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Let’s face the facts. Japan is a popular place.
With close to 30 million international travelers heading there in 2018, tourists visiting traditional hotspots such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka during peak travel periods – say, cherry blossom season in the spring – will find themselves battling overwhelming crowds.
But the northern region of Tohoku remains surprisingly undertraveled in comparison, making it a fantastic destination any time of year.
Located at the tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu, Tohoku is made up of six prefectures: Aomori, Akita, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata, all of which are filled with dramatic landscapes, historical attractions and culinary delights.
Here’s a sample of some of the top Tohoku experiences on offer. For even more ideas, click through the above gallery.
Zao Onsen, where snow monsters roar
The Tohoku region gets some of the world’s biggest dumps of snowfall each winter, making it a great alternative to traditional ski resort destinations such as the wildly popular Hokkaido to the north.
One of the most foreigner-friendly destinations in the area, Zao Onsen in Yamagata prefecture is well-equipped to welcome powder hunters looking for some time on the slopes.
But the real reason to visit is to see Japan’s famed snow monsters – or “juhyo” in Japanese.
Every winter, as Siberian winds rush though the Zao Mountain Range, trees begin to collect thick, juicy layers of snow and ice. The trees freeze into fascinating humanesque forms.
To access the snow monsters, head for the Zao Onsen Ski Resort, which is spread over several peaks.
It’s a mid-sized facility that’s ideal for beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders. Zao’s longest downhill course is a 10-kilometer stretch that starts up at the snow monster observation area.
Snow monsters of Zao, Japan
The best time to see the monsters is late January to early March, before the spring warmth seeps in.
If you can’t make it in winter, there’s still plenty to see. For instance, the gorgeous Okama Crater Lake is surrounded by the three peaks of Tohoku’s Zao mountain range.
It was named after “kama,” a traditional iron pot that shares its shape, and can be visited in the summer months.
Akita, birthplace of Japan’s most beloved dog breed
Employed as everything from mascots and resort greeters to train station masters, Japan’s adorable Akita Inu dogs – which originally come from Tohoku’s Akita prefecture – have been charming the nation for decades.
The most famous Akita is Hachito, who was immortalized in film and has his own statue In Shibuya, Tokyo.
According to the legend, Hachito visited Shibuya station every single evening for a year to greet his caretaker after work. Sadly, one day his human friend died while on the job and did not return. Nevertheless, Hachito continued to visit the same spot every day for nine years.
How’s that for loyalty?
More recently, a band of Akita dogs was employed by a regional tourism body to create what might just be the strangest pop music video we’ve ever seen. (Check it out below.)
Want to meet some of these canine cuties in person? Head for Odate, Akita’s capital.
The Akita Dog Visitor Center at Odate Station is home to two honorary station masters, while the Akita Dog Museum offers a look at the history of these cute canines.
For more on the dogs – and where to meet them – visit the Akita Inu Tourism website.
Wanko soba: An all-you-can-eat noodle binge
Only for the hungry, the wanko soba challenge is an all-you-can-eat buckwheat noodle binge unique to Japan’s Iwate prefecture.
Here’s how it goes: A server brings tiny bowls of noodles, laying them down one after another as quick as you can slurp them back.
As soon as you empty a bowl, she’ll swoop in to fill it with another mouthful, yelling “hai dan dan!”
There’s only one way to ebb the noodle flow – put a lid your wanko (bowl).
There are a few rules involved.
For starters, you have to eat continuously. You can’t take a break and digest your noodles then come back to the table for more.
We recommend trying it at the Azumaya Soba Shop in Morioka, Iwate’s capital.
There are four Morioka locations but the Ekimae branch is just a two-minute walk from the train station and has English-language menus.
For a full list of wanko soba restaurants, visit Japan-iwate.info/noodle/wanko.html.