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Slow train to Tohoku

Rugged scenery, good food and a mystical encounter with mummies provide respite from Tokyo

After the harvest: rural and fishing views along the Tohoku coast between Niigata and Akita. Sunny days belie the ferocious winds that blow in from Siberia. (Photo by Mark Robinson)

TOKYO -- In mid-October I rode a slow train along the coast of the Sea of Japan. I wanted to become one of those people in travel posters, looking out from my carriage trundling through the scenic prefectures of Niigata, Yamagata and Akita. The landscape did not disappoint, with mountains and drifting clouds behind fields of autumn rice stubble on one side, and black rocks rising from white foam and dark water on the other.

The COVID-19 pandemic has crushed local sightseeing in Japan, and the regional economies that depend on it. Selfishly, I knew this would mean smaller crowds and easier travel, despite the government's "Go To Travel" tourist subsidy campaign, which was expanded in October to benefit people from Tokyo. I had not sought any of the available discounts, because they seemed so complicated to use. Perhaps many others felt the same; I was more or less the only passenger on the train, and a lone tourist in most places I visited.

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