When you first start planning your trip to Japan, everything can seem quite daunting – there’s so much to do and everything seems so unfamiliar, it can be difficult to even know where to start! When I made my first trip to Japan I had a great time, but it took a lot of research and planning to do so. Hopefully here we can make your life a little bit easier by showing you the top spots in Kanto according to my humble British opinion!
For those of you who don’t know, ‘Kanto’ refers to the region of Japan that contains Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures. Here we’ll go through five Tokyo spots, three outside of Tokyo, and a few bonus top gourmet spots. On that line of thought, let’s start with the top five spots in central Tokyo!
Tokyo: Japan's Glitzy Capital
Harajuku is a great place to start your trip with a bang. It’s the epitome of ‘weird Japan’, but with a nice mix of tradition and great food thrown in there too.
For a taste of Japanese tradition head to Meiji Jingu shrine – a great place for a stroll to start off your trip. For something more modern, head to Takeshita Street, where you’ll find a huge variety of crazy clothing often with questionable English adorning the front. It’s also great for street food – you can find all that colourful food you’ve seen on Instagram, and try out light-as-air Japanese crepes.
If you haven’t already filled yourself up on the street food by that point, there are a lot of great restaurants in the area too. Kawaii Monster Café is perfect if you’re still in the mood for crazy colours, and Sakura-tei is great for easing you in to Japanese traditional food with some western flavours (my family is notoriously picky, but they absolutely loved Sakura-tei!).
Don’t forget to pick up some souvenirs too! There are some great second-hand shops in the area to satisfy your inner hipster, but also Oriental Bazaar is great for very ‘Japanese’ gifts without the extortionate price tag.
Next up is Kita-Senju. You’re unlikely to find this in beginner handbooks on Japan, but it’s a must if you want to experience Japanese izakaya. With streets and streets of places to eat and drink, you’re honestly spoilt for choice, and it’s always a lively place to be. There are plenty of fusion cuisine places and even some interesting second-hand shops.
It’s also great for people living in Japan, because it has pretty much everything you need – a Marui department store, tons of restaurants and izakaya, clothing shops, import shops, supermarkets, and a beautiful river for peaceful strolls or lively firework festivals.
Although it has everything, the real take-away is that it’s perfect for a pint with your mates, and there are plenty of nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) places, which is certainly something you wouldn’t get back in the UK!
On the other hand, this one almost definitely would be in regular guidebooks, but it’s definitely on the list of things you need to experience at least once in Japan. There’s nothing like that feeling of being on top of the world, looking down at the sparkling lights and people the size of ants... It gives you a real sense of perspective.
Although there can be long queues, you can buy fast track tickets to get you there quicker. Quite frankly, whether you opt to pay a bit extra or use a bit more of your time, it’s worth it for the view from the top. If you want to enjoy the view without feeling rushed or bustled about by the crowd, there’s also a beautiful restaurant for luxurious sky-high dining. Or a huge variety of eateries in Solamachi, which doesn’t require an entry ticket to the Sky Tree itself.
I visited this area for the first time as a lone traveller. As a lone female traveller at the young age of 18, there were times when I was a bit worried about visiting places by myself, even within the more international Tokyo. But Asakusa was warm, welcoming and bustling with life – my worries simply washed away here!
Asakusa is one of the best places to buy souvenirs – edible or otherwise! It’s another great place for street food, but while Harajuku is modern and trendy, Asakusa is more traditional and atmospheric. Traditional street food such as Manju, and senbei line Nakamise Shopping Street, the street that makes its way to Sensoji Temple, and it’s almost impossible to walk by without buying anything!
Sensoji Temple itself is gorgeous and makes for some great “I went to Japan” photos. But on top of that, there are tons of festivals throughout the year, such as the Dance of the Golden Dragon and the colourful Tanabata festival to name a few. It’s a great place to wander around, and it’s pretty close to the Sky Tree, so it’s an easy start to a day trip around Tokyo!
But Kanto isn’t just Tokyo, so let’s venture further afield.
Venturing Outside of Tokyo
Nikko may not sound like a particularly Japanese name (at least it didn’t the first time I heard it), but I can assure you it is! Its characters ‘日光’, mean ‘sunlight’, which just adds to its appeal.
Despite its sun-focussed name, Nikko is beautiful in all seasons, not just summer. Summer is of course warm and bright, with emerald green leaves all around. Autumn is breathtaking with its fiery red leaves in hushed forests, winter is eerily beautiful, with fog creating scenes as if taken from a Ghibli movie. And of course, in spring the cherry blossoms fill the area with a delicate pink.
A trip to Nikko is a perfect excuse to rent a car and go for a drive around to experience these beautiful seasons. The roads are mostly very clear, unlike the clogged mess that is Tokyo, and there are a few car rental places right outside Nikko Station. If you rent a car so many opportunities open up in the area!
One spot that is particularly easy to get to by car is the aptly named Edo Wonderland. The Edo period ran from 1603 – 1868, and the idea of this theme park is to capture the period’s essence. It’s exactly what you would dream of when planning a trip to Japan – you can walk around the ancient-style town in a luxurious kimono and try out traditional games and activities. Somewhat unexpectedly, there’s also a trick art museum, which is pretty entertaining to go around with your friends and confuse yourselves.
Further west is where you can go to feel ‘one with nature’, as it were. Kegon Falls is a must (another spot where the car comes in handy) – at a whopping 97m tall, it’s truly an impressive sight that just isn’t justified by pictures. Nearby is Chuzen-ji Temple overlooking the lake, and although the temple is not large, is particularly captivating in the snow. It’s certainly worth driving the extra few minutes if you visit Kegon Falls. Of course, there are also plenty of other outdoor activities and hidden shrines in the area.
In terms of food, around Nikko station and Kinugawaonsen there are a lot of different establishments, big and small, that are often happy to accommodate travellers. A good way to find them is simply by going for a wander, as they can sometimes be in spots you least expect!
Mount Takao is a lot closer to Tokyo than Nikko, and much easier for those who’d rather not rent a car. Accessible on one direct train from Shinjuku, Takao is a perfect day trip for those who want to see the natural scenes Japan has to offer without having to plan too much in advance. In Scotland, there’s a small dormant volcano called Arthur’s Seat, which you can walk up in about 40 minutes – Takao is a bit over double the size of that, with winding paths that mean it can take longer, but it also means they can warrant having a cable car to get you up there!
Although “Mount” makes it sound daunting, the hike is not necessarily as difficult as you might think. There are a number of different paths you can take to get to the top, which are pointed out on a sign right outside the station, and they are each aimed at people who want to see different things or get to the top at different paces. There’s no need to rush and there are plenty of toilets and food stalls in the main rest areas, just make sure you pack enough water and snacks if you decide to go on one of the longer trails!
Possibly the prettiest time to go to Takao is in autumn. The weather is just right for hiking – not too hot and not too cold (though you still might break a sweat!) – and the golden and crimson leaves create a beautiful atmosphere to walk by. Once you get to the top you might be rewarded with a stunning view of Mount Fuji, too! Oh, and did I mention there’s also a monkey park up there?
If you’re not really into hiking, but love good views and good company, one of the great things about Takao is their ‘Beer Mount’! You can sit on the terrace with a frosty beer and the beautiful city lights at your side. It’s open between June and October, from 1pm – 9pm, and has an all-you-can-eat buffet and all-you-can-drink menu for two hours. It’s a perfect place to rest and reward yourself after all that hiking, or simply a great spot to catch up!
There’s certainly a lot more to do on Mount Takao than there is on Arthur’s Seat, I can tell you that much!
Last, but certainly not least, is Kamakura. After two very hiking-orientated spots, Kamakura is quite different in the sense that it is more of a beach town, with cute cafés and unique shops. A British point of reference is to say it’s somewhat like Brighton, but with sand instead of pebbles, and shrines instead of arcades... so, maybe not that similar after all!
One of the major tourist spots in the area is the Daibutsu-zen, or ‘Great Buddha’. About a 20-minute walk from the station, or an easy 10-minute bus ride, it should definitely be one of your stops. From there, if you follow the road towards the beach, there are a lot of ice creameries and quaint hand-made shops, which are perfect for souvenirs.
There are loads of great places to eat in Kamakura, and a fair few have the coveted ocean view. A good burger place in the area is Seedless Bar, just a short walk from the Daibutsu, but there are plenty of western-style, Japanese-style, and even a decent number of Hawaiian restaurants in the area, so you’re pretty much spoilt for choice!
Enoshima Aquarium is a little bit further out, but is a great excuse to ride the ‘Enoshima Electric Railway’, an adorable old-fashioned tram that really leaves the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s busy lifestyle behind. Getting off the tram at Enoshima station and walking to the Aquarium, you might even spot some Black Kites – birds of prey that are year-round residents in the area (watch your food!).
My last recommendation in Kamakura is Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu, a shrinto shrine built in the 1800s in traditional Edo style. With its wide set of stairs leading up to it, and the long road leading up to it, the anticipation and its impressive visual makes it one of the most impressive shrines in the area.
Bonus Food Recommendations!
There are a huge number of amazing food options that couldn't possibly be listed here, but I can at least give a quick overview for you!
If you're looking for your first venture into the world of izakaya, try out Kichiri for affordable luxury, or Kin-no-Kura for a good, basic go-to!
For amazing pizza when you need a taste of home, try Spontini with their gorgeous thick-crust pizzas, or Savoy for a thin-crust heaven.
For ramen, pretty much anywhere in Takadanobaba is great, but particularly the chicken soup style of Toripaitan Kageyama.
And lastly, for the ever-popular sushi, I suggest Ueno's Maimon Sushi or Shinjuku's Genki Sushi!
That should keep you going for a while!
There you have it! Everything you need for your first time in Japan. No matter where you’re coming from, it can be difficult to decide where to go when it’s your first time visiting another country. Hopefully my insights as a British traveller will help make that decision a bit easier!
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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