My feet are sore from a busy couple of days in Tokyo. Fortunately, most of this morning’s itinerary involves being seated on trains. The next stop on Intrepid’s Japan Highlights tour sees our small group of travellers step into the slow lane, swapping the somewhat manic metropolis for green tea fields and mountains.

The shinkansen (bullet train) is taking us from Tokyo to Shizuoka station, and we might get a glimpse of Mount Fuji along the way. “There’s a bit of a joke that Fuji doesn’t exist,” our peppy tour leader Yuki says with a giggle. “Whenever you want to see it, it’s covered in clouds. Not today, though!” I’m on the wrong side of the train to see it through my window and crane my head over the aisle to catch a glimpse. “You’ll get a better view on tomorrow’s hike,” she reassures me.

It’s the first of today’s three train trips, plus one bus ride: the usual Scenic Train is under maintenance, so we’re taking two alternative lines in its place. The deeper into the train network we get, the more the colour choices give away the spotless carriages’ ages. The train we board from Shizuoka Station has yellow and pink accents – soaked in morning sun, it looks like a Wes Anderson prop. It takes us to Kanaya Station, where we board our third and final train for the day, painted marigold yellow with orange corduroy chairs, white lace headrests and yellow chequered curtains. We’re deep in the countryside now and, unlike the more modern trains, I hear the tracks clack beneath us as tea farms with flushes of leaves ready for the mid-May harvest pass by.

Never miss a moment. Make sure you're subscribed to our newsletter today.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

As we approach Ieyama Station, the train zips past a cluster of small statues by the tracks. It brings up the image of Chihiro, from Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, gripping her bouquet in the back of the car as a Dōsojin statue glares from the shrubs. Thankfully these were playful tanuki statues: raccoons with famously big balls and bigger bellies.

After the trains, we take a bus to Shimoizumi, where we have lunch at a soba noodle restaurant. Alongside being famous for tea, the Shizuoka region is also a major grower of the Japanese citrus yuzu. Mitsuboshimura can add it to any meal, and it also serves a yuzu beer. Naturally, I order yuzu-salted soba noodles, along with a bitter yuzu sorbet for dessert.

After lunch, Yuki leads us up the steep streets towards a local tea farm run by a husband-and-wife duo. The husband has built everything here himself, from the gazebo and main house to a new-looking stone terrace. “I made it look like Spain. I really want to go one day,” he says excitedly. The wife pours everyone a series of green teas from the farm: some are grown in partial shade, some under cover, and others are fermented.

The husband leads us through the tea processing factory up to a vantage point overlooking the Ōi River. Among the rows of tea plants he’s built a stage and a freestanding pink Anywhere Door from the manga series Doraemon. Set against a nature backdrop and leading nowhere, it adds to the whimsical nature of this leg of the trip.

Back in the courtyard, our Intrepid group is partnered with farmstay hosts who’ll drive us to their guesthouses. Later, the American couple send pictures of their stay in a cabin by the river where their host plays the piano for them, while the Irish couple and two solo travellers send snaps of themselves learning to make sushi. The region has several onsen or natural hot springs, and a couple of our pals visit one that would’ve taken 40 minutes by bus, but to which their local host happily drives them on the way to their lodgings.

Our gentle, bespectacled host Kyoko takes us to a different hot spring, Kawane Onsen Fureai no Izumi, on our way to her ryokan, a traditional Japanese guesthouse. Broadsheet photographer Yusuke and I move between four different baths, ranging from 36 degrees Celsius to the hottest, a 45-degree pool.

Kyoko is waiting in the car park, and we take another detour – this time to Yume no Tsuribashi suspension bridge. Local kids are known to ride their bikes across it, but I’m happier to walk the wobbly 90 metres to the small home on the other side, where some of us try on kimono. I linger in the foyer, a knick-knack store filled with vintage cameras, old-school candy, toys and trains.

We finally arrive at Inishie no Kaze (“ancient wind”), the refurbished 90-year-old traditional house Kyoko runs with her husband Katsuya Inomata. It’s right in front of a petite wooden train station, and the Oigawa Railway tracks that run through it are out of action due to typhoon damage (they reopened on June 8), so we walk along them and get a closer look at the tunnels. A few metres off, there’s a freestanding 11-metre tunnel known as Japan’s shortest (and arguably cutest) tunnel. I can’t understand a purpose for it, but it’s almost a scene out of a fantasy picture book with shrubs and wildflowers growing off the top.

Further down the tracks, a long tunnel is carved into the forest-covered hill. I can’t see a light at the end of it, and have no idea how deep it is. I wonder if it might lead me to a banquet, like the kind that lured Chihiro’s parents beyond the Red Gate tunnel in Spirited Away. There’s a stillness here; the breeze is the only thing I hear until Kyoko’s wooden sandals clack along the concrete terminal as she waves us back for dinner.

The homestay’s foyer is decorated in photos of local locomotives and Thomas the Tank Engine pictures. A pair of soot sprite plushies from My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away peer from the ceiling corner, almost breaking the fourth wall of this Hayao Miyazaki-coded experience. Kyoko has prepared skewered mackerel, poking out of the hearth sand and leaning over the hot coals. She brings out a suribachi (ridged mortar-like ceramic bowl) and instructs us to grate yamaimo (raw yams) into a sticky paste called tororo, then whip egg, miso and fish into the gooey foam, which we add over our rice and soup.

The next day, we share one final breakfast with Kyoko and her husband (grilled fish, soup, tamago rolls, soybeans and konnyaku) before catching a train from Kawane to Kusanagi, where we hike through the forest to the Nihondaira observation deck. At the top, we get a postcard-worthy view of Mount Fuji, with clear skies save for a single cloud that drifts past. It almost looks like a dragon’s breath.

Getting away from popular cities while travelling is easier said than done, but with the knowledgeable Yuki guiding my group through the complicated rail network, I’ve been able to experience a side of Japan I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. The minute details of the trip are all coordinated by Intrepid, meaning we were able to focus on just enjoying it all.

In the sky, a soaring plane heads towards Mount Fuji Shizuoka Airport. My train-fuelled fever dream and Ghibli-esque fantasy ends when I’m reminded that air travel exists. Our eight-day journey through Japan continues as we head to Kyoto.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Intrepid Travel. Intrepid’s Japan Highlights tour is a fully guided eight-day trip that includes all transport and accommodation. Starting in Tokyo and finishing in Osaka, it takes in city and country – including a farmstay and some gentle hikes. Find out more here.