‘Undertouristed’ areas outside Tokyo you should visit in Japan

‘Undertouristed’ areas outside Tokyo you should visit in Japan

by David McElhinney
Live Japan

As wonderful as Tokyo can be, sometimes it’s nice to escape the crowds and explore the less-charted areas nearby. These 10 spots are our favorite hidden gems!

Tokyo may be one of the primary reasons you pack your bags and head for Japan, but just beyond the Japanese capital there are plenty of hidden gems just waiting to be explored. And they're a great way to avoid crowds while staying close to Tokyo, too.

From the mountains of Okutama and depths of Saitama Prefecture to the quiet onsen getaways and the startlingly beautiful seaside towns of Kanagawa, here are 10 of the best ‘undertouristed’ destinations near Tokyo.

1. Kumagaya (Saitama)

Why Kumagaya?
Outside of Japan, Kumagaya is a little-known city, but it’s one of the major urban centers in Saitama Prefecture. It’s only an hour from Tokyo by train, and offers a nice mix of cultural activities to keep you occupied.

What can you do there?
In sporting circles Kumagaya is renowned as one of Japan’s rugby strongholds; the Kumagaya Rugby ground is home to table-topping club Panasonic Wild Knights, and is a fantastic place to watch a sport that captured the hearts of the nation in 2019.

The Menuma Shodenzan temple is a wonderful piece of spiritual architecture from the Azuchi-Momoyama Period. To go with its gold-trimmed roof is an intricate tapestry of carvings depicting scenes from history and folklore etched into its exterior walls.

And along Kumagaya’s Motoara River is one of Japan’s finest stretches of cherry blossoms. With over 700 individual trees, it resembles the famous sakura of Nakameguro but without the massive crowds.

How to get to Kumagaya
From Ueno Station in north Tokyo to Kumagaya Station is only 30 minutes on the Joetsu Shinkansen.

2. Okutama (Tokyo)

Why Okutama?
Right on the western outskirts of Tokyo Prefecture, the mountainous Okutama region feels far from the tourist hordes of central Tokyo. Given that it’s located within the limits of the capital prefecture, it’s easily accessible via public transport from the city center, and can even work as a day trip if you don’t have time for an overnight.

What can you do there?
A haven for campers and trekkers, Okutama is home to various peaks from which you can catch epic sights of Mount Fuji, such as Mount Kawanoriyama and Mount Nokogiri. The highest of the lot however is Mount Kumotori, which poses a bit of a challenge at over 2,000m tall.

The Mitake hiking trail and Hatonosu Valley are great walking spots close to civilization, where you can marvel at the views with all the conveniences of shops and restaurants nearby. And if camping is your thing, check out the Hikawa Camping Ground set in a towering ravine near Okutama Station. Definitely a good spot to get back to nature and avoid the crowds of Tokyo.

How to get to Okutama
Direct trains go from Shinjuku Station to Tachikawa Station. From here you can transfer to the Ome Line which goes to Okutama Station. The one-way trip is about 1 hour 30 minutes.

3. Ichinomiya (Chiba)

Why Ichinomiya?
Chiba typically slides under the tourism radar, but Ichinomiya is set to throw it into the limelight in 2021 when it functions as the location of the surfing events at the Tokyo Olympics. Outside of its world class waves and summer beach vibes, Ichinomiya is a cool little town still relatively unexplored by foreign tourists.

What can you do there?
Surfing. And not just any old surfing, but a beach that frequently greets Olympic-quality waves, called Tsurigasaki. Though if you're new to watersports, don’t be put off. At Kujukuri beach, a 60-plus-kilometer stretch of sandy coastline near Ichinomiya, you’ll find waves that are more palatable for first-timers. There are also opportunities to get involved in other water sports, such as kitesurfing and sea kayaking.

The town is also filled with nice restaurants and temples. Plus, its small size facilitates seeing it by bicycle, and you can rent these near the beach.

How to get to Ichinomiya
From Tokyo Station to Kazusa-Ichinomiya Station, it’s around 1 hour 20 minutes on the Wakashio Limited Express.

4. Odawara (Kanagawa)

Why Odawara?
Odawara is home to Tokyo’s closest feudal castle around 50 miles away. And its location on the Sagami Bay coastline makes it a great spot for Japanese seafood, or a stroll along the shores of the Pacific.

What can you do there?
You can’t go to Odawara without visiting the eponymous castle. Originally built in the 15th century, the castle played a pivotal role in bringing the fraught Sengoku (Warring States) era of Japanese history to a close, when it was sacked by the armies of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The main hall is a multi-tiered structure of white stone and sloping tile roofs which visitors can walk to the top of. Once there, you are greeted with fine views of the ocean to the east and the surrounding countryside to the west. No bustling crowds here!

There’s also an early morning fish market at Hayakawa harbor nearby. While it’s not as visitor-friendly as the likes of Toyosu, you can still check it out if you don’t mind the early wake-up call. And at the very least, you can sample its catch at any of Odawara’s plentiful sushi restaurants. For art buffs, there’s a fantastic museum just outside the city, the Enoura Observatory, for which tickets must be booked in advance.

How to get to Odawara
From Shinjuku Station to Odawara Station on the Odakyu Line, it’s only 1 hour 15 minutes.

5. Miura Peninsula (Kanagawa)

Why Miura Peninsula?
Lying on the south coast of Kanagwa, not too far from Yokohama, is the Miura Peninsula. It’s one of the quieter areas within the grasp of the Tokyo metropolis, and is home to some truly gorgeous scenery.

What can you do there?
Three lighthouses of cultural and historic significance rise from the peninsula’s headlands: Kannonzaki, Tsurugiasaki and Jogashima. Not long after the 1858 Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Amity and Commerce, western-style lighthouses began to rise from Japanese shores. The Tsurugaski Lighthouse, located on the peninsula’s southernmost eastern tip, was one of the first to be erected; it was first lit in 1871. From any of the three however, you’ll be greeted with vast and stunning seascapes.

The Miura Kaigan Beach is also a great spot for a bit of R&R. A fireworks festival also takes place here in August, with over 3,000 explosives coloring the night sky. And like all coastal areas of Japan, the seafood is not to be missed. Tuna and Mackerel are both local favorites which can be sampled in Miura Peninsula’s plentiful restaurants, or at the twince monthly Waiwai-ichi market.

How to get to Miura Peninsula
From Shinagawa Station in south Tokyo, take the Keikyu Main Line to Miurakaigan Station. The trip is 1 hour 15 minutes.

6. Chichibu (Saitama)

Why Chichibu?
The Chichibu area is primarily known for the eponymous Chichibu Kannon Pilgrimage trail, which guides travelers past 34 Buddhist temples built along the mountain range. Starting in what is now the city of Chichbu with the relatively humble Shimabu-ji temple, the route has been revered among pilgrims since the 13th century.

What can you do there?
Of course there are plenty of temples for you to see. Kinsho-ji, also located in Chichibu City, is one of the finest, with hundreds of statues dedicated to the goddess Kannon. Japan is also one of the world’s great flowering nations, and Chichibu’s Hitsujiyama Park is a fine example of this, with a riot of blossoming flowers decorating the park in various colors throughout spring and summer.

The Chichibu-Tama-Kai Park reaches over the border from Saitama to Tokyo. But on the Saitama side, you’ll find Mount Mitsumine and Lake Chichibu, which make for great walks in nature. For whisky lovers, be sure to end your day with a blend of Ichiro’s Malt from the local Chichibu Distillery. Most bars and restaurants in the area will have some in stock.

How to get to Chichibu
From Ikebukuro Station in west-central Tokyo, take the Ikebukuro Line Express to Han-No Station, then transfer to the Seibu-Chichibu Line for Seibu-Chichibu Station. Total journey is around 1 hour 50 minutes.

7. Shimoda (Shizuoka)

Why Shimoda?
A picture-perfect beach town on the south coast of the Izu Peninsula, Shimoda is a great place to get away from the fast-paced demands of city life. Plus, it played an important, if unwilling, role in Japan’s political history.

After over 200 years of national isolation (when no foreigners were allowed on Japanese soil), several of Matthew Calbraith Perry’s US naval ships landed on the beaches of Shomida in 1854. His arrival paved the way for Japan’s unprecedented integration with western society, and an easing of Japanese-foreign tensions which culminated in the Convention of Kanagawa later that year.

What can you do there?
The arrival of Perry’s “black ships” is still commemorated in Shimoda today, in the form of Perry Street, which provides a nice walk through the town, and monuments in Shimoda Park. What most visitors come to Shimoda for however, is Shirahama beach. It’s a great spot for swimming, surfing, sun-bathing, or simply admiring the lone <@toriiIi@> gate built on top of a stone eminence overlooking the beach.

How to get to Shimoda
Admittedly, Shimoda isn’t the easiest day trip from Tokyo, so a one- or two-night stay is recommended. From Tokyo Station, take the Tokaido Shinkansen to Atami Station, before switching to the Ito line towards Ito Station. From here, you’ll need to switch again to the Izukyuko Line toward Izukyu-Shimoda Station. The journey will take around 2 hours and 30 minutes.

8. Minakami (Gunma)

Why Minakami?
Minakami is a small mountain town in Gunma whose aesthetic drastically changes throughout the seasons. Whether it’s the rusty hills of fall, the snowy peaks brooding over the frigid town in winter, the arrival of the cherry blossoms in spring, or the feral greenery of summer, there’s never a bad time to head for Minakami. If that wasn’t enough, its a geothermal hotbed with plenty of onsen and ryokan (Japanese inns) with hot spring facilities.

What can you do there?
You should definitely stay in a ryokan in Minakami. Most will have hot spring facilities on site, either public or private, which are also known as ‘rotenburo’ - outdoor bathtubs. You’ll most likely be treated to a kaiseki dinner in the local ryokan, a multi-course seasonal meal. You should wash it down with some of Gunma’s local nihonshu (rice wine).

Minakami is a great place to just relax and enjoy the gorgeous scenery that surrounds you. If you’re more of a thrill-seeker however, the town is a great spot for watersports in the summer, such as whitewater rafting on the Tone River. In winter, ski resorts open on the nearby slopes, including the Minakami Kogen Ski Resort - which is comparatively cheaper than the more popular resorts across Japan.

How to get to Minakami
Minakami is a little further from Tokyo, and thus works better as an overnight trip. Take the Joetsu Shinkansen from Ueno Station in north Tokyo to Takasaki Station, then switch to the JR Joetsu Line for Minakami Station. The total trip is usually just over 2 hours.

9. Nagatoro (Saitama)

Why Nagatoro?
Lying at the foot of Mount Hodosan and banking the river of the same name as the town, is Nagatoro, a small settlement in Saitama just to the west of Kumagaya. It’s a place of stunning scenery, charming ryokan and various riverboat activities.

What can you do there?
Nagatoro is a small place and easy to explore on foot. But if you want to break more of a sweat, you can hike Mount Hodosan, which stands sentinel over the town, and get far-reaching views of the Saitama countryside for your troubles.

By day, boat trips are available on the Nagatoro River, whether it's a leisurely cruise by paddle boat (operated by someone else), or taking matters into your own hands with some high-octane rafting. By night, head for one the ryokan in the area, where you’ll be treated to local multi-coursed cuisine, and of course, some tasty Japanese liquor.

How to get to Nagatoro
From Ueno Station in north Tokyo, travel to Kumagaya Station on the Joetsu Shinkansen, then change to the Chichibun Main Line for Nogami Station - this is a five-minute walk from Nagatoro. The total journey is around 1 hour 40 minutes.

10. Tanzawa Mountains (Kanagawa)

Why Tanzawa Mountains?
Located in Kanagawa Prefecture and bordering Yamanashi and Shizuoka Prefectures is the expansive Tanzawa Mountain Range, home to some of the best and highest peaks in the Kanto region. Given its location just south of the capital, access is very easy from both Tokyo and Yokohama.

What can you do there?
Hike, hike, hike. Mount Oyama is a sacred peak, and one of the most accessible hikes in the range. The Oyama Afuri Shrine located atop a set of grand stone steps along the trail is thought to be well over 2,000-years-old. Be sure to eat some Oyama tofu, made with fresh water from the mountain's natural springs, while you’re here.

For something a little more challenging, head for Mount Hirugatake, which grants epic views of Fuji from the top. This can be done as part of two-day hike, also traversing the slopes of Mount Tanzawa and staying the night in Miyama-sanso mountain hut located on Tanzawa’s summit. High-season is typically November through May, so you can head during the summer to avoid the crowds; though expect things to get pretty hot up there!

How to get to Tanzawa Mountains
There are obviously lots of different places from which you can start hiking. But Hon-Atsugi, an area located at the foot of the range is around 1 hour from Shinjuku Station on the Odakyu Line.


Via Live Japan

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