Japan is perhaps one of the world's most unique countries. From its centuries old history to its stunning natural beauty, and onto its place as a gadget capital of the world, there's so much to do and see. Japanese traditional culture is fascinating, its natural landscapes spellbinding, and yet "Hello Kitty", high end fashion, and technology fill the store fronts in the major cities. The following is our take on the 10 best locations to experience Japan's rich culture and history.
No visit to Japan would be complete without taking a look at the Imperial Palace. With the exception of 2 January and 23 December, the Palace is closed to the public, but visitors can still wander its outskirts. A grand view of the Imperial Palace complete with its landmark Nijubashi bridge can be seen from the Outer Palace Garden which visitors are free to explore. If shopping is more your style, then take a quick peek and photo at the Palace just to show you've been there, and then enjoy the rest of the day blocks away in Ginza, one of Tokyo's best shopping districts.
There are many shrines in and around Tokyo, but none on quite the same scale as Sensoji temple, with its rumored statue of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Located in Tokyo's Asakusa area, this impressive five story pagoda temple is Tokyo's largest and is well worth a visit. It's popular and gets crowded but the experience of walking up the steps to pay your respects by tossing a coin and bowing your head in prayer in the traditional manner is something that you'll never forget.
Mount Fuji is a sight you shouldn't miss. It can be reached as a day-trip from Tokyo, fitting most schedules. It's a spectacular landmark often found on photos and art as a symbol of Japan. If you have the energy, you can undertake the 4 mile climb to the summit. Those who prefer their travel experiences to be a little less physical can enjoy the spectacular view while relaxing in the hot springs at nearby Hakone.
To experience some traditional Japanese culture, make sure you visit Kyoto's oldest entertainment district, Gion. The Minamiza Theater is Japan's oldest kabuki (Japanese drama) theater, and you may be lucky to get tickets for one of their extravagant all-male productions. To see geisha, you can get a taste at Gion Corner, or opt for the full version at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theater. Check local listings to secure tickets before you go, especially if you are visiting Japan during a busy vacation period.
Located in the Eastern region of Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera is a 17th century temple complex that offers stunning views over the city. Apart from the five tier temple, those looking for love may find the answer to their prayers by following an ancient ritual, or sip water collected from a waterfall set in a spectacular location.
Visitors to Japan who arrive between January and April should make a point of visiting one of the many cherry blossom festivals across the country. Often illuminated at night, the festivals also sometimes offer traditional entertainment options like tea ceremonies, Japanese music, or dance. There are many places all over Japan to enjoy these beautiful flowers. For more information, take a look at our top 15 cherry blossom tourist spots.
Also known as White Egret Castle, this 17th century castle is the most visited castle in Japan. It's located west of Kansai and is close to the city of Osaka. In 1993 Himeji Castle was designated as a World Heritage Site. It's considered to be one of Japan's most beautiful castles. Apart from the castle, there's a beautiful walled garden to admire. For the best pictures of the area, walk a little further west from the castle to the nearby Senhime Shrine.
A theme park that offers more than the usual mechanical thrills and spills, Okinawa World is also home to the Gyokusendo Cave. Offering 3 miles of exploring with some 200,000 stalactites, Gyokusendo Cave is a natural experience you shouldn't miss. Apart from the impressive caves, there are traditional crafts to try, traditional houses, and a snake park.
Considered one of the top 3 gardens in Japan, Kenroku-en Garden is a must-see for anyone interested in Japanese landscaping. Within its 25 acres you'll find ponds, bridges, waterfalls, stone lanterns, Japanese maple trees, cherry blossom trees and tea houses. Since the garden is a popular place for tourists, be sure to arrive early before it gets overcrowded. Then, cross the bridge from the gardens and explore nearby Kanazawa Castle.
Showing the aftermath of the bomb that dropped on Hiroshima, the Peace Memorial Park is a place to reflect on the real cost of war. The A-bomb dome is what remains of the few buildings that withstood the blast and is now a World Heritage Site. Following a visit to the Peace Memorial Park, consider taking a trip to Miyajima. Approximately an hour out of Hiroshima, you'll find one of the top views in Japan on this island, the giant torii gate that appears to float above the rising tide. Japan has its share of commercial museums and theme parks, just as it has its share of universally known fast food outlets, but the Japanese attractions listed above give an overview of Japanese life, culture and history in this beautiful country.