A trip from the megacity of Tokyo to a ‘castle-turned-city’ Aomori city is a journey to natural wonders and fresh-air pursuits that will help you unplug and recharge.
Think Tokyo, think huge. The ever-present, remarkable technology imbuing everything from escalators to toys to toilet seats gives the impression that this megalopolis never stops to take a breath. Yet the lungs of the city – the much loved and surprisingly substantial parklands and places for quiet reflection – are plentiful, and keep Tokyo grounded. Not only that, but a mere three hours by super-fast Shinkansen train can take you to Aomori prefecture, a peaceful, nature-based region where blessed, green-tinged silence awaits even the most frazzled, time-poor visitor.
Day 1: Tokyo
Within the city of Tokyo itself – and about an hour by train from Haneda Airport – the lush Todoroki Valley awaits. The kilometre-long path, running alongside a peaceful waterway, is a favourite stroll for salarymen looking for a de-stress, students seeking some fresh-air time and nature-lovers wanting to recharge their batteries in the midst of urban life. Finding a moment of solitude while listening to the calm tolling of the Fudo Temple bell is balm for the soul.
Even closer to the centre of the city, the much-loved Meiji Jingu (shrine) is found within a massive 70-hectare evergreen forest right alongside the buzzing Shibuya district. Official sights include the fascinating treasure museum in the shrine’s inner area, as well as the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery featuring 80 intricate murals of imperial life in the outer precinct, but the nicest sight of all is the many local couples who can be spotted tying the knot in traditional Shinto garb in and around the Meiji Memorial Hall.
Then it’s on to the wide lawns of Yoyogi Park to see where the people of Tokyo love to meet and play. The exquisite cherry blossoms in spring and golden ginkgo trees in autumn are matched by beautifully turned out Harajuku hipsters who love to gossip and giggle among the parklands.
Day 2: Aomori
In the spirit of seeing more of Japan’s seasonal colour – or just more of this country’s love affair with its natural beauty – a thrillingly fast trip on the JR Tohoku Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station will have you in one of Japan’s favourite autumn colour capitals in Aomori.
Visit Nenokuchi from Shin-Aomori Station, and you’ll discover the much-loved, must-see Oirase Stream, punctuated by more than 10 waterfalls of pure mountain water cascading over the walls of the gorge. Hiring a bike from near Nenokuchi Station or from nearby Yakeyama and cycling through the gorge is a perfect way to see the stunning rock formations and clear-water rapids; it’s an easy ride up a gentle slope.
Next, visit Towada Lake. To see the sights from the water, you can take a scenic boat ride that tours this gorgeously blue crater lake. But why not see the lake under your own steam and rent a canoe? Pick up a canoe from a rental depot and you can then enjoy not only the silence of paddling, but you can try and spot the many bird species that nest on and near the shore of the lake.
Day 3: Hakkoda Mountains
Deep within the beech forests of the Hakkoda Mountains in Aomori, you can find Tsuta Onsen, a traditional hot spring that is a must-try on any trip to Japan. For the most authentic and health-giving experience, the waters here seep directly from the ground through the beech floor of the spa, so that the mineral-rich spring water will actually tingle on your skin, tempered only by cool spring water from the nearby forest to bring the temperature down to a safe bathing level.
Remember that the Japanese way to enjoy bathing is au naturel – so you won’t need your bathing suit! But you’re here to get close to nature, after all.
Hakkoda Ski Area
If you visit in winter, you can ski nearby at the Hakkoda Ski Area, but any time of year is a great opportunity to head up to the summit via the Hakkoda Ropeway gondola and take in the alpine scenery. Fill your lungs with that deliciously cool air and you’re ready for the bullet train back to Tokyo, having gone deep into the natural soul of Japan in only three days.