Tokyo was one of my first true loves. I could cross a crowded crosswalk with hundreds of strangers in glowing, flashing, technology-infused chaos, or I could turn down a side street and pass traditional wooden architecture and painted signs as I dipped into a restaurant serving steaming bowls of ramen. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and yet, instead of feeling isolated by language and cultural barriers, I was drawn to the unfamiliar. Instead of feeling claustrophobic or hopelessly lost in a city many times larger and more crowded than my own, I sought out the quiet gardens and temples, and I zeroed in on the details. Ok, I definitely felt claustrophobic on the subway, but who wouldn’t?
I studied Japanese in college, and after spending the majority of a summer study abroad in the hot springs town of Beppu in the south, my classmates and I headed to Tokyo. It was my second time in the city, and I loved every bit of it. (OK, Akihabara isn’t really my cup of matcha.) My mom, one of my favorite travel companions, joined me for a week after my semester was over, and I was ready for the opportunity to escape the city again by then. Most people go to Kyoto, which is a longer and more expensive trip, but we stuck close to our home base of Ginza for a few day trips. Here are my favorite spots that you can visit outside of Tokyo. Thank goodness for the shinkansen (bullet) trains!
Our favorite Tokyo Day Trips: To Hakone for Mt. Fuji
It was a fast and affordable ride to Hakone on the shinkansen, and since we love train travel, it was an hour of pure excitement! Once we arrived in Gora, we took the funicular railroad up to Souzan and the Hakone Ropeway cable car to a lookout station and restaurant. Now seems like a good time to mention that even though we planned this trip entirely on the weather forecast, the rain came sooner than expected, and Fuji-san was completely covered in clouds. Yes, this was the view of Mt. Fuji from our “scenic view” cable car. Figures.
It’s out there somewhere!
You can’t bring us down, though! After eating lunch at the restaurant with the panoramic views of Mt. Fuji and laughing at our bad luck, we did what we do best. We hit the nearest onsen for a day at the spa!
Onsen are the hot spring baths in Japan. They are very, very affordable, even the fanciest ones with beautifully landscaped ponds and saunas. Since we don’t have these in the states, I considered them to be a wonderfully inexpensive spa – minus the massages.
Have you been to an onsen before? If not, your first visit will come as quite the surprise. Since onsen are traditional public bath houses, you won’t be wearing a bathing suit. That tends to make tourists very uncomfortable at first, but after a little bit of relaxing in the soothing hot springs, you won’t want to leave! We visited one of the more elaborate onsen in the area, and spent our afternoon hopping between saunas, hot springs, bubbling jacuzzis, and pools. Some of the pools were outside, lined with plants and filled by waterfalls, and others were inside and surrounded by beautiful rock walls and tiles. After a morning in the rain and fog, this was the perfect way to warm up and relax. What a treat!
Don’t feel too bad about our missed Mt. Fuji sighting. If you’re in Tokyo on a clear day, you can see the iconic beauty from the top floors of the Metropolitan Government Buildings in Shinjuku, Tokyo. We’re stubborn, so we sat up there all afternoon on our last day until its silhouette appeared through the clouds. It wasn’t picture perfect, but it still took our breath away.
Our favorite Tokyo Day Trips: Kamakura and the Great Buddha
You know which day trip wasn’t a total bust? Kamakura! Once again, we boarded the train and headed out of town. We set out to visit The Great Buddha, or Daibutsu, and since we had learned about multiple very old temples along a path nearby, we had a full day planned.
The Great Buddha is a massive bronze statue dating back to 1252. The temple housing the statue was washed away by a tsunami in 1498, and since then, the Buddha has stood in the open air courtyard.
Not only did the weather hold out for us on that day, so did the crowds. It didn’t take long for the only tour bus at The Great Buddha to head out, and after capturing this shot of siblings peeking through a lantern, we were able to take pictures of this important piece of Japanese history with no other visitors in the frame. Even so, these two children are still my favorite.
After visiting the Great Buddha at the Kotoku-In temple, we headed to Kenchoji. We had read that it is the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan, so we were prepared for a different sort of temple from those that we visited in Tokyo.
I loved the beautiful wooden buildings that were ornately carved but lacked the vivid red paint that covered all of the temples we had visited before. You could really see the temple’s age. The temple was founded in 1246 and completed in 1253. The gardens were beautiful as well, and we had the opportunity to take off our shoes and tour some of the tatami-floored rooms.
Tokyo is a fascinating city with so much to see and do, but getting out of town and heading for the countryside and Mt. Fuji are amazing experiences. If you’re headed to Tokyo, be sure to schedule in a day or two for Mt. Fuji and Kamakura. You won’t be sorry!
Have you been to Japan? Tell us about your favorite places in and around Tokyo in the comments! We love hearing from you!