Three hours from Tokyo

By | Category: Travel destinations

Headed to Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup which runs until the 2 November? When you’ve had your fill of rugby, be sure to explore Tokyo and around with Lonely Planet’s latest guide

Even Tokyo eventually gives way to forests, mountains and sea. Outside the city, the link to the past is palpable, yet the countryside has also inspired many modern artistic projects.

ONE HOUR FROM TOKYO

01 Kawagoe’s Ko-edo 
Ko-edo’ means ‘little Edo’ – Edo being the former name for Tokyo, in use until the mid-19th century. Tokyo itself has very few buildings that recall the days of Edo, but Kawagoe’s ko-edo district has managed to hold on to several, including whitewashed, mud-walled warehouses, low-slung shops with tiled roofs and sloping eaves, and the town’s signature wooden watchtower. www.koedo.or.jp; 30min by train from Ikebukuro.

02 Omiya Bonsai Art Museum 
Thanks to a lucky confluence of historical and ecological factors, the otherwise ordinary northern suburb of Omiya evolved into Japan’s bonsai capital. The excellent Omiya Bonsai Art Museum exhibits over a hundred examples by masters of the form, with displays that demonstrate different styles and techniques. Within walking distance of the museum are several public bonsai gardens as well as nurseries. www.bonsai-art-museum.jp/en; 9am–4pm, closed Thu; 40min by train from Shinjuku.

03 Ishikawa Brewery 
It’s the water that gives sake its unique characteristics and Ishikawa draws its essence from the Tama River, next to the brewery. The sake here is made with traditional methods and local ingredients – not so different from when the brewery started out in 1863. Book ahead for a free, 90-minute English-language tour of the 19th-century facilities; sake tasting included. www.tamajiman.co.jp/en; 10am– 4pm Mon-Fri; 1hr by train from Shinjuku.

04 Kamakura 
Kamakura had a brief turn as the capital of Japan back in the 12th and 13th centuries – which is also when Zen Buddhism entered Japan. As a result, Kamakura has dozens of Zen temples, distinguished by their severe beauty, heavy upturned roofs and monumental wooden gates. Some temples, including Kenchō-ji and Enraku-ju, host public zazen (seated meditation) sessions – the ultimate antidote to hectic city life. 1hr by train from Shimbashi.

The Great Buddha in Kamakura. Located in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture Japan.There are pigeon to Buddha’s head. Credit: ©MI7/Shutterstock


05 Tanabata Festival, Hiratsuka 
Tanabata is a celebration of lovers and light, held annually on 7 July – the day that the stars Altair and Vega (stand-ins for two star-crossed lovers) meet across the Milky Way. Hiratsuka, on the Shōnan Coast, hosts a big street party for the occasion (over the weekend that falls nearest to 7 July) with gorgeous handmade lanterns, plenty of food stalls, and couples strolling side-by-side in colourful summer kimonos. www.tanabata-hiratsuka.com; 7 Jul; 1hr by train from Tokyo Station.

06 Water Garden, Art Biotop 
To create this enchanting garden, experimental architect Ishigami Junya repositioned hundreds of native trees around miniature reflecting pools, with unobtrusive walking paths and velvety moss in between. It forms part of the Art Biotop complex, which also has a farm-to-table restaurant and a gallery, in the popular resort area of Nasu-Shiobara. www.artbiotop.jp; tours daily; 1hr 10min by bullet train from Tokyo Station, plus free shuttle bus.

07 Chichibu Night Festival 
Chichibu’s annual night festival is one of Japan’s biggest and most famous matsuri – the traditional festivals that have roots in the country’s indigenous Shintō religion. Enormous, shrine-like floats, lantern-lit and with cusped roofs, are pulled through the streets by hand. Further spectacles include traditional dancing and music, and a dramatic finale of fireworks. www.chichibu-jinja.or.jp; 2 & 3 Dec; 1hr 20min by train from Ikebukuro.

08 Narita Drum Festival 
Narita’s signature temple, Shinshō-ji – centuries-old and always smoky with incense – is impressive in its own right; when traditional drum teams from all over the country show up for one weekend in April to play on the grounds, it’s spectacular. There are athletic performances on the taiko, Japan’s deeply resonant ‘big drum’; a thousand-drummer strong ‘Prayer for Peace’; and a torchlit night show featuring the top teams. www.nrtm.jp; 1hr 20min by train from Ueno.

09 Snowsports, Gala Yuzawa 
Tokyo’s closest winter resort is custom-made for a populace enamoured with convenience: it has its own shinkansen (bullet train) station connected to the gondola station (where you can rent everything you could possibly need). All that and decent powder, with runs suitable for all levels. The season at Gala varies but is generally long, from mid-December to April. https://gala.co.jp/winter/english/index. html; 8am–5pm; 1hr 20min by bullet train from Tokyo Station.

10 Enoura Observatory 
Perched as it is on the edge of the Hakone Mountains, with unfettered views cascading towards Sagami Bay, an ‘observatory’ is one way to describe this work by Japanese contemporary artist Sugimoto Hiroshi. But that doesn’t take into account the gallery, performance space (check the website’s schedule), landscape garden and restored traditional teahouse – all overseen by the genre-defying artist. www.odawara-af.com/en; admission by advanced reservation only; 1hr 30min by car.

11 Oku-Tama 
The Oku-Tama is Tokyo’s natural playground (thanks to an administrative quirk, this lushly forested region of peaks and rivers is technically part of Tokyo). The classic hike here starts in the mountains at Musashi Mitake-jinja (accessed via cable car) and wends further upwards through cedar groves to Ōtake-san – where you might get a view of Mt Fuji – and back (a five-hour loop). www.okutama.gr.jp; 1hr 30min from Shinjuku to Mitake.

TWO HOURS FROM TOKYO

12 Tōshō-gū, Nikkō 
Nikkō is a national park in the mountains north of Tokyo; Shintō shrine Tōshō-gū holds the deified remains of one of Japan’s great historical figures, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Shrines in Japan are often humble structures, but not this one: the most skilled artisans of the 17th century were called upon to create lavishly ornate structures. The backdrop of towering cedar trees adds atmosphere in spades. www.toshogu.jp; 8.30am–5pm; 1hr 50min from Asakusa.

13 Amazake-chaya 
Amazake is a naturally sweet, non-alcoholic drink that’s made from fermented rice. At thatched-roof teahouse Amazake-chaya the experts have been making it exactly the same way for nearly four centuries. The shop is situated along the Old Tokaidō Highway, which connected Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period. The poor porters who used to run this route during that time loved the stuff for its fortifying qualities. www.amasake-chaya. jp; sunrise to sunset; 2hr 30min by train & bus from Shinjuku. 

14 Climbing Mt Fuji 
Summiting the country’s tallest peak, 3776m-tall Fuji-san, is the ultimate Japan bucket-list activity. It’s a crowded, minimum five-hour trek to the top, but one that traces the footsteps of pilgrims from centuries past who worshipped this (currently dormant) volcano. Watching sunrise from the top is a transcendental experience. Climbing season runs from 1 July to 10 September. www.fujisan-climb.jp; 2hr 30min by direct bus to the trailhead from Shinjuku.

THREE HOURS FROM TOKYO

15 Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art 
Pottery centre Mashiko was integral to Japan’s early 20th-century arts and crafts movement. Outstanding examples of the earthy pieces produced here (which influenced western potters, such as Bernard Leach) are on display at the museum, as well as a 19th-century traditional climbing kiln. But Mashiko isn’t a historical site: around town are dozens of active studios, galleries and pottery shops. Rent a bicycle to see them all. www.mashiko-museum.jp/en; 9am-4pm; 2hr 40min by bus from Akihabara. 

16 Shimoda 
At the tip of the Izu Peninsula, port town Shimoda played a crucial role in Japanese history: US gunboats famously arrived here in the 1850s, demanding that Japan open up to foreign trade (and setting off a cascade of political and cultural shifts). There are plenty of small museums and historical sites to check out, but also a breezy seaside vibe and delicious seafood to enjoy. 2hr 50min by train from Tokyo Station.

17 Shira-hama Beach 
The name’s a giveaway: Shira-hama means ‘white-sand beach’ and this is the prettiest little stretch of coast within easy access of the capital. On a rocky outcrop sits a bright red torii (shrine gate) that makes for a perfect photo-op against the deep-blue waters. The beach is only lightly developed; go outside of school holiday season and you might have it to yourself. 3hr by train & bus from Shinagawa.

Bright lights: Tokyo

18 Echigo-Tsumari Art Field 
Japan’s central mountain spine is the country’s great divider; the Echigo region, on the other side to Tokyo, is deep country – all rice paddies and wooden farmhouses with dramatically sloping roofs (to handle all that snow). Time would have buried it all were it not for the creation of this sprawling, ambitious art project that includes site-specific installations from the likes of James Turrell. www.echigo-tsumari.jp/eng; 3hr by car.

THE LOCAL’S VIEW 
“I like to go trekking, to get out into nature. There are many mountains around Tokyo that are accessible by public transportation. Mt Takao is famous, but it gets too crowded. There are other, lesser-known places I like better. Some of the spots I recommend include Mt Kōbō, which is an easy three-hour hike, and Mt Ōyama, which is a more challenging five-or six-hour hike. In both cases you can end the hike with a soak in a local onsen.”
Mako-san, who runs Levain, a Shibuya bakery

Extract taken from Three Hours From (Lonely Planet; £16.99; out now)

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