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Travel & Holiday

A grand day out

Tokyo is never boring but it is just as exciting exploring nearby towns
The Straits Times - October 25, 2011
By: Ong Sor Fern
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A grand day out The Great Buddha of Kamakura is a five-minute walk from Hase station. -- PHOTO: KOH BENG LIANG

British writer Samuel Johnson once wrote of the city of London: 'When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.'

I have always thought that quote applicable to the Japanese capital of Tokyo. Despite multiple visits over the years, I never tire of this bustling metropolis, where one can dive into the cosmopolitan buzz of nightlife in Shinjuku or escape into the sylvan cool of Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, depending on one's moods.

On a recent trip, I discovered yet another aspect of Tokyo - day-trip destinations just an hour or so away from the city's centre, which offer whole new worlds to explore.

One money-saving tip if you are considering more than one day trip: Get a Japan rail pass from the JTB office at the basement of Ion. The seven- day pass costs $456, which may sound steep. But shinkasen tickets cost upwards of 5,000 yen (S$83), so if you are planning plenty of day trips, the pass is a good buy as it also allows you unlimited travel on JR-operated trains, buses and ferries.

Here are three day-trip itineraries to follow for a great day outside Tokyo.

KAWAGOE AND SAITAMA

What: Kawagoe is also known as Little Edo, the period name for Tokyo, because it still retains some of the oldest buildings in the city. Saitama is a typical urban centre, but is worth a stop because The Railway Museum is located here.

How to get there: From Shinjuku station, take the JR Saikyo line to Kawagoe station. The journey takes about 45 minutes and costs 570 yen (S$9.50).

What to do: One of the stations along the way is Omiya, which is worth a short stop. Japanese train stations, especially the bigger ones such as Omiya which serve as interchanges, usually have ekinaka, retail and eatery spaces, located behind the ticket gates.

Ecute Omiya, one of the first poshed-up ekinaka, is modelled on Tokyo's beloved depachika, the department store basements crammed with food stalls. Stop here to pick up bento boxes (starting from 800 yen) for a picnic lunch. There is also a branch of the popular French boulangerie Paul, with freshly baked croissants and pastries.

From Omiya, it is four stops to Kawagoe station. A slow stroll through Kawagoe will take you back in time, architecturally speaking. As you head down Chuo-dori, you can see shops and houses in Western monumental style built during the Taisho and Showa eras (early to mid-20th century).

The main attraction, however, is the stretch of kurazukuri-style warehouses lining Ichibangai Street. These structures were built to be fireproof, with walls constructed from sturdy layers of clay and plaster as well as tiled roofs.

The Museum Of Kurazukuri (7-9 Saiwai-cho, Kawagoe City, Saitama Prefecture, tel: 049-222- 5399) explores the buildings and their history in a bit more detail. Unfortunately, the captions are all in Japanese. Admission is 200 yen for adults, 100 yen for students and free for those aged 15 and under.

Art enthusiasts might want to head to the Yamazaki Art Museum (4-13 Nakacho Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture 350-0065 Japan, tel: +81 49-224-7114). Situated in a little kurazukuri which used to house a confectionery, this charming museum showcases the elegant paintings of Meiji era artist Gaho Hashimoto, who lived in Kawagoe.

There are also displays of the intricately carved wooden moulds used to shape the elaborate sweets once produced on the premises. The 500 yen entry charge includes a cup of hot green tea and a traditional okashi (sweet).

Or you can head straight for the other attraction in Kawagoe - Kashiya Yokocho (Confectioners' Row), a little street filled with candy shops, tucked down a side street. This lane was chosen by Japan's Ministry of Environment as one of the '100 scent sceneries', according to a sign here. Certainly, the sweet scent of candy hangs in the air and you can get your fill of sweet potato snacks (starting from 500 yen) as the region is famed for the tuber.

Do not load up too much on snacks, though. The local speciality is tai-men, an extra-thick soba noodle that is stir-fried. There are plenty of tai-men shops and Kawagoe station has a map of outlets offering the speciality. Prices start from around 550 yen.

I tried the dish in a tiny shop opposite the Kita- In Temple. While it looks like yakisoba, the noodles are thicker and offered in different versions, including one fried with salt instead of the usual sweet sauce used in traditional yakisoba. It is a carbo- loader's dish, with plenty of noodles, crunchy pieces of cabbages and tiny slivers of pork to keep things interesting.

When you are done exploring Kawagoe, head back to Omiya station and take the New Shuttle, a little monorail offshoot of the public transport system, to Tetsudo-Hakubutsukan station. The ride costs 150 yen.

The Railway Museum (1,000 yen for adults and 500 yen for children) is next to the station. Opened in 2007, this place is otaku (geek) heaven.

Besides life-size displays of real railway carriages (including the decommissioned royal train) and railway memorabilia, what will really engage children are six simulators where you can drive trains. The simulators recreate real-life routes, such as the JR Yamanote line. If you are keen to try this, visit on a weekday to avoid long queues.

KARUIZAWA

What: This upscale resort town in Nagano prefecture is a hot weekend getaway spot for Tokyoites.

How to get there: From Tokyo station, take the JR Nagano shinkansen to Karuizawa station. The trip takes about 70 minutes and costs 5,750 yen (S$95).

What to do: From Karuizawa station's north exit, you can catch a bus to Shiraito Falls. The 25-minute bus ride costs 710 yen. Pronounced Shira-ito, which translates as White Threads, this waterfall is a jawdroppingly pretty sight. The falls are not tall but the water spills out of the hillside in a graceful semicircle that spans 70m. It looks like an artificially moulded landscape, but is really a natural marvel.

There is not much to do at Shiraito Falls, so only the dedicated nature nuts might want to take the bus journey out and back.

Karuizawa, on the other hand, is a shopaholic's delight. The biggest attraction is Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza (Karuizawa, Karuizawa-machi Kitasaku-gun, Nagano 389-0102 Japan, tel: +81- 267-42-5211, www.karuizawa-psp.jp/en/index.html), a sprawling outlet mall the size of at least six football fields and located next to the train station.

The fashion brands available here cover a staggering range, from luxury label Bottega Veneta to cult brand A Bathing Ape to more mass-market names such as Nike and LeSportsac. There are also popular Japanese brands such as the boutique Beams and the housewares retailer Afternoon Tea Living.

My favourite shop here is Karuizawa Farmers' Gift (unit number NW52, tel: +81-267-41-1147). This grocery outlet stocks a marvellous range of artisan foods produced by the farmers in the region. Nakano is famed for its apples and blueberries, so depending on the season, you can get rustic bottles of homemade preserves and freshly pressed fruit juices. I have snagged scrumptious bottles of raspberries in honey, great for pepping up plain yogurt, and rose hip jam, delicately scented and delicious.

When you are tuckered out from all the shopping, pop by Aji no Machi, a short stretch of eateries connecting the east and west wings of the mall.

Look for Torimaru (unit number AJ11, tel: +81- 0267-42-0525), a tiny eatery in the middle of the row, which specialises in tori karaage, fried chicken. They serve the best tori karaage I have ever eaten. The chicken skin is fried to a light, airy crisp and the chicken pieces are juicy and perfectly seasoned.

Each rice bowl (starting from 850 yen) comes with a generous portion of chicken, some ginger pickles and shredded nori (seaweed), as well as a bowl of clear chicken soup. The latest hot food trend is, apparently, to tip the soup over the chicken and rice and eat it chazuke (tea rice) style.

If you visit Karuizawa in winter, check out Ganko Ramen Ajihei (unit number AJ09, tel: +81-0267-41-2700). It serves wild boar ramen, a hearty bowl of gut-warming ramen topped with fatty slices of wild porcine which is perfect for cold weather.

Foodies should also head for the lobby of Karuizawa Prince Hotel (Karuizawa, Karuizawa-machi Kitasaku-gun, Nagano 389-0193 Japan, tel: +81-267-42-1112, www.princehotels.com/en/the_prince_karuizawa/), where farmers have a small display of fresh fruit and vegetables. I have bought fragrant peaches and enormous apples here, and seen mushrooms and white asparagus for sale too.

The hotel itself is a sprawling resort with both conventional concrete block rooms and charming little cottages on manicured grounds. Many Japanese tourists flock here as it offers sports pursuits all year around. In spring and summer, you can play golf and tennis. In autumn, the ski lifts take you over flower-carpeted hillsides. And in winter, skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes.

KAMAKURA

What: This modest city located in the Kanagawa prefecture is known as Little Kyoto because it is brimming with history and temples.

How to get there: From Shinjuku station, take the JR Yamanote line to Shinagawa station. Change to the JR Tokaido line for Totsuka station and then take the JR Yokosuka.Sobu Rapid line. From Totsuka, it is two stops to Kita-Kamakura. The entire journey takes about 60 minutes and costs 890 yen (S$15).

Things to do: Kita-Kamakura is one stop before Kamakura but this charmingly rustic station is just next to the beautiful Engakuji Temple. This is one of Kamakura's five great Zen temples and consists of an entire complex of small temples spread over foothills. Entry is 200 yen for adults and 100 yen for children.

Do not be surprised to see monks hurrying through the grounds or hear the sounds of Buddhist chants coming from the smaller buildings in the back of the complex as this is a working monastery.

The gardens are filled with osmanthus bushes which bloom in early autumn, perfuming the quiet air with their heady fragrance. In late autumn, the place is also famed for its flaming foliage.

If you feel in the mood for a workout, climb the 133 steps up the hill to the ogane, a large bronze bell which has been designated as a national treasure. There is a little rest stop near the ogane which serves tea and Japanese sweets, so you can take a break to admire the forested hillsides before heading back downhill.

A bit of trivia for film buffs: Renowned filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu is buried in the little cemetery on the grounds. Although it might be closed to public access, as it was when I was there, there is a sign which maps the burial plots.

A slow ramble through Engakuji Temple will easily take up the whole morning. When you leave the temple, head across the railway tracks, turn left and follow the road which will take you to Kamakura.

PHOTO: KOH BENG LIANG

A 15-minute walk will take you to a popular lunch spot. Kyoraian (157 Yamanochi, Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, +81-467-24-9835) is a tiny eatery in a Showa-era Japanese villa tucked into a hillside next to the road. It specialises in a hearty beef stew (right) which comes with large chunks of fall-apart tender beef and sweet carrots in a thick demi-glace gravy. The lunch set (2625 yen) comes with salad, either thick toast or bouillon rice, and coffee. Leave room for the Rare Cheese Cake (Home-made) (472 yen). This deceptively dainty dessert packs a richly creamy punch.

There is plenty of opportunity to walk off lunch. Another 15 minutes' stroll will take you to Komachi-dori, a long, narrow street packed with small shops that leads to Kamakura station. This is a popular weekend haunt, so if you want to avoid the crowds, go on a weekday. There are shops hawking traditional Japanese incense, pottery and sweets. In between these outlets are other retailers selling everything from hand-tooled leather bags to freshly dipped soya sauce rice crackers.

At Kamakura station, take the quaint streetcar-style train (150 yen) three stops to Hase. The Great Buddha of Kamakura is a five-minute walk from the station. This giant statue, cast in 1252, used to be housed indoors. But the temple buildings were destroyed by typhoons and tsunami, so it now sits in the open, framed by gently rolling hills.

To wrap up the day, take the train back to Kamakura and head for Shichiri-gahama to stroll along the beachfront. This Pacific Ocean coastline is lined with surf shops and eateries, including a branch of Bills (Weekend House Alley 2F, 1-1-1 Shichirigahama, Kamakura, Kanagawa-ken, 248-0026, tel: +81-467-39-2244, http://bills-jp.net/), Australian chef Bill Granger's chain of restaurants. The wait at Bills can take up to three hours.

Another popular eatery down the road is Moana Makai (1-3-22, Shichiri-gahama), where the wait is a more reasonable 20 minutes to an hour. This place boasts Hawaiian decor, presumably because of its proximity to the ocean, and specialises in Japanese curry. The curry dishes are all priced at 1,600 yen each. Try the mushroom or wild chicken curries. Also not to be missed are the chunky anchovy fries, thick cut potato dusted with anchovy flavour, and grilled spare ribs, tender and well-marinated meat falling off Neanderthal-sized bones.

 

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