Whether you spend time soaking in spring water in a mountain retreat, discovering traditional culture and temples, skiing the deepest powder in Hokkaido, relaxing on a beach in Okinawa or people-watching in Tokyo’s trendy districts, a holiday in Japan offers the ultimate tourism experience.
Being an enormously varied and diverse country, it is impossible to sum up Japan in an article. For many, Japan is a byword for modernity; famous for its huge cities packed with crowds, skyscrapers, futuristic architecture and flashing neon signs; for others it is steeped in history and tradition. Here is a round-up of some of the must-visit places and experiences awaiting travelers to Japan…
With a tide of energy sweeping it, Tokyo is simply breathtaking. It is a vibrant hub of modern civilisation, constantly buzzing with activity. Unlike many cities, Tokyo has no real ‘city centre’ to speak of. Instead it has a multitude of smaller ‘centres’, reflecting the way that neighbouring towns have been gradually absorbed into the metropolis to create the sprawling urban mass one sees today. Each of these districts has its own unique character, meaning that Tokyo really is a city of infinite faces, with infinite power to amuse and entertain.
One may begin the day in Asakusa, the city’s traditional district with the red Senso-ji Temple and quaint shopping street lined with stalls; then move on via Akihabara ‘electric town’ to finish in the towering neon business and entertainment hub of Shinjuku. You could spend the morning taking in the park and museums of the Ueno district before taking a sweeping monorail ride across the bay to Odaiba Island; the pinnacle of futuristic kitsch. Or perhaps you might hit the shops in the up-market Ginza area; snap a picture at the famous scramble crossing at Shibuya; and check out the outlandish fashions in Harajuku before heading out for a night on the town in Roppongi. The options are endless…
Just half an hour from Tokyo, Japan’s second-largest city is where Commodore Perry first landed in 1853, demanding Japan end its 300-year policy of self-isolation and open up to foreign trade. Yokohama soon grew into one of Asia’s major ports, and remains a popular international city today.
Many of the sights in Yokohama are based around the waterfront, giving it a sense of space that Tokyo lacks and contributing to the city’s more laid-back, cosmopolitan atmosphere. Minato Mirai, or “harbour of the future”, is the innovative and ever-changing heart of the area, featuring modern shopping malls, a fascinating maritime museum and a museum of modern art.
One of the most interesting places in the city is Sankei-en Garden, a haven of peace in the big city. The landscaped grounds include a collection of historic buildings, including an elegant daimyo (feudal lord) residence, several teahouses, and the main hall and three-storeyed pagoda of Kyoto’s old Tomyo-ji Temple. A wealthy silk merchant constructed this traditional Japanese garden, with the small rivers, flowers and wonderful winding trails suggesting the hidden corners of traditional Kyoto rather than this ultramodern metropolis.
Kyoto is a city full of hidden gems. It is home to everything associated with traditional Japan: striking temples, mysterious geisha, sacred tea ceremony, Zen rock gardens, imperial palaces, refined cuisine, ornate kimono, bamboo groves, street-corner shrines and lively festivals.
Kyoto was founded in 794 as Japan’s capital and the home of Emperor Kanmu. Situated in a flat plateau, surrounded on three sides by mountains and bisected by the River Kamo, the city was laid out as a grid system in the tradition of Tang China. As the city fell prey to the inevitable evils of overcrowding, plagues and natural disasters; a plethora of temples and shrines with their attendant rituals and festivals – designed to placate the spirit world – were born. Many of these rituals survive largely unchanged to this day, and travellers can see them being played out on their appointed date every year.
This is the Japan which most tourists don’t know exists, a haven of truly outstanding natural beauty, home to wild bears (rarely seen), monkeys (keen to exhibit themselves), and many other varieties of animal and bird life. Situated more than 2,000 metres above sea level in the centre of the northern Japan Alps, Kamikochi is a national park of stunning natural beauty. Kamikochi found fame in prominent Japanese Novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa novel Kappa, and was given national park status in 1934 after Prince Chubusangaku himself climbed Okuhotakadake and Yarigatake mountains from Kamikochi.
A couple of nights here will give one the chance to enjoy some hiking, followed by a dip or two in the rotenburo, an outside hot-spring bath.
Nara is perhaps Japan’s friendliest and greenest city. The quiet town sits on the edge of a sprawling park providing a picture perfect backdrop for the magnificent temples and shrines including Todaiji, home of the huge Dai-butsu statue of Buddha.
Yet Nara wasn’t always so peaceful and laid-back. The city’s turbulent history began in the 700s when the city was founded under Tang Dynasty China. As the final destination on the Silk Road, Nara rapidly absorbed ideas form China, Central Asia and Persia becoming the grand diocese of Buddhism in Japan. Perhaps inevitably for a place of such religious importance, Nara was many times the victim of warring samurai clans and monk disputes with several great fires razing the city.
Today, the most famous tourist attraction is Todai-ji Temple; the world’s largest wooden building which houses a mighty bronze daibutsu or giant Buddha statue. More than 2,600,000 people are believed to have helped build Todai-ji during Nara’s brief 74 year reign as Japan’s capital. The project nearly bankrupted Japan at the time, using most of the nation’s bronze supply.
Nara’s most infamous inhabitants are the 1,200 shika or deer. Today the deer are protected by city law and wander freely around Nara Park happily feeding on deer biscuits bought by tourists or brazenly interrupting family picnics! The deer have become Nara’s symbol.
Osaka is the beating heart of the Kansai region – Japan’s second biggest industrial area with an output rivalling that of Australia. This is modern Japan writ large: massive crowds, huge department stores, karaoke boxes, bars, restaurants and clubs one on top of the other.
Osaka has all the galleries and museums one would expect of a large city – but the best way to experience the character of the place is on the street and in the buzzing, larger-than-life entertainment quarters.
Osaka is one of the best places to try Japanese food – whether it’s octopus balls from a street-side stand, okonomiyaki savoury pancakes (a regional speciality), or some of best sushi in the world.
In addition to food and drink, Osaka has an impressive clutch of attractions to keep the visitor entertained. The Ring of Fire Aquarium, for instance, is one of Japan’s very best – exhibiting creatures from the volcanic regions encircling the Pacific.
Universal Studios Japan is located just a short distance out of the city, boasting the newly opened Harry Potter World amongst other interesting film sets, and at the unusual Instant Ramen Museum guests can have a go at creating their own cup noodle. Finally, for those who enjoy a good soak in a Japanese hot spring, Osaka Spa World – Japan’s premier onsen theme park – is an absolute must.
Set in the mountainous countryside just to the South of Mt. Fuji, Hakone offers a curious mix of different attractions. Whether you wish to bathe in the onsen waters, admire views of Mt. Fuji, eat eggs boiled in sulphurous springs, visit world class art museums, or simply relax, Hakone has it all.
Onsen houses proliferate throughout the region, which is criss-crossed by a collection of ropeways, cable-cars and funicular railways linking the many small communities and a wide variety of museums, from the outdoor sculpture park with works by Henry Moore, Miro, Maillol and Rodin to a Ferrari exhibition hall.
On clear days the ropeways provide spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, and of course away in the distance the imperious Mt. Fuji – one of the world’s most famous mountains and perhaps the most recognizable symbol of Japan.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is an important Shinto in southern Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, which straddle a network of trails behind its main buildings. The trails lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari, which stands at 233 meters and belongs to the shrine grounds.
Japanese food is surely the most subtle, intricate and varied cuisine in the world and an essential part of any Japan adventure. Japanese cuisine, or washoku, has just been added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. French food is the only other national cuisine on the list – although certain Turkish and Mexican dishes are recognised. And Tokyo has again been crowned the city with more Michelin stars than anywhere else in the world.
Eating out in Japan is as much about the experience as the food. Many Japanese restaurants specialise in one particular type of food and there are countless different styles including the famous kaiten-zushi restaurants.
Others include restaurants that specialise in skewers (kushiyaki), ramen (noodles in a broth), tempura (deep-fried fish or vegetables), cook-your-own Korean-style BBQ (usually with a hotplate in the table), teriyaki (marinated beef/chicken/fish seared on a hot plate), sukiyaki (thin slices of beef, bean curd and vegetables cooked in soy sauce and then dipped in egg) etc. The list goes on. Don’t miss the festival food, which offers an array of interesting eats including takoyaki (small pieces of octopus cooked in a bread dough-like dumpling), kakigori (shaved ice) and okonomiyaki to name a few.
The living embodiment of Japan’s traditional and cultural heritage.
For many people the quintessential image of Japan is a graceful geisha in an exquisite kimono darting through a sliding screen door into a traditional teahouse. It’s a scene that embodies both the geisha’s beauty and mystery, as the geisha and their maiko apprentices move almost in secret through a world largely hidden behind closed doors.
Geisha are essentially artists: highly skilled in traditional arts such as fan dancing and shamisen playing, and masters of wordplay and social etiquette. Although geisha numbers have dropped dramatically since their heyday in the 1920s, in today’s Japan, they are also the caretakers of these traditions making sure time-honoured Japanese arts and crafts are not lost.
The majority of geisha live and work in Kyoto and are known as geiko in the local dialect. Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district with a large concentration of ochaya tea houses where the geiko entertain guests most evenings. Not just anyone can enter an ochaya however; in traditional Japanese society, hierarchy and social connections are everything and most Japanese will never have the honour of an official invitation.
Japan’s unofficial national flower is sakura or cherry blossom, and the annual appearance of the blossom in late March or early April is front page news. When the trees turn pink, the Japanese grab picnic blankets and rush to the parks to take photos, drink sake and relax, a custom known as hanami (literally “seeing flowers”). The fleeting nature of sakura (the blossoms are at their peak for around a week) strikes a deep chord in the Japanese psyche. In the days of the samurai, sakura represented the short life of a warrior often cut off in its prime. In today’s Japan, sakura serves as a reminder of the power of nature, the changing of the seasons and that life may be all too short.
Onsen hot spring baths
For centuries the Japanese have harnessed the therapeutic powers of naturally occurring hot springs across the archipelago.
Even today communal bathing in hot spring baths is a huge part of Japanese culture; a way to connect with nature and one another, as it is said that friendships are best cemented in the steamy secrecy of an onsen.
Hot spring baths come in different varieties from baths made of rocks and cypress wood, to tiny city sento bathhouses. Many onsen belong to ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) while others are public bathhouses. There are even gigantic onsen theme parks where you can while away a whole day in endless saunas, steam rooms, Jacuzzis and baths of salts and minerals, green tea and red wine (we kid you not).
The best baths are outside and nothing could be more relaxing than feeling the fresh air on your face, the mineral water on your skin while you soak up views of open skies, rivers and mountains.
Samurai and the way of the warrior
For those interested in Japanese history, samurai culture and the role this military class played in shaping Japan is a fascinating one.
Although samurai no longer exist, the influence of these great warriors still manifests itself deeply in Japanese culture and samurai heritage can be seen all over Japan – be it a great castle, a carefully planned garden, or beautifully preserved samurai residences. It is also deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Japanese people.
The basis of samurai conduct is bushido, “the way of the warrior”. This unique philosophy valued honour, reckless bravery and selflessness, as well as duty to the warrior’s master with the purpose of giving up one’s life and embracing death.
There was no place for fear in the way of the warrior and this conduct of self discipline and respectful, ethical behaviour was to become the role model behaviour for other classes throughout Japan’s history.
Discover the ritual of the ‘Way of Tea’.
Though many people drink tea
If you do not know the Way of Tea
Tea will drink you up – famous Japanese haiku by Sen no Rikyu
Could there be anything more Japanese than peeling back a sliding screen door, kneeling on a tatami mat floor and slowly learning the revered art of the tea ceremony? The ancient rituals surrounding the preparation and presentation of macha powdered green tea date back to the 12th century when Buddhist monks began using tea in religious ceremonies. Later the practice spread to samurai warriors in their aim to bring a concentrated level of awareness to everyday activities. There is certainly a controlled meditative element to the tea ceremony and the carefully prescribed movements are based on 4 principles: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.