Tokyo is hemmed into its coastal location on the Kantō plain by a ring of mountains and volcanoes, featuring temples, parks and several bustling towns and cities. It doesn’t take long to get out of the capital – two hours at most – and it’s well worth the effort. The single best reason for venturing out lies to the north, at Nikkō, where the incredible shrine complex of Tōshō-gū, built to deify the Tokugawa shogun, offers a riotous feast for the senses. The surrounding mountains are beautiful throughout the year and hold some fantastic walking country. Also make time to visit the spectacular waterfalls nearby, up at the lakes by Chūzenji.
The temple complex of Naritasan Shinshō-ji, with its lovely pagoda, extensive gardens, woods and ornamental ponds, is the highlight of the pilgrim town of Narita, some 60km northeast of Tokyo. Heading 40km further in the same direction will bring you to Mito, home to Kairaku-en, one of Japan’s top three traditional landscaped gardens.
Some 40km north of Tokyo is Kawagoe, a great place to wander through nostalgic nineteenth-century streetscapes, poke around ancient temples and shrines, and indulge in some serious souvenir shopping. Sacred Mount Takao, just an hour west of the capital, provides a more verdant escape for the casual walker and is the starting point for serious hikes northwest to the Chichibu-Tama National Park.
Looming to the west of Tokyo is Japan’s most famous landmark, the venerable Mount Fuji, where you can either make the tough ascent up the volcano or simply relax in the surrounding countryside. Nearby, the inviting landscapes of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, particularly around Hakone and south through Izu Hantō, warrant a couple of days’ exploration. Off the coast here, Ōshima pokes its smouldering head out of the ocean, its laidback way of life providing a beguiling excursion for those on a more leisurely schedule.
Closer to Tokyo, Kamakura is one of Japan’s major historical sights, home to several imposing Zen temples and the country’s second-largest bronze Buddha, the magnificent Daibutsu. There are also hiking trails through the surrounding hills, and an enjoyable train ride further along the coast to the sacred island of Enoshima. Just north of Kamakura you’re back into the urban sprawl where Tokyo merges with Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest and most cosmopolitan city.
Top image: Great buddha (Daibutsu) sculpture, Kamakura © Tooykrub/Shutterstock