Travel Black Book: Ambassadors Series

Tohoku's back on its feet

The best of home: Ambassadors to Singapore provide an insider's guide to their favourite destinations

Who:  Mr Kenji Shinoda, 63, ambassador of Japan to Singapore. He and his wife, Mrs Yuko Shinoda have lived in Singapore since April last year. 

Favourite destination: Travelling is my family's hobby and by the time I was 22, I had already visited all 47 prefectures in my home country - from the northern-most island of Hokkaido to the southern-most region, Okinawa - so picking a favourite is hard.

While every place has its own appeal, I am currently most interested in repeat visits to the Tohoku region, the northern part of Japan's main island of Honshu.

The abundance of nature and cultural heritage sites there always impress me.

There are plenty of fresh fish from the sea and vegetables from the mountains and the hot springs are wonderful to relax in.

You may be aware that Tohoku is the area that was severely hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. I have visited the region, in particular the Sendai area, several times since then, and learnt that though the reconstruction process is only at the halfway point, people are mostly upbeat, which is encouraging. Tourists are also returning.

SEE

Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture is famous for its picturesque bay.


  • MR KENJI SHINODA, 63, AMBASSADOR OF JAPAN TO SINGAPORE
     

    He and his wife, Mrs Yuko Shinoda, have lived in Singapore since April last year.

Located half an hour outside Sendai, the town, the bay and the many pine-covered little islands within it have been ranked one of the most scenic views in Japan.

It is also known for Zuiganji, one of the Tohoku region's most important Zen temples.

Also, take a day trip from Sendai to Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture, Tohoku's first cultural Unesco World Heritage site.

In the 12th century, it rivalled Kyoto in culture and political prominence and was built on Buddhist ideals.

It still boasts some of the region's most important historic buildings, including the Chusonji Temple and Takkoku no Iwaya, a 9th-century temple built into the rock face of a cliff.

There are also a number of impressive castles worth visiting in Tohoku.

In Sendai, you will find the ruins of Aoba Castle, built in 1600. In neighbouring Fukushima Prefecture, go see Tsuruga Castle, a concrete replica of the original which was built in 1384. The original structure was destroyed in the Boshin War in 1868 and the replica now houses a popular museum.

Finally, Hirosaki Castle in Aomori Prefecture is one of the country's most beautiful castles and is widely regarded as one of the best scenic spots to see the cherry blossoms in Japan, with the snow-capped Iwaki Mountain in the background.

I also recommend spending a day in Shirakami-Sanchi, a mountain range which straddles the border between Akita and Aomori Prefectures.

It was the first site in Japan to be listed as a natural Unesco World Heritage Site and is best known for its virgin beech forest, the largest beech forest in East Asia, which is thought to be around 8,000 years old.

The area offers many types of hiking trails which cater to beginners and serious hikers, so anyone can enjoy taking a walk there to enjoy the pristine mountain peaks, forests, lakes and waterfalls.

EAT

The six prefectures in the Tohoku region are connected by the Ou Mountains, the longest mountain range in Japan.

They also face the sea, so the food in Tohoku often includes fresh catches from the sea and seasonal vegetables from the mountains.

You should try gyutan (grilled beef tongue), a famous dish in Sendai.

I recommend going to Umami Tasuke (www.gyutown.com/gyu_shop/tasuke), the restaurant which started this delicacy.


  • GETTING THERE

    All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines and Singapore Airlines offer several direct flights from Singapore to Tokyo every day.

    The Tohoku region is easily accessible from Tokyo by the Shinkansen (bullet train). It takes about 21/2 hours to reach Yamagata Prefecture, three hours to Aomori Prefecture and and 31/2 hours to Akita Prefecture.

    TIPS

    •I recommend spending two or three nights in Tohoku and taking day trips to the important sites.There are cherry blossoms in spring, the biggest festivals and celebrations during summer, maple leaves changing colour in autumn and beautiful snow in winter.

    •The Japan National Tourism Organization website (www.jnto.org.sg) is a valuable planning resource, as is the Japan Rail Cafe (www.japanrailcafe.com.sg) in Tanjong Pagar Centre, which highlights a different region of Japan every month through a seasonal menu and regular events.

    •I recommend travellers buy the JR East Pass (www.jreast.co.jp/e/eastpass_t/index.html) for easy travel around the Tohoku region. The pass allows unlimited rides on the high-speed Shinkansen and local JR lines. It will help you save on transportation costs. Travellers can purchase it at the JTB Rail Pass Counter at the Japan Rail Cafe.

    •Remember proper etiquette. Do not talk on the phone on public transport, take off your shoes when entering homes, temple halls and traditional accommodation and restaurants. Do not wear slippers in a tatami room.

Open since 1943, the shop has not waned in popularity and there is always a queue. The set meal, which consists of gyutan, rice and barley in oxtail soup, is especially good and costs about 2,000 yen (S$25).

Also try zunda, a sweet of mochi topped with edamame that has been ground and seasoned with sugar, salt, soya sauce, sake and mirin.

The edamame topping is a beautiful vivid green and the natural fragrance of the beans will make you feel nostalgic for the countryside.

This sweet is especially delicious in July and August, when the edamame is freshly harvested.

Recently, a zunda milkshake has also become very popular in the region.

PLAY

The Tanabata Festival (www.jnto.go.jp/eng/spot/festival/sendaitanabata.html) in Sendai takes place from Aug 6 to 8 every year.

Tanabata, popularly known as the star festival, is celebrated all over Japan, but Sendai's version is one of the country's biggest and best.

The streets and shops are decorated with large and colourful streamers. A popular Tanabata custom is to write one's wishes on a piece of paper and hang it on a specially erected bamboo tree in the hope that the wishes come true.

On Aug 5, the day before the festival starts, there is a fireworks display and a street festival full of food vendors.

Aomori Nebuta Matsuri, a summer festival held in Aomori City from Aug 2 to 7, is Tohoku's second biggest festival.

The highlight is the daily parade of enormous, illuminated floats depicting gods and mythical figures made of washi paper.

Groups of dancers, musicians and taiko drummers surround the brightly coloured floats as they move through the city.

Tohoku's third biggest festival is the Kanto Festival in Akita from Aug 3 to 6.

The highlight is when performers balance kanto (long bamboo poles) with rows of paper lanterns attached to them. The kanto poles can be 12m long, weigh as much as 50kg and carry as many as 46 paper candle-lit lanterns.

Fruit picking is another popular activity in Tohoku, where farms grow everything from strawberries and peaches to pears and apples, especially in Yamagata and Fukushima.

The region is also well-known for its large number of hot springs. They are the ideal way to spend a few relaxing hours after a long day of touring.

Some of the best are found in Oga in Akita Prefecture, Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture, Minamisanriku in Miyagi Prefecture and Higashiyama in Fukushima Prefecture.

There are many accommodation options attached to the hot springs, often with splendid views of the sea.

Watch the sunrise at Minami-Sanriku Onsen in Miyagi Prefecture, while soaking in the hot spring.

SHOP

Some of the most popular omiyage (snack gifts) you will find in Tohoku are hagi no tsuki (mini custard cakes), which cost about 1,200 yen for six pieces; and zunda mochi (riceballs covered with edamame paste), which are about 900 yen for six.

They are easily found in stores around Tohoku. You can even buy them inside the JR Sendai Station when you depart for your next destination.

STAY

Many travellers stay near the JR Sendai Station because the train is the easiest way to travel to the many highlights in the region.

The closest hotel to the station is the Hotel Metropolitan Sendai (www.sendaimetropolitan.jp). It is a five-minute walk from the station via a sheltered pathway.

The rooms are stylish and comfortable, and guests can choose between modern and traditional rooms.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 20, 2017, with the headline 'Tohoku's back on its feet'. Print Edition | Subscribe