Japan’s capital is a sprawling modern metropolis of over 13 million people, and so there is almost unlimited scope when it comes to things to see and do. But what many don’t realise is that the city is a great place to find real adventure too, if you know where to look.
Tokyo’s oldest temple, Sensoji dates back to the mid-600s and is a real must-see attraction. Join the crowds milling around at the colourful Kaminarimon Gate with its huge red lantern, and then wander beyond to find the Nakamise, a long and narrow shopping street crammed with history and cosy shops selling traditional crafts, local snacks and souvenir-style trinkets. You’ll soon arrive in front of Sensoji’s impressive Main Hall where people line-up the steps to pray, and the scent and smoke of burning incense wafts through the air – a place of calm respite away from the intense hubbub of the city.
Possibly not one of the first activities which springs to mind when you think of Tokyo, but kayaking along the Kyu-Nakagawa River in eastern Tokyo is a uniquely serene way to explore the capital. Guided tours take visitors on a slow glide down the river, passing under bridges and offering a chance to spot the local wildlife, all under the spectacular looming view of the TOKYO SKYTREE®, which at 634m tall is Japan’s highest tower. Discover a peaceful side of inner Tokyo which very few people know. If you prefer sightseeing on two wheels then Palace Cycling offers the chance to explore the Kokyo Gaien National Garden, which nestles in front of the Imperial Palace right in the heart of the city. Or to see one of Tokyo’s greenest spots, head to Todoroki Valley, a peaceful tree-filled valley offering riverside walks in a surprisingly natural setting – a little green oasis in the metropolis!
Skirting across the city to Tokyo’s other iconic tower, RED° TOKYO TOWER is one of the largest cutting-edge e-sports parks in Japan, located directly underneath the famous red and white landmark. Here you can try your hand at a range of high-tech and immersive pursuits, including a terror-inducing VR escape from a ‘ghost house’, a team-based AR ball game called HADO, and a full-on racing simulator to name but few. Spread across multiple floors, it’s an adrenaline-pumping way to while away a few hours whatever the weather.
Recharge and Unwind
By the time evening rolls around Tokyo’s central district of Shimbashi becomes a hub of activity, with workers and revellers heading out for a bite to eat and drink. Hidden away under the train tracks, the Shimbashi-Yokocho is a particularly lively spot of cosy watering-holes and gritty authentic eateries, where you can mix with the locals and fill your belly with hearty izakaya-fare. Don’t expect dancing robots or inflated tourist prices – this is where real Tokoyoites come to eat and be merry, and is a great place to unwind at the end of the day. Or to relax in a more rustic Japanese way, head to Tsubameyu, a traditional public bathhouse where you can soak and soothe your bones from morning until night.
Tokyo’s Secret Underworld
To see a completely different side of Tokyo – think towering mountains, remote villages and verdant forests – head an hour or two west of central Tokyo to the Okutama region, Tokyo’s most rural outpost. As well as hiking, rafting and other outdoor activities, those seeking a real off-the-beaten-path experience can venture underground at Nippara Limestone Caves, a mesmerising series of natural caverns formed by the slow passage of time. Even during the height of summer temperatures in the caves are positively chilly, making it a refreshing escape from Tokyo’s heat and crowds. The Okutama and neighbouring Ome region are also home to a number of craft beer bars where you can enjoy locally brewed beers – the perfect way to finish a daytrip!
After getting your fill of the bright lights of the city, it’s just a short 70 minute flight west to Wakayama, where unspoilt coasts, mountains and ancient pilgrimage routes await in the spiritual heartland of Japan.
Shirahama is a small hot spring resort famed for its stunning white-sand beach, located mere minutes from Nanki-Shirahama Airport (which has direct flights from Tokyo to Wakayama). One of the best ways to get a feel for the area is by renting a bicycle from Giant Store Nanki-Shirahama and cycling along the coast, taking in the spectacular rock formations of Senjojiki and the Sandanbeki Cliffs – two must-visit photo spots, where waves crash as the land plummets into the blue ocean depths. The sense of freedom provided by two wheels is invigorating – just don’t forget to pack your swimming gear for a quick dip at Shirarahama Beach, one of Kansai’s finest swimming spots. Or head down to Saki-no-Yu Onsen, an open-air hot spring right on the rocky shore, where you can soak away your aches and pains while gazing out to sea – it is also reputed to be one of the oldest hot springs in the whole of Japan.
Sacred Sites of Shingu
The small seaside town of Shingu is home to Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, one of the famous three main shrines of the fabled Kumano region. The building’s vivid red vermilion-and-white structure stands in stark contrast to the surrounding greenery, and simply wandering the atmospheric grounds feels like a tonic for the soul. Nearby Kamikura-jinja Shrine is an even older sacred site. It is approached by a heart-stopping clamber up a vertiginous stone stairway, which leads to Gotobiki-Iwa, a bare-rock perched halfway up the mountainside overlooking the town – a fine vantage point for catching the early-morning sunrise.
Way of the Pilgrim
Wakayama and the Kii Peninsula are perhaps best known as the home of the Kumano Kodo, a World Heritage-listed network of ancient pilgrimage trails which connect various sacred sites across the region. Dedicated walkers can spend the best part of a week exploring these old routes by foot, but for those with less time, the Koya-zaka Slope is a short coastal section which offers splendid views, fresh countryside air and a taste of life on the trail.
Countryside by Canoe
The Koza-gawa River is a gently flowing river close to the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula, and a canoe tour provides the ideal way to see the area’s outstanding natural beauty. In many places along the river the water is so pristine and crystal-clear that it almost feels like you’re floating through thin-air, while at other spots you’ll pass beneath towering cliffs, giant boulders and chance upon secret riverside shrines. Enjoy paddling your way through some of the most unspoilt landscapes in Japan. Or to experience what ancient pilgrimages would have been like in the days of old, Kumano-gawa River Boat Tour offer 90min tours in traditional wooden boats, echoing the journey once taken by the Imperial Family. The river itself, considered a pilgrimage route, presents stunning views while you can learn about the fascinating history and legends of the region.
Whether you’re on a full Kumano Kodo pilgrimage or just passing through briefly by road, Temple Hotel Daitai-ji is sure to be one of the highlights of any trip. Guests can relax in a riverside sauna before settling down for the night in the beautiful and authentic temple lodgings. In the morning join in with Zen meditation and enjoy a simple and nourishing Buddhist breakfast to complete the rejuvenating experience for both body and mind – so much so, you’ll never want to leave! Alternatively, head just a little further up the coast to WhyKumano Hostel & Cafe Bar, a laid-back and cosy hostel that’s sure to offer a warm welcome.
So whether you’re zipping across Tokyo or taking it more slowly in Wakayama, adventure is never far away for those who seek it.
Tokyo and Wakayama; adventure awaits.
Book your flights to adventure here.