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Central Honshu travel guide

Extending from the Tokyo suburbs across the Kanto plain and the mountains of Chubu, the central region of Honshu island is the geographical heartland of Japan.

Descriptions of the Kanto region can be misleading. It is Japan’s largest alluvial plain, but it is certainly not an area of wide-open spaces. None of the flat land extends far enough to offer a level, unbroken horizon.  Kanto is home to Tokyo, perhaps the world’s most populated urban area. The plain wraps itself around the city and its equally congested southern neighbours of Yokohama, Kamakura and Izu. To the southwest is the unmistakeable snowcapped cone of Mt Fuji and the hot springs of Hakone, while in the hills to the north are the temples of Nikko.

In the area known as Chubu to the west beyond the Kanto plain, Japan is both highly industrial, as in Nagoya to the southwest, and rural, such as is found in the delightful Noto Peninsula and elsewhere along the Sea of Japan coast. There is also the historical city of Kanazawa, and the 3000-metre peaks of the Japan Alps.

Places to visit in Central Honshu

Tokyo

One of the world's great cities, Tokyo is a fascinating place to explore. Rebuilt after the 1923 earthquake without any comprehensive urban plan, it remains a city of subcentres and neighbourhoods, even villages, each with its own distinct personality. Read more about Tokyo…

Nikko

In the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture two hours north of Tokyo by train, Nikko is the final resting place of Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, who died in 1616. Toshogu, the mausoleum complex that Ieyasu built for himself, is one of Japan's most remarkable sights.

Toshogu comprises 42 structures, each a masterpiece of traditional design and many embellished with ornate carvings of, among other things, dragons and other mythical creatures, children at play, clouds and harp-playing spirits. The buildings, set on the steep hillside, are linked by series of stone steps, and some are entered through fabulous gateways.

Nikko is known as much for its autumn splendour as for its Buddhist temples, and the waterfalls and forested hills of the Nikko National Park area are a major reason to visit. The  forests  are filled with ancient trees, with suji, or Japanese cedar particularly numerous. Even if you are only here for a daytrip, you should take the 10km (6 mile) bus ride up the spectacular winding Irohazaka Highway to Chuzenji. Better yet, take a cab and stop at Akechi-daira, the halfway point. The view of Mt Nantai and the valley below is magnificent.

Mt Fuji

In its near perfect symmetry, the cone of Mt Fuji, snowcapped even in summer, is so exquisitely formed that it seems more like the work of an infinitely patient landscape artist than a volcanic accident. The solitary majestic peak rises 3,776m (12,385ft) into the heavens.

Fuji-san last erupted in 1707, and its dormant state allows the large number of visitors who come every year to climb to the summit. For some, the climb is an act of piety: the mountain is revered as the abode of Japan’s ancestral gods. For others, the climb is an exercise in self-discipline and physical purification. Still others come out of no particular religious impulse, on holiday, making the ascent mainly to be able to say they’ve done it and leaving – almost in spite of themselves – with a profound sense of spiritual uplift.

Climbing Mt Fuji

Most visitors begin their climb at Kawaguchi Lake, in the resort­ area north of the mountain, getting that far by train from Tokyo in about two hours. The official climbing season is 1 July to 27 August, although mountain huts at each of the 10 stations on the various routes of ascent are open from April to mid-­November. It's best to stick to the warmest months.

From Kawaguchi, you take a local bus to Go-gome (‘Fifth Station’) on the north face, to start the five-hour hike to the summit. There’s also a direct bus to this point from the Shinjuku bus terminal in Tokyo that takes about two and a half hours. If you’re coming from Kyoto or Osaka, the train or bus connections bring you to the Fujino-miya trail on the south face.

Truly dedicated pilgrims begin the climb around midnight, reaching the top in time to greet the sunrise. There’s no danger of losing the well-marked trail, and the night ascent obviates the need to put up at any of the dormitory-style mountain huts along the way. Pack extra-warm clothing and wear good hiking boots, hats and gloves. Bad junk food from vending machines is all that’s available at the summit, so it’s best to bring your own supplies and, above all, a thermos of hot tea or coffee.

Other attractions

Fuji-san is like any other mountain in one respect: it’s a lot ­easier coming down. More adventurous visitors will take the descent down the volcanic sand slide called the suna-bashiri to Shin-­Gogome (‘New Fifth Station’). Just sit on your backpack or a piece of cardboard, push off and slither down. From Shin-Go-gome, buses connect to the town of Gotemba for connections home.

The Fuji Five Lakes that form a crescent around the north side of the peak offer delightful opportunities for fishing, boating and hiking. Yaman­aka-ko­ is the largest of the five. Kawaguchi-ko is the most popular, probably because of the excursion boats that ply the route along the north shore, where – with luck and good weather – you get a perfect mirror-image reflection of Mt Fuji in the water. Sai-ko has the best trout fishing, and Shoji-ko is smallest, prettiest and still relatively undeveloped. Motosu-ko is the clearest and deepest of the five.

Hakone

Hakone is a national park and resort area southeast of Mt Fuji, extremely popular with weekend trippers from Tokyo. Just 90 minutes by train from the city, this area makes a pleasant daytrip.

Among the many attractions is the Hakone Open-Air Museum at Miya­­no­shita, with its wonderfully landscaped mountain setting. Here the works of such Western sculptors as Moore, Arp, Calder and Giacometti share the garden space with those of Shimizu Takashi, Takamura Kotaro and other Japanese artists. The Meiji era resort town of Miyanoshita is also known as the home of the Fujiya Hotel, Japan’s oldest European-style accommodation. Stop here for morning coffee or afternoon tea in the wood-panelled Orchid Room which looks over the hotel’s fine Japanese garden.

Visitors stop here on the way to the little town of Gora, to catch the cable car to Sozan and from there the gondola ride up into the mountains and across the smoking, sulfurous Owakudani Valley. Escape the sulphur-impregnated air when you arrive in Gora by visiting the Pola Museum of Art, located in a lovely glass building in the forest. Japanese paintings and ceramics are included along with a collection of European artists including Cezanne, Monet and Van Gogh.

Take the next cable car to the shore of Lake Ashi, where excursion­ cruisers leave from the piers at Togendai for the 20-minute ride to Hakone-machi on the other side of the lake. On a good day the reflection of Mt Fuji in these clear blue waters is breathtaking. The surrounding area is well known for its ryokan inns and onsen thermal baths.

Takayama and the Japan Alps

The Japan Alps are an impressive range of mountains that extend across the central part of Chubu, with several peaks reaching over 3000 metres. The area abounds in fabulous scenery and is criss-criossed by some the country's best hiking trails.

High in the mountains is the attractive, if touristy, town of Takayama, luring travellers with its onsen hot springs and hiking trails. Originally established in the 1500s as a castle town for the Kanamori family, Takayama retains an old charm nurtured by its ryokan inns, sake breweries and craft shops. In the centre of town are three streets lined by museums, traditional shops, sake breweries, and countless spots to eat.

To the east is the village of Kamikochi, in the heart of the mountains. To avoid the crowds its best to visit on a summer weekday, in early October, or in the spring shortly after the opening of the mountain road, which is un­usable from 5 November to 30 April. Treks vary from half-day to a full two-day-three-night circuit taking in some of the finest hiking trails in Japan.  

Top hotels in Central Honshu

  • Akasaka Tokyu Hotel

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2-14-3 Nagatacho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Central Honshu

tel: 03-3580-2311

One of the most conveniently located hotels in Akasaka; it is just minutes away from all the action.

  • Hotel New Otani

    • $
    • $
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4-1 Kioicho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Central Honshu

tel: 03-3265-1111

  • The largest hotel in Asia. Health facilities, with 1,533 rooms, a 400-year-old Japanese garden, and very good location.

  • Hotel Okura

    • $
    • $
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2-10-4 Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Central Honshu

tel: 03-3582-0111

Long-established hotel, defining itself as one of the finest in the world. Health facilities, excellent restaurants and executive salon.

  • Kimi Ryokan

    • $
    • $

2-36-8, Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo

Central Honshu

tel: 03-3971-3766

Helpful English-speaking staff in very clean, inexpensive ryokan. Very popular, so book well in advance.

Top restaurants in Central Honshu

  • Chibo

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Yebisu Garden Place Tower, 38F, 4-20-3 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Central Honshu

tel: 03-5424-1011

Okonomiyaki in a trendy Yebisu Garden setting with superb views across the bay. Additions to the original formula include French cheeses and asparagus stuffing. English-language menu.

  • Butugami

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2-24-9 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku, Roppongi, Tokyo

Central Honshu

tel: 03-5474 818

Traditional setting for Tokyo’s finest tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlets) with premium pork. Choose fatty rosu or lean filet (or Spanish Ibérico). English spoken.

  • Kanda Yabu Soba

    • $

2-10 Kanda-Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Central Honshu

tel: 03-3251-0287

  • An institution in Tokyo eating circles, classic Edo-style hand-made buckwheat noodles in traditional surroundings. Soba choices come in hot soup or with a cold soy-based dip. Go early at lunchtime as the lines start to form on the stroke of noon.

Read more about Japan

Read more about Japan in Insight Guides: Japan

Insight Guides: Japan

Insight Guide Japan offers a uniquely comprehensive approach to getting the most out of one of Asia's most alluring destinations. Engaging History and Culture chapters explain the island's intriguing ...

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