With its quaint towns, rolling bucolic countryside, top-notch roads and easy rail system, Japan’s Kanto region is made for road-tripping.
A city of neon lights, gleaming angled buildings and bustling energy, Tokyo is a feast for the senses. In this metropolis alone, you can experience just about everything Japan has to offer: arts and culture, traditional and contemporary food, striking architecture and, a little further out, ancient laneways lined with minka (traditional Japanese houses). You can even see the looming form of Mount Fuji – Japan’s highest mountain.
Tokyo is also the ideal launching pad for your regional road trip. Taking to the roads (and railways) means you can pause (or alight) and fully immerse yourself in Japanese culture as and when you wish. Start in the Kanto region (Tokyo and 10 other prefectures), where there are five major highways, numerous railways, and nature is writ large.
Think Japan, and shrines and temples often spring to mind, and there’s no shortage of them in this picture-perfect region. It is, in fact, home to some of Japan’s most historical and important sites. Start at the gold-coated Ueno Toshogu Shrine, built in 1627 in memory of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder and ruler of the Edo period. Follow with a visit to Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten, where you can listen to the rhythmic beat of the traditional taiko drum and tour the historic workshop where the drums are made.
Drive to Nikko (roughly two hours) past rice paddies and traditional towns brimming with culture. Or, if you feel like a day off driving, jump aboard the Spacia Kegon, an express train from Tobu Asakusa to Tobu Nikko stations that takes less than two hours. Don’t miss the Nikko Toshogu shrine where Tokugawa Ieyasu was enshrined after his death in 1616, then venture down the 35-kilometre Nikko Suginamiki Kaido, the longest tree-lined road in the world, where you’re enveloped by towering cedar trees. Pause at Kinugawa-Kawaji Onsen, soak in the soothing waters, or stay in a traditional ryokan.
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Drive to Kinugawa-Onsen Station and take the train to Aizu-Tajima along the Tobu, Yagan and Aizu Railway lines. You’ll head past countless paddy fields, the winding Kinugawa River and the sweeping mountain peaks of northern Tochigi and southern Fukushima.
A short walk from the station is the Aroma Experience, where you can learn about traditional essential oils made from locally sourced natural ingredients. Afterwards, head to Ouchijuku, an Edo-period village that retains the appearance of a historic Japanese post town. Here, slurp local speciality negi soba – Ouchijuku’s twist on the classic Japanese bowl of soba noodles served with a giant leek. Stay at Ashinomaki Onsen or Higashiyama Onsen, where you can bathe in traditional hot springs.
From here, drive to Tennei-ji Temple, linked to the city’s samurai history. Nearby is Sazaedo Temple, built in 1796, characterised by a steep, double staircase – one for going up and the other for coming down. Further inland at Mount Iimori lies the graves of 19 young warriors who died in the Aizu War, a local battle of the Boshin War. Those with an artistic flair can try their hand at creating lacquerware.
Suzuzen was established in the mid-19th century and specialises in decorative lacquerware, and if your creation isn’t good enough, don’t worry – you can buy one to take home as a memento. Then board a train from Aizu-Wakamatsu Station bound for Aizu-Tajima; change trains for the return trip to Tokyo or take the leisurely four-hour drive back. You can always stop at one of those onsens and take time to soak up your bucolic surroundings. Who would blame you?