The 5 best day trips from Tokyo: hot springs, mountain views, and Big Buddha

The 5 best day trips from Tokyo: hot springs, mountain views, and Big Buddha

From visiting Kamakura's 121-ton Big Buddha to relaxing in an onsen in Hakone, here are the best day trips from Tokyo © Bill Chizek / Getty Images

Base yourself in Tokyo and you'll have the city's charms at your doorstep. But make some time too for the best day trips from Tokyo: the historic temples and Buddhist monuments of Nikkō and Kamakura, a hike up Takao-san, hanging out in the port city of Yokohama, and relaxing in the hot springs of Hakone.

All of the above are possible within an hour or two from Tokyo by train. If you travel on three consecutive days, you may be able to save a little yen by using the Tokyo Wide Pass. Here are the top picks for a day trip from Tokyo.

The 5 best day trips from Tokyo: hot springs, mountain views, and Big Buddha

Visit Nikkō Tōshō-gū Shrine, completed in 1636 and registered as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999 © Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock

Be impressed by grand shrines in Nikkō

Nikkō is an easy day trip north of Tokyo that packs a big punch: there are several historic shrines and temples here – much grander than what you can see in Tokyo – in a forested compound. The top attraction is Tōshō-gū, the early 17th-century shrine built to hold the deified remains of the first Tokugawa shogun. It's appropriately gilded, grand and recently restored. Impressive golden Buddha statues sit inside the temple Rinnō-ji, which was founded in the 8th century.

How to get to Nikkō: Take a limited-express Tōbu line 'Spacia' train from Tōbu Asakusa Station to Tōbu Nikkō Station. Trains run approximately once an hour, and the journey time is one hour and 45 minutes. All seats are reserved, so it's a good idea to book your return seat when you purchase your outbound ticket, as everyone tends to decide to return around the same time. The main sights are a 20-minute walk or a five-minute bus ride from the train station.

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The 5 best day trips from Tokyo: hot springs, mountain views, and Big Buddha

The seaside town of Kamakura is home to many temples as well as Daibutsu, or "Big Buddha" © Taro Hama @ e-kamakura / Getty Images

Tour the temples and Big Buddha in Kamakura

The big-ticket sight in Kamakura, a seaside town south of Tokyo, is its Daibutsu, a bronze statue of Amida Buddha ("Daibutsu" means "Big Buddha" in Japanese) that's almost 45ft (13.3m) tall. Cast in 1252, it has survived at least two tsunami that washed away the hall in which it once sat. Kamakura is also famous for its temples. Kamakura's are largely Zen temples, founded around the 13th century when Zen Buddhism first spread to Japan. Unlike the ornate structures of Nikkō, Kamakura temples such as Engaku-ji and Kenchō-ji are more minimalist in design. Some, like Jōmyō-ji and Zuisen-ji, have rock gardens. As an added bonus, Kamakura has a great food scene. Go for the delicious soba noodles at Matsubara-an or organic vegetarian food at Magokoro.

How to get to Kamakura: Catch a Zushi or Kurihama-bound JR Yokosuka line train to Kamakura from Tokyo (journey time of one hour) or Shinagawa Station (journey time of 50 minutes). Trains run every 10 to 20 minutes. Kamakura is fairly walkable, though some temples require a short bus ride. You can also use the cute Enoden tram to connect from Kamakura Station to Hase for the Daibutsu, which is a short five-minute ride.

The 5 best day trips from Tokyo: hot springs, mountain views, and Big Buddha

One of Tokyo's closest natural recreation areas, Takao-san makes for an easy day trip for nature lovers © RPA Studio / Shutterstock

Climb Takao-san, the mountain on Tokyo's western edge

Tokyo's signature mountain is 1965ft-tall Takao-san, on the western fringe of the city. It's an all-ages, all-levels 90-minute trek to the summit – no special gear required. You can also take a cable car halfway to the top. When the weather is right, you can see Mt Fuji from the peak. En route, you'll pass the temple, Yakuō-in, which was founded in 744 as a center of mountain worship, and ascetic rituals are still practiced here. At the top of the cable car, you can participate in another Takao-san tradition: knocking back a post-hike cold one on the terrace at Beer Mount, the mountain's seasonal beer garden, which is open from mid-June to mid-October.

How to get to Takao-san: Special-express (tokkyū) and semi-special-express (juntokkyū) trains on the Keiō line run between Shinjuku Station and Takaosan-guchi Station roughly every 20 minutes. Travel time is one hour. It's a five-minute walk from the train station to the trailhead and cable car.

The 5 best day trips from Tokyo: hot springs, mountain views, and Big Buddha

Yokohama’s port was one of the first to be opened after the end of Japan’s policy of self-isolation in 1859 © Patryk Kosmider / Shutterstock

Experience Yokohama's laid-back big city vibes

Yokohama is Japan's second largest city, often overshadowed by its bigger neighbor, Tokyo. Considering how close they are – just 12 miles apart – the two cities have a markedly different vibe. Though both are on the water, Yokohama feels much more like a port city. It has a grassy bayfront park, Yamashita-kōen, that's perfect for sunny-day strolling and lazing, as well as a series of elevated promenades at Zō-no-hana Terrace. There's good stuff for kids here, too, including the Yokohama Port Museum, with a ship from the 1930s that you can enter, and an amusement park, Yokohama Cosmoworld, with a Ferris wheel that's 369ft-tall – all on the waterfront. In the evening, sample Yokohama's laid-back nightlife: visit Bashamichi Taproom for Japan-brewed craft beer or the Thrash Zone dive bar with its hardcore soundtrack.

How to get to Yokohama: Several JR lines (Tōkaidō, Yokosuka and Keihin Tōhoku) travel to Yokohama from Tokyo Station in 25 to 40 minutes. From Shibuya, the private Tōkyū Tōyoko line runs to Yokohama in 30 minutes on the express, with trains continuing on the Minato Mirai subway line, which has stops convenient for most sights. If you take a JR train, transfer at Yokohama Station for the subway.

The 5 best day trips from Tokyo: hot springs, mountain views, and Big Buddha

Soak in one of the famous hot springs in Hakone, part of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park © magicflute002 / Getty Images

Get in an onsen in the hot spring resort of Hakone

You can experience the Japanese cultural phenomenon that is onsen (natural hot springs) in Tokyo, but it is just so much nicer to do so in the mountains. Hakone is a famous hot spring resort southwest of Tokyo, inside Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. There are several excellent day spas here, such as Hakone Yuryō and Tenzan Tōji-kyō, where you can spend hours hopping from bath to bath, including outdoor ones, called rotemburo. Or go for the kitsch bathing experience at Yunessun, which has wine, tea and sake-flavoured baths and family-friendly water slides. Note that many spas refuse admission to people with tattoos. If you get an early enough start, you can also see the pretty floating torii gate of Hakone-jinja on the caldera lake Ashi-ko or take the cable car up to see the smoking volcanic valley Ōwakudani.

How to get to Hakone: From Shinjuku Station, take the private Odakyū line's adorably named "Romance Car" limited-express train to Hakone-Yumoto, which takes an hour and a half. Trains run roughly twice an hour, and reservations are required. From Hakone-Yumoto, buses travel to the spas and sights.

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