Japan’s finest castle, Himeji-jo in cherry blossom season around early April. Photo by 663highland
Tokyo Tower, one of the most recognised landmarks of Tokyo, a view from the World Trade Centre in Hamamatsu-cho in dusk. Photo by Kakidai
A monstrous ants nest of a city scattered with neon-rampant action centres, impressive shrines and temples, stunning shopping and eating and quite a lot of oddities. Our top four must-see areas are Harajuku+Shibuya+Meiji-Jingu Shrine; Yasukuni Shrine+ Imperial Palace; Asakusa; Roppongi.
Shinjuku for wild night lights, bars/restaurants and action. Yakuza are visible but don’t trouble tourists.
Akihabara is the absurd geek zone.
Ginza/Nihonbashi. An old-fashioned upmarket shopping and traditional theatre zone.
Shibuya, within walking distance of Harajuku – which is unusual in Tokes – offers great shopping and is VERY colourful and busy at night.
Imperial Palace is the big sight but doesn’t need much time; you can walk to Yasukuni Shrine and Ginza from there.
Asakusa is the spot for old buildings, a grand temple and traditions.
Tsukiji Fish Market. The world’s biggest wholesale fish and seafood market and one of major and the best sushi dining places, tho’ to do it properly you need to be there really early, like 6am.
Roppongi, newish, upmarket with great bars, nightlife, museums and odd buildings, but rather too many gaijin (foreigners).
Odaiba, the new entertainment island in Tokyo Bay.
Harajuku/Omotesando, a young, uber-trendy shopping area 2 minutes walk from wacky Yoyogi Park scenes at weekends or magnificent Meiji-Jingu Shrine anytime. Shibuya is just 15 minutes walk down interesting Cat Street.
Worthwhile Places Near Tokyo
Kamakura’s Big Buddha. Photo by Sailko.
About an hour from Tokyo by train and inevitably busy with tourists and their buses but once inside Kamakura’s many temples, shrines and other zen attractions foreigners can’t fail to be impressed by the grace, style and (potential) tranquility.
An hour on the Odakyu line gets you to a typical samurai-era Japanese fortress, containing a small weapons museum.
Another favourite mountain, recreation and hot spring area, especially in the autumn, with great views of Mt Fuji if you’re lucky and a superb futuristic museum. 1. 5hrs train trip from Tokyo.
Toshogu shrine complex in Nikko contains more than a dozen of shining buildings in a forest. Photo by Jakub Halun.
Nikko National Park is a popular destination for the weekend excursion from Tokyo area, with the sensational Toshogu shrine complex which is known for its lavish decoration, scenic mountains, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs and some lovely walks. The highlights of Toshogu are the main entrance gate of Yomeimon, a five story pagoda, the mausoleum of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. 2 hrs by train from Tokyo.
The author of our Japan guides in a small part of the Kenroku-en gardens in Kanazawa.
Nihon Teien are carefully landscaped gardens created to idealize natural scenery in different styles, but they always feature water; even dry rock gardens have raked white sand/gravel as a substitute for water. The designs of the gardens do not just appeal visually but also spiritually and philosophically. Some of the best gardens can be seen in the Kyoto area, such as Ryoan-ji’s zen rock garden and Saiho-ji’s moss garden.
Japan’s three most acclaimed gardens are Kairaku-en in Mito, Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, Koraku-en in Okayama. Rikugi-en and Hamarikyu Garden in Tokyo are also worth visiting.
2. 5 hrs by Shinkansen from Tokyo. Any tourist to Japan must see the Kyoto area after experiencing Tokyo, with dozens of elaborate temples, shrines and zen gardens (including a multitude World Heritage Sites.
Also tourists will find a few charming little old Japanese streets in the centre, lurking around Kyoto’s modern urban sprawl and congestion.
The most interesting places in Kyoto are well dispersed and will take considerable time to reach. e. g. the golden temple of Kinkakuji is about 40 minutes from Kyoto station by ‘express’ bus.
Nara, though, is a tranquil, green and compact day trip less than an hour from Kyoto that hosts more spectacular religious structures.
Visitors may also wish to see a tea ceremony, a Geisha display, Katsura Imperial Villa (and gardens) and Himeji castle not far to the south.
Kyoto is so time consuming, expensive and complex to get around, even confirmed individual travellers may consider taking a comfortable and informative tour worthwhile.
Known as ‘Little Kyoto’, due to its scenery and ancient structures it specialises in pottery, lacquer-ware and dyed silks, with one superb garden attraction (photo above) and several more modest assets easily accessible via a hop-on hop-off tourist bus running from the central station.
The Kenroku-en gardens (photo further up the page – one of Japan’s top three gardens, along with those of Mito and Okayama) are opposite Kanazawa Castle and previously the castle’s private park. This is an absolute must for garden-control freaks. A kind of grown-up bonsai arrangement of dramatically shaped and supported trees, moss-cloaked ground latticed with streams and rocks and strategically placed stone lanterns. This is a magical place, especially if the sun’s shining, the cherry trees are blossoming and there’s a small cup of saké in your hand.
Otherwise, the Castle Park is worth a walk. The Higashi Geisha district is quaint (but don’t expect to see geishas there) with a particularly attractive gold leaf shop/factory; the Nagamachi Samurai district’s mud walls and canals are calm and evocative and make a great stroll; the narrow streets of Teramachi is home to the tour-only Ninja hideout Myoryu-ji.
The town also has a couple of excellent museums, especially the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.
**Hiroshima and Miyajima
A huge welcome gate to Miyajima, one of Japan’s three most celebrated scenic sights. Photo by Bernard Gagnon
**Hiroshima was ground zero for the first atomic bomb. The most important feature of the city is the Peace Memorial Park, one of Japan’s top 10 destinations for foreign visitors today.
Off the coast of Hiroshima in Seto Inland Sea the island of Itsukushima known as Miyajima (Shrine Island) with its iconic watery tori gate, has been one of Japan’s three most celebrated sights for centuries.
A museum and park dedicated to the Atomic bomb, a fine recreation of old European homes in the south and a full-scale, lived in Dutch town in the north.
Yokohama, Osaka, Kyushu, Hokkaido, Okinawa. It’s hardly worth going there unless it’s for a festival or some special interest or you have lots of time.
Pristine Yonaha Maehama beach in Miyakojima, Okinawa, which is considered to be the most beautiful beach in Japan. Photo by 663highland
A series of subtropical islands (49 inhabited and 111 uninhabited) between Kyushu, southern main island of Japan and Taiwan, with splendid beaches and unspoiled coral reefs. This southernmost prefecture is not just a great beach destination but also offers a fascinating native culture of Ryukyu Kingdom from the architecture to the food.
Hakodate fort, south Hokkaido.
Hokkaido island in the far north of Japan doesn’t have much in the way of must-see attractions. Hakodate’s old town and fort in south Hokkaido is arguably the best sight, especially at cherry blossom time in early May.
Sapporo, the capital city, is efficient, clean and safe but uninspiring, likewise the drab Sapporo Snow Festival and most Hokkaido towns. Akanko is an exception with a huge lake that freezes solid in winter and offers varied unusual activities.
In north Hokkaido, just about as far north as you can go there’s a popular national park called Shiretoko, on a peninsula of the same name, that provides scenic wild walks on trails and boardwalks, but it’s not easy to get to and has limited access for individuals so is really better done by tour.