(This is part of a series about my recent trip to Japan. See this page for other articles in it.)
Hato Bus Tour
I’d say that less than half of our trip this time involved touristy stuff (like visiting Tokyo Tower), but we did go on a day tour (日帰りツアー) run by the Hato bus (はとバス) travel company.
This tour left from Tokyo and took us to a few locations in Kamakura (鎌倉), including the Great Buddha (大仏) and a few temples (神社), then to a traditional-styled restaurant, and finally to a small island called Enoshima (江ノ島).
All of the locations were fun, but by far I enjoyed Enoshima the best. Once in a drama a long time ago I had seen footage of this island with its unique bronze-made Torii gate (鳥居), and it stuck in my head as an interesting-looking place I wanted to visit someday. Easily accessible via the cost via a short bridge, Enoshima a pretty small island, but it’s packed with various shops, restaurants, and a temple.
Since we were given only approximately 60 minutes to explore we could do little but go up to the peak, where there is a spectacular view of the sea, and then back down to the bus. But the whole atmosphere of the place was very unique, somehow tropical and different than many places I’ve been in Japan. I’d like to go back there again, and this time spend perhaps half a day browsing the shops leisurely. There is also some sort of observation tower that we didn’t do because of time restrictions.
The food at the restaurant was categorized as 京料理 (kyourouri) and contained traditional dishes like miso soup, hijiki, sashimi, tempura, tofu, tamagoyaki, shrimp, kabocha, and other vegetables. It wasn’t the most filling meal I’ve had, but everything was fresh (except maybe the tempura that clearly had sat for a little while) and tasty. There wasn’t very much time allotted to the meal, roughly 45 minutes, but our time was cut a little short because some passengers had returned late to the bus on the previous stop.
We shuttled between places on a large yellow bus, and I was fortunate enough to get the front right seat so I had a great view of the surroundings––especially because the driver was seated low, as to not block the view. The bus didn’t actually pass through most of the landmarks (like Enoshima), so during my time on the bus I actually enjoyed the views the most from the highway when leaving and entering Tokyo. The bus didn’t have a bathroom, but the times between locations was never more than an hour or so so that wasn’t an issue.
The bus had a skilled tour guide who gave a verbal narration of the surrounding areas and landmarks in Japanese. She was speaking a good majority of the time, perhaps three-fourths, and it took some concentration for me to continue paying attention the entire time. It turned out to be a great listening exercise as well and it was satisfying that I could understand the vast majority of the content.
At a cost of about $80 per person (including everything above except for an inexpensive ticket to use the up escalator on Enoshima) it was a reasonably-priced tour that we all enjoyed thoroughly. This specific tour was designed for native Japanese speakers, but it seems there are others that done in English. Hato bus also has tours where you stay overnight at places like onsen (hot spring) hotels, or going to more far-away exotic places.
We spent around a day in Tsukuba (筑波), a city in Ibaraki prefecture (茨城県) that is located roughly 40 kilometers from Narita Airport.
First we visited the Tsukuba Space Center (筑波宇宙センター), which is the headquarters of JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency). You can think of JAXA as Japan’s version of NASA.
One of the highlights of this place is the Space Dome, a spacious large exhibition center that has models of various things such as parts of spacecraft and related technologies. It was fun but we got bored pretty quickly. There was a gift shop with space-related items (you know, like freeze-dried space ice cream), but it was small and didn’t take up much time either.
There is a guided tour of the JAXA facilities that we were interested in and got in a line for, only to realize that the line was for those who had pre-registered. They said we could join a cancellation list, but we didn’t want to waste time waiting and also decided the tour would be a little better for our son when he was a little older. One cool thing about the space center was drawings of the characters from Space Brothers (a manga about two brothers who become astronauts) scattered around here and there.
We spent the next few hours at the Tsukuba Expo Center (筑波エキスポセンター), sort of a cross between a museum and educational play area. The main showroom had many science-related things for children to play with: a giant soap bubble chamber, a large hand-held gyroscope, a bubble chamber for viewing microscopic particles, puzzle blocks, robots, and much more. My son enjoyed this area and we spent at least an hour here there, plus some more time in the gift shop which was a little bigger and more diverse than the JAXA one. There was also a separate exhibition room on the second floor that showcased popup books of various shapes and sizes. A small restaurant was connected to the expo center––they allow re-entry if you show your tickets––and while the food wasn’t anything to brag about, it was good enough for the price and the fact it was convenient.
We also spent some time at the Aeon Tsukuba Mall (イオンモール筑波), a large shopping area with many stores including a nice bookstore, a game center, and a variety of restaurants. We ate dinner at the restaurant 鎌倉パスタ (kamakura pasta) and all enjoyed our meals.
Showa Memorial Park
When we were staying in Tachikawa (立川), a city roughly 30 kilometers from Tokyo, we visited the Showa Memorial Park (昭和記念公園). This is a massive park that spans over 160 hectares of trees, lakes, fields, water fountains, and flower patches. There is a Japanese-style garden, a bonsai garden, several sports areas, a few large playing areas, and much more. One of the play areas has several large climbing nets, and my son enjoyed playing there for a while. Another play area has a large trampoline for children. There are also places for food and drink (and of course a plethora of vending machines) and even a small train that runs through much of the park; it’s an extra fee but because of the great walking distances I recommend using it to get around the park.
There are several entrances so if you meet someone there make sure you specify which one. For those that come by car, there is a large parking lot as well. This page has a map of the grounds.
One of the only bad things we experienced at this park was some occasional sand storms triggered by strong winds that day. Getting sand in your eyes isn’t fun, but if you bring sunglasses and a hat you’ll have at least partial protection.
This park is one of the biggest and best of its kind I’ve been to in Japan, and I highly recommend for families with children of any age.
(See this page for a full list of articles in this series as they are added).