In the middle of winter, the small seaside town of Kawazu in Shizuoka prefecture comes alive with close to a million visitors that come to see the early blooming variety of cherry blossoms. The kawazu-zakura bloom between late February to early March, a full month before the more known somei yoshino sakura bloom in Tokyo and Osaka. The kawazu-zakura, clad in a darker shade of pink, are also in full bloom for a longer period than their fleeting relatives.
The small town of Nikko in Tochigi prefecture, a few hours north of Tokyo, is home to the lavishly-decorated Toshogu Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the once-most powerful man in feudal Japan: Tokugawa Ieyasu. In addition, the surrounding area encompassing Nikko National Park is popular for spectacular autumn scenery in October.
Set in a serene cedar forest around 100 kilometers north of metropolitan Tokyo, Toshogu was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1999 along with neighboring Rinnoji Temple and Futarasan Shrine.
Among the top weekend getaways from Tokyo is to Hakone, some 100 kilometers southwest of the Japanese capital. Hakone may not be as historically packed as other day trip favorites like the former shogunate capital Kamakura or world heritage town Nikkō, but Hakone compensates by having gorgeous views of Japan’s tallest and most revered mountain, Mount Fuji. Add a picturesque lake and a touristy mix of transportation modes, and you get a fantastic destination that makes an excellent day trip (or two) from Tokyo.
Sixty nine years ago, Kyoto was identified by the United States as one of four A-bomb targets, along with Hiroshima, Yokohama, and Kokura (part of present-day Kitakyushu). The then US Secretary of War Henry Stimson lobbied for the removal of Kyoto from the list, citing the city’s immense cultural significance. He also had a personal connection to the city, having reportedly been to Kyoto on honeymoon two decades prior. Kyoto was removed from the potential targets and the rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward to the present day, the former imperial capital is home to roughly 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Kyoto and neighboring Otsu and Uji cities host a high concentration of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, collectively inscribed on the heritage list as the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto”. On a trip to Kyoto, it’s almost a given that an average visitor will check out at least one of these World Heritage Sites. After four visits to Kyoto, I only managed to see 7 out of 17 of these sites so far.
A typical Tokyoite’s day starts and ends with a (crammed) train ride. The efficiency of the Tokyo train system means that workers residing in the suburbs can commute to their workplace in the morning and retire to their homes in the evening, even if their residence is 50 kilometers away. To while away the time, the Japanese have perfected the art of reading books while standing in a moving train, as well as sleeping and waking up right when the train doors open at their destination.