Places to visit in Japan
Although Japan is made up of over 6,800 islands, for most people, Japan ‘proper’ is actually the four main islands that 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. This is 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. There are business men in suits, teenagers dressed as manga characters and kimono wearing geishas. It’s also a place where ancient meets up-to-the-minute modern. Evoking old Japan, the Meiji Shrine is located in large, leafy parkland offering a welcome retreat from the hectic, bustling streets. On the more futuristic end of the spectrum, the vast SkyTree tower is in the heart of the city offers panoramic views. Popular with children is the district of Harajuku, the spiritual home for Japan’s pop culture. Here teenagers dress as their favourite manga and anime characters, a complete contrast to Omote-Sando. This is the Champs Elysee of Tokyo, 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, 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 here is 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. This is where you can see snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs, another iconic Japanese image. This is even better to see in real life, with the steaming water surrounding the monkey’s often snowflake covered heads.
A short bus ride away is the small town of Shibu Onsen, a lovely place to explore on foot. 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. This is Japan’s feudal network of highways that link Tokyo and Kyoto, the ancient capital of Edo. Luckily, you can hike just a section of this peaceful cobbled path, following in the footsteps of samurai and dignitaries. The route takes you into beautifully picturesque countryside, 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. This is more than any other city and each of them is magnificent.
Top of the list is the 17th century Nijo castle, the impressive past home of the Tokugawa Shogun. Also popular is Ryoanji, famous for its UNESCO protected world heritage zen gardens, many of which have been featured in a wide range of films.
Another highlight is Kinkakaju, a gold covered lakeside pavilion. This was originally built as a summer house for the Shogun. Although beautiful at any time of year, this 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. You can also explre 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. It has 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. This is the city’s main historical landmark and it is surrounded by a moat and a park full of plum, peach and cherry trees.
Just outside Osaka is the island of Miyajima, renowned for its large red shrine gate, the Grande Tori. This 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 you might like to consider visiting the islands of Okinawa. 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.
(Please note that the islands of Okinawa are very expensive both to get to and to stay on, and therefore will add considerably to the cost of your trip).
Although Japan’s second largest island, a mere five percent of Japan’s population live here. Indeed, 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 and the six national parks are gigantic, wildlife rich and varied. This is a great way to escape the hectic pace of ‘modern’ Japan. It’s also where you’ll find the best skiing (there’s snow and ice festivals here, too), active volcanoes and hot springs.
Japan’s third largest island is a holiday destination in its own right. It requires 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 and see cedar trees which predate Christianity. You can go surfing, visit Kumamoto castle and its landscaped gardens, see active volcanos and visit Nagasaki. This is a great place for second-time visitors to Japan.
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Japan in pictures
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