Getting to know Japan
Many first-time visitors to Japan are often surprised to learn that this relatively small Asian country also boasts a rich and fascinating history dating back thousands of years as one of the world’s most advanced industrialized nations.
Indeed, Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist temples were already well-established and drawing pilgrims and patrons for their often elaborate designs and décor long before many of Europe’s most spectacular cathedrals were built. It was also developing its wealth-generating industries, such as porcelain and silk weaving, even as the country was struggling economically.
Despite wars and natural disasters, much of Japan’s rich tradition has been preserved (or rebuilt), making a trip there an unforgettable experience. A trip to Japan is unquestionably a wise use of both your time and your money, as it offers an almost limitless array of top attractions, exciting activities, and interesting landmarks to discover.
Mount Fuji (Fuji-san), Japan’s most famous landmark, is also the country’s tallest mountain peak. This majestic and fabled mountain, rising 3,776 meters above a largely flat landscape to the south and east, can be seen from Tokyo, more than 100 kilometers away.
Mount Fuji has been the subject of numerous works of art and literature for centuries, and in 2013 UNESCO designated it a world cultural icon. More than a million people climb Mount Fuji every summer to witness the sunrise from its summit, which is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park.
While some climbers still start at the bottom, the majority now begin their ascent above the halfway point, at the 5th Station, resulting in a more manageable ascent of six to eight hours. The entire climb should be attempted in one day, with a night’s rest at one of the specially designated “Mountain Huts” along the way. To catch the sunrise, you’ll need to get up early the next morning.
There are those who can say “been there, done that” by looking at a distant mountain or riding in a speeding train.
As the capital’s most famous landmark, the Imperial Palace boasts an impressive collection of 17th-century gardens surrounded by walls and moats. Despite the fact that much of the palace is off-limits to visitors (it is still in use by the Imperial family), a stroll around the grounds will still reveal a lot of the palace’s history.
As well as having access to the parkland surrounding the palace, visitors are allowed into the East Higashi-Gyoen Garden and other public areas as part of a guided tour. The Nijubashi Bridge, or “double bridge,” is one of the most romantic views in Tokyo.
The world-famous Ginza shopping district is another must-see for visitors to Tokyo. Two of Japan’s most popular theaters can be found in this area, the Kabuki-za and the Shimbashi Enbujo, both of which feature Kabuki and Bunraku performances.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
However, much more can be said about the incredible efforts made by this vibrant city to remember the many victims of this world’s first nuclear attack than the horrors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. More importantly, the city of Hiroshima stands as a testament to the power of nonviolence as a force for good in the world.
It is estimated that more than one million people per year come to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park each year, many of whom come from outside of Japan. The park is located right where the atomic blast took place, in a once-bustling area of the city. Monuments, memorials, and museums dedicated to the events of that fateful day can be found here.
The park is also home to the Peace Memorial Museum, which features a wide variety of exhibits on the topic of world peace in addition to the park’s beautiful grounds and gardens. The Atom Bomb Dome, the charred remains of an administrative building at the epicenter of the blast, can be found here, as well as the Memorial Cenotaph and the Flame of Peace.
The Island Shrine of Itsukushima
The island of Miyajima, known as Japan’s Shrine Island, is just a short ferry ride from the mainland of Hiroshima. The Itsukushima Shrine, a Shinto temple dedicated to the Princesses of the Wind God Susanoo, is located on Miyajima, a 30-square-kilometer island in Hiroshima Bay.
The majority of the shrine’s buildings, which date back to the 8th century, are supported only by piles in a small bay. It’s incredible how these structures, like the fabled Great Floating Gate (O-Torii), appear to float in the water during high tide.
There are numerous walkways and bridges that connect the various halls, making it a fascinating place to explore. In addition, there is the awe-inspiring Hall of a Thousand Mats (Haiden), the Offerings Hall (Heiden), and the Prayer Hall (Haiden) (Senjokaku).
The shrine’s stage, where visitors can enjoy traditional dances and music, is another noteworthy feature. The island’s beautiful grounds and gardens, which are home to wild deer and numerous bird colonies, are also well worth exploring.
Kyoto, one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations, is one of the few Japanese cities untouched by the devastation of World War II. More than a thousand years after the Imperial family first settled here, tourists are still flocking to Kyoto to take in the city’s beautiful historic streets and architecture.
Even back then, Tokyo was the country’s cultural capital. With its many museums and galleries, each packed with important sculptures, paintings and other art forms, this legacy continues to this day.
In addition to its 30 still operational temples, Kyoto’s Buddhist architecture includes notable landmarks, such as the 14th-century Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), which is known for its exquisite gold-leaf-clad facade.
Also make sure to visit Nijo Castle, a fortress built in the 17th century that still has its original moat, walls, and towers intact. Beautiful castle gates and a palace with tasteful interior decor are two other highlights.
The original Kyoto Imperial Palace is also a must-see site for tourists in the city (Kyoto-gosho). It was constructed in AD 794 and is one of the most popular historic sites in the city.
One must also spend some time in the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove while in Kyoto. The town center is just a short walk away from this beautiful area of tall bamboo.
Temple City, historic Nara
Nara has been Japan’s cultural epicenter for centuries, and the lovely, untouched city is home to a slew of historic structures and priceless artworks.
Many of the city’s important old temples can be found along the city’s many historic streets. Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji are two of the Seven Great Temples of Nara.
Todai-Great ji’s South Gate is another noteworthy feature (Nandaimon). The temple’s entrance is guarded by a magnificent two-story structure, which is supported by 18 columns and features two eight-meter-tall Nio statues. As a side note, the world’s largest timber structure is also located here.
The Castle of Osaka
Osaka Castle (saka-j), built in 1586 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was at the time the country’s largest and most important fortress. When compared to its predecessor, the current structure dates back to 1931 and has undergone numerous reconstructions since then.
The 42-meter-tall main tower, which has five stories, is a must-see. Displays chronicling the history of the castle and its surroundings can be found in the 14-meter-tall stone tower. The best views of Osaka can be had from the top floor, especially when the sun sets.
It’s also worth mentioning the Hokoku Shrine and Shitenno-ji, Osaka’s most famous temple, which date back to AD 59. This lovely shrine, one of Japan’s first Buddhist temples, has a five-story pagoda as well as several other exquisitely decorated structures. The Golden Pavilion (Kondo), with its fine statues and paintings, the Lecture Hall (Kdo), and a lovely covered corridor connecting three of the site’s gates are just a few of the highlights.
The Atsuta Shrine, Nagoya
Nagoya’s Atsuta Shrine, Japan’s most important Shinto shrine, welcomes more than five million pilgrims annually. The “grass-mowing sword” (kusanagi-no-tsurugi), one of only three preserved Imperial insignias in Japan, was found here in the first century.
Additionally, the treasury, which houses a wide variety of artifacts, including old and contemporary artworks, ceramics, jewelry, and traditional masks, is a must-see for anyone interested in Japan’s rich cultural heritage. Make sure to visit Nagoya Castle while you’re in the city. It was built in 1612 and has a 48-meter-tall main tower that is famous for its two gilded dolphins (shachi). In addition to its museum, which houses artifacts from the former palace, and its breathtaking views of the Nobi Plain and the city, it is a popular destination for tourists
Chbu-Sangaku National Park
Natural beauty is abundant in Japan, and many of these areas have been designated national parks or UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Chbu-Sangaku National Park, located in the heart of Honshu, is one of the most spectacular. A group of mountains called the Hida Mountains or Japanese Alps can be found in the park’s northern and central regions.
Among the country’s tallest peaks are Hotaka at 3,190 meters and Yari at 3,180 meters, which are located in this region. The Japanese Alps are popular with hikers and climbers in the summer and skiers in the winter because of their similarity to the Central European Alps and their abundance of snow in the winter.
At higher elevations, the park is home to the rare ptarmigan and mountain antelopes, two species of flora and fauna that are particularly noteworthy. As a result of this park’s many hot springs, many spas and resorts have been established, the most famous of which is Kamikchi.
The Castle of Fukuoka and the Ancient Festivals of the City
Fukuoka Castle (Fukuoka-j) is one of the few surviving examples of the once-prolific and majestic hilltop homes preferred by Shoguns and city rulers. Although it was once a part of a larger complex, the Naka Castle is still impressive in its size and location on a high foundation overlooking the Naka River.
There are numerous events and festivals in Fukuoka. Most famous of these is the annual two-week Hakata Gion Yamakasa, which attracts millions of visitors from all over Japan to its colorful parades and traditional races.
It’s not all old-fashioned fun in the city. At Canal City Hakata you’ll find some of the best shopping malls, hotels, restaurants, and theaters in all of Japan, as well as a canal that runs through the complex.