Places to visit in Japan
Although Japan is made up of over 6,800 islands, for most people, Japan ‘proper’ is actually four main islands known as the ‘home islands’, which make up 97% of Japan’s land mass. The vast majority of family travellers spend their time on the central and most populous island, Honshu, (where you’ll find the capital city, Tokyo, as well as Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima). However, you can also visit the islands of Hokkaido, Kyushu and, if you’re wanting a real ‘off the beaten track experience, Shikoku, too.
As the world’s largest city, you could spend literally weeks in Tokyo and not see it all. A buzzing metropolis with a population hooked on the latest gadgetry and trends, you’ll be fascinated by its people, business men in suits, teenagers dressed as manga characters, kimono wearing geishas as much as by its districts, underground and shops. It’s also a place where ancient meets up-to-the-minute modern, with the Meiji Shrine located in large, leafy parkland offering a welcome retreat from the hectic, bustling streets. Some of our favourite places include the Sky Tree, a huge tower in the heart of the city which offers panoramic views, the district of Harajuku, the spiritual home for Japan’s pop culture, where teenagers dress as their favourite manga and anime characters – a complete contrast to the Champs Elysee of Tokyo, Omote-Sando, a broad, tree-lined avenue with fashion’s best flagship stores.
There are several places just outside Tokyo which are deserving of day trips in their own right. If you’re wanting to get away from it all (and after a hectic few days, most will!), then Nikko National Park is a must. Famed for its stunning natural beauty and imposing shrines (The Toshogu Shine is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Nikko has been a centre for Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for centuries. The shrine buildings are amongst the most beautiful in Japan, surrounded by a large park.
The Japanese also love their theme parks and you can find everything from aquatic centres to zoos to the ultimate theme park of all: Disneyland and Universal Studios, Tokyo. If you’ve had enough of the crowds, though, then the weirdly wonderful Studio Ghibli Museum, dedicated to the films of Hayao Miyazaki is a goodie, as is the railway museum (more interesting than it sounds) at Saitama, with many models and hands-on activities here.
Another option, just 100 kilometres west from Tokyo (flies by with a bullet train), is an area called Fuji Five Lakes, the centrepiece being Mt Fuji, or Fuji San as it is known. A true icon of Japan, and, at 3,776 metres Japan’s highest mountain, it’s best visited between October and April when Japan’s most revered volcano’s upper reaches are capped in snow.
Nagano and Shibu Onsen
North of Tokyo lies the city of Nagano, the gateway to the Jijokudani Park where you can see snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs, again, another iconic Japanese image. This is even better to see in real life, with the steaming water surrounding the monkey’s often snow-flake covered heads.
A short bus ride away is the small town of Shibu Onsen, a lovely place to explore on foot and also where you yourself can visit one of the hot springs for a gloriously soothing dip.
The Nakasendo Trail
It takes five days to walk the entire length of the Nakasendo Trail, Japan’s feudal network of highways linking Tokyo (and the ancient capital of Edo) to Kyoto. Luckily, you can just do a section of this peaceful cobbled path, following in the footsteps of samurai and dignitaries into the beautifully picturesque countryside whilst staying in a traditional ryokan at night.
Kyoto and Nara
Japan’s cultural centre for hundreds of years, Kyoto has a whopping seventeen World Heritage Sites, the most properties in any one city, each of which is magnificent. Visit the 17th century Nijo castle, the impressive past home of the Tokugawa Shogun before heading to Ryoanji, famous for its UNESCO protected world heritage zen gardens, many of which have been featured in a wide range of films. Kinkakaju is a gold covered lakeside pavilion, originally built as a summer house for the Shogun which, although beautiful at any time of year is best in seen in autumn, when the acers which surround it turn to deep orange and red.
Kyoto itself is a delight to wander through, catching glimpses of traditional geishas in the Gion district and generally soaking up the atmosphere. In Toei Kyoto Studio Park, you can observe the filming of period dramas, where there’s a street built in the design of the Edo period so you catch a glimpse of a Japan long since passed.
Kids will also love the Samurai and Ninja museum, or perhaps taking part in a kimono tea ceremony.
Just outside Kyoto is Japan’s first capital, Nara, where you’ll find a huge wooden building housing the Great Buddha statue before exploring the park in the middle of town where the deer roam free. En route, there’s one of Kyoto’s most photographed shines, Fushimi Inari with thousands of torri gates that line the temple’s sacred mountain trails.
Western Honshu’s largest city, Hiroshima, needs little introduction. The place where the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6th, 1945, it still attracts millions of tourists. They come to pay respects and homage to those who were affected, as well as visit the Peace Park and Museum for some sobering, if fascinating history. Today, the city has rebuilt and is now a modern, vibrant place.
Osaka and Miyajima
Osaka, a large port city, is one of the liveliest in Japan, with late opening restaurants and street food stalls, a busy city centre and modern architecture to discover. There’s an aquarium for kids to visit, but most people head for the 16th century shogunate Osaka Castle, its main historical landmark which is surrounded by a moat, and park with plum, peach and cherry trees.
Just outside Osaka is the island of Miyajima, renowned for its large red shrine gate, the Grande Tori, which looks like it’s floating on the waters of the Seto Inland Sea. A ropeway to the top of a mountain on the island provides stunning views of the nearby islands.
If the thought of being surrounded by white, sandy beaches and azure blue waters appeals to you, then the islands of Okinawa (known as a portal between Japan and the tropics) is a great place to head to after the joys of Honshu. 160 islands but with only 49 populated, this is the place the Japanese come for their beach holidays and who can blame them? Alongside coral reefs and world-class beaches, Okinawa is also the birthplace of Karate and known for the longevity of its citizens. It is thought that this can be attributed to the food and the mild climate.
Although Japan’s second largest island, a mere five percent of Japan’s population live here and it was only 150 years ago that the island was inhabited at all. As such, Hokkaido is famed as an unspoilt frontier, where nature rules supreme. Over seventy percent of the island is forested, the six national parks gigantic, wildlife rich and varied and a great way to escape the hectic pace of ‘modern’ Japan. This is where you’ll find the best ski-ing (there’s snow and ice festivals here, too), active volcanoes and hot springs. The stylish capital, Sapporo can be found here, too.
Japan’s third largest island is a holiday destination in its own right, requiring at least two weeks to take in its cities and many, many natural charms. Here, you can hike around the rim of the world’s largest caldera, take walks, see cedar trees which predate Christianity, go surfing, visit Kumamoto castle and its landscaped gardens, see active volcanos and visit Nagasaki, not just for its A-bomb museum but it’s laid back, harbourside setting and cosmopolitan feel. A real alternative to the typical Honshu holiday.
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Japan in pictures
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