Get away from the crowds and experience a glimpse of traditional Japanese life on this 15-day tour that starts in Tokyo and heads north. After a couple of days exploring the capital, take the train up to UNESCO-listed Nikko and focus on the Tohoku region, the northernmost prefectures of Japan's main Honshu Island. Continue to several towns and cities that many travelers overlook—including Sendai, Hiraizumi, Aomori, and Yamagata—for a taste of unhurried, back-to-basics Japan.


  • Marvel at Nikko's Toshogu Shrine and high-altitude Lake Chuzenji
  • Cruise on Matsushima Bay, one of Japan's most scenic spots
  • Soak in natural hot springs at Hanamaki Onsenkyo and Zao Onsen
  • Learn about samurai culture in Kakunodate 

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Tokyo, Izakaya Food Tour Tokyo
Day 2 Hidden Tokyo Tour Tokyo
Day 3 Edo Period Experience in Kawagoe Tokyo
Day 4 Train to Nikko, Toshogu Shrine, Kegon Falls & Lake Chuzenji Nikko
Day 5 Train to Sendai, Zuihoden Mausoleum & Whisky Tasting Sendai
Day 6 Matsushima Bay Cruise with Zuigan-ji Temple, Sendai Food Experience Sendai
Day 7 Train to Hiraizumi, Hiraizumi Temples & Gorge Tour Hiraizumi
Day 8 Train to Aomori via Hanamaki, Soak at Hanamaki Onsenkyo Aomori
Day 9 Aomori Art & Culture Tour Aomori
Day 10 Train to Akita via Hirosaki, Visit Hirosaki Castle & Park Akita
Day 11 Train to Kakunodate, Samurai Culture & Saké Tour of Kakunodate Kakunodate
Day 12 Train to Yamagata, Miso & Soy Sauce Experience, Yamadera Mountain Temple Yamagata
Day 13 Bus to Mount Zao, Okama Crater & Zao Onsen Stay Zao Onsen
Day 14 Bus to Yamagata, Train to Tokyo Tokyo
Day 15 Depart Tokyo  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo, Izakaya Food Tour

View Across the Sensoji Temple, Tokyo
Night view across the Senso-ji temple, Tokyo

Welcome to Tokyo, the hustling and bustling capital city of Japan. After your arrival, you'll take a shuttle to your hotel. Take some time to settle in and relax before heading out in the evening for some initial exploration. 

Get a taste of Japanese cuisine and nightlife in the Monzen Nakacho neighborhood. Meet the locals and sample street food such as croquettes, rice balls, and kakigori (shaved ice dessert), and have a drink in a Japanese izakaya pub. Enjoy a chilled beer or a Japanese nihonshu (sake) to get your stay in Japan off to a great start.

Day 2: Hidden Tokyo Tour

Discover Tokyo's Hidden Gems: Gotokuji Temple, Jimbocho Book Town and Nezu Shrine
A pathway of red torii at the Gotoku-ji temple

There are almost endless things to see and do in Tokyo, but today you'll focus on several lesser-known attractions away from the primary tourist circuits. This morning, head west to Gotoku-ji, a Buddhist temple with thousands of maneki-neko (lucky cat) figurines of all sizes. These powerful good luck charms seen all over Japan are said to have originated at this temple. You can buy a lucky cat figurine, pray to it for good luck, and leave it at the temple just like the locals do.

Continue to Jimbocho Book Town, an area brimming with vintage bookstores and cute coffee shops. Several universities, publishing houses, and libraries are also located in the neighborhood. If you're interested in buying something, look out for illustrated books and old maps of Japan. The Kitazawa Bookstore sells rare English literature and philosophy books, too.

Next, take a stroll through the peaceful Nezu Shrine, one of the oldest places of worship in the city. It features traditional Shinto shrine architecture with beautiful gilded details, a tunnel of vermilion torii gates, a pond with lively carp, and a garden full of blooming azaleas (during April and May). The Yanaka district, a few blocks away, is one of the best places to get a feel for old Tokyo. The neighborhood escaped destruction from World War II and natural disasters, and the narrow lanes, wooden houses, and retro-style buildings exude a nostalgic atmosphere. 

Day 3: Edo Period Experience in Kawagoe

Edo-era shop fronts and the belltower in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture

Take a day trip up to Saitama Prefecture today to the old city of Kawagoe, which has retained its historic Edo-period (1603–1867) atmosphere. The town is most famous for its many traditional buildings, which have earned it the nickname Koedo (literally "Little Edo"). First, visit Kitain, the head temple of the Tendai Sect in the Kanto region. Here you can get a close look at the Gohyaku Rakan statues, 540 stone statues of the disciples of Buddha. Then move on to the Warehouse district to see the old buildings straight out of the Edo period.

Later, head to Kashiya Yokocho (Candy Alley) and perhaps pick up some traditional Japanese sweets and cakes to take home with you. Stroll on Taisho Roman Street to learn more about the history of the Taisho-era (1912-1926) before returning to Tokyo for the night.

Day 4: Train to Nikko, Toshogu Shrine, Kegon Falls & Lake Chuzenji

Nikko's Toshogu Shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Say goodbye to Tokyo for now as you take a 90-minute train up to Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture. Enjoy watching the cityscape turn into a mountainous landscape. Nikko overflows with natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. First, visit the UNESCO-listed Toshogu Shrine. Surrounded by lush forest, this is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan from 1603 until 1868. It's an architectural masterpiece: the entrance to the main shrine buildings, Yomeimon Gate, has over 500 detailed carvings, making it one of the most lavishly decorated gates in the country. 

After, head farther up into the mountains to Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls. Dropping 318 feet (97 m) from the cliffs, Kegon Falls are considered one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. Stroll along the shores of serene Lake Chuzenji within the Nikko National Park. It's the highest-elevation natural lake in Japan (4,163 ft/1,269 m), created about 20,000 years ago from an eruption of Mount Nantai. Enjoy the views of the mountains from the lake, then return to Nikko for the night, taking the chance to soak in a natural onsen bath.

Day 5: Train to Sendai, Zuihoden Mausoleum & Whisky Tasting

Statue of Date Masamune, the founder of Sendai

Continue your travels north today with a train ride to Sendai, in Miyagi Prefecture. With a change of train in Utsunomiya, the journey takes around two hours. After dropping off your bags at your accommodation, start your Sendai city tour at Zuihoden, the mausoleum complex of Date Masamune (1567–1636), the founder of Sendai and a regional ruler during the late Sengoku and early Edo Periods. The 17th-century complex reflects Date's prominent status, with its quiet surroundings, towering cedars, ornate architecture, intricate carvings, and black lacquered pillars and panels.

Later, head west to Sendai's suburbs to visit the Miyagikyo Distillery. Tucked in forested hills, the distillery owned by Nikka Whisky is characterized by its red brick buildings and has a history of more than half a century. Learn about the process of making whisky, take in the distinctive scent of distilled grain along the way, and taste a glass of whisky at the end of the tour. Apple wine and non-alcoholic beverages are also available.

Day 6: Matsushima Bay Cruise with Zuigan-ji Temple, Sendai Food Experience

Some of the many islets in Matsushima Bay

A short distance from Sendai lies Matsushima Bay, celebrated as one of the most scenic places in Japan for hundreds of years. Over 200 islets dot the bay, with black and red pines growing from the white rocks, and it's said that the great haiku poet of the Edo Period, Matsuo Basho, was left speechless by the beauty of the bay. Today you'll board a sightseeing cruise to enjoy the views. The standard loop route takes around one hour, while the longer, more scenic route takes you to see the Sagakei Gorge, a stunning area of cliffs and rock formations.

After the cruise, walk in the shade of towering cedars on your way to the main hall of the Zen Buddhist Zuigan-ji temple. Once the family temple of Date Masamune and a designated national treasure, the brilliantly painted and gilded sliding doors showcase flora and fauna of different seasons in vivid hues. It's also worth visiting other parts of the temple complex, such as the shallow caves where monks once lived and meditated, adorned with statues of the Goddess of Mercy, Kannon, and Bodhisattvas.

Later in the day, indulge your tastebuds on a self-guided food experience of Sendai. It's renowned as the birthplace of gyutan (beef tongue), so make sure to try this seasoned, grilled meat served with pickled vegetables. Another Sendai specialty is hearty seri nabe, a hot pot dish featuring Japanese seri parsley along with duck or chicken. It's a fixture on Sendai's izakaya menus in winter. You also might want to try crispy, deep-fried sankaku aburaage tofu, the bamboo-leaf-shaped sasa-kamaboko fish paste, and seafood sashimi and kaisen donburi (seafood rice bowl).

Day 7: Train to Hiraizumi, Hiraizumi Temples & Gorge Tour

The entrance to the Chosen-ji temple in Hiraizumi

Take the train further north today, to Hiraizumi, in Iwate Prefecture—a journey of about an hour with a change of train in Ichinoseki. During the Heian Period (710–1185), Hiraizumi was the cultural and political capital of the Tohoku region and the northern branch of the nation-ruling Fujiwara clan, and remnants of its glorious past can be seen today. Step into Chuson-ji, a ninth-century Buddhist temple. Two of its original buildings, including the Konjikido Pavilion, remain intact, covered in gold leaf. Don't miss the main hall (hondo) and the treasure hall, with a collection of impressive artifacts.

A few minutes walk from Chuson-ji lies the temple of Motsu-ji, whose Pure Land Garden is one of the last remaining such gardens in the country. Built according to the concept of Pure Land, a version of paradise in Buddhism, this style of garden, usually featuring a large pond at the center, was especially popular during the Heian Period (794–1185).

Continue to Genbikei Gorge, a short gorge outside Hiraizumi with unique rock formations of different shapes and sizes, emerald green water, and lush greenery. As you're walking along the gorge, try the local specialty known as "flying dango," sweet rice dumplings delivered from a shop on the opposite bank of the river via a basket on a zip-wire!

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Day 8: Train to Aomori via Hanamaki, Soak at Hanamaki Onsenkyo

The skyline of downtown Aomori, one of the northernmost cities on Honshu

Venture all the way up to Aomori today, one of the northernmost cities on Honshu. The journey takes about three hours in total, but you'll break it in Hanamaki, about 45 minutes from Hiraizumi. Spend a few hours in Hanamaki Onsenkyo (onsen village), a group of 12 hot springs, each with a distinct vibe. From open-air baths with gorgeous mountain views to indoor pools featuring modern facilities, it's the perfect spot to break up your trip and soothe tired muscles. After you've had a good soak, continue the train journey to Aomori, with a change in Morioka, and get settled into your hotel.

Day 9: Aomori Art & Culture Tour

Lantern floats for Aomori's famous Nebuta Festival

Aomori is famous for its Nebuta Matsuri, a summer festival in August in which beautifully-decorated floats featuring warrior figures are carried through the city center. Dancers in traditional costumes call locals and visitors alike to watch or join the procession. This matsuri is one of the three largest festivals in Tohoku and is classified as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan. If you're visiting outside of August, the Nebuta Museum Wa Rasse is the place to learn about Aomori's Nebuta history and traditions and see some of the beautiful floats built for past festivals.

Later, head to the Aomori Gyosai Center, a public fish market in central Aomori full of shops and stalls selling fresh seafood, locally-grown vegetables, condiments, and pickles. You can pay a small fee to make a delicious nokkedon (seafood rice bowl). Buy tickets at the information desk, browse the market to find your favorite seafood, and exchange the tickets for fresh slices of raw fish, shellfish, fish eggs, and more as toppings.

Spend the afternoon in the Aomori Museum of Art. This modern art museum's unique architecture was inspired by the nearby Sannai Maruyama Jomon Archaeological Sites (13,000–300 BCE). The collection includes works by Marc Chagall and numerous famous Japanese artists. 

Day 10: Train to Akita via Hirosaki, Visit Hirosaki Castle & Park

A Glimpse of Hirosaki: Hirosaki Castle and Park
Twilight views over Hirosaki Castle and Park

Start your journey south today with a one-hour train journey to Hirosaki, a castle town known for its rich history and thousands of blooming cherry trees in spring. The city developed around the Hirosaki-jo, a 17th-century castle of the Tsugaru clan that ruled the area. Although the castle's original five-story tower was struck by lightning and burned down 16 years after its construction, and the three-story tower you see today was constructed in the early 19th century, it's one of a handful of castles in Japan that hasn't been rebuilt in the modern era.

After looking around Hirosaki, take another train to your accommodations in Akita, a lovely coastal city located about two hours away from Hirosaki on the Sea of Japan.

Day 11: Train to Kakunodate, Samurai Culture & Saké Tour of Kakunodate

Delve into Samurai Culture in Kakunodate: Samurai Quarter and Sake Brewery Visit
Take a stroll through the samurai history of Kakunodate

Travel inland this morning on a one-hour train ride to Kakunodate, a former castle town famous for its well-preserved samurai district. Its wide streets are lined with weeping cherry trees (shidarezakura), which drape over its large courtyards and traditional houses. Six of the samurai houses that remain intact are open to the public, including the muse-see Aoyagi House. Once the residence of an upper-class family, the impressive complex is now a museum featuring an extensive collection of samurai weapons and armor in six galleries. It offers a fascinating insight into samurai traditions and lifestyles.

After, travel out of town to a saké brewery to learn about how this Japanese rice wine is made. Akita Prefecture has a long saké-making history (over 500 years!), and thanks to its high-quality rice and fresh, clean water, several award-winning sake breweries are located in the area. 

Day 12: Train to Yamagata, Miso & Soy Sauce Experience, Yamadera Mountain Temple

Visit Yamadera, a Historic Mountain Temple
Visit Yamadera, a dramatic mountain temple

Continue south to Yamagata today, with a change of train in Sendai, a journey of around three hours. The Yamagata Prefecture is famous for its fruit and other fresh produce, and you'll learn about local miso and soy sauce after your arrival. Miso—a thick paste produced by fermenting soybeans, rice, or barley with salt—has been an important seasoning in Japanese cuisine for well over 1,300 years. Head to Ando Jozo Brewery Honten, established in 1853, for an insight into how miso and soy sauce are made.

Later, visit the temple of Risshak-uji, or Yamadera (meaning "mountain temple" in Japanese), as it's more commonly known. Founded in the second half of the ninth century, this temple is tucked in the mountains northeast of Yamagata city. Some halls sit atop chiseled cliffs, offering unbeatable views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. The temple's main hall, Konponchudo, and the treasure house are located near the foot of the mountain and can be easily accessed by climbing a few dozen steps, while a hike through the woods to the upper area takes around half an hour.

Day 13: Bus to Mount Zao, Okama Crater & Zao Onsen Stay

Travel to Mount Zao: Okama Crater and Zao Onsen Stay
Take a chairlift for sweeping views over the Okama Crater

Take a one-hour bus ride from Yamagata to a parking lot just below Kattadake Peak this morning. Part of a volcanic mountain range rising to 5,900 feet (1,800 m), Mount Zao is situated on the border between Yamagata and Miyagi Prefectures and boasts some of the most splendid natural scenery in the whole country. Its crater features a turquoise-colored caldera lake, Okama Crater, and is a must-see for any visit to Mount Zao. From the parking lot, where you alight the bus, take a chairlift to the observation deck for an unobstructed view of the natural wonder.

After, move on to Zao Onsen, a hot springs town situated at an altitude of 2,624 feet (880 m) on the slopes of Mount Zao. Famed for its acidic waters, you'll find everything from small, traditional baths in the open air to hotels with modern facilities here.

Day 14: Bus to Yamagata, Train to Tokyo

Tokyo's skyline, with the red Tokyo Tower in the foreground.
Tokyo's skyline, with the red Tokyo Tower in the foreground.

Begin your journey back to the capital today. Take a bus to Yamagata, from where you'll catch a train to Tokyo, a journey of around three hours.

After returning to the big city, enjoy some free time to discover Tokyo more. You can head to Shibuya (one of the largest shopping districts) for some souvenir shopping or roam around Shinjuku Gyoen for a stroll. Alternatively, check out Akihabara and be immersed in a world of electronics, manga, anime, and video games—quite a contrast to your time in natural Tohoku this past two weeks!

Day 15: Depart Tokyo

Shinjuku Gyoen in the spring

Your time in Japan has come to an end. After a final breakfast, check out of your hotel and make your way to the airport for your departure flight. Safe travels!

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A note on diacritical and retroflex markings: In order to support the best technical experience and search functions, diacritical markings have been omitted from this article.


Map of Off-the-Beaten-Path Japan: Tokyo, Nikko & Tohoku - 15 Days
Map of Off-the-Beaten-Path Japan: Tokyo, Nikko & Tohoku - 15 Days