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A Tohoku Summer: Hiking and Festivals

TERMS AND CONDITIONS

Price is based on double or twin hotel room occupancy and includes accommodation, transfers, car/driver, English-speaking guide, activities and entrance fees, breakfasts and dinner at Oirase Keiryu hotel, JR Bullet Train transfer from Tokyo to Aomori Station in Gran Class, JR Bullet Train transfer from Hachinohe to Sendai in Gran Class, hiking guide for select days. 
 
Flights and optional special activities will be quoted separately. Most personal expenses, including dinners, alcoholic beverages, spa treatments and gratuities can be paid on the spot while traveling. Prices may vary depending on season, choice of accommodation and other factors.
FROM $24,300 PER PERSON
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DURATION

12 days | 11 nights

DESTINATIONS

Japan

INTERESTS

Heritage,
Amazing Landscapes

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HIGHLIGHTS

Festivals: From the Nebuta Festival of illuminated lantern floats to the pole lantern festival of Akita, the trip’s many cultural celebrations are certain to impress.

Hiking: There are a number of mountains to hike on this trip, and all of them have unique qualities, whether that means spiritual significance, unique topographical elements, or gorgeous scenery.

Shirakami Sanchi: Protected by sheer luck, the ecosystem of this virgin beech forest has remained largely undisturbed for the past two million years, creating scenery that is equal parts fascinating and beautiful.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION

The Three Great Festivals of the Tohoku Region are Akita's Kanto Matsuri, Aomori's Nebuta Matsuri, and Sendai's Tanabata Matsuri. This trip gives visitors in early August the opportunity to experience all three of these colorful, vibrant festivals while also providing them with the chance to hike to the summits of all three of the sacred mountains of the ancient Dewa province — and much, much more. The trip is also filled with visits to a number of thought-provoking museums, relaxing hot spring baths, and traditional temples. The region is also known for its cuisine, with staples including flavorful seafood dishes, fresh fruit, and regional noodles, all of which you will be able to enjoy over the course of this 12-day trip.

DAY-TO-DAY

DAY 1: Tokyo

Upon landing in Tokyo, you will be privately transferred to your hotel. The capital city of the Land of the Rising Sun, Tokyo features wonderfully preserved temples and gardens, some of the best food in the world, and a bold approach to fashion. The iconic Mount Fuji dominates the skyline of this economic and cultural powerhouse, beautifully complementing the modern architecture below. We recommend staying at the Peninsula Tokyo or Aman Tokyo, and if time permits you can spend some time exploring this exciting city.

DAY 2: Oirase Stream, Aomori

This morning you’ll take a three-hour shinkansen — Japanese bullet train — ride to Hachinohe Station, Aomori Prefecture. From there, it’s another hour by car to your destination, Oirase, where you will enjoy an afternoon of leisure. Oirase Stream is known for its mountain streams, verdant woods, and picturesque mountain streams. This environment lends itself perfectly to gentle strolls through well-kept wooded trails; and afterward, the hotel’s leisure onsen hot spring bath is certain to set your mind at ease.

DAY 3: Oirase Stream, Aomori

You’ll go for a bike ride this morning. Traveling beside the river, cycle upstream for a little under nine miles toward Lake Towada and pass spectacular views of the surrounding landscape on the way. When you reach the lake, you’ll notice that the water of this deep crater is a dazzling shade of blue that reflects the clouds floating above, and the lake itself can be cycled around. There are observation decks along the path that provide sweeping views of the peaceful waters with Mt. Hakkoda lining the horizon. If you wish, there are sightseeing cruises across the lake. Once you return to your accommodations in the afternoon, you have the rest of the day at leisure with plenty of time for a meal, another walk through the woods, and a dip in the hot spring.

DAY 4: Aomori City, Aomori

The first stop this morning is Mt. Hakkoda. After being whisked up the majority of the mountain by the Hakkoda ropeway, set out on a 30- to 60-minute scenic nature trail that takes you through marshes and alpine vegetation to the mountain’s peak. From there, at an altitude of 4,330 feet, there is a stunning view from which you can see as far as the Tsugaru Plains, Mutsu Bay, and even Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. After descending from the mountain, continue to Aomori City, the capital of this prefecture known for its apples, sake, and fresh seafood. Lunch is at Furukawa Fish Market — a public market filled with various local vendors of seafood, vegetables, and pickles — where you can create your own seafood donburi (nokkedon) and fill up your bowl with fish, crab, shellfish, seaweed, fish eggs, and other fresh items. After, head to A-Factory, another local market that is focused on apple products to sample galette and cider and have a look around. Next stop is the Aomori Contemporary Art Center, a museum that shows off both local and international artistic prowess. The grounds were the work of Tadao Ando and are a piece of artwork in and of themselves. Take a stroll around the center before heading back to the hotel to freshen up and have dinner, and be sure to try some sake with your meal. If you happened to come in the first week of August, then you can also enjoy the Aomori Nebuta Festival at night. This parade of enormous lantern floats, large taiko drums, musicians, and dancers is a sight to see and a definite highlight of the trip.

DAY 5: Hirosaki, Aomori

This morning you’ll set out to Inakadate Village, the famous birthplace of Tanbo Art. Literally translated as “rice paddy art,” this unique artistic style involves the strategic planting of different strains of rice bearing different colors to create images within paddy fields. On football field-sized plots of land, the villagers have created crisp images of monks fighting samurai, Napoleon galloping on a stallion, and a replicate of Mona Lisa. From a viewing tower, you can look out at their annual incarnation of the art form. There is also the workshop of renowned Swordsmith Kunihiro to see before you continue on to Hirosaki, another major city of Aomori Prefecture. The first stop is Hirosaki Castle Park, which features a three-story castle tower and other old fortifications within a beautifully landscaped park complete with ponds and gently rolling hills. Owing to the town’s former French influence, outside of the park there are a good deal of beautiful examples of Western-style architecture to be seen, and there is also the Aomori Lacquerware Federation, where you can learn about Tugaru lacquerware — a national craft that originated from Hirosaki. The town also holds its own Neputa Festival at night, and if you’re there in early August you should be certain to check it out.

DAY 6: Hirosaki, Aomori

Spend this whole day exploring Shirakami Sanchi, a UNESCO World Heritage primeval beech forestnestled amid deep valleys and steep slopes with a great number of waterfalls. Upon arrival, first watch a short information film at the park’s IMAX theatre before you set out to hike through the forest. There are a number of trails to take through the foliage, the most popular of which is the Anmon Falls. This trail takes about 90 minutes from the trailhead and provides excellent views of three major waterfalls. There are also a number of lakes you can hike past that have unique colors, especially Aoike Lake, which is a striking shade of aquamarine.

DAY 7: Akita City, Akita

It’s a one-hour drive to Odate, Akita Prefecture, this morning to visit the Akita Inu Museum where you’ll learn about the dog breed with origins that are intimately tied to the region: the Akita. The museum provides a number of interesting displays and artifacts about the dog, and afterward you’ll head to another niche workshop, Kurikyu Bentwood, to learn about their award-winning magewappa (bentwood) products — a craft that originated in Odate. From there, continue to the Oga Peninsula, a region known for its charming coastline, vibrant local cultures, and for being the birthplace of the Namahage, which refers to the tradition of men dressing up like demons with ogre masks and straw capes. You’ll stop at the Mt. Kampu Revolving Observatory for lunch. The restaurant offers second-to-none views of the surrounding sea and rolling hills, and the food there is great as well. We recommend trying the hinai chicken oyaku-don, a mixture of tender, juicy chicken, creamy eggs, and a sweet sauce drizzled atop steamed rice. Afterward you’ll head to the Namahage Musuem to learn more in-depth information about the local Namahage culture; attached is the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum, where local actors reenact demons bursting into homes. Next you will check out the peaceful, seaside scenery of Cape Nyudo and Godzilla Rock, which gained the name for its likeness to the internationally known monster. After returning to Akita, you can also enjoy the Kanto Matsuri if you happen to be there in the first week of August. This "pole lantern festival" is a true feat of skill in which performers balance long bamboo poles in the air with a wall of lanterns affixed to them. They balance them on their hands, backs, and foreheads, and in the crisp fall evening it is a real treat to see.

DAY 8: Sendai, Miyagi

Today you’re headed for Sendai to enjoy its Tanabata Festival, but you’ll first spend the morning in the preserved former samurai town of Kakunodate. There, you’ll visit former samurai residences that have been been converted into museums in the town’s Samurai District. It’s a unique opportunity to see a traditional-style dwelling and loads of artifacts. There is the option to take a rickshaw through the Kakunodate city streets, and you’ll also stop by Denshokan Museum to learn about the renowned birch craft of Akita before you board a Sendai-bound train. A number of Tanabata festivals, also called "star festivals," are held across Japan, but Sendai's is the most celebrated incarnation in the country. The main feature of the festival is thousands of colorful streamers that turn the city's shopping arcades into brightly colored forests. A number of other crafts line the streets while stage performances, live music, and traditional dances commence. The festival space at Kotodai Park is great for on-stage events, and you should make sure to check out the Sendai Suzume and Tanabata dancing; come nightfall, fireworks fill the sky. The arcades are great for shopping, particularly for hand-woven silk fabric and paper, and there are food stalls offering all manner of local treats.

DAY 9: Yamagata City, Yamagata

Your first stop this morning is the Yamadera Risshaku Temple, just outside of the city. The mountainous temple was founded in 860 CE, and its structures made of beech wood and stone hug the mountainside from the base all the way up to the summit. The buildings at the summit offer stunning views of the surrounding valley. The nearby Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum honors Matsuo Basho, and you can enjoy tea and refreshments on the hill. Your next stop is Tendo to visit a fruit orchard. Yamagata produces 70 percent of Japan’s cherries, which you can pick in the summer, and come early August there will be peaches ripe for picking that you can eat to your heart’s content. After arriving in Yamagata City, you’ll first check in to your hotel and relax. In the afternoon, you can step out to explore Yamagata’s heritage Western-style buildings and the Kajo Castle Park, the former site of Yamagata Castle, which was originally built in 1357. The remnants of moats and stone fences can be seen among a forest of cherry trees. If you arrive in season, you can also attend the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival parade at night in which processions of vibrantly dressed people dance through the streets alongside colorful floats.

DAY 10: Tsuruoka, Yamagata

This morning, set out for Tsuruoka. After a one-and-a-half-hour drive, you’ll arrive at Mt. Haguro and prepare to hike the mountain. Mt. Haguro is one of Japan's three sacred mountains of the ancient Dewa province, and a path of 2,446 stone steps meanders through a forest of massive sugi trees — that is, Japanese red cedars — to the summit. Along the way, stop by the impressive five-story Gojunoto Pagoda and try to spot all 33 of the auspicious figures that are carved into the stone steps. At the top, you can visit the Dewan Sanzan Historical Museum and the shrine at the summit, which is coated in a vibrant shade of vermilion and has a thatched roof that is more than six feet thick. Directly connected to the shrine is the Saikan, a building where you can enjoy a lunch of shojin ryori, a traditional vegetarian cuisine commonly eaten by monks. A car will take you down the mountain, and then you will be at leisure for the rest of the day. If you wish, you can tour the Kamo Jellyfish Aquarium or Foodever. The Kamo Aquarium holds the largest jellyfish tank in the world that can be viewed through a glass circle of 16.4 feet in diameter. Foodever, on the other hand, is a food culture market where you can learn and experience Tsuruoka’s unique culinary culture. The city is a designated UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, and the dadacha-mame, a variety of edamame, and fresh seafood at Foodever will definitely hit the spot.

DAY 11: Tsuruoka, Yamagata

Of the Three Mountains of Dewa, Mt. Haguro symbolizes birth while Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono represent death and rebirth, respectively. Today, you will spend the entirety hiking these latter two mountains. You’ll start out the day by driving to Mt. Gassan’s 8th station, and from there you’ll set out on a three-hour ascent to the mountain’s summit. Mt. Gassan lacks any tree cover, which spells a need for higher SPF — and spectacular wide-open views. The shrine at the top, which requires a short purification ritual to enter, is filled with incense, a shrine, and sips of sake. There are two paths to make it to Mt. Yudono: the first is to descend back to the 8th station and get to Mt. Yudono by car, but more serious hikers can descend Mt. Gassan’s precipitous slope. Covered by lush green foliage, this mountain is veiled in secrecy — especially its shrine, which is considered to be so sacred that no photographs can be taken of it. In fact, any discussion of it is strictly prohibited.

DAY 12: Departure

Today marks the end of your trip. You’ll head to Shonai Airport in the morning and fly to Tokyo, where you’ll connect to a homeward-bound flight.

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