We set out from Tokyo (where the weather was stunning – bright blue skies with radiant sunshine) hoping to get a glimpse of Mount Fuji from Lake Kawaguchi – one of the five lakes which are found at the base of Mt Fuji. Unfortunately we were sadly disappointed when we arrived – the entire area was surrounded by a thick fog and the temperature was close to freezing. Mount Fuji was no where to be seen. So we spent the afternoon sitting in a lakeside restaurant, eating Hoto Noodles (a local specialty of Lake Kawaguchi) from cast iron bowls, whilst taking in the eerie view of the lake.
So we spent a couple of days exploring Japan’s capital. Tokyo is a large metropolitan city, with many things to see and do. Their metro system runs like clockwork and with the fantastic grid criss-crossing the city, it is not difficult to get to any part of the city. If you are planning to do a lot of siteseeing in one day, I’d recommend that you purchase a day pass for the metro, which is about 700 yen ($7), and it gives you unlimited use of the Tokyo metro system. Just beware that some of the metro lines are independently owned and some are part of Japan Rail, so double check which pass you purchase. I think the one that covers the lot is 1000 yen ($10) for unlimited travel for one calendar day.
Tokyo has two international airports, Narita and Haneda, which have great connections to many cities around the world. Tokyo is also well connected to the rest of Japan by an amazing rail network.
We stayed at Quality Hostel K’s House in Asakusa. This hostel was fantastic – probably the best we stayed in during our time in Japan. Located only a short walk from Asakusa metro station and Senso-ji Temple.
Sushi! The Fish Market has the freshest sushi around, however wherever we ordered sushi in Tokyo the freshness, quality and value for money was second to none.
My third day in Japan was spent wandering through the Kiso Valley, walking along part of the Nakasendo Way between Magome and Tsumago. The Nakasendo Way is part of the old trade route between Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and Kyoto. The most well preserve part of the route is between Magome-juku and Tsumago-juku, old post towns which still retain their original charm. They are among the most well preserved towns in Japan from the Edo period.
I started the walk early, in order to give me plenty of time to take in the beautiful Japanese countryside, and get back to Tokyo by a reasonable time in the evening. Walking from Magome to Tsumago is easier, as the majority of the walk is downhill. The walk is 8km long, so allow about 2-3 hours to complete it. The walk isn’t too strenuous, I person with a moderate fitness level should complete it easily, and there are signposts everywhere, so there isn’t a problem with getting lost. Make sure you ring the bells along the way to ward off bears. And don’t forget to bring plenty of snacks with you (there isn’t much, if anything, to buy along the way) and a water bottle (there are a number of places this can be filled).
The walk leads you through beautiful countryside (I was lucky enough to catch the cherry blossoms), small post towns, waterfalls, shrines, cedar forests, and if you’re lucky, you might even spot a few Japanese monkeys.
The Nakasendo Way can be reached from either Magome or Tsumago. To get to Magome, take a train from Nagano to Nakatsugawa, and from there, take the Magome bus. To get to Tsumago, take the train from Nagano to Nakatsugawa, where you change for a train to Nagiso. From Nagiso, you can take the bus to Tsumago, or walk 4km (the way is paved and signposted) to Tsumago.
There is guesthouse accommodation in both Magome and Tsumago, but I found them a bit expensive for those on a backpacker budget. Instead, I stayed at Kisoji Furusato Youth Hostel in Nakatsugawa. To get there you have to get off the Magome bus at Ochiai station, and then give the owner a call. It’s almost impossible to find the place on your own. The owner will then drive you to Magome, about 2km away, to being the hike. The hostel was very clean and very cosy. The owners cook a great traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast on request (I suggest that you request dinner and breakfast, as there is nothing near the hostel except houses and farmland).
Next stop was Matsumoto and what a surprise I had when I visit the castle – it was surrounded by blooming cherry blossoms. I thought I had arrived in Japan a little late in the season and had missed them – there were none to be seen in Tokyo. So I was pleasantly surprised to see them in Matsumoto.
Matsumoto town is rather large, but its star attraction is its imposing castle. Again, Matsumoto is quite easy to visit on a day trip from Tokyo (thank you Japan for your amazing rail network), but I tied it in with a two day trip from Tokyo, with the following day being spent hiking part of the Nakasendo Way between Magome and Tsumago (my next post!). As you can see by the photos, the castle is stunning. It’s free to walk around the park surrounding the castle (there were many locals enjoying the day beneath the cherry blossoms), with a charge to enter the castle and the castle’s inner courtyard.
From Tokyo, take a train to either Shinjuku or Nagano, where you can transfer to a direct train to Matsumoto. The journey time is approximately 3 hours. Trains run regularly.
Fish shaped waffles on Nakamachi Street. There are two or three shops on this pretty little street which sell these piping hot goodies. Filled with all sorts of flavours, including custard, red bean paste, apple cinnamon, chocolate, etc, for a 100 yen they are a great little snack.
After one flight cancellation, three flight delays (thanks to Jetstar), a three hour wait in Kansai airport, a 5 hour train ride, I finally arrived in Tokyo 18 hours later than anticipated. So, not losing any more time, I quickly jumped on the next train to Nikko, to spend the afternoon exploring the beautiful and ornate temples in Nikko National Park.
Just a 20 minute walk from the train station, you will find yourself in another world which is Nikko National Park. A complex full of beautiful walks amongst the cedar trees, interwoven with some of the most ornate temples you will see in Japan. The delicately carved woodwork, fine paint work and stunning golden accents of these large and impressive temples are what attract both local and international visitors.
I’d recommend taking an entire day out to explore the temples of Nikko – I was rather rushed trying to see them in a few hours in the afternoon. There are also hot springs nearby, which would be great way to unwind after a day walking around Nikko National Park.
If you have a JR Pass (a must if you’re planning to do a lot of rail travel throughout Japan), take the train from Tokyo Central Station to Utsunomiya, and then to Nikko JR Station. There are regular trains running throughout the day – there is a timetable at Nikko JR Station which you can check so you do not miss the final train.
If staying in Tokyo, it’s easy enough to visit Nikko as a day trip. There are many more accommodation options in Tokyo, then in Nikko, but if you wish to stay in Nikko, I’m sure there are accommodation options for a range of budgets.
Walking from Nikko Station to Nikko National Park, you will pass a few antique stores. These were some of the most interesting antique stores I saw during my time in Japan, so it may be worthwhile to spend some time having a browse.