The One Road You Should Take in Japan
Ask a travel agent, hotelier, blogger, or even a local, and you’ll get wildly different suggestions on the best way to explore Japan. “Start from the north and head south.” “Start from the south and head north.” “First-timers should stick to Tokyo and Kyoto.” While all perfectly reasonable recommendations, there’s an ancient itinerary you should consider that has dozens of modern destination highlights mixed with historical discoveries. Think cultural sights, authentic culinary scenes, architecture and natural wonders. And it all takes place on one road.
Tōkaidō Road is a historic 320-mile throughway that dates back to the 17th century and is a way to link the “east (new) capital” of Tokyo to the “west (old) capital” of Kyoto. During Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868), this road was considered the most important trade route of the Five Routes available at the time. People would travel on foot, wheeling carts as they went and making stops at one of the 53 government-sanctioned post stations known as shukuba, where lodging, horse stables, temples, shrines, food and other traveler necessities were provided. Little did they know these pit stops would lay the groundwork for today’s incredible travel experience.
Many of these 53 rest points initially created for ancient travelers still exist today. While most have been overhauled to provide modern conveniences, some of the historic details remain, making it perfect if you want a mix of history, urban cities and rural countryside. For example, you can still see some remaining religious sites, castle ruins near Hakone and an old inn in Okitsu.
Now, let’s be clear. Tōkaidō Road isn’t like the Inca Trail in Peru or Camino de Santiago in Europe, where you can walk from end to end. Over the years, the ancient route was taken over by National Route No. 1, the Tokaido Highway. So, it’s a modern expressway in every sense of the word. But, what’s good about it is that it provides an easy way to explore some of Japan’s biggest cities, including Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Osaka, with a stop in Kyoto along the way. So, it’s an easy driving itinerary for those feeling a bit lost about which destinations to visit. Plus, that same driving route is followed by two train routes—the JR Tōkaidō Main Line and Tōkaidō Shinkansen—if you prefer exploring via railway.
But, if you’re interested in checking out the ancient road, there are still chunks that exist. Some travelers have even followed the entire original route, hiking on every historical part that’s still available, a feat that would take about three weeks to accomplish. Of course, the entire road is no longer intact, but there are preserved bits with stunning hiking, charming onsens and delectable local cuisine.
Of course, most people don’t have the time to trek for 21 days. Or, perhaps, they simply don’t want to. But using Tōkaidō Road as your guide is still a great way to combine the modern highway or rail route with some days of hiking the original road, with the most popular section being near Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture.
Possible to complete as a day trip, the Hakone section of the original road takes about two hours to walk. Along the way, you get to experience the area’s natural beauty, complete with cobblestone paths and cedar-lined alleys. Plus, you’ll get to encounter the ancient Hakone checkpoint (Hakone Shrine), a few tiny temples, views of Mt. Fuji and the ruins of Yamanaka Castle. The route stretches from Hakone to Mishima and is very well marked, even when you have to cross the highway. So, it’s easy for newbies to explore without a guide.
If you have more time and want to do a train/hiking combo, consider a week-long itinerary that mixes contemporary conveniences with historic Old Tokaido Road highlights. To start, you’ll follow the same itinerary as the Hakone day trip. Right off the bat, you’ll see one of the prettiest stretches of the ancient route. Then, stop at Old Tokaido Road Museum and the 400-year-old Amazake Teahouse before venturing on.
After that history-fueled first day, you can head toward Atami Station. Spend some time there, taking in the coastline of the Izu Peninsula. Then continue to Mishima station, where cycling or hiking fans will love the mountainous terrain. Plus, you’ll get those FOMO-inducing photos of Mt. Fuji from the Shin-Fuji station, which authentic local Japanese stores also surround.
Up next is taking the train from Mishima to Shizuoka, where you could stop to taste some of the area’s best food, see some historical attractions, take in panoramic vistas and enjoy a beach day.
But, if hiking is the top priority, you’ll want to trek along the coast, stopping at the old post of Kambara and Okitsu. After, take the train to Shizuoka, where you can explore the city that’s known for incredible food, panoramic vistas and historical attractions like the 17th-century shrine and original burial place of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu called Kunōzan Tōshō-gū. The ruins of Sunpu Castle and The Toro Museum archaeological site also have Iron Age dwellings on display.
Foodies will also love Shizuoka Station as it’s home to some of the best Japanese dining destinations with countless traditional dishes, fresh seafood and delectable green tea. About 30 miles south is Kakegawa Station, which castle enthusiasts will love as it’s close to Kakegawa Castle, Yokosuka Castle and the Takatenjin Castle Ruins. Plus, there are traditional tea ceremony houses and shops selling local goods.
Spend the night there or venture another 10 minutes on the bullet train to Hamamatsu Station. You’ll see traditions and techniques of music, art and more in full action in this town near Hamana Lake before hopping the local train to Nagoya and then on to Kusatsu in Shiga Prefecture, which was another post on the Old Tokaido Road. Here you can visit an original checkpoint before ending in Kyoto.
No matter which transportation method you choose—hiking, train, car or a combination of them— using Tōkaidō Road as the foundation for your itinerary guarantees a trip filled with the best of what Japan has to offer.