Where should we go in Japan (~ central Honshu) to get out of the city and do some hiking?
April 19, 2012 12:22 PM   Subscribe

Where do you recommend to get out of the cities and see some nature/countryside in Japan? We'd love to hike, and spend some time soaking in outdoor hot springs. We've looked at the Japanese Alps as well as the area around Hakone, but we're having trouble sorting through the options, and a bit nervous about the guidebook references to "hoards of day-trippers." Help us focus? Any recommendations for towns, specific hiking trails or hotels?

2 adults traveling as a couple. We have 10 days in Japan in late May/early June. We're planning on spending the bulk of our time in Tokyo and Kyoto (with a day trip to Nara), but we'd love recommendations for spots to visit outside of the cities. We're looking for areas that could be the "relaxing" portion of our vacation, but still provide something fun/interesting to do every day.

Happy to consider places outside of the ones I mentioned, but areas that won't take forever (6+ hours) to get to from either Tokyo or Kyoto are ideal. Although sleeper trains do sound like a great adventure so we can be swayed.

We'll have up to 3 days and 3 nights, which don't have to be spent in the same place, JR passes, and a pretty flexible budget. Also no Japanese but a strong desire not to let that stop us.

Thanks in advance for helping us uncover more of this wonderful country!
posted by copacetic to Travel & Transportation around Japan (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I've done very little hiking/ outdoorsy stuff in Japan but I really enjoyed the 90-minute hike to the Great Buddha in Kamakura. The scenery is beautiful, it's super easy to access from Tokyo, there's a lot of Buddhisty stuff to look at (the first part of the hiking course will take you through some temples/associated gardens), and at the end you can get purple sweet potato soft serve ice cream.
posted by Jeanne at 12:43 PM on April 19, 2012

I would say that if you're traveling between Tokyo and Osaka, and you want to fit in an excursion in between, I would travel from Kyoto to Kanazawa, up the Hokuriku Line. It would take about 2.5 hours to get to Kanazawa by express train.

Kanazawa is a beautiful, walkable city. It was never bombed during the war, so it has managed to retain a lot of its character. It's also one of the only cities I have been to in Japan that has zoning bylaws, and bylaws about signage.

There's plenty so see and do in the town, and it's all walkable, and there are several onsen clusters nearby. No idea how many nights you will have to spare at the end of the day, but you could stay a night in Kanazawa, and then spend a night just to the south in one of the many onsen towns in the Kaga onsen cluster. We've stayed near Kaga many, many times, most recently this past winter.

My favourite onsen town in the Kaga area is Yamanaka Onsen. It's in the mountains a bit, along a river, and there's a really interesting and quaint old-style onsen town to explore.

These places are a little off the beaten track - but not too much - so it will be a lot different than what you will experience in Tokyo, Kyoto and, to some extent, Nara.

Another interesting trip that's closer to Osaka/Kyoto/Nara is Mount Koya.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:45 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nikko is a nice easy trip from Tokyo - historic shrines, beautiful countryside (hills, waterfalls, lake, monkeys, hot springs). Stay at the Turtle Inn. It takes about 3 hours on JR lines.

Kamakura (as Jeanne mentioned) has historic temples and hiking trails, not to mention the big out door Buddha. About 1.5 hours on JR from Tokyo.

Around Kyoto, Mt. Koya will get you away from it all. It's a Buddhist temple complex in the hills/woods about 3 hours outside of Kyoto on JR and a cable car. For the adventurer in you, stay overnight at one of the temples there.

Also around Kyoto, you might consider Fushimi Inari. It's a 5 minute train ride from JR Kyoto station, and has a phenomenal number of shrines and torii going up the hillside, with more hiking aspects the higher you get. Also, fabulous sake at Gekkeikan.

Given your desires, I think Nikko would be perfect for you. Have a great time!
posted by sazanka at 12:46 PM on April 19, 2012

Totsukawa is a "village" consisting of most of the southern part of Nara prefecture. You can take the train from Kyoto or Osaka to Yoshino, and proceed from there. You may need to rent a car, or take cabs from Yoshino (although Yoshino itself is also lovely), but there are a number of onsen (hot springs) in the area, as well as hiking trails, inns, etc. Not nearly as touristy as Hakone.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:46 PM on April 19, 2012

On preview, Koya-san is also a great day trip, and easily doable from Osaka. Even just going to Nara-city and visiting Todai-ji and some of the other temples and shrines in the area would make a very walkable day trip.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:49 PM on April 19, 2012

I always like to recommend Shikoku, since it's equally awesome and overlooked. It's not on your planned itinerary at all, but it is less than 6 hours by train from Kyoto. Takamatsu in Kagawa, the prefecture nearest to the usual mainland connection, is just over 2 hours away (bullet train to Okayama, and local express from there). I wouldn't recommend doing a day trip--there's more than enough to see in the area, you could spend 2-3 days easily. It might not be for you since it's further away, but it's a lovely area; it's a lot more agricultural/rural than most of Honshu. You might also have to stretch your sign language skills, as English speakers are a little bit rarer in my experience.

You can visit some of the 88 temples which form a pilgrimage route around the island, either on foot or not. Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu is really nice. Kochi is a friendly city with neat local markets, beautiful scenery, and some good beaches. I've never been to Matsuyama, but the Dogo Onsen there are famous in Japan, and there are lots of onsen spots in Shikoku in general, too. Anyway, this might be a little too far out of your way. It's definitely very different from big urban areas, and there is no threat whatsoever of hordes of day-trippers.

Other than that, there is also Yudanaka, near Nagano, a hot spring town which is known for a monkey park where snow monkeys also bathe. It's also a fair distance out of your way, though.

Sooo, having recommended two places that aren't on your itinerary at all, I'll nth Koya-san! It's a great day-trip from Kyoto, Nara, or Osaka. Really nice rain or shine, too, so definitely still go if you don't have great weather.
posted by snorkmaiden at 1:08 PM on April 19, 2012

May and June shouldn't be so bad in Hakone, as long as you avoid Golden Week (The first week of May, when most of the country gets the entire week off from work.) I went for my first and only time a few summers ago in late July and was surprised by how few people were there.
posted by Kevtaro at 3:23 PM on April 19, 2012

posted by Infernarl at 6:44 PM on April 19, 2012

Sazanka beat me to it, but the Fushimi Inari hike is really nice. It's just about two hours, loops up and over the small mountain/hill through a cemetary, then comes out in a residential neighborhood which leads to another temple.

Kamakura is riddled with hiking trails. Some of the temples in Kita-Kamakura have entrances to paths behind their main temple areas, ns these trails have very nice views.

In western Tokyo, you should really check out Okutama, which is a beautiful area. There is a large reservoir and several mountain trails doable in a day. Mitake-San (•not• Mitaka) is along the train line heading up to the reservoir, and the top of the mountain is home to a whole bunch of minshuku and ryokan. The area itself is beautiful, and it's also the starting point for a bunch of nice day hikes.

Also, just walking around Kyoto, particularly southern parts of the city, can be an amazing way to rub into little nooks and crannies of awesomeness.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:35 AM on April 20, 2012

Thanks for the fantastic input!

The only other time I've been to Japan I attended a conference in Kyoto and squeezed in some sight seeing locally. Fushimi Inari was by far my favorite (especially because I happened to be there at dusk - creepily awesome.) So you have us pegged!

Please keep the ideas coming, especially if you have favorite onsen or ryokan suggestions. Plus two follow-on questions:

1) It sounds like people are steering us away from the alps - do I have that right?
2) If we stay in a small town / traditional hotel, are we going to freak the innkeepers out if we sleep until 10 one morning?
posted by copacetic at 3:28 PM on April 20, 2012

At Yudanaka, the ryokan right in the same valley as Jigokudani monkey park is awesome. It's not cheap, but it's a very cool old building, the food is great, the staff speak some English, and there is a nice unisex outdoor onsen (and a very old school indoor one, too, which is gender segregated). When we stayed in October 2010, there was also one other foreign couple there.

That's the only time I've stayed in a ryokan, and I'm pretty sure they served breakfast fairly early. I think that breakfast or checkout times might stop you from sleeping 'til 10, but otherwise I guess you would be OK...
posted by snorkmaiden at 2:59 PM on April 30, 2012

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