Japan is one of my favourite destinations and if you haven’t been then make sure you put it on your list to visit for when we are allowed to travel again!
Japan is a contrast of past, present and future shaped by its history and culture. Having been closed off to the rest of the world from the 17th to the 19th century under their isolation policy, the country was allowed to evolve and grow it’s own culture providing the unique country that it is today.
Whether it’s the bright lights and craziness of Tokyo, a peek into the past in the cultural heart of Japan in Kyoto, or the lessons of history and war in Hiroshima, the length and breadth of this amazing country offer so much to travellers whether it is history, stunning landscapes or cultural wonders.
Having travelled through Japan a number of times I have come to appreciate, above all else, the friendliness and warmth of the Japanese people. Japan is the only country where I have had businessmen help this hapless traveller find the correct train line or point me in the right direction for a restaurant or site. Even if a local does not speak English they will try and assist you with some friendly hand signals.
Below are just a few of my favourite cities, sites and adventures that I have had the privilege of experiencing in the land of the rising sun.
There is really only one way to travel in Japan and that is via its extensive and world-leading, high-speed bullet trains called Shinkansen. You can easily incorporate an itinerary from Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka then onto Hiroshima and back to Tokyo on the Japan Rail lines. The trains are extremely reliable and in all my travels have not had one train that was late (they apologise profusely even if a train is 1 minute late).
Japan Rail offers Japan Rail Passes to international travellers that are either 7, 14 or 21-day passes and allow unlimited travel on the Japan Rail network within the pass validity. They are great value for money if travelling around the country and need to be bought prior to arriving in Japan.
The trains are an experience in themselves as you depart big cities and travel through rural Japan before arriving at your next destination. As with everything in Japan, the trains are comfortable, extremely clean and have the added bonus of the as usual polite Japanese hospitality on board - the staff even bow as they enter and exit the carriages without fail.
Tokyo is the gateway to Japan where two main airports welcome guests from all over the world. The city is made up of 23 city wards which are much like the boroughs of London and New York. Different areas of Tokyo are known for one speciality such as electronics, food or bars.
The city is a heady mix of bright lights and big sounds and is a bit like New York in that it is a city that never sleeps. You will not be bored in Tokyo and below are some of my favourite places and experiences I have come across in my travels.
If you are in Tokyo on a Sunday, I highly recommend heading to Yoyogi Park in Shibuya Ward which is one of the largest parks in Tokyo. It is a lovely park to walk through on a sunny day but what makes this park unique on a Sunday is that groups of “dance crews” gather to dance to Rockabilly music dressed in the clothes of 1950’s (leather jackets included). I have spent hours sitting on a bench watching the locals and their dance moves and they love a crowd!
The ward of Shinjuku is a great place to explore, in particular an area known as Golden Gai which is made up of six long alleys home to a myriad of restaurants and small bars. There are well over 200 bars in this area, each with their own unique theme or feel. Often these are run and operated by the one owner and sit 6-10 people at any one time.
I have visited some of these bars and each has a story and character of its own. Among my favourites is one owned by a widower who loves to open up his bar each evening, pour a drink for you, have a chat and talk about his family whilst others are homages to famous musicians (Elvis), films or music genres.
Shinjuku is also home to the busiest train station in the world and is quite the site of a morning or evening with tens of thousands of people making their way to their trains.
Other places well worth visiting in Tokyo are the districts of Akihabara, Harajuku and Ginza for the shoppers (Akihabara for electronics, Harajuku for handicrafts and Ginza for clothing), the Imperial Palace which is the main residence of the Imperial Family and the Imperial East Gardens that surround it and the district of Asakusa which has retained the old world charm of Tokyo from the past decades.
The fastest bullet train, The Nozomi, can get you from Tokyo to Kyoto in 2 hours 20 minutes.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 1000 years and is now famous for its numerous Buddhist temples, as well as gardens, imperial palaces, Shinto shrines and traditional wooden houses. Due to its exceptional historic value, the city was spared bombing by the Allies in World War II.
Among the many amazing temples and palaces in the city, one of the most famous and celebrated in the country is Kiyomizudera which is located in the wooded hills of the eastern part of the city on the site of Otowa Waterfall. It’s best known for its stunning wooden stage which juts out from the main hall 13 metres above the hillside which gives an magnificent view of the cherry and maple trees below as well as Kyoto in the distance.
Another well-known site in Kyoto is the Fushimi Inari Shrine which is famous for its thousands of torri gates straddling a network of trails that lead to the forest of the sacred Mount Inari. This shrine is the most important shrine to the god Inari, the Shinto god of rice and dates to 794.
Kyoto is also the Geisha capital of Japan and you may be able to spot a Geisha going from one tea house to the next in Gion District in the evening. These highly skilled entertainers train for 5 years to become a fully-fledged Geisha known as a Geiko.
Osaka is the second-largest city after Tokyo and you can spend a few nights in the city or do day trips from Kyoto with the train trip between the two cities only taking 12 minutes on the bullet train or 25 minutes on the standard service.
Although Osaka does have its historical sites such as Osaka Castle, the city nowadays is more known for it being the location of Universal Studios theme park along with the Osaka Aquarium, Museum of History and the National Art Museum.
The bullet train will take you from Kyoto to Hiroshima in comfort within 2 hours.
Hiroshima will forever be associated with the atomic bomb dropped on it during World War II but the city is now devoted to peace and nuclear disarmament.
After the war and the near-total destruction of the city great effort was taken in rebuilding the city including reconstructing various gardens and the Hiroshima Castle. In the centre of the city where the bomb was dropped a large park was built to reflect the aspirations of a reborn city, the Peace Memorial Park.
The Peace Park is one of the most-visited parts of the city and at the centre of the park is its main buildings, the Peace Memorial Museum which consists of two buildings documenting the history of the city and the events of the atomic bomb, personally, it is one of the most moving places I have been and is an essential stop in Japan.
The A-Bomb Dome within the park is also a reminder of the past, it was the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall and was one of the few buildings to survive the detonation. Today it stands as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Last but not least is Mount Fuji. Either on the way from Tokyo to Kyoto or on the way back to Tokyo I would recommend stopping in the Fuji Five Lakes region. Here you can spend a few days exploring the area including the world-famous Mount Fuji. The surrounding area is a contrast to the big cities and gives travellers an insight into a more rural way of life, you can also experience a stay in a traditional Japanese inn called a ryokan, these are mostly family-owned and run inns that have been in the family for generations.
For those adventurous travellers who are in the area from early July to mid-September you can scale Mount Fuji on a 1-day hike leaving early in the morning to reach the summit at midday before making your way back down. Along the way, there are over a dozen huts selling food, water and where you can get your walking stick branded. Each hut has a unique brand which makes for a great souvenir piece when you get home.
For a country that is quite compact in size, there is so much to see and do and I have found one trip is just not enough. I hope this starts a few ideas and plans for a destination that any traveller should get to for a unique experience.
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