The start point of our three day trip was Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. Very excited for our first road trip around Tohoku, our first stop was to pick up our rental car and Tohoku Expressway Pass from Nippon Rent-a-car (click here for a list of rental shops that offer the Tohoku Expressway Pass).
The process is super easy! First you apply for a special ETC card when booking your rental car.
Provide a copy of your passport and international driver’s license and state the preferred pass (number days etc.) from the available plans.
Once your car is ready, insert the ETC card and you’re good to go!
Saying see-ya-later to Sendai, we sailed smoothly through the first ETC toll-gate and with a quick check of the signs, we were off on our way to Ichinoseki!
Japan’s roads are all left-hand drive and so it might feel a little strange at first for those used to right-hand drive, but it doesn’t take long to get used to!
Be sure to double-check the ETC card is inserted correctly before passing through the toll-gate!
At the gates, take the lane marked with the purple ETC sign (see above). Slow down and wait for the boom-gate to rise before checking your direction and moving through.
Keep in mind that the right hand lane is used for overtaking on two-lane expressways.
Check this page for more information about how to use the ETC system!
One of the best things about driving on Japan’s expressways is that if you’re feeling a little tired, you can make use of the fantastic PA (Parking Areas) and/or SA (Service Areas) dotted along the expressways at reasonably regular intervals.
This time, we stopped at Choujahara Service Area. Here they have free water and tea and plenty of snacks to buy.
Tohoku Stamp Rally Challenge
Up your adventure game and take part in NEXCO’s fun Tohoku Six-Prefecture Stamp Rally Challenge!
Start by accessing the webpage (click here) on your smartphone and register your info. Collect an unique digital stamp at 237 different PA, SA and sight-seeing locations around Tohoku! Once you’ve arrived at each destination, simply access the site and click ‘search for stamp’ to download (sadly only available in Japanese!).
ICHINOSEKI: Flying Dumplings!
First stop, Ichinoseki and the incredibly beautiful ‘Genbikei Gorge’. Parking the car, we were off to meet the infamous ‘Flying Dumplings’ ?!
First we popped our order and money in the basket on one side of the gorge, and with a quick ‘knock, knock’ with the hammer on the wooden sign, the basket shot-off across the ｇorge to the window of the tea shop on the opposite side! Before we knew it, the Taiwanese flag appeared from the window and the national anthem began to echo across the river, along with our dumplings and tea!
What better way to enjoy your dumplings than being surrounded by beautiful scenery? Too full to finish? No problem! One of the best parts of traveling by car is you can easily carry things with you.
GETTING TO GENBIKEI GORGE
Genbikei Gorge is located about 1.5 hours drive from Sendai Station.
‘Flying Dumplings’ (Kakkou Dango)
The tea shop selling the famous flying dumplings is open between 9:00am ~ 16:00pm between March and November.
Be warned: they are very popular and have been known to sell-out!! Best to plan your trip to arrive in the morning if you would like the flying dumpling experience!
Genbikei Gorge (Google Maps)
HANAMAKI: Wanko-soba Challenge!
Next, we arrived at the home of Wanko-soba: Hanamaki! Stepping through the doors of the restaurant we could immediately hear an intriguing sound coming from the back. The Wanko-soba challenge is basically a hilarious game of competing with your friends to see how many mouth-full-sized-bowls of soba you can eat continuously – a challenge not only against your appetite but also the persistent staff who will egg you on to eat more and more with their calls of persuasion.
Until you give the sign that you’re done, they will continue to pour a mouth-full size amount of soba into your bowl, one mouthful at a time. The constant sound of bowls clanging together as they are stacked up is a characterizing feature of the Wanko-soba challenge. In our group, the record holder was 150 bowls!
Yabuya Hanamaki ( やぶ屋 花巻総本店)
We enjoyed our epic wanko-soba lunch at ‘Yabuya Hanamaki Sohonten’, said to be the birthplace of wanko-soba.
Wanko-soba set lunch: 3000 yen
Hours: Lunch 11:30 ~ 15:00 (last order 14:30), Dinner: 17:00 ~ 20:00 (last order 19:30)
Closed: Mondays (or the following Tuesday if the monday is a holiday)
Yabuya (Google Maps)
Time to head on to Hirosaki…and time for a nap in the car (sorry, driver)!
HIROSAKI: Hirosaki Castle Park
After arriving at Hirosaki Castle, a designated site of national cultural significance, we took the liberty to take a stroll around the grounds. Heading towards the castle tower, we were greeted with the majestic sight of both castle and the stunning Mt. Iwaki. It’s amazing to think that we were gazing upon the same scenery that many saw hundreds of years ago.
HIROSAKI CASTLE PARK
Hirosaki Castle Park is beautiful all year round, but is highly recommended to visit in spring! It is one of the best locations in Japan to view cherry blossoms. A huge cherry blossom festival is held every year from the end of April to early May.
**Please note the castle-wall is currently undergoing restoration. As such, the main castle building ‘Honmaru’ has been temporarily moved about 70 metres from its original location and will remain their until renovation is completed (around 2023).**
Closed: November 24 ~ March 31
Admission: (to castle building) 310 yen (castle only), 510 yen (castle, botanical garden and Fujita Memorial Garden)
Hirosaki Castle Park (Google Maps)
HIROSAKI: Backstreet Boys? No, Backstreet Detectives!!
Dumping the car and our luggage at the hotel we took a quick break before heading back out – this time on an exciting walking tour!
Hirosaki’s ‘backstreet detective’ walking tours take you on an exploration of Hirosaki’s backstreets; on a mission to discover clues about the local lifestyle and cultural roots! Passing through a market, we pushed on through dim and winding back-alleys, feeling the vibe and energy of town through observing the locals in their everyday habitats.
The guides, of course, were locals too and gave us all the best recommendations of where to eat and drink around town! We even got a fun prize when the tour came to an end.
HIROSAKI BACKSTREET DETECTIVES
Interested in discovering a whole different side to Hirosaki? Get in touch with the Backstreet Detectives to reserve an informative and highly entertaining walking tour!
Today was a huge day of travel and eating! Off to bed we go!
Read more about our roadtrip!
Read more about NEXCO East’s Tohoku Expressway Pass here!