Japan is a wonderfully varied country in many ways. Ancient tradition rubs shoulders with contemporary culture, the climate fluctuates from heavy snow to humid heat, and bustling cities are pockets of marvellous mayhem in a country that otherwise has a fantastic, wild landscape.
We have pulled together some of the things that you should consider doing when visiting Japan, whether it’s seeing snow monkeys relax in hot springs, exploring the bustling streets and tranquil gardens of Tokyo, or paying your respects at Hiroshima. There is so much on offer that we struggled to pick out our favourites, and it may be that there is more that you would like to discover! If this is the case, then don’t hesitate to get in touch with our local experts to find out more. As it is, here are (in our opinion) some of the best places to visit in Japan.
For the history buffs: discover Kyoto’s ancient highlights
Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 until 1868, and is riddled with history, boasting no fewer than 17 World Heritage Sites and 2,000 temples and shrines.
To start with the most lavish attraction, you must visit the spectacular structure that is Kinkakuji. Once upon a time it belonged to a wealthy shogun, but these days is a Zen Buddhist temple, and is as striking now as when it was first built, its gilded pillars reflecting like liquid sunshine in the pond that spills away below it.
For wonderful views of Kyoto, climb up to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, the city’s most celebrated World Heritage Site, perched on the side of a mountain. All of it is a marvel, but go to the main hall and step out onto the vast wooden balcony (built without a single nail!) to see what all the fuss is about. Great sweeping views of the city below you will take your breath away.
Our final highlight of Kyoto (there are so many we can’t possibly mention them all) is the To-ji Temple. All five stories of it. At over 57 metres high, it’s Japan’s tallest pagoda and is incredibly picturesque, with a glassy pond at its base winding through ornamental trees and perfectly manicured gardens.
For true relaxation: soak in natural hot springs
Hot spring waters (known as ‘onsen’) have been used by the Japanese for centuries as a means to relax and as a cure for all sorts of ills. The country’s volcanic geology means that you can find hot springs gushing though cracks in the earth’s crust the length and breadth of Japan. Some are already occupied by furry inhabitants (see below) but plenty have been used by the local people to create incredibly relaxing hot baths.
Head to one of the swish baths at Kawaguchiko for incredible views of Mount Fuji, or go to the Yufuin onsen resort for a more rural affair. The picturesque baths sit at the bottom of Mount Yufu and unlike other onsen resorts, are not all clustered along one street. You can also wander out of town towards Lake Kinrinko, about 1.5km from the town’s station. Here you will find a few little shops and cafés, a small shrine, and a few public bath houses, one of which, Shitanyu, is open to tourists. The walks around Yufuin are blissfully pastoral, and just a short walk from the town will take you into rice paddies and verdant farmland.
For the animal lovers: bathing macaques and tame sika deer
The macaques (a.k.a. snow monkeys) of Jigokudani are used to fame – they’ve featured on many a nature programme – but the accolade doesn’t stop them from returning again and again to relax in their famous hot springs, onlookers or no. Go to see them in winter (ideally January or February), when the snow falls in the hills around the hot springs, creating deep drifts in the woodland and speckling the monkeys’ thick coats, giving them their name. The snow not only makes the scene incredibly photogenic, there’s also the added bonus that, due to the cold, there is no unpleasant smell, which can sometimes become a little cloying in summer. If you do visit in the winter months, don’t forget to wear warm boots, as the frozen ground can chill you through the soles of your feet.
Another way of getting in touch with nature is to head to Nara Park, where over 1,000 sika deer roam free. These gentle creatures are considered in the Shinto region to be messengers of the gods, and thousands of people take the time to pay them a visit and feed them with special rice crackers sold on site. Some of the deer have even learnt to bow to visitors in order to receive a cracker. It’s definitely an experience to put on your list if you love getting close to wild(ish) animals.
For a moment of reflection: pay your respects at Hiroshima
On the 6th August 1945, the first ever atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. This tragic event cost thousands of Japanese people their lives, and yet one building remained largely intact, right in the epicentre of the explosion. It has since become known as the Atomic Bomb Dome, and remains as a lasting reminder to what awful damage was done that day. We highly recommend visiting the dome, the Cenotaph for Atomic Bomb Victims, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum to gain a deeper understanding of the repercussions of this event, and the true value of peace. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1996, it’s a sombre site, but one that marks a turning point in history.
For the city slickers: immerse yourself in Tokyo
Some people just want to get out and into the peace and quiet whilst on holiday, but this isn’t everyone’s approach. For those of you who love a bit of hustle and bustle, and who wish to immerse yourselves into Japan’s culture, both modern and historic, then a visit to Tokyo is essential! There are markets ringing with the cacophony of auctioneers’ cries, tranquil gardens, soaring sky scrapers, ancient temples, Michelin-starred restaurants, quirky museums and fantastic art galleries.
Venture to Tsukiji Market in the Chuo neighbourhood in central Tokyo for a truly memorable experience. This famous fish market handles nearly 2,000 tonnes and 500 varieties of seafood every day, from staples such as tuna to exotic morsels such as uni (the edible part of a sea urchin). If you get peckish while exploring, there are plenty of sushi stalls and little restaurants at the market which serve fish at their freshest (try Sushi Dai or Daiwa Sushi). It’s massive and incredibly busy, so children are not allowed, and tourists are not permitted to partake in the auctions, so don’t come planning to buy your supper.
After the hectic scenes of the market, you may be after a bit of tranquillity, and if this is the case then Tokyo can provide some gorgeous gardens in which to find it. Head to the Imperial Palace’s East Gardens, which are particularly beautiful in cherry blossom season and provide lovely views of the exterior of the palace. For space on an epic scale, go to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden; 144 acres of true beauty! Like everywhere in Japan, the cherry blossoms put on quite a show each year (make like the locals and bring a picnic if you visit when they’re in bloom) but the garden is divine year-round, so don’t worry if you are visiting outside of spring. It has three distinct styles – traditional Japanese, formal French and classic English garden – and is truly lovely to wander through. There is a small entry fee of about 200 yen, but we believe it is well worth it.
Have a taste of Tokyo’s culture in Ginza, the city’s neighbourhood equivalent of Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue. It’s scattered with shops selling everything from high street staples to kimonos and chopsticks, as well as Michelin-starred restaurants (three-starred Ginza Kojyu is on the bucket list of many foodies), theatres and galleries. Take in a traditional kabuki performance, pick up some gifts for friends and family back home and explore over 200 art collections.
If museums are your thing, and if you love the films Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, then a visit to the Ghibli Museum should be on your list. Children will love the fantastical characters, even if they’ve never seen any of the films, and the younger ones will adore the play area which comes fully-equipped with a life-size, fluffy Cat Bus. Fans of Studio Ghibli will really enjoy the ramshackle, creative nature of the museum, but be aware that it can be difficult to obtain tickets which are only released monthly and quickly snapped up.
Finally, for incredible views over the city, visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Tower – it’s free, unlike many other skyscrapers, and is 202 metres high with two observation decks offering 360-degree views. On a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji in the distance, and it is a particularly popular spot for sundowners. Watching the city transition from day to night is truly magical.
For the adventurers: get active in Hokkaido
Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s islands, is a haven for lovers of the great outdoors. Despite making up 20% of the country’s landmass, only 5% of the population live here, and 10% of the island is made up of national parks. Great stretches of wilderness are studded with soaring mountains, bright blue caldera lakes, vast blankets of alpine wildflowers, bubbling hot springs and ancient forests.
Winter calls out to snowboarders and skiers across the globe, with plummeting temperatures blown in from Siberia preserving fantastic snowfall. There are resorts scattered throughout the mountains that cater to every passion, though they are still pretty off the beaten track compared to the resorts on the main island of Honshu. Are you pretty pro and like getting off-piste? Head to Asahidake. Furano is best for those looking for the steeper slopes, and Kiroro is where to go if you want to bring the family. Most of the resorts are very close together however, so if you can’t decide, don’t panic! You can always visit more than one, and there are plenty of remote back-country opportunities if that’s your preference.
The summer months in Hokkaido are generally not as hot as humid as they are across the rest of Japan, and walkers and cyclists flock to the area to make the most of it, while whitewater rafters and kayakers take to the rivers gushing with the mountain meltwater. To get a bit off the beaten track, head to Shiretoko National Park. Located in the peninsula at the north-eastern tip of the island, its name in Ainu (the local language), means “end of the world” and UNESCO has heralded it “one of the richest integrated ecosystems in the world”. It’s open year-round, but the best time to visit as a hiker/wanderer is through June to September – admire the waterfalls and keep your eyes peeled for the wildlife, which includes foxes, brown bears, delicate sika deer and Steller’s sea eagles.
For the artists: unleash your inner critic on “Art Island”
Contemporary art fans must not visit Japan without marvelling at the wonders scattered across Naoshima, a small island in the Seto Inland Sea. Artists with work featured here include the well-known greats such as Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Yasumasa Morimura. There are three major galleries to admire, as well as lots of smaller art venues and the occasional ad-hoc outdoor installation. For example, in the fishing village of Honmura, some of the old houses have been transformed from rickety wooden buildings into permanent art installations, whilst elsewhere fat, enormous, gaudy pumpkins bedeck the shoreline. The biggest (and arguably best) gallery to visit, is the Tadao Ando-designed Benesse House, which doubles as a hotel and displays work by David Hockney amongst others.
If you decide to wander some of the island by foot, take care not to get lost in the labyrinthine streets of the villages. These were originally designed to confuse marauders intent on thievery, but now do a wonderful job of helping you get well and truly lost!
Make it happen
If you would like to visit Japan, then get in touch with our local experts. They are brilliant at putting together tailor-made itineraries and can’t wait to share their expertise with you and plan your perfect trip. If you would like to speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.