Gunma, one of Japan’s central prefectures, can be reached quickly from multiple cities in Japan; including Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo, in just a few hours by car. If traveling from Tokyo, the Kan-etsu freeway links from the capital to the prefecture directly in just under two hours.
One of the highlights of a trip to Gunma is a visit to the multiple Onsen towns. Some of Gunma’s best known hot spring towns include Kusatsu Onsen, Minakami Onsen, Isobe Onsen and Ikaho Onsen. Each town has its own distinct onsen feature, but Manza, Kusatsu and Minakami are the most popular visits for tourists.
En route to one of the northern Onsen towns, a trip along the highway will give visitors plenty of options as they travel through central Japan; with the city of Takasaki the first option. After that, a visit into Shibukawa and Ikaho is highly recommended.
As you head into Ikaho area, Ikaho Green Farm will be the first port of call. Fun for both adults and visitors, and famous for it’s Moumou Ice Cream; the farm has a vast array of animals and restaurants to enjoy. A trip along the highway will give visitors plenty of options as they travel through central Japan; with the city of Takasaki the first option. After that, a visit into Shibukawa and Ikaho is highly recommended. A trip to Ikaho would not be complete without a stop off at Mizusawaji temple (ring the bell if you can!) and then stop off at Mizusawaji’s Udon Street for a bite to eat afterwards. The Udon Street is just a minute or two away from the temple.
After that, enjoy the opportunity to experience some hot springs in your choice of town for your stay. With some of Japan’s most beautiful ryokan’s and excellent hot springs, no trip to this part of the country is complete without enjoying the real overnight ryokan experience.
If you decide to visit Takasaki, a visit to the Haruna Shrine is highly recommended. Known in Japan for being a “power temple”, Haruna-jinja has some of the most stunning nature and is most popular in the Autumn months. Word of advice, parking is short around this temple. Prepare and go there early if possible, otherwise face a lengthy hour wait in the mountains.
Another sight to look out for is to take a trip to one of Gunma’s many ropeways, to really enjoy the views over the mountains.
Fuji Five Lakes, otherwise known as Fujigoko in Japanese, is one of the nicest day trips out of Tokyo by car. There are three or four different routes to the area in Yamanashi, which is located at the base of Mount Fuji. You can choose to take the scenic and slow route, through the country roads. My GPS told me that would take 3 and a half hours from Tokyo. Alternatively, the express route can get you there in over an hour if you’re lucky. The choice was easy enough.
What makes Fuji Five Lakes so special is that each one is famous for outstanding scenery, beautiful surroundings and excellent opportunity for photographs.
Prior to your trip, it is a good idea to decide exactly which lakes you want to see (if you don’t want to see all five). Arguably, the most beautiful and famous lake to view is Lake Kawaguchiko, closely followed by Lake Yamanakako. The other three, Lake Saiko, Lake Motosuko and Lake Shojiko are considerably smaller and a visit can be enjoyed with just a short drive.
The first place that we stopped off at was Lake Kawaguchiko. The huge lake has plenty of restaurants and shops around it and several excellent places from which to take a photograph.
From Kawaguchiko, it is a short trip to the nearby Lake Saiko. From most of this lake, the view of Mount Fuji is blocked except for one small area where Fuji can be seen from distance.
A 20 minute trip away will then take you to the area of the next two mountains.
Whilst in the area, a trip to the Chureito Pagoda is highly recommended. This is very difficult to find and you might find yourself zig-zagging across railways to eventually find the very small, thin road that leads you up to the Pagoda.
The Yamanashi area is certainly worth a trip. With all of the areas generally located around of Fuji-san, you can travel around easily and quickly by vehicle.
As part of my journey to complete my travels around main land Kyushu, I recently visited both Fukuoka and Saga prefectures. Getting into Fukuoka from Tokyo is no easy feat and it is recommended to take a flight as opposed to a train. Once you’re there, there are plenty of options for rent a car. The website Tocoo is highly recommended for finding the rent-a-car spot nearest to your hotel in Japan.
Fukuoka itself is a modern city with numerous interesting sights. Some of the best spots are Fukuoka Tower, Tenjin Underground for excellent shopping and Hakata Station for delicious Tonkotsu Ramen.
Once you have picked up your car, driving around Fukuoka can be a difficult task in comparison to other cities in Japan. There are an abnormal amount of buses for public transport and often these will monopolise most of the road, thus making traveling around the city centre quite difficult. It is recommended to pay for the toll routes that your navigation recommends whilst in the city, otherwise you might end up being stuck in traffic for a long time.
The journey from Fukuoka to Saga, depending on where you choose, is an easy and uncrowded ride. The most popular route is to take the expressway straight into Saga. If you take the express way, Dazaifu is along the route into Saga followed by the Yoshinogari National Park. Dazaifu is famous for its stunning temple and this is often frequented by visitors looking for good luck ahead of their exams and studies. The Yoshinogari Park is famous for a burial mound found in 1989 with history dating from the 3rd century. When in Saga, the city does not have a whole lot to offer, but it is well known for a stunning view from up top of the city.
Afterwards, you can travel back from Saga into Fukuoka through the mountains, of which there is a tunnel that goes straight through a range. This will also send you out to the coast of Fukuoka and following this route will then bring you straight into Fukuoka Tower.
Shikoku has many beautiful sights and sounds and the trip from Ehime to Takamatsu gives you the opportunity to take in most of those.
Both Ehime and Takamatsu are in the north of Shikoku island and one route highway will give you the trip between both areas.
Ehime includes the wonderful Dogo Onsen on the outskirts, and from there you might consider taking a trip to Dogo Onsen. Shimanami Kaido offers a beautiful alternative between the route between Ehime and Takamatsu.
Takamatsu has several nice areas nearby, including the famous Naoshima, Kotohira and Tashima Island.
One of my favourite trips in Japan so far has been a trip to Hyogo and the cities within the prefecture. Hyogo, for many, is well known for the city of Kobe (which is thus famous for beef and for the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake), and the neighbouring Osaka prefecture.
Kobe itself is a beautiful city. The Harbour (Harbourland, Mosaic, Kobe Port) area is easy to drive around and there is plenty of parking on offer. In addition, driving through the centre of Kobe couldn’t be easier. The roads are designed in a typical American standard (blocks) and thus are well organised and less busy. The most famous part of Kobe city is probably Sannomiya, this area is generally where you’ll find most restaurants, bars and general entertainment.
On my trip to Kobe, I decided to venture from around the Kobe-shi area and head to the famous Himeji Castle, before heading back along the coast to view the world’s longest suspension bridge, Akashi Kaikyo.
The first option you can take is the Sanyo Expressway. This road is generally quiet, expensive and there is little to see in the way of scenery. That will set you back more than 2,500 yen but is a sure fire way to avoid the traffic.
Once you arrive in Himeji, the most famous sight, of course, is the castle. This is Japan’s biggest and most famous castle and was actually closed for renovation at the time of writing. Still, it was stunning and worth the visit.
From there, it was decided to visit the stunning suspension bridge, the Akashi Kaikyo. This connects Hyogo with Awajishima island, which in turn connects to Shikoku prefecture. As you’ll see from the pictures, this bridge absolutely blows the San Francisco Golden Gate bridge out of the water, it is that stunning. The journey along the coastline back to Kobe (and through the suspension bridge area), takes you through countryside areas and there is again not much in the way of scenery, but it is worth it once you get to the bridge. From the bridge, a swift 20-30 minute journey should put you back in Kobe.
All in all, if you have time to visit Hyogo, I would indeed recommend Himeji. I would also recommend finding time to visit another prefecture to make the most of your trip.
For the second part of our island trip exploring Shikoku, we decided to take a journey from Kochi into Ehime. There are several routes that are possible to take, with the most beautiful one (yet the longest) taking the coastal route around the edge of Kochi into Ehime. This will take you into some famous spots such as Cape Ashizuri. The decision on whether or not to take this route can only be made by looking at your watch and deciding if you have time.
For us, it was decided to head north and then east into Matsuyama (on the Matsuyama Expressway) which is the major city in Ehime prefecture.
To start out the day, it is recommended to go visit Katsurahama on Kochi’s coast to see some of the beautiful sea and beaches that the prefecture has to offer.
The Matsuyama expressway is a nice drive. There are some beautiful views of the villages to be seen but most importantly, there is usually no traffic and you will normally be able to enjoy at least three lanes on which to drive.
When in Matsuyama, you can see many things in the largest city in Shikoku. For example, visiting the oldest onsen still running in Japan, at Dogo Onsen. After that, take a nice pleasant walk through the shopping district, stop and have some world famous orange juice and then head on to some excellent restaurants that this city has to offer.
If time permits, it is well worth taking a side trip to Uchiko, which is about 40km away from Matsuyama in Ehime. This is famous for wax and paper production.
Shikoku is a beautiful island located in the South of Japan. Not to be confused, as the Japanese call this the “West of Japan”, but on a typical map to most you would say that the island is located in the South.
There are four prefectures in Shikoku. To the far west, you have Tokushima; its major city has the same name. Tokushima is most famous for Awa Odori, which is celebrated during the Odon holiday season in Japan. North of Tokushima is Japan’s smallest prefecture, Kagawa. The capital of this prefecture is Takamatsu. Heading further south will bring you to Kochi, which is the largest prefecture on Shikoku’s island. Then, to the west, you have Ehime prefecture.
Planning a trip around Shikoku can be difficult, primarily because of the size of the island and the need to fit in as much as possible in a few days. Even a three day trip around this island can prove quite tricky to arrange everything that you would like to see. Despite that, traveling around most of Shikoku by car can be a wonderful drive, partially because of the mix of excellent highways and in some areas, some steep, winding country roads. It is a fun journey and exciting to explore indeed.
We arrived by plane at Takamatsu late on Friday evening for the three day weekend, touching down from Tokyo at approximately 9pm. When arriving at the airport, there is an excellent bus transfer service that takes you right into the city. This is highly recommended and only costs about 500 yen. In Takamatsu there is also a variety of places to hire a car, but avoid the airport if you take the late flight; as this closes at approximately 7pm.
Takamatsu is a very friendly city. The locals are very accommodating and there are a variety of excellent restaurants. Udon is the most famous food here and it is not hard to find. A word of advice, keep a look out for the places where the locals eat. Or, even better, ask locals where the best place to eat is.
Here was our rough itinerary for the first day. Starting off in Takamatsu and driving into Kotohira, then the Iya Valley and finally into Kochi for the evening.
Takamatsu is famous for the two islands north, Megijima and Ogijima. You can arrange a day trip here with your vehicle, taking the ferry. By car, you should take a trip to the stunning Yashima. It is about 10km east of the main city and a lovely drive up to the top. From there you will see the most magnificent of views.
As you can see, we were really lucky with the weather. It is OK to drive your car all the way to the top, so use the time well once you’re up there.
After grabbing some famous Sanuki Udon, we then headed to the stunning Ritsurin Koen. Word of warning here, this is a BIG park and you will need at the very least one hour to navigate the entire area. You can park very close to the entrance, so drive as close as you can before you are ushered into a car park, which is likely to be a bit more expensive.
If you have time, take a detour to Kotohira Station, a good place to stop off for a snack.
From Takamatsu city centre, it’s around a 2 hour journey into the Iya Valley. Somewhat famous for the house ‘Chiiori’, the home of Alex Kerr who wrote the book Lost Japan, this area is better known for its stunning views across the valley and the stunning Hotel Iya Onsen. Recommended for a quick dip with a stunning view down below you.
It’s also famous for this cheeky chappy:
From there, it is well worth visiting Iya Kazurabashi Bridge. A bridge made for transporting goods between two sides of the valley, for 500 yen you will also receive the privilege of walking across. This is incredibly scary! Make sure you wear some good shoes before taking the trip.
From the Iya Valley we then headed into Kochi. If you have time, visit Mount Godaisan, it’s a beautiful stop for a view of a very famous pagoda built in an ancient temple. This closes at 5pm, so be mindful of time.
When arriving into the city center, it was time to find something delicious to eat. Katsuo no Tataki is most famous in Kochi city. This is basically bonito fish, lightly cooked/seared on the edges. It is absolutely magnificent and comes in a variety of ways, with salt, ginger, soy sauce.. the list is endless. Ask the locals the best place to find this delicious fish. Otherwise, here are a couple of suggestions sourced from TripAdvisor: Chibikara Honpo Hirome Ichiba, Warayakitataki Myojimmaru.
Here’s a pic of the bonito that we had below.
As we fancied a quick drive around the town before heading to bed, we then set off for Kochi Castle. In the evening time this stunning castle is lit up and can be seen from across the region. It is worth a visit by day as well, and that’s what we did on our second morning.
The trip from Takamatsu to Kochi should take about four hours, but that depends on the speed you are traveling and how often you stop. There is plenty to see on the way.
Shikoku has a brilliant highway that stretches from east to west across the island, but south of that and located in the centre of the island is an area where you do have to be careful. There are several kilometres of dangerous, curved and small streets, be sure to use the mirrors to watch for oncoming traffic and keep your wits about you.
If you are renting your vehicle, we recommend full insurance just in case!
Please stay tuned for our article on the second part of our trip; our journey from Kochi to Matsuyama.
One of the best journeys out of Tokyo and to the surrounding prefectures is a two day tour of Shizuoka. The prefecture hosts much natural beauty, including the stunning Izu region. A little bit farther than Izu is some of Japan’s most rural countryside and one weekend we enjoyed a lovely drive into Tamagawa.
The drive out of Shizuoka can be a beautiful journey, traveling through Tokyo’s rainbow bridge and through the central areas of the region; before heading onto the Shizuoka Prefectural Road 64 all the way into the countryside.
One of my favourite parts of this journey is the countryside roads off of the highways. The journey is often littered with small hamlets built around winding, thin streets; thus as we noticed we did not see or hit a convenience store for at least 10km at times.
Once in Tamakawa, we stayed at the excellent camping centre owned by the prefectural government. This is approximately 40 minutes away by car from the Shizuoka central area.
The journey will take at least 2 and a half hours from Tokyo, traveling 180km of beautiful countryside along the way.
The journey from Tokyo to Chiba can be a nice and quick one, over the famous Tokyo Aqualine; or for those who feel like being a bit more adventurous, travellers can travel around the whole Tokyo Bay before reaching Chiba.
One Saturday in the summer, we decided to head off for the Tateyama area, using the Tokyo Aqualine to get there. The Aqualine is a wonder of modern engineering. The first part of the Aqualine sees you go up a small bridge, before heading down into the sea for a 10km tunnel, which is straight and is indeed a lot of fun. It’s also incredibly convenient. Once you come out at the other end, you’ve the option of stopping off at the outlet store in Kisarazu, which is a popular one for the ladies looking to do a bit of shopping.
As you’ll see from the route above, there are multiple ways to get to Tateyama. The shortest route can be achieved in 1 hour and 35 minutes, whilst the long route around the bay can take about 2 hours and 5 minutes. All depends if you want to go scenic and country, whilst also being a little easier on the pocket with less tolls; or if you want to go for the big boy route over the Aqualine.
Once in Tateyama, there is plenty to see. Being at the very southern tip of Chiba, there is an excellent array of beaches and the weather has a very humid tropical climate, which means the summer can be incredibly hot.
For those who just want a nice day trip out of Tokyo, this is a great way to experience some good driving and good sights. The fish in Chiba is also highly recommended, with some delicious sushi at numerous service areas along the way.
Having enjoyed a memorable stay in Kumamoto, it was time to head on to the next prefecture to the East and arguably my favourite prefecture in all of Kyushu; Nagasaki.
Driving around from Kumamoto to Nagasaki is possible; and there is a route through Saga. However one of the nicest ways to travel between these two prefectures is to make use of the ferry between both. There are multiple points at which to take the journey across and we chose to use the Ariake Ferry (telephone: 096-311-4100) which would take us right into Unzen of Nagasaki.
The drive up to Ariake Ferry is beautiful as well, particularly if you take the route through the mountains and come down on the other side – a stunning view of Nagasaki across the bay and Unzen can be seen before reaching the ferry port.
The ferry is quick and good fun – only taking 20 minutes approximately – and you can take your car on board.
Unzen is a beautiful small town located on Mount Unzen, known historically for being very volcanically activate. These days the volcano is deemed safe, but visitors still enjoy the onsen in the surrounding area.
Driving through Unzen is an experience in itself. There is “Unsen Jigoku hell”, which sends off smoke due to the incredibly hot ground on which the area rests.
If you have a chance, be sure to stay at a ryokan for a night. Some of these are old or expensive, but you can find the occasional bargain if you look hard enough.
The drive from Unzen to Nagasaki’s central areas takes about an hour and a half. Once in the city, the first port of call and arguably the most symbolic should be the A-Bomb Museum (telephone: 095-844-1231).
From there, you can walk quickly to the Nagasaki Peace Park, which has the world famous statue in the park.
One other famous place to visit along the way is the Megane Bridge, which is a very common spot for tourists to check out on their visit through the city. The Megane Bridge is also about 10 minutes drive from Dejima, which is famous for being the only place where foreigners were originally allowed to visit in Japan.
Whilst in the Dejima area, see if you can find a nice Chinese restaurant for lunch – we found a great spot for Xiao Long Bao and then headed to our next port of call – Gunkanjima. Being an island, taking the car is not possible and you will need to take a passenger only ferry from Ohato.
Gunkanjima itself is one of the best places to visit in Japan. A very old island that was originally the largest coal mine in the country, eventually coal became less popular as more economically suitable and safer variants were used in Japan. Visiting this island is a real experience and well worth the expense – about $50
After returning to Gunkanjima, and if you have enough time, try and take a look at Kufukuji or Sofukuji; both beautiful temples in the prefecture. From there, you can then walk on to Chinatown.
To wrap up your trip, head to Mount Inasa and see the wonderful night view – it is a stunning way to finish your trip in this stunning prefecture.