Japan Sightseeing Guide
Tokyo obviously has more than plenty to see & do in its own right, and you can easily fill your free time between events (see here). But if you have a few days spare between, before, or after your events, why not visit some of Japan’s other sights and cities? It’s super easy to do this if you take advantage of the JR Pass, a hop-on hop-off rail pass for tourists which makes Japan’s otherwise pricey bullet trains very reasonable. Even if you don’t want to do anything quite too ambitious, there are some cracking daytrips and 1 or 2 night side trips you can make near Tokyo. And after all, if you’re flying all the way to Japan for the Olympics you might as well make the most of it and see as much as you can while you’re there.
Quick guides to major cities:
Western Honshu (main island)
If you only visit one extra-curricular city, it should probably be the old capital Kyoto. Far surpassed by Tokyo these days in terms of size, it remains a living treasure of Japanese history and traditional culture (while still being a sizeable modern Japanese city). For more on Kyoto see here
Another ancient capital and easily doable as a day trip from either Kyoto or Osaka, there’s a lot to see in Nara but the main draw is the Great Buddha at Todai-ji.
Of the many castles throughout Japan, only a dozen are surviving buildings from the feudal era – the majority are modern concrete replacements. Himeji Castle (aka the White Egret Castle) is one of the originals, and renowned as the most beautiful of the lot.
It’s an easy day trip by bullet train from Kobe, Osaka or Kyoto, and if you have the JR Pass it’s a good little stop en route between Osaka and Hiroshima or Fukuoka – using the pass you can jump off at Himeji for a couple of hours and stroll up to visit the castle before carrying on to your destination.
Another very rewarding city to visit, though in a very different way to Kyoto. As Hiroshima was completely destroyed in the 1945 atomic bombing, the city standing there today is entirely modern. But they did a great job of rebuilding and it’s a lovely city with probably the friendliest locals in Japan, and the Peace Park & Atomic Bomb Museum do an excellent job of acknowledging and recording this dark chapter. For more on Hiroshima see here
A large temple complex in the mountains of Wakayama to the south of Osaka. It works well as a day trip from Osaka and is also a popular place to stay overnight (temple stays are available). For access details and more pics see here
The Olympics take place during the peak Mt Fuji climbing season, which means two things. One, it’s the best time to do it (in terms of conditions, facilities, access etc) and two, it’s the worst time to do it because it’ll be jam packed. Mt Fuji is a crowded climb in regular years, and the Olympics will surely only make it worse.
For this reason I’d advise avoiding the busiest route, which is the Yoshida Trail from the Fuji 5 Lakes area on the north side of the mountain. This is the usual trail for hikers approaching from Tokyo, and where Fuji buses will drop you. There are 3 alternatives, two on the east side (best accessed by car, and the quietest trails) and the Fujinomiya Trail on the south (Shizuoka) side.
Back when I climbed Fuji I did the Fujinomiya Trail (as we approached from Kyoto), easily accessed via the shinkansen & a bus from Shin-Fuji Station. This trail will also be crowded, but not as badly as the north side. You can read more detail about that here
If you don’t fancy actually climbing Fuji but you’d like to get up close for the views then Kawaguchiko (Lake Kawaguchi) in the Fuji 5 Lakes region does the job, doable as a daytrip or you can go & stay up there. It’s a thousand metres higher than Tokyo so the temperatures are less punishing in summer (it’s also famous as one of the best and earliest places in the Tokyo region for the autumn colours, though that’s obviously not a consideration during the Olympics). Search Agoda for Kawaguchiko hotels.
Access is via the private Fujikyu Railway from Otsuki, which is on the JR Chuo Line from Tokyo Station & Shinjuku; Otsuki to Kawaguchiko takes just under an hour for 1,140 yen (plus a few hundred extra if you take the express service). If you have the JR Pass you can use it as far as Otsuki, you can jump on the Kaiji limited express which takes 80 minutes from Tokyo Station to Otsuki. If not using a pass it’s cheaper to take the rapid service as far as Takao, then the local service from there to Otsuki, overall this works out around 25 minutes slower than using the Kaiji limited express. Confused? Check the train times on Hyperdia (see here for an explanation on how to use it)
Yokohama’s often overlooked as just another part of the Greater Tokyo sprawl, but it’s a great city in its own right and with its own character. Yokohama International Stadium is being used for Olympic football matches (including the men’s final) and Yokohama Stadium (a different stadium!) will host the Olympic baseball & softball. Also the sailing will be down in Enoshima to the south of Yokohama – if you’re visiting for the Olympic sailing it would make sense to base yourself in Yokohama if you can’t find anywhere closer. Even if you don’t attend any events in Yokohama it still makes a good daytrip from Tokyo, perhaps in combination with nearby Kamakura. See here for my Yokohama guide
Home to the Kamakura Great Buddha and a number of beautiful temples, with some good hiking trails in the hills behind and views over Sagamihara Bay. It’s possible to visit Kamakura & Yokohama in one day e.g. head to the Great Buddha & Hasedera Temple first, then dinner at Yokohama Chinatown and maybe go up the Landmark Tower for the night views. Alternatively you could head on to nearby Enoshima (a popular little island just off the coast) from Kamakura; if you’re going to watch the Olympic sailing at Enoshima you can easily pop over to Kamakura from there.
Kamakura’s just 25 minutes from Yokohama Station direct on the JR Yokosuka Line, and at Kamakura Station switch to the Enoshima Railway (aka Enoden) for 3 stops to Hase Station from where you can walk up to Hasedera & the Great Buddha at Kotoku-in. Enoshima is just 20 minutes further along the same line; get off at Enoshima Station and it’s a 15-minute walk to the island over the bridge (see here for more info)
The mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, unifier and first shogun of Japan, is one of the most important historical sites in the Tokyo region and one of the more impressive you’ll see in Japan. The lower Nikko area near the town is home to the historical sites, but you can also venture up into the Okku-Nikko (‘Deep Nikko’) area where there’s a significant altitude gain and thus cooler temperatures in which to enjoy the area’s lakes and waterfalls (Nikko is another famous region for autumn colours later in the year).
If you have the JR Pass you can take the shinkansen from Tokyo Station (or Ueno) to Utsunomiya then change to the JR Nikko Line, journey time 1h45. Without a JR Pass it’s a fair bit cheaper (and only a little slower) to use the private Tobu Railway; taking their Kinu express train from Asakusa and changing to the Tobu Nikko Line at Shimo-Imaichi gives a journey time of 2 hours. You can easily visit the mausoleum as a day trip from Tokyo, but if you also want to get up to Okku-Nikko you’ll need to either stay in Nikko or set off at the crack of dawn. Search Agoda for hotels in Nikko
Hakone: the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park lies not far west of Yokohama, consisting of the Mt Fuji area and the Izu Peninsula.
The easiest bit of the park to visit from Tokyo/Yokohama is Hakone, and it’s another good one to visit for cooler temperatures due the higher altitude (and again another good spot for the autumn colours later in the year). From Odawara Station you can catch the bus (around an hour) up to Lake Ashinoko, where you can take a boat cruise on the lake and ride the Hakone Ropeway; that’s plenty for a day-trip, and you can descend to Odawara and take the train back to Yokohama or Tokyo (half an hour by Kodama shinkansen). You can also stay up there at one of Hakone’s hotels or ryokan, and take your time to check out the various museums, the other ropeway (there are two, the other one being the Komagatake Ropeway up Mt Komagatake), ride the scenic Hakone Tozan Railway, and soak in the hot springs. You can get the Hakone Free Pass (see here) for 2 or 3 days which covers the ropeways, local buses, sightseeing cruise, and scenic railway. Check out the Hakone homepage here, and search hotels in Hakone here
Like Himeji Castle above, Matsumoto Castle (the ‘Crow Castle’) is one of the few surviving castles from the feudal era. Matsumoto’s also a good place to visit if you want to get out into the Japan Alps. Search Agoda for hotels in Matsumoto
Mt Fuji stands alone, visible from (but not part of) the Southern Japan Alps, but if you want to get into some proper alpine terrain it’s the Japan Alps you want to head to. There are loads of regions you could visit within the Alps, but the range is generally divided into 3 subranges – Minami (Southern) Alps, Chuo (Central) Alps, and Kita (Northern) Alps.
The easiest area to visit from Tokyo is Nagano Prefecture in the Central Alps, using Matsumoto as a base. You can take the limited express Azusa train from Shinjuku to Matsumoto (2.5 hours) and use that as a jumping off point for Kamikochi and/or the Kurobe-Tateyama Alpine Route.
Kamikochi is a small town nestled in the Central Alps, surrounded by some of Japan’s highest peaks. It’s known as one of the best hiking areas in the country, and this view of the famous Kappabashi bridge (named for the mythical kappa said to live in the area) is one of the classic views of the Japan Alps:
To get there take the local Kamikochi Line from Matsumoto to the end of the line at the excellently-named Shinshimashima Station (30 minutes), then a bus from Shinshimashima to Kamikochi (1 hour). You can do it as a fairly long day trip from Matsumoto, or you could camp or stay at one of the ryokan in Kamikochi. Note that these buses to Kamikochi don’t run in winter (from mid-November until late April). The JR Pass isn’t valid and the only IC card accepted is the local Kururu card, so you can’t use your Suica or Pasmo from Tokyo (or any of the others); be ready with cash! (see here for more on IC cards)
Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route: a sequence of varied transportation options enabling foot passengers to traverse the Japan Alps between Toyama and Nagano prefectures, involving trains, buses, cable cars, and a ropeway. The scenery’s spectacular and includes the Tateyama area (one of Japan’s most famous mountains) and the Kurobe Dam. The route connects Tateyama Station (at the end of the private Tateyama Line which starts from Toyama Station) and Shinano-Omachi Station (with JR rail connection to Matsumoto) or Nagano. For details see the homepage here
Shirakawago and Takayama: if you’re approaching the Alps from the west (perhaps while making your way back towards Tokyo after visiting Kyoto), another good region to visit is the Gifu Prefecture side on the west of the Central and Northern Alps, easily accessed on the Hida limited express train from Nagoya. The main draw cards on this side of the Alps are Shirakawago and Takayama – this is the region where they have all those traditional houses with the steeply sloped roofs to deal with the monumental amounts of snow they get in winter (Shirakawago especially).
Takayama’s an attractive little town in the mountains north of Nagoya with a well-preserved old quarter. The Hida Folk village on the edge of town features a collection of traditional local buildings, and for many Japanese the local beef actually beats the more widely-famous Kobe beef. Search Agoda for hotels in Takayama and hotels in Shirakawago
The Hida takes 2.5 pretty hours to reach Takayama from Nagoya; some trains are called ‘Hida Wide View’ and have larger windows to enjoy the scenery.
To get to Shirakawago ride the Nohi Bus from Takayama (50 minutes, 2600 yen); from the main Shirakawago village of Ogimachi you can ride the bus to Suganuma or Ainokura even deeper in the mountains (another 30 to 45 minutes by bus), which are smaller and less crowded.
Nohi Bus also connects Shirakawago to Toyama and Kanazawa cities on the coast at the northern end of the Alps. From Toyama you can then do the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route through to the Nagano side to continue on to Matsumoto and Tokyo. If you just want to get directly to Shirakawago from Tokyo, ride the Hokuriku shinkansen to Kanazawa and take the bus from there.
Kanazawa: often referred to as ‘Little Kyoto’ due to its historical samurai and teahouse districts, medieval castle (gone but partially reconstructed, homepage here), and one of Japan’s three most famous landscape gardens at Kenrokuen (see here). The modern city is nice too, and Kanazawa’s a good place to spend a night or two before or after Shirakawago & Takayama. Search hotels in Kanazawa
Tohoku (northern Honshu)
The Tohoku region covers the northern part of Japan’s main Honshu island, covering the area between Greater Tokyo and Hokkaido. If you’re making your way overland from Tokyo to Sapporo for the marathons, or attending an Olympic football match in Sendai (Tohoku’s largest city), it’s well worth exploring the Tohoku region a little while you’re there – you’ll find your visit most welcome in a region still recovering from the 2011 tsunami. For Tohoku highlights see my post here
Like Hiroshima, Nagasaki is a city rebuilt from the rubble of atomic devastation, and like Hiroshima it’s an attractive modern city with poignant reminders of the horrors of war – the peace park and A-bomb museum are moving tributes. There’s also the darkly fascinating Hashima (aka Gunkanjima, ‘Battleship Island’) just offshore, an abandoned old mining colony of forced labourers which was used for establishing shots of the villain’s lair in Skyfall (though the actual scenes were filmed on studio sets).
It’s not all heavy history though – Nagasaki also offers lighter sightseeing like Japan’s oldest Chinatown and various European-style buildings & districts dating to Nagasaki’s time as the country’s only major trading port during Japan’s period of isolation. Nagasaki’s 2 hours from Fukuoka’s main Hakata Station on the Kamome express train so it can work as a fairly long day trip from there, though if you’re wanting to take a Gunkanjima cruise as well as seeing the peace park & museum you’ll want to stay for a night or two; search Agoda for hotels in Nagasaki
(note: the Gunkanjima cruises can’t actually land on the island at present due to recent typhoon damage, and until further notice they just take you around the island)
A beautiful volcanic caldera lying halfway between Kumamoto and Oita, a couple of hours from each. See here for details
Due to the anticipated heat in Tokyo, the marathon events were moved to Sapporo on the far northern island of Hokkaido, which should help a little (marathons in Tokyo in August would be a bad idea). Sapporo Dome will also host 10 matches of the Olympic football competitions, so it looks like quite a number of Tokyo 2020 visitors will be making the trek up to Hokkaido. If that’s you, see it as a bonus rather than a hassle, as it gives you the chance to see another side of Japan, especially if you take a trip out of Sapporo. See my Sapporo guide here, with suggestions for trips to other parts of the island.
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