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The poetic soul of Tohoku
Matsuo Basho, Japan's most respected haiku poet, embarked on a pilgrimage to Tohoku in the spring of 1689, much to the amazement of his 17-syllable-spinning contemporaries. Five months and some serious blisters later, he felt suitably moved to write "The Narrow Road to the Deep North," a stunning poetic travelogue in which he recounts his impressions of Japan's northern rural heartland in richly elegiac verse.
300 years later
In a sense, Tohoku has not changed much since then. Even today the region's six prefectures are among the least-developed for tourism in Japan and by far the least-appreciated by Western eyes. Tokyo's urbane city-dwellers and Osaka's manzai comedians delight in referring to Tohoku folk as yokels, while most foreign visitors follow the so-called kimono trail south from Tokyo.
Poetry in motion
But I was in search of off-the-beaten-track Japan, and arming myself with a copy of Basho's account, I boarded the train heading north from Tokyo's Ueno station. By following Basho's footsteps I hoped to glimpse a vision of rural Japan frozen in time.
A stunning sight: me
Of course, venturing off the beaten track didn't go completely smoothly. I'd been warned that few foreigners make it this far north. When I walked into Hirosaki's tourist office for a map, the attendant's eyes widened and her face contorted into an expression somewhere between bewilderment and abject terror.
A hard day's night
Other receptions were warmer. I arrived without reservations in the compact but lively castle town of Morioka and discovered that every hotel had been booked by a conference of Japanese optometrists. Cursing my own myopia, I found a welcoming capsule hotel by the station, then headed off for a night out northern-style at an izakaya, a casual bar and eatery. There, residents and English teachers forged the spirit of international camaraderie with drinking games and Beatles sing-alongs.
A goodbye banana
As I made to leave at the end of the night, a waitress approached, bowed deeply and presented me with a large, ripe banana. This was, apparently, a traditional gesture of thanks to the patrons. Hence the bar's alternative name: the Banana Bar.
A rural Shangri-La
Kinkazan Island has no convenience store, no Internet cafe, no hostess bar and no hassle — just a pyramid-shaped mountain, an impressive shrine, a slew of tranquil nature trails and the Minshuku Shiokaze, an archetypal family-run guesthouse with fantastic panoramic views out to sea. It was here that I finally found the rural Shangri-La I'd dreamed of, sleeping on a futon with a belly full of fresh seafood. Tokyo was only a few hours away by bullet train, but it felt like another world.
Restricted round-trip airfares from LAX begin at $980 until Aug. 29, then drop to $780 until late October. From Tokyo, the Japan Rail East network runs throughout Tohoku, with bullet-train services to Sendai, Morioka, Akita, Yamagata and Hachinohe, the region's main hubs. Train passes are available for tourists but must be bought before arrival in Japan; for more information on policies and prices, visit http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/eastpass/top.html .
Where to eat
The Koiwai Regley bakery-cum-restaurant in Morioka has a range of good-value Western-style dishes, using fresh ingredients from the local Koiwai farm; 100 yards east of the station, mains about $8. Otherwise, try Sara Sara, a smart, chilled-out place for drinks and dinner; second floor of the East 21 building opposite the park, set menus $34. In Sendai, the shopping arcades along Chuo-dori and Ichibancho-dori are the best hunting grounds for cheap eats. Sari, at the eastern end of Chuo-dori, is a good spot for gyutan, or grilled beef tongue, with rice and soup, about $16.
To learn more
The Japan National Tourist Organization website, http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng , offers tips on traveling around Japan. It also provides links to hotels and reservation services.