~ / Brian Norlander / travel /
Conquering The North of Japan, Fall 2020

Visiting Nikko, Aizuwakamatsu, Yamagata, Akita, Aomori, Morioka, Sendai, Fukushima, and Utsunomiya from September 18 to September 26, 2020.

For the second time, Sajib and I planned an ambitious camping road trip across Japan. This time, we were headed to the northern prefectures of Akita, Aomori and Iwate. Along the way we would pass through Saitama, Tochigi, Yamagata, Fukushima and Miyagi.

So on a Friday afternoon, I packed my camping gear into my rental car, picked up Sajib, and we left Tokyo for the next 10 days taking advantage of Respect for the Aged Day (敬老の日) and The Autumnal Equinox Day (秋分の日).

Day 1: Tokyo to Tochigi

We were full of energy and excitement at the beginning of the trip. Our itinerary included driving through beautiful scenery, eating local foods, climbing mountains, camping in remote locations, and slurping bowls of ramen all along the way.

We battled Tokyo traffic for several hours in the evening until arriving in rural Tochigi Prefecture.

First night's campsite at Oyama General Park

Day 2: Tochigi to Aizuwakamatsu

On the second day, Saturday, we woke up early and drove to Nikko.

Nikko National Park is very mountainous and contains many waterfalls and shrines. It is most famous for Toshogu shrine, Japan's most lavishly decorated shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Lake Chūzenji
Left: Exploring Nikko National Park Right: Ozoni (おぞう煮) Soup with mochi rice cakes

After exploring the mountains around Nikko, we descended into Fukushima prefecture into the city of Aizuwakamatsu. Nicknamed Samurai City, Aizuwakamatsu is the home of a samurai training academy, supplying warriors for the Shogun for centuries.

We got our first taste of Kitakata ramen

After filling up on ramen, we dried our camping gear at a coin laundry. Coin laundries are essential when camping in Japan. If your tent, sleeping bag, pillow etc. get wet one night, the rest of the trip will be miserable. Luckily, coin laundry's are plentiful in Japan so most cities have at least one.

While our gear was drying, we hit up the city's main onsen and relaxed. I fell asleep in one of the hot water pools. My body was exhausted from the previous days.

Second night's campsite near Lake Inawashiro

Day 3: Aizuwakamatsu to Yamagata

We woke up early because what we thought was a quaint campsite near the lake ended up being the launch point for jet skis frequented by locals of the area. It was the Sunday of a long holiday weekend, and many people were putting their jet skis into the lake.

That morning we climbed Mt. Bandai. It took about 2 hours to get to the top and another 1 hour to get down. This hike served as a great warm up for our later excursions further north. 1 of 3 mountains climbed.

We saw many bear warning signs. I was disappointed we didn't see any bears the entire trip
View of Lake Inawashiro

After our climb we were famished. Nearby Aizuwakamatsu is Kitakata, a small city known being the birthplace of Kitakata style ramen (one of the major ramen styles in Japan along with Sapporo and Hakata). The city has the most ramen shops per capita in Japan. I was a big fan.

Bannai Shokudo - Open early in the morning, this shop serves up noodles bowls for 950 yen with thick-cut pork slices that nearby hide the noodles underneath. It claims to be one of the original shops serving the Kitakata ramen style.
The line was 1.5 hours long. The ramen was very delicious, but probably you could get similar ramen at another less known shop nearby.

After we were full of ramen (again) we drove a few hours north and found an open camp site near the city of Shinjo, a small city in northern Yamagata. The adjacent river provided white noise and we slept well. The next morning we woke up to fog.

Night 3 campsite at 西山河川広場

Day 4: Yamagata to Aomori

We quickly left the mountainous prefecture of Yamagata and reached the coast of the Sea of Japan. Most of the day we drove along the western coast, eventually crossing into Akita prefecture.

The drive along the coast was very beautiful. Although we had cloudy weather in the morning, as we went north the skies opened up and became blue. The sun shined bright.

Misaki Chaya - The border of Yamagata and Akita prefectures
Akita coastline
Furofushi Onsen - In the northwest corner of Honshu
Right: Rice stems in the shape of Namahage (生剥) - In Japanese folklore, Namahage is a demon-like being portrayed as men wearing ogre masks and straw capes during a New Year's ritual on the Oga Peninsula of Akita Prefecture. Namahage are demons said to be sent as messengers from God to warn little boys and girls not to be lazy or naughty.
Suehiro Ramen - Akita style shoyu ramen. Located in front of Akita Station, the broth is rich and creamy. Your choice of shoyu (soy) or shio (salt) broth with pork and unlimited negi (green onion) toppings. Popular amongst locals.
4th night's campsite at a park near Mt. Iwaki

Day 5: Mount Iwaki to Aomori

Mt. Iwaki.

This would be mountain number 2 of 3 on our trip.

Mount Iwaki stands tall in Hirosaki City, Aomori, as the the prefecture's tallest mountain and a deity of mountain worship, nicknamed "Fuji of Tsugaru". Tsugaru is the old name of that region of Aomori, one of Japan's northern prefectures. It is often lovingly called "O-Iwaki-Sama", the "O" and "Sama" being respectful honorifics.

The mountain is 1,625m in height and snow capped most of the year. It has a majestic view of the surrounding plains, standing alone among the many rice fields and apple orchards.

First glimpse of Mt. Iwaki
Iwakiyama Shrine - Built over 1200 years ago to enshrine a local deity
Iwakisan Hyakuzawa (Ski resort)
On the way up, I started chatting with another hiker ahead of us. He told us he was 76 years old! He was setting a brisk pace and having no problems making the steep climb of 4+ hours. He told me that northern Japan (Aomori) was the "real" Japanese dialect, and that Tokyo was the "new" Japanese dialect. Speaking with him gave me a different perspective of Japan outside of the Tokyo bubble.
It got very steep and crowded near the peak. Many hikers alternatively drove up the backside of the mountain and only hiked the top portion (cheaters!).
The plains of Aomori. The city of Hirosaki below.
Komainu (狛犬), often called lion-dogs in English, are statue pairs of lion-like creatures either guarding the entrance or the honden, or inner shrine of many Japanese Shinto shrines or kept inside the inner shrine itself, where they are not visible to the public.
We found a beautiful (free) campsite near the base of the mountain. Too bad we didn't know about it the night before, otherwise we would have camped there!
Ajino Sapporo Oonishi - Miso Curry Butter ramen found in downtown Aomori
Our campsite just outside of Aomori city.
We met a young kid, 14 years old, who was camping by himself. He helped us out starting a fire and chatted with us for a bit in the evening. He couldn't speak English, but we did our best to communicate with him in Japanese. Just him, his bicycle, and his camping gear. I was extremely impressed that he was doing it by himself for several nights during a school break. When I was his age, I was probably playing video games or sports.

Day 6: Aomori to Morioka

We left Aomori and started going south into Towada-Hachimantai National Park. The park is up in the mountains and is extremely wet. The entire time we were there is was very cloudy and foggy, either raining or there was a thick mist in the air.

The climate reminded me of the Pacific Northwest, more specifically Olympic National Park. The mountains were not massive, but the whole area had small mountains and hills.

Towada-Hachimantai National Park
Right: Towada Shrine - A lovely shrine located on a peninsula that protrudes into Lake Towada. Stroll through trails that wind through tall cedar trees and take in views of the lake.
Wanko Soba - An all-you-can-eat buckwheat noodle binge unique to Japan's Iwate prefecture. The waitress will relentlessly serve you bite-sized bowl after bowl yelling "hai dan dan" after each plop into your own bowl. You must eat continuously. If you stop eating, the event is over. The challenge is to each 100 bowls. One normal serving amounts to 15 bite-sized bowls, so this is not as easy challenge. Nevertheless, I managed to knock out 100 bowls and Sajib slurped down 128.
Umagaeshi Camping Ground, at the base of Mt. Iwate

Day 7: Climbing Mt. Iwate

Mt. Iwate was the final mountain climb of our trip. The final boss of our mountain climbing expedition. We woke up before the sun rose to start the hike early.

We started at the Umagaeshi trailhead and took the Yanagisawa Course to the mountain peek. The trail took 4.5 hours and we gained 1,405m (4609ft) in elevation.

Having slept at the base of the mountain, we were one of the first ones to start the hike in the morning. We only saw 1 or 2 people coming down the mountain ahead of us the entire day. Everyone else was behind us.

Mid-morning snack of bread, peanut butter and bananas
Suddenly we could see far out into the surrounding area when the clouds would occasionally clear up for a few brief seconds.
We reached the 8th station (of 9) before noon. I went inside and there was an old man working there. He told me he lived there for part of the year until the trail was closed during winter. He offered us some hot tea and snacks and we went on our way to the summit.
At the top of the mountain, there is a volcanic crater. Once we were on the rim of the crater, the wind was very intense. The wind was so strong I could feel it pushing my body. I felt as if I pulled my phone out, the wind would blow it off the side of the crater like a piece of paper in my hand.
The view from the rim of the crater was spectacular
It was so windy at the peak, we didn't want to stay for long. One hiker we saw ahead of us turned back before he made it to the peak and cautioned us because it was so windy. We stayed low to the ground and persevered through the high winds.
Heading back down the crater rim. You can see the wind coming up the side of the rim. Somehow the crater created a wind tunnel due to its shape I think. The way it looked up there reminded me a bit or Mordor.
There was no easy way up to the top. I could tell on this mountain only hikers that were more serious and in shape were going up. Most Japanese hikers had all of the hiking/climbing gear. Boots, jacket, pants, polls, backpack, etc. Then there was us: shorts and tennis shoes.
We completed the hike in late afternoon and used the next few hours to drive south towards Sendai. We were exhausted.
Day 7 campsite - Near Kitakami

Day 8: Kitakami to Sendai

We took a scenic detour east towards the coast of Miyagi prefecture. The coast was rugged, with many rocky peninsulas sticking out into the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately that day there were heavy rains and the visibility was low. Large waves could be seen all day as we drove down to Sendai.

Near Sanriku Fukkō National Park

We reached Sendai around noon and our bellies were empty. We were saving up our appetite for an old friend, Jiro Ramen.

We had visited Sendai in November 2019 to visit a friend attending Tohoku University. He took us to Jiro Ramen in Sendai for the first time and since then I was hooked on Jiro.

Ramen Jiro Sendai Shop - This cult ramen shop is notorious for its three barriers to entry: (1) Ramen Jiro’s portions are big enough to give a grown man the meat sweats, (2) Ramen Jiro's staff are known for having a bit of an attitude, and (3) you have to say a magic spell to order your ramen.
Basic toppings include: Ninniku - garlic (chopped, raw), Yasai - vegetables (boiled bean sprouts and cabbage), Abura - pork backfat, Karame - concentrated soy sauce soup base
Customization: Mashi - extra, Mashi mashi - extra extra, Nashi - without

After filling up on Jiro Ramen, we went to a nearby coffee shop to chill. It was raining outside, so I enjoyed a coffee and read The Bitcoin Standard on my kindle.

We then drove out of Sendai west towards the mountains. That night we were not able to find a campsite and it was raining. Instead of continuing to search for a spot, we decided to sleep in the car.

Day 9: Sendai to Saitama

After a night of less than stellar sleep we began to drive up Mt. Zao early in the morning. As usual, we were one of the first ones to get there in the morning.

When we got to the top of Mt. Zao, it was cloudy and visibility was very low. We got out and walked around but could not see much at the top of the mountain. We began to head back down, and seemingly out of nowhere the sun started to come out. We decided to head back up and see if we could get a better view and that turned out to be a great decision.

Okama Crater
Still no bears (kuma - クマ)

We left the mountains and continued south. We passed through Fukushima City and enjoyed some local ramen. We were nearing the end of our trip.

For a second night in a row, we could not find a suitable campsite. In the north there were so many empty, beautiful campsites. As we go closer to Tokyo and closer to bigger cities, the amount of open land and nature drastically decreased.

Fukushima Ramen

Day 10: Saitama to Tokyo

On our last day we only had a few hours of driving time. We decided to go to one of our favorite restaurant chains in Japan, Nirvana. We ate at the Indian lunch buffet in its new branch in Saitama.

We drove through Tokyo on a cloudy Sunday afternoon and got home before dinner, marking the end to a 10 day excursion across northern Japan.

/ Travel