Category Archives: Fall


For starters if you are looking for something fancy, this is not the place, but delicious it is. My family recently took a trip into Tokyo to get our kids their passports. We found ourselves in a neighborhood near the Kamiyacho station ( the closest station to the United States Embassy) around lunch time and we were starving. After googling “Ramen near me” we found this place about a block from the station and decided to give it a try.

Upon arrival we were a little bit nervous because the machine outside, on which you order, was all in Japanese. We arrived a few minutes earlier than it opened at 11am. Thankfully we had a few minutes to use google translate and order before a long line formed behind us. Inside there was about 5 tables that seated up to 4 people. We have a very active toddler and we felt comfortable with the seating.

My husband and daughters had the miso ramen. It was good but also very different than miso ramens we have had in the past. It almost has a smoky flavor to it. I ordered the Taiwanese soba dish and it exceeded my expectations. It was truly delicious. I would recommend this place if you find yourself in this area and are hungry. -February 2020, Deena Brunson.


The ASOBUILD is a one-stop location for hours of fun. It is six floors of all kinds of experiences and there is something for everyone, at every age. Parking like many places in Japan can be an adventure but there are plenty of garages around there. If driving isn’t your thing, even better, the ASOBUILD is located at the Yokohama train station.

My family stumbled upon the ASOBUILD in search of the ever-popular Unko exhibit or better know as the Poop museum. Once we arrived we were disappointed to learn the exhibit had changed but excited to explore the places we had found. Looking at the map we realized how much the ASOBUILD had to offer. The basement is a lounge called “Pitch Club”. The creatively decorated area holds many events. It is like a grow-ups playground with drinks, food, music, pool tables, darts, and comfy chairs. This area seemed to be popular all hours. We saw people going in and out from the time we arrived until we left.

“Post street” is the name of the first floor and main floor. This is where most entered the building and where you bought your tickets to exhibit and play areas. We bought our “Oceans by Nature” tickets with ease at the counter before taking a stroll around the rest of “Post Street”. It was around Halloween when we visited and to our surprise, they had a large decorated area for people to take their own free pictures. They even had some props available as well. Following our photoshoot, we walked the halls among several adorable food booths that had a very gourmet food truck feel.

The second floor called “Ale Box” holds ever-changing exhibits. We chose to go into the “Oceans by Naked” exhibit which was small by awe-inspiring. Once we exited the exhibit we wandered the halls and found so much more. There was also a drone racing area, an escape room and a gift shop that accompanied the “Oceans by Naked” exhibit.

Scanning the brochure area before paying for our “Oceans by Naked” tickets I noticed signs about the daily craft being offered. The third floor called “Monotory” holds workshops making all kinds of crafts from soap to Christmas wreaths. You can see what crafts are available and also make reservations on their very easy to use the website in English. I look forward to returning and trying their recommended DIY welding and shelf making.

The fourth floor is a kid area called “PuChu”. It cost about 2000 yen for 90 minutes for children between 0-12 years old. Parents also pay a fee of 1000 yen for 90 minutes. Day passes are also available for 2500 yen per child and 1000 per parent. The area is full of bright colors, puzzles, things to swing on and places to jump from. It looked like yet another reason we will need to return.

The last floor is the multi-sports floor. It is located on the roof and has various lessons such as soccer, archery, and boxing. The multiple courts can be rented for large functions or games. They have games of basketball and soccer that can anyone can jump into as well. Its a regular sports haven.

The ASOBUILD has it all! It’s the perfect place for a girl’s day, guys day or family day. If you find yourself in Yokohama or feel up for traveling you are sure to be entertained at the ASOBUILD. – Deena Brunson, October 2019.

 Shokusai Kitchen Mayfly

 Nice little river side restaurant that is very relaxing. It is 15 minutes away from Nippara Limestone Caves. They serve things such as pizza, curry, pasta and salad. You can also go trout fishing for about 600 yen which adds a bit of excitement to the day. All in all a great place to stop for lunch. The restaurant also has some free parking spots. ~Kalina Bojkova, August 2019.

Nippara Limestone Caves

Great for families with babies and kids 4 and up who can walk and do a lot of stairs. A tad more challenging with a toddler but still a lot of fun especially if you have a strong dad with you who doesn’t mind carrying the toddler up the steep stairs. Has a bunch of spots to stop and look around which is very recharging. There’s a little area right by the entrance of the cave where you can sit by the water and have lunch and also covered benches upstairs by the bathroom.

Bring a jacket with a hood and you should be fine. Cold Water is dripping down hence the hood. Definitely hat or hood for little kids who don’t like cold water on their heads. There is not much space for big hats so a hood is better. You can wear long pants but if you are walking the whole time you will warm up. Kids should probably wear long pants too. My warm blooded husband was happy wearing shorts and a tee as you can see in the picture.

Bring little easy snacks for the kids to keep them happy as it is 45 min adventure and the echo makes it extra loud when they cry compared to the Japanese people who talk to each other in a whisper.

There is free parking not many spots available so go early. They also have toilet, a little restaurant, a shrine and lots of nature. It’s a great day trip. Also go with a small car and a really good driver the way up is one way. Perfect for a motorcycle ride per my husband’s words. ~ Kalina Bojkova, August 2019.

Kabuki Theater

When my mom came to visit we wanted to do something different and authentic to Japan. A friend had told me about the Kabuki Theater which was named Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2005. After doing some research we decided to give in a try. The dramatic Japanese performing art was more than I expected.

We took the train from the Fussa station which took about an hour and a half and involved a few train switches. The theater itself was beautiful with a grand feel outside and quaint feel inside. Tickets can be purchased per show or as a day pass. The line for single shows is located outside in front of the theater and tickets range from 500-3000 yen. It was a special Mother and Daughter day for us so we purchased the day pass which cost about 14000 yen each. The day passes can be purchased in the basement of the theater. You will find an escalator on the right side of the building that will take you down. Walk to the right and you will find the counter to purchase tickets. We had no trouble with communication as they spoke enough English to help us with our requests.

Once we purchased our tickets we wandered thru the many booths that can also be found in the basement. There are wonderful things to be seen and bought at the market such as jewelry, scarves, swords and treats of all kinds. As you head back up to the theater there is a convenient store located at the bottom of the escalator. We popped in there and grabbed a few snacks to enjoy while watching the show.

Outside the main doors is a small counter at which you can rent an English translator screen. It was about 1000 yen to rent. The screen is something you have to read but was very nice to have. We were lucky enough to see two very different shows. The first was musical. The vibrant costume colors and energy of the Wa-Daiko had me on the edge of my seat. The first show only lasted about 20 minutes. We were able to grab a glass of wine in the lobby between shows. The pink champagne was amazing!

The second show was more of a play. I felt it showed more diversity and talent of the all male cast. Kabuki Theater which started with an all female cast in 1603 is now know for its all male cast. The dramatic make up and comical script was a side of the Japanese culture I had not experienced yet. The second show was significantly longer and ran for close to an hour. After the two shows we felt like we had seen all we wanted and headed out to find food. You will have no trouble finding food and shopping in the Ginza area of Tokyo right outside the theater. -Deena Brunson, August 2019.

Sayamaike park

This park is 10 min from west gate and 20 min from east gate by car. You can see the parking on the photo of the map of the park. It is about 25 min bike ride from west gate. Quiet neighborhood, really interesting houses, not many cars passing so you actually get to enjoy nature without all the noise. Small enough for a 2 year old to walk all around it and big enough to find many beautiful spots to take photo. Perfect for your D.I.Y family portrait. There a 7/11 close by, so you can grab a lunch and have picnic. The park has a playground with a sandbox to play in. Bathrooms can also be found at this park as well. ~ Kalina Bojkova, August 2019.

Westland Farms

Having heard about the yummy gelato and sweet animals many times, we finally decided to check out Westland Farms on my daughters last day of school. We invited some friends and headed there right after pick up. There were four cars in our group and I (per usual) was a little concerned about parking. I also was hoping the location in general was large enough for all of our high energy children. When we arrived I was pleased to see the parking lot was the perfect size and they had a great outdoor seating area that allowed for the children to wiggle and screech as needed.  

Once we got inside we were surrounded with a quaint adorably decorated gelato shops. Cows decor was sprinkled in every corner. The flavors of gelato ranged from commonly known choices such as chocolate chip, to down right interesting such as Olive Oil. The gelato itself is made with fresh ingredients from the farm which is one of the things that makes Westland Farms so special. After living in Italy many years ago my favorite flavor is pistachio and that is what I got. The small 300 yen cup was the perfect size. Pistachio was very good but like most Japanese sweets it wasn’t quite as sweet as I am used to. 

After we finished eating our treats we walked over to say hello to the goat and baby cow they have on property. The children thoroughly enjoyed petting the goat and saying “moooo” to the cow. Near the animals they also have a cow statue which offers the perfect photo opportunity. All in all if you are looking for a fun place to get a cool treat, Westland Farms is a wonderful choice. -Deena Brunson, July 2019.

Hakone Sengokuhara & Little Prince Museum


img_2008Susuki (pampas grass or silver grass) is known as one of seven autumn flowers in Japan. Sengokuhara is a popular spot to stop by to view and walk through beautiful seasonal field. Susuki season is October to November.

img_2014There are temporary parking lots for visitors to see the field in October to November. It was about 10-15 mins walk from the parking lot to the field.

img_1965There is a path in the middle of the field that you can walk through and it took us about 30-40 mins to walk to the end of the path and back. (We stopped for photos often.)

img_2007-1Only the beginning of the path was paved and it was mostly rocky. We left the base around 7 am and got there a little bit after 9 am. There were two parking lots for the field and the first parking lot was already full when we got there. The second parking lot was empty, but it was filling up by the time we left around 10:30 am.

I recommend stopping by the Little Prince Museum if you visit the Susuki field. It’s only a 5 minute drive from the field. According to its website, the museum was built to celebrate the 100 year anniversary since the birth of the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

img_2036It’s a small museum, but has a European-themed garden and the French-themed scenery  were beautiful. Most of the museum displays were in Japanese, but there were binders that had all the translations for visitors.

img_2044If you are fan of the book, this is a place to check out. You can enjoy illuminations and a projection mapping show in the evening from November to early January. There is a nice restaurant next to the museum as well. The lunch set menu price was around Y 1500 – 3000. ( You don’t need to buy tickets to the museum if you are only dining there.) – Mai Takahashi, November 2016

Read more about Hakone sights here:
Hakone Kowakien Yunessun:

Hakone Sengokuhara Temporary Parking lot 1 & 2 Hours: 9 am-4 pm, October through November.
The museum of The Little Prince:
Hours: 9 am – 6 pm (Last entrance is 5 pm, The restaurant hours: 11 am – 5 pm)
Entrance Fee: Adult Y 1,600, High School and College student Y 1,100, Elementary and Middle School students Y 700.

Hakone Sengakuhara (Temporary Parking lot (October to November, 9 am-4 pm. The coordinates: 35.265120,138.999927)
We took the Ken-O Expressway then Tomei Expressway. It costed Y 2,780 one way.

Susuki Field Parking  to the Little Prince Museum

Guide to Japan, Seasonal Activities and Sights

Guide to Japan, Seasonal Activities and SightsIf you are new to Yokota, or been here for years, this comprehensive guide can help you find new and exciting things to do year-round. Created with the seasons in mind, simply click on the link and find out what’s happening. Time to work on that Japan To-Do list!! Click on the links below to be able to zoom in and start your adventure! Created by Linda Bell, May 2015.

PDF: Guide to Japan, Seasonal Activities and Sights

Excel: Guide to Japan, Seasonal Activities and Sights



Fall Colors Route Near Mt. Fuji and Lakes

DSC01438Here is a good ‘day’ outing if you’re interested in seeing some of the main fall spots near Mt. Fuji. The fall colors peak somewhere between mid-October to mid-November, but check this website for its report on fall colors round Mt. Fuji, Tokyo and Japan so you can plan your visit –

The trip drives around Lake Kawaguchi and Lake Saiko and is best taken during the week and on clear days, when Fuji is visible. Total driving time (not including stops) is about 3.5 hours in good/light traffic. The tolls, round trip, cost ¥4000 (in 2014). This circuit also works well in the spring, when cherry blossoms bloom at Chureito Pagoda and along Lake Kawaguchi.


Begin at Chureito Pagoda (GPS N35.49969, E138.80025). Please see the map below.

FullSizeRenderFollow the road around Lake Kawaguchi, and you have the choice of two free parking lot areas: one parking lot is at the beginning of ¾ miles of fall trees and the other is at the end of this stretch of road. The first parking lot has the GPS coordinates 35.5205999, 138.7714245, and is located next to the Museum of Art. The one at the end, and further along the lake, is near a maple lined canal and has the GPS coordinates 35.5266438,138.7618775. The maple lined canal is down the hill from this parking lot and is a great highlight if you go when its color is in peak. The canal is less than 100 yards long, but all around this area and further up the mountain lane are some great looking seasonal trees. Between the two parking spots there are maple and gingko trees lining the main street as well as along the same distance on the path’s edge of lake Kawaguchi.

Continuing on your drive along Lake Kawaguchi, be prepared to stop for more amazing maple trees at this free parking spot, GPS 35.5153416,138.7369953. Near the far end of the lake there is a good and relatively well-priced, Italian restaurant on the right hand side.

Following this, you can drive to the thatched village settlement with the GPS coordinates 35.501374, 138.659046. Saiko Iyashi No Sato Nenba. Please see the link for parking and prices.

If you have extra time and energy, further around Lake Saiko there is a 20 to 30 minute hike up to Koyodai summit that has fall colors en route and at the top. You can drive to the top of this, but the road is unpaved and very rough. The GPS coordinates for the parking lot at the BOTTOM of Koyodai summit are 35.481077, 138.6720221. The GPS coordinates for the parking lot at the TOP of the summit are 35.4841543, 138.6795045. Linda Bell, November 2014.

Ginko Trees in Fall, Tokyo University Hongō Campus

DSC03584Around the end of November to the beginning of December, brilliant, yellow ginkgo trees line the main entrance into Tokyo University’s Hongō Campus. It’s a grand sight, and the leaf-carpeted path leads you through interesting gothic buildings and archways. Most of the campus is open to the public and is stroller friendly, for the most part.

DSC03648From the main gate (Seimon), and part way down the University’s main pathway, a path on the left leads to a huge ginkgo tree. It’s a great place to relax and have a drink, or picnic if the weather’s fine. At the opposite end of the main gate is Yasuda Auditorium, a large, red brick building. Just south of the main gate, towards Hongo Sanchome Station, there is also an interesting red gate (Akamon, shown in the picture above) built in 1827, from the Edo period.

Tokyo University is considered to be one of the most prestigious universities in Japan, and the World. The institute’s symbol is the ginkgo leaf, as the trees are “known for their endurance and longevity” ( Here is a link to the map for Hongō Campus. It has the locations of restrooms, restaurants, convenience stores and the train stations. Hongo Campus Map. During the fall, we combined this outing with a trip to Koishikawa Korakuen Park. A 1.3-mile walk separates the two locations, or you can take a subway ride between the Iidabashi/Korakuren Stations and Hongo Sanchome Station. Linda Bell, October 2014.

DSC03612DIRECTIONS: The GPS coordinates to the Tokyo University Hongō Campus main gate (Seimon) on Hongo-dori Avenue, are 35.712926, 139.759457. The closest subway stations to the University’s main gate are Todaimae Station (Nanboku Line, N12) and two separate Hongo Sanchome Stations, one services the Marunouchi Line (M21) and the other the Toei Ōedo Line (E08). Take note of the train line your returning on so you go to the correct station.

If you exit Todaimae Station, turn left to head to the main gate, while at the M21 Station take the Hong-dori Avenue Exit, Exit 3. At the E-08 Station take Exit 4 and turn right for the main gate. All stations are approximately a 10-minute walk to the main entrance of the University. I believe all three stations are stroller friendly, according to the University’s Disability Services Office.

Kinchakuda Park, Spider Lilies

DSC00222Sometime between mid-September and the beginning of October, Kinchakuda Park boasts a world-class Spider Lily (Lycoris Radiata) exhibit. The vast sea of red flowers is a huge attraction for the Kantō Plain, and Saitama prefectures. These flowers are only in full bloom for 5 to 6 days so if you want to see the garden at its peak, visit the park’s web page to see photos of the blooming progress, Kinchakuda Park Website. On the park’s website there is a calendar showing the Spider Lilies previous bloom times. H25 and H26 stand for years 2013 and 2014, according to the Japanese calendar. In spring, one hundred cherry trees and rapeseed fields bloom at Kinchakuda. Again, check the park’s website for blooming details. Note: The bulb of the Spider Lily is poisonous and the juice from the flower stalk may cause dermatitis.

DSC00247Temporary food tents, with Japanese fast food, are located towards the middle of the park, but these may be absent during the low flower season. There are not many picnic tables so perhaps bring a picnic blanket. Picnicking on the dry part of the riverbed is common. At the northwestern corner of the park is Alishan Café, a mainly organic eatery. This place has a balcony and seemed very popular when we walked by. On the northeastern side of the park, there is an interesting wooden truss bridge called Aiai. Some say it is the longest wooden truss bridge in Japan at approximately 91.2 meters. Access to and around the park from Koma Station is very stroller friendly. Perhaps bring extra clothes if your child/children play in the river. Admission is ¥300 during the Spider Lily season. Outside this, I believe the park is free. From April to October, the park is open from 08:30 to 17:15 everyday, except Tuesdays. The park is closed from November through March. Linda Bell, October 2014. (Updated by Deena Brunson October, 2019)

DSC00318DIRECTIONS: The GPS coordinates for the park’s entrance, closest to Koma Station in Saitama, are N35.88125 E139.30979. Other entrance/exits are situated around the park. During the peak Spider Lily season, I believe the easiest way to get to the park is to take the train from the Higashifussa Station (Hachiko Line) to Koma Station. This route takes just over 30 minutes and there is only one change at Higashihanno Station to the Seibu Chichibu Line. At Higashihanno Station, a Suica card or new ticket is needed to change lines. At the Koma Station, there are maps that give directions to the western entrance of the park. There are elevators at all the aforementioned stations, except Higashifussa which has 2 lots of approximately 50 stairs. For those with strollers, instead of taking the stairs on the right as you come out of Koma Station, go straight so you link up with the sidewalk on your right.

Parking, in and adjacent to the park, is ¥500. Be prepared for traffic congestion during the Spider Lily season.

Hitachi Seaside Park

untitled-5747This Showa Kinen-like Park, adjacent to the ocean, has some stunning garden displays, an amusement park, family golf courses, and a BMX course.  English maps of the park are available at the Ticket Entrance.  For garden enthusiasts, the park has a number of magnificent gardens that bloom at various times Linda Bell Hitachi Seaside Parkthroughout the year. When we visited, in fall (mid-October), the northwestern garden, on Miharashi Hills, was ‘ablaze’ with red Kochia bushes (see pictures). Amazing! This same area is also very popular in spring (late April – mid May) when the hillside is completely blue with 4½ million Nemophila (‘Baby Blue Eyes’). In late March – mid April 1 million daffodils are on display at Suisen Garden, from mid April – late April there is a spectacular display of 270,000 tulips at the Tamago no Mori Garden.  The park’s map has a detailed walking guide around the various garden displays for any time of the year.

At the family amusement park, Pleasure Garden, there are 30+ rides, including a giant Ferris Wheel, rollercoasters, a spinning disc, and a labyrinth. Tickets for the rides are sold separately and cost anywhere between ¥100 – ¥600. There are some height and/or age restrictions for the rides, but these only cover a few of the rides and there are plenty of other rides that should keep under 3 year old and under 120 cm happy.

For golf, the park has two courses; The Family Park Golf Course and the Putter Golf Garden. 9 and 18 holes can be played on either course and these cost ¥500 and ¥800 respectively. No 3 year olds are allowed golfing.

According to the park’s map, the BMX course is “a real course of BMX specialty”. To ride here, I believe long sleeved clothing, pants, and sneakers are required. On every 2nd Sunday, in each month, there is a free “experience Classroom ‘challenge the BMX’” session. Children, under age 16 need a guardian’s signature to participate.

linda bellThere are restaurants, cafes and BBQ areas (reservations required) located throughout the park. Bicycles can be rented at various places too. Strollers can be borrowed, free of charge, at the park entrance gate. There are miles of bike lanes and just like Showa Kinen Park there is a train that can take you around the park. Cost ¥500.  Pets are permitted on a leash.  Roller-skates, rollerblades and skateboards are not permitted.

Admission for adults: ¥400. Junior high – Elementary students: ¥80. Children under 6: free. There are discounts for groups over 13 people. Parking at the park costs ¥500.  HOURS: Hitachi Seaside Park is generally closed every Monday and on Tuesday if Monday is a National Holiday. There are, however, exceptions to this rule during spring (Mar 26 – May 13), summer (Jul 21 – Aug 31) and fall (Oct 1 – 31) breaks.  Most of the time the park opens at 9:30am. From Jul 21 – Aug 3 the park closes at 6pm and from Nov. 1 to the end of Feb it closes at 4:30pm. The rest of the year it closes at 5pm.  If you need more information the park’s phone number is 029-265-9001.

Linda BellDRIVING DIRECTIONS: This park is a 2-3 hour drive Northeast of Yokota and Tokyo. It is near Mito and Hitachinaka Cities in Ibaraki prefecture. We visited it on the way back from Nikko, which was not ideal, but still closer than Yokota. I believe the road tolls from Yokota to the Hitachi Seaside Park (one way) are between ¥3,000-4,000 depending on the route you travel.

There are several large parking lots, and the GPS coordinates to the West Parking Lot are N36.40863 E140.59016. If you plan on visiting Hitachi Seaside’s amusement park or golf courses, I recommend parking in the South Parking Lot.  It would be great if someone could give a more detailed review of the Amusement Park, Golf and/or BMX Courses as we only visited the northwestern part of the park. – Linda Bell, December 2013; Baby Blue Eyes photos by Linda Bell, May 2014.


Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

shinjuku gyoen sarah strausshinjuku garden sarah strausShinjuku Gyoen is one of the largest parks in Tokyo, located walking distance from Shinjuku Station.  There are traditional Japanese gardens here, large areas to run and play, a formal French garden filled with roses and a large green house.  A river runs through the garden with graceful bridges that cross back and forth.  The park is especially nice in the spring when the cherry trees bloom and in November when the leaves turn colors.  Bring your own lunch or enjoy noodles/curry at a reasonably priced restaurant in the park.  There are also two traditional tea houses located in the park.  – Sarah Straus, October 2013DSC_2958DIRECTIONS: This is an easy park to access by train.  Starting in Fussa or Akishima, take the Ome train to Tachikawa.  In Tachikawa switch to a train  heading to Tokyo, Shinjuku Station.  There is a metro stop closer to the parks entrance (Shinjukugyoenmae), but don’t bother transferring here.  Exit the station near the Information Booth and turn left.  Just walk straight down this street.  I always get turned around at Shinjuku Station – but the folks in the well marked information booth are very helpful.  Poke your head in there and they will point you in the right direction.sarah straus shinjuku gyoen garden

Yoyogi & Harajuku

yoyogi sarah strausHeading off to see Yoyogi Park and walk around the streets of Harajuku makes for a very satisfying day trip to Tokyo.  It is easy to get to this area by train from Yokota – requiring no transfer to the subway.  The trip offers a walk through beautiful park grounds and dense shopping streets; and showcases a nice harajuku sarah strausjuxtaposition between tradition and ultra-modern.  The Meiji Shrine is located in the huge Yoyogi Park.  According to, the forest surrounding the Meiji shrine was planted when the shrine was constructed in 1920 and the trees were donated from all over Japan.  The Meiji Shrine is very impressive.  Try visiting on the weekend in the summer to catch a glimpse of a wedding procession.  Come late October through November to see kids dressed up for 3-5-7 day.  So beautiful.  Then, for s0mething totally different, head back to Harajuku Station and then across the street to Takeshita Street.  Come on the weekend to see teenagers dressed in anime and punk costumes.  Go shopping in the trendy boutiques and used clothing outlets.
sarah straus meiji shrineDIRECTIONS: Get on the train at Fussa or Akishima and head toward Tachikawa.  Transfer to a Shinjuku bound train on the Chuo line.  From Shinjuku, Harajuku is just 2 stops away on the JR Yamamoto Line heading harajuku sarah straustoward Shibuya.  Both the grand entrance to Yoyogi Park and the entrance to Harajuku shopping are located right outside Harajuku Train Station.  Also note: Harajuku station is just one stop away from Shibuya Station making it easy to add Shibuya to a day trip to Harajuku/Yoyogi park.  Enjoy!  -Sarah Straus, October 2013



nikko by brookeA few hour trip from Yokota Air Base is one of Japan’s most famous shrines – National Park Nikko.  The park is home to the tomb of Tokogawa Ieyasu, the man who brought all of Japan’s famous samurai warriors under one ruler. But Nikko is much more than just another shrine.  National Park Nikko is a collection of temples, pagodas, gates and shrines, full of beautiful gilded statues, altars and painted ceilings.  When you enter the park, you should go to the ticket window at the entrance.  Your first stop will be Sanbutsu-do, the largest temple in the Nikko mountains.  Inside the temple you will see the statues of the Thousand handed Kwannon, the Amida Buddha and the Horseheaded Kwannon.  Enjoy the craftsmanship and sheer beauty of the statutes, but don’t expect to take a picture…photos inside the temples are not allowed.  As you exit the temple, you can buy a book full of pictures.

nikko by brooke 2There are more than 10 temples at National Park Nikko, so plan to spend a lot of time if you want to see them all.  After seeing a few of the temples, head up the mountain where you will see a giant torii – or gate.  As you go through the gate, you will see the gorgeous Five-Storied Pagoda.  The pagoda was originally built in 1650, but was destroyed by fire in 1815.  It was rebuilt four years later.  Just past the pagoda, you will see the sacred stables.  Inside is a beautiful white stallion, thought to be good luck to the Japanese.  Above the stable doors, you’ll see a series of wooden carvings.  If you look closely, you’ll see the famous “See no, Hear no, Speak no Evil” monkeys.  After climbing another couple of flights of stairs, you’ll go through the Yomeimon Gate, a giant structure covered in gold awnings and guard dogs.  The gate is also known as the “Sunset Gate” because it is said visitors do not grow tired of viewing the gate until dusk.  Inside this gate, turn to the right and you’ll see the entrance to Tokogawa’s tomb.  You can’t go in without paying a small fee.  But once inside, you will get to see the famous “Sleeping Cat,” and climb the 100 steps to the famous tomb.

photo 2But don’t spend all of your time at the National Park, because Nikko has so much more to offer.  If you drive, which I recommend, take the car past the park, and head up to what is known as the “Zig-Zag Highway.”  Before heading up the series of twists and turns, we saw a couple of wild monkeys standing on the side of the road.  Note of caution:  tourists are warned not to stop their cars to feed the monkeys, because they have been known to be violent.  The climb to the top of the mountain is sheer driving pleasure.  The road is a series of 25 or so switchbacks, with some curves being more than 180 degrees. Before you get to the top, watch for the ropeway where you can get a beautiful view of the lake and falls from above.  After navigating the roadway, you will find Lake Chuzenji, a
crystal-clear lake located at the top of the mountain.  There are a series of quaint shops and restaurants alongside the lake. Before heading down the mountain keep an eye out for the signs to Kegon Falls.  The falls are on the Ojiri River, which flows from Chuzenji.  More than 300 feet high, the falls are breathtaking…and loud. – Sam Amrhein, October 2001, photos by Brooke Smith, July 2013.

If you are going to stay the night, a lot of military people prefer to stay at the Turtle Inn Annex/HotoriAn (0288-53-3663, GPS I think… 36.750434, 139.592344 but can someone confirm? – Sarah), which comes complete with meals and an onsen.  If you go during the off-peak season, you may have the hotel to yourself!  We chose to stay just outside Nikko at the Woodsman’s Village, a collection of log cabins located on the other side of the mountain from the National Park.  The cabins are completely made of logs, but contain all the modern conveniences from a full kitchen and full bath.  No beds though, they provide futons.  The cabins vary in size, meaning it would be perfect for a couple, or an entire group.  The people who run the cabins speak English, so making reservations is easy. (I think that Woodsman Village GPS cooridnates are 36.669314,139.61393, but can someone confirm? – Sarah) – Sam Amrhein, October 2001; Cabin photo by Meg Martin, 2012.

Nikko by Brooke 4DIRECTIONS
We recommend you see the Yujo Center for directions & maps.  Take the Tohoku Expressway to the Utsunomiya Interchange, then follow the signs to the Nikko Toll Road, which will lead you to Nikko.  The tolls will cost about 5,000 yen each way.  You can get to the Tohoku either by going into Tokyo, or by turning right out the terminal gate and following Route 16 for about 30 km.  Be warned, Route 16 winds through several towns along the way, and the traffic can be heavy at times.  It took us about two hours to get to the Tohoku by traveling Route 16, and another hour or so to get to Nikko.  You can take a super-express train to Nikko as well. The line runs from Asakusa Station, and seats can be reserved in advance. GPS Coordinates for Shrines inside Nikko National Park: 36.757659,139.59893.  – Sam Amrhein, October 2001

We stayed at Woodsman’s Village.  In addition to what is written about it above I would add that it was a little difficult to find at night and the roads were narrow, but we thought it was well worth the effort. Our cabin was beautiful and great for 3 kids and 3 adults. Would stay there again. – Christina Bowman, October 2012

Mount Takao

Takao Sarah Straus 2013Mount Takao (Takao-san)  is about an hour from Yokota and offers sightseeing and hiking. You can take a ten-minute cable car ride or a ski lift part way up the mountain and then hike the rest.  There are two restaurants at the top of the cable car, both offering an awesome view all the way to Shinjuku on a clear day. There are also snack vendors along the way and at the summit.  To the left of the takao sarah strauscable car exit at the top, along the central path to the temples, there is a monkey zoo—a must if kids are along. On the main trail you will not need any special gear.  Much of it is paved.  There are several sections of long, steep stairs.  Takao-san is open year-round, although the shops and restaurants may close on Japanese holidays. One notable festival is the fire-walking (Yamabushi Hiwatari) held at the Yakuoin Temple near the summit on the second Sunday of March.  While there, also check out the Trick Art Museum.  Driving there is easy.  On the weekend parking at the Takao-san-guchi terminal parking lot costs ¥1000.  Taking the train is easy too and you don’t have to pay for parking.  Parking Lot phone number: 042-661-1118, parking lot GPS coordinates 35.632954, 139.270487 -Viki Lyn Paulson-Cody, updated & photos Sarah Straus, 2013

DSC_2513DRIVING DIRECTIONS: It is about a 40 minute drive to Takao and as long as you stay on Route 16 and turn right onto Route 20 it is a simple drive.  The trick of course is that Route 16 takes a few turns, so keep your eyes open.  Go left out the Fussa Gate onto Route 16.  Stay on Route 16 toward the Chuo Freeway.  As you near the freeway there is an option to turn left onto a Route 16 spur toward an expressway, but continue straight on Route 16 toward the Chuo.  Continue under the Chuo freeway.   Continue on Route 16 and then turn Right onto Route 20 – it is clearly marked as Route 20 toward Takao.  Route 20 will take you to the entrance at Takao-san-guchi train station in 6.6 kilometers.  There are several large parking lots here including a large one at the train station.  Warning, if you go during November to see the fall colors you should arrive extra early to get parking even on a weekday.   – Sarah Straus, November 2012
DSC_2554TRAIN DIRECTIONS: Leave from Higashi Fussa and take the train to Hachioji. Change to the Chuo Line to Takao. Don’t take the express train; the train should be marked “Takao” (in English). At Takao, change to the Keio Line for Takao-San by following the signs (in English) past the ticket booths. Take the train to Takao-San Guchi, the end of the line.  Note: you can also start at Fussa and change at Tachikawa.  At Tachikawa get on the Chuo line toward Takao.  Then at Takao change train lines to Keio, going one stop from Takao to Takaosanguchi.  Check train times here. -Viki Lyn Paulson-Cody

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Mt. Takao in the Fall, Photos by Kelly O’Donnell, Oct 31, 2013

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Mount Mitake

DSC_5484For a day hike, nothing beats the area around Mount Mitake (御岳山), if you ask me. The mountain is surrounded by Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, a large area of forested mountains, deep valleys and small settlements. You don’t have to be in peak condition to hike here. It’s only a short train ride away, and is easily accessible by cable car.

IMG_4199In fact, a cable car will take you to the top in 6 minutes for approximately ¥600. On a clear day you’ll be rewarded with stunning views, and even on a lousy day there’s a lot to enjoy. I love that we can take a train to go hiking. No car required. To start out, you might just walk around the top and over to the Mitake Shrine, which takes about half an hour. The paths are mostly paved and well-marked in English, so you shouldn’t have much trouble. For a longer walk, follow the well-marked path from the shrine to the ravine known as the “Rock Garden”.  The walk to Rock Garden is especially lovely in November when the leaves turn red, orange and yellow.  The path takes you down to the river and then proceeds up the river, crossing back and forth to a large waterfall.  (See photos below of Rock Garden in the fall.)

IMG_4203If you do anything more ambitious, you’ll want to get a trail map (i.e. climb nearby Mount Odake at 1267m). These are for sale at the visitor center near Mitake Station, where you get off the train. I imagine they’re also available at the visitors center on top of Mount Mitake. (Perhaps someone could check and comment below.) Bring a water bottle, clothing for all possible conditions, some yen and perhaps a snack. The top of the mountain has a few stores and ramen restaurants, and even a vending machine, so if you forget you won’t probably won’t perish.

IMG_4212It is said that Musahi Mitake Shrine is more than 2,000 years old. Legend has it that a warrior hero was buried here with a stash of weapons. The shrine has a display of ancient treasures including armor from the 12th century, and a warrior’s saddle with mother-of-pearl inlay from the 13th century. Both of which you can see for a small admission fee. The shrine also has some kind of blessing for pets. Or so I was told by a couple of other visitors. I think they’re right, because you can see a cage, apparently for pets, next to the stairs going into the shrine sanctuary. And you can buy a ticket for your dog to ride the cable car. Just go to the ticket machine and push the button with a picture of a dog on it.

fall mitake sarah strausFor a more advanced walk, I suggest Mt. Mitake (御岳山) to Mt. Hinodeyama (日の出山). You can return the way you came, or continue down the other side of Hinodeyama to the Hinatawada train station (日向和田駅) and catch the Ome line home. This route takes you past Yoshino Baigo, a lovely place to see plum blossoms in March.

Three important pieces of advice for advanced hikers, and hiking in general if you don’t read Japanese. First, do not attempt this hike without a map. A bilingual map is best. Second, carry your destination and landmarks written in Kanji. Third, take photos of signs. When you start down a trail, the signs are often in English and Japanese. Take pictures of these signs with your phone or digital camera. As you get further from civilization the signs are often in Japanese only. You may not be able to read a sign, but you can play “match the Kanji” if you have a known sample to compare it to.

Interested in more hikes? Check out White Cloud Mountain or Mount Takao. Happy exploring!  – Liz Ruskin, updated Michelle Nexon, Sarah Straus; 2013; photos Michelle Nexon; fall photos Sarah Straus Nov 2013.

TRAIN DIRECTIONS: From the Fussa train station, catch an Ome-bound train. If your train terminates at Ome, cross the platform and catch the train to Okutama. Get off at Mitake station. As you leave the station from the sole exit, you’ll see a building to your left, before you descend to the street. You can buy a map here, but hurry because you don’t want to miss the bus. Descend the stairs to street level. Turn left and cross the street. About 50 meters down the road you’ll see a green bus stop sign. The bus is infrequent but seems timed to accommodate the train schedule. The bus actually stops a little further down, on the other side of the vending machine. You may be able to follow the parade of brightly attired hikers from the train to the bus. The bus accepts the Suica Card or coin. It will shuttle you to a bus stop just downhill from the cable car. Flash your Suica again to ride the cable car, or you can buy a ticket from the machine in front of the station. Once you’re on top, go right to admire the view, then walk back to the terminus and go left down along the wooded trail.

mitake sarah strausDRIVING DIRECTIONS: At the Terminal Gate, set your odometer to zero and turn right out of the gate. Stay right to go under the overpass. Turn left onto Ome Kaido aka Route 5 at 2.8km (signposted Hakonegasakinishi Intersection. McDonalds is on far left corner).  Near Higashi-Ome station, 8km, veer right, following the blue highway sign for  “Central Ome.” Just past the Hinatawada train station (13.6km) you’ll see a blue sign for “Mitake” and “Tachikawa” that points left to Route 199. Take that left and cross the river. Drive two lights, to the end of Route 199, and turn right on Route 45. Stay on Route 45 until 20.2km, where you’ll turn left onto Route 201, signposted for Mount Mitake. Drive under the large red torii gate at GPS coordiante: 35.802204, 139.174437. Route 201 ends at the Mount Mitake cable car station. There’s a pay lot behind the station, or there are private lots that charge about ¥1000. There’s one immediately before the bus stop, at GPS: 35.79667, 139.162971.

Rock Garden; November 2013 by Sarah Straus

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Yamanashi Grapes

Yamanashi Prefecture is inviting anytime, but autumn is the best time to visit this scenic Japanese countryside. It’s only an hour and a half from the gates of Yokota. Known throughout Japan for its deliciously sweet purple grapes, Yamanashi Prefecture offers a ten mile drive along a stretch of Highway 20, from Katsunuma to Kofu, lined with what seems like endless vineyards. Travelers soon see the numerous stands set up to sell grapes. Select a stand and enjoy a generous taste-testing beneath a grape arbor. Customers are often invited to sit and enjoy some sweet tea. You can by grapes by the kilo or pick your own. Grape-picking equipment is usually provided. In the summer months, peaches are offered for sale along the roadside, but people are not permitted to pick their own peaches.
When you decide you’ve seen one too many grapes, continue along Highway 20, past Kofu to the southwest corner of Chichibu Tama National Park. On a clear day, Mt. Daibosatsu will appear as a beacon. Shosenkyo Gorge runs through forested slopes and dramatic rock formations. It is one of the most scenic river valleys in Japan. See separate entry.
DIRECTIONS: Exit from Fussa Gate and turn left on Route 16 South to Hachioji. At Hachioji, get on the Chuo Expressway.(Do not take the the Hachioji Bypass.) Once on the expressway two signs will appear; one for Shinjuku and the other for Nagoya. Take the road to Nagoya. Stay on the Chuo until Otsuki. (Toll: ¥1300.) Take the Otsuki exit and that will lead to Highway 20. Turn right and stay on Highway 20. The grapes will be straight ahead; no turns, no confusion.  To get to Shosenkyo Gorge, continue along Highway 20 as it passes through the outskirts of Kofu. Soon you’ll see signs for “Shosenkyo.” There are several. All will take you to the right, passing under the Chuo Expressway, to a winding road called Shosenkyo Line. It’ll take you right to the gorge parking lot. Fee: ¥1000. GPS for Shosenkyo Gorge parking: 35.72617,138.54987.  – Pam Watson. Directions verified and modified by Liz Ruskin Sept. 2011


Matsumoto Castle & Takayama (Nagano & Gifu)

motsumoto castle kelly odonnell Matsumoto castle in Nagano was built more than 400 years ago and is one of the most unique castles I have ever seen. It was designed to be nearly all black to help keep it safe from enemies at night. It is sometimes referred to as the “Crow Castle.” It is surrounded by a traditional mote and beautiful grounds. It is listed as a National Treasures of Japan. You can tour the inside of the castle. There are six floors and many national treasurers are displayed in cases inside.  Beware however, the “stairs” are very steep and slippery, some are more like ladders. I wouldn’t recommend it for toddlers or older folks who may have difficulty climbing. It certainly is not stroller friendly. You also have to remove your shoes before entering the castle. We visited in November and the floors inside were very cold so make sure you have socks! English brochures and tour guides are available. After touring the castle we walked to some nearby shrines and walked along the river where there were lots of antique and souvenir shops. Admission cost 600¥ per adult, children are 300¥. The only days they are closed are December 29 – January 3rd.

motsumoto kelly odonnellDriving time from Yokota was approximately 2 1/2 hours. It is in the city of Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture.  GPS coordinates to parking lot for Matsumoto castle, which was a two block walk from the castle. 36.235216, 137.969180 – updated post and photos by Kelly O’Donnell, November 2013

Matsumoto Castle, about 200km west of Yokota, is sure to be a hit with kids. It was built in the 1500s, and still has many tiny windows intended for firing arrows and early firearms. A gun museum is on the second floor. Visitors can climb up into the tower and have a lovely view of the moat and the city. The tourism bureau there is very active. On the castle grounds we found volunteer guides ready to give tours in English. Costumed “samurai” with long guns prowl the grounds, eager to have their picture taken with tourists. The day we were there, in July 2011, it was over 100•F, and there was a booth on the grounds giving out free snow cones! The city’s historic district lies along the river, and there were some intriguing antique/junk shops.
Another fascinating place to visit is a 10-minute walk from the castle: The Old Kaichi School (Kyu Kaichi Gakko 旧開智学校)
We then drove into the mountains, where it was lovely and cool and spent the night. We stayed in our camper, but we noticed several campsites and onsens with rooms and cabins.  Liz Ruskin, 2011

Wasabi Farm tour (Daio Wasabi Farm) is one of the biggest distributors of wasabi in Japan.  The grounds are picturesque and touring the farm is free.  We enjoyed a clear bottom boat ride, seeing how wasabi is picked and processed, and tasting all the wasabi treats – including wasabi ice cream and wasabi beer.  Parking was free and easy.  It is located just north of Matsumoto on highway 147.   Anna Quan-Schmoldt, 2012

We went to Takayama, a picturesque city (aka Hida Takayama) where the streets are lined with old wooden houses and shops. A dozen or more have been turned into small history and craft museums. We also visited Hida Folk Village, just outside of Takayama. I thought it was going to be an icky tourist trap. Boy, was I wrong. It’s a nicely landscaped park where about 20 old thatch-roofed farmhouses from the region have been moved for preservation. As you walk through them, you learn not only about the buildings but about the life and history of the area. In some, traditional crafts are on display. Be sure not to miss the silkworm house! Takayama also has two well-regarded morning markets featuring produce from surrounding farms. Liz Ruskin, 2011

Also see the post on Kamicochi – the Yosemite of Japan.

Northstar Lodge is a great place to stay in the Matsumoto area, with lots of recreational opportunity and nearby onsen.  – Theresa O, 2011

If you are going to Matsumoto Castle, consider staying at Kurobe View Hotel located 40 kilometers north of Matsumoto in the town Omachi.  Omachi is a mountain town in the Northern Japanese Alps, Nagano Prefecture.  The hotel has wonderful hot springs on site which are divided into his and hers. We enjoyed the Japanese breakfast and dinner that are included in the price.  It is located across from an apple orchard and there are apple festivals in August and September.  With Japanese-style rooms, the place was child-friendly and accommodating for our family of five – with a futon for each of us, all in the same room.  There is a cute downtown, walking distance from the hotel.  In town, we saw an entire troop of snow monkeys come out of the woods, which I understood was a fairly common occurrence.  For more things to do in Omachi, like seeing the highest damn in Japan and taking a ropeway through the mountains, check the Official Travel Guide of Japan entry for Omachi. Leaving Omachi, on 45 toward Hakuba, we found a fabulous place to eat Belgian waffles and ice cream in a log cabin chalet that looked like it came straight from the Swiss Alps.  I was impressed with the French press coffee. Yum.  Anna Quan-Schmoldt, 2012

DIRECTIONS: It’s a straight-forward drive to Matsumoto, taking the Chuo Expressway & Nagano Expressway. Plot a course on Googlemaps or talk to the folks at the Yujo to get their map on finding the Chuo entrance. Alternatively, you could take the train. There’s even an semi-express train from Tachikawa, but it only leaves a few times a day.

Tip: Rent a van from Vehicle Operations for this trip because toll prices are expensive.  Anna Quan-Schmoldt, 2012

Helpful websites

Matsumoto Castle

The Old Kaichi School (Kyu Kaichi Gakko 旧開智学校)

Takayama guide

Takayama museums

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