Outdoor adventures to have in Tokyo
Tokyo is the metropolis of the world: bright lights, glittering skylines and more neon than you could ever need. What if we told you there were also tropical beaches, mountain getaways and hidden valleys? Offering a chance to rejuvenate, Tokyo’s oases have forest baths, surf schools and even their own coffee bean plantations; you just need to know where to look. While some aren’t exactly close, others are hiding in plain sight. Get off the streets and find yourself on mountain trails, in morning meditation or in the sun on a remote island – all (technically) in the capital.
The Tama Region: Tokyo’s Gateway to a Green Escape
In western Tokyo, just under two hours from the bustling heart of the capital, silver skyscrapers are replaced by towering forests and busy roads by mossy riverside paths. The Tama region is a vast oasis of rugged, uncharted terrain home to Buddhist retreats, sake breweries, and endless opportunities to immerse yourself in nature (literally).
While the area is dotted with towns and villages, for most visitors Okutama is the gateway to greenery, located furthest from the local train lines. Hiking mountain trails, soaking weary muscles in outdoor hot springs like Moegi-no-yu, and sleeping under starry skies aren’t your usual Tokyo fare, but that’s exactly what you need after a night out in Shibuya.
For a little more spiritual exploration, meditation among the trees is the perfect way to take your relaxation to the next level. At Jigenji Temple, morning meditation sessions are open to those staying at nearby inns, with a chance to follow a monk in ancient chanting to focus your mind and clear your thoughts.
The Japanese tradition of spirituality – often a combination of the Buddhist and Shinto religions – is deeply connected to nature. The changing of the seasons is important in Japanese culture, with the fleetingness of cherry blossoms and autumn leaves being a reminder to appreciate the beauty of life. Okutama is decorated with wild cherry blossoms in the spring, delicate renge-shoma blossoms in the summer, and crisp golden leaves in the fall, welcoming visitors with new scenery as the seasons change.
Although the riverside walks are enjoyable, floating along the waters at your own pace is a world apart in terms of feeling at one with nature. Those with balance can try SUP paddling (and those without can go kayaking), while rafting and canyoning are great if you’re feeling a little too relaxed after your morning meditation session. .
Tama waterways not only offer extreme sports, they have also created the perfect ingredient for a long tradition of sake brewing. Fussa’s Ishikawa Sake Brewery, founded in 1863, produces not only Tamajiman sake, but also its own craft beer. Explore Kura’s original buildings, enjoy an English-language tour of the process, and relax on the brewery premises with a pint of Tokyo Blues or a cup of Tamajiman.
The Ogasawara Islands: A Laboratory of Evolution
Although technically considered part of Tokyo, it will take a (definitely worth it) 24-hour ferry ride to get to the Ogasawara Islands. With more than 30 tropical and subtropical islands, the archipelago is home to protected ecosystems and small communities. Since the islands were never connected to any mainland, they have developed a unique flora and fauna, with UNESCO World Natural Heritage status and strict rules on where visitors can explore.
Only two of the islands are inhabited, Hahajima (meaning mother island) and Chichijima (meaning father island). The latter is covered with subtropical forests with steep cliffs and superb beaches like Kominato, frequented by turtles for nesting every summer. Boat trips offer the chance to spot dolphins and whales; in fact, more than a quarter of every species in the world pass through still waters. In order to protect the islands and their inhabitants, ecotourism and sustainable travel are at the forefront; some areas can only be reached on guided hikes, and the proximity of boat tours to spotted animals is limited. Divers can explore glowing reefs undamaged by tourism and explore WWII shipwrecks, while snorkelers can swirl with schools of tropical fish.
After all that adventure, a cafe is in the cards, and at Nose’s FarmGarden you can pick, roast, and grind your own beans. The cultivation of coffee beans began in Ogasawara in the 19th century, and the ancestors of the Nose family have worked in the hillside plantation since pre-World War II times. While most of the settlers and residents of Ogasawara evacuated the island during World War II, the coffee tree survived and the Nose family returned in 1973 to revive the business.
While the small islands have a surprising number of places to stay, none are quite as stylish as the Pat Inn. The sleek space, owned by a sixth-generation islander, was created by Kichi Architectural Design and looks like a slice of the capital in the middle of the jungle. Soak up views of the night sky on a guided tour, and look out for Bonin’s rare flying foxes as they glide through the cool evening air. With no artificial lights within the 600-mile radius of the Ogasawara Islands, the stars are captivating enough to make you glad the return boat to Tokyo only operates once a week.
The Izu Islands: Volcanoes, Surfing Paradise and Night Skies
For a beach getaway a little closer to the capital, you can try the Izu Islands, a series of surf spots and volcanic hiking trails. Although technically all part of Tokyo, the islands are a few hours away by boat but less than an hour by plane and offer turquoise waters and sandy beaches. Nicknamed “Surf Island”, Niijima has 10 surf beaches and free camping, which are the ingredients for a great escape. Hire a bike to explore the island and you’re a free agent – be sure to head to Habushira Beach for the white sands and sparkling waters, not to mention the waves that surfers everywhere dream of.
For those who like a little more rock under their feet, Oshima centers around Mount Mihara – an active volcano – which offers hiking trails and warm hot springs. The volcano also freed Godzilla himself from a deep slumber in the 1984 classic, giving the tiny island additional fame. Volcano enthusiasts can visit local museums dedicated to the science behind them and hike to the crater for panoramic views of the surrounding seas and the lake within.
Perhaps the best known, Aogashima is also the furthest of the Izu Islands and the hardest to reach. The unusual shape is caused by its volcano within a volcano, and the only ways to get there are by helicopter or unreliable local boat from nearby Hachijojima. The island has less than 200 inhabitants but has its own distillery, brewing a local alcohol made from sweet potato that must be tasted. Spend nights stargazing and days hiking, with harbor-fresh fish and vegetables steamed in the natural island steamer. Island life is simple, but you might find that you like it that way.
FOR SOMETHING CLOSER TO TOWN…
If you need some green space but only have a day or an afternoon, Tokyo’s bustling streets have secret greenery – if you know where to look. Besides the manicured gardens of Shinjuku Gyoen and the bustling expanses of Ueno Park, there are wild places that bring the feeling of the great outdoors to the great metropolis. Choose from a shaded valley with temples and a bamboo garden, a mountain with enervating statues, and a forest perfect for a little forest bathing.
Todoroki Valley: Wild and Wonderful
As Tokyo’s only valley, Todoroki really should be better known, but luckily it’s still the perfect place for a leisurely stroll on a weekday afternoon. A shaded towpath stretches three-quarters of a mile along the shallow Yazawa River as it heads toward the Tama River, passing shrines and gardens along the way. Choose a spot on a bench to soak up the greenery or cool off at the natural water spring along the way. Pass by Fudo Waterfall and ascend to Todoroki Fudosan Temple, descend back to cross the water and explore the bamboo garden and sunny lawn of Todoroki Ravine Park. Whether you’re coming back along the way or heading back to civilization, the valley is the perfect refreshment after a city break.
Mount Takao: the mountain of Tokyo
An easy day hike with unusual highlights, Mount Takao is a real mountain at 1,965 feet high and is less than an hour from Shinjuku. Its network of trails offers easy to moderate options and there’s a cable car if you prefer views. The most common trail takes 1.5 hours and is a paved route through forests and dotted with lookout points. A place of worship for over a thousand years, the mountain is home to temples and shrines, including Yakuoin, a temple famous for its long-nosed tengu figures. These statues of the gods combine the Shinto and Buddhist religions and have a distinctive long nose and raven beak, offering good fortune to those who visit. The mountain’s Takaosan Senbonzakura (Takao’s Thousand Cherry Blossoms) offers those arriving late in the season a chance to enjoy the blossoms while the Autumn Festival is a celebration full of food, color and tradition.
Institute for Nature Study: Perfect for forest bathing
If you’ve ever wondered how to get the most out of a forest walk, you might want to try the Japanese art of Shinrinyoku, or forest bathing – and Tokyo has the perfect spot. In the heart of the city, a short walk from the Meguro metro station, the Institute for the Study of Nature is a 20-hectare nature reserve with ponds, forests and surprisingly few people. Once the garden of a feudal estate and later a gunpowder warehouse, it is now used for research, letting nature take its course. With hints of old landscaping mixed with a true wilderness feel, the garden is the perfect place to stash your phone, breathe deeply, and align your senses with nature.