This is Tokyo: 10 nature escapes without leaving the metropolis

From remote islands to deep forests and immersive cultural experiences, there’s more to Tokyo than first meets the eye.
PHOTOGRAPH BY YOSUKE

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Relax in a city oasis

PHOTOGRAPH BY TUPUNGATO / SHUTTERSTOCK

Tokyo’s urban sprawl belies its many green pockets filled with gardens, parks and tree-lined avenues. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is one of these. Formerly the estate of an Edoera feudal lord, the garden is one of the city’s largest parks and its 144-acre expanse offers an escape from the vibrant neon lights. There are several manicured green spaces within its walls: a traditional Japanese landscape garden, a formal French garden and an English garden with rolling lawns and tree groves. In winter, the greenhouse with its many subtropical and tropical species is a haven from the cold.

Glide through urban waterways

PHOTOGRAPH BY YP. STUDIO / SHUTTERSTOCK

Tokyo has always been a city of water. Its many river networks have transported goods and people for centuries, helping it prosper into the magnificent metropolis it is today. Explore Tokyo’s historic riverways up close to get a sense of this integral part of the city’s water-based thoroughfares. Stand-up paddle (SUP) boards and rental rowboats offer a unique angle to see the city and a chance to experience its vitality from a distance as you glide past high-rise buildings and green spaces. Paddle down the Nakagawa River —where motored boats are prohibited —to drift into a part of the city where time stands still. For those who prefer staying on land, many of Tokyo’s waterways are lined with beautifully maintained waterfronts with both walking routes and cycle paths.

Enter a spiritual sanctuary

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The hustle and bustle of the city center gives way to wild forests and majestic mountains in the Okutama area. Many come to hike. Some come for an ancient tradition found in the Nippara Limestone Caves, a sacred space for shugendo (Japanese mountain asceticism). Evidence of the centuries-old practice are scattered throughout its around 2,600-feet tunnel system. Parts of the caves are colorfully illuminated and filled with atmospheric music, so that it feels like you’ve entered an art gallery. The temperature stays at a constant of about 52ºF, making it a great place to explore be it hot summer or cold winter outside.

The journey towards sunrise

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Mount Hinode is part of Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, which encompasses large swathes of the Kanto region. At almost 3,000 feet high, the hike to the top slowly opens up a panoramic view of the majestic Okutama area. On a clear day, you can even see as far as Tokyo Skytree in the city center from the peak. Hinode means “sunrise” in Japanese and references its excellent position to catch the first rays of the morning sun. Many hikers make the pilgrimage to Mount Hinode’s summit on the first of January to witness the first sunrise of the year.

Try sustainable hand-dyeing

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY KOSOEUEN

Ome city in Tokyo’s western region has produced the Omejima textile, a naturally dyed indigo fabric, since the Edo period (1603-1867). At the height of its popularity, there were almost 800 weavers and fabric dyers. The technique of producing the signature dye is a sustainable one. Only natural ingredients are used, such as bran and lye, as well as domestically grown indigo plants. The dye can be used for approximately three months, after which it is used as fertilizer. Visitors can try their hand at dyeing items at Aizome Workshop Kosouen.

Forest bathing by a waterfall

PHOTOGRAPH BY ARATA MATSUMOTO / SHUTTERSTOCK

Celebrated as one of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls, Hossawa Falls is a four-tiered geological masterpiece that stands at around 200 feet high. Local legend says that a serpent calls the deep pool at the bottom of the fall its home. Whether true or not, the energy here is palpable. The force of the cascade changes with the weather and the season, it’s a view to behold together with the forest that frames its descent. The path to the waterfall is enveloped in crisp air and a canopy of trees, creating a miniature shinrinyoku, or forest bathing, experience.

Soak in a hot spring in the sea

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Shikinejima Island is host to incredible geothermal activity. Experience it firsthand at Jinata Onsen, a natural outdoor hot spring that bubbles up in a narrow valley by the sea. The scalding hot iron-rich water mixes with the frigid ocean, creating a comfortable temperature in which to soak. This immersive experience is only accessible at high tide and requires climbing up and down a steep cliff.

Surf the waves and bathe in sand

PHOTOGRAPH BY YOSUKE KASHIWAKURA

Lauded as one of Tokyo’s best surfing spots, Niijima Island is lined with bright white sand beaches and clear blue waters. The island spans less than 10 square miles and is mostly flat, allowing for easy exploration by bicycle, which reduces visitors’ ecological footprint. The Mamashita Onsen and Sand Bath offers a remarkable way of experiencing the island’s natural resources: guests are covered in hot volcanic sand from Habushiura Shore, creating a sand cocoon that feels like a sauna. Visitors can also soak in a traditional hot spring overlooking the ocean.

Navigate wild expanses and deep waters

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Far out in the sea, Hachijojima Island’s sweeping verdant hillsides and surrounding waters are ideal for hiking, diving and snorkeling. The trails over the conical Mount Nishi — nicknamed the Mount Fuji of Hachijojima Island — and waterfall-rich Mount Mihara are easily accessible and offer panoramic views of the whole island. The coast offers diving spots with good visibility year-round. Fortunate divers will find the endemic wrought iron butterflyfish, the red tail triggerfish, and other rare marine species.

Join a tour to neighboring uninhabited islands to ensure respectful exploration of the abandoned school, shrines and homes that remain.

Sip on island drinks

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY TOKYO METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT

The most remote of Tokyo’s islands, Aogashima Island is accessible by occasional ferry services or more conveniently, by a helicopter shuttle from neighboring Hachijojima Island. For centuries, islanders here have distilled aochu, a type of alcohol only found on Aogashima Island, and it is an indispensable part of their heritage. Aochu is made using sweet potatoes — and more recently with barley. 10 out of a population of approximately 170 Aogashima residents distill aochu on the island today, each according to the unique recipes inherited from their own ancestors.

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