View from the top of Shosenkyo Ropeway Gorge
Here’s another travel guide to undiscovered or lesser-known areas of Japan! We packed our bags for Tokyo, Yamanashi, Nagano, Gunma, and Tochigi, and embarked on a 5 day road trip with Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO).
Our itinerary for this trip was pretty packed back to back, and unfortunately we could only hit a few key spots from each prefecture. If you are planning your own trip, perhaps you can consider spending 2-3 days in each prefecture to get to know the area better, and to experience all the key activities it has to offer!
Most of the places that I will be recommending below are not your typical or well-known tourist spots. It will be useful to download the Japan Official Travel App on your mobile devices as these places are listed in there! I have the app on my phone too, and it’s an amazing because it gives you information on how and where to travel around Japan. Besides giving you tips, links to other useful apps, and information on discount train and bus tickets, the app will also provide you with a list of attractions near you should you choose to venture out of the city. It is the perfect guide to lesser-known attractions and gives you instructions in English on how to get there – throughout my travels around Japan, I always find the less-touristy spots to be the best, you’ll get stunning scenic landscapes and unique experiences that very few have encountered.
Sunset views at Tokyo City View in Roppongi
Day 1 of our trip included a quick tour of Tokyo City. We started the day with lunch at Tsukiji Tama Sushi, which boasts a drool-worthy selection of Sashimi hand-picked from the famous Tsukiji Fish Market every morning. Since we were in the Ginza vicinity and had a bit of spare time before our next scheduled activity, we went to Ginza Place’s Bistro Marx for dessert, and a sprawling bird’s eye view of Ginza Street. I chanced upon Bistro Marx while browsing through Japanese cafe guides you can read or buy in the local bookstores, these guides usually offer a more up-to-date list on the latest and trendiest cafes in Tokyo! The guides are written in Japanese, but thankfully, visual-heavy! What I normally do if I encounter a cafe that I think is worth going, is to open my Google Translate app on my phone and “scan” the paragraphs I want translated. Easy!
Post-dessert, we walked for 5 minutes to Ginza Chazen, a tea room located next to the Kabuki Theatre that gives you an authentic Tea Ceremony experience. If you want to know how to grind tea leaves into Matcha powder, or learn how to make your own Matcha from a renowned Tea Master, then Ginza Chazen is your place. 1 tea session will last 45 minutes, and will cost 3500 JPY per person.
To end the day, we caught the sunset at one of my favourite spots in Tokyo: Tokyo City View. I’ve featured this view a couple of times on my Instagram, and it’s a must-go whenever you’re in the city. Unfortunately, we had bad weather during our visit, otherwise we could have gone to the outdoor sky deck to take pictures, here’s sending you good-weather vibes for your trip!
If you’re a whisky fan, then Day 2 of our trip will be perfect for you. We started the Day with a 2.5 hour drive to Yamanashi prefecture, where we visited the Suntory Hakushu Whisky Distillery for lunch and a factory-tour. If the name Suntory rings a bell, they are the brewers of famous Japanese whiskies such as Hakushu, Hibiki, Suntory and Yamazaki! At the distillery, you will come to learn about the history of Japanese whisky-making. Fun-fact: Hakushu was chosen to be the home of Suntory’s second distillery in 1973 because of its rich natural environment and pure mineral water – an ingredient that is crucial for the mashing stage during the whisky-making process. While I’m not a big whisky fan myself, I really enjoyed myself during the tour, which will culminate in a whisky-tasting session. If you are driving, please take the necessary precautions!
An hour away from the distillery (or a 3-hour drive away from Tokyo if you are coming from the city) is the Shosenkyo Ropeway, a 5-minute “cablecar” car ride to the top that will give you stunning views of Mt. Fuji on a clear day. Navigating to and around Shosenkyo might be difficult if you are not fluent in Japanese, but it is listed in the Japan Official Travel App and instructions to the place are given in English. So keep the app handy!
Our lovely Japanese guide Mike bringing me through the “cleansing” ritual everyone does before entering the temple.
Day 3 was a busy one touring the Nagano prefecture. We arrived at Jigokudani Park and hiked 30 minutes in the morning to visit the Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani – they come out during the winter to “soak” in the natural hot springs, which provide them warmth during the harsh cold winter season. The half an hour easy walk to the hot springs was peaceful and scenic, definitely a great spot for any nature-lover! Hiking boots are essential for this walk during winter because of the snow and ice. However if you do not have any hiking gear with you, you can rent boots, ice crampons, or trekking poles from a shop at the base of the hill.
If you visit the park and are looking for somewhere to eat after, you can head to Hakko restaurant, located about a 15-minute drive away. The restaurant is decorated in a trendy modern light, and serves up specialised meals using Hakko (Japanese for the number eight) fermented ingredients (i.e. Miso, Soy Sauce, Sake, Yoghurt, Bread, Pickles, Malt, Cheese). They open for lunch and dinner.
For an insight into Japanese culture and religion, you can visit Zenkouji Temple, 2 hours-drive away from Jigokudani, or if you are traveling around Japan by Shinkansen – half an hour on foot from Nagano Station. According to our local guide Mike, the Temple is widely regarded as a must-visit destination for most Japanese. Way back when when modern transportation did not exist, people will actually embark on a “pilgrimage” of sorts to Mount Fuji and Zenkouji Temple… on foot. To put things into perspective, Mount Fuji is located 154km away from Tokyo, and Zenkouji is 247km away from Mount Fuji. So imagine the walk. There are many things to do along Shinshu Zenkouji Street (the main street leading to the temple), you can shop, eat, have dessert, and learn how to wear a kimono!
Dinner was at Gotokutei, 5 minutes away from Nagano Station, and we all unanimously agreed their Matcha Ice Cream dessert, was the best we ever had in our lives.
Tomioka Silk Mill
If you are too early for the Cherry Blossoms, Winter Plum Trees will be waiting for you at Akima Bairin, home to as many as 35 000 trees with white and reddish plums! We were a little early for blooming season, but you can already tell how beautiful the trees will look come peak Spring season. Again, this is another location that the Japan Official Travel App will come in handy for, as it is mostly only known to locals.
Another building that holds great significance to the history of Japan is Gunma prefecture’s Tomioka Silk Mill. It is Japan’s oldest silk reeling factory, and given how essential the silk industry was to Japan’s economy after the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, it is only natural the silk mill is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is currently undergoing restoration.
En route to Utsunomiya Station on Japan Rail!
Our last day in Japan was one that I wish could last for another day or two. We spent the night in a Washitu (Japanese-style room) in traditional Japanese hotel Nikko Seikoen, which boasts Onsen facilities you can enjoy after a day out and about.
Nearby, you can visit the stunning Nikko Toshogu Shrine, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Shrine consists of more than a dozen buildings in the midst of lush forestry – we visited the Shrine in the wee hours of the morning, and the peaceful quiet and morning fog had me enthralled throughout.
We ended the trip in a pretty fun way – learning how to make Gyoza! We took a 40-50 minute local train from Nikko Station to Utsunomiya Station on Japan Rail – the affectionately coined “Gyoza-Town”. I am not kidding when I say the town is filled with Gyoza chains – they even have a “Gyoza” chart that maps out all the different kinds of Gyoza the town has to offer. Post World War 2, soldiers that were based in China settled down in the Utsunomiya region, they brought back home with them Gyoza-making skills which that learned in China, and that’s how their Gyoza history started! You can learn how to make Gyoza at Gyoza Kai, and I reckon it will be a fun activity to do when you’re with family or friends! Don’t worry if you are concerned your Gyoza skills don’t make the cut – there are Gyoza masters on site to help you repair um, any damage you may have done!
That’s about it for today’s blog post – I hope this post has given you useful tips and ideas for your next Japan trip! Once again, here are some links that you may find helpful for your itinerary-planning:
Till next time!