Top 10, a quick overview
- Tokyo and its vicinity (Nikko, Kamakura, Yokohama)
- Kyoto and its vicinity (Nara, Mount Koya)
- Mountains: Mount Fuji
- Three most beautiful spots (Nihon Sankei): Miyajima, Matsushima, Amanohashidate
- Castle: Himeji
- Onsen: Nyuto
- Park: Shiretoko
- Beach: Izu peninsula
- Remote Islands: Yaeyama
- Old towns: Takayama & Kanazawa
Tokyo is not a city to be visited for its traditions, but is still full of wonderful places to be discovered. Popular districts to be explored include Ginza (for the shopping), Akihabara (for those who love anime, or who hope to find some cheap electronics), Shibuya (for the nightlife and the Japanese fashion addicts), Shinjuku (for its bustling nightlife), Harajuku (on a Sunday preferably, for the Goths and insane fashion), Asakusa (for an old atmosphere), Roppongi (if you miss seeing foreigners) and Odaiba (for the fun).
Whilst this is all common and you have probably heard of it before, there are also a few spots that are typical to Japan. For example, the Tsukiji fish market (although you need to be up at 5) is quite an impressive sight! You should come prepared with shoes that will not get soaked and be ready to make yourself as small as possible. If you get in their way, the Japanese will not be happy. Keep in mind that the tuna auction room is now closed to tourists because the flash of the cameras disrupted the auctioning process and tourists would touch the fish.
The Imperial Palace is also definitely worth a visit, although for the most part, people only access the gardens. There are visits once a month, although you must get registered first and give your passport details. These are nearly impossible to get into, and you should look for other possibilities: paid group tours.
Tokyo also has a few temples, although only three are really worth visiting: the Yasukuni shrine, Meiji shrine and Sensoji temple.
Yasukuni is dedicated to the Japanese war dead of WW2 and therefore sanctifies war criminals; thus making it a highly political and politicised shrine, responsible at times for the cooling of Sino-Japanese relations. No money will be asked of you if you only wish to visit, so do not feel like you are supporting a bad cause. It is particularly impressive on the nights of the Mitama festival, when it is lit up by thousands of lanterns.
The Meiji shrine is dedicated to the Emperor, and makes for a lovely stroll through the Yoyogi park. Although not so impressive, you might be lucky enough to witness a traditional wedding ceremony! You can easily combine this outing with a trip to Harajuku, or to Yoyogi Koen where you might be able to see the “Sunday rockers”, dressed as if they came out of a Grease movie.
Finally, the Sensoji temple is by far the most impressive to visit, as it is constantly bustling with small shops and people. The temple complex is quite big and the main hall definitely worth a sight. Come in May for the Sanja festival, when you will be guaranteed a view of Japanese traditions (and maybe get to test your skills at traditional dancing alongside the Japanese).
Finally, the Ryogoku is worth a visit. The sumo stadium comes alive three times a year in Tokyo (in January, in May and in September) and makes for a splendid event. Cheap tickets can be bought on the day but do not guarantee a seat, although you can take any vacant. It is recommended to get there early, see a few fights in the morning when you can sit right by the stage, make a long lunch break and return in the afternoon to see the higher ranking sumo and their processions. The atmosphere is unequalled and if you are lucky, you might get to meet some young sumo to practice your Japanese with over lunch.
Right outside Tokyo city are two locations both worth a visit. The first is the Ghibli museum, dedicated to Hayao Miyazaki, creator of the Ghibli films (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away...). Tickets must be bought one week before entrance, in any convenience store (combini) that has a machine. However, these are only in Japanese, but you can ask the personnel to help you. The tickets include a time at which you must be at the museum if you want to enter – this system was created to ensure that there would not be too many people inside the museum at once (and in Tokyo, museums can get very crowded).
The second location is a day-trip to Takaosan (Mount Takao), which provides a lovely hike in the mountains surrounding Tokyo. The first part only is slightly strenuous, and the way up is paved, but the colours are gorgeous and coming down is a treat through the forest.
Other spots easily accessible from Tokyo include Nikko, Kamakura and Yokohama. Nikko and Kamakura are both beautiful towns, easily accessible by train, full of temples and shrines. Nikko should preferably be visited on a two-day trip, whilst Kamakura can be seen in one day (consider visit one temple, the Great Buddha (daibutsu) and hiking in Enoshima in the early morning. Yokohama is particularly famous for its Chinatown, as it holds the port through which many Chinese goods came. Other popular attractions include the Ramen museum and the Kirin beer village.
Kyoto city is full of shrines and temples, and it would take you a lifetime to explore all of them. As such, consider the following selection as a guideline of the most popular and the most atmospheric sights in Kyoto: the Golden Pavillion (Kinkakuji, absolutely gorgeous and should not be missed under any pretence), Fushimi Inari Shrine (used as a filming location for Memoirs of a Geisha, this temple is a lovely walk in the mountains, and you get to walk through thousands of orange gates), Nijo Castle (holds astounding paintings in its rooms), Kiyomizudera (after a walk up a steep slope, you will have a lovely view of the whole of Kyoto), Gion (where you might catch a glance of a geisha, if you are lucky).
Outside Kyoto lie two other locations especially interesting for tourists: Nara and Koyasan (Mount Koya). In Nara, the Todaiji, which holds another Great Buddha, is a marvellous sight, and a walk through the neighbouring mountains or through the park are both very relaxing. You can feed the deer, although even if you don't intend on doing so, they will probably still come and see you (and eat your magazine). Mount Koya is the centre of Buddhism in Japan, and you can go there for an overnight stay in a temple. The atmosphere is very conductive to reflection and you will be given the chance to experience a monk's life for a day, or more, depending on how long you would like to stay.
Mount Fuji is the symbol of Japan, and its peak lies at 3776m of altitude. When flying over to Tokyo, you will have the chance to admire it, as you might from various locations during the winter, when the air is clearer. For two months in July and August, it is possible to hike up to the top of Fuji, a typical Japanese experience (although once on the volcano, you will realise that about a third of hikers are foreigners). It is not an easy hike, so make sure you come prepared with, at least, running shoes and many layers of jumpers.
Generally, people take a bus up to the 5th station, where you will then start your hike. Fuji is very wide at the base and is covered in a dense forest referred to as Kuroi Jukai (Black Sea of Trees) due to the high number of suicides committed there (cellphones have no signal and you can get lost very easily); for these reasons, it is perhaps best not to venture in it on your own, and instead take the bus up. As it is approximately a four-hour drive from Tokyo, it is customary to leave around 9 in the morning and to start climbing at about 1PM, until approximately 6PM, when you reach the 8th station. There, people stop for dinner and to sleep, getting up around midnight or 1AM to finish the climb and gaze upon the rising sun at the top of the mountain. Although the trail is very wide at first, the end does not allow more than a single line, and as most Japanese who attempt this hike are quite old, you might find yourself stuck between someone having a rest. The camaraderie on the volcano is impressive, but do leave with plenty of time if you do not wish to miss the sunset – one of the most beautiful views.
Japanese people have a saying – “He who climbs Fuji once is a wise man. He who climbs it twice is a fool.” and you will often hear the Japanese say, after coming back down, that Fuji is a mountain designed to be admired from afar.
Miyajima, Matsushima, Amanohashidate
Miyajima, by far the most popular of the Nihon Sankei, is close to Hiroshima. Location of the famous orange torii (gate) in the sea, it is definitely worth a visit (if only for that photo). The shrine itself – Itsukushima, is very pretty too and offers portions of a walk above the water.
Matsushima, a bay dotted with pine-clad islands of all sizes, is further up North, close to Sendai. Walking around the larger islands is definitely relaxing, and even in the summer the temperatures are rather cool. You can also take a one-hour boat cruise around the islands.
Amanohashidate, despite being the least famous of the three, is perhaps the most enthralling. The name means “a bridge to heaven” and in order to understand the meaning, you need to put your head between your legs and look behind you – try it and you will realise that it is not actually so far fetched. The clouds look like the floor of heaven, and the long bar of sand, dotted with pines, begins to look like a bridge. You can either walk down it or rent a bicycle, both of which are much fun. It is also possible to bathe here, and Amanohashidate benefits from a micro-climate slightly cooler than the rest of the region: definitely heaven during the humid summer!
Himeji castle, one of the largest in Japan, is definitely worth a sight. Should you visit only one castle, please ignore the one in Kyoto, which is nothing compared to the size and grandeur of this one. Himeji is perhaps the only Japanese castle that was not destroyed during the wars, earthquakes nor fires and you will get to see the original instead of a cement reconstruction. Himeji is not recommended in the summer, as there is little ventilation inside the castle (unless you reach the very top) and the haze across the city slightly spoils the view.
Nyuto onsen is a collection of public baths in a very remote part of Japan. Although these are available pretty much everywhere, this one group is particularly impressive. Indeed, the Tsurunoyu ryokan (hostel) offers the possibility to bathe for a small fee. Bring your own towel however, as they do not give any. Public baths in Japan are divided between sexes, so that you may bathe at your own convenience (usually a relief to most foreigners). The appropriate etiquette is to clean yourself first (either at the top or with the water from the bath – but without putting your dirty water back in) before entering the boiling-hot bath. It is normal for you to turn bright red like a lobster, and the Japanese often step in and out to refresh themselves with the freezing-cold tap.
There are also mixed baths, although in these it is customary to cover yourself. They are especially used by families, as the children may wish to bathe with both their parents.
Hokkaido is famous for its untouched nature, and Shiretoko park is no exception. Indeed, the whole peninsula is home to an impressive wildlife and beautiful flora, as well as a lovely hot waterfall – which can be quite welcome as the Hokkaido summers are never so hot. This peninsula is so well conserved as no roads access it, and therefore it can only be reached on foot or by boat. Bears can be seen there, as well as deer and other wild animals.
The whole peninsula is a resort area, popular for its gorgeous beaches and hot springs. Although Atami is well connected with a shinkansen stop, Ito also has direct trains to Tokyo (Super View Odoriko) which not only take a very short time but also have big windows to make the most of the view (which is absolutely breathtaking).
The most popular beach town in Izu is Shimoda, a city with as many as ten different beaches, all of which with white sand and transparent sea. The Japanese love it, and with reason, it is absolutely amazing. You can also stay on the beach at night to play with fireworks before retreating to your very expensive ryokan (Japanese-style inn).
The Yaeyama islands are both Southernmost and Westernmost in Japan, and will give you the opportunity to meet a people whose Japanese is not at all understandable. However, the islands and peaceful and gorgeous enough that you would want to stay there for the rest of your life (which can be a good idea as Okinawans have the longest lifespan in the world – easily over a hundred). You should consider staying in Iriomote or Taketomi island, as they are not so populated and offer good hiking trails. On Taketomi, you can also visit a traditional Ryukyu village, very well preserved. Overall snorkelling and relaxing is the norm on these islands.
Takayama & Kanazawa
Takayama and Kanazawa are two very well preserved towns in Gifu prefecture, giving the possibility to witness what life was like in previous times in Japan. Takayama holds a festival in both spring and autumn, and it is widely considered to be one of the best festivals in Japan. Kanazawa is a city that evaded fire destruction during the Second World War and as such, much of its old town (castle town, samurai district and entertainment districts) is still in very good condition. Kanazawa is famous for its garden: kenrokuen, which is seen as one of the most beautiful in Japan.