In 1689, a poet named Matsuo Basho set out on foot for a distant part of his homeland, Japan.
In his travelogue, "The Narrow Road to the Deep North," he mused: "Here am I, suddenly taking it into my head to make a long journey to far northern provinces. I might as well be going to the ends of the Earth!"
Three centuries later, the same idea took hold of my husband, Kevin, and me, so we set out to explore Tohoku, the mountainous north of the main island of Honshu, for five days. Many Japanese regard Tohoku as remote, empty and backward, the Appalachia of Japan. The region, more than 300 miles long, has less than half the 24 million population of Tokyo. With no glittery urban center, it draws visitors instead for its venerable history, its earthy culture and, as we found, some of the warmest people anywhere.
For Basho, Tohoku began at Shirakawa, but that town whizzed past us unnoticed as we sped north from Tokyo, where we had spent several days, on a 150 mph double-decker "bullet" train. From our lower-level seats, the window showed us only a narrow strip of sky. It wasn't until we got off to change to a local train at Koriyama that we saw Tohoku's dark, pine-covered mountains, with patches of autumn red and gold, already sifted with snow late last October.
We rode the train first to Aizuwakamatsu, a small commercial center that, for the Japanese, is rich with romance and tragedy because it is the site of the samurai's last stand. For centuries the town was the stronghold of the Aizu clan, fiercely loyal supporters of the shogun. Here, in 1869, they made an ill-fated attempt to turn back progress. In 1867, forward-looking Japanese overthrew the feudal shoguns who had isolated their country from the world for 350 years. But where the samurai remained loyal to the shogun, civil war broke out.
The setting was a wooded hill called Iimoriyama, which we visited on a dark, stormy morning. Rain spilled from leaves and rushed through gutters as we trudged up a long flight of stone stairs.
At the top stood the graves of 19 teenage boys from a samurai training school. They formed the Byakkotai (White Tiger Legion) to defend their shogun. After a heartbreaking defeat in battle, the survivors, ages 16 and 17, fell back to Iimoriyama to regroup. Seeing smoke pouring from the city below, they thought the castle had fallen and killed themselves with their swords out of loyalty to their lord. In fact, some houses were on fire, but the shogun was not in danger. Their graves are marked by a row of 19 simple tombstones.
The tragedy has captured the imagination of some Japanese, and we saw a senior citizens' tour group gather to watch a daily reenactment of the suicides. A stylized dance was performed by a rather cheerful young man in samurai garb: flowing trousers, a black tunic with a huge white sash and a sword.
With our spirits and bodies dampened, it was definitely time to cheer ourselves up, and the Aizu Sake Historical Museum did the trick. The city has 23 sake makers, and the museum is housed in the Miyaizumi Brewery, a creaky, 200-year-old structure of whitewashed plaster and dark wood.
Life-size mannequins showed the lengthy process of making wine from steamed rice, and the implements on display looked more like sculptures than tools: wood basins bound with woven bamboo, rakes and stirring paddles of simple elegance. Delighted to meet foreign sake-lovers, the salesclerks poured us hefty samples of the company's brews, from milky and sweet to bitingly dry.
After a long day in the cold wind, it felt glorious to come "home" to a minshuku, an accommodation in a private home similar to a bed-and-breakfast. At the Takizawa family's minshuku, we soothed ourselves with a steamy soak in a deep Japanese bath, followed by dinner in the family's dining room: tempura prawns, pickled eggplant, tofu in sauce, spinach, mystery vegetables, sliced fruit and tea. After more cups of hot sake and long talks with the Takizawas' English-speaking daughter, we went upstairs, donned yukatas (sleeping robes) and melted into our futons on the sweet-smelling tatami mat floor.
Oodles of noodles
We continued north by rail the next day, first making a stop 10 miles north at Kitakata. The town boasts an unlikely claim to fame: ramen noodles. In a town of 10,000, more than 130 restaurants dish up Kitakata ramen, which, we quickly learned, barely resembles the stuff in packets.
At Hisakoya, a restaurant we randomly chose from a tourist office map, we savored gomoku ramen, huge bowls of chewy fresh noodles in pork broth, buried under marinated roast pork slices, fish sausage, boiled egg and steamed greens. I have no idea whether it was the best in town -- we were too stuffed to make comparison studies before we reboarded the train.
Our destination was a place that gave Basho much to ponder. Five centuries before his time, Hiraizumi was the capital of northern Japan and Kyoto's rival in splendor and elegance. Its rulers, the Fujiwara clan, owned Japan's richest gold mines. But their power collapsed in less than a century, after they were overthrown by Minamoto no Yoritomo, a rival. Now, as in Basho's day, Hiraizumi is a shabby farming village, but with two stunning temples that stand as reminders of its past wealth.
Chuson temple is known throughout Japan for its Konjikido, or "Golden Hall." Pure gold covers every inch of the structure, from roof tiles to floorboards, and the interior writhes with silver and mother-of-pearl inlay. The Fujiwara lords built the mausoleum to flaunt their wealth and to enshrine their mummified bodies. Basho wrote one of his finest haikus while gazing at their soldiers' burial mounds:
The summer grass'Tis all that's leftOf ancient warriors' dreams.
But the city's glory years are not forgotten. Our visit came during the annual Fujiwara Festival, and outside the Golden Hall, a group of children was performing an ancient dance. The swooping movements, to the tune of drums and bamboo flutes, turned their elaborate costumes into a blur of blue, orange and gold.
Hiraizumi's other well-known temple, Motsu, has an inexpensive inn, where we stayed, that offers an unusual extra: moonlight strolls in the 1,000-year-old Paradise Garden. At sunset, after the temple's main gate shut behind the last tourists, we found ourselves alone in one of Japan's most famous gardens, an earthly representation of the Buddha's celestial realm.
We headed north to Kakunodate, known in Japan for Buke-yashiki-dori, a street of well-preserved samurai houses. Graceful weeping cherry trees trailed over garden walls into the street, and elegant dark wood mansions were surrounded by immaculately tended gardens. Many houses are still inhabited, and visitors can enter their gardens and peer into outer rooms. In one thatch-roofed manor, I was startled to glimpse, through a doorway, a woman loading her high-tech washing machine.
The largest of these residences, Aoyagi House, has been turned into a museum portraying aspects of samurai life in its outbuildings. Alongside the suits of ferocious-looking armor there are women's sumptuous kimonos, one with waterfalls and leaping fish embroidered in gold on pale blue silk. I was fascinated by a display of 19th century photographs of samurai, posing with hands draped over their jutting swords. I was amazed that the feudal samurai survived into the era of photography.
Kakunodate's traditional crafts reveal another, softer side of the samurai. Despite their warlike reputation, many were merely civil servants, and the lowest ranks struggled to make ends meet. Forbidden to engage in most professions, impoverished samurai turned to crafts for income, and in Kakunodate they produced trays and tobacco boxes from finely grained cherry bark. After the overthrow of feudalism, destitute families began making oshi-e, cardboard dolls covered in padded silk.
Both crafts are still practiced, and in the Denshokan Craft Center we watched a master shaping a cherry-bark tea canister. The finished article sold for a cool $1,500. While we were inside, we were puzzled to hear display cases rattling gently for a minute.
It was not until we went to catch our train that we learned an earthquake had struck 100 miles south. The waiting room was packed, and a grandmotherly passenger explained in careful English that all train traffic was suspended until bridges and tunnels could be checked.
"What should we do?" I asked, fearing the worst.
She shepherded us to the ticket window, and in two minutes got us new reservations. We left only half an hour late for our final stop in Tokohu.
Our road to the deep north ended near Honshu's northern tip, at Hirosaki. The town's streets seemed to spiral like a maze, and, in a frigid rain, we immediately got lost. This was no accident, we learned at the tourist office. The town's layout was designed to confuse invaders and lead them away from the fortress at the city's heart.
Isolated in the remote north, Hirosaki developed a distinctive culture, showcased today in the annual Neputa Festival. In this ancient summer rite, dozens of massive papier-mâché floats, painted with samurai scenes and lighted from inside, are hauled through the streets by teams of up to 100 people, accompanied by the eerie music of flutes and drums.
At a museum called Neputa Village, we walked inside some 30-foot-tall floats. Our guide gave us an instant lesson in festival drumming, but no matter how hard I flailed away, I couldn't reproduce her thundering roll. Videos of the festival with its immense crowds made me content to witness it secondhand.
Another local specialty is the Tsugaru jamisen, a banjo-like folk instrument played with a massive tortoise-shell pick. On our last night in Tohoku, we splurged on an evening at Yamauta Live House, a restaurant with nightly musical performances. The menu was in Japanese, but our waitress very kindly translated it for us.
Then she stepped up to the stage, picked up a jamisen and settled down with seven other waiters to play. The sound pierced the air like an old-time mountain banjo, played at breakneck speed in a chilling minor key. The singing was fierce and soulful, and I didn't need to understand a word of Japanese to figure out the tales were not happy ones. It was like bluegrass played by Zen Buddhist monks, a sound as singular as the land that gave it birth.
Kristin Johannsen, a freelance writer in Berea, Ky., lived near Osaka, Japan, for three years.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times