The sprawling metropolis of Tokyo seems to offer little refuge from its concrete skyscrapers, fluorescent billboards, and crammed commuter trains. Most visitors, if feeling overwhelmed, escape to the serene havens of Nikko or Takao-san, day trips from the city resplendent with natural beauty and onsen (hot springs). While these are amazing options, there’s a plethora of other intriguing escapes that manage to evade most guidebooks.
Here are five amazing off the beaten path escapes from Tokyo, all being potential day trips or even weekend getaways.
1) Survive waterfall training on Mitake-san
Takigyo involves the cleansing of the mind and soul through a Shinto purification ritual. The “cleansing” occurs under a powerful mountain waterfall, which clocks in at a mind-numbing 10 degrees Celsius: a pain meant to evoke pleasure. The ritual is led by a Shinto priest who directs participants in a series of warm-ups, songs, and chants that are meant to cleanse oneself in front of the Gods and release impurities.
One of the best places to try out takigyo is on beautiful Mitake-san, a popular hiking destination 1.5 hours west of Tokyo. Here at a guesthouse called Komadori Sanso – open since 1776 – a 17th generation priest leads the training super early in the morning (overnight stay necessary). Women rarely participate in the training but those that do wear significantly more than the men (the men don fundoshi, akin to a diaper).
Note that there are several rules participants must abide by – including no photos of the actual ceremony – so pay close attention.
image via Flickr by Guilhem Vellut
2) Play with squirrels on Oshima
Few travelers and locals venture out to the Izu Islands, a volcanic chain which extends from Tokyo Bay into the southeast Pacific Ocean for more than 1,000 kilometers. Still considered part of Tokyo Prefecture, these island gems see little tourism despite their proximity to the mainland, hence off-the-beaten-track potential.
Though some of the islands remain uninhabited or inaccessible, the island of Oshima beckons with challenging hiking trails – including around the rim of a volcano – and abandoned beaches. It also is home to a ridiculously amusing squirrel park. Prepare for the little critters to climb all over you in search of the food you can purchase.
The island itself is only a 1 hour 45 minute jetfoil or overnight boat ride from Tokyo’s Takeshiba Terminal, making it an easy venture out. From Oshima, you can actually see mainland on a clear day. Inclement weather can delay boat and jetfoils, so plan accordingly.
image (left) via Flickr by Guilhem Vellet
3) Soak in a red wine infused onsen
Cleopatra used drink a whole lot of red wine. And subsequently bathe in the stuff, claiming it rejuvenated her skin. While back then this was extravagant and still is today, you too can splash around in red wine a la Cleopatra. Sound too good to be true? Find out whether it is at Yunessun resort in Hakone, two hours away from Tokyo.
Here, bathers are encouraged to soak in their coffee, green tea, and wine-infused onsen. Each separate bath is outside and has its purported health benefits. Just don’t go and drink your bath; none are 100% said substance. Instead, have one of the waiters actually serve you a glass of red and embrace luxury at its finest.
Unlike most onsen in Japan where it’s required that you be naked, Yunessun is more akin to an onsen theme park – so bathing suits are a necessity.
4) Frolic around Hitachi Seaside Park
Japan certainly has an infatuation with flowers. In fact, it’s not so uncommon for locals to make pilgrimages to see seasonal flower fields hours – or even plane rides – away. One of the better places to experience your own tiptoe through the tulips is at Hitachi Seaside Park in Ibaraki.
Located about 1.5 hours away from Tokyo, this secluded park spans an area of 350 hectares. Therefore, the best way to see it is by rental bike, available close to the entrance. Pedal in a leisurely fashion from garden to field to garden, stopping for impossibly gorgeous Instagram pictures.
One of the most popular times to visit is around Japan’s Golden Week in May: 4.5 million extraordinary “baby blue eyes” flowers (nemophila) carpet the park. Pair your blue flower experience with a blue ramune (soda flavored) ice cream for the perfect spring treat. November is another striking month as the fields burst with red-orange kochia grass, blazing across the park in surreal puffs.
5) Go underground at G-Cans
Buried beneath Tokyo in the midst of a web of rivers, lies a very successful and colossal engineering feat. G-Cans is considered the world’s largest underground flood diversion facility. Its official name, a mouthful: the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel. It was created in 2006 to improve flood control and restore water-retainment functions in an area prone to destructive flooding.
Whether you’re an architecture aficionado, video game visionary, or simply someone who enjoys going toe-to-toe with Mother Nature, most will delight in a visit to G-Cans for its visual appeal. And although most of the channel remains inaccessible, the public can descend into part of its massive system – the cistern – a menacing and cathedral-like womb of a structure.
The free one-hour tour, from orientation to underground submersion, starts near Minami-Sakurai station, about one hour from Tokyo. It’s in Japanese, but you can request a rather informative multi-page English booklet.
For many of us, the city of Tokyo is the destination itself. But if it isn’t, or if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, it’s easy to run away from Tokyo and find something incredible. From underground labyrinths to mountain tops, you won’t be disappointed.
Where do you go when you need a big city escape?
This is a guest post by Tamatha Roman.
Tamatha Roman has been wandering the world for many years as an English teacher and a journalist for various travel publications including Rough Guides and Metropolis Japan. Currently, she’s living in Boston and works as a travel consultant for Japan. Follow her adventures on Instagram @fresh.coffee.stains and her blog FreshCoffeeStains.com.