Japan is much bigger and spread out than it appears so trying to do everything in one visit is nearly impossible. Plan your trip around favorite sites or must-see attractions is the best way to go, with professional tour companies waiting to help you design the trip of a lifetime. Kyoto is a perfect base for history buffs, not only for its own iconic treasures, but for its closeness to other important destinations like Nara and Osaka. The Shinkansen train line ensures rapid travel between places of interest.
If you’re fascinated by Japan’s pre-Meiji Restoration history and its samurai culture, a trip to Nara is where it all began. Although the city was only imperial for a short time, its cultural influence on the succeeding centuries was immense and mainly motivated by the powerful temples still seen in Nara Park, including Todaiji with its massive seated bronze Buddha image set in the largest ancient wooden building on the planet. Address: Nara Prefecture, Japan Phone: n/a Website: http://www.japan-guide.com/Nara
Kyoto is one of Japan’s most popular destinations, even for those with little knowledge of its history. Traditional and modern Japan come to a head here, with the back streets the still-functioning geisha districts of Gion and Pontocho, and the glorious religious sites set side by side to vast shopping malls, high-rise hotels, fast food joints, and the massively modern and eco-friendly glass-and-steel rail station. The most spectacular temples in Kyoto are 13th century Sanjusangendo with its life-sized 1,001 carved wooden images of Kannon and the gilded and silver Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji temples. The Imperial Palace and moated Nijo Castle were home to shoguns and the Imperial Court for centuries. Address: Kyoto Prefecture, Japan Phone: n/a Website: http://www.japan-guide.com/Kyoto
Nikko Toshugo Shrine
The small town of Nikko lies in Tochigi prefecture, north of Tokyo, and is best accessed from Tobu-Asakusa rail station via a direct line. The burial place of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, the magnificent, multicolored mausoleum holds many superb buildings in Chinese style, and the simple grave of Japan’s most famous son is set atop a cedar-forested hill approached by steep steps. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and the carvings are incredible. Address: Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan Phone: n/a Website: http://www.japan-guide.com/Nikko
Himeji Castle is the grandest and most spectacular of Japan’s remaining 12 historic Daimyo castles, located four hours away from Tokyo by Shinkansen. Towering over the town, it’s presently the subject of ongoing restoration, but visitors are allowed to visit previously closed areas in compensation. Its name translates to the ‘White Heron Castle’ and it was first constructed between 1333 and 1346. Address: Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan Phone: n/a Website: http://www.himeji-castle.gr.jp/index/English/
Set on the coastline just south of Tokyo, Kamakura is best known for its seated bronze Great Buddha, set out in the open air since its temple was washed away by a tsunami in the 15th century. Cast in the mid-13th century, the image is 44 feet tall and one of the loveliest Buddha images in Japan. Kamakura is a charming town with an old-fashioned pedestrianized shopping street boasting tiny, traditional stores and craft shops. It’s famous for its lacquer items and its beach is home to falcons and other birds of prey. Address: Kotoku-in Temple, Kamakura, Kanto, Japan Phone: n/a Website: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/japan/kamakura
Mount Fuji and the Hakone region
One of the best-known active volcanoes on earth, Mount Fuji towers over its surroundings. The climbing season is restricted to July and August due to the unpredictably dangerous variations in its micro-climate during the rest of the year. Even in full summer, temperatures at the summit can fall below freezing overnight, but the sunrise seen from the peak is the experience of a lifetime. Magnificent views of the volcano and its perfect cone can be seen from the shores of the Fuji Five Lakes and Hakone. For visitors with little time, the Osaka Shinkansen line runs close by and offers a landscape seemingly etched into the sky. Address: Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Japan Phone: +81-250-0522 Website: http://www.bes.or.jp/english/parks/fujihakoneizu.h...
Immortalized in countless movies and photographs, this Shinto shrine’s iconic Torii gate rises from the clear waters of the Seto Inland Sea that surrounds sacred Miyajima Island. The shrine itself was built in 1168 on a tiny inlet overlooking holy Mount Misen, and worshipped by the local people since the 6th century. High tide is the best time to view the shrine as the Torii gate appears to float on the water. Address: Miyajima Island, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan Phone: +81-820-442-020 Website: http://web-japan.org/atlas/nature/nat12.html
Shiretoko National Park
The loveliest and most unspoiled of all Japan’s 28 national parks lies on Hokkaido Island in the far north of the country. Shiretoko National Park is known for its incredible biodiversity, unique eco-systems, and stunning natural beauty, with a northern region only accessible by boat. Brown bears, foxes, and deer roam the area and in winter, drift ice formations along the Sea of Okhotsk coastline. Address: 531 Iwaubetsu, Shari-Chou. Hokkaido, 099-4358, Japan Phone: +81-152-24-2114 Website: http://www.shiretoko.or.jp/en/
The country is renowned for its landscapes and rock gardens, the latter often found in Buddhist temples, such as Kyoto’s Ryoanji Temple. Not to be missed examples of Japanese flower gardens include Kyoto’s Koke-dera moss garden and the gardens of Kairakuen (Mito), Korakuen (Okayama) and Kenrokuen (Kanazawa). The pretty Takamatsu park of Ritsurin is also well worth a visit. Address: n/a Phone: n/a Website: n/a
Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima
Commemorating the target site of the WWII atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the Peace Memorial Park was built on an area that saw near total destruction. Today, the area is a historical focus of the city with museums, memorials and statues. Highlights include the A-Bomb Dome, the National Peace Memorial Hall and the Peace Memorial Museum. Address: Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan Phone: +81-82-543-6271 Website: http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/top_e.html