In a country as diverse as Japan, and in a city as well-connected as Tokyo, it is essential to get out and explore some of the region. Stephanie Newman gives us the low-down on her favourite places, a stone’s throw from Tokyo.
~ Kyoto ~
Perhaps the most popular side trip from Tokyo, beautifully preserved Kyoto is a must-visit for lovers of traditional Japanese design. Kyoto is home to some of the country’s most beautiful spiritual landmarks, including the Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion) and the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
You can still catch a glimpse of a geisha apprentice walking through the streets in her kimono and flawless makeup. In the tea houses, you can learn to whisk matcha green tea powder into an aromatic brew, or watch a demonstration of ikebana (flower arranging) using seasonal blooms.
During sakura (cherry blossom) season, which runs from late March to early April in this area, Kyoto’s streets are crowded with visitors taking photos. Parties of friends and colleagues sit beneath the branches of the flowering trees drinking sake (rice wine) and sharing snacks.
If you’re staying overnight in Kyoto, be sure to book a room at a traditional ryokan (guesthouse) to spend the evening sleeping on soft tatami (straw mats), awaking to the delicious spread of a Japanese breakfast: rice, fish, pickles and hot tea.
Kyoto is easily accessible by shinkansen (bullet train), the fastest taking just over two hours from Tokyo. If you prefer not to travel at 320km/h, take an overnight bus or rent a car to do the trip in six hours.
~ Osaka ~
Ramen-hunters and seafood fanatics flock to Osaka for its distinct regional specialities and budget-friendly street food. Dotonbori in Namba is world-famous for its impressive spread of delicacies, ranging from takoyaki (octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (fried cabbage pancake) to high-quality sushi and sashimi dining.
For fresher-than-fresh street food head to Kuromon Ichiba Market, where a seriously tasty selection of bites will only set you back a few dollars. If you’re wondering how good the food here is, know that this is the place where Osaka’s best chefs buy their ingredients, earning it the nickname of “Osaka’s Kitchen”.
Night-time visitors will enjoy the spectacle of the flashing neon lights, rows of lanterns and massive illuminated signs. Grab a seat at a restaurant by the river for the view, or jump on a boat to escape the foot traffic on the bridges and streets.
From Tokyo, the bullet train will take you between two and a half to three hours, but it’s only an hour from Kyoto. Savvy travellers will plan their route around the triangle of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka to save time and money, and tourists can access major discounts by using the Japan Rail Pass.
~ Kamakura ~
One of the most popular day-trips from Tokyo by locals is to the coastal town of Kamakura. Students from around the region come here to learn about Japan’s political and religious history: Kamakura’s government centre ruled the country for over a century from the late 1100s.
Must-see locations include the Great Buddha, an 11-metre bronze statue built in 1252, and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, the region’s most important and impressive Shintoshrine. You’ll also find fantastic markets inside the shrine’s gates where you can taste deep-fried squid, candy-coated strawberries and huge, juicy grapes skewered on bamboo.
In the streets around Kamakura station, you’ll find no shortage of places to eat, shop and relax.
It’s easy to spend a few hours simply wandering around marvelling at the stores selling furoshiki (Japanese cloth), flavoured rice crackers, glass ornaments and traditional wooden toys. If you’re looking for great souvenirs to take back home, Kamakura is the place to find something to please everyone.
Kamakura can be reached from Tokyo in around an hour by train or car.
The nature lover:
~ Nikkō ~
For mountainside temples, carved bridges curving gently over rivers and avenues of deep red autumn leaves, head north from Tokyo to the town of Nikkō at the entrance to one of Japan’s most impressive national parks.
In winter you can see Nikkō’s frozen waterfalls and soak in the hot springs, or sip sweet sake at mountain lookouts to escape the snow. In warmer weather, hit the hiking trails to explore some of the region’s most beautiful natural scenery.
Be sure to taste some of Nikkō’s famous dishes: soba (buckwheat noodles) can be eaten hot or cold, and are often accompanied by tempura seafood and vegetables. For something sweet, try shaved ice topped with matcha (green tea) or red bean. The sake in the area is also highly regarded, as is the fresh spring water that trickles down from the mountaintops and into natural springs.
The regular train from Tokyo to Nikkō takes under two hours, with several discount travel passes available for tourists.