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4 short getaways from Tokyo using the JR TOKYO Wide Pass

4 short getaways from Tokyo using the JR TOKYO Wide Pass

Updated as of 31 May 2023
Originally published on 7 May 2021

 

Tokyo is the most popular gateway into Japan, and chances are that you’ll fly into Haneda Airport or Narita Airport when visiting Japan. Even though Tokyo offers modernity and convenience, with endless dining and shopping choices, sometimes we just want to take a break from the city and get away to nature or to smaller, quieter towns, don’t we?

 

Luckily, Tokyo is very well-connected to its neighbouring prefectures by rail, and with the 3-day JR TOKYO Wide Pass, a quick getaway has never been easier. Other than foreign visitors, anyone with a non-Japanese passport can also use the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, even those working/studying/living in Japan!

 

In this article, we will introduce four places perfect for a short overnight getaway from Tokyo. Whether you have 2D1N to spare or 3D2N to spare, it’s entirely up to you. Are you ready? Let’s go!

 

1) Izu Peninsula (伊豆半島)

Sunset view from a train on the Izukyuko Line. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Longing for a seaside getaway? Head over to the Izu Peninsula (伊豆半島 Izu Hantо̄), just a 2-hour-45-minute train ride from Tokyo. Located in Shizuoka Prefecture, the Izu Peninsula is a scenic gem filled with beautiful coastlines, seaside hot springs, a mild climate, and delicious seafood.

 

Shimoda City (下田市), the southernmost city of the peninsula, is where railway line ends. In 1854, several black ships (黒船 kurofune) under the command of Commadore Matthew Perry landed in Shimoda, an event that kickstarted other events which eventually led to the start of diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States. At Shimoda, you can take a sightseeing boat ride around the bay, in a boat decorated as a black ship. 

 

The Black Ship Train. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh, 伊豆急行, kimagurenote / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

Izukyuko has a special sightseeing train series, the Resort 21 trains, which comprise the deep-black Black Ship Train (黒船電車 Kurofune densha) and bright red Kinme Train (キンメ電車). The two-take inspiration from Commodore Perry's black ships and kinmedai fish (we'll introduce this delicious fish in the next paragraph!), icons representative of the Izu Peninsula. Operating between Atami Station and Izukyū-Shimoda Station, these trains features window-facing seats for you to enjoy the view of the ocean, and have fun facts about local fish scattered around the train. There are no extra charges for the window-facing seats, and you can ride these trains for free with the JR TOKYO Wide Pass! You can find out more about the Resort 21 trains from Izukyuko's website here.

 

Kinmedai is a deep-sea fish that can be enjoyed at the Izu Peninsula. (Image credit: 下田市観光協会)

 

When in the Izu Peninsula, one fish you must try is kinmedai (金目鯛 splendid alfonsino), a bright red deep-sea fish with large golden eyes that lives hundreds of metres below sea level. It is said that 80% of the fish caught in Shimoda is kinmedai, and the city even holds an annual Shimoda Kinme Festival every June.

 

Kinmedai has tender flesh with good fat content, has a mild flavour that is full of umami, and is best enjoyed with a little bit of skin on. At the Izu Peninsula, you can enjoy a variety of delectable dishes made using kinmedai, with the standard being fresh sashimi (刺身), simmered in soy sauce (煮付け nitsuke), or hotpot (しゃぶしゃぶ shabu-shabu). At Shimoda, kinmedai is also available in original creative dishes such as kinmedai burgers, kinmedai tempura, kinmedai wonton ramen, kinmedai skewers, and more! 

 

Perry Road is lined with picturesque buildings and chill cafés. (Image credit: 下田市観光協会)

 

Also in Shimoda is a picturesque road, Perry Road, which connects Ryosenji Temple and Shimoda Park. Running parallel to a canal, the road is lined with willow trees, and many of the buildings are cafés or boutiques. This quaint and quiet road is the perfect place to take a leisurely stroll or just chill at a café.

 

Every June, a hydrangea festival is held at Shimoda Park. (Image credit: 下田市観光協会)

 

At the end of Perry Road is Shimoda Park (下田公園), which is especially stunning during the hydrangea festival in June, when 3 million hydrangeas bloom. Did you know? The colour of hydrangeas can change depending on the pH of the soil­­­—hydrangeas planted in acidic soil yield blue flowers, while hydrangeas planted in alkaline soil yields pink flowers. The park is located on a small hill which overlooks Shimoda Port.

 

Golden sunset at Dogashima, on the western coast of the Izu Peninsula. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The Izu Peninsula is filled with so many magical sights, and you can spend days exploring its various attractions. While only the eastern coast is covered by railway, from Shimoda you can access the central and western parts of the peninsula by an extensive network of local buses (not covered by the JR TOKYO Wide Pass).

 

The Nishi-Izu area (西伊豆) on the western coast (1-hour bus ride from Shimoda)—especially around Dogashima (堂ヶ島)—is renowned for its deep golden sunsets. Many of the seaside resorts located there also serve up delectable seafood kaiseki (懐石traditional multi-course Japanese meal) dinners, and have outdoor hot springs from which you can enjoy the sunset while relaxing in the warm waters.

 

Kawazuzakura are in bloom from early February to early March. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

But perhaps the most famous image that comes to mind when thinking of the Izu Peninsula is the Kawazu Cherry Blossom Festival (河津桜祭り Kawazazakura matsuri). Unlike the regular someiyoshino cherry trees which bloom for only about a week, kawazazakura are in bloom for up to a month, from early February to early March. Lining a 4km stretch along the Kawazu River, kawazuzakura are a deep pink, and are usually in bloom together with bright yellow nanohana (菜の花 rapeseed blossoms). The cherry blossom site is just a short walk from Kawazu Station (河津駅).

 

The SAPHIR ODORIKO. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Want to travel to the Izu Peninsula in style? Check out the resort train SAPHIR ODORIKO, which debuted in March 2020. All seats are Green Car and Premium Green Car seats, so you’ll need to top up the Green Car/Premium Green Car seat fee of ¥5,150–¥7,470 if you want to ride this train with the JR TOKYO Wide Pass.

 

Access to the Izu Peninsula

From JR Tо̄kyо̄ Station (東京駅), take the Limited Express Odoriko to Izukyū-Shimoda Station (伊豆急下田駅) (2.5–3-hour train ride). Regular express and local trains on the Izukyuko Line are free to ride for JR TOKYO Wide Pass holders. At ¥10,180, the JR TOKYO Wide Pass is cheaper than the round-trip ride on the Limited Express Odoriko between Tokyo and Izukyū-Shimoda (¥12,360).

 

2) Oku-Nikko (奥日光)

Lake Yunoko in autumn. (Image credit: 日光市観光協会)

 

If you yearn to be surrounded by nature, head over to Oku-Nikko (奥日光), which is easily accessible from Tokyo in less than 3 hours. Nikko may be well-known for the UNESCO World Heritage Site cluster of shrines and temples—such as Toshogu, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s opulent mausoleum, and Rinnoji­—but other than that, if you venture deeper into the Nikko National Park, you’ll discover the other side of Nikko: a beautiful and peaceful getaway located in the heart of nature.

 

Lake Chuzenji and Mount Nantai. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

A 45-minute bus ride from JR Nikkо̄ Station is Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖 Chūzenjiko), where there is a hot spring resort on the eastern shore. Located around 1,269m above sea level, it offers a cool and pleasant climate perfect for beating the heat of summer. From the lake, you can access two of Nikko’s most attractive waterfalls, Kegon Waterfall and Ryuzu Waterfall.

 

Kegon Waterfall. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

The most famous of Nikko’s waterfalls is undoubtedly Kegon Waterfall (華厳の滝 Kegon-no-taki), which stands at almost 100m tall and is the only outlet for the waters of Lake Chuzenji. Along with Nachi Waterfall in Wakayama Prefecture and Fukuroda Waterfall in Ibaraki Prefecture, Kegon Waterfall is considered to be one of Japan’s top three most beautiful waterfalls.

 

Near the waterfall, there are two observation platforms­­—one free and one paid (¥570). The free platform is accessible by foot, while the paid platform is accessible by elevator and is located at the base of the waterfall.

 

View of Kegon Waterfall and Lake Chuzenji from Akechidaira Observatory. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

For an even more impressive view of the waterfall together with Lake Chuzenji, you can head to the Akechidaira Observatory, which can be reached by a 3-minute ropeway ride from Akechidaira Plateau (明智平).

 

Do note that buses only stop at Akechidaira in one direction, so you should visit it before Lake Chuzenji when coming from JR Nikko Station. Buses departing Lake Chuzenji bound for JR Nikko Station do not stop at Akechidaira.

 

Ryuzu Waterfall in autumn. (Image credit: 日光市観光協会)

 

Approximately a 15-minute bus ride inland from Lake Chuzenji is Nikko’s other famous waterfall, Ryuzu Waterfall (竜頭ノ滝 Ryūzu-no-Taki). It has a name that means “dragon’s head waterfall”, and is especially breathtaking in autumn, when the surrounding leaves transform into vibrant shades of red and orange.

 

Lake Yunoko and Yudaki Waterfall. (Image credit: 日光市観光協会)

 

Continuing on another 15-minute bus ride inland from Ryuzu Waterfall is the scenic Lake Yunoko (湯ノ湖), which is home to the quiet hot spring town of Yumoto Onsen. Near the southern shore of the lake is the Yudaki Waterfall (湯滝 Yudaki), which is the starting point of the Senjogahara Nature Trail (戦場ヶ原). It’s a well-maintained, easy-to-walk, slightly downhill 6km-long trail that takes slightly over 1 hour from Yudaki Waterfall through the Senjogahara Marshland to Ryuzu Waterfall. If you walk the trail in June, you can enjoy the fresh greenery (新緑 shinryoku) and blooming alpine flowers, and if you come in October you can enjoy stunning autumn foliage.

 

Exterior of JR Nikko Station. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Access to Nikko

From JR Tо̄kyо̄ Station (東京駅), take a 50-minute bullet train to JR Utsunomiya Station (宇都宮駅), transfer to the JR Nikko Line and get off at JR Nikkо̄ Station (日光駅) (45-minute train ride). At ¥10,180, the JR TOKYO Wide Pass is cheaper than the round-trip train ride between Tokyo and Nikko (¥11,360).

 

To get around Oku-nikko, you can purchase 2-day unlimited ride bus passes at JR Nikko Station’s ticket office. The bus passes cost less than the round-trip bus fares. The 2-day Chuzenji Onsen Free Pass costs ¥2,300/adult, but only covers up to Lake Chuzenji, and does not cover Ryuzu Waterfall or Yumoto Onsen. The 2-day Yumoto Onsen Free Pass costs ¥3,500/adult, and covers Lake Chuzenji, Ryuzu Waterfall, and Yumoto Onsen.

 

3) Kusatsu Onsen (草津温泉)

One thing many travellers to Tokyo crave for is a place to enjoy hot springs. The great news is that there are a plethora of hot spring resorts in the Kanto area, many of which are accessible with the JR TOKYO Wide Pass. One of these places is Kusatsu Onsen (草津温泉), which is personally one of my favourites due to its sulphur-rich water.

 

Kusatsu Onsen’s main street and free foot bath. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Once you arrive at Kusatsu Onsen, you will notice the smell of sulphur emanating throughout the town. Kusatsu Onsen boasts the largest flowing water volume of all hot springs in Japan, with highly acidic waters that are said to be able to cure any sickness except lovesickness.

 

A dip in Kusatsu Onsen’s mineral-rich hot spring waters is extremely relaxing, and will leave your skin feeling silky smooth! But be careful not to soak for too long, as the high temperatures might leave you light-headed.

 

Yubatake is the main source of Kusatsu Onsen’s hot spring water. (Image credit: ググっとぐんま写真館)

 

Located in the centre of the town, Yubatake (湯畑) is the main outlet of Kusatsu Onsen’s hot spring waters, and provides over 4,000 litres of water per minute. The water comes from the active volcano Mount Shirane, and is over a steaming 70°C when it comes out! The water is too hot to be used when it comes out, so it is cooled along wooden half-pipes before being distributed to ryokans and hotels.

 

Visitors trying their hand at yumomi. (Image credit: ググっとぐんま写真館)

 

Another way the water is cooled is by yumomi (湯もみ), a centuries-old method that involves the manual beating of water with wooden paddles. This beating cools the hot spring water to bathing temperature without diluting it with cold water, as cold water usually lessens the waters’ special therapeutic qualities. There are yumomi performances for visitors, and if you come at the right time, you can even take part and try your hand at beating the water!

 

Sainokawara Rotenburo in the changing seasons. (Image credit: ググっとぐんま写真館)

 

For a unique experience, take a dip in the Sainokawara Rotenburo (西の河原露天風呂 Sainokawara open-air bath), which is a 12-minute walk from Yubatake. This enormous outdoor bath is the second largest source of Kusatsu Onsen’s water, and features gender-separated baths that can accommodate up to 100 people. Surrounded by forests and scenery that changes colours with the seasons, enjoy the views of nature while relaxing in the warm hot spring waters.

 

On Friday evenings, Sainokawara Rotenburo offers mixed-gender bathing, when visitors can wear swimwear or wrap themselves in a towel, and enjoy the onsen experience together with their families or partners. Usually, you are not permitted to wear anything when you soak in an onsen, so if you are uncomfortable being naked in an onsen, Friday is the day to visit.

 

Exterior of Kusatsu Onsen Bus Terminal. (Image credit: Volksoper / CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

Access to Kustasu Onsen

From JR Ueno Station (上野駅), take the Limited Express Kusatsu-shima (formerly Limited Express Kusatsu) and get off at JR Naganoharakusatsuguchi Station (長野原草津口駅) (2-hour-20-minute ride). Alternatively, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from JR Ueno Station to JR Takasaki Station (高崎駅) and then transfer to the Agatsuma Line to reach Naganoharakusatsuguchi Station (2-hour-50-minute ride). From JR Naganoharakusatsuguchi Station, transfer to the JR Kanto Bus bound for Kusatsu Onsen (¥710 one-way, 25-minute bus ride).

 

At ¥10,180, the JR TOKYO Wide Pass is cheaper than the round-trip shinkansen and local train ride between Tokyo and Naganoharakusatsuguchi (¥12,240).

 

4) Karuizawa (軽井沢)

Aching for a highland getaway? Just a short 60-minute bullet train ride from Tokyo is Karuizawa (軽井沢), a highland resort area located about 1,000m above sea level. Due to its higher elevation, Karuizawa has temperatures that are cool in summer, making it a popular getaway for Tokyo-ites.

 

Enjoy strolling along Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The buildings along Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street (旧軽井沢銀座通り Kyū-karuizawa Ginza Dо̄ri) have a western vibe, with lots of cafés and bakeries scattered around. As you stroll down the street, grab a bite to eat, enjoy the atmosphere, and see if you can spot the shop with the merlion!

 

Shopaholics will also love Karuizawa for the Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza, a huge outlet mall with over 200 shops, and located right beside JR Karuizawa Station.

 

Kumobaike Pond is a quiet spot to enjoy nature. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Just a 30-minute walk or 10-minute bicycle ride from JR Karuizawa Station is Kumobaike Pond (雲場池 Kumoba-ike), which is also known as Swan Lake even though there are no swans. Kumobaike Pond offers beautiful reflections of the sky and trees, and is especially beautiful in autumn when the maple trees turn orange and red.

 

Shiraito Waterfall. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Nature lovers can take a 30-minute bus ride (¥720 one-way) to one of Karuizawa’s highlights, Shiraito Waterfall (白糸の滝 Shiraito-no-taki). Shiraito means “white threads” and the water flowing down does indeed resemble dozens of white threads cascading down, doesn’t it?

 

The fascinating rocky landscape at Onioshidashi Park. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Slightly further away, a 45-minute bus ride (¥1,230 one-way) from Karuizawa is Onioshidashi Park (鬼押出し公園 Onioshidashi Kо̄en), which features dark volcanic rocks and resembles an alien landscape. This dramatic rocky landscape was formed from the lava that flowed out from the eruption of Mount Asama in 1783, and is definitely something you cannot experience in Tokyo. Other than the opportunity to get up close with volcanic rocks, the park also offers pleasant views that overlook Mount Asama and nearby towns.

 

Exterior of Karuizawa Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Access to Karuizawa

JR Karuizawa Station (軽井沢駅) is approximately a 65-minute ride on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station.

 

Did you know that there is also a direct bus (not covered by the JR TOKYO Wide Pass) between Kusatsu Onsen and Karuizawa? The journey takes about 1.5 hours, and the fare is ¥2,240/adult. Two bus companies operate the route, one passing by Shiraito Waterfall and the other passing by Onioshidashi Park. If you’re looking to maximise your trip, you can visit both Kusatsu Onsen and Karuizawa on the same trip!

 

JR TOKYO Wide Pass

The places I’ve mentioned in this article are great for overnight trips, so that you can really enjoy the sights at a leisurely pace. But of course, depending on your travelling style, with the JR TOKYO Wide Pass you can also base yourself in Tokyo and take multiple day trips over the 3-day validity period of the rail pass.

 

For other ideas on how to use the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, check out my previous article on spring flowers in the Kanto region (Ashikaga Flower Park, Hitachi Seaside Park, Fuji Shibazakura Festival), this article on enjoying winter at GALA Yuzawa and Echigo Yuzawa, or this article on recommendations for the JR TOKYO Wide Pass in every season.

 

The JR TOKYO Wide Pass and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR TOKYO Wide Pass is an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) and certain non-JR lines in the valid area for 3 consecutive days at only ¥15,000. The pass even covers non-JR lines like the Izukyuko Line to the Izu Peninsula and the Fujikyuko Line to Kawaguchiko. You can also make seat reservations online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Header image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori

 

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