Tohoku and Hokkaido are usually ignored by travelers. Though it's true that the country's most significant historic treasures lie in the southern regions, Northern Japan, where the emphasis is on natural wonders and hot-spring spas, offers a more relaxed vacation for those who have already seen the country's must-sees.
Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo
Spend the night in Tokyo; if you wish to spend a few days in the capital sightseeing, refer to the itineraries earlier.
Days 2 & 3: Akan National Park
Fly from Tokyo's Haneda Airport 1 1/2 hours to Kushiro Airport, where you should stop by the small tourist office for a pamphlet on tours of Kushiro Marshland National Park; you may be able to join one that day. Otherwise, take the bus (1 hr. and 20 min.) to Akanko Onsen. Take a boat cruise of Lake Akan, famous for its marimo, a spongelike ball of duckweed, and tour the marimo museum. Visit Ainu Kotan Village with its shops and traditional Ainu dancing. Outdoor pursuits include hiking, canoeing, and fishing (including ice fishing in winter).
Days 4 & 5: Sapporo
Board an early morning sightseeing bus for a tour of Akan National Park and its natural wonders, and then board a train Bihoro Station for the 3-hour ride to Sapporo. Capital of Hokkaido Prefecture and the island's largest city, Sapporo is an easygoing city that's a snap to navigate. Highlights include Nopporo Forest Park, where you can visit the Historical Museum of Hokkaido and see vintage homes and buildings at the Historical Village of Hokkaido. Be sure to dine at the Sapporo Bier Garten on the grounds of the old Sapporo brewery.
Day 6: Noboribetsu Spa
En route to Noboribetsu, stop off at the Poroto Kotan and Ainu Museum in Shiraoi with its impressive collection of indigenous Ainu artifacts. In Noboribetsu Onsen, known for its curative hot springs, hike through Hell Valley for a view of the bubbling hot water that has made Noboribetsu famous, and then experience its magic at the Dai-ichi Takimotokan hot-spring baths.
Day 7: Hakodate Port Town
Take the train 2 hours to Hakodate. Wander the waterfront warehouse district and historic Motomachi, a picturesque neighborhood of steep slopes and turn-of-the-20th-century clapboard homes and other buildings, relics of when Hakodate opened as one of Japan's first international ports following 2 centuries of isolation. In the evening, take a cable car to the top of Mount Hakodate, renowned for its night view of Hakodate.
Days 8 & 9: Lake Towada
Visit Hakodate's morning market (famous for its hairy crabs) and then board a train for the 2-hour ride to Aomori Station, where you'll transfer for the 3-hour bus ride to Lake Towada. Take a boat cruise of the lake and visit Towada Jinja Shrine, but the highlight of a stay here is a hike along the Oirase Stream, a coursing river shaded by trees and marked by huge boulders.
Days 10 & 11: Back in Time at Nyuto Onsen
There's a sightseeing bus that departs Lake Towada every morning mid-April through October, arriving at Tazawako Station 7 hours later, where you then board a local bus for Nyuto Onsen, a secluded valley of hot springs and rustic inns. It's a good base from which to explore the many wonders of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park, including skiing in winter and hiking, biking, and swimming in summer. For the ultimate ryokan experience, spend the night in Tsuru-no-yu Onsen, a rustic and remote Japanese inn with outdoor baths.
Day 12: Kakunodate Castle Town
Only one stop away from Tazawako Station on the Shinkansen is Kakunodate, a small and relatively unspoiled castle town famous for its samurai district and cherry trees. Be sure to see the Aoyagi Samurai Manor, a compound of traditional buildings packed with Edo Period memorabilia. Spend the night here or return to Nyuto Onsen.
Day 13: Matsushima
Take the Shinkansen to Sendai (about 1 1/2 hr.) and then board a sightseeing boat for a 50-minute trip to Matsushima, famous for its scenic coastline of pine-studded islets. Visit the venerable Zuiganji Temple, northern Japan's most famous Zen temple; Entsuin Temple, with its nice gardens and restaurant serving Buddhist vegetarian cuisine; and a museum or two.
Day 14: Back to Tokyo
Return to Sendai and take the Shinkansen south to Tokyo.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.