Essential stops on a journey across Kanto, Japan

Today’s travellers can easily explore the kaidō culture of Kantō, the region around Tōkyō, by making use of Japan’s famous railways…

Rebecca Hallett
05 December 2022
Promoted by
Kanto Japan

Most visitors to Japan arrive in the gleaming metropolis of Tōkyō, famous for its sleek skyscrapers and neon-lit streets. But underpinning the modern city are the bones of its earlier incarnation: Edo, the capital of the Tokugawa samurai government.

Edo was linked to the rest of Japan by the Five Highways (kaidō), and a unique culture developed along these routes as officials, nobles and pilgrims walked them. Today’s travellers can easily explore the kaidō culture of Kantō, the region around Tōkyō, by making use of Japan’s famous railways.

1. Asakusa

Sensō-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo (Shutterstock)

Even within Tokyo, you don’t have to look far beyond the scramble crossings and chic department stores to find pieces of historic Japan. Just head to Asakusa, a district which still maintains its traditional atmosphere.

At Asakusa’s heart is Sensō-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo, which dates all the way back to the 7th century. Pass through the vast entrance gate of Kaminarimon, with its huge red lantern, and you’ll be on Nakamise-dōri. This bustling street is lined with tiny shops and stalls selling a mix of touristy souvenirs, specialist Buddhist items, high-quality traditional goods and delicious snacks. At the end of Nakamise-dōri are Sensō-ji’s main temple buildings, including a five-storey pagoda, which are dedicated to Kannon, the deity of mercy. Go early in the morning or during the night for a quieter, more contemplative experience, without the daytime crowds.

For a different view of Asakusa’s living traditions, visit Miyamoto Unosuke Shōten. Founded in 1861, the company makes Japanese instruments, and they find ways to innovate while preserving ancient crafts – their taiko drums are made from forest-friendly lumber, and are Japan’s first to be FSC certified. In store, you can hear the drums being played, and even book a class to try it yourself.

2. Nikkō

Avenue of Cedar Trees (James Davies)

One of the Edo-era Five Highways is the Nikkō Kaidō, which links the capital with Nikkō. Today it’s easy to get there from Asakusa via Tōbu Railway’s Limited Express Revaty Kegon – and the train’s spacious interior with plenty of luggage space is ideal for travellers.

Nikkō today is best known as the entrance to Nikkō National Park, and as the location of the spectacular Nikkō Tōshōgū shrine. The complex centres on the elaborate tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun (military dictator), who died in 1616. Some key sights are the ornate Yomeimon, the colourful “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” monkey carvings, and a surprisingly sweet carving of a sleeping cat.

Originally, the Suginamiki Kaido (Avenue of Cedar Trees) leading to Nikkō Tōshōgū was lined by 200,000 trees. Today, 12,000 remain along a 35-kilometre stretch – the longest tree-lined road in the world. Walking in the shadow of these venerable trees is an atmospheric experience – and a great photo opportunity!

Tōbu trains link Asakusa and Nikkō with Kinugawa Onsen, a riverside hot-spring resort. Though there are attractions like theme parks in the area, Kinugawa Onsen’s main appeal lies in its walking trails, nature activities like rafting, and its soothing mineral springs. Stay overnight to experience a ryokan (traditional inn), where you can try beautifully prepared Japanese food.

3. Minamiaizu and Shimogo

Ōuchi-juku’s traditional houses (James Davies)

Nikkō and Kinugawa Onsen are connected with the Aizu area, further north, by a beautiful train line operated by Tōbu, Yagan and Aizu railways. In around an hour, the route takes you past mountains and rice paddies, through woodlands, and back and forth across the Kinugawa river. In each season the landscape is transformed, from the frothy pinks and whites of spring’s cherry blossoms to the fiery reds and golds of autumn.

Disembark at Aizu-Tajima station, where you can pick up Minamiaizu sweets and snacks from the souvenir shop and try local sakes from a specialist vending machine. From there, it’s a short walk to Jyuuhachinichi, an essential oil shop which holds the Aroma Experience. Over the course of a day (overnight options also available), you’ll get to collect ingredients in the forest, tour the distillery and even try making your own fragrance.

Continue by train to Yunokami Onsen, from where you can reach Ōuchi-juku by bus. Once an important post town on the Aizu Nishi Kaidō, visiting Ōuchi-juku feels like stepping onto the set of a samurai film. The whole town has been remarkably preserved, and people still live and work in the thatched kominka houses which line the wide main street.

Do as weary old days travellers would have, and stop for an energising bowl of negi soba. The homemade buckwheat noodles in a light broth are common throughout Japan, but here you’re not given chopsticks… Instead, you use a negi (green onion) to get the noodles to your mouth. It’s hard to master, but a lot of fun!

4. Aizu Wakamatsu

Sazae-do Temple (James Davies)

When heading north to the castle city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, it’s worth stopping off at Ashinomaki Onsen, a hot-spring resort said to date back 1000 years. Not only is it ideal for relaxing, restorative day trips, or as a base for exploring Aizu-Wakamatsu, but it’s famous for its honorary stationmasters – since 2008, the title has gone to cats.

Aizu-Wakamatsu is steeped in samurai tradition. Mt Iimori looms to the east of the town, looking peaceful from afar. But climb it and you’ll see monuments to the 19 young soldiers who died by seppuku here in the Boshin War of 1868, believing their side defeated. At the foot of Mt Iimori, octagonal Sazae-do is known for its unique architecture. The inside of the temple, built in 1796, is a double helix, effectively making it a one-way system. Further north, Tennei-ji temple holds zazen experiences (book ahead) – a form of meditation practised by samurai.

Central Aizu-Wakamatsu’s Suzuzen lacquerware shop was established in 1832, and still produces intricately crafted lacquered goods today. It’s made up of 6 renovated kura (traditional warehouses), where you can observe the process of making these beautiful ornamental pieces. You can also try making maki-e, exquisite gold- and silver-dusted lacquerware.

It’s easy to make your way back from Aizu-Wakamatsu to Tōkyō. First take the train to Aizu-Tajima, passing the Aga River various cultural sites, then change to the Limited Express Revety Aizu. Though you’ll have wifi and modern amenities, you’ll probably spend the whole three-hour journey watching the beautiful countryside unfurl beyond your window until you’re back in the excitement and bustle of the capital.

Feeling inspired?

To discover more of this brilliant part of Japan, head over to the official website.

Article sponsored by Kanto District Transport Bureau, with the support of Kanagawa Prefecture, Ota City, Odakyu Electric Railway Company, Keikyu Corporation, TOKYU CORPORATION, and Yokohama Minatomirai Railway Company.

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