If you’re fortunate enough to be working, studying or traveling in Tokyo there’s an endless supply of interesting, and sometimes wacky, things to see and do. If you’re looking to see a bit more of Japan, but are short on time, here’s my recommendations for easy day trips by train.
If you only have one day and you want to get a taste of Japan outside if the mega-city of Tokyo, I suggest heading to Nikko. Nikko is best known for the Toshogu shrine, which some say is the most elaborate shrine in Japan. Based on what I saw, I would agree. More than just a fancy shrine, the area has many Shinto and Buddhist temples, all nestled into gorgeous, tree and moss covered mountains. In the Fall, the foliage can be absolutely bursting with color, and in the summer the mountains sure are cooler than the city.
Nikko is easily accessible by train, including Japan Railways if you have a JR Railpass, and it’s about 2 hours from Tokyo. From the JR Nikko rail station it’s an easy walk through town and up the mountain to get to the Toshogu shrine. Walking at a moderate pace it might take about 30 minutes, or you can take the public bus. Along the way you’ll pass the picturesque Shinkyo Bridge on your left. The bridge is at the base of the mountain (if you’re walking, the road comes to a T here and rather than following the road left or right you’ll need to go straight, taking the stairs up the mountain). It’s said that in ancient times only the Shogun was allowed to cross the bridge- today anyone can cross it if they’re willing to pay for an entrance ticket.
When you arrive at the Toshogu shrine I highly recommend renting the audio guide. The details are so rich that it seems like a shame to quickly walk through and not notice the sleeping cat, the dragon painted ceiling, the three monkeys or any of the other famous adornments. Note: the famous Yomei-mon Gate is under construction but don’t let that hold you back from visiting. There’s so much else to see here. I was impressed by the number of buildings, each slightly different and very elaborate.
Kamakura is another day trip that’s often recommended from Tokyo. Kamakura is a city, located near the water about an hour train ride from Tokyo. It’s best known for it’s large (I certainly wouldn’t call it huge) bronze Buddha statue that’s often referred to by tourists simply as “Kamakura”. If you’ve had the privilege of traveling around Asia, you’ve probably seen larger Buddha statues.
While the somewhat large Buddha didn’t impress me, the town did. It has its tourist streets selling macha ice cream and cheap kimonos for sure, but wandering around the sides streets and visiting some of the lesser seen temples made for a nice day. The Hasedera Temple has a particularly nice garden that’s worth a visit and I found the restaurant to be a relaxing spot for meal with a view of the water.
The town is certainly charming and the Buddha is beautiful, but if you only have time for one trip outside of Tokyo I think you should go to Nikko and prepare to be impressed by the detailed carvings and the elaborate decorations of the shrines. The bucolic location doesn’t hurt either.
For all the foodies out there, if you have some free time and you want to check out the high speed trains, make plans to head to Shin-Yokohama for lunch at the Ramen Museum. The noodles are great and it’s fun to order a meal using a vending machine.
You might notice one place not on my list of day trips- Hakone. While it’s a great place to visit, and certainly is easy to get to from Tokyo, I think it’s a much better option for an overnight trip. You can also read my suggestions for weekend trips from Tokyo!