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From the mountains to the sea: a three day adventure in northern Japan

Exploring Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures as a side trip to next year’s international games

Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures constitute two of the Tohoku region's jewels, replete with volcanic landscapes, heavenly hot springs, and a wealth of spellbinding food, history and culture. What's more, despite seeming a world away from Tokyo, two of the area's largest transport hubs, Fukushima and Sendai, are both reachable from the capital in only 90 minutes by shinkansen, making a trip up to this enchanting part of the country easier than one may think.

For sports fans, Miyagi will host football and Fukushima baseball and softball events during next year's international games, and so whether escaping Tokyo, or gravitating towards these northern events, this part of the country is a great option for visitors who want to see more of Japan.

It was with these things in mind then that I really wanted to explore these neighboring prefectures and uncover some of the extraordinary highlights of each over the course of an exciting three day trip. My plan was to start by digesting otherworldly terrains and hot springs in Fukushima Prefecture's mountains before heading northeast into Miyagi Prefecture to take in rugged coastal locales and indulge in a number of cultural and epicurean offerings. With so much to see and experience, I could hardly wait to begin my trip from the mountains to the sea.

Day One

Upon arriving at Fukushima Station, I picked up a rental car and made the approximately one hour drive west to the Azuma Mountains. These mountains that straddle the boarder of Fukushima and Yamagata prefectures provide awe-inspiring volcanic scenery to visitors and a number of hiking trails to the area's numerous peaks and around marshlands and craters.

On the way I drove along a part of the Bandai Azuma Skyline, a high-altitude road that weaves through the mountains with spectacular views of the rugged landscape. Driving along this picturesque stretch whetted my appetite for a spot of hiking when I finally arrived at the Jododaira area, which houses a car park and acts as a central point from where visitors can begin a number of different hikes.

I first made the gentle stroll around the Jododaira Marshlands, taking in the lush surroundings, and then made the short but steep hike up and around the area's main attraction, the Azuma Kofuji Peak. At 1707 meters above sea level, this peak is a perfectly-shaped replica of Mount Fuji, and offers great views of the surrounding mountains and also down into the crater itself. Hiking around this special, otherworldly landscape proved to be a great experience, and helped my journey around this part of Japan to a flying start.

I drove back down the Azuma Mountains towards Fukushima City, and halfway down the mountain came to the place where I'd be spending the first night of my trip, Takayu Onsen. This small hot spring town was first developed around 400 years ago and is notable for its hydrogen sulfide-rich, milky blue waters that numerous ryokan in the area channel directly from the ten different sources into their baths.

Before checking into my hotel, I made a quick stop at the town's Attakayu public bath to have a first dip in these waters. I'm pleased to say that relaxing in the warm water of this famous bath, that in contrast to many other of the town's baths is open beyond mid-afternoon, was an intensely pleasant experience that soothed my soul and muscles after a morning of hiking.

I was to be staying the night in the Kagetsu Highland Hotel, just a few minutes up the road from the Attakayu bath, and when I checked in, I was pleased to find that the hotel also boasted a couple of great baths, one with a nice view of the surrounding mountains. Relaxed after bathing, I enjoyed a traditional Japanese course dinner including sashimi, hotpot and vegetables to round off the day.

Day Two

I woke on the second day of my Fukushima and Miyagi adventure and, after a delicious traditional breakfast, headed back to Fukushima Station from where I boarded a shinkansen to nearby Sendai, and then caught a local train to where I'd be spending the day and night, Matsushima. This area is famous for its beautiful bay which is punctuated by numerous pine tree-clad islets, and makes for a great place to take a sightseeing cruise.

Staying on terrafirma for now, my first stop upon arriving in the seaside town of Matsushima was on Oshima Island, a small island a few meters from the mainland connected by a short footbridge. This tranquil island contains a few small shrines, meditation caves and points providing views of the bay, all connected by trails. In line with the island's religious significance, the atmosphere here is extremely peaceful, and strolling around made for a nice start to my Matsushima exploration.

Next up I made the short walk over to Kanrantei. This historical tea house was originally built in Kyoto but then was gifted to the local lord here some centuries ago as a reward for his service. The tea house is known for its waterfront position and the beautiful views of the bay it affords those that drink tea here. Not wanting to miss my chance to drink tea here like the lords of centuries past, I ordered a tea set for 500 yen and sipped away in the serene surroundings.

Following my blissful tea experience, it was time to make a quick stop to try a local snack, so I made my way to a nearby shop where I enjoyed grilling my own kamaboko (fishcake) stick over a heated pit until it was slightly charred and ready to eat. In step with the littoral location of Matsushima, the flavor was subtly fishy, and certainly delicious.

With my appetite whetted, I then went in search of a quick lunch, which I found in a specialty from nearby Sendai, gyutan (beef tongue). I sat down in a local restaurant and enjoyed a set which also included miso soup and rice, and enjoyed the succulence of this local meaty favorite.

With my stomach full, it was now time to move onto the next spot on today's hit list, Entsuin. This temple, that is located a few hundred meters back from the water, was originally built in 1647 to house the mausoleum of the son of the local lord.

Apart from the mausoleum building, which stands at the rear of the grounds in a serene shaded area, the temple is attractive generally for its beautiful grounds replete with trees and moss. It was a pleasure to stroll around the temple's shady grounds and take in the tranquility while escaping the heat of the day.

A short walk from Entsuin, on a tiny islet by the shore is the Godaido Hall. This small temple incredibly dates back to 807 with the present building dating to 1604, and these days is synonymous with the image of Matsushima. I crossed the small footbridge that connects this temple with the mainland and enjoyed taking in the building and also the stunning views of the bay that can be had from here. After taking a few photos here, I moved on to my last stop of the day before checking into my nearby hotel.

A quick saunter north along the coast brought me to the 252 meter vermilion-colored bridge that connects the mainland with Fukuura Island. The bridge costs 200 yen to cross, and upon reaching this pine-filled island, I enjoyed walking along the network of trails, taking in the island's verdant landscape and the views of the bay and nearby islands that can be had from here. The island takes around an hour to walk around at a relaxed pace, and for me proved a great way to round off this second day's exploration.

I checked into the Matsushima Century Hotel, where I'd be staying the night, and took in the ocean view from my room, before enjoying a bath in the hotel's onsen and then sitting down to eat another traditional dinner which this time included gyutan and locally-sourced seafood. A perfect end to a fun day, I then retired to my room and enjoyed a good night's sleep aided by the sea air.

Day Three

I started the third and final day of my Fukushima Miyagi adventure with a sightseeing cruise in Matsushima Bay. This bay has been celebrated for its beauty for hundreds of years and is ranked as among Japan's three most scenic views along with Miyajima in Hiroshima Prefecture and Amanohashidate in Kyoto Prefecture. In addition to circular sightseeing cruises around the bay, there are also cruises that connect Matsushima with the neighboring town of Shiogama.

As the cruise made its way between the pretty islets I enjoyed observing their shapes and beauty set against a backdrop of ocean and coastline, and after around 50 minutes the cruise came to an end in Shiogama in the southern corner of Matsushima Bay.

From the ferry terminal, I walked around 25 minutes to the next location that I was eager to take in on this final day of exploration, the Shiogama Fish Market. Shiogama is among the most important fish processing centers in the country, with this fish market standing as its largest and most famous as a place that is open for the public to explore.

The market contains around 140 shops selling various types of seafood, and there is also an eating area where visitors can purchase a rice set and make a kaisendon (seafood rice bowl) by adding the seafood they have bought at the shops.

I spent a while meandering up and down the market's avenues and checking out the different seafood on offer, and eventually decided to purchase a tuna sashimi set for 1000 yen. From here I headed straight to the eating area, bought my rice bowl set, and proceeded to create my very own kaisendon, which, might I add, turned out to be delectable.

Eating in this way is one of the special charms of the market, and doing so in amongst the buzz of the old market is an experience I would certainly recommend for visitors to the area. Satisfied and happy, I made my way out of the market and on the penultimate destination of this trip.

Sendai Uminomori Aquarium, located in Sendai's port area along the way from Shiogama back to Sendai, is a popular attraction that exhibits a wealth of sea life from around the Miyagi coastline and beyond, and also boasts dolphin, seal and penguin shows for visitors to enjoy. The aquarium was opened in 2015 and, with its modern displays many of which have accompanying English explanation, was fun to walk around. I particularly enjoyed the 7.5 meter deep, gigantic water tank that provides an insight into the sea life of the local coastal waters and is large enough to accommodate swarms of sardines alongside mackerels, hammerhead sharks, stingrays and other fish.

A 25 minute walk across Sendai Port and I arrived at the last stop on my Fukushima and Miyagi adventure, Kirin Beer Factory Sendai. Kirin is a giant in the Japanese beer industry and, originally positioning their Sendai center of operations in the downtown area, they moved out to the port in 1983 and began brewing here.

These days, there are free tours of the brewery that take place multiple times per day, and I thoroughly enjoyed joining one such tour and being shown the inner workings of the brewery, from fermentation to storing to the processes involved in bottling and canning the beverage.

A highlight of the tour came right at the end, when the tour group was led into a tasting area where participants could enjoy a few free glasses of one of Japan's favorite beers. All in all, I would highly recommend this beery experience to those visiting Sendai, and it made for the perfect end to an amazing tour around two of the Japanese northeast's most alluring prefectures.

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