Sushi and a Soak

Heading to Tokyo for the 2021 Summer Olympics? Take a side trip to a relatively unexplored region where you can experience a relaxing Japanese tradition.

If you plan to be among the 10 million visitors to next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo, you might want to consider venturing beyond that city and such other popular Japanese destinations as Kyoto and Osaka. You can escape the urban buzz and find a tranquil retreat in the relatively unexplored Tohoku region of northern Honshu, a two- to four-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo.

The prefectures of Tohoku (Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, and Yamagata) offer an authentic look into Japan’s culinary and cultural vibe, from exuberant festivals and whimsical rice-field art to historic seafood markets, sake breweries, and whiskey distilleries. The area boasts countless opportunities to enjoy nature, including the celebrated onsen––natural hot springs––where you can take a soak and experience a Japanese tradition.

Many Tohoku hotels feature onsen in scenic natural settings with recreation nearby, such as hiking, apple and cherry-picking, and winter skiing. Accommodations range from traditional inns (known as ryokans) with futon bedding and tatami mats to modern hotels with Western-style rooms. In addition to indoor and outdoor hot springs bathing, most provide sumptuous cuisine, which may include the multi-course, seasonally inspired kaiseki. Guests receive slippers and a kimono-style yukata robe to wear to the hot springs and meals.

Here are a few of Tohoku’s best onsen retreats:

Chikusenso. This luxury resort features several bathing pools that are accessed by lovely wooden decks and surrounded by verdant forest in the shadow of Mount Zao.

Hoshino Oirase Keiryu. This all-season resort, located along the picturesque Oirase Gorge, offers guided nature walks and cycling.

Jogakura. This European-style mountain resort, bordered by virgin beech forests, provides access to nearby Oirase Gorge and Lake Towada. 

KAI Tsugaru. Surrounded by nature, this boutique ryokan features apple-scented baths and lobby folk music on the traditional shamisen guitar.

Matsushima Taikanso. Overlooking Matsushima Bay at one of Japan’s most scenic spots, this hotel features folklore-inspired baths and sunrise views.