The World Cup host cities have plenty to see and do in their own rights, and you can easily fill your free time in them before & after matches. But if you have a few days spare between matches, why not visit some of Japan’s other sights and cities which aren’t hosting – likewise, if you’re attending matches at opposite ends of the country, why not make a train trip out if it with a few stopoffs en route rather than just flying from A to B? It’s super easy to do this if you take advantage of the JR Pass, a hop-on hop-off rail pass for tourists which makes Japan’s otherwise pricey bullet trains very reasonable. Even if you don’t do anything quite so ambitious, there are some cracking daytrips and 1 or 2 night side trips you can make from the host cities. And after all, if you’re flying all the way to Japan for the rugby you might as well make the most of it and see as much of it as you can while you’re there.
Western Honshu (main island)
If you only visit one extra-curricular city, it should probably be the old capital Kyoto. Far surpassed by Tokyo these days in terms of size, it remains a living treasure of Japanese history and traditional culture (while still being a sizeable modern Japanese city). For more on Kyoto see here
Another ancient capital and easily doable as a day trip from either Kyoto or Osaka, there’s a lot to see in Nara but the main draw is the Great Buddha at Todai-ji.
Of the many castles throughout Japan, only a dozen are surviving buildings from the feudal era – the majority are modern concrete replacements. Himeji Castle (aka the White Egret Castle) is one of the originals, and renowned as the most beautiful of the lot.
It’s an easy day trip by bullet train from Kobe, Osaka or Kyoto, and if you have the JR Pass it’s a good little stop en route between Osaka and Hiroshima or Fukuoka – using the pass you can jump off at Himeji for a couple of hours and stroll up to visit the castle before carrying on to your destination.
Another very rewarding city to visit, though in a very different way to Kyoto. As Hiroshima was completely destroyed in the 1945 atomic bombing, the city standing there today is entirely modern. But they did a great job of rebuilding and it’s a lovely city with probably the friendliest locals in Japan, and the Peace Park & Atomic Bomb Museum do an excellent job of acknowledging and recording this dark chapter. For more on Hiroshima see here
The Mt Fuji climb’s already closed for the year by the time of the World Cup, but if you want to get up close for the views then Kawaguchiko (Lake Kawaguchi) in the Fuji 5 Lakes region does the job, doable as a daytrip or you can go stay up there. October’s the perfect time for it, as it’s a thousand metres higher than Tokyo so the autumn colours should be in full effect. Search Agoda for Kawaguchiko hotels.
Access is via the private Fujikyu Railway from Otsuki, which is on the JR Chuo Line from Tokyo Station & Shinjuku; Otsuki to Kawaguchiko takes just under an hour for 1,140 yen (plus a few hundred extra if you take the express service). If you have the JR Pass you can use it as far as Otsuki, you can jump on the Kaiji limited express which takes 80 minutes from Tokyo Station to Otsuki. If not using a pass it’s cheaper to take the rapid service as far as Takao, then the local service from there to Otsuki, overall this works out around 25 minutes slower than using the limited express. Confused? Check the train times on Hyperdia (see here for an explanation on how to use it)
Yokohama’s a host city (including the final), but even if you don’t attend a game there it still makes a good daytrip from Tokyo. See here
Home to the Kamakura Great Buddha and a number of beautiful temples, with some good hiking trails in the hills behind and views over Sagamihara Bay. It’s possible to visit Kamakura & Yokohama in one day e.g. head to the Great Buddha & Hasedera Temple first, then dinner at Yokohama Chinatown and maybe go up the Landmark Tower for the night views. Alternatively you could head on to nearby Enoshima (a popular little island just off the coast) from Kamakura.
Kamakura’s just 25 minutes from Yokohama Station direct on the JR Yokosuka Line, and at Kamakura Station switch to the Enoshima Railway (aka Enoden) 3 stops to Hase Station from where you can walk up to Hasedera & the Great Buddha at Kotoku-in. Enoshima is just 20 minutes further along the same line; get off at Enoshima Station and it’s a 15-minute walk to the island over the bridge (see here for more info)
The mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, unifier and first shogun of Japan, is one of the most important historical sites in the Tokyo region and one of the more impressive you’ll see. Nikko is also a famous region for autumn colours; the lower Nikko area round the mausoleum will change colour a bit late for visiting rugby fans, but if you venture into the Okku-Nikko (‘Deep Nikko’) area there’s a significant altitude gain so you can see the colours up there around the lakes and waterfalls.
If you have the JR Pass you can take the shinkansen to Utsunomiya then change to the JR Nikko Line, journey time 1h45. Without a JR Pass it’s a fair bit cheaper (and only a little slower) to use the private Tobu Railway; taking their Kinu express train from Asakusa and changing to the Tonbu Nikko Line at Shimo-Imaichi gives a journey time of 2 hours. You can visit the mausoleum as a day trip from Tokyo, but if you also want to get up to Okku-Nikko you’ll need to stay in Nikko. Search Agoda for hotels in Nikko
Like Hiroshima, Nagasaki is a city rebuilt from the rubble of atomic devastation, and like Hiroshima it’s an attractive modern city with poignant reminders of the horrors of war – the peace park and A-bomb museum are moving tributes. There’s also the darkly fascinating Hashima (aka Gunkanjima, ‘Battleship Island’) just offshore, an abandoned old mining colony of forced labourers which was used for establishing shots of the villain’s lair in Skyfall (the actual scenes were filmed on studio sets). It’s not all heavy history though – Nagasaki also offers lighter sightseeing like Japan’s oldest Chinatown and various European-style buildings & districts dating to Nagasaki’s time as the country’s only major trading port during Japan’s period of isolation. Nagasaki’s 2 hours from Fukuoka’s main Hakata Station on the Kamome express train so it works as a fairly long day trip, though if you’re wanting to take a Gunkanjima cruise as well as see the peace park & museum you’ll want to stay for a night or two; search Agoda for hotels in Nagasaki
(note: the Gunkanjima cruises can’t actually land on the island at present due to recent typhoon damage, and until further notice they just take you around the island)
A beautiful volcanic caldera lying halfway between two host cities, Kumamoto and Oita, a couple of hours from each. See here for details
Like Himeji Castle above, Matsumoto Castle is one of the few surviving castles from the feudal era. Matsumoto is well placed if you’re looking for a good stop en route between Tokyo and Nagoya, being 2-3 hours from each by limited express train. Search Agoda for hotels in Matsumoto
Tohoku (northern Honshu)
The Tohoku region covers the northern part of Japan’s main Honshu island, covering the area between Greater Tokyo and Hokkaido. If you’re attending a match in Kamaishi, or making your way overland from Tokyo to Sapporo, it’s well worth exploring the Tohoku region a little while you’re there – you’ll find your visit most welcome in a region still recovering from the 2011 tsunami. For detailed information on Tohoku see my travel blog here