Five places to visit near Tokyo

When you want a break from the bright lights and frenetic pace of Japan’s capital, hot springs and tea fields are only a short train journey away

tokyo
ROB GOSS 
Source: The Economist

1 SHIZUOKA
1 HOUR BY TRAIN

At nearly 4,000 metres tall, Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain and its most iconic: visitors, pilgrims and artists flock to Shizuoka for the best view of its near-symmetrical peak. The World Cup games being played in Shizuoka kick off on September 28th when Japan takes on Ireland. If you come then, don’t pack crampons: the climbing season is July to early September. Instead gaze at Fuji-san to see what inspired Katsushika Hokusai, the artist who created the famous “36 Views of Mount Fuji” woodblock prints in the 19th century.

Shizuoka’s tea fields produce high-grade gyokurosencha and other varieties of green tea. You can tour plantations like Houkouen, or simply sample the tea at a teahouse such as the one in Sumpu Park.

Shizuoka has mastered the traditional ryokan, inns with classic touches such as tatami-mat rooms with paper-screen doors, communal hot-spring baths, and artistically arranged kaiseki meals. For serious indulgence, check into the Yagyu-no-sho or 500-year-old Asaba in Shuzenji town. For those with fewer yen to spare, there are excellent alternatives in the hot-spring towns on Shizuoka’s Izu peninsula, a popular weekend retreat for Tokyoites.

 

2 KUMAGAYA
1 HOUR BY TRAIN

Kumagaya in Saitama Prefecture, immediately north of Tokyo, has a reputation for high summer temperatures; it reached 41.1˚C in 2018. Look beyond the mercury, however, and the host city for three World Cup group matches delivers some less-touristy journeys into Japan’s past than many popular Tokyo day-trip destinations, such as the ancient capital of Kamakura or the Hakone hot-spring area.

Dating back to the early 1600s, Kumagaya’s Seikeien follows the classic Edo-era (1603-1868) template of a landscaped stroll garden, with a central pond and pathways that lead to several wooden teahouses. More spiritual is Menuma Shodenzantemple, which is decorated with bright green, red and gold sculptures, in a similar vein to the more-famous UNESCO-listed Toshogu shrine complex in Nikko, a further hour north of Tokyo.

A number of other cities are an easy half-day trip away: Kawagoe has a preserved cluster of Edo-era buildings that has earned it a “little Edo” tag, and nearby Omiya is renowned in Japan for bonsai. To immerse yourself in the magical world of miniature trees, stop by the neighbourhood referred to as Omiya Bonsai Village, where quiet residential streets house a dozen or so bonsai nurseries as well as the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, home to over 100 of the immaculately coiffed mini-trees.

 

3 SAPPORO
1.5 HOURS BY PLANE

The capital of Hokkaido, where England will take on Tonga, is a different Japanese city experience. That’s partly down to climate – Sapporo gets around six metres of snowfall annually – and partly to history. The indigenous Ainu had lived in Hokkaido for centuries, and it was settled by the Japanese only in the latter half of the 1800s, just as the policy of self-isolation was coming to an end. Interest in all things Western led to the city being designed on a grid system and is evident in some contemporaneous buildings, such as the redbrick former Hokkaido Government Office, which looks like it has been teleported from a Victorian university in Britain.

Odori Koen, a belt of immaculate city-centre park sandwiched by roads, is a good place to get your bearings. In early February, it is one of the main sites for the Sapporo Snow Festival, where teams create giant ice sculptures. At other times it is taken over by beer, music and flower festivals. South of Sapporo, Tadao Ando’s breathtaking landscaping at Makomanai Takino Cemetery, with its vast statue of Buddha in a lavender-covered hill, shouldn’t be missed.

For a night out, head to the Susukino district to slurp up the warming regional flavours – the mulligatawny-like soup curry, a mutton barbecue called jingisukan (after Genghis Khan), and Sapporo ramen, which uses miso in the broth for a rich, thick consistency.

 

4 KOBE
3 HOURS
 BY TRAIN

You can’t talk about Kobe without mentioning beef. The combination of tenderness, flavour and well-marbled fat produced by cosseted cows and served up in restaurants such as Mouriya and Wakkoqu has made Kobe-gyu among the most sought-after meats in the world. Just don’t forget the local sake. Some of the city’s sake breweries in the Nada district, includingShushinkan, offer free daily tours; others have on-site shops for tastings.

The views are wonderful too. The waterfront Harborlandshopping and entertainment district is particularly photogenic at night, when it casts illuminated reflections onto the bay. Take the cable car to the lookout on top of Mount Rokko for sweeping vistas over Kobe and the port area. Or for a Japanese spa experience, head to Arima Onsen, a hot-spring resort town. Stay at an inn – Tosen Goshobo is as traditional as they come – and relax in mineral-rich hot baths that are said to help with ailments and woes as varied as backache and piles. Then take in a geisha house such as Tanaka-seki: Arima is one of the few onsen towns where geisha still entertain at inns, performing traditional music and playing parlour games with their guests.

 

5 KAMAISHI
5 HOURS
 BY TRAIN

In 2011, the Sanriku coastline in Japan’s north-east was devastated by a tsunami. In one afternoon, Kamaishi lost 1,250 of its 35,000 residents. Since being chosen as a World Cup host city, preparations for the rugby have played an important role in the city’s recovery.

The town has a scenic coastline with walking trails and viewpoints – the clifftop view from inside the gleaming white 48.5-metre statue of Kannon – a Buddhist goddess of mercy – on one side of Kamaishi is especially good on a clear day. Track the coast northward to Yamada Bay, from where fishermen run trips out to the scallop and oyster beds.

Kamaishi makes a good jumping off point to experience rural Japan. Take a short train ride inland to the Tono Valley, where cycle paths wind through rice paddies and deep into the region’s folklore, taking in sites related to the kappa, a mythical pond-dweller with a taste for cucumbers and a penchant for dragging people into rivers. Or try hiking through bear territory around Mount Hachimantai, known for its autumn colours and milky hot springs. On clear nights at Toshichi Onsen, outdoor baths on barren patch of mountainside, there’s a tapestry of stars overhead – a rare sight in Tokyo.



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