Tohoku Region

Outline of Tohoku

The Tohoku Region is the northernmost part of Honshu, Japan’s main island, and it consists of six prefectures: Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Miyagi, Yamagata, and Fukushima.

Location of the Tohoku Region (東北地方の位置)

Stretching a long distance from north to south, this region has a vast land area, which accounts for about one-fifth of the nation’s total. However, the population of Tohoku is not very large, and even the combined population of its six prefectures is less than that of Tokyo Prefecture alone.

Rice paddies in Tohoku (東北の稲作)
Rice fields in spring, Akita Prefecture.

Historically, Tohoku has long been called Michinoku (a shortening of Michi-no-Oku), which can be roughly translated as “a place deeper down the road.” In this case, the “road” refers to the “eastern road” (or the eastern country). This comes from the fact that, throughout most of Japanese history, the emperors almost always reigned in the Kinki Region (Nara or Kyoto), and Edo (present-day Tokyo) and its surrounding area would often be called Togoku (the eastern country) by the people and court nobles in what they considered to be the “center of Japan.” In those days when people generally traveled on foot, it is said to have taken about two weeks to go from Kyoto to Edo (a distance of about 492 km), and to reach Tohoku, people had to walk farther north after reaching Edo. So, the term Michinoku reminds us how far and “unexplored” Tohoku used to be for the general populace of Japan.

The Konjiki-do (Golden Hall) of Chuson-ji Temple (中尊寺金色堂)
The Konjiki-do (Golden Hall) at Chuson-ji Temple in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture.

The Tohoku Region is blessed with rich nature. In particular, places like Shirakami Sanchi (Shirakami Mountains), Mount Hachimantai, and the Bandai Plateau are well-known for their beautiful and pristine natural environment.

Buna trees in Shirakami Sanchi.
Natural forest of buna in Shirakami Sanchi.

Straddling both Aomori and Akita Prefectures, Shirakami Sanchi (Shirakami Mountains) is a mountainous area, which boasts of the primitive forest of buna, which is a Japanese Siebold’s beech tree. Those buna forests have been almost unaffected by human beings and their scale is one of the largest in the world. In 1993, Shirakami Sanchi was registered as one of Japan’s first UNESCO World Heritage sites (natural heritage), along with Yakushima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture, and “Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area” in Nara Prefecture.

Geography of Tohoku

The landform of Tohoku is dominated by the Ou Mountains (Ou is pronounced as “Oh-Woo”), which are sometimes called the “spine of Tohoku.” Stretching 500 km from the northernmost prefecture, Aomori, to the northern edge of the Kanto Region, it is the longest mountain range in Japan. A couple of other ranges and plateaus run parallel to the Ou Mountains to its east and west sides. And because of these north-south mountain ranges, traveling from east to west takes many hours. But, at the same time, interesting cultural differences between east and west Tohoku have emerged.

Map of the Tohoku Region, Japan (東北地方の地形)
Six Prefectures in the Tohoku Region.

If you pay attention to the coastlines of the Tohoku Region, you may notice that its western coast, which faces the Sea of Japan, mainly consists of flat, uninterrupted shoreline that seems to go on forever. These are sandy shores often featuring sand dunes, among which the Shonai Sand Dunes in Yamagata Prefecture are the largest. These sandy areas are often used for growing melons, taking advantage of the good water drainage.

Malon cultivation in Yamagata, Japan (庄内平野のメロン栽培)
Melon cultivation in the Shonai Sand Dunes, Yamagata Prefecture.

On the other hand, the Sanriku Coast, which occupies a large portion of Tohoku’s eastern coast on the Pacific Ocean side, has an intricate “sawtooth-shape” coastline, commonly called “ria coastline” in Japan. The bays of this ria coastline usually have calm waters, offering some ideal places for cultivating marine life, such as oysters, wakame seaweed, and Japanese scallops (hotate).

Ofunato Port in Iwate, Japan (大船渡の港)
Overlooking the port of Ofunato along the Sanrilu Coast in Iwate Prefecture.

Also, Tohoku’s eastern coast has many scenic spots, among which Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture is the most famous. With more than 260 small islands located in the calm and beautiful sea, Matsushima has been known as one of the three most scenic spots of Japan since the Edo Period. Many poets and distinguished people throughout history have visited Matsushima and recorded their impressions in their waka or haiku.

Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture (春の松島の風景)
A view of Matsushima in spring, Miyagi Prefecture.

In terms of commercial fishing, the sea off the coast of Sanriku is deemed to be one of the most fertile waters in the world, mainly because it is a place where two sea currents, the cold Oyashio Current (Kurile Current) and warm Kuroshio Current (Japan Current), collide, attracting various types of fish. So, there are several large-scale fishing ports dotting the Sanriku Coast, including Kesennuma and Ishimaki in Miyagi Prefecture, and Miyako in Iwata Prefecture.

The earthquake in 2011

However, it is said a ria coastline tends to be more vulnerable to a tsunami attack, once an earthquake happens. In recorded history, many tsunami have hit Tohoku’s eastern coast, and several of them were strong enough to cause many fatalities. So, people have made efforts to minimize the damage when a disaster strikes. They have created tide embankments (seawalls), and improved and maintained escape routes to the higher grounds.

Torii gate after the Tohoku earthquake(東日本大震災の後、瓦礫に立つ鳥居)
Torii gate of a Shinto shrine after the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2011. Sendai city, Miyagi Prefecture.

But the scale of the earthquake that happened on March 11, 2011 far exceeded the local people’s imagination. With a magnitude of 9.0, it was the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan. The epicenter was 130 km off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, and its subsequent tsunami completely devastated the coastal region of Tohoku on the Pacific side. Even now, it is still affecting peoples’ lives in Tohoku, and some are still making efforts to rebuild their homes and lives.

Photographs: Properties of Unfamiliar Japan