Base yourself in Tokyo and you’ll have the city’s charms at your doorstep. You’ll also have easy access to the historic temples and Buddhist monuments of Nikkō and Kamakura, as well as a chance to stretch your legs on a hike, hang out in the port city of Yokohama and relax in the hot springs of Hakone.
All of the above are possible within an hour or two from Tokyo by train. If you travel on three consecutive days, you may be able to save a little yen by using the Tokyo Wide Pass (adult/child ¥10,000/5000).
See temples and shrines in Nikkō…
Nikkō, 120km north of Tokyo, is an easy day trip that packs a big punch: there are several historic shrines and temples here – much grander than what you can see in Tokyo – in a forested compound.
The top attraction is Tōshō-gū, the early 17th-century shrine built to hold the deified remains of the first Tokugawa shogun. It’s appropriately gilded and grand, and much work has been completed recently to restore it. There are also the impressive golden Buddha statues inside the temple Rinnō-ji, which was founded in the 8th century.
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Note that restoration work is ongoing in Nikkō and that some structures may be under scaffolding (Rinnō-ji is under wraps until 2019, though you can still enter to see the Buddhas).
Getting there: Take a limited-express Tōbu line ‘Spacia’ train from Tōbu Asakusa Station to Tōbu Nikkō Station (¥2700, two hours). Trains run approximately once an hour. All seats are reserved; it’s a good idea to book your return seat when you purchase your outbound ticket, as everyone tends to decide to return around the same time. The main sights are a 20-minute walk or a 5-minute bus ride from the train station.
…or the big Buddha in Kamakura
The big-ticket sight in Kamakura, a seaside town 65km south of Tokyo, is its Daibutsu, an 11.4m-tall bronze statue of Amida Buddha (‘Daibutsu’ means ‘Big Buddha’ in Japanese). Cast in 1252, it has survived at least two tsunami that washed away the hall in which it once sat.
Kamakura is also famous for its temples. Seen one temple, think you’ve seen them all? Kamakura’s are largely Zen temples, founded in and around the 13th century when Zen Buddhism first spread to Japan. Unlike the ornate structures of Nikkō, Kamakura temples like Engaku-jiand Kenchō-ji are more minimalist in design; some, like Jōmyō-ji and Zuisen-ji, have rock gardens.
As an added bonus, Kamakura has a great food scene. Go for the delicious soba noodles at Matsubara-an or organic vegetarian food at Magokoro.
Getting there: Catch a Zushi or Kurihama-bound JR Yokosuka line train to Kamakura from Tokyo (¥920, one hour) or Shinagawa (¥720, 50 minutes) station. Trains run every 10-20 minutes. Kamakura is fairly walkable, though some temples require a short bus ride. You can also use the cute Enoden tram to connect from Kamakura Station to Hase (¥190, 5 minutes) for the Daibutsu.
Tokyo’s signature mountain is 599m-tall Takao-san, on the western fringe of the city. It’s an all-ages, all-levels 90-minute trek to the summit – no special gear required. You can also take a cable car (one-way/round trip ¥480/930) halfway to the top. When the weather is right, you can see Mt Fuji from the peak.
En route, you’ll pass the temple, Yakuō-in, which was founded in 744 as a centre of mountain worship (and where ascetic rituals are still practiced). Meanwhile, at the top of the cable car, you have the opportunity to participate in another Takao-san tradition: knocking back a post-hike cold one on the terrace at Beer Mount, the mountain’s seasonal beer garden (open from mid-June to mid-October).
Getting there: Special-express (tokkyū) and semi-special-express (juntokkyū) trains on the Keiō line run between Shinjuku Station and Takaosan-guchi Station (¥390, one hour) roughly every 20 minutes. It’s a five-minute walk from the train station to the trailhead and cable car station.
Hang out in Yokohama
Yokohama is Japan’s second largest city, though it’s often overshadowed by its even bigger neighbour, Tokyo. Considering how close they are – just 20km apart – the two cities have a markedly different vibe. Though both are on the water, Yokohama feels much more like a port city. It has a grassy bayfront park, Yamashita-kōen, that’s perfect for sunny-day strolling and lazing, as well as a series of elevated promenades at Zō-no-hana Terrace.
There’s good stuff for kids here, too, including the Yokohama Port Museum, with a ship from the 1930s that you can enter, and an amusement park, Yokohama Cosmoworld, with a Ferris wheel that’s 112.5m-tall – all on the waterfront.
In the evening, sample Yokohama’s laidback nightlife: visit Bashamichi Taproom for Japan-brewed craft beer and Kamome to hear local musicians play.
Getting there: Several JR lines (Tōkaidō, Yokosuka and Keihin Tōhoku) travel to Yokohama from Tokyo Station (¥470, 30 minutes) via Shinagawa Station (¥290, 20 minutes). From Shibuya, the private Tōkyū Tōyoko line runs to Yokohama (¥270, 30 minutes on the express) with trains continuing on the Minato Mirai subway line, which has stops convenient for most sights (if you take a JR train, transfer at Yokohama Station for the subway).
Soak in Hakone’s hot springs
You can experience the Japanese cultural phenomenon that is onsen(natural hot springs) in Tokyo, but it is just so much nicer to do so in the mountains. Hakone is a famous hot spring resort 90km southwest of Tokyo, inside Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park.
There are several excellent day spas here, such as Hakone Yuryō and Tenzan Tōji-kyō, where you can spend hours hopping from bath to bath (including outdoor ones, called rotemburo). Or go for the kitsch bathing experience at Yunessun, which has wine, tea and sake-flavoured baths and family-friendly water slides. (Note that many spas refuse admission to people with tattoos).
If you get an early enough start, you can also see the pretty floating toriigate of Hakone-jinja on the caldera lake Ashi-ko or take the cable car up to see the smoking volcanic valley Ōwakudani.