Beat the heat of Tokyo with a trip to the Nippara Limestone Caves
By ALLEN ONSTOTT | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 7, 2018
Far from the hustle and bustle of downtown Tokyo lie the Nippara Limestone Caves — featuring one of the largest caves in the Kanto region, formed millions of years ago, which now draws visitors seeking a cool escape from the city.
Located in the mountainous Okutama region of western Tokyo, the Nippara Limestone Caves are reachable in 90 minutes by car from Yokota Air Base or 2 ½ hours via public transportation from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station.
The caves remain at around 52 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius) — making these natural wonders a perfect respite from the hot, humid Tokyo summers.
The drive to the caves is its own adventure, taking travelers along mountain roads that wind through several small towns surrounded by lush greenery. A portion of the journey includes a drive through Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, which covers nearly 480 square miles and contains numerous hiking trails, as well as several shrines.
Avid hikers might want to consider making a pit stop in the park to walk a portion of the Kanto Fureai no Michi Trail — a long-distance nature trail that passes through seven prefectures in the Kanto region. The trail features landscape dominated by towering white rocks and stunning views of pine trees, lakes and several rapids.
A word of warning: Do not wait to visit an ATM after passing through the small town of Okutama, as the town’s post office provides the last chance to grab some cash. Reaching the Nippara Limestone Caves requires a 30-minute drive or bus ride past Okutama — and, while several towns lie between Okutama and the caves, none of these villages is equipped with an ATM. Bicycle rentals are also available in Okutama. However, the road to the cave from here is quite steep and narrow, which might be a challenge for less-experienced riders.
When approaching the caves, be sure to cross straight over the nearby bridge where the road dead ends into a parking lot. (Turning left after the bridge leads to a public fishing area.) A staircase next to the parking lot leads down to the caves’ entrance. Although parking is free on weekdays, on weekends and during holiday seasons, there is a 500-yen fee to park for three hours.
A splendid waterfall separates the area where visitors pay for park entry and the actual cave entrance, and a small shop selling food is also nearby. Several hiking trails also begin near the cave, which make for a nice addition to a visit to the area.
Upon entering the caves, visitors are met with a cool breeze and a bit of a tight squeeze, as the initial portion of the cave is quite narrow. However, at the end of the entrance, which extends for about 300 feet, the cavern opens up and offers plenty of headroom in the expanse above.
Here, visitors can choose whether to venture left or right into the cave’s various caverns. A map is available for the path on the right, but it’s in Japanese only. Fortunately, the paths all lead back to the cavern opening, making it highly unlikely you’ll get lost while exploring. After walking a half-mile into the cave, visitors will reach the largest limestone rock formation, which is illuminated by colorful lights. The central steps cut into the rock lead to a white Bodhisattva statue.
The cave has a long history dating back to the Kamakura era as a sacred ground for Shugendo, a religious practice of mountain worship in Japan drawn from both Buddhist and Shinto concepts.
During your trek, watch your step climbing the steel ladders located throughout the caves. Though reminiscent of the vast engineering spaces of an aircraft carrier, one slip on the steps will certainly lead to a nasty fall.
Although the cave is scarce on delicate and intricate formations, taking a few breaks to enjoy the breathtaking view of the ancient stalactites and stalagmites is an enjoyable experience. When the cave is quiet, the chamber echoes of dripping water from the condensation falling from the rocks overhead.
The caves extend about 2,625 feet into the mountain and take about 30 minutes to walk through. It’s certainly not the most amazing cave in the world — but it’s an interesting attraction, and a great way to enjoy a bit of nature without venturing too far from Tokyo.
Nippara Limestone Caves
DIRECTIONS: Driving from Yokota Air Base, take Route 411 headed toward Okutama. Once arriving in Okutama, turn onto Route 204, which leads directly to the caves. Via public transportation, take the JR Ome Line to Ome, and transfer to JR Ome Line trains continuing on to Okutama Station. From Okutama Station, take the No. 20 bus (weekdays only) bound directly for the caves and walk about 5 minutes from the bus’ final stop; or take the No. 21 bus (weekends, holidays and during August) to Higashi-Nippara, which requires a 25-minute walk to reach the cave entrance. Both buses cost 460 yen each way and leave once an hour from the bus stops outside Okutama Station.
TIMES: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. April through November; 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. December through March
COSTS: Adults, 700 yen (about $6.50); middle school students, 500 yen; elementary school children and younger, 400 yen
FOOD: A small food stand is located near the caves, but it’s probably best to stock up on snacks or visit a restaurant while in Okutama.