Got the weekend off in Tokyo but want to get away?
First stop is Nikko. Nikko is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and like many other world heritage sites it is touristy and gets phenomenally crowded. Also, like some other world heritage sites it is an incredible visual specimen and it’s worth the visit.
Nikko can be done in a day from Tokyo on train or by bus. If you have a free day and any interest in ornate bas-relief sculpture and religious architecture this is a can’t miss. The most impressive of the one hundred plus shrines, temples and natural areas which are included in the world heritage site is the Toshogu Shrine and its Yomeimon Gate. This Shinto shrine is also a mausoleum for the remains of the first Tokugawa Shogun Ieyasu.
Combined with a trip to the impressive Kegon waterfall in the nearby Nikko Nation Park, two days would be more reasonable. This is particularly true during the autumn foliage viewing season when roads to the park get absurdly crowded and traffic slows to well below walking pace. A very early start from a nearby guesthouse would be the only chance to avoid some of the crowds.
Mount Fuji is another crowded trip that is worth it and deserves a full weekend. Climbing Mount Fuji is a once in a lifetime experience and as the saying goes only a fool climbs Fuji twice. There are many ways to get there and away and several different routes up and down the mountain are possible. I strongly suggest the sandy Gotemba trail for the most enjoyable decent. Even on the easiest routes a slow but steady pace with plenty of breaks will require something like seven hours up and four hours back down. It can be done in far shorter times by the fit or experienced but as neither fitness nor experience are really needed to climb Mount Fuji, you will find people of all ages are doing it and the crowds will slow down most everybody. For most people the climb is a long slog up a windy, exposed slope where the weather and temperature fluctuate wildly. Therefore, an overnight in one of the huts right on the mountain makes the experience more bearable.
For a much less touristy area with views of Mount Fuji, the western coast of the Izu Peninsula is ideal. The base of the peninsula is not far from Tokyo and the east coast is a popular weekend destination. The west coast, however, lacks train service and is therefore much less crowded and has a remote feeling. On the west coast, the port of Toi has a ferry to Shimizu that brings in some traffic and some folks just out for a drive or bike around the winding roads of Izu. Without a vehicle though getting there requires the bus, a long walk or hitchhiking, all of which are very possible. The west coast is scattered with accommodations that offer various levels of luxury and economy. The focus of these accommodations is typically private hot spring baths and fresh seafood, both of which are found in abundance.
The Izu Peninsula which juts south into the Pacific Ocean also lends its name to the geographically related Izu Island chain. Oshima, the largest of the islands is also closest to the mainland and has a Florida spring break atmosphere in the high season. The most southern of the islands which still maintains daily direct flights from Tokyo, Hachijo Island, is another world apart. Hachijo Island has more the feeling of Robinson Crusoe’s desert island than Japan, while it is technically part of Tokyo. Hajicho Island is remote and calm. It has plenty of fresh seafood, okay snorkeling and a couple of beaches. It is nothing phenomenal in this regard but what it has more than anything is a get away from it all atmosphere. The hustle and bustle of the capital are nowhere to be found in this unusual corner of Tokyo.
If you really want to get away from Tokyo though, try South Korea. A weekend package to Seoul is frequently less expensive than a weekend in Osaka or a lot of other places in Japan. After having lived in Japan for a while, Korea might seem somehow familiar, but don’t be fooled, Korea is refreshingly different. The food, the language, the shopping, the physicality of social interactions and the behavior of the natives are all markedly different than the Tokyo versions.
Seoul, the bustling megacity, has temples, museums, parks, architecture, food and fun. The famous Nandaemun market is a can’t miss experience, all night adventure in bargaining and shopping. Spread over several city blocks the market is located near its namesake, the recently rebuilt Nandaemun Gate. The market has an incredible variety of stuff for sale including cheap and delicious food to keep you nourished. And after an all-nighter in Nandaemun you’ll be saying there is no place like home in Tokyo!