The rhythms and facets of Tokyo are seductive; the hyper-metropolis is a beguiling alien world for the tourist; a never-ending grind for the salaryman; an intoxicating shopping bazaar for the well-heeled; an amusement park for the young.
Yet beyond the city’s 23 wards and out past the greater Tokyo area, at all points of the compass, the rhythms are predictably mellower, the seasons more pronounced, and some great experiences are to be had. Here’s a small taste.
Original images copyright : : winter onsen : jake jessop; rinno-ji : jason collin; torii ocean : charles glover; kamakura daibutsu : j-cha-ya
Beyond the northern suburbs of Saitama, a couple of hours from Tokyo’s Asakusa station by train, lie the remnants of the Tokugawa shogunate. Nikkō, 日光, is home to the World Heritage listed Nikkō National Park, famous for a trio of temples, Tōshō-gū, Rinnō-ji, and Futarasan. Tōshō-gū, 東照宮, the biggest and most imposing of the temples, was built to commemorate Tokugawa Ieyasu, who ruled as shogun from 1603 – officially for only a couple of years, though he continued to rule the country until his death in 1616. Among the forested complex of Buddhist and Shinto pavillions in the national park are the carvings of the three “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” monkeys.
Neighboring Rinnō-ji, 輪王寺, a former Buddhist sanctuary, includes within its complex the Sanbutsudō with its gold-leaf statues and the beautiful Edo era Shōyō-en Garden. Futarasan jinja, 二荒山神社, a Shinto structure that is dedicated to Nikko mountain spirits, features one of the country’s most famous bridges, Shinkyō. There are other historical sites to explore, but Nikko should also be enjoyed for its beautiful natural scenery, especially in October, when the autumn leaves are at their most brilliant.
Kamakura, 鎌倉, the small city on Sagami Bay, about 50 kilometers south of Tokyo, figures large in the history of Japan. In the 12th Century, it was a seat of political power, during Japan’s Kamakura Period. Today, it’s an easy getaway from the bustle of Tokyo and Yokohama. Like Nikkō, Kamakura has historical treasures in the form of temples, shrines and monuments. The best of these is Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, an impressive Shinto shrine situated in the heart of the small city, complete with its series of red torii along Wakamiya Ōji, the central avenue that leads from the bay to the shrine. Equally iconic of this city is the 13 1/2 meter bronze ‘Great Buddha’, or Daibutsu – 大仏, statue, with its oxidised blue-green patina, which sits on the grounds of the Kōtoku-in, 高徳院, Buddhist temple. For the history buff and photographer there are various other temples scattered around the city, and in early April the city’s cherry trees come alive with ephemeral pastel pink sakura blossoms.
Kamakura’s topography also offers visitors a chance to experience the sea and the countryside, as not only is it flanked by wooded hills and mountains that are perfect for hiking; it’s situated on a bay with sandy beaches and the popular Enoshima island – connected to the mainland by bridge and offering everything from swimming beaches and a yacht harbor to cave tours, an aquarium and a resort spa.
To the east of the city, beyond Tokyo Bay and the architectural futurism of Odaiba, lies Chiba, 千葉, one of the country’s industrial centers and a region of natural riches within easy distance of Tokyo; a prefecture that is home to both Narita International Airport and The Tokyo Disney Resort complex in Urayasu. At its heart is the capital Chiba city, a relatively modern mix of commercial centers and suburban residential districts, more relaxed and spacious – and cheaper – than those of Tokyo. Chiba is also where you’ll find the Makuhari Messe convention center, which each year hosts the Tokyo Motor Show and Tokyo Game Show amongst other events.
Chiba, considered by many a poor relation to Tokyo, is blessed with a milder climate that has created some lushly forested land on the Bōsō Peninsula, with its mountainous, hilly terrain containing some beautiful hiking areas like the Yoro Valley. It’s flanked by Tokyo Bay to the West, the northern part of which is the site of Chiba’s busy maritime port, and the Pacific Ocean to the East, where Chiba’s expansive beaches lie. Kujūkuri-hama is, at around 66 kilometers, one of the country’s longest stretches of sandy beach, while just south of this beach are Onjuku and Katsuura, popular spots with local surfers.
Mount Fuji, Fuji-san – 富士山, needs no introduction. It is emblematic of this country. Japan’s highest peak, impossibly symmetrical, sits around 100 kilometers south-west of Tokyo. Although the official climbing season is in the summer, the colder months offer the visitor a chance to witness its peak capped with snow in a more contemplative atmosphere. The more adventurous may consider skiing the conic slopes, but Fuji has no hosted pistes, and although there are resorts near Fuji, the pristine powder of Nagano, further north-west, are a better option for skiiers and boarders.
As part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, the Fuji Five Lakes, or Fuji-go-ko – 富士五湖 – that circle the base of Fuji-san are great for camping, fishing, hiking and the like as well as views of the Mountain. The area also has hot spring resorts – onsen, but Hakone, south-east of Fuji, with its plethora of onsen resorts is the place to really enjoy the regional hot springs, many of which can be visited without needing to reserve a room. Hakone has its own picturesque lake, Ashino-ko, with – on a clear day – picture perfect views of Fuji. And Hakone is home to one of the world’s most scenic sculpture parks, the Hakone Chōkoku No Mori Bijutsukan, with its gallery of modernist works set in beautiful landscaped grounds.
While these places will give you a taste of Japan beyond the über-urban experiences of Tokyo, there is of course much, much more to explore in Japan. So, get out of town, slow down the clock, breathe in the air, take in the sights and immerse yourself in the four seasons of Japan.