With the Rugby World Cup nearing, Eleanor Barker explores Yokohama and its sister-city, hidden gem Atsugi.
The view of the Minato Mirai harbour, complete with the distinctive Cosmo World ferris wheel, was enough to tempt me outside after a day of time travel and transfers. It was like magic: I left New Zealand at midnight, bumped into my ex-partner at a coffee kiosk in Hong Kong Airport, then arrived in Yokohama in the early evening. I couldn't believe it was still Monday.
Yokohama is a picturesque coastal city only 32km southwest of Tokyo. It's Japan's second largest city and one of the most popular date spots in the country. Its architecture and character bloomed from tragedy: the Great Kanto earthquake of September 1923 and the Allied bombings of the 1940s. Each disaster destroyed much of Yokohama, but true to the Japanese maxim of "Ganbaru — to stubbornly persevere", the city not only recovered but thrived. On that first warm autumn evening in Yokohama I took a head-clearing walk in the gorgeous oceanside gardens of the Yamashita District, built from the rubble of the 1923 earthquake.
Just a couple of blocks away from the gardens, at SusiZanmai, a regular helped me order a sashimi nigiri sushi set of "luxury and indulgence" which cost $41 and was worth every yen. When I became mildly lost in Chinatown, local teens guided me back to the Yokohama New Grand Hotel. They had as little English as I had Japanese, but we communicated our ages and names and even my occupation — "reporter desu". Language barriers? No worries. There are always Japanese locals around who will help you.
Autumn in Japan is sunny, breezy and a little rainy — with a late-summer heat lingering in the background. On a perfect day we visited the Sankeien Gardens, considered among the finest in Japan, and participated in a tea ceremony. The afterword of the instructional pamphlet struck me as an endearing message to the anxious foreigner; "We hope you have a feeling of tranquillity. Was it stressful?"
Oishii, meaning "delicious", is a very handy word to have in Yokohama. At lunch, a chef prepared oishii wagyu sirloin steak before my eyes at Seryna Steak Dome. The historic restaurant overlooks Bashamichi, the first Western-style boulevard in Japan. For dinner, I feasted on Cantonese food on the two-hour Royal Wing Yokohama dinner cruise, taking in the Minato Mirai skyline and the Yokohama Bay Bridge as the sun slowly drained from the sky.
At Yokohama Red Brick Square, Oktoberfest was in full swing, a taste of the festivities planned for rugby fans this time next year. In the square, throngs of people were enjoying a drink in the enormous beer tents or relaxing in the Red Brick Park. If you're less of a beer fan you'll want to take your time exploring the themed floors of artisan shops in the Red Brick Warehouses.
My pick of the souvenirs is "replica food" — convincing faux food items that many Japanese restaurants display in their restaurant windows. There is also real food to consume, local specialities like omelette rice, local vege-packed ramen Sanma men, Kiyoken shumai "famous shumai dumpling bento lunch box" or Bashamichi ice cream.
On our way out of Red Brick Square we spotted a local man walking his pet meerkat - and it took a liking to me. I left with the best travel photo ever and the sense that all sorts of wonderful things can happen in this city.
Forty minutes from Yokohama by train, we arrived in the wild and lovely Atsugi. Many of the core population of 220,000 live here and work elsewhere, and tens of thousands more commute in every day, which leads it to be known as a "bedroom community". It's a moniker that doesn't do justice to the city's incredible location. Atsugi's forests, temples, parks and onsen are evocative of those of Kyoto but without the throng of tourists. I found this sense of solitude heightened the impact of everything I experienced.
The food is incredible — because, of course it is. This is a community built around commuters after all — a voracious and discerning bunch. In the mountains of Atsugi the Nissan "campus" alone hosts 10,000 employees on site every weekday — and everyone has to eat.
Among the local specialities here are the ayu river fish and barbecued pork offal, Shirokoro Horumon, which sounds scary but is in fact juicy, fatty oishii. Your hotel can help you book your Shirokoro Horumon ahead of time at the historic Suishoen "Drunken Girl", a hugely popular spot among businesspeople. For another memorable meal I recommend ordering a set menu at "all you can drink" Atsugi restaurant Tachibana.
I visited two onsen, hot spring public baths, in Atsugi. Near Iiyama Kannon temple is the Motoyu Ryokan, an unforgettable riverside bath and gardens filled with tanuki (raccoon) statues. You can visit for the day or stay the night in a room with its own open-air hot spring bath right next to Koayu River. At the family-owned Nanasawa Sou, four generations will host you in another beautiful forest location. Nearby is Nanasawa Forest Park, zip-line park Tree Top Adventures and a number of good restaurants. Perfect for a family day trip.
At the Buddhist Iiyama Kannon temple we had the place seemingly to ourselves. The wild and lovely forest temple is devoted to making romantic relationships blossom. My fortune slip, however, advised to hold off on any affairs of the heart and to categorically avoid all coffee shops at Hong Kong International Airport.
Atsugi is inexpensive, peaceful and oddly reminiscent of our own country. I would highly recommend you set aside a few days to eat, rejuvenate and enjoy the beauty of nature in this low-key part of Japan.
● Sort your data out before you leave by booking a sim card at Narita airport or packing a portable WiFi device - whatever keeps you hooked into Google Maps and Google Translate, you'll feel a little exposed without it.
● Time your scenic adventures well — dedicated sightseeing is best enjoyed over the hours of twilight. Take the 5.10-7pm Royal Wing cruise instead of the later one and visit the Landmark Tower around the same time. At the Landmark Tower you can even sit down on a comfortable chair with a drink as you take in the views.
● Sankeien Gardens will be a spectacular blaze of colour for the Rugby World Cup next November, if the trees are as punctual as the public transport.
● You can legally drink in Japan in public. Stock up on bento boxes and "beeru" and have a memorable picnic in Rinko Park watching the boys in black on the big screen.
flies direct from Auckland to Tokyo, with one-way Economy Class fares starting from $619.
For information about visiting Yokohama or Atsugi, go to jtboi.co.nz.