Escape from steamy city to explore cool Okutama

Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi
Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi

Escape from steamy city to explore cool Okutama

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

Japan’s tsuyu rainy season has just started and the steamy weather will continue until late July in the Kanto and other parts of Honshu. To avoid the heat and sticky weather while maintaining social distancing guidelines, my wife, daughter and I took a refreshing escape to Okutama in western Tokyo.

This mountainous region is blessed with beautiful forests, lakes and rivers offering a nice one-day driving route from most U.S. military bases in the Kanto Plain.

Anxious for cool, fresh air and beautiful landscapes, we left our home in Yokosuka City around 8 a.m. We drove through Yoko-Yoko, Tomei and Chuo Expressways, and it was around 9:30 a.m. when we got to Ome City. It was Saturday, but the route was not too crowded, which let us enjoy pleasant driving through the beautiful green valley of Tama River as we made our way to Ozawa Shuzo Brewery.

Hiking around old traditional brewery on the Tama River

Ozawa Shuzo, one of the oldest sake breweries in Tokyo, sits in a valley along the Tama River. Since opening its doors in 1705, the brewery has been brewing high-quality sake using rice and spring water of the Okutama Valley. The large brewery has a sizeable garden spreading along the riverside, complete with a restaurant, museum and souvenir shops.

We left the car in the parking lot of the brewery and ventured out for a stroll in the large brewery garden and along the riverside path in the cool breeze from the Tama River.

The brewery’s 30-minute guided tour was unfortunately suspended due to COVID-19, so we were not able to join. Usually, the tour includes a walk through the brewery’s wooden store house and spring water springs. We were, however, still able to visit the grounds and sample some of the restaurant’s delicacies like handmade sweet-bean buns and wasabi-flavored tofu nuggets while overlooking the river and bright red suspension bridge. If you are not the designated driver, don’t forget to sample the brewery’s high-end sake brand “Sawanoi,” as the extremely mellow and smooth flavor pairs well with the menu.  

We enjoyed hours of hiking the beautiful nature trails along the river and saw some visitors enjoying fishing and rafting in the area. Before we left the brewery, I made sure to buy a large bottle delicious sake as a souvenir to take home.

Exploring a large limestone cave

Our next stop in the area was a drive through a narrow, cliffy road to arrive at the Nippara Shonyudo limestone cave.

This cave with an internal temperature of a cool 52 degrees Fahrenheit is an ideal place to escape the heat and humidity in the summer. This serene spot also once served as a sacred Buddhist site for meditation and training, so the rock formations and halls have names with Buddhist origins. We checked out the Hakuikannon (Bodhisattva in White Dress), Jigokudani (valley of Hell) and Amidanohara (The Field of Amitabha) as we explored this bright, illuminated cave. Standing in the large space underground made us feel as if we were traveling in the galaxy.

To tell you the truth, we weren’t expecting the cave to cool us down enough to need a jacket. But once we started walking along the cave stairs and different areas the temperature was fine.

Driving around Okutama Lake

After we delved underground, the next leg of our tour brought us to Okutama Lake, a man-made reservoir which provides over 20 percent of Tokyo’s water supply. Many visitors enjoy leisurely walks and drives around the lake to enjoy its lush, forested surroundings.

The 13-mile Okutama Shuyudoro skyline makes for a nice, smooth drive and the view from the top of the area’s mountain ranges is breathtaking. We usually tour around the area in early November to check out the gorgeous autumn colors.

Our regret this time was the two parking lots, Tsukiyomi No. 1 and No.2, known for their splendid views of the lake and surrounding mountains, were also closed due to COVID-19. Though we couldn’t park, the drive through the forests of fresh green leaves were simply beautiful, and the strong sunshine of early summer made us feel as if we were dreaming. We encountered a large group of monkeys with babies, standing aside the winding mountainous path and looking at us... the babies were so cute!

Ending trip with hot soak

It was already close to 3 p.m. and we were hungry, so we headed to the onsen for a soak and a nice lunch. There are six one-day spa facilities in the Okutama area, perfect for a relaxing end to your hike or long drive.

These warm springs, rich in sodium and chloride, were relaxing after a long day. The spa contains various bathing pools and tubs as well as some dining facilities. We enjoyed a good soak and a light meal before we hit road at around 5 p.m.

Although we are now in the mid of the unpleasant rainy season, don’t let the rain get you down as there are plenty of sunny days throughout. The average number of rainy days in June is only 12 in the Kanto Plain, according to Japan Meteorological Agency. So, take advantage of the sunny day to head to Okutama for some driving, hiking and cool river breezes!

 

Ozawashuzo Brewery

Location : 2-770 Sawai, Ome City, Tokyo
Hours: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. M-S
Website
Tel: 0428-78-8215

 

Nippa Shonyudo (Limestone Cave)

Location: 1052 Nippara, Okutama Town, Nishikitama-gun, Tokyo (Parking lot is available for 700 vehicles)
Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. M-S
Admission: 800 yen for adults; 600 yen for middle school students; 500 yen for elementary students.

 

Kazuma-no-yu (hotspring)

Location: 2430 Hinohara Village, Nishitama-gun, Tokyo
Hours: Tue – Fri, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. (Monday close)
Admission: 880 yen for adults; 440 yen for elementary and middle school students
Website (Japanese)
Tel: 0428-83-8491Kazumanoyu Spa

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