• Joseph Simurdiak

TOHOKU: INTO THE NORTH



For Golden Week this spring, I arranged my holidays into a nine-day journey through Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures up north—places I’d read about, but had never visited personally. Over the course of the trip, I managed to hit a wide range of historically and culturally significant places that I’d long been meaning to explore, and though I still have many notes and photos to sift through, I’m going to start sharing some of these while the journey is still fresh in my mind.


For those unacquainted with Japanese geography, this region of Japan’s central island is known as Tohoku, which literally means “The Northeast.” Over a thousand years ago, this was considered a wild, mysterious frontier land, the setting of many battles between the native “barbarian” tribes (collectively known as Emishi) and the Japanese civilization expanding from the south, seeking to bring the region under its control. Later, during the Classical Period, Tohoku became the domain of the noble Fujiwara family, who built and ruled a city so magnificent that it briefly rivaled the Imperial capital in splendor—before meeting a fiery, tragic fate. During the medieval period, the Northeast was ruled and fought over by various samurai warlords, the mightiest and most successful of which was Date Masamune, the One-Eyed Dragon, who founded what remains today the region’s largest city. And in modern times, Tohoku became known to the entire world in the great cataclysm of March 11, 2011, when one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history struck the region, triggering a mighty tsunami that devastated its coast, leveled cities, and caused the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.


The trip felt, therefore, like a walk through the ages. Similar to how eons of geological time can be read together in the layered bands of sedimentary rock, the traces and memories of Japan’s bygone centuries overlap onto the present, preserving them in a living history: an ancient temple here; a medieval battlefield there; a reconstructed palace between; a bustling train station beyond. The coastlines of Tohoku, scarred by violent waves, are slowly healing now just as they revived from tsunamis a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago.


In the end, nine days was not enough to see everything I’d liked to have seen in Tohoku. But it was more than enough time to return with a good many stories I could have experienced nowhere else, and I look forward to sharing some of those stories here.