The first thing anyone needs to acknowledge is that Japan is large. Yes, compared to enormous China, it is easy to fall for the trap and think Japan is a tiny island that you can travel in a couple of days. This is completely untrue! In terms of square mileage, Japan is roughly the size of California, however, when it comes to density regarding landmarks and tourist spots, Japan in immeasurable.
Bygone trade footpaths, breathtaking gardens, sacred Shinto Shrines, splendid Buddhist temples, gastronomical delights and richness in culture are some of the reasons why tourists admit defeat once they first go and swear to come back. To know Japan is to surrender to its beauty.
And as positive as it can be to have many places and spots to visit, selecting just a few can be overwhelming. While not missing a single place is an impossible task, having a small taste of everything is the ultimate goal. These are our not-to-miss recommendations when you visit Japan.
You cannot go all the way to Japan and not go to its capital. The ultramodern capital has the most populated metropolitan area on the planet. From fish markets to tech-decorated cafes, from cherry blossoms to karaoke bars, from venerable shrines to crowded fast avenues, Tokyo has it all. The perfect blend of ancient and the energizing experience only this restless city bestows. Skyscrapers, outlandish fashion, buzzing arcades, and fabulous restaurants will fill your sight and senses. People who claim to “want to see it all” must pay a visit to Tokyo and admire its themed cafes (goats, robots, owls –you name it!) to cos-play go-karting, once you set foot on the busy pedestrian crossings, you know you’ve witnessed progress and modernity. If the crowds overwhelm you, a visit to the precious Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden will soothe the senses and help you decompress. The other thing that helps is the fantastic cuisine; do not miss the tiny, cute restaurants on atmospheric Memory Lane, for a meal to be remembered!
The counterpart to busy, scandalous Tokyo is Kyoto. Do you want to experience the Japan we see in the movies? The geisha in bright-red kimonos, the bamboo forests, the temples, the tea ceremonies? This is all Kyoto.
Our personal advice? Skip the concrete jungle emerging from downtown and head directly towards the mountains. There, the narrow stone streets and the gaze at the monks in their robes will immerse you in ancient traditions, and the chanting will go directly to your heart. If you want to see magnificent temples, you must go to Higashiyama. Gion is the place to see geisha, and Arashiyama offers sights filled with bamboo groves and peculiar temples. For the ultimate experience, take the train to the village of Kibune and walking across the valley to the beautiful Kurama-Dera temple. And don’t forget to get a fortune cookie from a vending machine at the Golden Temple!
If Art is your thing, then Naoshima is your place to visit. The artsy island harbors an extensive collection of galleries, exhibits and contemporary art museums.
The beautiful Chichu Art Museum –designed by Tadao Ando –lets in an abundance of natural light. The museum has an outstanding collection that includes works of Monet, Walter de Maria, and James Turrell.
A collection of abandoned houses, workshops and temples, was converted into the Art House Project. A place that has many venues and installations for artists from around the world, as well as locals.
At Naoshima, one does not need to go to a museum to sense the Art. The Benesse House (home to the most remarkable hotel) includes an impressive collection of its own. You can admire the works of Richard Long, David Hockney, Shirnro Ohtake, among many others.
This temple town is protected by the UNESCO world heritage site. Snuggled between the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, Nikko is one of the most important cultural places in Japan.
Whether you take a day trip to Nikko –coming from Tokyo –or you decide to spend a couple of nights there, the city offers one of the most beautiful places in Japan and represents a lovely retreat from busy Tokyo. The main attraction, undoubtedly, is the Toshogu Shrine where Tokugawa Ieyasu, is enshrined.
Edo Wonderland –the theme park –was created and designed to take tourists back in time to experience medieval Japan. To get a full view of the jaw-dropping cherry blossoms, visit Visit Hitsujiyama Park for the picturesque shibazakura which translates as ‘lawn cherry blossoms.’
Nikko also offers visitors an immense quantity of natural spots and experiences such as waterfalls, hot springs, lakes, and hiking pats.
You do not want to miss Photographing the bright red Shinkyo bridge or the delicious sushi served at Komekichi Kozushi.
Japan’s first official and permanent capital was Nara. A city filled with UNESCO world heritage sites and historical jewels.
A compact, small city, highly ranked thanks to its marvelous sights, including the famous Daibutsu (Great Buddha) at Todai-Ji Temple, Kasuga-Taisha Shrine and Nara-Koen Park, with its famous semi-wild deer.
The most important spot of Todai-Ji is the Daibutsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha), which contains the vast grandeur of the Daibutsu. You’ve probably seen this 16-meter gold and bronzaBuddha emanating spirituality even in photos or videos –it dates back to 751!. If you go there, be sure to go all the way to the Nandai-mon Gate. Once you are at Daibutsu-den –and if you are traveling with kids – check out the pillar that has a hole in the center. The legend says children that can fit in the hole will be filled with enlightenment.
Nara-Koen Park is filled with lovely ponds and pleasant, tranquil pathways. The most popular attraction –especially for children – is the large population of semi-wild deer that love in the park. You can buy crackers and feed them.
The commercial city of Japan, known for its fantastic nightlife, amazing modern architecture and delicious street food should be included in any first-visitor list.
If you’d like to do some world-class shopping, Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi shopping arcade are two of the major shopping areas in southern Osaka. While you are at Dotonbori, do not miss the Glico sign looming over the bridge, it is a significant landmark.
The other area worth visiting while in Osaka is Tennoji. This area is home to the Abeno Harukas 300-meter skyscraper. You will not get a better view of Japan than from this high altitude.
If you are keen to experience Hollywood, the Japanese way, you must head to Universal Studios, which is the most visited amusement park in Japan. (along with Tokyo’s Disneyland). The park offers numerous, exciting attractions; there are also seasonal events. If you are there over Halloween or Christmas, you do not want this miss it! Merchandise sold at the park is widely popular. You can find limited-edition products of popular characters -you’ve guessed it! Hello, Kitty is among them. The park also offers character themed food and drinks to add up to the flair.
And speaking about food, do not forget to save your appetite for Osaka’s phenomenal street food.
The city’s name, translated from Japanese means “marsh of gold.” It refers to an old legend that said a local man had discovered gold in the shape of flakes –while digging for potatoes.
Kanazawa is known for its well-preserved Edo-era districts, art museums, and regional handicrafts.
The top reason for tourists to visit the city is Kenrokuen Garden, one of three “perfect gardens” in Japan, this park is designed to look stunning all year long. Next to the garden is Kanazawa Castle, a 16th-century castle that was reconstructed, and it is famous for its surrounding, beautiful garden. The castle offers numerous tours.
The bustling, buzzing Omisho Market is a food spectacle by itself. You will find seafood, oysters and other delicacies among the favorite spot. If you get to the market early, you can plan your day around it and enjoy a delicious meal at one of the many restaurants. If you are just passing by and are “on-the-go”, you can grab some tasty sushi in one of the market stalls.
Kanazawa is also home to the D.T. Suzuki Museum of Buddhist philosophy, the Nagamachi Bukeyashiki samurai district, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, and Myoryu-Ji (the Ninja Temple).
If you liked Kyoto, Kanazawa –often called the little Kyoto –will conquer your heart.
Culturally-rich, combining modernity, high-tech with History and Ancient traditions, Japan is captivating and alluring. One look at the serenity and transcendence in the eyes of its people will let you know you have arrived at the “Land of the Rising Sun” and that you will emerge a different person.