Kanto is often overlooked in favour of Kansai’s Kyoto for a cultural fix. Big mistake! Make sure you don’t overlook Kanto’s prefectures, the home of Edo, on your vacation in Japan.
Japan is considered unique because of its years of isolation, both as an island nation and when it closed its borders during the Edo period.
The result of this isolation is a country considered one of the most insular in the world – 98% of the people living in Japan are ethnically Japanese, and all these people share the same language and culture.
Luckily for the traveller, Japan has a healthy and fast-growing tourism industry, and has opened its borders to the world. This is especially so in the wake of the upcoming Rugby World Cup and Summer Olympics, both of which Japan is hosting. With English becoming a trendy language in Japan, especially in and around the major cities, Japan has never been more accessible than it is now.
As one of the most heavily populated regions in Japan, Kanto is often overlooked in favour of Kyoto for a cultural fix. However, since Kanto is so diverse in terms of its geography and history, it offers so many places and flavours that can give you a broad variety of experiences. Food is considered an integral part of their culture, with each prefecture offering their own specialities, and each city renowned for dishes. Heading off to lesser known places within Kanto offers a unique experience to each traveller. Japan’s efficient transportation system gives you the opportunity to journey outside the city for day trips, and experience these specialities in their very city of origin.
Travelling far beyond Tokyo isn’t necessary, and experiencing the specialities of Japan is possible within the Kanto region alone, making for different and affordable day trips from Tokyo.
Let’s first dive into things to do and see in Tokyo
As the capital and the largest city on the planet, Tokyo is Japan’s hub. Combining both traditional and modern Japanese culture, it is filled with shrines, museums, parks, skyscrapers, theme parks and shops. Tokyo truly has something to offer everyone.
In particular, Tokyo has a vibrant food culture, where you can find restaurants offering anything; from high-end omakase courses that cost tens of thousands of yen, to tiny hole-in-the-walls where you’ll be served a steaming bowl of tonkotsu ramen for under a thousand. To find these special spots, you might want a local by your side.
High-end restaurants serve Western fare that rivals even the best of London or Paris (Tokyo has triple the Michelin stars of the runner up, Paris). This, too, can be considered a part of Tokyo’s vibrant and dynamic food culture – the attention to detail and care that appears in every level of Japanese culture.
Art, in particular, lends itself to haute cuisine. This style of cooking originated within traditional Japanese food, and is clearly seen in their culture of washoku, where even the simplest of dishes are presented with precision and a focus on aesthetic and seasonality. As Western cuisine was introduced to Japan, cooking techniques were applied and evolved, resulting in Tokyo’s diverse and exciting food culture.
We recommend sampling a variety of restaurants that specialise in a specific dish. These are restaurants that have perfected their art, and are always well worth the visit.
Ibaraki is ideal for visiting if you want to go off the beaten path in Japan
Ibaraki is on few travellers’ lists, but it has a vibrant and growing food community.
It is an attractive destination in that it offers quiet, rolling countryside, mountains and forests away from the tourists, while still being close enough to Tokyo that a day trip is very feasible and affordable. If the chaos of Tokyo is wearing you down, a trip to Ibaraki is recommended as it is still very much untouched by Tokyo’s urbanisation.
It also hosts festivals unique in Japan, including the Mito Komon Plum Blossom Festival. The Mito Komon Plum Blossom Festival in Kairakuen Park is one of the biggest of its kind in Japan, boasting a grove of hundreds of plum trees, all in bloom. Kairakuen Park is one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, renowned for their beauty and landscaping, and is the only one that has no admittance fee, even when the blossoms are in full bloom. This dazzling experience is well worth the 90 minute train ride from Tokyo.
If you’re in Japan too early for the sakura (cherry blossoms), ume (plum blossoms) are a beautiful alternative.
Unlike sakura, plum blossoms emit a beautiful floral scent, and consist of a dazzling variety of colours, from white to the brightest, deepest pink. You can sample traditional Japanese festival food at the park, one of the few circumstances in which Japan has a vibrant street food culture. Plum blossom flavoured ice-cream is a must here, as is ume flavoured salt, umeboshi (traditional pickled Japanese plums) and some of the best crafted umeshu (plum wine) in Japan.
Another favourite activity among the locals at this festival is participating in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Unlike most tea ceremonies, rather than having it be performed indoors, this one is outside amongst the blossoms, and the ceremony is free.
Just north of Mito is Hitachi, and on the Suigen Line from Mito Station lies Hitachino Nest, a craft beer and sake brewery that offers personalised tours in English. Beer is one of the most popular drinks in Japan, and craft brewing is an industry that’s had a massive surge in popularity in recent years. Hitachino Nest Beer is a brand of craft beer and sake that’s become steadily more popular, it is now sold internationally and holds its own against more well-known international brands. You can book a tour at the brewery for a glimpse into modern beer crafting in Japan. The tour includes a delicious traditional soba and tempura lunch, a beer tasting and the chance to buy special brews that are only available at their launch store.
See no evil in Tochigi Prefecture
Utsunomiya is the capital of Tochigi Prefecture, and is a city that’s well regarded throughout Japan for its gyoza (Japanese-style pork and chive dumplings). Gyoza is available at nearly every izakaya and ramen shop, so why would this be worth mentioning? The appeal of eating gyoza from Utsunomiya is that there are so many family run restaurants that specialise in gyoza, to the point that its what the city is renowned for.
Each one has their own recipe and style, and there’s no better experience than eating food that’s so important and lovingly crafted by the locals of an area. These are the eateries that treat their customers like family, where you take off your shoes at the door and sit at a low table on a tatami mat, drinking mugicha (barley tea) and beer, while eating your way through massive platters filled with beautiful hand pleated dumplings. The beauty of this style of eating is the closeness to the creators, conversation with the locals that frequent the restaurants as well as the street cred to tell the Japanese people you meet that you ate gyoza in Utsunomiya.
Another great place in Tochigi to visit is Nikko, one of the most sacred and beautiful shrines in Japan. Nikko comprises both of the town and the Toshogu Shrine, which is surrounded by a mountainside forest.
Nikko is stunning for its very recently restored carvings and woodwork on the shrine itself, as well as the buildings throughout the complex. The complex is famous throughout Japan, and holds its own as a cultural landmark against any shrine found in Kyoto. In particular, it is the origin of the See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil monkeys that are now famous around the world – with their own WhatsApp emojis!
If you are low on time and budget, a day trip to Nikko is a good addition to your itinerary. It is easily accessible by the shinkansen, and is a breathtaking reprieve from the skyscrapers of Tokyo.
As we can see, Kanto is so much more than just the capital city. Experiencing Kanto doesn’t have to be limited to an overwhelming city experience when forests and countryside are just an hour away. Better yet, these places are not often travelled by foreign tourists, so there is more opportunity to speak to the locals and enjoy food that is the speciality of the region.