You might know Tokyo for its bizarre robot themed restaurant, plethora of animal cafés and kawaii culture, but there’s more to the capital than its weird, modern side. What if we told you that you could explore beautiful lakes and picturesque mountains without leaving Tokyo? Just a short train ride from the city centre lies Okutama, offering majestic natural sites within the bounds of Tokyo.
To get there, hop on the JR Ome line from Tokyo or Shinjuku station to Ome station, which should take no more than an hour and 35 minutes. Plan your trip for the second or third weekends of August and reserve your seat aboard the ‘Ozashiki Train’, which boasts Japanese-style tatami seating and only runs for those two weekends. Prices aren't exactly cheap for this one, but the experience is definitely worth the extra dosh.
There’s a lot to see around Okutama and the range of activities can get overwhelming for some of us city people, so we’ve rounded up a list of things to do while you’re there.
1) Dip your feet in Hatonosu Ravine
Gaze down at Tokyo's clearest and bluest river from the 40m tall cliff, or get wet and dip your feet in the cold water after a long hike in the surrounding forest. Walk further upstream and you’ll find Shiromaru Dam, which is a great location to watch pools of fish jump over to the Kazuma gorge river.
2) Explore an underground world of mysteries
Discovered in 1962, the 250-million year-old Nippara Limestone Cave – the biggest of its kind in Japan – is a mysterious underground wonderland with extraordinary natural features. As soon as you set foot in the entrance, a cool 11°C breeze will make you forget that it’s summer. Follow the pathway which takes you 800m deep into the cave but don’t get too distracted by the impressive rocks – you might bump against the sometimes low ceiling or get tripped up by the numerous stalagmites dotting the cave.
3) Grill freshly caught fish
Feeling hungry? Go ahead and try catching your own lunch for once. With rivers running through Okutama town, you don’t want to miss out on angling at one of the many fishing spots. Don’t fret if it’s your first time, experienced staff are at the ready to help you catch your first fish and even gut it before grilling it ‘shio-yaki’ (salted) style on a skewer.
4) Destress with ‘Woodland Therapy’
Head over to ‘Yama no Furusato-mura’ to participate in a health and relaxation program called ‘Woodland Therapy’, which promises to heal your tired body and soul with the power of nature. The program starts around lunchtime, when you get to make your own soba noodles and eat a delicious Japanese meal accompanied by side dishes cooked using local ingredients by the resident soba master. After you’ve had your fill, choose from five walking courses that take you through the beautiful forests of Okutama followed by therapeutic activities like woodland yoga and stargazing. If you're not too convinced that the New Agey goings-on actually work, have your stress levels measured before and after the sessions for comparison (though admittedly, the device used to ‘measure’ stress won't do much to persuade the cynics).
5) Get an adrenaline rush from river activities
Immersing yourself in nature can certainly be relaxing, but who is to say you can’t also have some fun. If you're feeling adventurous, visit Canoe School Gravity – within walking distance from Sawai and Shiromaru stations – to participate in water activities like rafting, hydrospeed, canyoning and river SUP (Stand Up Paddle board).
6) Climb up the walls
Okutama also boasts great spots for rock climbing, in particular the famous rock ‘gozen-iwa’. At Okutama Climbing Center, you can enjoy three hours of rock climbing for ¥8,000, which includes all equipment and gear. Staff welcome all levels, so don’t hold back if you’re a beginner.
7) Watch fireworks in the summer
Summer is the season of fireworks festivals across Japan and Okutama is no exception. July 30 sees a whopping 5,000 fireworks shoot up in the sky at Showa Kinen Park, a spectacle that attracts approximately 360,000 people every year, with another fireworks festival held on August 13. We suggest visiting the Okuhikawa and Haguro-Mita shrines during the festivities for delicious omatsuri grub and game stalls.
8) Take home wasabi souvenirs
Okutama is home to the wasabi plant, so you’ll have ample opportunity to splurge out on various wasabi-flavoured treats and take them home with you.