The start point of our three day trip was Sendai Airport 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 the Nippon Rent-a-car counter on the first floor of Sendai Airport (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!
Leaving Sendai, we set out on our way to Tsuruoka in Yamagata Prefecture.
Passing smoothly through the ETC lane of the toll gates, we said goodbye to Sendai! Now to just follow the signs and we’re on our way.
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 early in the trip at Sugo Parking Area to fuel-up on a tasty breakfast of freshly baked bread. We each chose our favourite from the tasty options and took a seat at the eat-in corner to stuff our faces in comfort. Let’s eat!!
‘Mori-no-pan Kobo’ (Bakery inside Sugo Service Area)
Selling everything from freshly baked bread, pastries to fried food and veggies!
Price: Specialty Curry-bread 185 yen
Open hours: 7:00～19:00
Homepage (Japanese): http://www.driveplaza.com/
‘Mori-no-pan Kobo’ Bakery
TSURUOKA: Climbing Haguro-san with a Yamabushi
Our first stop was Haguro-san (Mt. Haguro), one of the holy mountains of Dewasanzan, a sacred land of mountain worship. As we passed Yamagata Junction on the expressway, the snow started to fall – Tsuruoka transformed into a frozen snowscape. Some of us were just a little excited, seeing snow for the first time!!
Parking our car at the ‘Ideha Cultural Museum’, the tourist centre of the Holy Mountains of Dewa, we signed-up for our guide. As it was unexpectedly icy and wet underfoot, they kindly let us borrow some long boots for our journey, too. A haunting call from the Conch-shell of our Yamabushi guide told us it was time to start walking. Our goal was to make it to the national treasure 5-storey pagoda on a round-trip 45 minute walking course.
Along the way, our guide pointed out beautiful natural features like waterfalls, 1000 year old cedar trees – plenty of opportunity for some great pictures!
Walking up and down hundreds of stone steps, all stiffness from the long drive was soon forgotten! Right, what’s in store for us next?
Ideha Cultural Museum
The tourist centre of the Dewasanzan area, introducing the culture and history of mountain worship. Yamabushi guides/ experiences can be reserved here.
Price: Ideha tourist guide 5-storey pagoda course, 2500 yen
Available times: 9:00～16:30、(December – March 9:30～16:00)
Holidays: Tuesdays, New Year period (remain open through July-August and Golden Week)
Homepage (English): http://hagurokanko.jp/en/history/ideha-cultural-museum.html
Ideha Cultural Museum
TSURUOKA: Tea and Zazen at Gyokusen-ji Temple
Our next stop was the stunning Gyokusen-ji Temple, boasting over 760 years of history. We had heard that here you can experience ‘Zazen’, an ancient Japanese meditative practice of the Zen sect of Buddhism. The priest kindly took us through the steps before we got to try it for ourselves. Keeping your legs crossed and a straight posture is key (and not as easy as it looks)!
Putting our hands together in prayer, we were done. Do our faces look refreshed?
We certainly felt refreshed, especially after a warm cup of Matcha green tea, overlooking a gorgeous snow-covered Japanese garden.
We were not surprised to hear that the garden had been nationally recognized for its beauty. The priest also showed us the correct way to accept and drink the tea.
After all these new experiences, we were more than ready for lunch!
Gyokusen-ji Temple (玉川寺）
An ancient temple built in 1251. Also known as the ‘Flower Temple’ due to the hundreds of flowers that bloom between Spring and Summer.
Price: Zazen Meditation 400 yen, Matcha & Japanese sweet set 500 yen (Prior reservation required for Zazen)
Hours: (April – October) 9:00-17:00, (November – March) 9:00-16:00
Homepage (Japanese): https://www.gyokusenji.or.jp/
TSURUOKA: A Tasty Lunch of Rare Veggies!
Lunch was at a lovely farmhouse restaurant annexed from a large greenhouse. Not just any greenhouse, though! Here the owner is cultivating hundreds of rare native vegetables from around Japan. We received a very warm welcome (and a very detailed explanation!) from the owner and his adorable pet cats.
After listening to a very interesting explanation about the origin of the vegetables we were about to it, we made a bee-line for the restaurant!
With a ‘Kanpai!’ of our vegetable extract juice aperitif we dug into our meal! First we warmed-up with a chunky minestrone soup before being presented with one of the most colourful meals of our lives – a plate chock-full of unique dishes made from the local vegetables.
For dessert, our palates were cleansed with a refreshing ‘shiso’ gelato. It was a meal both satisfying for the eyes and stomach! We were fueled and ready for the next adventure.
‘Veggie-time Restaurant’ (sister restaurant of ‘Al-checciano’, Owner: Masayuki Okuda)
The restaurant was opened with the intention to not only protect the seeds of rare, native vegetables, but to pass the knowledge on the next generation. The meals are incredibly healthy, packed-to-the-brim with vegetables and absolutely zero additives.
Lunch course: Men 2200 yen, Ladies 2000 yen
TSURUOKA: The largest jellyfish display in the world!
Jumping back in the car, we headed towards the Japan Sea to Tsuruoka’s Kamo Aquarium. Recognised by Guinness World Records, this aquarium is home to over 50 different varieties of jellyfish, many from around the Shonai area. It’s easy to completely lose track of time, just watching the jellies as they calmly blob about the huge tanks.
Today was a huge day of first experiences! Time for a relaxing soak in the onsen before we continue our journey tomorrow!
Tsuruoka City KAMO Aquarium
Known throughout Japan for its huge jellyfish display. Jellyfish-feeding sessions are held twice daily (in the morning and afternoon) so be sure to time your trip!
Entry: Adults 1000 yen, Primary~Junior High students 500 yen
Hours: 9:00～17:00（summer holiday period 9:00～17:30）
Homepage (Japanese): https://kamo-kurage.jp/
‘Tsuruoka City KAMO Aquarium’
Atsumi Onsen (Hot Spring)
A hot-spring area boasting over 1000 years of history. There are over 8 inns to choose from, each serving up delicious seafood caught locally.
Homepage (Japanese) http://www.atsumi-spa.or.jp/
Read more about our roadtrip!
All good things must come to an end…the last day! After exploring Fukushima’s mysterious limestone caves of Abukuma-do we head towards the Pacific to sunny Iwaki City. Enjoying a drive through the picturesque scenery of the seaside town, it’s time to check out some museums, local food and grab those last minute souvenirs…
Read more about NEXCO East’s Tohoku Expressway Pass here!