Magome and Tsumago via Nagoya
Magome and Tsumago are two historic towns on the ancient route between Tokyo and Kyoto. Today, the towns have been well preserved and the hiking path between them is still accessible. If you haven’t read my post about hiking between these cities, I highly recommend that you do as this was my favorite experience in Japan. The only catch about these towns is that they’ve been so well preserved that they don’t have any (or at least any reasonable) accommodations.
For our weekend, we stayed in Nagoya, which seemed like a rather dull and unexciting place to stay. We went in with low expectations, and maybe that’s why we ended up loving the city so much.
Want to fall in love with Nagoya too? First, book a room with a castle view at the The Westin Nagoya Castle. It made what could have been a boring hotel so much more exciting. The hotel is located steps away from the moat which surrounds the castle (as moats tend to do). It provides the perfect track for a morning run, or, wait until the castle is lit up at night and take a stroll. Within the grounds of the castle I found local food trucks selling delicious snacks, and you can picnic right there. Perfect.
Nagoya also has a huge shopping area called the Osu Kannon Arcade leading up to Osu Kannon temple. Though we hadn’t planned on buying anything, we left with two huge bags overflowing with gifts for colleagues and friends. Tea and sake sets were a steal compared to what we’d seen them selling for in Tokyo and the shopkeepers were so friendly. They also had dozens of small shops specializing in second hand goods that rivaled any thrift store in Brooklyn.
Surprisingly, Nagoya also had a lot going on after dark. The downtown area was packed with people hitting up the clubs, and we saw more strip clubs than anywhere else in Japan. After spending a few weeks in buttoned-up Tokyo, the grittiness of Nagoya was welcomed.
This Nagoya-Magome-Tsumago journey makes a great weekend getaway from Tokyo. I suggest taking the shinkansen which will put you there in just over an hour and a half. For instructions on how to get to Magome, check out this post here. If you don’t have to head back to Tokyo, why not continue on to my next destination, Takayama?
There aren’t enough words to describe how adorable I found the town of Takayama. It’s located four hours west of Tokyo by train in the Hida mountain region. Four hours may stretch the boundaries of an acceptable distance for a weekend trip, but it’s possible with only one train transfer and it’s certainly worth the trip.
Though small, Takayama has an exquisitely preserved old town. The true highlight for most travelers is The Higashiyama Walking Course, which is a trail leading through the northern part of the town and passing by all the major highlights (you know, the temples and shrines). Interestingly enough, it also crosses through the big local park, taking you through the woods (watch out for bear warnings!) and into more residential parts of the town. I was quite surprised to read on Japan Guide that it’s, “by no means a stunning sightseeing experience” and I couldn’t disagree more. The walk was a great way to stretch my legs after the long train ride from Tokyo, and it was an excellent way to experience the town. I say don’t miss it.
Traditionally, Takayama is known for woodworking and skilled carpenters. You can still see that today in the old town, with the intricate wood paneled homes and buildings. Don’t miss the morning markets, where at the Miyagawa Market near the river, you can purchase hand carved products. I found a great pair of wooden cufflinks that made a great gift. They also had delicious local specialties like chocolate, sweets and pickles, and cheap but strong coffee.
If you’ve already explored the town, walked the path, and shopped around the old town, then I suggest making a trip out to the Hida Folk Village. It’s not the most exciting way to spend a morning, but it’s beautifully located outside the town on a hillside. They’ve relocated over a dozen homes made using the traditional local techniques and they’re situated to form a small village, complete with a lake and temple. The homes all have extremely tall, pitched roofs that are said to resemble praying hands. You’re able to wander into the homes and look around, though you have to take your shoes off at each home, which after the a few times gets really old. (Tip- wear sandals or easy to remove shoes!)
If you want to check out the Hida Folk Village, simply stop by the tourist information center at the local train station (which is also where the bus leaves for the village) and they’ll give you a schedule for the bus and information about a discounted ticket with a round trip bus fare.
One thing to know about Takayama: I had an incredibly difficult time finding food options at night. In several small Japanese towns that I visited I noticed that many restaurants close at around 5pm and this was particularly true here. I’m not sure why, but it seems that maybe there isn’t enough demand to keep them going for dinner. In Takayama near the old town my choices were limited to several restaurants serving the local Hida Beef specialties (I’m a vegetarian) or a few unsavory looking foreign restaurants. The noodle shops and other restaurants that I had seen during the day were closed. Luckily, every town seems to have a 24-hour convenience store and I was able to get noodles with several different vegetables on the side. However, just keep in mind when you’re outside of the major cities that places may close early so eat a big lunch!
The Snow Monkeys of Japan enchanted me as a young girl. I grew up with a poster of one of these red faced cuties on my wall and always hoped to be able to see them in person. I’m so glad that I made the journey, despite there not being any snow.
The town of Yudanaka is a wonderful weekend trip from Tokyo with year-round options. If you happen to be visiting outside of ski season, be prepared to have a relaxing, laid back weekend of soaking in hot springs, wandering the tiny towns shopping for souvenirs, and interacting with the famous resident monkeys. I highly recommend this trip for animal lovers or anyone who want to experience small town life.
If you want to know more about visiting the Snow Monkeys or planning a trip to Yudanaka, check out my blog post here.
Hakone really doesn’t need an introduction. It’s really the quintessential weekend away from the big city. The highlights include hot springs, hikes, and views of Mt.Fuji. Unfortunately for us, Mt. Fuji is often called “shy” and when we went to check her out she was hiding behind a veil of cloud and fog. At least the lovely proprietor of our ryokan gave us an origami version so that we could feel as if we saw her.
Be aware that things in Hakone and the neighboring towns close early- this isn’t a place with much nightlife. It’s more of a relaxing, eat -dinner- early- and- go- to- bed place.
I love Kyoto. There’s nothing better than riding a bike through the city, taking in the sights and stopping for strolls around temples. I loved walking around Gion at night spotting Geishas as they shuffled off to their late night appointments. The vintage shops were to die for. The only reason that I don’t recommend Kyoto as a weekend trip is that I think there’s far too much to see and do. If you must go for a weekend, then do it. It’s certainly better than nothing. But for the record, it’s much better visited during the week when the crowds are less and for at least 3 or 4 days.