Why visit Japan?
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) 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!
4. Himeji Castle
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. 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) 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. 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’.
Shikotsu Lake, Hyoutou ice festival, Hokkaido, Japan
We couldn’t say that Hokkaido is one of Japan’s must see destinations, with universally dull architecture and a chilly climate, but for people staying in Japan for years Hokkaido does offer brilliant winter sports in Niseko, some fun ice/snow festivals (tho’ Sapporo Snow Festival is not recommended!), excellent uncrowded hiking, cooler summer temperatures and lower costs than Honshu, plus odd activities like ice fishing and dog sledding, and of course brilliant food – seafood in particular.