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Futo is considered one of the best diving spots in mainland Japan. It is a small town hedging a rocky coastline at the base of a small green mountain. Futo lies on the east coast of the Izu Peninsular, an area south-west of Tokyo known for its thickly forested mountains, natural hot springs, stretching beaches and blue seas cut with jagged islands.

Small shoals mixing near the harbour

Small shoals mixing near the harbour

Transport The main road winding along the eastern Izu Coast becomes very busy at weekends, especially during the summer when the diving is at its peak. We travelled easy and expensive by shinkansen  from central Tokyo via Atami for about 40 minutes, then on a local train for another 40 minutes or so, altogether this was around  4,800 yen. If you’re happy to take it slow, going all the way by local trains would be less than half of that, but the journey could be over 3 hours. Alternatively, take trains to Ito and then catch the bus (stop number 5 outside the station) which travels over a narrow winding mountain road around the back of Kawana port, which is another beautiful place to dive. The journey takes around 40 minutes, there is only 1 bus every hour and at over 600yen it isn’t cheap… but it will save you a long walk uphill from the diving spots at Futo to the train station.

When Futo is extremely busy with snorkellers and scuba divers on weekends in mid summer. Strangely, Japanese beaches have an `open season`, from mid July to the end of August, during which times they are packed. Travel a fortnight before or after the main season and it’s almost deserted.

Vivid fish swarm near rusting iron pillars

Vivid fish swarm near rusting iron pillars

Where to stay It may sound extreme but there is nothing to eat in Futo. There are a few ryokans  but no restaurants, supermarkets or convenience stores. This means the scenery isn’t spoilt by imposing hotels or glaring neon signs, but it means there is nothing to eat around lunchtime, or at any other time unless your hotel provides food. Plan ahead and bring sandwiches… or, as some more adventurous snorkellers were doing just up the beach, bring a barbecue and a spear and eat what you catch.

There are some excellent restaurants and several hostels or guesthouses in Ito, a larger town just up the coast, so it may be easier to stay there if you aren’t self catering. Just expect to be walking up steep hills if you’re traveling from Ito to Futo by train.

I stayed at K`s House Ito , a beautifully restored traditional hotel with its own onsen which is free for guests to use. The hostel was large, very clean and reasonably priced, about 3,000yen per person per night.

Things to Do In Futo Diving is the main reason to come. The water around Futo is very clear, the shorelines rocky and patched with weeds and corals; perfect for finding fish. Even in water less than half a metre deep you can find vivid green and blue fish. Head out a little deeper to around 10 metres and you might find sea cucumbers, starfish, Morey eels, shoals of tiny darting silver ones, flying fish and my personal favourite; the threadfin butterfly fish. Scuba divers may spot dolphins, turtles and octopi.

Futo is not a tourist spot. It is a fishing town with a few facilities provided for divers, who support the economy by renting gear or getting a 1000y beach pass, which allows you to use the changing rooms, showers, and take a hot bath right next to the sea in a modified boat. After a day of swimming this can be seriously relaxing, if a little bizarre. If a shower and privacy isn’t too important to you then you don’t have to pay this charge.

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Things to do near Futo To the south of Futo are some of the most popular spots in the Izu Peninsular.

Jogasaki Coast is a walk along the cliffs with spectacular views of cliffs, small islands and waterfalls. It passes through thick forest, a mix of tough Japanese pines clinging to sheer clifftops or perched on tiny isles in the ocean, and semi-tropical rainforest. At both ends of the walk there are suspension bridges which offer views over coves and cliffs, and along the way there are temples, shrines and Izu Oceanic Park, where you can go swimming or diving if you don’t mind a long walk with all the gear.

The full walk is over 12 kms and surprising tough going because it follows the natural line of the cliffs, so the path meanders along all the inlets and small bays, and rises or falls steeply in some places. Although it is not an easy walk it is extremely rewarding – the meandering coastline means the view is always changing, and there are over 30 famous viewpoints signposted that include waterfalls, tiny valleys full of hydrangea flowers or cherry blossom at the right time of year, statues and temples, as well as the staggering natural beauty of the coast itself.

Walking along Hashidate Bridge

If you do not want to do the full walk then the bridges at either end can be accessed easily from local train stations. Jogasaki Kaigen Station at the north east end is just over 1km from the Kawowaki Suspension Bridge and lighthouse, and Izu Kogen Station in the south west is 1km from Hashidate Suspension Bridge.There are bus tours to visit Renchakuji Temple and Izu Oceanic Park too.

Jogasaki can be reached by train in just 1 stop from Futo Station, the trains are every 20 minutes on the Izu Kyuko line.

Personally I would recommend trying the full walk because of the amazing scenery and fascinating sights along the way, but wearing loose comfortable clothes and taking a lot of water is a good idea, as between Renchakuji Temple and Hiashidate Bridge there are no water fountains and on a humid day you will get hot walking on the steep parts. I would also suggest wearing practical shoes like walking boots or trainers after watching a girl in stilettos stumble around on the rocky parts at Kawowaki Bridge.

Izukogen Station offers several museums, many of them pretty unusual, as well as the Jogasaki walk. These include the Music Box Museum, the Teddy Bear Museum, the Doll House Museum and the Museum of Interesting Things.               I have not visited any of these, although the Museum of Interesting Things sounded… interesting.

More information

Trains http://www.hyperdia.com lists train times in English or Japanese

Ito Tourist Association http://www.itospa.com for maps and more information on the area

Izu Peninsular is an area south-west of Tokyo known for its thickly forested mountains, natural hot springs, stretching beaches and blue seas cut with jagged islands. Usami is a small town on the eastern coast surrounded by small mountains that open up to a curving beach with some of the best surfing in Izu.

Transport There are several ways to get there: easy and expensive (shinkansen bullet train from Central Tokyo, about 4,000 – 6,000 yen),  or slow and with a lot of changes (local trains, about 3,000 yen).We took a shinkansen for the first time, before I was put off by the price but it was travelling at its finest – relaxing, easy, and watching the scenery roll past while enjoying the extra leg room. 

When Usami can be surf paradise when the weather and tides are right – July through to mid-September is warm enough in regular swimming gear. Outside that you`d be better with a wetsuit. Also, after late August there`s a chance of jellyfish being swept into the bay. Some of these, like the box jellyfish native to Australia, can be dangerous. I visited in mid September during peak jellyfish season – they kept us out of the water for a day before they finally got swept out to sea. I was stung by a `safe` one and it felt like an electric shock. I also saw Portugese Man of War jellies about a week before along the coast nearer to Tokyo, but if there`s lots of people in the water then you should be fine.

Where to stay There are a few small hotels and guesthouses in Usami, some right next to the beach. Its a small town so don`t expect an overwhelming choice. Also restaurants are few and far between, you`d get more choice in the bigger towns of Atami (to the north) or Ito (one stop down on the train line to the south) if your hotel doesn`t offer any meals. Or just rough it on convenience store food.

Things to Do In Usami Get in the ocean. Take an onsen. Drink beer on the beach. Simple, but a pretty good mix for a relaxing beach trip. Theres a 50 foot Buddha statue you can see from the town if you fancy a hike up into the mountains to explore some temples. I havent tried this yet as the beach/bath/beer combination was just too compelling, but it looks impressive even from the coast

Things to do near Usami To the south of Usami are some of the most popular spots in the Izu Peninsular.

Jogasaki Coast is a walk along the cliffs with spectacular views of cliffs, small islands and waterfalls. It passes through thick forest, a mix of tough Japanese pines clinging to sheer clifftops or perched on tiny isles in the ocean, and semi-tropical rainforest. At both ends of the walk there are suspension bridges which offer views over coves and cliffs, and along the way there are temples, shrines and Izu Oceanic Park, where you can go swimming or try scuba diving.

The full walk is over 12 kms and surprising tough going because it follows the natural line of the cliffs, so the path meanders along all the inlets and small bays, and rises or falls steeply in some places. Although it is not an easy walk it is extremely rewarding – the meandering coastline means the view is always changing, and there are over 30 famous viewpoints signposted that include waterfalls, tiny valleys full of hydrangea flowers or cherry blossom at the right time of year, statues and temples, as well as the staggering natural beauty of the coast itself.

Walking along Hashidate Bridge

If you do not want to do the full walk then the bridges at either end can be accessed easily from local train stations. Jogasaki Kaigen Station at the north east end is just over 1km from the Kawowaki Suspension Bridge and lighthouse, and Izu Kogen Station in the south west is 1km from Hashidate Suspension Bridge.There are bus tours to visit Renchakuji Temple and Izu Oceanic Park too.

Jogasaki can be reached by train from Ito Station, the trains are every 20 minutes on the Izu Kyuko line and the ride takes around 25-35 minutes.

Personally I would recommend trying the full walk because of the amazing scenery and fascinating sights along the way, but wearing loose comfortable clothes and taking a lot of water is a good idea, as between Renchakuji Temple and Hiashidate Bridge there are no water fountains and on a humid day you will get hot walking on the steep parts. I would also suggest wearing practical shoes like walking boots or trainers after watching a girl in stilettos stumble around on the rocky parts at Kawowaki Bridge.

Izukogen Station offers several museums, many of them pretty unusual, as well as the Jogasaki walk. These include the Music Box Museum, the Teddy Bear Museum, the Doll House Museum and the Museum of Interesting Things.               I have not visited any of these, although the Museum of Interesting Things sounded… interesting.

Seven Waterfalls is another well-known walk near Kawazu Station through forest in the centre of Izu. It is about 1km, and can be reached by bus from Kawazu Station on the Izu Kyuku line.

Snorkelling or scuba diving can be done in Kawazu. Expect to pay 1,500yen to rent a snorkel, mask and flippers, then pay an extra 1,500 yen if you want to dive on the beach near the harbour. This money is demanded by the fishermans union so they can earn cash `when they can`t go in the water because of divers`. Thats one way to translate it. The other is frankly `We want to rip off tourists.Also we own the ocean. Because we say so, thats why`. Follow the road that goes along the beach to the south, it goes around a couple of bends and you`ll see a tiny unspoiled tranquil beach where you will see a ton of fish and show the fishermen exactly where they can stick their tax

Shirahama Beach is the most famous beach on the peninsular and is a long stretch of white sand near Shimoda. There are areas near here for snorkelling or scuba diving. You can get there on the Izu Kyuko line from Usami.

More information

Trains http://www.hyperdia.com lists train times in English or Japanese

Rocky slops of Nasudake

Nasu – Tochigi Prefecture

  Nasu is a hot spring area at the edge of the Kanto plain where the utterly flat and heavily built up land rises and arches into green mountains. The tallest of these, Mt Nasudake, is actually an active volcano with several hiking courses leading around the crater in the centre past steaming vents, which are locally and optimistically known as Eternal Hell. The small town of Yumoto is the nearest to the summit of Nasudake, with several onsen, including one at a scalding 53 degrees C.
Transport

Bus from Tokyo you can take the JR Kanto bus from Shinjuku to Yumoto. It has several stops in and around Yumoto, but you will need to take a seperate bus if your hotel is beyond here.

Bullet train The Yamabiko Shinkansen connects Omiya and Nasushiobara, then change to the Utsunomiya line. The full journey from central Tokyo takes about 2 hours and costs around 5500 yen

Local train The Utsunomiya line runs via Akabane and Utsunomiya to Kuroiso station. It’ll cost around 3000 from central Tokyo, and takes 160 minutes… so take a book.

Although a lot of people drive to Nasu or rent a car there, a good way to travel around the Nasu area by public transport is to take a bus that goes from Kuroiso to the Nasu Ropeway. Its uphill all the way from Kuroiso so I wouldn’t recommend cycling it! A 2 day pass was about 2000yen. Their website hasn’t been updated for a while so all the times were about 40 minutes out.

Small shrine near the Nasudake crater

When? 

Theres a few ski slopes and lifts so it might be popular for snow sports in winter. North of Yumoto is an area called Tsutsujio, azalea flower. Take a trip there in late May and you`ll find out why – a large park dedicated to azalea bushes are in full bloom around then, with vivid pinks and purples stretching as far as you can see. It is also popular to visit in autumn to see the leaves change colour. The Nasudake Ropeway is closed in winter, but is a great place to start hikes from the rest of the year.

We visited in late May and saw azaleas in bloom in the valley, caught some sunshine on the slopes of Nasudake, and found some lingering snow from the previous winter too

Where to stay

Yumoto has several hotels and onsens you can stay at but they don’t come cheap. Smaller hostels lie outside Yumoto but be prepared for a bit of a walk to bus stops or attractions.

We stayed at a very cheap hotel in the south of Yumoto.The area was extremely quiet, with no drinking places and only a couple of restaurants. Luckily the steak restaurant was really good and not too expensive. Some roads are not illuminated and go through think forest, so take a torch if you’re going out at night

Last traces of snow near Nasudake

Things to do
Mt Nasudake (1915 metres)

Ropeway This takes you up near the summit of Mt. Nasudake in 5 minutes, although at weekends you might be queuing for 40minutes to get in the car. From the top of the ropeway its a short but steep climb over uneven rocks to the top, we took about 40 minutes with some breaks to admire the views. There are several routes around and from the summit of Nasudake to other ridges or down into the valley. These are well marked with yellow paint so its hard to get lost but the rocks can be loose so tread carefully. One path spirals down from the summit past several steam vents, where the sulphurous gas pouring from the dormant volcano and strange rock colours earned it the name `Eternal Hell`. The ropeway costs 650yen for a single trip, or about 1000 for a return ticket. It’s just opposite the final  bus stop and a car park
The cars can get very crowded – not good if you’re scared of small spaces and heights!

To avoid queues at the ropeway stations, you can hike all the way from the bus stop. It’s about 3km and half of that is pretty heavy going, although it levels out nearer the summit. Again the paths are clearly marked in yellow paint

Volcanic gas clouds

History and Legends – Murder stone

This large rock vents poisonous volcanic gases. A legend says it is the body of an evil 9 tailed fox spirit, who transformed into a beautiful woman and caused chaos while she travelled from China to Japan. She was eventually killed here, with her body transforming into a huge rock. A monk prayed for days to calm her spirit, and the rock shattered.

There are also legends of monks disappearing or being sucked down into Hell in this area.

The murder stone is at the edge of Yumoto, you can walk up from the town or take a bus for a few minutes

Azalea garden

Azalea garden

Also on the bus route and easily accessible from Yumoto, this large garden of narrow winding paths and full-grown azalea bushes is beautiful in late Spring when the flowers are in full bloom. There are viewing platforms to get a bird’s eye view of the garden or to the distant mountains

Heisei no Mori

Walking trails lead through forest that was once owned by the Japanese royal family. Particularly good to visit in autumn, when the leaves are changing colour.

Nearby –  Shiobara Onsen

This small town has several onsen, including some mixed or open-air baths. If you’re feeling more active there`s a popular walk which goes past 3 waterfalls. Shiobara is hard to access by publ;ic transport directly from Nasu, but  you can take a train from Kuroiso down to Nishi-Nasuno, then a bus to Shiobara.

Food 

During my trip there wasnt a lot of choice. It seemed most places were closed, I’m not sure whether they are closed over summer and open during the ski season, or simply closed down. I`d recommend finding out whether your hotel offers meals, and bring some snacks with you just in case

Links

Train Times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Accommodation – http://www.hostelworld.com

General information – http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6300.html

UNDER CONSTRUCTION – Please check back soon for the final version, complete with directions and all!

Sick of being ripped off? Bored with going to the major chains? Check out some small, independant and well-worthy places to stop for a drink

Shinjuku

MARU

Narrow rowdy upstairs izakaiya, with self-service. You can mix your own cocktails from a sticky selection of brandless spirits, or get a mate to surprise/traumatise you. The beer pumps are particularly cool, automatically tilting the glass for you and spraying on a liberal head, so all you have to do is push a button.  Nomihoudai is 300yen for half an hour, so about 1,200 yen for the average 2 hour binge. The food isn’t great but from 60Y for a yakitori what do you expect? You have to order some food to get the drinks deal but they don’t force you to actually eat it. The staff are a lot less polite than the norm in Japan but since everyone there is completely hammered I guess I can’t blame them.

Overall; Fun, cheap, but not fancy. Definitely not good for a first date.

Take the South Exit out of Shinjuku Station, go straight down the main road. Take the 3rd left, its the building near the end of the street with a big orange sign, on the 4th floor. Shinjuku 34-14, Shinjuku 3-Chome, 160-0022

Ikebukuro

Standing bar

Often busy with a good atmosphere, this small bar has a retro feel. The usual crowd is older drinkers and salarymen leaning on the wooden tables and unwinding after a long day. They dont offer nomihoudai but its only about 300Y for a beer, which you pay for as they come so there`s no big bar tab to come as a nasty surprise at the end of the night. No seats, but this means no table charge. Good for a quick drink, or a few if youre not hungry and still capable of standing up.

West exit,__________ second floor

Shimokitazawa

Barba

Upstairs bar, hard to find twice. Pirate themed, the arching roof, murals and assorted nautical tat make it feel like drinking in a boat. usually quiet. Nomihoudai advertised for 700yen for 2 hours – if you want beer and tequila its an extra 200Y, and the table charge is about 400y. The waiter told us half way through we had to order food (about 400Y, standard fare) but since he didnt say this at the beginning we could argue it. You can make your own takoyaki at the table, takes a bit of practise if its your first time though. Not much atmosphere early on but good for a quieter drink, and the unusual design plus extensive cocktails/ sours menu make it worth checking out.

Overall; Cheap, but check what you pay for before you start

Take the south exit out of Shimokitazawa Station, turn right, go past McDonalds, go two blocks and look for it on the left hand side near am-pm, its on the second floor   http://www.hotpepper.jp/strJ000789228/

Kichijoji

For a real change of drinking style, take the Chuo line to some of the best cities in Tokyo. Kichijoji is the perfect example of this – tiny rock bars, theme bars, Okinawan-esque wooden shacks with overpriced cocktails… but there’s some really unusual stuff once you get onto the side streets

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Yurei – Ghost Bar

Not the cheapest on this list but definitely worth heading to, if only for how unique it is. This horror-themed ezakaiya offers a range of ghoulishly presented food and drinks, in a creepily decorated black-lit basement bar. The friendly staff are dressed as traditional Japanese ghosts – trailing white dress, shockingly pale. Think Sadako in the Ring … only serving you beer instead of crawling out the tv. The best deal is for 3 – 4 people, doing nomihoudai/tabehoudai. The food is a bit pricey but fantastic, and the presentation is cool. We ordered spare ribs – the lights go dim, something in a shot glass is poured over the meat, the spark of a lighter, and a foot high flaming inferno is placed in front of you. Wow.Some specials too, like the Valentines Day “Russian Roulette” – the theme being “heaven and hell”. Two identical looking gyoza arrive on a plate – one tasty, the other a burning nightmare of wasabi. Go in on your birthday and get a surprise.

Kichijoji Station south exit, head towards Inokashira Koen, go past Marui, and its on a small street to the right (B1, 1-8-11 Kichijoji Minami-cho). Or just follow the sound of wailing and screaming.

Harmonica bars

You can find these in loads of towns along the Chuo line. Most drinking holes in Japan you’re at a table, set a bit apart from others, inside a bar that probably doesn’t have windows.

The harmonica bars are very very different. These tiny places sit side by side on maze-like narrow streets, each only about the size of 6 tatami mats, or a handful of metres square, cluttered with small tables and chairs pushed together back to back, the walls decorated with old movie posters, graffiti, toys, memorabilia, books, found … things.. One wall is open onto the street, with sheets of plastic like a shower curtain to pull across if its raining. The chairs overlapping with the bar next door, the music and shouts mingling; its  more like drinking outdoors than in.

Dont expect a huge range of food and drink – there literally isnt space to store it. The bar counter in most of these is smaller than my kitchen sink. Theres bar snacks and maybe a yakitori grill or a couple of pots of something simmering away in the cramped space behind the bar. These aren’t places designed for eating a big meal in with a more limited selection than in most izakaiyas, but they compensate for the lack of choice by serving a few quality dishes. Theyre designed for banter – something you don’t get much sat at seperate tables, with everything brought to you by a waiter. The layout forces you to talk to others, passing their drinks over, squeezing past their chairs. It’s a great place for chatting to strangers, making new friends, and of course flirting.

Most of them are too small to have their own toilets, but there`s usually a public one nearby. For example in Kichijoji a few of the harmonica bar owners clubbed together to build a block of loos and they give you a key to use them. Just try to remember which bar you were drinking in so you can give the key back. There`s no table charge, beer around 500Y

Overall; Friendly, lively and great for having a chat or getting a few phone numbers

Kichijoji: Come out the main entrance of the train station, turn left and the harmonica bars start in a small sidestreet just across the road near Sunshine Dori.

Shibuya

standing bar

This is a great place to meet foreigners outside the Hub Trap (Hub Trap: you start a bit of conversation waiting at the bar, they seem reasonably cool, come over to join you, then rapidly descend into arseholes). The staff  understand a fair bit of English if you’re not too great at Japanese. It’s a standing bar, so good for mingling, or if there’s a big group of you, or if you just want to skip the table charge most places will insist you pay. They do a small range of beers, including dark beer, which makes a refreshing change from lager. Theres a few bar snacks available but no real food – if you want something a bit more substantial there’s one of Tokyo`s few kebab shops just up the street, opposite the McDonalds. I tried the snack pasta, initially disappointed by what appeared to be dry pasta covered in salt, but crunchy and good drinking food.  They show major league European football and baseball, although good luck keeping your attention on the game.

Happy hour is until 7pm where a medium sized beer is 300Y, about 400 after that.

Shibuya Station, exit 3a. Go straight down the main road, turn right at Shibuya Flag, turn left, and its on your left hand side. Udagawacho 33-14, Shibuya, 150-0042

Nerima `Ten Ten`

Another standing bar, pretty laid back and entirely covered in wooden panelling, so you get the nice fresh wood smell. You buy tickets from a machine, just like in the cheaper kind of ramen shops, then tell the staff behind the counter what you want, everything is 300yen. The food is pretty good but the portions are small.

Come out the central exit, cross Senkawa dori, and turn left at Mr Donut. The bar is on a right hand corner on the next street.

Ooizumigakuen `The Moon`

One way off the beaten track in so many ways, The Moon is a 1950’s style American diner bar full of chrome, red leather booths, vintage style posters and neon signs. Small bowls of popcorn are refilled for you, and there’s even a notebook and biro on the table in case you want to do some doodling or grab someone’s number. The service is really quick, the drinks are good and its super cheap.Nomihoudai is around 1,300 yen at weekends, and if you fancy early doors mid-week bingeing you can start from 4pm for 150yen a drink

The bad news? Madonna or slightly out of date Top 20 hits on repeat. The same forty minutes of taped MTV videos, over and over.  The opening hours are kind of random and they host a lot of private parties too, so phone first to confirm its open before heading all the way out here.

From Oozumi station pass Mizuho and keep going down the hill, cross at the main intersection with Geos on the corner and its across the street.

Torikizoku

Well worth a mention, this relaxed and super cheap izakaya chain gets its own entry. They sell a lot of cocktails, whiskey, beer and yakitori style food. Everything is 270Y, theres never any table charge, no waiting around. The staff are always really helpful and they usually have an English menu kicking around too if you need it. Nomihoudai/tabehoudai deal is 2800Y per person and only for groups of 8 or more for some reason – you probably won`t end up saving much unless you pillage the food deal

Branches mostly along the Seibu-Ikebukuro line,  in Ikebukuro itself (West exit, go through the Metropolitan Park and turn right,  left at Marui and left again at the police box, its near Lawsons), Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shimokitazawa, and even one in Kyoto in the middle of Pontocho.

Fujigoko

Fuji in clouds

Fuji 5 Lakes is pretty much how it sounds – a series of lakes, forests and small towns with good views of Mt Fuji. Its a popular place to stay and prepare before climbing Fuji, or for some serious relaxation after.

Transport
This definitely isn’t as expensive or arduous as some other places. Lake Kawaguchiko is the most built up and easy to get to. You can get there by bus, local or express train without spending too much cash or time.

Buses run by Fujikyu go from Shinjuku Station quite frequently, take about 2 hours and cost 1,700yen each way.
Local trains take the Chuo line to Takao and onwards to Otsuki, then switch to the Fujikyu line to Kawaguchiko. It will cost about 2,500yen and take around 2 and a half hours
Express trains go from Shinjuku, cost about 4,000yen each way and takes just over 2 hours.

Getting around the Lakes isn’t too hard as there are regular buses between Kawaguchiko and Saikyo and some less frequent buses to the other lakes. There’s also several places that rent bicycles if youre planning short trips – the prices vary a lot so ask around if it seems expensive.
Check if your hotel or hostel offers discount bike hire, mine was 1,000 yen for a day

When?
For climbing Mt Fuji you’ll have to go when the mountain is open to climbers during the summer months. For general sightseeing and short hikes any time of year should be fine if you remember to wrap up warm in winter. It will get humid in June but is slightly cooler than Tokyo.

Where to stay
There’s tons of hotels and hostels on Lake Kawaguchiko with a wide range of prices. It may be harder to find a room on quieter lakes but there are several campsites in the Fuji 5 Lakes area.

Lake Kawaguchiko

What to do
Lake Kawaguchiko has the most to offer for outdoor activites and sightseeing.
Climbing Mount Fuji has to be the most active of these. Start from the 5th Station, stay overnight in a mountain hut to rest and get used to the higher altitude, then ascend to the peak and come down the next day. The mountain huts are closed except during summer, don’t try to climb Mt Fuji during winter!

If youre not up to climbing the biggest mountain in Japan there are some shorter hikes starting from Kawaguchiko. Mt Tenjo on the south-eastern shore can be climbed in around 2 hours, although the first half is very steep there are some good viewing points for catching a glimpse of Mt Fuji. The exceptionally lazy can even take a ski lift most of the way up between 9am and 5pm.
From Mt Tenjo there is a walk along the hilltops on the eastern shore to Mt Mitsutoge. This can also be climbed from the north-east corner of the lake.

For alternative ways to see the lake itself, hire a pedalo or rowboat if youre feeling active, take a guided tour by boat or jump in a speedboat for a faster ride. The rowboats are about 1,500yen per hour, pedalos 2,000 per hour. The guided tours or speedboats vary in price so try different places before you buy a ticket. There are several leaving from the eastern shore. There’s also rented bikes to go round the lake on the shoreline road
Hire a rowboat, do 10 minutes rowing and you’re away from it all. Take a few cold beers or a picnic and enjoy the quiet

If you love huge coasters and you don’t mind 2 hour queues for 2 minutes of screaming and nausea, try a day trip to Fuji-Q . Fuji-Q has some huge and heart stopping coasters, its one stop away on the Fujikyu line and costs 1,300 yen.
Don’t go at the weekend or during school holidays is you can avoid it. It will be ridiculously painfully busy

entrance to the Bat Cave (no bats)

Lake Saiko is slightly smaller than Kawaguchiko but offers some unusual attractions on the south-western edge. There’s a series of 3 caves formed when Mt Fuji last erupted near the Aokigahara forest, known as Bat Cave (300yen, no bats), Ice Cave (280yen, cold) and Wind Cave (also 280yen, also very cold). Iyashi No Sato , a traditional village of wooden houses, is near these caves.

Aokigahara woods can be explored on well marked paths. This vast forest stretches far to the south and has a dark reputation for travellers getting lost. The trees are growing thickly almost directly out of cooled lava which makes for some creepy protruding roots. The trees grow so close together it is hard to see far ahead and its fairly dark even at midday – this combination can make it easy to get lost and impossible to find the path again.
There’s also canoe hire and jet skiing on Lake Saiko.

Dragon Cave in Aokigahara woods

Lake Yamanako is the largest of the lakes, and there’s a wide range of watersports there. Mt Fuji can be seen from the northern shore, and some of the outdoor baths of the onsen have good views.

Lake Shojiko is the smallest but has excellent views of Fuji from the north shore. You can also see a smaller mountain that mimics its shape, known as Kofuji or “baby Fuji”. Surprisingly the smaller mountain is an extinct volcano and an older vent for the same magma pool that created Mt Fuji, so the ‘baby Fuji’ is actually older.

Lake Motosuko is hard to reach using public transport and isn’t very developed. Sorry for the brief post, I haven’t visited Motosuko as it seemed impossible to get to without a car and there seems to be little information available in English

Food
Hotto is a regional specialty, made of thick fresh noodles in a meaty soup. Flavours range from pork to bear.
That’s not a typo. They really have bear meat

Fuji from top of Kachi Kachi ropeway - for some reason I can`t get it the right way up


Fuji 5 Lakes has so much to offer, whether it’s intensive mountain climbing or cruising in a slow boat. It can get very busy during summer weekends, so book ahead

Links

Buses to Kawaguchiko – http://transportation.fujikyu.co.jp/english/gettinghere/01.html#pgm03

More information on the Lakes – http://www.japan-guide.com

Train times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Fuji-Q English site – http://www.fujiq.jp/en/

Shimoda – Izu Peninsular

View over Shimoda from ropeway

Shimoda is popular for its beaches – long stretches of white sand, or small coves with waves perfect for surfing. It is also important historically as the landing place of Commander Perry, an American who came to open Japan’s borders in the 19th century and ended the Edo Era.
 

Transport Shimoda lies on the southern tip of the Izu Peninsular, about 200km from Tokyo. Although there are major roads connecting Shimoda with Tokyo, these are often very busy at weekends or during public holidays so expect long traffic jams and delays.

Trains run from several major stations in Tokyo. It can be a little confusing planning trips to Shimoda, as the station’s full name is Izukyushimoda.

The Kodama Shinkansen travels from Tokyo and Shinagawa stations to Atami in about 40 minutes, where you have to change to the Odoriko Ltd Express. The journey costs around 7,000 one way but is the fastest option.

Alternatively, travel to Yokohama and catch the Odoriku Express from there, which takes about an hour and a half but will take you directly to Izukyushimoda for 4,500 yen.

The cheapest option is to travel by local trains , but this can be gratingly slow. Take the Shonan Shinjuku line to Ofuna and the Tokaido line to Atami, the Ito line to Ito, then finally the Izu Kyuku line to Izukyushimoda. If you make all the connections on time (good luck!) this should take about 3 and a half hours, but set you back a measly 3,800 yen.

Boat travel to Izu may take longer than trains but could be more exciting. They travel via Oshima island near Tokyo, you could try the night boat from Tokyo to Oshima which takes around 8 hours and leaves at 11.45 nightly, or splurge on a jet boat which gets you there in about 2 hours.

 

When? For surfing aim for summer, the sea should be warm enough to surf or swim without a wetsuit between late June and mid September. During August (especially the last 2 weeks when most people are on holiday) the beaches become extremely busy. Typhoons sometimes come near the Izu Peninsular, mostly during early September and make the sea very unpredictable and dangerous.
If you would prefer to explore the harbour and museums then any time of year should be fine.

 

Where to stay Shimoda itself has a huge amount of hotels and hostels, which fill quickly at busy times. There are also hotels or guest houses in smaller towns around Shimoda, clustered around the coastline and boasting easy access to a more secluded and private beach.

These smaller towns may have minimal facilities, no shops and little public transport, but compensate for it with quiet beaches and beautiful scenery.
If you are staying outside Shimoda some roads are not illuminated, so plan your route carefully if you want to go to the city at night

 

Things to do
Beaches Shirahama Beach is a long stretch of white sand and gentle waves that is extremely busy in summer – with people sunbathing by day or drinking and watching small fireworks by night. Get there by bus from next to Shimoda station in about 10 minutes.

Tatado beach is a bay slight south-west of Shimoda, about 30 minutes walk from the station with excellent waves for surfing. There are surf and body boards for hire for the day, and the beach showers are open in the summer. Look for stalls selling food or cold drinks, as the nearest shop is the Lawsons on the edge of Shimoda!
Further along the road to Tatahama is another small beach, with no stalls or stores nearby but bigger waves. I think it is called Iritahama beach.

History There are several museums concerning Commander Perry’s landing in Shimoda. You could visit the Shimoda Museum, or the collection of artifacts in the small museum near Ryosenji temple. Both are south of the train station.

Ropeway This takes you up Mt. Nesugatayama where you can see over a lot of Shimoda city and harbour, past the small islands dotted in the bay all the way to the Izu islands on the horizon. On top of the mountain are viewpoints, a small temple and some relics related to the Perry landing, such as the watch-house built to keep track of his ships in the harbour.
It goes from behind the train station, costs about 1,000yen and takes a few minutes to ascend. The cable cars come every 15 minutes or so
The cars can get very crowded – not good if you’re scared of small spaces and heights!

Food , always an important part of travelling in Japan, is especially good here. Wasabi a spicy horseradish-like plant used to season sushi , is grown here and added to several dishes – the best, or most unusual anyway, is the wasabi-flavoured ice-cream available at the top of the ropeway. As you’d expect from a seaside town, a lot of the fish dishes are exceptionally good.
Shimoda is a very small city by Japanese standards so most restaurants close earlier than those in the major cities. Don’t plan on finding a restaurant after midnight!

 

Links

Train Times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Accommodation – http://www.hostelworld.com

General information – http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6300.html

Matsumoto is at the foothills of the Japanese Alps, famous for hiking in summer, skiing in winter and its well preserved Edo era castle.  The third largest city in Nagano Prefecture, Matsumoto has as good a range of restaurants and bars as you`d expect to find but also has some traditional streets of one storey wooden buildings and several impressive temples.

Traditional houses in Matsumoto

Traditional houses by the river in Matsumoto

Transport Getting there from Tokyo is easy but not cheap and certainly not quick. It takes 4 hours by express train for nearly 7,000 yen, or if youve got plenty of time but less cash you can try the 6 hour local train for about 5,ooo.  There is also a bus that takes about 3 hours, you can get a return ticket for around 6,000 yen. Alpico and Keio run the service, going from Shinjuku Bus terminal to Matsumoto Station every hour.

I would recommend taking the bus, it is comfortable and fairly quick with a 20 minute rest stop about halfway. Set off early if you want a full day in Matsumoto.

 

When The mountain hiking season is from April to September or October. If  the weather turns cold early then several of the mountains may have snow on and be unsafe to hike. The mountain huts (basic accomodation for hikers and climbers to stay in overnight near the peaks) will only be open between spring and early Autumn, and some campsites may close during the off season too. June is the rainy season in Japan when it can rain heavily for several days. The summer months are hot and humid which can mean sweaty climbs in the beginning, although once you are fairly high up the temperature drops 2 or 3 degrees and there could be a nice breeze too.

 

Where to stay  There are several hostels and hotels in Matsumoto. Cheap comfortable rooms are between 3,000 to 4,000 yen per person per night. Some offer free onsen baths, breakfast or bike hire. The breakfasts are usually Japanese style, miso soup, rice and fish, its tasty but dont expect bacon and eggs. The bikes are mostly mamacharis, bikes without gears, so although they are good for exploring the city (or going up small hills if you`re willing to stand up and pedal) they arent suitable for cycling in the mountains.

I seriously recommend NOT exploring mountains on a mamachari, unless pushing a heavy bike for hours up steep and twisting mountain roads is your idea of fun (I found out it isnt mine, although the terrifyingly fast ride back down the mountain was amazing)

 

Things to do in Matsumoto

Matsumoto has several large and well cared for temples. The most famous is Zenkoji Temple with an onsen on site, although there are many that are less well known but equally impressive in the area. The least efficient but most rewarding way to find temples is to look for a curving roof, listen out for the copper bells or follow the smell of incense to find one.

Matsumoto Castle is huge and beautifully designed. Explore the castle grounds or the dark and atmospheric interior, with collections of samurai armour, swords and fantastic views across the city to the mountains. To find out more about the architecture and history of the castle here are several boards with information and a small leaflet is available in English too.

Matsumoto Castle

It is open until 5pm and costs 600 yen for an adult, or if you can gather a mere 300 people you get a group rate of 420yen per person.

Onsen There are plently of hot springs in the area too. On the east side of the station are the Asama and Utsukushigahara hot springs, and there are some large ones further from the city centre on the west side of town. Smaller hot springs can be found in the city centre too. On maps the symbol for onsen looks like a circle with 3 curving lines coming from the top half (to represent a pool of hot water with steam rising from it).  Like the majority of hot springs, these are single sex and feature different baths (hot, cold, and super hot). Larger onsen often have saunas and a peaceful (and private) outside area to lie in baths looking at the stars or distant mountains.

Towels are sometimes provided free, or you can hire them at most onsen. I would suggest bringing a large towel to dry yourself with, and a small one to put around your waist while in the bathhouse. It is considered bad manners to go into the changing rooms while dripping wet, so the small towel can be used to dry yourself with a bit too. A well written description of how to take an onsen is at  japan-guide.com (link below)

 

Things to do near Matsumoto

Kamikochi  Roughly translated as “the place where gods descend”, you dont have to walk far to realise why Kamikochi got its name. The views in this high valley are simply stunning, overlooking wide rivers or still lakes, surrounded by sharply peaked mountains. A path winds around most of the valley by the lakes and through forest. As if the amazing scenery isnt already enough reason to go, there are also groups of wild monkeys in the trees or by the rivers. If youre really lucky you might see one come onto the path, or watch baby monkeys playing in the trees, they seem quite tame although there are a lot of signs telling you not to feed them.

Kamikochi view

The route  takes an oval shape with famous suspension bridges and bus stops at both ends. It is mostly flat and only takes a few hours. The most crowded spots are near the bridges and bus stations, but despite Kamikochi`s popularity there are several places along the route where you might not pass another person for a few miles. There are some restaurants, gift shops and toilets along the way. If you cant drag yourself away, there is a campsite and cabins near the northern end of Kamikochi, although it is very busy in summer months and you should probably reserve in advance if you want to spend a night there.

To go there you have to use public transport, cars are not allowed near Kamikochi and there is no parking for private vehicles. Get a train from Matsumoto to Sawando, then a bus from there. It takes about 30 minutes on the bus and costs 2000yen for a round trip. They depart quite frequently from a stop next to Sawando Train Station.

Bring your own food, the restaurants are pretty expensive

Other peaks Go east of Matsumoto and you hit the Japanese Alps, they are easy enough to find. You cant miss the mountains, although the roads and footpaths are small, winding and usually arent signposted so get a map. Mt Jonen and Mt Hachibuse are towering impressive mountains with well marked paths, although I couldnt find public transport there and it seemed impossible to cycle. Utsukushigahara Plateau is an easy walk once youre at the top, with amazing views over the valley and a couple of places to eat. You can get a bus there from Matsumoto Bus Station straight to the art gallery on the plateau, or get off at Sanjiro to hike it. For other mountain hikes near Matsumoto check out an excellent guide (link below)

Graveyard near small shrine on the path up Ougihara

Mt Ougihana is near Utsushigahara Plateau. At just over 2000 metres tall, the views are great from the top and there is a small car park and a traditional-looking restaurant which serves the best soba noodles I have ever eaten about an hours walk from the peak.

I seriously recommend leaving your bike near the bottom of the mountain and hiking up, it took 6 hours to cycle/ push the bike from the west side of Matsumoto and 1 hour to hike up from the soba restaurant, although cycling back down took only 20 minutes

 

Matsumoto Alpine Park is hidden at the top of a steep hill quite near Matsumoto, about 1 hour by mamachari if you pedal hard, or maybe 20 minutes by car. It has good views over the plain to Matsumoto and nearby mountains, a small zoo and an awesome adventure playground with ziplines and rope courses.

alpine park

Links

General information on Matsumoto http://welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp/

Mountain hiking near Matsumoto http://welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp/contents12+index.htm

 

Hostels http://hostelworld.com

Onsen etiquette http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2292_how.html