If you don’t have much time (or money for Shinkansen tickets), but want to explore some of the old and rural parts of Japan outside Tokyo, look no further than the Tama area.
Known for the Tama River, mountains, and small towns with rich history from the Edo era, Tama is only 90 minutes west of Shinjuku and Shibuya. It is super accessible, but at the same time it is definitely still “off the beaten track” for most tourists.
We ventured over for a weekend to explore the historical town of Hino and get out onto the Tama River, which is loved by locals as a place for relaxation and refreshment.
Things to do in Tama: A day trip made easy
Here is how we recommend spending a day in the Tama area—these guided tours will ensure you have a full, memorable experience.
Start with a Hino walking tour and udon-making experience
Kick off your explorations with a walking tour, followed by udon making, in Hino. This is the hometown of the Shinsengumi, the samurai police formed at the end of the Edo era to protect the Imperial Household.
Some of the main members of the Shinsengumi were born and trained in the Tama area—the most famous of all being Toshizo Hijikata. During your stroll through Hino, you will come across his (rather handsome) face several times.
On this tour, you will first visit Hosenji Temple. This temple was founded around 1330 and is a classic example of Zen Buddhism, Japan’s version of the religion that originally came from China.
After the temple, you will pass through a Shinto shrine called Yasaka Shrine on your way to Hinojuku Honjin. The town embraces its samurai police history, and the modern interpretation of these obviously rather cool dudes in anime form is plastered all over the entrance hall of the historical-inn-turned-museum—a contrast one can only find in Japan.
Time to get some food! Your guide will take you to the supermarket to shop for udon and tempura ingredients. Then you’ll head to his parents’ udon shop to prepare the meal. This shop is one of the last to make their udon noodles from scratch.
Before getting started, you’ll need to don traditional kitchenwear over your outfit and tie a bandana in the traditional Japanese style. Kneading and rolling udon dough is hard work, but you get to try your hand at it together with the shop owner. Once done, you hand-cut your own udon before learning how to boil the noodles to perfection.
While your noodles are lightly boiling in the corner, it is time to batter and fry the tempura. When we were there, the shop owners prepared a delicious spread with shiso leaves, prawns, bamboo shoots and other tasty morsels.
While frying the tempura is actually easier than anticipated, the hard part is arranging the food into a beautiful creation. The shop owner is great at explaining how to style an aesthetically pleasing creation (tip: reach for the sky and don’t be afraid to pile!) and when setting the table, you are rewarded with that incredibly satisfying feeling of “I made this!”
Who should book this tour?
This is great for people who are interested in learning more about Japanese history and want to pick up some Japanese cooking skills at the same time. It can make a nice contrast to sightseeing in central Tokyo.
The tour is family-run: the son leads the walking tour, guiding you in fluent English, while the parents teach you how to make udon and tempura. This makes it a perfect choice for those who want to interact with Japanese people.
The tour takes around three and a half hours in total. Hino Station is about 30 minutes from Shinjuku Station on the Chuo Line, and the train fare costs ¥490 one way. Booking link.
Before you head back, hit the river
We suggest rounding off your day in Tama with a canoeing trip at sundown.
Sunset canoeing on the Tama River
Your guide will meet you at Izumi Tamagawa Station. From there, it is a five-minute walk down to the banks of the Tama River. After a short briefing, you’ll find yourself on the water.
The nice thing about canoeing, compared to kayaking, is that you stay a lot drier and have lots of space to store your belongings in the boat. Even if you have never canoed before, it is extremely easy to learn. Your guide will be in the canoe with you (or in a canoe next to you, depending on the number of people), and Tama is actually a very gently flowing river.
Even though it is just 30 minutes from Shinjuku and Shibuya, all you hear on the water is the flow of the river and the sound of paddles dipping in. With a bit of luck, you will also spot some wildlife on this tour: Tama River is home to herons, kingfishers and dragonflies, with frogs croaking in the reeds, carps swimming below and bats circling overhead at dusk.
The busy bridges you pass under and the urban cityscape visible in the distance offer a nice contrast to the green riverbanks and islets.
Who should book this tour?
The canoeing excursion is a short and sweet activity for those that want to get physical and include some nature in their trip. You can easily combine it with other activities in the Tama area.
This tour is offered in the morning (April to October), or late afternoon for the sunset (all-year round). A soft drink and a short coffee break on one of the river islets are included. Booking Link.
The tour takes around 90 minutes in total. Izumi Tamagawa Station is 30 minutes from Shinjuku on the Odakyu Line, costing ¥260 one way. Make sure to take the local train!
Check out more Tama activities.
You should have enough time to get back to central Tokyo before trains stop running, but if you want to spend the night in Tama, the Keio Plaza Hotel comes recommended.