Essential info if you’re thinking of visiting Japan - check out these insider tips
Mac, Founder and Lead Guide of Maction Planet Bespoke Japan Travel, introduces some of his favourite off-the-beaten-track Tokyo neighbourhoods.
Tokyo is without a doubt the World’s Greatest Metropolis. I have visited 108 countries and the reason I live here is that there is no city like it.
However, many visitors, despite our best efforts, still see it as a two-day city before heading off along the Golden Route with stops at Hakone, Kyoto and a day trip to Hiroshima. Maction Planet and Kyushu Journeys are united in our attempts to shift this paradigm.
There is so much to do in Tokyo that goes beyond the famous districts of Shibuya, Shinjuku and Akihabara. Here are some off-the-beaten-track Tokyo neighbourhoods in which I can guarantee you will see very few foreign tourists but will dramatically enhance your Tokyo experience.
Kokubunji is located on the Musashino Terrace of western Tokyo, approximately in the geographic centre of Tokyo Metropolis – the belly button of Tokyo, as it were.
It was the site of a significant temple, the Musashi Kokubunji temple. In 741 AD, the Emperor Shomu decreed that around 60 provincial Buddhist temples be built throughout Japan. Musashi-Kokubunji was one of the largest. The temple loaned its name to the area, but was destroyed by fire in 1333 during the Battle of Bubaigawara between Nitta Yoshisada and the Kamakura shogunate which signalled the end of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). You can still see remains of the original site, explore a museum with all sorts of local treasures, and visit the rebuilt temple.
There is lots more to explore in this off-the-beaten-track Tokyo neighbourhood. Kokubinji is home to Tonogayato Garden, a beautiful garden tucked into a riser of the Musashino Plateau. First developed in 1913, the garden is full of natural and human-made features, such as a shishi-odoshi (a bamboo and water feature made to scare off wild animals) and the Koyotei (“Autumn Leaves Pavilion”) tearoom. You can see the remains of the Tosando-Musashi Michi Road, one of seven ancient roads dating back to the Nara period. There are many great soba restaurants as the area is famous for soba due to the spring water used to make them.
Check out this video showcasing the delights of Kokubunji, featuring the sights above and lots more!
Kameido is in Tokyo’s Koto Ward on the east side of the city, commonly known as shitamachi (the downtown). The eastern suburbs of Tokyo are getting reappraised and revived and Kameido is a great example of this. The neighbourhood gets its name from its past as Kamejima, a turtle-shaped island, before it was connected to the mainland by landfill. Kameido hosted the government mint during the reign of the fourth Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna. The area was also famous for its plum trees, destroyed in a 1910 flood. After World War II, Kameido was rebuilt. Now the area is a contrast of large shopping complexes and tiny hole-in-the-wall eateries, off-the-beaten track even to Tokyoites.
‘Kameido Ume Yashiki’, Kameido Plum Mansion, named for the former plum-realted history was opened in 2013. The facility contains tourist info, souvenir shops sepcialising in local crafts such as Edo Kiroko glassware, and a cafe.
The main draw of the area is the Kameido Tenjin Shrine. It was was founded in 1661 and dedicated to Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903), a ninth-century politician who was deified and renamed Tenjin after his death. A great poet and scholar, Sugawara is now regarded as the Shinto god of learning. Original called Kamedio Tenmangu, the name of the shrine was changed to Kameido Jinja in 1873 and then Kameido Tenjin in 1936. The original wooden structure was destroyed during the firebombing raids of World War II. In the years after the war, the shrine was rebuilt with modern materials. The shrine is part of Kameido local life. The shrine now attracts students of all ages who call on higher powers to help them pass their exams, appealing to Sugawara no Michizane for good grades that will lead to admission to top schools and universities. It is famous for its plum trees in late winter, purple weeping wisteria trellises in the spring (which look atmospheric even in summer as shown above) and blossoming chrysanthemums in autumn. The legendary wisterias here have appeared in many works of art; the most well-known of which is probably ‘In the Kameido Tenjin Shrine Compound’ (1856) by ukiyo-e master Utagawa Hiroshige, part of his ‘100 Famous Views of Edo’ series.
One of the fun things to do in Tokyo is to attend a festival at a local shrine. Everyone comes to have a good time. It’s one of the best things to involve yourself in to truly understand what local like is like in off-the-beaten-track Tokyo.
In 2018 I took guests to the Kameido Tenjin Festival. 2018 was the Reitaisai grand festival, held only once every four years. The Grand Festival features parades of the Imperial Carriage with horses and bulls and local mikoshi (portable shrines). You can check out this incredible spectacle in the video below. In many cases, like that of the festival in the video below, there is almost no English-language information about festivals like this… and that is where we come in! Kyushu Journeys and Maction Planet specialise in opening up events like these to visitors can help you get your timing right so you can experience a festival for yourself.
Sengakuji is a station on the Toei Asakusa Line. You can also walk there from the newly opened Takanawa Gateway station, the first Yamanote Line station in almost three decades.
The area is most famous for the Segakuji Temple, a Soto Zen Buddhist temple established in 1612 in Minato-ku near Shinagawa. It’s a lovely place, but the temple may well be an obscurity were it not for a very famous incident. In Japanese history books it’s referred to as the ‘Genroku Ako Incident’ (‘Genroku’ is the name of the period from 1688 to 1704) but is more commonly known as the ‘Chushingura’ or ‘The Treasury of Loyal Retainers’. To English speaker, it is the Tale of the 47 Ronin.
In 1701, Kira Yoshihisa was a court official at Edo castle who taught court etiquette to visiting feudal lords. While giving instruction, Kira was continually disrespectful towards Lord Asano Naganori, the daimyo of Ako. Asano was so offended that he assaulted Kira with his sword, wounding him in the face. Violence of any kind was forbidden in Edo Castle so Asano was punished with an order to commit suicide by seppuku, or hara-kiri, on the very same day. Crucially, the shogun also forbade any revenge.
Some of Lord Asano’s retainers (now known as the 47 ronin) could not accept this outcome. They made it their mission to avenge the death of their master despite knowledge of the dire consequences. On 14 December 1702, they exacted their revenge, killing Kira and presenting his severed head to their former Lord Asano at his grave.
The Shogun ordered all of them to commit Seppuku on the 4th February 1703, sparing them humiliation by beheading.
By all historical accounts, the reality was very different to this legend! Asano was the real bad guy, Lord Kira was a bumbling bureaucrat and ‘the 47’ had many ulterior motives. However no one really cares. The myth is far more important than the reality now!
Every year, Sengakuji Temple holds the Ako Gishi Sai on 14 December, the date in our modern calendar which aligns with the day that the ronin killed Kira. A memorial service is held by the Zen Buddhist monks followed by parade of the severed head of Lord Kira. Along with the stalls serving traditional Japanese festival food and the bustling crowds laying incense at the ronin’s graves the whole spectacle makes for a fun and fascinating day out.
Check out all the action in our video!