Japan Pictures Guide

Mt. Fuji overlooking Lake Kawaguchi with cherry blossom, Japan

Japan’s highest peak, Mt. Fuji (3, 776 m) is the nation’s icon, here seen overlooking Lake Kawaguchi by Midori.

Japan Pictures: why visit?

Japan is a fascinating enigma, a superb, confusing, fascinating, crammed and amusing country, full of contradictions – not least of which is the mix of ultra high technology with revered ancient traditions. Japan is the size of the Great Britain but with only one third of the land usable due to mountainous terrain, this is still the world’s third largest economy (after USA and China) in spite of being embedded in a long term recession.

Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Festival), 10,000 men in a temple, Japan

Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Festival) is Japan’s most dynamic festival, held at Saidai-ji temple, Okayama Prefecture every February. Nearly 10, 000 near-naked men battle for the sacred talisman thrown by priests. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov.

There are few ‘big’ sights in Japan other than religious structures, but plenty of absorbing little sights, from the ubiquitous white gloves of service personnel to fantasy dining spots in Tokyo, musicians in Yoyogi park, funky old Akachochin restaurants, weird otaku (geek) habits. . .

Japan is still safe compared to any first world countries.

Japanese food is totally awesome, (apart from bread and the appalling traditional Japanese breakfast), always beautifully arranged and not necessarily expensive. Shopping is equally impressive with flawless products, huge variety, good value and even gaijin (foreigner) sizes, though eco-mentalists will definitely have an issue with the excessive packaging.

You can find traditional hotels (ryokan or minshuku) relatively cheap and interesting, though some of high-end ryokans offering special meals and onsen (hot springs spa) can be pricey.

Domestic transport systems are superbly organised, clean, efficient and almost always on time. Any tourist wishing to see Tokyo will definitely be using the complex metro system while tourists wishing to get elsewhere than the capital will probably wish to take the Shinkansen super-train.

And finally, a small but useful asset – clean, modern, public toilets are found in all stations, parks and other public areas. The government has announced the plan to install more high-tech toilets (with warm seats and bottom washers) in tourist facilities. Great news!

Downsides

• Japan is sometimes expensive and always crowded and hectic.

• Tokyo has no real centre, more like four or five hi-activity zones that will require transport to move between. e. g. Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Roppongi, Asakusa.

• There are plenty of dull, endless suburbs garlanded with overhead power cables and decorated with plasto-wood, mock-Europe architectural horrors and concrete block-houses. Fine vernacular or interesting modern architecture is sadly rare.

• Quaint traditional clothing like kimonos are rarely seen outside ceremonial occasions. Shrines, temples and festivals are the most likely place to see them.

• Japan is not very tourist oriented so English signs can be uncommon in some areas though usage is increasing.

Japanese macaques grooming in outdoor hot springs in Jigokudani,

Japanese macaques grooming in a rotenburo (outdoor hot springs) in Jigokudani, ‘Valley of Hell’. Photo by Tomomarusan

Best Time to Go

Best weather: Japan is a lengthy, mountainous country with varied climates and four seasons, but since most tourists will be spending their time in Tokyo and Kyoto probably:

The best months to go to Japan are: April (late spring), May, October, November (autumn), or winter if you’re a little cold-tolerant. Japan’s winter  generally enjoys dry cool weather with blue skies and few other foreigners.

Spring and Autumn skies are like a woman’s heart (to paraphrase a Japanese saying), that is to say changeable, could be superb, could be cold and wet, probably both. Statistically June and September are the wettest months, August the hottest and most humid.

The Japanese Alps of Honshu island and the northern island of Hokkaido will definitely have serious snow in winter, with great skiing at Niseko and a mediocre snow festival in Sapporo in early February while summer will be pleasantly cool.

Worst: June to early July, August (rains, heat, humidity) Beware holiday accommodation problems in the New Year (December 29-January 6), Golden Week (April 27-May 6), O-bon (midsummer)

Japan’s Main Attractions

Tokyo seen from the top of Tokyo Skytree, the tallest structure in the world, with Mt Fuji, Japan

A view of the central Tokyo from the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest structure in the world, with Mt Fuji in the background. Photo by Yodalica.

Tokyo is the traveller’s number one target, a huge, congested but dynamic city with a deliberately confusing road system designed to prevent enemies  from reaching the Imperial Palace. Consequently there is no effective centre, so a tourist just has to get used to the Tokyo metro/subway/underground system in order to get to district hot spots such as  Asakusa, Ueno Park, Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku, Roppongi and wherever else.

This monstrous ants nest of a city is scattered with neon-rampant action centres, impressive shrines and temples, stunning shopping and eating and quite a lot of oddities. You need a lot of walking and watching if you are to find the charming contradictions and sights that lurk along the busy streets. And don’t forget to walk on the left of the pavement! Not joking!
Free Wi-Fi service is available at 143 Tokyo subway stations with usage time of 3 hours/session.

The other great draw is Japan’s ancient and adjacent capitals Kyoto/Nara in Kansai, the western part of Honshu island. This is a more traditional sightseeing experience than Tokyo.

Kyoto, a former imperial capital between 794 and 1868, with more than 2, 000 gold and red temples and shrines, tea houses, zen gardens, is the prime tourist destination. You can experience Japan’s richest culture and heritage here, as well as some of Japan’s most sophisticated traditional cuisine.

Fire and fireworks in Mt. Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival, Nara, Japan

Annual Mt. Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival, Nara. Photo by Nagoya Taro

Nara, Japan’s first capital before it was moved to Kyoto, is a popular destination for day-trips from Kyoto. It boasts eight World Heritage sites including Todai-ji which houses the world’s largest Buddha structure, Heijo Imperial Palace, and the primeval forest of Kasugayama. It is easy to cover the tourist centre and the most of the star attractions nearby in a full day.

3. Osaka

Osaka Castle high view, Japan

Osaka Castle in the middle of Japan’s western metropolis, the country’s 3rd largest city after Tokyo and Yokohama. Photo by 663 highland

Lively Osaka in the Kansai region, is a historic merchant city with locals who have a more casual, less stuffy attitude to things than their peers in Tokyo. Osaka is nicknamed the ‘Nation’s Kitchen’ as this is a place where they take food very seriously so it’s a great city for dining.

4. Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle, known as Shirasagi-jo (White Heron Castle), near Osaka, Japan

Himeji Castle, known as Shirasagi-jo (White Heron Castle) due to its fine white exterior, in Hyogo Prefecture. Photo by ja

Among more than 100 existing castles in Japan today, Himeji-jo is just west of Osaka and the one to visit. It is the finest and the best example of Japanese castle architecture and listed as a World Heritage Site.

5. Takayama and Shirakawago (Hida Region)

Shirakawago village in winter, near Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, Japan

Shirakawago village in winter, near Takayama, Gifu Prefecture. Photo by Jordy Meow

The delightful town of Takayama is in the heart of the Hida area of the ancient, mountainous region in central Honshu Island. It is known for traditional crafts and a historic district lined with old wooden merchant’s houses dating back to the Edo samurai era. The town also holds one of Japan’s most famous festivals.

A 50 minutes bus ride from Takayama City takes you to the remote village of Shirakawago where more than 100 traditional thatched roof houses are shaped like hands in prayer. This  allows the houses to cope with heavy snowfalls in the winter. They cluster at the foot of Mt. Haku-san.
Historic Shirakawago, along with the nearby village of Gokayama in Toyama Prefecture, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Some of the houses offer accommodation to visitors. The place is particularly magnificent in deep snow.

Takayama Matsuri (Spring Festival) is one of the three most colourful and historically interesting events in Japan. Celebrated twice a year in spring April 14 -15 and autumn October 9-10, the festival features parades of tall floats shaped like shrines and heavily decorated in gold and red, some with karakuri ningyo (mechanical puppets) on board.
Takayama is one of the most colourful and varied festivals we’ve seen in Japan, but incredibly crowded of course. It’s located in Gifu Prefecture, a 2 hour and 10 minutes train ride from Nagoya.

6. Hiroshima/Miyajima (& Itsukushima Island)

Hiroshima Peace Memorial (aka Atomic Bomb Dome), Japan

Hiroshima Peace Memorial (aka Atomic Bomb Dome) was one of few building to remain standing when the A-bomb flattened the city. Photo by Dariusz Jemielniak

The massive tori gate to Itsukushima Shrine (on an island) at low tide, Japan

The massive tori gate to Itsukushima Shrine (on an island) at low tide. Photo by Jakub Halun

Hiroshima is known worldwide as 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. Both sites are listed as UNESCO’s World Heritage, though the Dome is unofficially considered as ‘Legacy of Tragedy’.

7. Koya-san (Mt. Koya)

Okunoin cemetery, Mount Koya, Japan

Okunoin cemetery is the largest in Japan with over 200, 000 tombstones along a two kilometre walkway leading to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai), the founder of Shingon Buddhism, is believed to rest here in eternal meditation. Photo by Daderot

Mount Koya, a high valley and not the name of a mountain is one of the most spiritual places in Japan. This sacred valley with eight peaks which resemble a lotus flower is the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. It is home to 117 Buddhist temples and about half of them offer lodging to pilgrims. Koyasan and its six buildings in the area including Okunoin and Kongobu-ji and pilgrimage routes are now designated World Heritage Sites. Mount Koya is located in Wakayama Prefecture on the Kii Peninsula and easily reached from Kyoto and Osaka.

8. Shiretoko

Ichiko, Lake Ichi, one of five lakes in Shiretoko, Hokkaido, Japan

Ichiko, Lake Ichi, one of five lakes in Shiretoko, Hokkaido. Photo by 663highland

Shiretoko National Park offers some of the most scenic hikes in Japan. It covers most of Shiretoko Peninsula at the northeastern tip of Hokkaido. Shiretoko means ‘the end of the Earth’ in the native Ainu language.
The long, narrow peninsula is considered to be the least explored region of the Japan. This remote park contains mountains, lakes and water falls and it is also home to a diverse wildlife such as higuma bears (brown bears) and white-tailed sea eagles.
Public transport to and around the park is limited especially outside of the summer season so it’s best to have your own vehicle, though note that the northern part of the peninsula has no road.

Kanazawa, Ken-rokuen Garden, one of the finest examples of Nihon Teien (Japanese Gardening), Japan

Kenroku-en in spring: Shaped pine trees, cherry trees, rocks, waters with lantern, this is one of the finest examples of Nihon Teien (Japanese Gardening).

Kanazawa, a modern city on the west coast of Honshu is scattered with cultural and architectural relics from the days when it was the centre of the wealthy and sophisticated Maeda samurai clan. It is one of a few cities nicknamed ‘Little Kyoto’ where some scenery and structures are ancient like Kyoto.

Without doubt the finest remnant of those feudal days is the magnificent Kenrokuen Garden, a 17thC creation that belonged to the adjacent castle and is now a showpiece of classic, controlled and laborious Japanese gardening style and one of Japan’s finest natural works. It is one of Japan’s three greatest gardens, along with Kairaku-en in Mito, Ibaragi, and Koraku-en (in Okayama city).

10. Okinawa

Shurijo or Shuri Castle, Okinawa. Japan

Shurijo or Shuri Castle, restored in 1992 was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Photo by 663highland

‘Rope in the Open Sea’ is the meaning of the name Okinawa as this southernmost prefecture is a chain of subtropical islands (49 inhabited and 111 uninhabited) stretching from Kyushu, south of Japan to Taiwan. Okinawa is sub-tropical and encompasses splendid beaches and unspoiled coral reefs (as well as spoiled reefs! ). The outermost islands of Ishigaki and Taketomi in Yaeyama offer some of the best diving/snorkelling sites.
Okinawa has a exotic feeling even to Japanese people who are from the main island due to its native Ryukyu Kingdom culture which is distinguished from the rest of Japan in areas such as language and cuisine.

A beach on the tiny island of Minajima off Okinawa main island, Japan

A beach on the tiny island of Minajima off Okinawa Honto (main island). Photo by Snap55

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