In his 1921 book “A Diplomat In Japan,” written during the 1880s, British diplomat Ernest Satow (1843-1929) wrote widely about travel in Japan: How Japanese people traveled, where they stayed, what they ate and what happened during his own travels on the Tokaido (“Eastern Sea Road”) from Tokyo to Kyoto.
Declaring Japanese people to be “great travellers,” Satow explains: “The booksellers’ shops abound in printed itineraries which furnish the minutest possible information about inns, roads, distances … and other particulars which the tourist requires.”
To this day travel remains easy, or — if not — fairly well documented. And, with increasing English signage and English-language proficiency of people positioned at traveler hotspots throughout the land, the country has never been more accessible.
Just as it was in the days of the Gokaido (Five Highways), if Tokyo is where you choose to base yourself for your vacation, or if it is where you live, sightseeing certainly does not have to be limited to the confines of the capital. Ease of travel makes the humble higaeri-ryokō (day trip) from Tokyo definitively doable.
Even though Hakone is well and truly on the beaten track, it does not mean it should be overlooked. From floating on the Hakone Ropeway above volcanic Owakudani and getting up close for a chance to try kuro tamago (black eggs) cooked in the hot springs to exploring the outdoor sculptures, including work by Picasso, at Hakone Open-Air Museum, there is plenty to do. The kaizokusen (pirate ship) ride around the lake may be more “One Piece” than peaceful, but the Fuji views, numerous onsen (hot springs) and comprehensive infrastructure make Hakone an easy win.
From Shinjuku Station catch the Romancecar Limited Express on the Odakyu Odawara Line directly to Hakone-Yumoto Station (¥2,330, one hour 39 minutes).
Beaches, boutiques and temples are the bounty of a day trip to Kamakura. Once the de facto capital of Japan, the seaside city gave its name to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). Though remnants of Japan’s first shogunate are scant, the city’s Buddhist relics are not and include the wooden statue of 11-headed Kannon (deity of mercy) at 12th-century Hasedera, the impressive sanmon gate at Kenchoji (1253) and the oldest Zen temple in Kamakura, Jufukuji (1200). Elsewhere, wash your money at Zenirai Benten shrine to level up its purchasing power, visit Yuigahama beach in July and August for sun, sea and sand, or hike the Daibutsu Hiking Trail, named after the nearby “Big Buddha” — a 13-meter-tall, 12th-century, bronze Buddha statue.
Take the Shonan-Shinjuku Line Rapid to Kamakura Station (¥940, one hour). To reach the beach, ride the Enoden from there to Yuigahama Station (¥200, nine minutes).
Long a bolthole for Tokyoites, this Nagano Prefecture mainstay was first deemed a retreat by oyatoi gaikokujin, Meiji Era (1868-1912) foreigners who helped Japan modernize. Big name hotels opened — the Mampei in 1896 (still open; John Lennon stayed here) and the Mikasa in 1906 (now a museum). There’s modern art at Karuizawa New Art Museum and Wakita Museum of Art, fall momijigari (leaf peeping) at Kumoba Pond and a plethora of shopping and eating opportunities along Karuizawa Ginza Street. This place literally exists to be visited.
From Shinjuku Station take the Saikyo-Kawagoe Line Rapid, changing at Omiya for the Hokuriku Shinkansen (¥5,610, around one hour 30 minutes). Or, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen direct from Tokyo Station (¥5,820, one hour 12 minutes).
Katsunuma is Japan’s wine country. Today part of Koshu, Yamanashi Prefecture, this area is home to almost a third of all wineries in Japan — a heritage that stretches back to the 1870s. Historical wineries such as Lumiere, founded in 1885, proudly flaunt their lineage, while former residence turned wine museum Miyakoen teaches the history of the craft. Modern wineries such as MGVs speak to an exciting future for Japanese winemaking.
Take the Chuo Line Limited Express from Shinjuku Station to Enzan Station, changing for the Chuo Line local train to Katsunumabudokyo Station (¥3,750, one hour 39 minutes); taxis from the station to wineries from ¥2000.
You need not travel all the way to Kyoto to get a feel of old Japan. Known today as Little Edo, Kawagoe prospered through the trade of various goods (famously sweet potatoes in the early 1800s) to the capital during the Edo Period (1603-1868), earning it the nickname “Edo no Daidokoro” or “Edo’s Kitchen.” Kawagoe’s merchant quarters is the only government-designated historic district in Saitama Prefecture. The years of hefty trade left scores of kurazukuri (warehouse-style) buildings in the town, clay-walled structures pointing to wealthy traders who could afford this level of security. The Kurazukuri no Machinami (Warehouse District) north of Kawagoe Station is the place to stroll. For almost 400 years, the annual Kawagoe Matsuri has drawn thousands to the town each October.
To reach Kawagoe Station, take the direct Saikyo Line Commuter Rapid service from Shinjuku Station (¥770, around one hour).
Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel
This complex is a concrete cathedral to civil engineering and has saved the Tokyo Metropolitan Government billions of yen to date in potential flood damages. Beginning at the “RyuQkan” or “Dragon Q Building” (“dragon” from a local legend; “Q” from “aqua”), visitors descend to see the Kasukabe Underground Flood Protection Tank. It is the largest underground floodwater diversion facility in the world, with pumps that can divert 200 tons of water per second into the Edo River. One cannot simply walk into this municipal marvel; tours (¥1,000) must be booked in advance.
From Shinjuku Station catch the Saikyo Line Commuter Rapid service to Omiya and change for the Tobu Urban Park Line to Minamisakurai Station (¥850, one hour 12 minutes). From here catch the Aeon Mall Kasukabe Line bus and get off at the RyuQkan stop (¥200, around 10 minutes). For more information on tours visit gaikaku.jp.
Minamiboso, on Chiba’s Boso Peninsula, is overlooked but makes for a refreshing break from Tokyo. From late January to March, fields fill with flowers — and so do restaurants, such as Hanabo in Chikura (a hot-spring town on the east coast), which serves flower tempura. The local specialty namerō (a medley of the day’s catch of fish, beaten into a patty) and sanga (the same, but grilled) can be devoured at various seafood restaurants in the area. Food and spirituality meet at Takabe Jinja, dedicated to Iwata Mutsukari (Shinto god of cooking). For hiking, nearby Wadaura, also on the east coast, has the “Bride’s Road” — an easy three-hour loop through the woods.
For Chikura, leave Tokyo Station on the Wakashio Limited Express, changing at Soga Station for a local train on the Uchiba Line to Chikura Station (¥3,160, two hours 30 minutes). For Wadaura, take the Wakashio Limited Express from Tokyo Station to Awa-Kamogawa Station and change for an Uchiba Line local train (¥4,330, two hours 29 minutes). Driving allows ease of traversing Minamiboso (one hour 45 minutes from Tokyo).
Nikko is known for nature. Popular for its autumn foliage, there’s also the impressive Kegon Waterfall and the glassy surface of Lake Chuzenji, once home to summer villas for Western diplomats. Nikko also has spiritual credentials. Reached via the 17th-century Shinkyo — “Sacred Bridge” — over the Daiwa River, Toshogu is an elaborate, UNESCO-recognized Shinto shrine that was originally built in 1617 to venerate Japan unifier Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616). Behind Toshogu, those in search of tranquility can stroll through the woods to Shiraito Falls, discovering crumbling Buddhist and Shinto monuments along the way.
Board the Tobu Line Limited Express Kegon from Asakusa Station and arrive at Tobu-Nikko Station within two hours (¥2,860). Toshogu is around a 30-minute walk, while buses to Lake Chuzenji run three times an hour from the station (¥1,150, 50 minutes). Travel from Tokyo is covered by the Nikko Pass; for more information visit bit.ly/nikkotobu.
Ozawa is a shuzō (sake brewery) in the small town of Sawai, Ome City. Dating back to 1702, it is one of the Tokyo area’s pre-eminent sake breweries, and still produces its Sawanoi brand in the traditional method. A free tour of the brewery begins by purifying one’s footwear to enter the sacred space. Afterwards, soak up some sun, snacks and sake in Sawanoi-en restaurant and garden; the occasional ringing of the bells at Kanzanji temple on the opposite bank of the Tama River adds to the bliss of it all.
Catch the Chuo Line Commuter Rapid to Ome Station and change to an Ome Line Local train to Sawai Station (¥940, one hour 30 minutes). Alternatively alight one stop earlier at Ikusabata Station for a riverside walk to Sawanoi-en (around 30 minutes). For more information visit sawanoi-sake.com.
Saitama Railway Museum
Saitama’s Railway Museum boasts around 9.5 square kilometers of exhibition space dedicated to Japan’s enviable rail heritage, including Meiji and Showa Era (1926-1988) steam locomotives, the classic curves of early days electric railcars and even imperial carriages. The reading room, shinkansen simulator, cafe, interactive exhibits and a mini-railway to ride around on make this a very comprehensive day out. Ironically, the final stage of getting here involves using the rubber-wheeled New Shuttle — technically not a train. Perfect for kids (young and old).
Catch the Saikyo Line Commuter Rapid to Omiya Station. From there take the New Shuttle, alighting at Tetsudo-Hakubutsukan Station (around one hour, ¥670).