While planning a bigger road trip around Japan, I stumbled upon a little-known place called Nasu, located in Tochigi Prefecture only a few hours from Tokyo. Intrigued by rumours of a beautiful Royal Resort Town known only to the Japanese, I immediately hired a car from Tokyo and sought the help of some friendly locals. With their help, I was able to discover all the best things to do in Nasu and share the open-secret of alluring Nasu Japan with you now!
Nasu, a small town scattered across the highlands in Northern Tochigi is dominated by the shadow of the active Mt. Nasu volcano and famed across Japan for it’s excellent onsens, nature appreciation, seasonal beauty, skiing and as being home to the Nasu Imperial Villa – an exclusive retreat used by the Japanese Imperial Family. Upon arrival I quickly fell in love with this undiscovered gem where bold architecture and zany tourist attractions sit nestled amongst some of the best nature spots in Japan. A place where the local 7/11 and other stores have changed their colour scheme to a light brown in order not to infringe on the Emperor’s experience here, and yet somehow a giant faux pirate ship or replica of the Cotswolds aristocracy manor house from the UK is entirely acceptable…
Located only a short 2 hour drive from chaotic Tokyo – or accessible with the Japan JR Pass from Nasushiobara Train Station you are probably going to want to hire a car in either Tokyo or Nasushiobara to make the most of your Nasu vacation, but many hotels in Nasu do offer shuttle drop-off and pick-up from the JR Nasushiobara Train Station. Even better? Nasu offers the best hot springs near Tokyo (well, along with Kinugawa in the same prefecture just on the other side of the mountains) and is ideal to visit in every season… Don’t believe us? In winter you have gorgeous white snow-covered slopes and onsens + plenty of skiing, spring brings the famous cherry blossoms and flowering azaleas which cover the Nasu landscape, autumn the vibrant shades of orange as trees here prepare for winter and summer…Well, lets just say there is no shortage of sunshine and wonderful hiking trails!
Captivated? So was I – So read on to discover more about the enticing Nasu Japan!
Ok – lets start with the most obvious one. Literally ask any Japanese person and they will quickly tell you than Tochigi is not only Japan’s largest producer of strawberries, but also where you will find the absolute best strawberries in Japan (I would argue the world…). Thanks to the perfect environment and climate provided in Tochigi Prefecture along with plenty of sunshine, natural spring water and fertile land the strawberries of Tochigi and Nasu are just sweeter, more juicy and plumper. There is a reason why Tochigi is also known as the Strawberry Kingdom!
Because of this strawberry picking in Nasu is extremely popular there is no better place to head than the Nasu Kogen Strawberry Forest Farm which thanks to it’s extensive greenhouses and climate-controlling technology is able to provide a pleasant year-round strawberry picking experience. Not only fun and relaxing, at Nasu Kogen Strawberry Forest Farm you can blissfully wander and pick the best strawberries at your own pace with a timed all-you-can-eat type deal. Stuff your face with as many high-quality strawberries as you can possibly muster, but the true strawberry connoisseur will look out for the sky berry variety (often given as luxury gifts!) or the much beloved Tochiotome, the best and rarest strawberry variety in Japan (there is even a Tochiotome Kit-Kat flavour!) which can only be picked in strawberry farms! Easily one of our favourite things to do in Nasu Japan!
It wouldn’t be a holiday in Japan without a dose of kawaii, the cuteness culture and aesthetic so popular in Japanese popular culture. And what then could be more cute than the 360 friendly alpacas at the Nasu Alpaca Farm wandering around, looking at you longingly with their big eyes and just begging to be taken home. For those unfamiliar with these fluffy, miniature giraffes – Alpacas are originally from Peru (where I first fell in love with them with a trip with Peru Hop) but are now out for world domination thanks to their high-quality wool available in 22 different colours and gentle nature.
Nasu Alpaca Farm was the first (and still by far the largest) place in Japan where the public could get up close and feed these friendly creatures. The alpacas wander around in multiple fields all under the big sky and with stunning views of Mt. Nasu, making Nasu Alpaca Farm even more photogenic – but for that perfect alpaca selfie be sure to get some ripe green grass from outside their fence and boom, instant friends for life! And it’s not just us that think this because the Peru Alpaca & Llama Breeders’ Organization has actually named Nasu Alpaca Farm as “the farm raising the world’s friendliest alpacas” – as if you needed yet another reason to visit. When you visit Nasu Japan you could easily spend hours and hours here but don’t worry, there are more animal related things to do in Nasu coming up soon!
Away from the chaotic Tokyo and with plenty of fresh air, Nasu invites lazy mornings and a slower pace of life – and what better way to embrace the local lifestyle than relaxing in a cosy cafe with a delicious coffee and delectable sweets. While Nasu is spoiled for choice when it comes to cafes, you just have to check out Belle Fleur Cafe with its constant stream of loyal customers all craving the European style breads with a unique Tochigi twist. Our favourite (and everyone elses it seems) was the Orange Italian Bread with a thick, zesty orange right on top or the quintessential Tochigi Strawberry Bread made with local Tochigi strawberries – incase you haven’t had enough after strawberry picking in Nasu! Belle Fleur Cafe & Bakery has an atmospheric seating section with free WiFi if you want a break or just to plan your next move, but even if you have a full day of hiking in Nasu and just want some sustenance, these carby delights will give you plenty of energy and flavour to get through the day!
One of the best places in Nasu to get a panoramic view and a taste of that fresh mountain air – but for the best experience at Yahata Park you should time your visit for mid-May to mid-June when over 200,000 pink blossoms of azaleas shoot up almost overnight creating a magical and contrasting wonderland against the blue sky. The Yahata Park sunrise is listed as one of the ‘100 most beautiful places in Japan’ and as a must-see spot in Nasu, you can spend 3 hours or more here wandering the 9 kilometre trail over multiple suspension bridges taking in this other-worldly landscape. Forget the cherry-blossom in Nasu, the azalea-blossom is what you want to try to see (though the cherry-blossom is pretty spectacular here too!).
If you’re visiting Nasu Japan in late May to mid-June you could also head to Mt. Jeans where the entire summit is covered with 30,000 white azaleas, or from late July to mid-August the Hunter Mountain Lily Park has over 4 million lilies across it’s slopes from 50 different varieties. See there are plenty of natural things to do in Nasu Japan in any season (not like visiting nature in Borneo which is ungodly in the hotter months..) and if you’re not visiting during the summer months, don’t worry you can also enjoy the vibrant green foliage of spring in Nasu, the deep oranges of autumn or the white blanket which covers the mountains in snowy winter.
Ok, full disclosure: this place is intense and bizarre, and would probably not be too worthy of a visit for English speakers except for the masterful, energetic and unforgettable owner who personally curated all of the exhibits here after decades of collecting…well, everything? Here is your chance to try traditional Pachinko (before it was co-opted in as the national gambling mechanism of choice in Japan), see traditional houses of the Edo and Showa period, gain insight into mainstream and slightly risqué Japanese cinema, see the wadaiko (Japanese Drums) in action and plenty more. Honestly, I am still not quite sure what was going on here, but luckily the low entrance fee makes a visit here worthwhile just for the experience and photo-ops. Oh and the Rickshaw & Showa Retro Museum is the world’s only Rickshaw Museum as well (the rickshaw was invented in Japan it turns out!) with a beautiful collection from across Japan and around the world. When you visit Nasu Japan don’t miss the opportunity to stop in and say Hi!
Having the perfect stay in Nasu Japan doesn’t just mean ticking of things to do during the day, but also enjoying your evening and engaging in new experiences in your accommodation. Thankfully I found Blancvert Nasu Hotel and Hot Spring, a recently opened boutique hotel with only 40 rooms and yet all the expected amenities of a large resort hotel. While famous for it’s animatronic dinosaur robots scattered in the front garden-forest and lobby, the Blancvert Nasu Hotel and Hot Spring actually offers an authentic stay with beautiful traditional Japanese rooms complete with tatami-matted rooms and huge windows with views out into the very seasonal nature – though Western-style rooms are also available if you would prefer. Not only that but Blancvert Nasu Hotel offers a world-class onsen set-up, fed directly from the same spring that feeds the Emperor’s Royal Retreat with mixed and gender-segregated hot pools (and with both indoor and outdoor options!). As with any decent Ryokan (Japanese inn) you can also enjoy fine dining Japanese-style with more tiny, wee dishes than you could ever remember – kudos to the poor chef that has to make so many delicate portions, and either a Japanese or Western style breakfast.
While there are plenty of accommodation options in Nasu, I found the Blancvert Nasu Hotel and Hot Spring to be extremely good value, of excellent quality and supremely accommodating. Of course you might be tempted to go for the absolute cheapest hotel in order to save a few pennies, but you will not get the delicious Japanese food, luxurious onsen/hot spring and beautiful traditional rooms on offer at the Blancvert Nasu Hotel which make staying here a total experience rather than simply a place to get a good nights sleep. That is to say nothing of all the dinosaur pictures you can make, and the priceless stories you will tell friends and family back home of visiting one of the best hot springs near Tokyo!
P.S. When I shared this article with Blancvert Nasu Hotel and Hot Spring they loved it so much they offered to treat any of our readers who book to a special gift on arrival. Just mention Inspired By Maps when booking and you are in for a treat!
I promised there would be more animal things to do in Nasu, and if you havn’t had enough kawaii yet then you must visit the Nasu Safari Park. In true Japanese fashion, this place is a little bit zany with buses dressed up as tigers and lions, but it all works and Nasu Safari Park is one of the most popular attractions in Nasu thanks to their hand-feeding lion experience and similar but less scary giraffe-feeding. Yes, you read that right – You get to feed a lion in Nasu, and be literally centimeters away as the huge animal open its mouth wide (if you’re really game you can even smell its breath!). Luckily this is all done from the protective cage of a safari truck, which is folded down for the twin giraffes who giddily frolic over and eat treats right out of your hand!
As if that isn’t unique enough, at the Nasu Safari Park you can also rub faces with elephants in the winter months who were rescued from the circus trade in Lao, enjoy feeding experience with grass-eating animals such as llamas, donkeys, zebras and deer, or enter the touching zone where you can pat rabbits, goats, sheep and even capybara if you’re game! There is even a night safari at Nasu Safari Park during the weekends in Spring and Autumn. The Nasu Safari Park is not your normal zoo, but an experience to get up close and interact with animals you would never normally get the chance to (though it still doesn’t quite beat the wild tiger safari in India). After all, who wants to stare at a lion from afar when you can get so close you can count his teeth!
One of the biggest drawcards of Nasu is the nature on offer here, which every year the Emperor of Japan comes to enjoy. No longer wanting to keep the unspoiled nature of the Nasu Imperial Villa all to himself, in 2008 the 560 nectar Nasu Heisei-no-mori Forest was transferred to the general public so that people might better reconnect with the natural world. Open-year round, one of the highlights of this pristine natural environment is actually heading out on a guided snowshoe hike in winter where you blissfully plod along on-top of fluffy snow – sometimes up to 3 meters deep! I loved the silence here in winter brought on by the dampening effect of thick snow layer (and was eerily reminiscent of wandering the forest of Chernobyl in winter, just without the threat of radiation) that was only occasionally broken by the sound of scurrying squirrels or the falling of snow from the tree branches.
An ancient beech forest protected for the Emperor’s enjoyment for hundreds of years, this national treasure of Japan is home to plenty of rare wildlife including foxes, rabbits, dormice and bears – though you are best to visit in the warmer seasons to fully take advantage of the extensive hiking trails and various nature programs on offer here. While it is technically possible to see the surreal Komadome Waterfall with snow-shoes in the winter, it’s a long full-day trip that is rather exhausting and best done on solid ground in other seasons.
For years I have claimed the only decent Italian food outside of Italy is Buenos Aires and New York, but after dining at Gioia Mia Italian Restaurant – I am going to have to add Nasu to that list. Think I’m kidding? Gioia Mia has been in operation for over 20 years and earned many accolades including being one of the Top 100 restaurants in Japan. Frequently booked out, Gioia Mia is the dining option of choice in Nasu and has held many famous guests, and is even a favourite of the Royal Family who when in town regularly pop in. You would think all this fame has gone to their head, but seemingly not as Gioia Mia Italian Restaurant in Nasu continues to operate with a homely yet quaint fit out preferring instead to focus on the freshness of the ingredient (largely sourced locally from Tochigi Prefecture) and maintaining its impeccably high standards. Literally anything on the menu is going to be delicious, but worthy of particular mention is the delicious hand-rolled wood fired pizza’s, soft-shelled crab, fresh garden salad and carbonara pasta. Open 11-8 daily except for Thursday with an English menu hidden out back if you ask!
Just like Kyoto has its famous fox shrine, Nasu has its famous Nasu-yuzen-jinja Shrine dedicated to the god of the Onsen. Built-in 630 after being discovered by a hunter who came across the natural warm hot springs in the Nasu Area and wanted to give thanks to the Onsen God. Serene and peaceful, nestled in amongst the old forest with plenty of photogenic tori gates – be sure to follow proper Japanese temple etiquette such as walking on the left side of the pathway, bowing at every Tori gate, washing your hands at the entrance, ringing the bell to call the Onsen gods attention and then throwing a coin (just watch the locals!).
There is plenty of English information available free of charge at the information desk near the front entrance – but if you’re short on time be sure not to miss the cool public foot spa to the left of the main gates and be careful around Nasu’s famous Sessho-seki or Killing Stone. The mythology behind it is incredible and can be read here. The Sessho-seki is so famous in fact that it is even sung about in the Japanese national anthem and is an important part of Nasu’s identity. Nasu has some of the best hot springs near Tokyo – though sadly not the famous snow monkey hot springs which are a few hours away.
Nasu Japan is a big place – and there is so much more to do here than you would think. As I’ve already shown, Nasu is much, much more than just the best hot springs near Tokyo – but in case you have more time or you’re just looking for something more, here are the other top things to do in Nasu Japan I could not quite fit in. Feel free to let me know if you visit any and drop your opinions for other readers in the comments below!
As if Nasu was not weird and wonderful enough, you can visit the Nasu Teddy Bear Museum where over 100 artists have come together to produce these kawaii works of art housed in a British manor house teddy bear studio of all places. Rumour has it there is also a life-size Totoro here from My Neighbor Totoro!
If you love vintage cars then you should not pass up to opportunity to visit the Nasu Classic Car Museum which has an eclectic collection of US power muscles cars , practical Japanese transport and sexy Euro sports cars. With cars dating all the way back to the 1901 De Dion Bouton, this is one thing to see in Nasu car lovers should not skip!
Open year-round, the Kannon-numa Forest Park is a paradise for bird lovers who want to wander around numerous parts through picturesque marshes backed my mystical mountains. The perfect place to relax and reconnect with nature in peace and quiet.
How could a trip to Nasu be complete without scaling its namesake mountain” Mount Nasudake. Take the Nasu Ropeway followed by a leisurely 45 minute hike to the summit (or for the more adventurous scale the entire mountain on foot) to be rewarded with jaw-dropping views – especially during the Azalea bloom in late May or the autumn colours come from early October. There is also a few onsens around its base if you’re still looking to try out the best hot springs near Tokyo.
Surely one of the weirdest museums in Japan, the Nasu Stained Glass Museum shaped like a British aristocracy manor house or castle exhibited antique stained glass from the 1800s. There is also the St. Gabriel Chapel which has concerts on weekends and antique pipe organ music every day. The on site cafe also offers a traditional British meal with tea to complete the experience.
Had enough of nature? The Nasu Highland Park has 10 roller coats and 30 other rides and attractions that are sure to get your adrenaline pumping! While it is not DisneySea in Tokyo (the best Disney Park in the world) – it’s cheaper and far less stressful too!
What would a trip to Japan in the winter be without some skiing? While it’s not the biggest ski resort in Japan, Mt Jeans Ski Resort Nasu is one of the closest to Tokyo nestled into the slopes of Nasu-dake Mountain. With 1 gondola and 6 lifts, it’s probably not worth it to plan your entire holiday in Nasu Japan around skiing – but why not hit the slopes for a day since you are already here right!