Tokyo is often the first stop on a Japan itinerary, but there’s much more to the Asian archipelago than the capital’s futuristic skyline and classic whisky bars. From the sunny shores of Lake Biwa to craft beer on the Izu Peninsula, these side trips from the modern metropolis will round out any Japanese adventure.
Often celebrated as one of the island nation’s most photogenic and spiritual cities, Kyoto is a 2.5-hour Shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Tokyo. Even though it’s one of Japan’s largest metro areas (more than 1.4 million residents), many parts of this former capital city feel like they haven’t changed in hundreds of years. In the Gion district, for example, you’ll still find cobbled lanes, Edo-era shophouses and kimono-clad geisha wandering along Hanamikoji Street.
The historic appeal isn’t limited to just a corner here and there: Across the city, there are 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 2,000 temples, including the iconic Kinkaku-ji, a gold-covered pavilion that glows in the sunshine.
After a long day of exploring by bike or on foot, seek refuge at one of the area’s sumptuous stays. The luxurious list includes Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto, promising a gorgeous riverside location and Four-Star spa; the contemporary Four-Star Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto, which overlooks an ultra-Zen pond garden; and Four-Star Suiran, A Luxury Collection Hotel, a modern ryokan (Japanese inn) that delivers traditional architecture and a romantic setting.
About two hours south of Tokyo by car, the Izu Peninsula is known for its hot springs, beaches and the scenic Mishima Skywalk, Japan’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge, which overlooks Mt. Fuji, Suruga Bay and the dense forests below. In the nearby Shuzenji area, Baird Beer craft brewery makes for a nice pit stop, thanks to its outdoor seating and complimentary facility tours.
But the best part of visiting Izu Peninsula is the food. In the tiny town of Shizuoka, the local Heda fish market is said to rival Tsukiji when it comes to the quality of the seafood. In terms of atmosphere, it’s smaller and much more tourist-friendly — you can book a tour to see the early-morning auctions, then watch the sun rise over Mt. Fuji.
Afterward, we’d recommend a trip into town to sample sashimi, crab and tempura at a local restaurant, such as Noichi Shokudo, which overlooks the water.
Beautiful Lake Biwa — Japan’s largest freshwater lake — is just 30 minutes northeast of Kyoto by train or about two hours southwest of Tokyo. Known for its beautiful Hikone Castle, tasty freshwater fish and scenic stretches of sand (such as Omi-Maiko and Makino Sunny Beach on the western edge), the popular summer getaway promises an endless list of outdoor adventures. One morning you can go hiking and canoeing, the next you can kayak in the lake, bike around the coastline or just hang by the beach.
To mix things up, plan a visit to the Mizunomori Water Botanical Gardens or a picturesque merchant town, such as Ōmihachiman. This historic neighborhood charms architecture lovers with ancient canals, centuries-old structures and the vast Himure Hachimangu Shrine, which is surrounded by an ancient forest.
A short drive north of Ōmihachiman is where you’ll find Fujii Honke — a historic, family-run sake brewery that dates to 1831. Take a tour through the earthen-walled warehouses or simply stock up on high-quality spirits made with water sourced from underground aquifers and melted snow from the nearby Suzuka mountains.
If you only have time for a quick trip, just 30 minutes northwest of Tokyo by train, Kawagoe City feels as though it’s been locked in a time capsule. A world away from the neon-lit streets of Shibuya, the Edo-era merchant town rewards you with Meiji-style warehouse architecture, leafy pedestrian boulevards, shrines and lots of street food.
In keeping with the bygone atmosphere, a retro Koedo Loop Bus shuttles you around town to all the historic landmarks, such as the Kitain Temple and the grounds of the former Kawagoe Castle. Meanwhile, Kashiya Yokocho — aka Candy Alley — brims with traditional shops selling nostalgic sweets like mochi on sticks, rice crackers, red bean cakes and green tea ice cream.