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A trip to enjoy the fall colors and flavors of Tohoku

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By Chiara Terzuolo

Thanks to mountains covered in deciduous trees (rather than the allergy-causing sugi), Tohoku allows you to get your fill of autumn foliage before the trees in Tokyo have even begun thinking about changing color. I headed up to Miyagi and Yamagata for a few days of glorious foliage, delicious autumn foods and steaming outdoor onsen.

After picking up my pass, the first stop was Shiroishi Station, a quick 30-minute train ride from Fukushima Station, taking you over the border into Miyagi Prefecture. On the way to the historical sights, I lunched at Hikarian, a restaurant housed in an Edo period thatched house, famous for Shiroishi umen noodles. These thin, short noodles are handmade without using oil, and are said to have been taught by a traveling monk to a boy trying to cook for his ill father. Warming without being too heavy, a bowl of Shiroishi umen is just the thing on a cool autumn day!

Onwards along a river that once surrounded the former outer moat of Shiroishi Castle and street lined with the homes of mid-level samurai, to get a taste of what this former castle town must have looked like in its heyday. The castle stands over the city, and was home to the Katakura clan until the Meiji Restoration. A short walk away, passing by Shinmeisha Shrine, is a street of bukeyashiki, former samurai houses. The street is still lined with a number of traditional style private residences, including the Ozeki family’s which is open to the public, each reached by a small bridge over the outer moat.

Follow the Sawabata River to return to the station. The clear water is home to many multicolored carp, and as with many places in Japan that have high-quality water, Shiroishi is also home to the Zao sake brewery, where you can sample some of their award-winning sakes in a small exhibit hall and shop connected to the brewery.

From the station, a quick 10-minute taxi ride takes you into the mountains to Kamasaki Onsen, a historic hot spring town. The focus here is relaxing in the soothing springs, from which you can take in the mountainsides in their autumn foliage. SUI, a cute cafe, offers coffee, cakes and light meals in an airy, wood-lined building. I spent the night at the Suzukiya Ryokan, which has some modern Japanese-style rooms with beds, and soaked in the fun gold tile-lined indoor bath and the rooftop rotenburo.

The onsen town is a 10-minute drive from the popular Zao Fox Village, and there are regular bus connections in case you wish to go see the fuzzy critters too!

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My next stop was Sakunami Onsen. Part of Sendai and almost exactly half-way between Miyagi’s prefectural capital and Yamagata City, the excellent regular trains via the JR Senzan line make it a popular destination for folks in the cities looking for a day out among the autumn colors.

Sakunami has two major claims to fame: its old-school onsen with outdoor baths overlooking the fall-foliage bordered river and...whisky!

Founder of Nikka Whisky, Masataka Taketsuru, discovered this hidden glen among the mountains, and was so impressed by the all-important water quality (of the coincidentally named Nikkawa River) that he immediately decided to build his second distillery here. Ahead of his time, the entire complex was built to fit into the landscape, including avoiding the use of power lines that could block the lovely views of the fall foliage-covered mountains.

The Miyagikyo Distillery offers regular free tours (with English-language support via iPads), which during my visit included tastings of their famous Nikka Apple Wine and Miyagikyo single malt, an elegant and smooth whisky that even impressed this beginner. In the gift shop, where they have four whiskies that can only be bought on site, there is also a counter where you can enjoy paid tastings of dozens of whiskies, including a number of Nikka’s rare varieties.

Shuttles to the station run once per hour on Saturday, Sunday and public holidays, and there are also regular buses that whisk you up to the main onsen area, where many of the hotels offer visitors access to their steamy hot springs for a small fee. One particularly lovely spot is the Iwamatsu Ryokan, where a retro wooden staircase takes you down to the rotenburo overlooking the river. Note that the largest one is a mixed gender bath (although they have women-only times for guests staying overnight), but the lovely Konoka bath above it is just for women and has equally great views.

After steeping in the various baths, pop by nearby Yukami Shrine to pay your respects to the onsen gods, before heading back down to the station. Be sure to visit Tsutsumiya, a tiny little shop that makes skewers of pillowy rice dumplings smothered with freshly made toppings, such as zunda (a sweet and salty edamame paste), creamy walnut, rich black sesame or other seasonal flavors.

You can either head back to Sendai Station (and from there perhaps the pretty island-filled bay area of Matsushima) or can head toward Yamagata, stopping by one of my personal favorite temples to visit in the fall, the mountain-top beauty Yamadera, my final destination on this autumn tour of Tohoku’s foliage and flavors.

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I joined the “ONSEN gastronomy walking in Yamadera・Tendo Onsen” which I booked via this website. This is not your typical tour, but rather a self-guided walk with eight stops to sample the flavors of Yamagata. While a little Japanese ability is helpful to reach the starting point, the flat 10k course was clearly marked with flags, which frees you from checking maps and can instead enjoy the fall colors, apple trees heavy with fruit and attractive farming settlements between Yamadera and the goal, Tendo Onsen.

Each stop was a chance to try a couple local products, ranging from juicy La France pears, craft beer, a red Tendo wine, sake from the Mitobe and Dewazakura breweries, imoni hotpot, two different types of shogi (Japanese chess) inspired sweets, grilled wild mushrooms and more.

The walk also included entrance to the lovely Gokurakuen, a Japanese-style garden in full autumn splendor.

After reaching the goal, participants filled out a quick survey to get a free ticket to one of the many onsen nearby. I opted to soak my tired feet at Ichiraku, where the traditional exterior belies the tastefully plush and modern art-filled interior. Clean, relaxed and full, it was time to board the shinkansen at Tendo Station and head back to Tokyo.

A big thank you goes out to the JR East (Tohoku) pass, which allowed me to travel for five days for just ¥20,000 (including a side trip to the former samurai town of Yonezawa for sake tasting).

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