Things to see in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
I’m sure I have mentioned before how Japan is one of my favourite countries. What I enjoy about it so much is the balance of nature, culture and food – with modern and historical streaks mixed through it all.
It would be a mistake, though, to think that you find the same balance of the three all across the country. In each part of Japan, you’ll find different nature, different culture and different food. And this unique mix means you’ll always have a distinct experience.
Today I want to tell you about a new region for me – Miyagi Prefecture. It doesn’t get a lot of tourists at the moment but it’s just 90 minutes on the train from Tokyo to Sendai (the capital) and offers everything I’ve come to love about Japan (including a trip on a shinkansen to get there!).
Let’s start with the nature – dramatic enough any time of the year but amplified in winter, which I find the country currently blanketed in.
I’ve been told that Akiu Falls is one of the most impressive waterfalls in Japan and I head out there, not exactly sure what to expect. What I find is a pristine snowscape broken only by the great torrent of water crashing down the mountains.
From the top, there’s a viewpoint that lets you look out across the valley and the river below, across to the dramatic cascades. But for the more adventurous, there are trails that lead right to the bottom of the Akiu Falls.
In the warmer months, this main trail is probably quite easy – maybe a 20 minute stroll. But I’m going to describe it as adventurous because in winter you have to trudge through thick snow up and down slopes, to get to the bottom, holding on where you can to stop from slipping down. But, as you can see from my photos, it is certainly worth the expedition.
Akiu Otaki Fudo-do
At the top of Akiu Falls, you’ll find a peaceful forested area with a main temple and several shrines dotted amongst the trees. This main Buddhist temple is called Akiu Otaki Fudo-do and has a legend surrounding it. The story says that an important priest called Jikaku Daishi did his religious training for 100 days here at the waterfall in the 9th century AD. Inside the temple shrine is a 3.3 metre high bronze statue of the guardian deity Fudo Myo-o.
I love the way these temples look in the winter, so clean and serene. At Akiu, there’s heavy snow and the whole landscape is white. But further down the mountains, although it is still cold, the snow covers only some of the ground.
Takekoma Inari Shrine
That’s what I find when I arrive at Takekoma Inari Shrine. It was founded in 842 AD and is the second-oldest Inari shrine in Japan. (Inari shrines are Shinto shrines dedicated to the fox gods of fertility, rice, tea, sake and industry.)
It’s a beautiful temple and is set in a charming garden with a pleasant approach. The gates are welcoming yet grand. And, despite its size, there is a relaxed atmosphere here. The Takekoma Inari Shrine isn’t on the tourist trail but it’s easy enough to get here and is just 20 minutes on the train from Sendai (plus about 10 minutes walk from the station).
I’ve come here for more than the shrine, though. In fact, the main reason I’m here is to visit the archery hall that is attached to the temple complex.
I walk in and find a small group of archers. It may not be what you would expect, though – each of them could probably be politely referred to as ‘retirees’. But, as they start to shoot arrows at the targets down the end of the hall, I realise that I should not judge on appearances. They are excellent shots!
This is no normal archery. This is kyu-do and it’s a Japanese martial art. (You may notice the name is similar to ju-do (way of gentleness) or ken-do (way of the sword). Kyu-do means ‘way of the bow’.)
I watch them shoot at the targets. It is a very slow and controlled series of actions. Each movement has an elegance about it and the archers pause between each stage. Bow up. Pause. Pull back. Pause. Aim. Pause. Shoot. Pause.
While kyu-do is practiced nationally and is not specific to Miyagi, I have never seen it before. It’s a fascinating insight into Japanese culture.
One of the things you start to discover when you get outside of big cities like Tokyo is that Japan is still full of so many small traditions. Don’t get dazzled by the bright lights and modern technology. The foundations of the country are from Japan’s heritage.
Tesuki Washi Kobo Shishido
I find a great example of this on my travels in Miyagi Prefecture when I visit a workshop where the traditional paper tesuki washi is being made. Tesuki washi is the paper that’s used for important things like calligraphy, calendars, special journals – and even for Japanese paper walls. And it’s still mainly made by hand.
And so here at the Kobo Shishido workshop in the town of Marumori, it’s a husband and wife team that make the paper, labouring over every single sheet. The family has been doing it here for about four centuries and this generation for 60 years!
Zao Dairy Centre
Time and time again, I notice that quality is often judged in Japan by how much something is done by hand. I see it again when I make a quick stop at the Zao Dairy Centre.
This is a well-known spot for locals and tourists because of the reputation the dairy products have. The milk comes directly from cows that are raised here at the foot of Mt Zao. The processes to make cheese and other things are then done locally, with minimal machinery. Don’t imagine a big factory anywhere.
In fact, when I pop in, I’m given a short lesson on how to make cottage cheese. It’s relatively simple but there’s an art to it. And it’s the attention that’s paid to the art that makes for a truly special product.
At lunch one day, the chef comes out from the kitchen to say hello to all the customers in the restaurant and ask how their meals are. I get the impression that it’s not a formality – she actually wants to check that everything is ok, such is the concern that often accompanies pride.
Of course, the meal is delicious. I’m at a restaurant called Muginoki, which has recently been listed in a Michelin guide for good quality affordable means in Miyagi. It is famous for its udon dishes – with the traditional Japanese noodle served in a few different ways. The most popular, which I go for, is with broth and duck.
You know you’re somewhere interesting when the opening hours are listed as “1100 – 1400 or when the day’s stock runs out”.
Gelateria La Festa
If you’re the kind of person who likes a sweet treat after lunch, I’m going to tell you about a great place in Miyagi that’s worth trying. It’s in the town of Marumori and it’s a gelato shop called La Festa.
The first thing that’s important to know is that the flavours are all made using local products – like strawberries and honey. The second thing you need to know is that it’s delicious. But what’s also quite cool is the design and atmosphere of the gelateria, which infuses contemporary Japanese style with some Western influences to create something unexpected for this small regional town.
Right next door to La Festa is something more traditional… and quite spectacular.
Go through a small gateway around you arrive inside a compound called Sairi Yashiki. It was once owned by a wealthy merchant family and was passed down throughout the generations. At the front, on the street level, there would have been a shop. But this large area behind the facade would have been used for some production work, for residences, and as storage.
It’s the storage that ultimately becomes the most interesting because the Sairi Yashiki compound actually got closed up in the second half of the 20th century and was left virtually untouched for about 40 years. It wasn’t until someone decided to open it back up again and look inside that they found the warehouses were holding centuries worth of treasures.
Many of these treasures are now on display in the main buildings and the small warehouses between them. It’s a really interesting place to explore for a little bit.
You may be starting to get the impression that this small town of Marumori has more than your average amount of things to see and do – and you would be right! But I’m going to tell you about one more thing – and it’s one of my favourite things I did in Miyagi.
Abukuma River Boat
Just down the road from Sairi Yashiki is where you can board a boat to take a tour up the Abukuma River. There are spectacular views from the boat as it passes through a gorge, past forests, and near beaches and wetlands full of birds.
Each season has its own look – I can only imagine the pink of the cherry blossoms in spring of the red and oranges of autumn. In winter, the white is stunning.
But winter is extra special because the boats are turned into floating restaurants. Tables with heaters and blankets (called kotatsu) are put in the middle of the boat and you sit on the floor, warm despite the snow outside. And then you eat from huge hotpots of food, with meat and seafood and vegetables and noodles all cooking in the delicious soup broth.
In many ways, it is the perfect collection of what is so special about Miyagi. The nature goes by, the tradition surrounds me, and I feast on the delicious local food.
When it comes to accommodation, there are lots of options, but I would suggest going for something traditional. It’s a nice way to continue this cultural exploration.
I stay at Suzukiya Ryokan in the city of Shiroishi. The rooms could not be more Japanese – paper doors and tatami mats on the floor. While you’re at the dinner, the staff will come and lay a futon on top of the mats, which is where you’ll sleep.
The hotel provides dinner – a collection of small Japanese dishes that, combined, make a delicious and hearty meal. And then there’s also the onsen. In this case, there are two options – an indoor one or an outdoor one. I take my chances with the outdoor onsen and what an experience it is, soaking naked in steaming hot spring water while it snows around you!
Getting to Miyagi Prefecture is easy – as I mentioned, it’s just a 90 minute train from Tokyo to Sendai on the shinkansen. From Sendai, you can head out to different areas to explore some of the things I have mentioned (some you can do by local train but you may need a car for others).
You won’t come across many other tourists and that’s part of the charm. The area was affected by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 and so it’s taken some time to recover but, for the most part, you wouldn’t notice any of that.
But in my next story I’m going to tell you about a very special local sake brewery that got hit hard by the natural disaster but refused to give up. It is a wonderful symbol of what this region stands for… and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you shortly!
I stayed at the Suzukiya Ryokan in Shiroishi and would recommend it for your trip too!
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Visit Miyagi but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.