After falling in love with Tokyo and clearly spending more days than planned in this electric city, our next move was to explore some of the nearby towns. Thanks to Japan Rail Pass we were both happy owners of a JR Pass, and while still being accommodated in Tokyo, we took the train to discover a more historical part of Japan. Truth is, though Tokyo has its share of shrines and temples, the best ones are to be found in the nearby towns of Nikko and Kamakura. And while there is a Royal Palace in the capital, very much still inhabited by the royal family and not opened to the public, the best place to see up close this type of architecture is in Matsumoto. The following list is, as always, a subjective one based on our personal experience.
Nikko is home to some of the most lavishly decorated temples and shrines in Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It takes a 2-hour train ride to get here from Tokyo by JR line. From the rail station you can either take the bus to Nikko National Park or embark on a half an hour uneventful walk. The first hint that something special is in store is an arched bridge over Daiya River. From here on it is all an awe-inspiring uphill stroll through a magnificent forest of giant cedar trees. The alleys are lined with moss covered stone lanterns leading to Rinnoji Temple (the main hall is under renovation until 2021) and a couple of minutes away, passing under a large stone Torii Gate, the Toshogu Shrine and the mausoleum of the first Tokugawa shogun are to be found. Far from the tempered traditional Japanese architectural style, the buildings here are gilded and adorned in excess. It is a beautiful and unique sight. The Futaarasan Shrine is at the end of another relaxing walk by the hundreds of years old cedar trees that are no less impressive than the man-made structures. In Nikko, humans and nature formed an amazing partnership to create one of the most breathtaking places in Japan. The buildings are pretty close to one another and everything can be seen in 2-3 hours.
Kamakura is the living image of ancient Japan. It is literally packed with beautiful Zen temples and Shinto shrines and though not an UNESCO World Heritage Site yet, chances are it will become someday. For the moment it quietly awaits on the tentative list. Kamakura is about 1-hour ride from Tokyo by JR line and though most attractions line along (or not far) from the main road, it might require more than one day to explore it all. To make the most of your day trip to what was once the political center of Japan, I suggest you get there early in the morning, take the bus in one direction or the other and walk your way back, in an attempt to see as much as possible. Kamakura is a quiet little residential town and strolling through its streets it's very pleasant. There aren't any tall buildings here and you might welcome this break from Tokyo's skyscrapers and crowds.
The most famous sight in Kamakura is the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Kotoku-in, second largest bronze Buddha in Japan (the largest one is in Todaiji Temple from Nara). Originally housed in a huge hall, the building was destroyed in a tsunami and since then it stood outdoors. The closest attraction to the train station is however Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine, Kamakura's largest Shinto shrine and a very popular place with tourists. Another must see place is the Zeniarai Benten Shrine, a small and amusing shrine where you can do some literally money washing hoping to double your wealth. Sampling a traditional tea ceremony while admiring the zen gardens at Jomyo-ji and walking the grounds of the amazing Hasedera Temple, housing a giant statue of Kannon, is also recommended.
Also known as the 'Crow Castle' due to its elegant black exterior, this is the most breathtaking castle we've seen in Japan. The town of Matsumoto is reachable by JR line from Tokyo in about two and a half hours, and from the rail station you can walk to the castle in a quarter of an hour. The castle might be the only important attraction in town, but it really has the 'wow' effect and it is well worth the trip. Surrounded by the Japanese Alps, Matsumoto Castle passed through different architectural stages over its long history. It is nowadays one of four castles designated as 'National Treasures of Japan' and the oldest castle donjon remaining in Japan. Visiting Matsumoto Castle is an interesting experience to say the least. Expect to have to take off your shoes at the entrance, steep and slippery stairs, low ceilings and dark interiors. But is spite of the lack of furniture, the castle is still worth visiting on the inside too, for the unique feeling and the huge difference you will notice between it and any European castle.
Some might argue Mt. Fuji should have made the list too, and I couldn't agree more, but somehow we graciously managed to miss it. Oh, well, one more reason to add to our already long list of reasons to go back to Japan. We also skipped Disney Tokyo, but at least we never considered it a priority for not being a purely Japanese experience. What I regret though is not visiting Sanrio Puroland (the Kello Kitty Theme Park). But to be completely honest, and in my defense, I did buy a cute 'for sale in Japan only' Hello Kitty doll.
Our time in Japan was courtesy of Japan Rail Pass.