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Tokyo

Tokyo

The inside track on weekend escape routes from Tokyo’s urban sprawl

The inside track on weekend escape routes from Tokyo’s urban sprawl

Sybil Kapoor | April/May 2016

Beyond Tokyo’s skyscrapers, concrete blocks and flyovers lie suburban districts with their ginkgo trees, mini-marts and vending machines. The city’s sprawl can be overwhelming, and trying to get out on a Friday evening can feel as if you’re fighting not only the city’s rush hour, but also the rigorous work ethic of the Japanese nation. 

132 minutes 19 miles away; KAWAGOE (Main Picture)
This old castle town is only 32 minutes by train from Ikebukuro station on the Tobu Tojo line. Its solid two-storey black warehouses were converted into shops and houses in the Edo period and survived earthquakes, fires and war to become the largest cluster of such buildings in Japan, in particular around Kura-Zukuri Street. Walk Japan (walkjapan.com) offers an immersive, customised day tour for around ¥50,000 ($420) per person. Highlights include the old streets in the centre, the castle, gardens and the ancient Kita-in temple with its curious crowd of 538 dwarf stone disciples of Buddha. The slightly kitsch, brightly coloured Kashiya Yokocho (Candy Alley) is a lure – full of sugary smells from the myriad traditional sweetmakers. Another Kawagoe delicacy is eel. At Unagi-ichinoya (unagi-ichinoya.jp), queue outside before stepping into an entrance filled with toys and small statues of drunken racoons, then feast on eel grilled with a Kawagoe sweet soy sauce. Lunch is served from 11.30am in Japan.

250 minutes 28 miles away MOUNT TAKAO
Taking the Keio-Takao Line Special Express train from Shinjuku Station to its last stop, Takaosanguchi Station, is appealing for two reasons: the promise of a country hike up Mount Takao, and the delicious meal afterwards at Ukai Toriyama (ukai.co.jp/english/toriyama), a collection of private tea houses looking onto a dappled water garden. Takao-san, as this mountain is called, is often crowded in the spring and autumn, but Route Six (turn right out of the station and follow the stream past the noodle restaurants for about 100 metres – 330 feet – to reach the trails) feels wild and beautiful. The narrow path winds up the mountain through mossy cypress woods filled with wild orchids, hydrangeas and maples, following a stream, past Shinto grottos and waterfalls, before climbing steeply. While the summit, 599 metres above sea level, has the air of a tourist site with its busy soba-noodle stalls, the mountain view, which includes snow-capped Mount Fuji, is worth it. Descending via the paved Route One leads past Yakuo-in, a Buddhist temple, and myriad statues of Tengu, the winged, Pinocchio-nosed deity of the mountains. It takes another hour to reach the station to catch the courtesy bus, which leaves every 20 minutes, to Ukai Toriyama. Notable dishes include river-carp sashimi, and grilled Satsuma Jidori chicken or Hida beef cooked over a small charcoal brazier.

32 hours 156 miles away NOZAWA ONSEN
Since the new high-speed Hokuriku Shinkansen line to Iiyama Station in the Japan Alps opened in 2015, it’s become possible to be skiing down Nozawa Onsen’s glorious, tree-lined pistes on the deepest, powdery snow within two hours of leaving Tokyo. A special bus whisks visitors up to the resort in 20 minutes. Premium ski gear can be rented from Salomon Rental Station at the gondola station. Many visitors pack a towel so that they can soak their feet après ski in the communal hot-spring foot baths opposite Oyu, one of the village’s historic public baths. The outing can be done as a day-trip from Tokyo Station, but Different Snow (differentsnow.com) – a new UK-based tour operator specialising in lesser-known ski destinations – can also organise longer trips with overnight stays at Sakaya Ryokan (ryokan-sakaya.co.jp, rooms from ¥22,000 in peak season), which is located in the heart of the village. Note the ryokan gets booked up very quickly.

42.5 hours 279 miles away KANAZAWA
The new Hokuriku Shinkansen line has brought attention to Kanazawa – a cultural alternative to Kyoto for Tokyoites, located across the Alps on the Sea of Japan. The town’s Nagamachi samurai district has tiny cobbled, white-walled streets. The old wooden teahouses in the Higashi Chaya geisha district look like a set out of a Kurosawa film. Other highlights include Yoshio Taniguchi’s minimalist D.T. Suzuki Museum (kanazawa-museum.jp) and Kenroku-en Garden (kanazawa-tourism.com) – considered by the Japanese to be one of their most beautiful gardens with its dreamy streams, plum groves and ancient pines. To make time for all this, it’s worth staying overnight at Ryokan Asadaya (asadaya.co.jp/ryokan; doubles from ¥49,000 per person including breakfast and dinner) with its five tatami-matted rooms. Their delicately flavoured Kaga kaiseki (local haute cuisine) served on local gold-leaf lacquer ware and kitan ceramics rivals the finest in Kyoto.

54 hours 504 miles away ONOMICHI
The fastest way to reach Onomichi is to take the Nozomi Shinkansen from Tokyo to Fukuyama, then change to a local JR train to Onomichi. This scruffy port in Central Honshu is the start of the beautiful Shimanami Kaido Cycling Route, which stretches across a chain of islands in the Seto Inland Sea to Imabari, with links by local ferries. Bikes can be rented on arrival, and the local cycling map is easy to follow. Given the distance, it’s worth spending a couple of nights at the newly opened Onomichi U2 Cycling Hotel (onomichi-u2.com; doubles from ¥21,000), a converted waterfront warehouse. Less ambitious cyclists can rent an old-fashioned bicycle with a basket (go-shimanami.jp). The cycle route curves gently around the coast of Mukaishima Island past elderly fishermen and cottage gardens filled with yuzu and loquat trees. Drinks can be bought from roadside dispensing machines – red price labels for hot drinks, blue labels for cold. The only steep inclines are those up to the suspension bridges that connect the islands. Once back in Onomichi, head for Ittoku (ittoku-go.com) – one of the city’s hip izakayas (pubs). You need to book ahead. No visit to Japan is complete without an evening drinking the local beer and sake on tatami mats with strange Japanese pub food for everyone to share, including hot dogs topped with melted cheese and sea snails simmered in soy and mirin.
For all train information, visit hyperdia.com. Also helpful is seejapan.co.uk.

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