Japan – the land of the samurai, geishas and sushi. However, there’s so much more to this vast and fascinating country than meets the eye. Here are five places to visit that should make it onto every traveller’s itinerary.
A natural starting point for any tour of Japan is its global mega-city – Tokyo. Home to over 13.5 million people, Tokyo is a peculiar mix of old and new, combining ancient Japanese traditions and seemingly conservative social norms with a fast-paced, sometimes chaotic modern city where anything goes.
Just 60 kilometres south-east of Tokyo is the awe-inspiring, volcanic Mount Fuji – one of the country’s national symbols. Why not combine a trip to both?
The ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto is jam-packed with temples and imperial palaces. First impressions might be of the usual urban sprawl but dig a little deeper and you’ll find treasures such as the Golden Pavilion, Nijo Castle and the Sento Palace. For food lovers, the Nishiki market in downtown Kyoto will certainly wet the appetite.
Kyoto is revered throughout Japan for clinging to tradition – and geishas are a huge part of that. Head to the Gion district to get a feel for this unusual, but beautiful art.
Takayama and the Japanese Alps
Away from the major cities lie the beautiful Japanese Alps – a series of mountain ranges that run across the main island of Honshu. Just two hours from Tokyo, it’s a world away from the chaotic capital, with forested ridges and snow-capped peaks to explore, dotted with traditional tiered-roof castles and farmhouses.
Combine your hike with a stop-over in Takeyama, a small town nestled in the foothills of the Alps. One of the least-visited parts of Japan, Takeyama will allow you to experience Japanese life at its most authentic – as well as some awesome street food. Don’t miss the mitarashi-dango (rice balls grilled in soy). They’re a local delicacy!
Located in the north of Japan on the island of Hokkaido, Sapporo is the country’s fifth-largest city, and its youngest, having only been established in 1857. Its annual Snow Festival, which takes place in February, is famous worldwide for its intricate array of snow and ice sculptors.
Besides the festival, Sapporo is famous for both ramen and beer. For foodies, don’t miss the unusual hairy crab – a slightly expensive treat, but delicate, sweet and delicious!
A slightly more off-the-beaten-track destination is the city of Nikko, a few hours north of Tokyo. Off the radar for many tourists, this mountain city is, in fact, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with an array of temples, shrines and traditional Japanese architecture that warrant a stopover for a couple of days at least. It’s unusual claim to fame is as the birthplace of the Three Wise Monkeys.
Take a hike up the mountain to the serene Takino shrine to enjoy the tranquil views or visit the impressive Shinkyo red bridge which spans an expansive gorge between the city and its temples.