Places to Visit in Japan

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The places to visit in Japan are a world apart – a cultural Galapagos where a unique civilisation blossomed, and thrives today in delicious contrasts of traditional and modern.

Japan is one of the easiest countries in which to travel. It is, simply put, a place that will remind you why you started travelling in the first place.

If traditional culture is your thing, you can spend weeks in cities such as Kyoto and Nara, gorging yourself on temples, shrines, kabuki, nō (stylised dance-drama), tea ceremonies and museums packed with treasures from Japan’s rich artistic heritage. If modern culture and technology is your thing, Japan’s cities are an absolute wonderland – an easy peek into the future of the human race, complete with trend-setting cafés and fabulous restaurants.

Outside the cities, you’ll find natural wonders the length and breadth of the archipelago. From the coral reefs of Okinawa to the snow-capped peaks of the Japan Alps, Japan has more than enough natural wonders to compete with its cultural treasures.

Then there’s the food: whether it’s impossibly fresh sushi in Tokyo, perfectly battered tempura in Kyoto, or a hearty bowl of rāmen in Osaka, if you like eating you’re going to love Japan.

But for many visitors, the real highlight of their visit to Japan is the gracious hospitality of the Japanese themselves. Whatever your image of Japan, it probably exists somewhere on the archipelago – and it’s just waiting for you to discover it!

Best Places to Visit in Japan

13. Kumamoto

Kumamoto is a progressive city with abundant greenery and a variety of interesting cultural attractions. Located roughly halfway down Kyushu’s western side, this Japanese town is mainly known for its castle, silhouetted against the beautiful backdrop of Mount Aso, and its landscaped garden, both with origins stretching from the first half of the 17th century. Once one of Japan’s most important castle towns, Kumamoto, today, is the progressive capital of Kumamoto Prefecture. However, it retains a small-town atmosphere, which is precisely what attracts many people to the city.

Location: Kyushu

12. Kamikochi

Some 50km from Matsumoto and straddling the rushing Azusa-gawa, Kamikochi is the Japan Alps National Park’s biggest drawcard. It offers some of Japan’s most spectacular alpine scenery and a variety of hiking trails from which to see it. Today, Kamikochi is a base for strollers, hikers and climbers heading for the Japanese Alps. It’s a pleasure just to meander Kamikochi’s riverside paths lined with sasa grasses. The nearby Shirahone Onsen is easily the most beautiful hot-springs resort town in the park. Straddling a deep gorge, this intimate and dramatic area is lovely any time of the year.

Location: Central Honshu

11. Matsuyama

Shikoku’s largest city boasts all the chic and flair of its sister cities on Honshu. However, Japanese and foreign tourists alike are principally drawn to Matsuyama for its famous sights, namely Matsuyama-jo, one of the country’s finest feudal-era castles, and Dogo Onsen Honkan, a multi-level public bath house. If you’re journeying around the 88 Sacred Temples, Matsuyama is home to seven temples, including Ishite-ji, one of the most famous stops on the pilgrimage. Matsuyama has a comfortably provincial feel that contrasts pleasingly with the frenzy of Japan’s major cities making it a great place to get away from it all in a truly Japanese fashion.

Location: Shikoku

10. Kamakura

If you take only one day trip outside Tokyo, it should be to Kamakura. A seaside town of old wooden homes, temples, shrines and wooded hills, Kamakura was Japan’s administrative capital from 1185 until 1333. As a legacy, today it has 19 Shinto shrines and 65 Buddhist temples, including two of Japan’s oldest Zen monasteries. Many of the temples and gardens nestle against the hills ringing the town and are linked by three hiking trails. Favoured by artists and writers, Kamakura has numerous antique and craft shops. In cherry-blossom season and on summer weekends, it can be swamped by visitors.

Location: Central Honshu

9. Kusatsu Onsen

Bathers have been soaking in the therapeutic waters of Kusatsu Onsen since at least the 12th century, but the town only became popular as a spa resort after German doctor Erwin von Baelz wrote about the water’s curative powers in the 1800s. The town boasts the largest outpost of water in Japan. Kusatsu’s hot springs are fed by nearby volcano Mount Shirane at an astounding rate of 32,000L per minute. The town has 18 public baths, most of which are open 24 hours a day. A 10-minute walk from the station, the steaming, gurgling Yubatake fountainhead forms an arresting sight – particularly at night, when the bubbling pool is illuminated – in the middle of the city.

Location: Central Honshu

8. Niseko & Sapporo

One of Hokkaido’s prime ski resorts during the winter months and a hiking base during summer and autumn, Niseko sprawls between the mountain Yotei-zan to the east and Niseko Annupuri to the west. Some of Japan’s best skiing can be found in the Niseko mountains. Views at any time of the year are splendid, and there is something almost holy about the snow-covered peaks on a chilly winter day. Skiing at Niseko with its jaw-dropping views of mountains and its plethora of onsen, is unequalled. Like its northern cousin Furano, Niseko enjoy perfect powder snow; if you’re one of the first on the slopes, you’ll feel like you’ve left Earth as you float downhill.

Sapporo’s impressive Yuki Matsuri snow festival also attracts international visitors to the city’s Odori Park, with its winter wonderland of elaborate snow sculptures and ice carvings.

Location: Hokkaido

7. Hiroshima

Even those unfamiliar with Japan know the name – and unfortunate history – of this city, site of the first atomic bombing. Seeing the city’s leafy boulevards, it’s hard to picture Hiroshima as the devastated victim of an atomic bomb. It’s not until you walk though the Peace Memorial Museum that the terrible reality becomes clear – the displays of battered personal effects say it all. But outside the quiet of the Peace Memorial Park, energetic Hiroshima rolls on. A visit here is a heartbreaking, important lesson, but the modern city and its people ensure that’s not the only memory you leave with.

Location: Western Honshu

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6. Shibu Onsen

With its scenic, stone-paved paths and buildings that date back over 400 years, the quiet spa town of Shibu Onsen has retained much of its historic beauty. Even today, people can be seen wandering in and out of its nine public baths wearing yukata (summer kimono) and geta (traditional wooden clogs). This custom, which visitors are recommended to observe, is one of the most delightful aspects of a trip to Shibu Onsen. In Shibu you may encounter a few furry tourists from the famed Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. Don’t worry, they won’t climb into the hot springs with you; they have their own bath. A visit to the Snow Monkey Park is a relatively easy trip – and well worth it.

Location: Central Honshu

5. Okinawa Archipelago

Welcome to the other Japan, where pebble gardens and cherry blossoms give way to white-sand beaches and swaying palm trees. With a year-round balmy climate and plenty of sunshine, Okinawa is the perfect destination for beachcombers, hikers and marine sports-lovers alike.

The Okinawa Archipelago, also known as the Ryukyu Islands, consists of 160 subtropical islands stretching for 1,000 km (620 miles) from the southwest coast of Kyushu to within television-reception distance of Taiwan. About 48 islands are inhabited. Just 107 km (66 miles) long, narrow Okinawa Island is the most accessible part for tourists, with its vibrant capital Naha, beach resorts, and historical monuments.

Location: The Okinawan Islands

4. Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji, affectionately called “Fuji-san” by Japanese, has been revered since ancient times. Throughout the centuries, Japanese poets have written about it, painters have painted it, pilgrims have flocked to it, and more than a few people have died on it. There is no question that it is a stunningly impressive sight. At 3,766m (12,356 ft), it’s the tallest mountain in Japan, towering far above anything else around it, a cone of almost perfectly symmetrical proportions. To Japanese, it symbolises the very spirit of their country. Thought it’s visible on clear days (mostly in winter) from as far as 150km (99 miles) away – even from Tokyo itself – Fuji-san is far more often cloaked in clouds. If you catch a glimpse of this elusive mountain, consider yourself extremely lucky. And for those who want a closer look without having to strap on the climbing gear, some of the best spots for views of Mount Fuji are Hakone and Izu.

Location: Central Honshu

3. Osaka

Famous for its down-to-earth citizens and hearty cuisine, Osaka combines a few historical and cultural attractions with all the delights of a modern Japanese city. Indeed, Osaka is surpassed only by Tokyo as a showcase of the Japanese urban phenomenon. Osaka’s highlights include Osaka-jo and its surrounding park, Osaka Aquarium with its enormous whale shark, the Blade Runner nightscapes of the Dotombori area and the wonderful open air Museum of Old Japanese Farmhouses. But Osaka has more to offer than its specific sights; like Tokyo, Osaka is a city to be experienced in its totality, and casual strolls are likely to be just as rewarding as structured sightseeing tours.

Location: Kansai

2. Kyoto

Kyoto is the storehouse of Japan’s traditional culture and the stage on which much of Japanese history was played out. With 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than 1600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shinto shrines, Kyoto is also one of the world’s most culturally rich cities. The amazing religious sites, serene temple pavilions and Geisha quarter in Gion combine to create one of the best cities in Japan. Indeed, it is fair to say that Kyoto ranks with Paris, London and Rome as one of the cities that everyone should see at least once in their lives. And, needless to say, it should rank near the top of any Japan itinerary.

Location: Kansai

1. Tokyo

Rebuilt from the ground up numerous times over the last century, Tokyo’s towering skyscrapers, neon signs, and startlingly efficient train system can make time spent here seem like a visit to the future. Yet ancient charms still lurk beneath the city’s high-tech façade, if you know where to look. Dotted with parks and museums, fascinating architecture traditional and modern, exhilarating entertainment venues and retail establishments catering to every conceivable niche, there’s something for everyone here. No trip to Tokyo would be complete without a visit to Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest of its kind in the world.

Location: Tokyo

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