Navigate Japan: Key Spots on the Map to Explore
Japan is much more than what meets the eye. Let's explore some of the best spots to see the rich history and culture of Japan truly come to life.
Japan is an archipelago which is spread out across nearly 365,000 square kilometers, and around 6,852 islands. The four largest islands are Hokkaido to the north; Honshu in the middle and home to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Nagoya; Kyushu to the west; and Shikoku to the south. The climate varies from subtropical in the south with temperatures averaging around 30 degrees Celsius in summer, to near arctic in the northern island of Hokkaido. The country is home to more than 130 million inhabitants, of which more than 35 million live in the Tokyo Metropolitan area. Japan is also home to some of the longest living people in all of the world, with the average life expectancy sitting at an astonishing 82.6 years between 86.1 for women, and 79 years for men.
But Japan is much more than its geography, climate and social studies – it is a country so rich and diverse in culture and tradition, that few other countries in the world can really compare to its beauty and natural wonder. Most people know Japan for their fearless Samurai during the ancient period of warring Japan, or perhaps for the devastating Hiroshima bombing. Others know the country for the delicious sushi that it has introduced to our appetites, or maybe for the majestic Mount Fuji which always seems to be sitting in the background from wherever you look, like the eyes of the Mona Lisa painting. Whether you are coming to Japan to shop, to see the sights of world-famous Tokyo, to ski in the snow-fields to the north, or to perhaps enjoy some traditional Kabuki performances, there is a presence here which will make you never want to leave.
There is much more to Japan that it's tourist hot-spots. Some of the most beautiful natural wonders of the world stand here, and this is the side of Japan that is really worth exploring. Here are the key spots to explore on your next visit to Japan.
Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo
Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa can be looked at from two opposite points of view. The first view is that the Temple is a 'tourist trap', as suggested by the Nakamise-dori which is the street which leads up to the Temple. This colorful lane way is lined with shops selling everything from plastic samurai swords to little trinkets as much as it is lined with a slow-moving crowd of tourists. On the other hand, the Senso-ji Temple can be considered to be the best place to visit in all of Tokyo, as the grounds surrounding the Temple are incredibly beautiful. The legend behind the origin of Senso-ji, originated in the period around early 600 A.D., when two brothers who were fishing, managed to catch a small golden statue of the goddess of mercy, Kannon, whilst fishing in the Sumida River not too far away. Inspired by the divine sign, the brothers decided to build a temple to enshrine it, and the legend of the Senso-ji Temple was born.
Visitors to Senso-ji are immediately greeted by the grand Kaminari-mon (also known as the 'Thunder Gate'), which stands 12 meters in height and width. Between the gates hangs a 4 meter wide red paper lantern which weighs more than 680 kilograms. On each side, the entrance to the Temple is protected by statues of the gods of thunder and wind, Raijin and Fujin. At the opposite end of the Nakamise-dori, a second gate at 22 meters in height stands, but with three red paper lanterns and two 360 kilogram straw sandles. This gate is also protected by two 5 meter high statues of the guardian deity of the Buddha, named Nio. As you get closer to the Temple itself, you will be greeted with the sweet scent of burning incense as worshipers pray and make their offerings.
Opening Hours: Open 24 hours, 7 days per week
Admission Cost: Free
Getting Here: Senso-ji Temple is one a few minutes walk from Asakusa on the Asakusa and Ginza subway lines.
Tokyo's Tsujiki Market
Just as the sun is dawning upon the street's of Tokyo, there is one place that is already in full-swing. The moment the clock ticks on 5:30am, a bell is rung and the world-famous tuna auction commences. A flurry of hand signals and loud chatter take place over the hundreds of frozen bodies of huge tuna fish, and after around 30 minutes, it is all over. By 9am, the second wave of visitors flock to the largest fish market in the world to purchase wholesale quantities of fish for their businesses and restaurants from more than 60,000 stores. This amounts to around 700,000 tons of fresh seafood every year.
Outside of the main market you will find hundreds of stores designed more towards the tourist visitor. These stores trade not only in seafood products, but also vegetables, flowers, and even hand-crafted cooking utensils. There is also a wide variety of award-winning sushi restaurants perfect for lunchtime located here. As a word of warning though, try to plan your arrival to visit after 9am, unless you are going to try your luck to be one of the lucky people to witness the tuna auction. 9am is generally the preferred time for tourists and window-shoppers to come to the market in order to avoid getting in the way of the businessman who have serious purchases to make in the early morning. It is okay if you do decide to come earlier, just be mindful of not getting in the way.
Opening Hours: 5am to 3pm. Closed Sundays and every 2nd and 4th Wednesday's of the month. Tuna auction's start at 5:25am and are limited to a maximum of 120 people.
Admission Cost: Free
Getting Here: Tsujiki Fish Market is a short walk from either Tsujiki Shijo Station on the Oedo subway line, or Tsujiki Station on the Hibiya subway line.
The Great Buddha at Kamakura
Located just outside Tokyo, The Great Buddha statue is nearly as iconic in Japan as Mount Fiji. For nearly 750 years the Daibatsu has sat peacefully in silent meditation on his stone pedestal at the Kotoku-in Temple in Kamakura. As days have passed, so too have the Momoyama, Edo, Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras. Countless wars and natural disasters have done little to harm the Great Buddha, except for a tsunami in 1495 which washed away the original wooden building that he once sat inside – a rather astonishing thought considering that the Temple is located nearly one kilometer inland from the sea. Now the Great Buddha has become a beautiful shade of green, much like the grass and trees around it – a true symbol of assimilation with the environment, and perhaps even a symbol of unity.
But, there is plenty more to see in the surrounding area including a 9 meter high wooden statue of the goddess Kannon, located between Kotoku-in and the Hase Station. It is believed that in the early 8th Century, a monk from the village of Nara carved the statue and then threw it into the sea, before it was washed ashore an erected where it stands now. As beautiful as the statue of Kannon is, the star of the show in this area still remains to be the Great Buddha. Although he has lost his gold-leaf coating, which was given to the statue during construction in 1252, the Temple grounds make for a fantastic day-trip from Tokyo, and is highly recommended.
Opening Hours: Open daily from 8am to 5pm.
Admission Cost: 200 Yen
Getting Here: Hase Station is only three stops from Kamakura on the Enoden Line. If traveling from Tokyo, you are best to travel on the JR Yokosuka Line through Yokohama, or travel on the JR Shonan-Shinjuku Line if traveling from either Shibuya or Shinjuku.
Tosho-gu Shrine, Nikko
It has been estimated that it took around 15,000 craftsmen nearly 2 years to build the complex surrounding the Tosho-gu Shrine. The Shrine was constructed for one of the most important people in the history of Japan, warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, who became one of the first Shoguns of Edo after unifying Japan in the beginning of the 17th Century. It is also estimated that nearly 2.5 million sheets of gold leaf was used in order to make a very grand and decadent statement – quite fitting considered the man the Temple was built for.
The Tosho-gu Shrine is surrounded by an ancient cryptomeria forest, which make the grounds quiet and peaceful, invoking a strong sense of calmness upon all those who visit. The shrine itself has many intricate details in its facade which shows just how much work and effort was put into its construction. In the shrine's stables, considered to be highly sacred by the Japanese people, sits a white Imperial horse which was gifted to Japan by New Zealand. Above the stable doors rests a carved out image of the three wise monkeys, representing the three core principles of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. You may remember them as 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil', which is a very good way to live your life in peace and harmony with others – one of the strongest messages conveyed by the Buddhist tradition.
However, what truly makes this place to unique and special to visit, is the hall inside of the shrine, whose roof contains a painting of a ferocious dragon. The temple priests tap together small blocks of wood which echo throughout the temple and give life to the giant beast. Seeing this will make your journey to the Temple well worthwhile.
Opening Hours: Open daily from 8am to 4pm.
Admission Cost: from 1,300 Yen depending on if you want to visit the nearby Futarasan and Rinno-ji Temples, or enter Ieyasu's tomb.
Getting Here: Nikko is only a little more than 2 hours from Asakusa in Tokyo on the Tobu Line. Buses run frequently from Nikko to Tosho-gu, else visitors can walk for 20 minutes from the station.
Mount Fuji and Hakone
In nearly every picture you see of Japan, there is always one grand and imposing image that rests silently in the background – Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san to the Japanese. Standing at 3,776 meters in height, it remains as the tallest mountain in all of Japan, and has served as a wealth of inspiration for artists and writers, and has become a focal symbol in both the Shinto and the Buddhist spiritual traditions. The world-renowned woodblock print maker (known as 'ukiyo-e' in Japanese), named Katsuhika Hokusai, spent most of his life between 1760 and 1849 capturing the majestic mountain in all of its changing faces throughout the seasons. You may know him for the famous 'Great Wave Off Kanagawa' print which depicts a traditional Japanese wave.
Most visitors to the sacred mountain, both tourists and Japanese, come to the Hakone area, which is filled with beautiful little inns, natural hot springs, and stunning mountain vistas, to escape the crowded cities surrounding Mount Fuji. During the summer months, visitors are able to climb the mountain in order to get a real close-up and hands-on experience of the natural wonder. Alternatively, visit the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building on a bright and clear day, and you will still be able to witness one of the most famous places in the world. No trip to Japan would be complete without this experience.
Getting Here: Hakone-Yumoto Station is only a 80-minute journey from Shinjuku in Tokyo, on the Odakyu Line.
Kinkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto
In the eerily still waters of Kyoko-chi (Japanese for 'Mirror Pond'), is the reflection of the golden Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Each of its three levels has been crafted to a different and unique architectural style. The first level was built in the style of shinden-zukuri, which was the most common form of construction of the aristocratic Imperial Heian during the 11th Century. The second floor was also constructed in an aristocratic style, however this time in the warrior style of buke-zukuri. The top floor was made in the traditional cha'an style of the ancient Chinese.
The Temple which stands today, is actually a reconstructed version of the original which was built in 1397. Reconstruction took place between 1955 and 1987, after a young monk destroyed the Golden Pavilion with fire in 1950. In 1994, the Temple received World Heritage status, and remains one of the most beautiful and visited places in all of Japan.
Opening Hours: Open daily from 9am to 5pm.
Admission Cost: from 400 Yen
Getting Here: Take the 101 or 205 bus from Kyoto Station to the Kinkaku-ji Michi stop, or the 59 or 12 to the Kinkaku-ji Mae stop.
Horyu-ji Temple, Nara
Many Japanese people believe that Nara was the birthplace of Japan, and it was the capital of the country between 710 and 784 before Kyoto came to be. Nara is rich in tradition and history, and is home to some of the most important temples and pagoda's in all of Japanese culture. The most important temple to the Japanese people however, is Horyu-ji. Constructed around 670 A.D., it stands as the oldest wooden building in the world. The five story pagoda temple was dismantled during World War II to prevent its destruction from aerial bombing, and then rebuilt using all of the original pieces after the War came to an end.
What makes Horyu-ji so important in Japanese culture, is the fact that it was used as a base where priests were able to spread the newly introduced (at the time) traditions of Buddhism to the Japanese people. Today, some of the oldest relics of the Buddhist tradition in the world, outside of Thailand and India, are still on display here. So whether you are a devout Buddhist looking to pay your respects and give offerings, or want to truly experience the rich culture and history which has helped shape modern-day Japan, then you should make a day trip out of a visit to the Horyu-ji Temple.
Opening Hours: Open daily from 8am to 4:30pm
Admission Cost: from 1000 Yen
Getting Here: Nara is only a 40 minute journey from Kyoto on the Kinetsu-Kyoto Line's Limited Express service. Alternatively, you can reach Nara on the JR Lines from both Kyoto and Osaka. There are buses between Nara Station and Horyu-ji which run every half an hour.
Out of all 142 castles which are scattered across the landscape of Japan, none can match the size and sheer beauty of the heavenly Himeji Castle. The five story main tower called the 'Tenshukaku', and the three smaller towers called 'donjon', have served as the backdrop to Japanese culture since the mid-14th Century. The castle has also served as locations for the Hollywood films of James Bond's 'You Only Live Twice', and Tom Cruise's 'The Last Samurai'. The Castle is nicknamed Hakuro-jo (Japanese for 'White Heron Castle'), for the fact that the structure looks like a majestic heron spreading its wings, not only for beauty, but for the elusive nature of the heron and the fact that the Himeji Castle was built to be near impossible to breach. With it's many turrets and keeps, 84 gates, 3 moats, and a maze-like entrance which gave its defenders plenty of time to fire upon the confused enemy from more than 1,000 small windows, the Himeji Castle was built for war.
The grounds of the castle are also home to some of the biggest annual events in Japan, such as the Cherry Blossom Viewing Fair in spring, the Moon Viewing Fair in autumn, and the Himeji Castle Festival in summer. The surrounding area is also filled with beautiful gardens and examples of both modern and Edo-era architecture, such as the Museum of Literature, and the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History. A visit here in spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom is simply breathtaking.
Opening Hours: Open daily from 9am to 4pm.
Admission Cost: from 600 Yen.
Getting Here: Himeji Castle is a 3 hour journey from Tokyo, and just one hour from Osaka on the JR Sanyo Line. From Himeji Station, the castle is a short 15 minute walk.
Niseko Ski Resort, Hokkaido
Niseko Ski Resort, located in south-western Hokkaido, is considered to have the finest powder snow in the whole world, with some of the best ski slopes too which majestically wrap around the near 1,900 meter high Mount Yomei, which is often referred to as the mirror image of Mount Fuji. The name of the town, Niseko, derives from an ancient language spoken in Hokkaido a long time ago, and in English, translates roughly to 'a mountain with a river which runs around the bottom of a sheer cliff'.
Visitors today are treated to four internationally renowned ski resorts within Niseko – Niseko Village, the Grand Hirafu, the Hanazono, and the Niseko Annupuri. The resort town has become highly regarded among both Australian tourists and property developers, and is one of the most foreign-friendly places in Japan, with most hotels and restaurants offering English-speaking staff. In summer, the resort turns into a haven for hiking, whitewater rafting, kayaking, and mountain-bike riding, making the Niseko Ski Resort ideal for tourists all year round.
Getting Here: Take the JR Kaisoku Airport line from Sapporo Station to Otaru Station, which takes only 45 minutes. Then, take the JR Hakodate Line to Niseko Station for an additional 1 hour and 40 minutes. Alternatively, you may take a 3 hour bus ride direct from Sapporo. There are many flights which connect Sapporo with Tokyo and Osaka daily.
Yakushima Island, Kyushu
Yakushima Island is just 30 kilometers in diameter and around 1,000 kilometers to the south-west of Tokyo. The island is world-famous for its giant cedar trees which have stood for more than 7,200 years. Yakushima is also known as the 'Alps of the Pacific' due to its many peaks of which some stand more than 1,000 meters in height. In 1993, the island received World Heritage status due to its unique and rare flora and fauna, but mainly due to its ancient cedar tree's of which some are of the Yakushima rhododendron species which turn pink, white and red throughout June.
Yakushima Island is relatively new to the tourist trade, despite its ancient heritage. Visitors today can expect stunning granite mountains, and a J.R.R. Tolkien style subtropical oasis among mountainous streams which meet at the coast for tidy and deserted tropical beaches. The tropical weather however, really does make its presence known. Throughout the period of July and August, the heat and humidity can take its toll on the unsuspecting, and the island itself receives around 10 meters of rain every year. Take advantage of the beautiful and well-kept paradise before it becomes too popular among tourists. This is postcard Japan at its finest.
Getting Here: Yakushima can be reached by daily flights from Kagaoshima and from Itami in Osaka. Alternatively, you can take a 2 hour journey by hydrofoil from Kagaoshima, or a 4 hour ferry ride.
Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park
It is unfortunate that Hiroshima is world-famous for the nuclear destruction which was waged upon it during World War II. In the early morning on August 6th in 1945, a 4,400 kilogram nuclear bomb was dropped onto the city of Hiroshima, turning most of the city into dust, and taking nearly 80,000 lives in the process. In the following days and weeks, a further 60,000 inhabitants would die as result of the horrific injuries which were inflicted upon them.
At the center of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park stands the Gempaku Dome, which managed to remain standing despite being in the cross-hairs of the bombs destruction. Today it stands as a symbol of the indestructible human spirit, and is at the heart of the Japanese people's culture. Visitor's who come to pay their respects, can also see the 9 meter high Children's Peace Monument which was constructed in tribute to 12-year-old leukemia patient, Sadoko Sasaki, who believed that if she could fold 1,000 paper cranes, she would be cured of the illness inflicted by the Hiroshima bombing. Unfortunately, she succumbed to her illness before she could reach 1,000 cranes. In tribute, thousands of schools across Japan and people from across the whole world, send around 10 million paper cranes to the monument every year. Definitely a very moving experience to witness.
Opening Hours: Open daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm.
Admission Cost: 50 Yen
Getting Here: Hiroshima is easily accessible via train from Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo. The Hiroshima Airport is also accessible via flights from Tokyo, Sapporo, Okinawa, and some places in China and Korea.
Tokyo Midtown and Roppongi Hills
Less than 10 years ago, Roppongi was just another place which lit up after dark with restaurants and late night bars, doomed to become just another piece of the urban puzzle. Fortunately today, Roppongi has become upscale and cosmopolitan, almost a Tokyo version of Los Angeles. What instigated this change was result of a man named Minoru Mori. The billionaire launched a $2.5 billion project in 2003 which he named 'Roppongi Hills', and within just a few months of opening, he made even the sprawling and highly-popular Shibuya Crossing seem asleep.
Today, more than 200 shops, cafes, restaurants, and hotels make up Roppongi Hills, which has been informally nicknamed the 'city within a city', further pushing Tokyo into the spotlight as one of the best cities in the world to be in. However, this development caused jealousy within the heart of Mitsui Fudosan, who was the biggest real estate developer in all of Japan. The jealousy drived him to build his own 'city within a city' literally across the street, and thus Tokyo Midtown was also born. Since opening in 2007, the second development is now home to the tallest tower in Tokyo (standing at a height of 248 meters), and a five-story department store complex called 'Galleria', which contains more than 73,000 square meters of restaurants and shops. Not many cities in the world could boast that they have two cities within their city. Both areas are well worth checking out.
Opening Hours: Most places open around 10am, but check in advance through one of the contact websites provided below.
Admission Cost: Free
Getting Here: Roppongi Station is easily accessible via the Hibaya and the Oedo subway lines.
Contact: www.roppongihills.com and www.tokyo-midtown.com
Cherry Blossom Festivals
A quintessential trip to Japan must coincide with one of its world-famous Cherry Blossom Festivals, which take place all over the country. Starting from the middle of March up until the early weeks of May, the beautiful cherry blossoms, known in Japanese as 'sakura', begin to bloom northward through Japan, heralding the beginning of Spring in etheric patterns and displays of vibrant pink. At the core of the Japanese culture, the people begin to get really hyped up and excited by the flowering of the cherry blossom trees. Major television networks across the country eagerly follow the bloom as it spreads north with a level of excitement as if nobody has ever seen the delicate little pink flowers before. Public parks fill with people eager to get a glimpse in what the Japanese call 'hanami' (literally 'blossom watching').
The most popular place to to join in on hanami, is in the Ueno Park in Tokyo, where tourists and locals alike share sake and come together in large parties, especially at the start of April when Tokyo receives the peak of their cherry blossom bloom. If you are looking for a postcard picture of cherry blossoms in Japan, head to the Chidorigafuchi area of the Imperial Palace. Alternatively, if you are in Kyoto, the best places to view the sakura at the start of April, is at the Okazaki Canal near the Heian Shrine, or the Muruyama Park which is located just behind the Yasaka Shrine.
This article was written by: