South of Tokyo
Tokyo's cultural presence looms large in the Kantō area, but the area just to the south stands on its own. Yokohama, Japan's second-largest city, has a distinctly different urban spirit. Further south, the old capital and coastal town of Kamakura brims with temples, shrines and surprisingly hip restaurants.
North of Tokyo
North of Tokyo, the Kantō plain gives way to a mountainous, forested landscape providing a fine backdrop for the spectacular shrines of Nikkō and the beautiful nearby lake Chūzenji-ko. The whole area is within the 400-sq-km Nikkō National Park, sprawling over Fukushima, Tochigi, Gunma and Niigata Prefectures, offering some excellent hiking opportunities and remote onsen.
The Izu Peninsula (Izu-hantō), about 100km southwest of Tokyo in Shizuoka Prefecture, is where the famed Kurofune (Black Ships) of US Commodore Perry dropped anchor in 1854. Contemporary Izu has a cool surfer vibe, lush greenery, rugged coastlines and abundant onsen. Weekends and holidays see crowds descend on the east coast, particularly in summer.
Even though it's just 20 minutes' train ride south of central Tokyo, Yokohama has an appealing flavour and history all its own. Locals are likely to cite the uncrowded, walkable streets or neighbourhood atmosphere as the main draw, but for visitors it's the breezy bay front, creative arts scene, multiple microbreweries, jazz clubs and great international dining.
Offering serene onsen, world-class art museums, traditional inns and spectacular mountain scenery crowned by Mt Fuji, Hakone can make for a blissful escape from Tokyo. Ashino-ko (芦ノ湖) is the lake at the centre of it all, the setting for the iconic image of Mt Fuji with the torii gate of the Hakone-jinja rising from the water.
Mineral baths seem to bubble out of the ground at every turn in the mountainous landscape of Gunma Prefecture (群馬県; Gunma-ken). Its most famous onsen town is Kusatsu, but there are many others that are far less commercial. All that water and mountains adds up to great outdoor activities ranging from skiing in winter to rafting and canyoning in spring and summer.
Shimoda holds a pivotal place in Japan's history as the spot where the nation officially opened to the outside world after centuries of near isolation. The small port's laid-back vibe is also perfectly suited to an exploration of its surrounding beaches, which are some of the best in Izu.
Fuji Five Lakes
Japan's highest and most famous peak is this region's natural draw, but even if you don't intend climbing Fuji-san, it's still worth coming to enjoy the visual and natural delights around the volcano's northern foothills; the five lakes here act as natural reflecting pools for the mountain's perfect cone.
The peaks of a submerged volcanic chain extending 300km into the Pacific are what makes up the Izu Islands (伊豆諸島; Izu-shotō). Soaking in an onsen while gazing at the ocean is the classic Izu Islands activity, as is hiking up the mostly dormant volcanoes and along the pristine beaches. Snorkeling, surfing and fishing are also popular.
Of all Japan's iconic images, Mt Fuji (3776m) is the real deal. Admiration for the mountain appears in Japan's earliest recorded literature, dating from the 8th century. Back then the now dormant volcano was prone to spewing smoke, making it all the more revered. In 2013, the year Fuji was granted World Heritage status, some 300,000 people climbed the country's highest peak.
About 1000km south of Ginza, but still within Tokyo Prefecture, the World Natural Heritage listed Ogasawara Archipelago (小笠原諸島; Ogasawara-shotō) is a nature-lover's paradise with pristine beaches surrounded by tropical waters and coral reefs. Snorkelling, whale-watching, swimming with dolphins, and hiking are all on the bill.
Minakami & Takaragawa Onsen
In the northern region of the Gunma Prefecture is the sprawling onsen town of Minakami. Surrounded by beautiful natural forests and mountains, and cut through by the gushing Tone-gawa (Tone River) it's a mecca for outdoor-adventure sports, hiking and skiing enthusiasts.