Alastair Humphrey's trip to Tohoku in Japan - Part I

By Alastair Humphreys

The world is so big, so where do you start exploring?

For many years now my answer to that has been 'at your front door'. But back in the autumn I was invited to Japan to make a short film about the travel possibilities of Tohoku.

What I discovered was an area perfect for gentle discovery by bikepacking or hiking.

The first thing that appealed to me about the invitation was that I knew little about Tohoku. I once cycled the length of Japan and had always wanted to return: it is one of the most fascinating countries I have ever visited.

For many people the word 'Japan' conjures up the chaos and bright lights of Tokyo. But just three hours from the massive energy of Tokyo is the slower, older, simpler land of Tohoku. Tohoku was an opportunity to get far away from the crowds, to leave the tourist trail, and immerse yourself in the normal, ordinary world of rural Japan that looks anything but normal or ordinary to my fresh eyes.
I was excited to return to Japan.

The last time I visited it took me three years of pedalling to reach Tokyo, followed by another year to get back home again. The world is a big place...


Tohoku has a slow and relaxed atmosphere and was a satisfying region to travel slowly through. The culture and traditions remain strong, the landscapes are surprisingly peaceful and untouched. It felt accessible yet original to visit; comfortable yet with enough variety to feel as though I was exploring and being surprised.


The world is larger, richer and more varied than I can ever begin to appreciate, and choosing to go places that you know little about is one of the best (and easiest) ways I know to open yourself up to adventure and surprise.


A huge volcanic eruption back in 1888 collapsed the north face of Mount Bandai in Fukushima Prefecture in Tohoku. Fast forward to today and it has given birth to a chain of lakes and a lush, marshy landscape well within range of a bullet train ride from Tokyo. It messed with my head a bit to wake up in skyscraper land and then eat lunch in the cool alpine sunshine. We hiked through birch and larch woods, past signs warning to beware of bears (or, in my head, to get excited and hopeful about bears), and out onto the green, expansive flanks of Mount Bandai. As we climbed I had not anticipated the severity of the crater's edge. So I was delighted when we reached the rim to be greeted with a steep drop and views as far as the eye could see over empty forests and lakes (and the occasional ski piste).
The only sound was a sky full of dragonflies whirling like sycamore seeds in autumn. And then a very audible swoosh of a plummeting peregrine falcon. This was certainly not the Japan I had anticipated!


The last time I was in northern Japan it was winter and extremely cold. Camping at night had been a challenge and a mission rather than a pleasure. So I felt doubly appreciative on this visit to Tohoku to sit outside my tent on the shores of Lake Hibara. It was a mild evening after an enjoyable hike, with masses of stars above the tent, fish plopping in the lake, cicadas chirruping and the fire crackling. It's always nice to stretch out your legs and look back up at a mountain you were recently looking down from.

The scale of the 19th Century's eruption was very apparent from down here, with the whole northern side blasted away into a sheer, rocky fall. That eruption completely shifted the local ecosystem, resulting in a web of peaceful lakes rich with birdlife.


I particularly enjoyed sharing the evening's camp with two new friends who were working on the film we were making. I spend many nights sleeping under the stars, but in my new life of microadventures very few of them are in exotic places like Tohoku, and none of them generally involve all kinds of weird, crazy, unimaginable Japanese foodstuffs to stick on the barbecue...

I enjoyed playing a game in Japan which I called "chocolate or fish": when eating a new, mystery food there's always the moment of not quite knowing whether it's going to taste of chocolate or fish!


Food and drink are always at the heart of travelling, both the enjoyment of the reassuringly familiar in new places, and the intangible cultural heritage based upon unique regional foods. The heightened appetite that comes with being active in the outdoors and sleeping under the stars turns even simple food into a meal to savour and remember, especially when combined with new people, new cultures and new places; this quiet lake so far from home.


However much you love your food, however knowledgable you are about produce and cooking, you need spend only 10 minutes in a Japanese market to appreciate how little you actually know. Fruits you have never seen before. Vegetables you could not even imagine. Tofu 'milkshakes' which are surprisingly delicious. And a thousand-and-one ways to eat a thousand-and-one sea creatures that you might not have ever considered putting in your mouth! The world is larger and more varied than I can ever begin to appreciate. ⁠


In Tohoku, the language locals use, and the way they  express themselves with words or art or music might be very different to what I am accustomed to at home, but I felt a universal connection above that - whether that was with a fifth generation oyster fisherman working hard to feed his family, and proud of the local heritage [his oysters apparently made particularly delicious by the nutrients leaching slowly into the bay from the forested hills all around], an old lady selling vegetables, a roadside honesty box for edamame beans, or the enthusiastic community drummers showcasing the region’s regeneration efforts after recent hard times.


I went for dinner with a family who hosted me back when I cycled through Japan, though now with addition of two young daughters. The girls taught me some origami and put me to shame with their violin playing. It was so lovely to see them all again. My journey round the world was filled with strangers who became friends, as well as the melancholy knowledge that I would never see the vast majority of them again. ⁠

 

(we'll publish the second part of Al's travels next week so keep an eye out!)

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