3 Must-Do Side Trips During the Tokyo 2021 Olympics
The Tokyo Metro area is a treasure trove of shopping, hiking, shrines, and much more. However, it's going to be intensely crowded during the summer of 2021, even accounting for the delays caused by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Not only will most schools in Japan be on summer vacation, but the Japanese holiday of Obon is happening right after the Olympics end, meaning that trains and planes will be packed even after the events finish.
If you want to have a satisfying overnight trip and get a taste of what Japan is normally like, you'll have to go a little off the beaten path. Here are the best three Tokyo Olympics side trips that can be covered in two days or less.
1. Izu Islands
Though these islands are technically part of Tokyo's administrative area, they're nothing like the skyscraper-covered metropolis. Nine of the islands are currently inhabited, but their total population is only around 25,000 people.
Oshima, the largest island, is home to an active volcano—Mt. Mihara—which is closely monitored by the government, but still considered a potential threat to locals. Still, the island is a paradise for nature lovers who don't want to be too far removed from creature comforts. A few islands farther south, Miyakejima Island also has an active volcano, but is much more secluded.
While all of these islands offer some amount of dolphin-watching, Mikurajima Island has the best dolphin-watching spots. Aogashima, the southernmost island, is home to less than 200 residents. This island is open to visitors, though, and is the ultimate nature-lover's retreat. Other tiny islands in the chain include Shikinejima and Toshima, which have approximately 300 and 600 residents, respectively.
Flying to any of the Izu Islands requires flying out of Chofu Airport, a small airport just west of Tokyo. The airport can be a pain to get to from many parts of Tokyo, but getting there from Shinjuku Station and other points on the Chuo or Keio Lines isn't difficult.
Most ferries to Oshima depart from Takeshiba Sanbashi Passenger Terminal in Tokyo. Cars are not permitted on some of these ferries, and large luggage is restricted during peak travel season, so plan accordingly and contact the ferry company in advance if you have questions.
Some areas of the islands, especially the smaller ones, don't have reliable cell or pocket wi-fi service. Keep this in mind when figuring out how you're going to communicate and navigate. The tourist organizations have put out a decent amount of English-language information on the islands, though. Since most of the attractions simply involve enjoying nature, you don't have to speak a lot of Japanese to get a lot out of this trip.
2. Tateyama, Chiba Prefecture
Tateyama City is across the bay from the usual sights of Tokyo, but it still has plenty of historical and cultural significance. During and after the Olympics, traffic to this area will likely pick up, but its out-of-the-way location means that the usual Tokyo tourists don’t come here much.
Tateyama is good for cycling any time of year, as long as you avoid occasional typhoons. There is a bicycle rental shop right outside the west entrance of Tateyama Station, and they even have a limited number of electric-assist bikes on hand.
Daifuku-ji Kannon-do is a gorgeous temple that has stunning views of Tateyama Bay. Aloha Garden Tateyama features Hawaiian flowers and other plants in a greenhouse and has hula dance shows on weekends and holidays. The cape just north of the park offers stunning views of Tokyo Bay and is home to Sunosaki Lighthouse. Go a few more kilometers south to Shirohama, where Cape Noji Lighthouse is a must-see.
Make sure to hop on the train at some point and head a few stops north to Mount Nokogiri, part of which used to be a sandstone quarry. Check out the large collection of stone Buddha statues here and go for a hike on one of the many trails around and up the mountain. Since there’s a lot to explore in this area and it’s a long haul from Tokyo, consider staying at least one night in the Tateyama area.
If you don’t have a rental car, getting to Tateyama normally requires transferring multiple train lines. The express trains out to Tateyama typically only leave Tokyo in the evening, though some additional trains run seasonally. There are no ferries across Tokyo Bay to Tateyama, unless you go all the way to Kurihama Port south of Yokohama and take a ferry to Kaneya Port just north of Tateyama. However, there are highway buses that leave from Tokyo Station and Shinjuku Station and stop right outside Tateyama Station.
Most of Tateyama City’s attractions aren’t near the train line, so you will need to use either a rental car or the local buses if you don’t want to cycle. Some of the attractions have English pamphlets and other materials available, and the ones that don’t are usually the types of outdoor attractions that don’t need much explanation.
3. Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture
This northern exurb of Tokyo isn't famous for much other than its nature and its fresh strawberries. There are a number of farms with all-you-can-eat strawberry picking sessions, and though strawberries will be out of season during the Olympics, many of these farms will still have strawberry jams and other berries available in the summer.
Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park is home to several fantastic mountains just west of Chichibu City. Of these, Mt. Kazutori is probably the most unique, as it allows visitors to see the very beginnings of Tokyo’s famous Tama River. Nishizawa Gorge is another highlight and provides the best hiking routes in the park.
Mitsumine Shrine also has worthwhile hiking, and Musashi-Mitake Shrine is a must-see thanks to its stunning building and surroundings. Just north of Chichibu City, Nagatoro allows you to get even more off the beaten path and enjoy relaxing boat rides.
Since Chichibu is less than an hour and a half from Shinjuku Station by train, it makes a good day trip. You can stay in a hotel in the area, but it’s not necessarily worth doing so unless you have a long to-do list in the area or are checking out the national park. Buses in and out of the national park are sporadic and only go as far as Mitsumine Shrine when entering from Chichibu, so you will want a rental car if you want to properly explore the park.
Chichibu is part of the Greater Tokyo area, but it doesn’t get very many foreign tourists. English-language information tends to be minimal, though this may change during the Olympics. You’ll want to have Wi-fi and a translation app available, as well as Google Maps. Even the visitor centers are lacking in English signs and exhibits.
Avoid staying out after dark in mountainous and wooded areas, as there is a decent amount of wildlife, including wild boars. If you have an interest in camping, only use authorized campgrounds like Yama no Furusato Mura or Fuefukikoya.
© 2020 Ria Fritz