One of the real plus sides of having family and friends visit when you’re living in a far off place – aside from, y’know, actually seeing your close family and friends and all that – is that it gives you the opportunity to be something of a tourist yourself.
It’s easy to come to places like Tokyo for work and have all these grand plans about making the most of your ‘weekends’ (inverted commas seeing as my weekend is actually Monday and Tuesday), but the reality of it is that my weekends often go a little like this:
- Finish work at 6.30pm.
- Pester people on Line/Whatsapp/Facebook/text (delete where appropriate) until people agree to go out.
- Play darts/sing karaoke whilst drinking far too much.
- Wake up too late for a Denny’s/Royal Host/McDonald’s (again, delete where appropriate) breakfast.
- Question my existence.
- Watch Netflix.
- Miraculously feel better by around 6pm and fight temptation to go out again.
- Go out again.
- See Monday.
Before I know it, it’s Wednesday and I’m back to the grindstone. However, a few weeks ago I had a couple of visitors and my routine was turned on its head as I probably saw more of Tokyo and the surrounding areas in 10 days than I had in the seven months preceding! 10 days is a long time to spend sightseeing in Tokyo, so we set our sights a little further afield and ventured out of the city on most of my days off. Here are a few short days trips that are easily doable in a day from Tokyo.
An ancient city full of history and temples just an hour’s train ride from Tokyo on the Shonan-Shinjuku line, Kamakura is a very welcome change of pace from the hectic, hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
Upon arrival at a rainy Kamakura station, we purchased a tourist pass which gave us free bus and train (more on that later) access for the day. Coming in at just ¥570, it was a very worthwhile purchase as we got a fair bit of use out of it.
The main sights recommended to us were Kenchoji Temple, Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, Hasedera Temple and Kotokuin Temple – the big Buddha. Again, more on that later too.
Remember I said we got a fair bit of use out of our passes? That was down to two main things. Firstly, it didn’t stop pissing down for a good few hours after we arrived so we had no real choice but to get the bus and train around; however the main reason was that Kamakura station was located right in the middle of all these sights. The first two on our list were about a 20 minute walk one way from the station, and the others were the same distance in the opposite direction! As most temples and shrines closed around 4.30pm and we were running late as it was, we had no real choice.
To get from Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine to the rest of the places on the itinerary you need to take the Enoden line train for three stops from Kamakura station to Hase. Told you we got a good amount of use our of our passes!
Unfortunately, we arrived at Hasedera Temple at pretty much bang on 4.30pm – the closing time. Despite my best attempts to sweet talk the lady at the gate in my elementary level broken Japanese, she wouldn’t even allow me to cross the threshold to take one photograph so sadly what you see below is the best I could muster! Japanese efficiency at its finest.
Finally, we made our way to the Big Buddha which was just a few minutes walk up the road. The lady at the tourist information had informed us that it was under renovation at the moment, but she didn’t really specify what type of renovation was going on. As you can see from the picture below, she might want to be more clear in the future.
As it happened, the renovations finish a week later. Typical, eh?
If you visit Hase then be sure to check out Idobata coffee stand on your way to the temples. Just a short walk from Hase station on the right hand side, we found the renovated old camper van that had been turned into a lovely little coffee stall by a retired man with a passion for coffee and his very friendly wife who took the time to have a chat with us in English and inform us about their business and the local area.
With a wide variety of coffees freshly prepared in front of you, it really is a labour of love which I cannot recommend highly enough!
No visit to Japan is complete without at least seeing Mount Fuji. Sadly, you can only climb the mountain between July and September so my Mount Fuji experiences have so far been looking at it from the treadmill on a very clear day. It’s oddly motivating – trust me.
The day after our Kamakura visit was supposed to be a lot clearer, so with that in mind I did some research (in other words, looked on Wikitravel) about the best places to view the mountain on a clear day. After some deliberation (about 15 minutes of reading), it seemed like Lake Kawaghuchi would probably be the best shout.
We arrived bright and early at Shinjuku Expressway bus terminal the next morning ready to jump on the next bus.
It turned out that all buses for the almost two hour journey were fully booked until 2pm that day. Who knew everybody else wanted to get a clear view of Fuji on a lovely day too?
Desperate to make the most of the clear weather – which we were certain wouldn’t last forever – the three of us stood around frantically Googling other options. In the end, we decided that the limited express train from Shinjuku to Hakone was our best option. Not only was it fairly quick (just over an hour) but at around ¥2000 it wasn’t particularly expensive either. Oh yeah, and there was a bar on board too.
Sadly, the journey felt a little longer as the bar was closed but the day was saved as we arrived in Hakone at around the same time the bus would have got us into Kawaguchi, so no time was lost. In fact, we even got some cracking views of Fuji from the train which – although we didn’t know it at the time – we’d end up being very grateful for.
Similar to the day before, we purchased another tourist pass for the bus which took us to Hakonemachi, a little town on the edge of Lake Ashi where – providing the weather played ball – we’d get a clear view of Fuji. The pass cost ¥1,750 per person which again gave us unlimited travel around Hakone and the surrounding areas.
Sadly, after a 40 minute bus ride to Lake Ashi it seemed the clear weather had decided that it’d had enough for the day and the clouds came in. Although we could still get a semi-decent view when there was a break in the clouds, it seemed a bit of a shame to have spent so long travelling to be met with a bit of an underwhelming view.
One thing we did notice was a fairly regular rumbling noise which seemed to be coming from the (still active) volcano. Now maybe this was all in our heads after we’d done our reading about the possibility of an eruption soon, but it was still rather unsettling! After some food at the wonderfully titled ‘Ham and Sausage Restaurant’, we decided it was time to head back into the city.
Located just 40 kilometres from Tokyo and home to around three million people, it’s hard to believe that Yokohama is the second biggest city in the country. Maybe it’s because the much smaller population means it’s possible to walk around and not be run over by some lunatic on a bicycle or lose your eye than umbrella on a rainy day. Either way, it really doesn’t feel like such a huge city when coming from Tokyo but Wikipedia never lies (right?) so it must be true.
The bayside city is home to the largest Chinatown in Japan which serves up some cracking food and almost does feel like a mini China. The highlight for me, however, came a good few hours before we even ventured in the direction of Chinatown. I’ll allow the picture below to do the talking…
Yes, a cup noodle museum ladies and gentlemen.
Whilst instant noodles are seen as cheap, nasty food back in the UK, they’re not given such a bad rep in Japan and, as you can see, there’s obviously quite a lot of history in the cup noodle world; enough for a museum anyway.
We didn’t actually pay to enter the museum as we weren’t really sure it would be worth it, but from what I gather you can design your own packaging for a personalised cup noodle meal of your choice and I think if you’re there at the right time you can even cook up your own ramen. Fortunately for me, my habit of getting pictures with statues, mascots and any other sort of figure was appeased as I found this little fella in the lobby.
The large majority of our time was spent on the bay front, where we wandered between a few restaurants and bars (cultured as owt, us) whilst enjoying the more relaxed atmosphere. The historical Red Brick Warehouse is a nice old building which was built more than a century ago, but these days plays host to restaurants, bars and shops. Apparently if you go on the right day you may be able to see a number of cultural shows, but evidently we didn’t go on the right day. If you’ve ever been to Halifax then imagine a red Peace Hall. I’m fairly sure that’s the first time Yokohama has been compared to Halifax.
Getting out of the city in January to visit Okinawa and more recently on these three trips really motivated me to be more productive, get out and see more of Japan. With this in mind, I’ve just spent the first day of my weekend typing this post before heading out to nomihodai and karaoke in Ikebukuro.
There’s always tomorrow.