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.
Formed by Mount Fuji’s ancient lava flows, Izu Hantō protrudes like an arrowhead into the ocean southwest of Tokyo, a mountainous spine whose tortured coastline features some superb scenery and a couple of decent beaches. It takes at least two days to make a complete circuit of this region, taking in some intriguing historical sights and stopping at a few of the peninsula’s estimated 2300 hot springs.
Direct train services from Tokyo run down Izu’s more developed east coast, passing through Atami, with its stylish art museum, to the harbour town of Shimoda, a good base for exploring southern Izu and one of the places Commodore Perry parked his “Black Ships” in 1854, as well as the site of Japan’s first American consulate. Over on west Izu, Dōgashima is another famous beauty spot, with a crop of picturesque islands set in clear, tropical-blue water. The only settlement of any size in central Izu is Shuzenji, whose nearby onsen resort has long been associated with novelists such as Kawabata and Natsume Sōseki.
Izu’s mild climate makes it a possible excursion even in winter, though it’s close enough to Tokyo to be crowded at weekends, and is best avoided during the summer holidays. If you haven’t got a JR pass and want to explore the whole peninsula, check out the various discount tickets available, of which the most useful is the four-day “Izu Free Q Kippu”, which covers the Shinkansen from Tokyo as well as local transport by train and bus. Renting a car is a good idea, as public transport is slow and only really covers the main coastal settlements.
In 1600 a Dutch ship washed up on east Kyūshū. It was the lone survivor of five vessels that had set sail from Europe two years previously; three-quarters of the crew had perished from starvation and the remaining 24 were close to death.
One of those rescued was the navigator, an Englishman called Will Adams (1564–1620). He was summoned by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the future shogun, who quizzed Adams about European affairs, religion and various scientific matters. Ieyasu liked what he heard and made Adams his personal adviser on mathematics, navigation and armaments. Adams, known locally as Anjin (“pilot”), later served as the shogun’s interpreter and as a diplomat, brokering trade treaties with both Holland and Britain. In return he was granted samurai status, the first and last foreigner to be so honoured, along with a Japanese wife and an estate near Yokosuka on the Miura Peninsula.
Adams’ main task, however, was to oversee the construction of Japan’s first Western-style sailing ships. In 1605 he set up a shipyard at Itō, on the east coast of Izu, where he built at least two ocean-going vessels over the next five years. His fascinating life story is told in Giles Milton’s Samurai William and also forms the basis for James Clavell’s novel, Shogun. Each August Itō’s Anjin Matsuri celebrates Adams.
Situated on the Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Ōsaka, the hot-spring resort of Atami (熱海) serves as the eastern gateway to Izu, and one of the jumping-off points for Ōshima. The main reason to come here is to visit the outstanding MOA Museum of Art (ＭＯＡ美術館), carved into a hillside above the town. Though it takes a bit of effort to get to, the museum’s remarkable architecture and collection of mostly ancient Oriental art easily justify a visit. You can buy slightly reduced tickets at the tourist information desk inside Atami Station before hopping on a bus from the station concourse up to the museum. Buses drop you outside the museum’s lower entrance, from where you ride four escalators that cut through the rock to the main exhibition halls. Each room contains just a few pieces, of which the most famous – only put on show in February of each year – is a dramatic folding screen entitled Red and White Plum Blossoms by the innovative Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716). The most eye-catching exhibit is a full-size replica of a golden tearoom, lined with gold leaf and equipped with utensils made of gold, and built in 1586. The museum’s well-tended gardens contain teahouses serving macha and sweet cakes.
Saitama-ken is home to the interesting old castle town of Kawagoe (川越), just 40km north of Tokyo. Although it doesn’t look promising on arrival, Kawagoe’s compact area of sights, around 1km north of the main station, is aptly described as a “Little Edo”, and once you’ve browsed the many traditional craft shops and paused to sample the town’s culinary delights, you’ll probably find the day has flown by. This would certainly be the case on the third Saturday and Sunday of October, when Kawagoe’s grand matsuri is held, one of the most lively festivals in the Tokyo area, involving some 25 ornate floats (called dashi) and hundreds of costumed celebrants.
Kawagoe’s fortunes owe everything to its strategic position on the Shingashi River and Kawagoe-kaidō, the ancient highway to the capital. If you wanted to get goods to Tokyo – then called Edo – they more than likely had to go via Kawagoe, and the town’s merchants prospered as a result, accumulating the cash to build fireproof kurazukuri, the black, two-storey shophouses for which the town is now famous. At one time there were over two hundred of these houses, but their earthen walls didn’t prove quite so effective against fire as hoped (nor were they much use in the face of Japan’s headlong rush to modernization). Even so, some thirty remain, with sixteen prime examples clustered together along Chūō-dōri, around 1km north of the JR and Tōbu stations.
Kawagoe’s other major highlight, around 500m east of Hon-Kawagoe station, is Kita-in (喜多院), the main temple complex of the Tendai Buddhist sect. There’s been a temple on these grounds since 830, and it gained fame when the first Tōkugawa shogun, Ieyasu, declared the head priest Tenkai Sōjō a “living Buddha”. Such was the reverence in which the priests here were held that, when the temple burnt down in 1638, the third shogun, Iemitsu, donated a secondary palace from Edo Castle (on the site of Tokyo’s present-day Imperial Palace) as a replacement building. This was dismantled and moved here piece by piece, and is now the only remaining structure from Edo Castle which survives anywhere.
You have to pay an entry fee to view the palace part of the temple but it’s well worth it. The room with a painted floral ceiling is believed to be where Iemitsu was born. Serene gardens surround the palace and a covered wooden bridge leads across into the temple’s inner sanctum, decorated with a dazzling golden chandelier. The entry fee also includes access to the Gohyaku Rakan, a remarkable grove of stone statues. Although the name translates as “500 Rakans”, there are actually 540 of these enigmatic dwarf disciples of Buddha, and no two are alike. Should you know your Chinese birth sign, it’s fun to search the ranks for it, as twelve of the statues include the zodiac symbols of animals and mythical beasts. Kita-in also has its own mini Tōshō-gū, which, like its famous cousin in Nikkō, enshrines the spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu and is decorated with bright colours and elaborate carvings.
An hour west of Shinjuku, Mount Takao (高尾山; 600m), also referred to as Takao-san, is a particularly pleasant place for a quick escape from Tokyo, and a starting point for longer trails into the mountains in the Chichibu-Tama National Park (秩父多摩国立公園). The Keiō line from Shinjuku provides the simplest and cheapest way of reaching the terminus of Takao-san-guchi (1hr). After a hike up or a ride on the cable car or chairlifts, you’ll get to Yakuo-in (薬王院), a temple founded in the eighth century and notable for the ornate polychromatic carvings which decorate its main hall. It hosts the spectacular Hiwatarisai fire ritual on the second Sunday in March back in Takao-san-guchi, where you can watch priests and pilgrims march across hot coals – and even follow them yourself.
Along Chūō-dōri, around 200m before the main enclave of kurazukuri, you’ll pass a small shrine, Kumano-jinja (熊野神社), beside which is a tall storehouse containing a magnificent dashi float. At the next major crossroads, on the right-hand side is the old Kameya okashi (sweet) shop, warehouse and factory. These buildings now house the Yamazaki Art Museum (山崎美術館), dedicated to the works of Meiji-era artist Gaho Hashimoto. Some of his elegant screen paintings hang in the main gallery, while there are artistic examples of the sugary confections once made here in the converted kura (storehouses); entry includes a cup of tea and okashi.
Continuing up Chūō-dōri, you’ll pass several craft shops, as well as the Kurazukuri Shiryōkan (蔵造り資料館), a museum housed inside an old tobacco wholesaler’s, one of the first kurazukuri to be rebuilt after the great fire of 1893. Just north of here is the Kawagoe Festival Hall (川越まつり会館) which houses two magnificent dashi floats along with videos of past festivals and various displays; there are no English descriptions.
Opposite the Kurazukuri Shiryōkan, just off Chūō-dōri, you won’t miss the Toki-no-Kane (時の鐘), the wooden bell tower (rebuilt in 1894) that was used to raise the alarm when fires broke out. An electric motor now powers the bell, which is rung four times daily. Returning to Chūō-dōri and taking the first street off to the west will bring you to Yōju-in (養寿院), another handsomely wrought temple with pleasant grounds. Just north of here is the Kashiya Yokochō (菓子屋横町), or confectioners’ alley, a picturesque pedestrian street still lined with several colourful sweet and toy shops.
The sprawling township of Minakami (水上), buried deep in the mountains of Gunma-ken, about 65km west of Nikkō, has become one of the hottest spots in Japan for adventure sports. No fewer than ten whitewater rafting companies, including Canyons, offer trips down the Tone-gawa. Other activities include paragliding, canyoning, abseiling, rock-climbing and a wide variety of treks, including the ascent to the summit of Tanigawa-dake (谷川岳; 1977m). To relax after all this, head to Takaragawa onsen (宝川温泉), famous for its mixed-sex bathing (though it also has separated baths) and its four huge rotemburo.
To reach Minakami, take the Shinkansen to Jōmō-Kōgen (上毛高原) from where the town is a twenty-minute bus ride. The tourist office is opposite the station.
Around 100km northeast of Tokyo, Mito (水戸) was once home to the Mito clan, one of the three main families of the Tokugawa Shogunate – although you’d hardly guess the town’s former importance from its nondescript central district, dominated by an inelegant train and bus terminal complex. Most of the town’s worthwhile sights were the work of Mito’s ninth lord, Nariaki Tokugawa, who in 1841 created the sprawling Kairakuen (偕楽園), now officially classified as one of the nation’s top three gardens. The garden’s name means “to share pleasure”, and it’s justly famous for its three thousand fragrant plum trees which blossom in February and March, attracting crowds of visitors, though the garden is lovely in all seasons.
Kairakuen lies several kilometres outside the town centre. Coming into Mito on the train from Tokyo, you’ll pass right through it. The station in the park, is usually only open during the peak plum blossom season on weekends.
At the centre of the main section of plum tree plantings stands Kōbuntei (好文亭), a replica of the original two-storey house that was used by Mito clan members as a retreat and a venue for poetry readings; it’s decorated with beautifully painted screens and the second-floor observation room affords sweeping views of the garden and nearby Lake Senba. From here it’s a brisk twenty-minute walk across the train lines to the Tokugawa Museum (徳川博物館), housing artefacts once owned by various Tokugawa feudal lords and their families, with a focus on clan family portraits and samurai armour and weaponry.
Returning to Mito Station, take the first right on the left-hand side of the Livin’ department store and walk uphill, bearing right, for a couple of minutes until you reach the well-preserved Kōdōkan (弘道館), the Mito clan’s school of calligraphy and swordsmanship. The visual displays, paintings and artefacts offer an insight into the lives of those who were privileged enough to receive the rigorous academic training provided here. Some eight hundred apricot trees also blossom here in late February and March.
Ten million people annually make the pilgrimage to the enormous temple complex of Naritasan Shinshō-ji (成田山新勝寺) in Narita (成田), 60km northeast of Tokyo. Even if you don’t have to kill time between connecting flights at the nearby international airport, it’s well worth visiting this thousand-year-old temple, which is an important landmark in the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It’s such a vast place that as long as you’re not here on one of the main festival days (New Year, and Setsubun on Feb 3 or 4), it doesn’t feel crowded.
The temple’s ornate Niō-mon gate is at the end of the shopping street, Omotesandō, lined with souvenir stalls and unagi (eel) restaurants – the town is famous for them. The colourful three-storey pagoda in front of the Great Main Hall dates from the eighteenth century and is decorated with fearsome gilded dragon heads snarling from under brightly painted rafters. Behind the main hall, the temple’s pretty gardens include a calligraphy museum, small forests and ornamental ponds.
If you have more time, head to the impressive National Museum of Japanese History (国立歴史民族博物館), in Sakura (佐倉), four stops south of Narita on the Keisei line. It houses a great collection of Japanese arts and crafts, including Jōmon-period pottery figurines (which look as though they could be Picasso sculptures) and detailed models of temples, towns and settlements through the ages.
On its southern borders Tokyo merges with Yokohama (横浜), Japan’s second most populous city (home to 3.6 million people) and a major international port. Yokohama feels far more spacious and airy than the capital, thanks to its open harbour frontage and generally low-rise skyline, and though it can’t claim any outstanding sights, the place has enough of interest to justify a day’s outing from Tokyo. Locals are proud of their city’s international heritage, and there’s definitely a cosmopolitan flavour to the place, with its scattering of Western-style buildings, Chinese temples and world cuisines, and its sizeable foreign community. It might seem strange to come all this way to look at nineteenth-century European-style architecture, but the upmarket suburb of Yamate is one of the city’s highlights, an area of handsome residences, church spires and bijou teashops. Yamate’s “exotic” attractions still draw Japanese tourists in large numbers, as do the vibrant alleys and speciality restaurants of nearby Chinatown. There’s a clutch of assorted museums along the seafront, and north to where Kannai boasts a few grand old Western edifices, in complete contrast to the Minato Mirai 21 development’s hi-tech skyscrapers in the distance.
When Commodore Perry sailed his “Black Ships” into Tokyo Bay in 1853, Yokohama was a mere fishing village of some eighty houses on the distant shore. But it was this harbour, well out of harm’s way as far as the Japanese were concerned, that the shogun designated one of the five treaty ports open to foreign trade in 1858. At first foreign merchants were limited to a small compound in today’s Kannai – allegedly for their protection from anti-foreign sentiment – but eventually they moved up onto the more favourable southern hills.
From the early 1860s until the first decades of the twentieth century, Yokohama flourished on the back of raw silk exports, a trade dominated by British merchants. During this period the city provided the main conduit for new ideas and inventions into Japan: the first bakery, photographers, ice-cream shop, brewery and – perhaps most importantly – the first railway line, which linked today’s Sakuragichō with Shimbashi in central Tokyo in 1872. Yokohama was soon established as Japan’s major international port and held pole position until the Great Earthquake levelled the city in 1923, killing more than 40,000 people. It was eventually rebuilt, only to be devastated again in air raids at the end of World War II. By this time Kōbe in western Japan was in the ascendancy and, though Yokohama still figures among the world’s largest ports, it never regained its hold over Japanese trade.
From Yamate, drop down through Motomachi-kōen and cross Motomachi shopping street to find one of the several colourful entrance gates to Chinatown (中華街). Founded in 1863, Yokohama’s Chinatown is the largest in Japan: its streets contain roughly two hundred restaurants and over three hundred shops, while some eighteen million tourists pass through its narrow byways every year to browse stores peddling Chinese herbs or cooking utensils, groceries and garish souvenirs. Few leave without tasting what’s on offer, from steaming savoury dumplings to a full-blown meal in one of the famous speciality restaurants (see Shinkō island).
The focus of community life is Kantei-byō (閑帝廟), a shrine dedicated to Guan Yu, a former general and guardian deity of Chinatown. The building is a bit cramped, but impressive nonetheless, with a colourful ornamental gateway and writhing dragons wherever you look. It’s ¥500 to enter and see the red-faced, long-haired Guan Yu, but not really worth it. The best times to visit are during the major festivities surrounding Chinese New Year (Jan or Feb), Guan Yu’s birthday (the 24th day of the sixth lunar month; June or July) and Chinese National Day (Oct 1).
From the eastern edge of Chinatown it’s a short hop down to the harbour – aim for the pink-grey Marine Tower. This 106m-high tower, built in 1961 to celebrate the port’s centenary, is supposedly the world’s tallest lighthouse, though it’s better to save your money for the Landmark Tower’s much higher observation deck. In front of the tower, Yamashita-kōen is a pleasant seafront park – more grass than trees – created as a memorial to victims of the Great Earthquake. Here you can pick up a Sea Bass ferry or take a harbour cruise (see Yokohama sightseeing cruises) from the pier beside the Hikawa-maru. This retired passenger liner, also known as the Queen of the Pacific, was built in 1930 for the NYK line Yokohama–Seattle service, though it was commandeered as a hospital ship during World War II. It now serves as a museum (日本郵船氷川丸).
At the south end of Yamashita-kōen, the Doll Museum (Ningyō no Ie; 人形の家) offers a diverting display of dolls from around the world. The vast collection ranges from American “blue-eyed friendship dolls”, sent to Japan in the 1920s at a time of increasing tension between the two countries, to Japanese folk and classical dolls.
Yokohama’s rapid growth in the late nineteenth century was underpinned by a flourishing export trade in raw silk. You can learn all about the practical aspects of silk production at the Silk Museum (シルク博物館), in the Sanbo Centre at the north end of Yamashita-kōen. Opposite the museum, the Ōsanbashi (大さん橋) pier is where cruise ships pull up to berth at Yokohama’s International Passenger Terminal. Originally dating from the late nineteenth century, the pier was rebuilt in 2002 to a beautifully fluid, low-slung design inspired by ocean waves.
Top image: Great buddha (Daibutsu) sculpture, Kamakura © Tooykrub/Shutterstock