March 19, 2020

Akita Prefecture

Found in northern Japan, Akita is a prefecture with many allures. Whether you're after history and culture or natural vista, Akita delivers!

An Akita inu dog stands in a snow storm in Akita Prefecture

When writing articles for my in-depth area guide series, I make every attempt to cover the entire prefecture when possible. Sure, some locations like Kanagawa are never going to fit within the confines of a single piece (hell, Kamakura and Hakone alone have their own entries on this blog). That said, there are other prefectures such as Saga that can be neatly wrapped up in a standalone feature. Seeing many of you will not be returning to some of these destinations for round two, it makes the most sense that I cover everything in a single go.

On that note, today we will be taking a look at Akita. Located up in Japan’s northern region of Tohoku, Akita is not the type of place that is regularly frequented by visitors from abroad. This is a real shame as the prefecture is home to some remarkably unique cultural allures. Of course, chief among these are the Namahage. Hailing from the remote Oga Peninsula, this endemic cultural spectacle was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status not too long ago. However, not to derail topics, I’ll opt to cover the Namahage as a single feature.

Though Akita may be well known for its cultural draws, the prefecture also boasts some amazing history. The Akita area first appears on the records in the mid 600’s when the imperial throne was going about subjecting the north. Much later on, during the Edo period (1603–1868), Akita changed hands from one samurai lord to another until it eventually fell under the control of the Satake clan. Under their supervision, the prefecture developed the mining and agricultural industries that it is known for today. These days, remnants of their feudal domain can still be observed throughout Akita.

If you’re interested in giving Akita a visit, know that it’s the type of place you want to traverse slowly. Unlike the region that comprises Kyoto and Osaka, this is not a prefecture well suited to whirlwind tours. Instead, Akita is the type of location that begs you to take things leisurely. This means that you’re going to want to budget at least two to three full days to properly savor all that Akita has to offer. While it is indeed a large time commitment, you’ll have a chance to witness a side of Japan that few tourists seldom experience.

By the way, this Akita area guide is going to be LONG as we have a ton of places to cover. I highly suggest that you get yourself a hot cup of coffee or something to keep you company…

Getting to Akita Prefecture

A bullet train bound for Akita Prefecture on the Akita Shinkansen Line

Before getting into the weeds, let’s pause for a quick moment to cover several key logistics. If you’re not aware, know that Akita can be found on the northern extremes of Japan’s main island of Honshu. The prefecture faces the Sea of Japan and is bordered by as many as four other prefectures. Like with most of northern Japan, Akita is mainly comprised of mountain ranges. This means the areas providing ample train service are actually quite limited. Expect to navigate some bus routes during your stint in Akita.

When it comes to making the trek up from Tokyo, understand that Akita is actually pretty easy to reach by hopping any of the bullet trains bound for Akita station. As always, refer to a service such as the ever-helpful Hyperdia to calculate your best departure location. Note that your train will most likely be coupled to another bullet train that is also bound for Aomori. Be extra vigilant that you’re on the red Komachi train and not the green Hayabusa.

Transportation within the confines of Akita itself is less than stellar. To be honest, you’d do well to just find yourself a rental car. Nevertheless, if you’re like me and can’t drive, all is not lost. The entirety of the trip can be done by those without a set of wheels. Just understand that you may need to step outside your comfort zone and navigate some buses. Even without excellent Japanese skills, divining the departure schedules can be managed via a combination of technology and, if need be, gestures when needing assistance.

Akita Prefecture’s Capital City

Lanterns are hoisted high into the sky for Akita City’s annual Kanto Festival

Let’s begin our virtual tour of Akita by taking a look at the prefecture’s capital city. Confusingly also known as Akita, this municipality is the main urban center of what is otherwise a rather rural slice of Japan. The city is best known domestically as being the site of the Kanto Festival. Pictured above, this annual celebration takes place during the beginning days of August. In an impressive show of one-upmanship, revelers compete to see who can boldly balance long towering bamboo poles. As can be seen in the image above, these shafts anchor dozens of paper lanterns which create quite the spectacle.

Outside of the Kanto festival, there’s not much else that distinguishes Akita from other mid-sized cities. That said, if you have a few hours to kill in the city, there are several locations worth checking out. Of course, chief among these is Senshu Park. Located on top of a hill in the city’s center, the park is the site of the former medieval stronghold. Today, the area maintains several shrines and temples as well as a historical museum that houses samurai artifacts related to the Satake clan. You will also want to pop into the maiko theater if you’re a supporter of the performing arts.

In addition to what remains of the castle at Senshu Park, I also suggest you consider visiting the Akita Museum of Art. Found directly at the base of the bluff upon which Senshu Park resides, this facility was established in 2012. In addition to showcasing the amazing works of the artist Fujita Tsuguharu, the Akita Museum of Art also serves as a bridge between the city’s citizens and the creative arts. The institution is dedicated to fostering appreciation as well as providing local creators with a venue to exhibit their work.

Lastly, if you’re interested in the Kanto Festival but the timing doesn’t work out for you, know that there is a killer museum dedicated solely to the celebration. You’ll find it located near Senshu Park. At only one-hundred yen per person, I highly suggest that you find a few minutes to experience the impressive feats performed by the Kanto Festival participants.

Akita Prefecture’s s Lake Tazawa

Snow-capped mountains set against Akita Prefecture’s Lake Tazawa

Found just to the south of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park, this serene lake offers some of the most rustic scenery in northern Japan. Not to be confused with Lake Towada in Aomori Prefecture, Lake Tazawa is one of the most spectacular attractions in Akita. Moreover, Lake Tazawa is the deepest of all Japan’s lakes with a maximum depth of over four-hundred meters. This former caldera lake is famous for its cobalt blue waters. When combined with the sparse development that this area has seen, a shot of Lake Tazawa is almost guaranteed to be Instagram perfection.

In addition to Lake Tazawa, you’ll also discover a few spots of interest scattered around the perimeter of the lagoon. To the north, you’ll find the picturesque Goza-no-Ishi Shrine. This lakeside sanctuary is home to a striking vermillion torii gate that is every bit as beautiful as the one at Miyajima’s Itsukushima Shrine. In addition to Goza-no-Ishi Shrine, you’ll also find a number of restaurants, gift shops, and sightseeing boats located near the bus stop on the eastern shore.

When compared to the eastern side of Lake Tazawa, the western side is rather sparse. That said, there is a statue of the girl Tatsuko. According to a local folktale, Tatsuko was once a beautiful young lass who prayed to the gods that she’d remain forever beautiful. In admonition for her brazen plea, the deities instead cursed Tatsuko and thereby transformed her into a dragon. Purportedly, the now draconic and disfigured Tatsuko still slumbers deep down at the very bottom of Lake Tazawa.

Soak in Akita Prefecture’s Onsen

Akita Prefecture’s Tsuruyu Onsen, a historic ryokan that is part of the larger Nyuto Onsen complex

Next up, let’s take a peek at the legendary Nyuto Onsen. Honestly, while I’ll give it my best effort, there’s nothing I can possibly write that will top the heavenly scene pictured above. I mean, if THAT doesn’t motivate you to want to visit this enclave of hot spring-equipped ryokan, then I really don’t know what will. Alas, making the trek to Nyuto Onsen is not exactly easy. From Tazawako Station, you’ll need to take a bus deep into the mountainous Hachimantai region of Akita Prefecture. The ride clocks in at just under an hour and will cost a few hundred yen.

Out of the handful of hot springs that make up Nyuto Onsen, Tsuru-no-yu is by far the most famous. Many of this rustic ryokan’s buildings actually date from the Edo period (1603–1868). Of course, given its impressive history, making a reservation to overnight at Tsuru-no-yu is no easy task. Thankfully though, the ancient onsen is open for day use. For just a few hundred yen, you can soak away your worries in the gender-shared open air bath pictured above. While the onsen provides gender-specific baths for the bashful, the milky opaqueness of Tsuru-no-yu’s waters prevent anyone from seeing much.

When it comes to the other ryokan at Nyuto Onsen, I cannot comment first hand as I’ve yet to visit them myself. You see, Tsuru-no-yu is rather removed from the remainder of the other facilities that comprise Nyuto Onsen. As such, its location presents an either/or situation. That said, all of the on-line reviews I’ve encountered stand in agreement that Tsuru-no-yu is the best of the bunch. Day trippers not planning on overnighting at Nyuto Onsen are likely satisfied with a dip at Tsuru-no-yu.

Note that Nyuto Onsen combines quite nicely with a trip to Lake Tazawa. When I visited, I hit up Tsuru-no-yu first directly from the train station then made a detour on the way back to check out Lake Tazawa. Both locations are located in the same relative neighborhood so I highly suggest that you couple them into one comprehensive itinerary.

Akita Prefecture’s Historic Kakunodate

The samurai district of Akita Prefecture’s Kakunodate area during autumn

Kakunodate is a former castle town settled during the Edo period (1603–1868). While its central samurai stronghold no longer remains, many parts of Kakunodate feel as if they haven’t been touched since medieval times. In the days of yore, this part of Akita was home to as many as eighty samurai families. Today, the area serves as an architectural exemplar reflecting Japan’s structures and lifestyles at the time. While other sections of Japan have suffered the ravages of time and war, Kakunodate’s rather remote location has done much to preserve its authenticity.

In feudally characteristic fashion, Kakunodate is separated into two very distinct samurai and merchant districts. Though once home to many more domiciles, these days you’ll find as many as six intact samurai dwellings to explore. Of these, the Aoyagi and the Ishiguro houses are the most notable as you can actually go inside. While the other four residences are free to enter, you can’t explore the interior of the structure. Note that the spacious Aoyagi complex hosts a number of museums on the grounds that shed light on the samurai’s life in bygone Kakunodate.

On the opposite side of Kakunodate, you’ll also discover the merchant district. While the samurai side of town has much more awareness, the merchant area is well-worth your visit. Of the attractions on offer, the Ando Jozo miso storehouse and shop is the most appealing. The magnificent Meiji period (1868–1912) brick storehouse has been superbly preserved over the years. Additionally, the shop itself remains a testament to historical accuracy. Allegedly, the shop has been making delicious miso and soy sauce practicing the same methods for over a hundred years.

Of course, no introduction of Kakunodate would be complete without mentioning the area’s amazing cherry blossoms. Regularly hailed as one of northern Japan’s top locations for viewings, Kakunodate is home to countless weeping cherry trees that were imported from Kyoto centuries ago. Every year, over one-million Japanese descend upon Kakunodate to behold the blossoms. Though peak bloom usually varies a bit every year, Kakunodate’s cherry trees are typically at their best in late April and early May.

Akita Prefecture’s Namahage

Akita Prefecture’s infamous Namahage on the Oga Peninsula

My sincerest apologies for saving the best for last but let’s finally dig into the mysterious Namahage. Truth be told, I’ve written at length about these benevolent terrors before. While I’d love to rant further about what I consider to be Akita’s premier attraction, I’ve already penned the ultimate guide to the Namahage. So, rather than completely reinvent the wheel here, I’ll direct those interested in diving into the details to reference my treatise on the Namahage. That way, you won’t need to go pour yourself another cup of coffee to get through this already lengthy guide to Akita Prefecture.

Of course, it would be rude of me to hype up the Nahamage as much as I have without at least providing a little bit of context to incentivize you, the reader, to research further. As mentioned in the introduction, the Namahage were included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2018. Put most simply for those not in the know, Namahage are basically demons that terrorize the lazy into getting their acts together. Once every year, the locals of the remote Oga Peninsula don masks fashioned in the likeness of these ferocious hellions. Thereafter, they stalk from house to house on a hunt for half-hearted souls.

Likely, the Namahage and the practice of traumatizing the lazy emerged out of a very real necessity to have all hands on deck during the colder months. You see, this area of Japan endures extremely harsh winters. Before the comforts of modern living, even one member of a village slacking off could very possibly result in disastrous consequences. To ensure this hardship never happened, the residents of the Oga Peninsula began their annual practice of mortifying the lethargic. With a veil as frightening as that of the Namahage, I imagine even the worst of slackers would think twice before dozing off.

Anyway, as detailed in my exhaustive Namahage guide, those wishing to check out the Oga Peninsula are encouraged to stay a night at one of Oga Onsen’s ryokans. The stop over will give you a chance to witness an Onga Namahage Taiko performance and also allow for an early start the following day. Your destination will be the Namahage Museum and the neighboring Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum. Here you can learn all about the Namahage and also catch a reenactment of the annual event as the well-intentioned fiends set out on their annual prowl.

There’s Still More to Akita Prefecture

Hundreds of small snow huts are lit up for Akita Prefecture’s Kamakura Festival

To wrap up this article on Akita, I’d like to end this piece with one final recommendation. Known as the Yokote Kamakura Festival, this annual celebration is rooted in well over 400 years of history. Every year, on February 15th and 16th, the town of Yokote creates a number of igloo-like snow structures. These are called kamakura and are not to be mistaken with the former samurai stronghold in Kanagawa Prefecture. Inside each igloo you will find a small altar dedicated to the deity of water.

As can be seen in the image above, the Yokote Kamakura Festival is most charming during the evening hours when the snow casts are illuminated. Approximately around 6:00 PM, the locals will begin inviting festival visitors into the more spacious kamakura. Thereafter, guests will be presented with rice cakes and amazake (a type of non-alcoholic sake). In return, recipients are to make offerings to the water deity enshrined within. All in all, this annual celebration is nothing short of magical in the dead of winter.

If you’re interested in seeing the Yokote Kamakura Festival, you’ll need to make your way to the southern part of Akita Prefecture. From Yokote Station, you will find the kamakuras installed about a half an hour from the station on foot. During the height of the festival, you’ll also have access to a free loop bus to help you get around. Should you happen to be visiting on a day that doesn’t fall on February 15th or 16th, note that you will find several of these amazing snow structures preserved at a local museum. That said, if you can’t make the actual festival, I recommend you visit somewhere else in Akita.