Tohoku translates as "east–north," and it is a path less traveled by foreign tourists. Though the recent addition of bullet trains has made getting up here easier, Tohoku is still a world away from the crowded south. The mountain villages are more remote, the forests more untamed, and the people more reserved and wary of outsiders. But don't be fooled, they are quite friendly if you show them you appreciate the pace, look, and feel of things.
Wild as the northeastern territory can be, Sendai (less than two hours away from Tokyo by bullet train) sets things in balance, right on the doorstep of the great wilderness. This attractive modern city of a million, with wide, shady boulevards, covered walkways, and shopping complexes, puts on one of Japan’s biggest festivals, Tanabata, every summer in early August, in honor of an ancient legend of star-crossed lovers. It attracts more than 3 million people, and Sendai caters to them surprisingly well. Since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, foreign visitors are particularly welcome here and throughout Tohoku.
The countryside, however, is one of Tohoku's greatest attractions. In comfort and convenience, you can ride the Tohoku Shinkansen to places like Lake Tazawa, Japan's deepest lake—a powder-blue reflection of sky that sits nestled in a caldera surrounded by virgin stands of beech trees draped in sweet-smelling vines, and steep hills studded with blue-green pines preside over all. Samurai history lives on virtually everywhere in the region, but especially in the well-preserved dwellings and warehouses that now play host to curious tourists in Kakunodate, a town also famous for its hundreds of lovely, ancient shidare-zakura, or dangling-branch cherry trees.
Tohoku cherishes its forever-frontier status, and has plenty of low-key cities and timeless small towns full of folks who work hard in the cool summers and somehow bide their time through the long winters, breaking the slow rhythm of rural life with countless energetic festivals. Many ski areas collect neck-high powder snow, making for great skiing and snowboarding. The fertile plains yield a bounty of treats, from the sweetest apples (Fuji apples, now found in supermarkets worldwide, originated in Tohoku) and tastiest tomatoes to the perfect rice and purest water that go into some of the best karakuchi (crisp, dry) sake in the land. As a bonus, you're sure never to be far from an onsen—there seems to be one in each and every municipality!