Japan offers many diverse experiences for a traveler even though it’s a small island. You can take your pick from sprawling modern cities, quaint villages, culturally rich destinations, snow-capped mountains, beaches and islands.
No matter what you are looking for, I’m sure you’ll find it here in my list of the best places to visit in Japan.
Tokyo is one of the top cities in the world and a delight to visit. Despite the language barrier, living and traveling in the city feels very smooth and convenient thanks to the excellent transit facilities and courteous locals. Tokyo is known for delicious sea food, fashion and Anime/Manga culture. Popular things to do here is to visit Takeshita street in Harajuku, Electric Town in Akihabara, dazzling night life in Shinjuku, Ginza, Senso-ji Temple, Meji-Jingu and many more. For a more detailed list, see my post on the top things to do in Tokyo.
If you want to experience the cultural and historical aspect of Japan, then Kyoto is a must-visit. Kyoto is somewhat of a contrast to Tokyo. While Tokyo is modern, well-organised and futuristic, Kyoto is slightly chaotic in terms of traffic and geared towards traditional Japanese culture. Hence, instead of skyscrapers, it’s dominated by temples and shrines. You will frequently see people, including some tourists, dressed in Yukatas and Kimonos. This is also where you’ll see Geishas roam the streets and where you can actually interact with them at tea ceremonies and dance performances.
Nara makes for an easy day trip from Kyoto as it’s just an hour and a half train ride away. Like Kyoto, Nara has many temples but it’s popular for something else – deer. In Nara, lots of deer roam freely in the streets without fear of humans. You can approach them, pet them and even feed them cookies which you can purchase from the street vendors. The deer of Nara are also known to bow their head imitating you when you bow yours. A word of caution when you are petting the deer – they are known to have ticks which carry Lyme disease. So, take appropriate precautions.
Kii-Katsuura in the Kii peninsula is part of the ancient pilgrimage route – the Kumano Kodo trails. Here you’ll find Kumano Nachi Taisha, Daimonzaka and the Senjudo Pagoda set against the backdrop of Nachi Falls as shown in the picture. If you are visting Kumano Kodo from Tokyo or Osaka, then see my post giving you complete directions on how to do that.
Lake Kawaguchiko is one of the five lakes from where you can see Mt. Fuji. It’s the most popular and the second largest of the five Fuji Lakes. This place also serves as the base from where you can climb Mt. Fuji. Apart from Mt. Fuji viewpoints you can go boating on the lake and visit other minor attractions located around the lake.
Arashiyama is located in the outskirts of Kyoto and is easily accessible by trains from Kyoto station. The most popular thing to do here is to visit the bamboo groove and Tenryu-ji Temple. You can also ride the Sagano scenic railway which is very beautiful during the cherry blossom season when the cherry trees lining the train tracks are in full bloom.
Osaka is another major city in Japan next to Tokyo. The main downtown area is in Umeda where you can shop, dine and see many skyscrapers such as the Umeda Sky building. Minami, in the south of Osaka is another popular shopping spot in the city. Besides shopping, you can also visit the Osaka Castle, Universal Studios, Sumiyoshi Taisha, Osaka Aquarium and Shitennoji Temple.
If you are feeling brave and adventorous, then go see an active volcano at Mount Aso. This mountain is located on Kyusu island in Kumamato Prefecture. Since it’s an active volcano, when the conditions get dangerous, visitors are prohibited from entering the area. So, please check the volcano’s condition here before you make arrangements to visit. Also, if you suffer from respiratory conditions, then its better to avoid this visit as the gases from the active volcano can have adverse effects on your health. You can get to the volcano through as bus from the JR Aso station or by car. The picture shown here is not of Mount Aso but Komezuka, which is a small inactive volcano and can be seen on the way to Mount Aso.
Itsukushima Island, also known as Miyajima, is one of the most scenic islands in Japan. It is especially beautiful in the fall when the maple trees on the island change color to a brilliant crimson. It’s also known for the giant Torri gate as shown in the picture. This Torri gate gets partially submerged in water during high tide and you can walk right up to it during low tide. Just as in Nara, you can spot deer roaming freely along the beach and near many temples and shrines.
Mount Koya or Koyasan is a religious retreat for members of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Tourists can experience the quiet life of the monks by living overnight in one of the temples. You can also take part in the day to day prayers, meditation and sutra copying rituals of the monks. Book a Shukobo, acommodation in one of the temples, in advance as they are limited and in much demand. Remember to take adequate cash on your visit, as credit cards are not accepted at these places.
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