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The chef asks, through a translator, if I’d like to hold the fish that is in his outstretched hands. My answer is a quick, decisive and slightly horrified “no.” He smiles serenely and moves on to the next student.

The feel of rough, slippery gills is not what turns me off. My fright reflex comes from knowing what type of fish is about to be gutted during a sushi-making class at the Kamo Aquarium restaurant in Tsuruoka City, Japan.

What I stare at, eye to eye, is the Takifugu blowfish, among the world’s most poisonous species. An accidental pinprick of internal organs can kill because the released toxin, far more noxious than cyanide, has no known antidote.

To my left is a wall of windows that frames Sea of Japan waves as they crash onto a craggy shoreline, and the clear water is a deep-sea fisherman’s dream. The expensive blowfish (worth up to $500 apiece) and other fish already fileted by Chef Takeshi Suda are delivered daily from these waters.

Tohoku Takifugu blowfish Japan

Takifugu blowfish, resembling a crane with wings, Kamo Aquarium restaurant, Tsuruoka City, Japan
Credit: Mary Bergin

I watch the chef confidently and precisely turn sashimi-grade parts of the blowfish into many paper-thin slices, delicately arranged to resemble a crane with wings spread. The fish is garnished with gold leaf specks and lime slices. I live to tell others that raw blowfish tastes chewy and relatively bland.

North of Tokyo

Travelers to Japan typically seek out the temples and shrines of Kyoto or the urban bustle of Tokyo, the world’s most-populated metro area. But the host of the upcoming Olympics also is home to culturally rich and beautiful vacation spots in far less populated and more affordable areas.

That sushi class, with blowfish? Less than $100; it would cost up to five times as much in Tokyo.

Tsuruoka is in the Tokohu district, north of Tokyo. It is a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy because of the wide variety of locally harvested seafood, strong umami in locally grown rice and preservation of dozens of ancestral dishes (such as bamboo soups) and ingredients (including dadacha-mame, a soybean described as “king of edamame”).

Tohoku Tsuruoka Aquarium Japan
Kamo Aquarium, Tsuruoka City, Japan
Credit: Japan National Tourism Organization

Kamo Aquarium is unusual because the specialty is jellyfish preservation, propagation and research. A Guinness World Record was set in 2012 for largest collection (50-plus kinds) of jellyfish. On the aquarium’s cafe menu are chewy ramen noodles made with ground wheat and cannonball jellyfish.

A three-hour coastal drive north of Tsuruoka is additional UNESCO recognition, for cultural heritage within the Oga Peninsula, where sea and mountains nearly collide. Scenery seems both ravishing and relentlessly challenging.

The fishing area is best known for upholding an unusual, longstanding tradition on New Year’s Eve. Men put on wooden or clay masks and costumes of braided straw (from rice plants), then roar and stomp from house to house, fiercely admonishing adults to work hard and children to obey parents.

Tohoku namahage mask Japan
Namahage mask, Namahage Museum, Oga, Japan
Credit: Mary Bergin

What looks terrifying for children on video, we are assured, is a welcomed Namahage tradition and rite of passage for families. Making and wearing a Namahage mask separates men from boys. Oga’s big Namahage Museum is devoted to the history, folklore behind the ritual and dozens of masks, contemporary to 300 years old.

Japan’s mountainous terrain

Nearly three-fourths of Japan is mountainous, which makes for enchanting drives throughout Tohoku, an area of resurgence. Much was rebuilt after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami compromised the area, especially Pacific Ocean communities.

A logical first stop is Sendai, which is a 90-minute bullet train ride north of Tokyo and capital of the Miyagi prefecture. The demographic is youthful, in part because of Tohoku University, Japan’s third largest college campus.

A 30-minute bus ride links Sendai with mountain township Akiu, known for waterfalls, agritourism and onsen (hot spring) resorts. Tourists come to smell cherry blossoms in spring, pick strawberries in summer, see changing leaf colors in autumn and watch hot springs steam next to snow in winter.

Good all year are tours of rural Nikka Whisky, at an intersection of rivers and open since 1969. Add tastings at Akiu Winery and sake production tours, shopping for carved kokeshi wooden dolls and other folk crafts. In 2021, the area’s first craft brewery — Great Dane Japan — opens.

Samurai sites and temples

Flanked on three sides by mountains is tranquil Kakunodate, nicknamed “little Kyoto” because several centuries-old samurai houses are well preserved and can be toured. At its peak, about 80 samurai families lived here.

samurai houses Tohoku
Samurai houses, Kakunodate, Japan
Credit: Japan National Tourism Organization

Sites are easy to find on foot from the train station, and the best souvenir is polished mountain cherry bark. Learn to make a small wall hanging, or buy a container made by the area’s skilled Kabazaiku craftsmen, just like the generations before them.

Throughout Tohoku are the ryokan, traditional Japanese inns with on-floor mats for beds and relaxing areas for communal bathing. Both women and men shed street clothes for the neatly laundered and comfortable yukata, a casual kimono that is tied with a sash.

Tohoku ryokan
Ryokan, traditional Japanese inn
Credit: Mary Bergin

Ryutaku-san Zenpo-Ji Temple deepens the cultural experience. The Buddhist temple near Tsuruoka welcomes overnight guests – but expect to adhere to rules similar to what monks follow.

That means dining on simple, vegetarian fare and learning quickly to not take more than you will eat. It’s lights out at an early hour and rising to the sound of a gong, for a 5:30 a.m. prayer ceremony.

Guests help clean the temple, too, and are challenged to sit — silently and without fidgeting — for meditation.

The temple is dedicated to protectors of the sea and is a major place of worship for the locals. The property’s five-story stupa, a monument for offerings and prayer, was built in 1883 because of donations from fishermen.

Tohoku information

For more about the Tohoku area: japan.travel. Tour companies with English-speaking guides include tohoku-local-secret-tours.jp and thehiddenjapan.com.

Article by Mary Bergin