Futaba where the Fukushima Daiichi power plan resides, the scenery along the way was barren farmland. It looked more like an impoverished area of Oklahoma than Japan.
The town of Futaba is obviously a ghost town. There are restricted areas just near the reactor where you need a permit to get into. There are officials there to check your papers.
I did drive around the town of Namie, one town about 3 kilometers north of Futaba. You could see many houses abandoned, but there were also a few hearty souls that still lived there. Despite being so close to the power plant, radiation levels were totally normal. This could have a lot to do with the winds.
After driving quite a bit around the area, I the only place where radiation was elevated significantly above normals was the area just near the reactor.
As I got right up to the entrance of the plant, the radiation spiked. You could see piles of the radioactive waste in the foreground, what was left of the towers with a crane over them in the background. It was a surprisingly non-descript view of what is left of that tragic event. No visible security, no ativity and the main gate was just chained off.
Proceeding south past Futaba it was string of small towns, shopping centers and houses that were completely abandoned. Some were totally intact but boarded off. Even thogh this happened nine years ago, much of it seems frozen in time.
After taking some circles around the area of Fukushima disaster sight, I then continued down the Fukushima coastline to see some gorgeous white sand beaches.
As for the evidence of the waves, you can see it everywhere along hundreds of kilometers on the the coastlines of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures the evidence of the disaster is still very present, with massive public works projects going on to rebuild and prevent such damage in the future
I continued down from Fukushima to Iwate prefecture. There were more nice white beach parks. The one very visible ugly site you see here are the tetrapods that are everywhere and designed as a wave break to prevent any future disasters. They are a common sight in Japan and often destroy the natural scenery but given the history I understand why such measures are taken.
I stopped in Iwaki city which is a fairly well developed tourist town and since it was a Sunday there were fairly large crowds at the roadside tourist markets, michinoeki（道の駅). There was a nice large marine life center (Aquamarine Fukushima) https://www.aquamarine.or.jp/ and a large shopping mall.
The day was getting late and I was getting tired and I had to make this decision of staying one more night or cutting it short and taking the expressway back home. Since I had some things at home to take care of, I opted to go home. When I got into Tokyo, there was the usual traffic jam.
In summary, a great trip covering diverse coastlines and a somber reminder of a tradgey
Overall, it was a great trip. I managed to see some really spectacular coastline – everything from the rugged fury of the Sea of Japan, to the calm sandy beaches on the Pacific side. The snow I encountered was really a challenge to drive through.
However, the scenes of the destruction of the tsunami following the great kanto earthquake were really sobering. It really could not capture it well in the pictures because it was just over too much area. Many areas along the coast are abandoned, and massive public work structures including huge seawalls are being built. Trucks and construction sites were almost a non-stop sight. Many farms areas have been converted to solar farms and massive windmills are everywhere to produce sustainable power to replace the lost nuclear capacity. I also saw vast areas of barren farmland – the areas were so big it looked more like Oklahoma than Japan. I’m also guessing that many of these farms are no longer fertile after becoming contaminated with salt from the sea water. I can only imagine all this work is in the billions of dollars. Japan is doing a lot to recover from the events of 2011, but still a lot remains to be done.
This was a good first look at the northern part of Japan. Next year around this time, I will be planning to take it further and take a ferry up to Hokkaido.