Kanto (関東), the central region of Japan, is densely populated, teeming with life. How wouldn’t it, as this area so central to Japanese politics and economy contains the largest metropolis in the world – Tokyo.
Imagine busy streets, towering skyscrapers, high-tech gadgets in storefronts, and occasional temples or pagodas standing out in the scenery: you’re thinking of Tokyo Metropolitan area as it spans across prefectures.
But Kanto is not all urban – the region is also rich with ancient sanctums, tranquil shores and farming villages, soaring mountains and leaping waterfalls.
If you’re traveling to Japan, chances are you’ll find yourself in Kanto – and it’s a pity to miss out on all the fascinating sights within hand’s reach from downtown Tokyo! We’ll cover the great city of Tokyo next time – this simple travel guide to Kanto, Japan is all about the prefectures of the area, each noteworthy in its own right.
Covering only about 32,000 square kilometers, Kanto is the smallest region of Japan. Yet, one-third of the country’s population calls it home.
It’s positioned on the east coast of Honshu – a tapestry of natural features nestled between imposing mountains and the Pacific. Kanto starts with the east side of the Japanese Alps – the mountain ranges provide a dramatic backdrop to the urban centers located in the coastal plains.
Both the largest plain (the Kanto Plain) and the tallest mountain (Mt. Fuji, of course) of Japan lie here, quite close to each other. Kanto has it all – an abundance of rivers and lakes, bountiful plains, fields, hills, mountains, and a large bay as a gateway for trade.
Lakes and Peaks: The National Parks of Kanto
Along with the most developed cities, Kanto is also home to some of the most beautiful natural scenery.
Despite the relatively small area, Kanto is dotted with famous nature reserves, including:
- Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park – located partly in Kanagawa
- Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park – in Saitama and Tokyo
- Joshinetsu Kogen and Oze National Parks – in Gunma
- Nikko National Park – in Tochigi.
Rebuilt from Ashes
Almost exactly 100 years before this article, in September 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated the region, especially Tokyo and Yokohama. The cities have done a tremendous job at rebuilding bigger and better – but many historic buildings are lost forever.
The Colorful Prefectures of Kanto
The beauty of Kanto is diverse – from the lively cityscapes of Tokyo and Yokohama to the tranquil hills and lakes of the surrounding national parks, you’ll find the best of both worlds here.
Here’s the division of Kanto into prefectures:
- Tokyo – You knew Tokyo is a city, but did you know there’s also a prefecture of the same name? The prefecture of Tokyo contains a few other large cities and a few islands to the south. On the other hand, the city of Tokyo spreads far beyond the borders of Tokyo prefecture. The Haneda Airport is here.
- Kanagawa – The site of the second-largest city in Japan, Yokohama, and one of its ancient capitals, Kamakura. Both cities are treasure troves of traditional and modern culture.
- Chiba – You’ll likely land here, at the Narita Airport, when you reach Japan. Chiba is the home to Tokyo Disneyland and the longest stretch of coastline with fine sand (a rarity in the mostly rocky-beached Japan).
- Saitama – Much of the area of this prefecture is covered with Tokyo neighborhoods and suburbs – the other part with stunning forests and the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. It’s also home to Japan’s first coin mint and a preserved historic castle town named Kawagoe.
- Tochigi – The largest prefecture of Kanto hides many gems of nature: from powder-snow ski resorts to volcano-made waterfalls. Along with the terrific Nikko National Park, the ancient city of Nikko holds the most ornate Shinto gate in the country – marking the resting place of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.
- Gunma – Similar to Tochigi, this large expanse contains unmatched natural beauty – and a few protected nature reserves that are any trekker’s paradise. Particularly rich with hot springs (onsen), take a dip in hot water while surrounded by snow-covered trees.
- Ibaraki – Spanning along the coastline, Ibaraki boasts a lively atmosphere with some of the most famous gardens in the country.
Its name literally means “the Eastern Capital”. Developed over centuries, Tokyo is such a large place that it’s hard to define.
“Metropolitan prefecture” would be the official term. Tokyo is a conurbation of 62 municipalities – out of them, 23 are considered special wards that make up what we call downtown Tokyo. With surrounding prefectures it makes up the Tokyo Megalopolis Region, and connected with other large cities Yokohama, Kawasaki and Chiba, Tokyo makes up a large Metropolitan area.
The city started off as a small fishing village around the Edo River, and grew into the most fascinating metropolises in the world (now encompassing over 100 rivers within the city limits!). It’s a big, fascinating, diverse place that deserves at least one article of its own.
But for the purpose of this article here, we’ll talk about the prefecture called Tokyo: one of the smaller prefectures of Kanto, Tokyo spans from west to east, from Mount Kumotori to Tokyo Bay.
It’s divided into the Tokyo metropolis area by the Tokyo bay in the east, and the quieter Tama area (after the Tama River) inland in the west. The prefecture also contains several islands in the south – the Izu and the Ogasawara islands.
The Tama area is a great place to live, thanks both to proximity to the downtown and the more spacious, slower way of life. The various towns across Tama area feature some of the best planetariums, theme parks, and zoological parks in the world. You’ll find great nature spots if you venture into the west.
You may have heard people say that Japan is a perfect blend of modernity and tradition. This concept is truly striking in Kanagawa.
The name best known for Hokusai’s “Great Wave off Kanagawa”, the coastal prefecture covers both Tokyo Bay and Sugami Bay.
It’s home to a few large cities, most notably Yokohama, the second-largest city in Japan, and Kamakura, an ancient samurai capital and a treasure trove of one-of-a-kind temples, all accompanied with the backdrop of rising Mt. Fuji and the Hakone National Park (with one of Japan’s most famous red torii gates on the scenic Ashi Lake).
Yokohama is a bustling port city on Tokyo Bay with an abundance of industries, from maritime trade to car manufacturing.
The waterfront is strikingly modern, yet a few old buildings still stand proud at the waterfront, giving it a distinct atmosphere. It features the largest Chinatown in Japan (expect an explosion of color there!), a legendary ferris wheel “Cosmo Clock 21” that marks the skyline, a cup noodle museum, and just like in most big cities, a huge array of things to do, see, and buy.
If you’re looking for something more traditional, explore the treasure trove of temples and shrines that is the ancient capital Kamakura. Seeing its peak in the year 1200, the historic town is well preserved and easily accessible.
The sights include an impressively large copper Buddha (Daibutsu) statue at the Kotoku-in temple (高徳院), and many temples, shrines, and religious statues across the town.
While strolling downtown Kamakura, you’ll come across traditional Shinto torii and the Buddhist Rokujizo statues – a set of six stone figures peacefully pray for the souls of the suffering dead, and in the case of Kamakura, they’re placed on an old execution site where many criminals perished.
When you’ve had your fill of history and spirituality, find a relaxing spot on some of Kamakura’s sandy beaches on Sagami Bay. It may be too windy to swim, but the beach is still fun: keep your eyes open for sakuragai, tiny baby-pink shells used in ornamental souvenirs.
Chiba Prefecture, sitting on the far east of Kanto on the Boso Peninsula, welcomes travelers to Japan on its strategic location, the Narita Airport.
In general, travelers pass through Chiba on their way from Narita Airport to Tokyo. If you can, don’t rush – take some time to see the town of Narita too. The 10th century Narita-san Shinshoji temple and its pagoda are a sight, and a great introduction to Japan’s many spiritual sites.
People often visit the western part of the prefecture on their way to Tokyo Disneyland. But Chiba has a lot more to offer, especially off-the-beaten-path.
On a sunny day in Chiba’s northeast, look out to the Pacific and enjoy Japan’s longest stretch of sandy coast running 66 km along the Kujukuri beach.
In south Chiba, behold the rugged Mt. Nokogiri. The steep granite cliffs were once carved in a quarry. Today, covered in moss, they offer stunning sights of robust Buddha carvings and statues along the scenic path up to a weird observation deck – poking out of a completely upright cliff side.
Underappreciated, the prefecture of Saitama lies north of Tokyo and hides plenty of gems for curious visitors.
Many of its towns and cities in the east (including the prefecture capital, Saitama city) are considered Tokyo suburbs. While in fact, each has that distinct Saitama atmosphere.
Get a glimpse of life in the Edo period of Japanese history (17th – 19th century) when you visit Kawagoe, a castle town with preserved Edo-era streets and clay-walled houses. If you’re in Saitama city, don’t miss the huge railway museum near the Omiya station.
The Tsuki shrine in Urawa, Saitama city is completely devoted to bunnies. Check out the rabbit-head fountain and bunny statues for historical-grade cuteness!
The west of the prefecture is more mountainous and scenic – the Nagatoro Valley and the mountains of the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park begin here.
As part of the old Chichibu Fudasho Pilgrimage route, the nearby historic city of Chichibu and its Kinsho-ji temple are a getaway for nature and history lovers – it’s fourth on a 34-temple route devoted to goddess Kannon.
While you’re there, make the trip to Wadokuroya, the copper mine and mint that produced the first coins in Japan. This historic site dates back to the 8th century.
Nature lovers, be on the lookout for travel deals to Tochigi and Gunma – these two large prefectures keep the most extraordinary of Kanto national parks.
North of the Kanto Plain, the largest prefecture of Kanto has many memorable nature sights.
Especially famous are the many attractions of Nikko National Park. For instance, some 20,000 years ago, its volcanic Mt. Nantai erupted and blocked the Yukawa River, creating the high-elevation Chuzenji Lake that seeps into the Kegon Waterfalls – a sight so beautiful the first British diplomats chose it for the location of their embassy.
As with many pristine natural sites, Nikko is home to sacred sanctuaries, most famous of which is the large temple complex and the eternal resting place of the shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa at the Rinno-ji Temple. The gold-encrusted Tosho-gu in Nikko city is also worth a visit.
The largest city and capital of Tochigi is Utsunomiya – and it’s also the hometown of gyoza dumplings.
This expansive region boasts protected nature reserves like Joshinetsu Kogen and Oze National Parks, offering skiing and hiking trails, lush landscapes, and rejuvenating hot springs (onsen). The area is Japan’s rugged adventure heaven. From marshlands to crystal-clear lakes and hot spring towns, Gunma is scenic and offers relaxation in many forms.
Besides its natural beauty, Gunma is also known as the birthplace of Daruma dolls (in Takasaki city) and an outstanding producer of quality silk (especially in the city of Kiryu).
Ibaraki lies to the east, and while it doesn’t have big national parks or expanses of wilderness, it does have a pleasant seaside and one of Japan’s loveliest flower gardens – the Hitachi Seaside Park.
The capital of the prefecture is Mito, the city known as the birthplace of natto – an “acquired taste” sort of food made from fermented soybeans. Ibaraki is also the place where the martial art Aikido was created (systemized, really) by a famous sensei Morihei Ueshiba. You can visit his own dojo and home at the Aiki Shrine.
Tokyo and Beyond
Far from being all about Tokyo, Kanto is a captivating tapestry woven from modern marvels and timeless treasures. From bustling streets and towering skyscrapers to the tranquil shores and ancient sanctuaries found in each prefecture, Kanto offers a little bit for everyone.