Airports: Arrive at New Chitose Airport, 40 km (miles) south of Sapporo, and depart from Sendai Airport in Natori, 2 hours south of Matsushima by train.
Transport: The train trip from Sapporo to Noboribetsu takes 1.5 hours; from Noboribetsu to Hakodate, 2 hours; from Hakodate to Hirosaki, 3.5 hours; from Hirosaki to Kakunodate, 3.5 hours; from Kakunodate to Hiraizumi, just shy of 3 hours; from Hiraizumi to Sendai, 1.5 hours; and from Sendai to Matsushima, one hour.
Learn about the Ainu, the original inhabitants of Japan’s main northern island, in the Exhibition Room of Northern Peoples in the Botanical Gardens of Sapporo. Hokkaido’s dynamic modern capital is perhaps best known for its local brand of beer.
Drop by the Sapporo Beer Garden and Museum to taste some and to eat the grilled mutton dish known as “Genghis Khan,”. Enjoy the nightlife of Susukino, a short walk south of central Odori Park.
The volcano-punctuated area of Shikotsu-Toya National Park includes a couple of caldera lakes: Lake Shikotsu to the northeast and Lake Toya to the southwest.
The latter is close to the highly active volcano Mount Usu, the crater of which can be reached by cable car. Spend the night in the popular hot- spring resort of Noboribetsu.
One of the first ports in Japan to open up foreign trade in the late 19th century, Hakodate has a wealth of historic Western-style buildings in its Motomachi district, including a Russian Orthodox Church. The view from the top of Mount Hakodate is spectacular. Tuck into super-fresh seafood at the stalls in the Asaichi Morning Market.
The 54-km- (33 mile-) long Seikan Tunnel links Hokkaido with the Tohoku region, which covers the north of Honshu, Head for the feudal-era town of Hirosaki, where you’ll find the remains of a 17th-century castle in a picturesque park renowned for its cherry-blossom festival. Nearby, Tsugaruhan Neputa Mura displays the elaborate floats used during the August Neputa Festival.
Another town that has preserved its samurai and merchant quarters is Kakunodate.
Among the samurai houses open to the public is the large, thatched Aoyagi-ke, where you can eat the local noodle dish udon, and the impressive Ishiguro-ke, with its lovely garden.
The cedar-clad hills around Hiraizumi harbor a couple of the most important sights in Tohoku: the temple complex of Chuson-ji, which includes the Golden Hall, a temple smothered in gold leaf and mother-of-pearl, and the gorgeous gardens of Motsu-ji, arranged around a large lake. Accommodation is limited around Hiraizumi, so spend the night in the major city of Sendai.
The bay of Matsushima, dotted with some 269 islands, is one of Japan’s top scenic views. It’s a touristy location but worth visiting for the elegant temple Zuigan-ji, which is a national treasure,
To extend your trip…
Join the pilgrims climbing the 2,446 stone steps to the thatch-roofed Dewa Sanzan Shrine on Mount Haguro, Once a place of political exile, Sado Island is now a pleasant escape and home to the internationally famous Kodo drummers.