2020 Autumn Tour of Northern Japan
This tour takes you to Japan’s northern region of Tohoku, which is much less visited by international tourists, with its distinctive rural traditions and warm relaxed hospitality, intense autumn colours and stunning natural landscapes.
The 2020 Autumn Tour of Northern Japan (Tohoku) takes you from Tokyo to the best autumn colours in Nikko, Oirase, Lake Towada, Kakunodate, Lake Tazawa, Naruko Gorge and Matsushima.
Past guest have raved about the breathtaking beauty of Tohoku. Centuries of isolation has ensured tracts of unspoiled natural wilderness, unique traditions and remarkably well-preserved villages from the samurai era.
This Northern Japan itinerary in the fall will introduce you to the well recognised warm hospitality of the Tohoku people, great local food and sake, and especially selected rustic stays in mineral hot-spring (onsen) towns, all against the backdrop of Japan's most spectacular autumn colours. This is a perfect tour for people who like the great outdoors and travelling at a reasonable pace. Great for the first-time visitors looking for a compact yet culturally immersive Japan experience or for repeat visitors keen to discover Japan that lies beyond the big cities.
Places visited: Tokyo, Nikko, Oirase/Lake Towada, Kakunodate, Lake Tazawa, Naruko and Matsushima
Group size: Maximum 8
Transport: Extensive use of public transport (bullet train, express & commuter trains, subway, ferry, bus/ private minivan and taxi)
Accommodation: Local boutique-style accommodation (similar to 4-star) including Japanese inns
Fitness level: Average (please refer to FAQ)
Tour type: Signature
Explore Nikko’s UNESCO-listed shinto shrine
Stroll Kakunodate, a splendidly charming samurai-era town
Wander along Oirase’s scenic riverbank track
Experience 360-degree panoramas of stunning autumn colour at Lake Towada
Cruise the pine-tree covered islands of Matsushima Bay
Bathe in rustic hot-spring spas
Visit the picture-perfect Naruko Gorge in autumn
Discover the old and ultra-modern in Tokyo
Day 1: Arrival in Tokyo
Welcome to Japan! On arrival at one of Tokyo’s international airports, you will be met by a Journey to the East guide and escorted to your hotel. After a good night’s sleep, you will be ready to start the first full day of your 2020 Autumn Tour of Northern Japan.
Day 2: Tokyo
After orientation with your guide, you begin your exploration of Tokyo. Our guide will focus on the back-streets of Tokyo neighbourhoods where you will find hidden gems through walking. In the morning, you will visit Tokyo's Marunouchi area in between the beautifully restored 100 year old Tokyo Station and Imperial Palace Plaza.
After lunch, you will head to the Japan's famous commercial district of Ginza. With huge contrast to the vast open spaces of Marunouchi, Ginza’s backstreets are packed with tiny galleries and traditional ware shops. You will see displays of exclusive food products at the basement food hall of a department store and pass the venerable Kabuki-za Theatre.
Tonight our welcome dinner is held at a restaurant with great night views serving modern Japanese degustation cuisine.
Day 3: Nikko
You leave Tokyo by Japan’s iconic shinkansen (bullet-train) to the UNESCO World Heritage listed site of Nikko. It had its origins as the mountain hermitage for a Buddhist priest in the 8th century and rose to fame in the 17th century when it was chosen as the site for the mausoleum of powerful shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who unified Japan in 1603.
A walk through an impressive avenue of giant cedar trees takes us to the highly decorated Toshogu Shrine which honours the Tokugawa shogun. There will be time to explore the extensive complex of shrine buildings enclosed within dense forest.
Tonight you will experience your first onsen, a hot mineral springs spa bath. Our guide will talk you through the ritual and etiquette of the Japanese bath and explain why a visit to an onsen remains one of the nation’s most popular pastimes.
Day 4: Nikko
An authentic Japanese-style breakfast awaits this morning – a nutritious, protein-charged mix of grilled fish, miso soup, tofu, rice, and pickles! You continue to explore Nikko with a trip to Chuzenji-ko lake in Oku-Nikko area in a private minivan. The area is one of the most well-known sites for autumn colours in Japan in late October. You will visit an impressive 100 m tall Kegon Falls, created when lava flows rerouted the Daiya River. The sights in this national park in autumn are exceptional and the ropeway that glides high above the surroundings accentuates the views and the mass of autumn colour below you.
Day 5: Oirase
The bullet train takes you further north today, to Aomori, Japan’s northernmost prefecture on the main island of Honshu. The next few days we explore this rugged region. Geographically remote, over centuries Aomori has developed its own distinctive folk traditions, regional foods and architecture to withstand its cold climate and snowy conditions. Nature is so pristine, and photos of the Oirase River often look like paintings.
We stay in this scenic Oirase near Lake Towada, the largest lake in the area and a stunning deep indigo-blue. Here we enjoy a dinner of premium wagyu beef and seasonal vegetables sourced from local farms. You’ll also have another chance to soak in a mineral springs bath.
Day 6: Oirase and Lake Towada
We take a 7 km walk on the flat walkway along the beautiful Oirase River, the main tributary from Lake Towada. In autumn, it's a stunningly picturesque walk along a meandering river, with cascading waterfalls and rapids.
In the afternoon we cruise Lake Towada to gain uninterrupted views of the forests of autumn colour around the lake. Covered in brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow, this forest vista in autumn’s peak is possibly one of the best views of autumn foliage on earth! We return to Oirase for another relaxing night at our hotel.
Day 7: Kakunodate
Another shinkansen ride to Kakunodate in Akita Prefecture, often called “Tohoku’s little Kyoto” due to the refined cultural traditions introduced from Kyoto when the town was made a vital northern stronghold in the feudal era. The samurai classes brought with them fine ceramics, cherry-bark ware and other craft traditions, which you can still see being made in Kakunodate today. While its feudal-period castle was destroyed long ago, the old samurai and merchant districts remain remarkably unchanged since the 1600s.
For dinner tonight we enjoy a soul-warming hot-pot of “Kiritampo nabe”, a specialty of the region.
Day 8: Kakunodate and Lake Tazawa
This morning you will visit nearby Lake Tazawa, the deepest lake in Japan . Your guide will recount some of the local folklore about the lake and the mythical spirits and demons which are said to inhabit the area.
In the afternoon, we spend a fabulous few hours wandering the atmospheric streets among the old wooden buildings of the samurai district, framed beautifully this time of year by Kakunodate’s trademark cherry trees covered in autumn colour. You will have a few hours of free time to check out local crafts and cafes.
Experience an Izakaya, Japanese style country pub, for dinner tonight.
Day 9: Naruko
Heading to the centre of the Tohoku region we explore the lovely mineral hot springs town of Naruko in Miyagi Prefecture. For some 1000 years, people have been attracted to Naruko for its therapeutic waters as well as its striking natural beauty.
Naruko Gorge, a spectacular ravine 100 metres deep, is a place to enjoy the dramatic mix of autumn colours. In the late afternoon we arrive at our accommodation – an onsen hotel where you stay in a Japanese-style room on futon bedding and enjoy a soak in an authentic hot springs bath, incredibly relaxing after a day on the road!
The traditional Japanese-style dinner will offer a kaiseki banquet of seafood, meat and seasonal vegetables.
Day 10: Matsushima
Turning south, we travel to the coastal region of Matsushima, best known for its wide bay dotted by over 250 pine tree-covered islands. Over time, sea-winds have helped shape the pine trees and their twisted trunks silhouetted against rocky island outcrops are quite a sight.
A boat takes us out among the islands. Afterwards we stop for a break of frothy matcha green tea and traditional sweets – part of the tea ceremony tradition – at a centuries-old teahouse overlooking the bay.
In the evening we visit the mid 17th century temple Entsu-in, to admire its Zen Buddhist style architecture and trees ablaze in autumn colour, beautifully lit-up at night. Just spectacular!
Our accommodation tonight is another onsen hot spring ryokan. Enjoy the soak with spectacular views of the bay.
Day 11: Matsushima
A visit to Zuiganji Temple is slated today, one of Tohoku’s finest Zen temples originally built in 828. Next we cross the evocative red-coloured bridge linking the mainland to the island of Godaido, designated a site of Important Cultural Heritage.
Your guide will provide some background on the history of the Matsushima region and the popular daimyo lord, Date Masamune, who controlled the area in the early 1600s. Another interesting part of Japanese history is the famous 17th century haiku poet Matsuo Basho, who also journeyed through these parts.
Day 12: Tokyo
The final bullet train ride takes us southwards back to where our Journey to northern Japan started, the vibrant capital of Tokyo.
This evening you will gather once again for the last time for the farewell dinner, to say goodbye to your fellow travellers and talk about your memories of your tour of northern Japan - a trip you will never forget.
Day 13: Tokyo and Bon Voyage
This morning after breakfast your 2020 Autumn Tour of Northern Japan concludes. You can depart from Narita or Haneda International Airport, or perhaps linger in Japan a little longer.
Airport transfer on departure is not a part of the tour (as we found many guests choose to stay in Japan a bit longer), however, we are happy to arrange your departure transfer. Ask the team at Journey to the East for assistance. And of course we will be delighted to plan your personal post-tour extension to show you a different part of Japan, too.
Please note that there may be slight changes to the itinerary described above to accommodate changes in train timetables, opening hours, and hotel and restaurant availability.
All photographs on this web site are representative and are not a commitment to what may be on view on the day.
- 12 nights accommodation with daily breakfast
- Lunches and dinners as specified
- All public and private transport for the group itinerary
- SUICA transport IC card preloaded with starter credit
- Government qualified English speaking local guides
- Airport meet & greet and hotel transfer by public transport on arrival
- Entry fees to the attractions included in the itinerary
- Luggage transfers (1 piece per person)
- International and domestic airfare (unless otherwise stated)
- Travel insurance
- Alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages
- Tips and gratuities (not routinely expected in Japan)
- Transport other than JR services and covered by SUICA (unless otherwise stated)
- Personal expenses (laundry, internet, telephone, coin lockers etc.)
- Visa (if required)
Had a fabulous time with a great group of people. I loved the country, the culture, the people and everything about the tour – hope to do another tour with JTTE – maybe Hokkaido or Kyushu next time
Vivien Hewitt, Western Australia
This was my first trip with JTTE and already I am looking at the program for next year thinking about another one. I liked the fact that it was a small group, the organisation was spot on and the food everywhere was outstanding.
Dee Mason – NSW Australia