Japan or ‘The Land of the Rising Sun’ is a mix of traditions and modern trends, a place where the past meets the future and neon lights, skyscrapers and robots turn into temples, origami and gardens. The culture here is unique and sometimes odd but it is this unexpectedness that lures travellers to visit Japan time and time again.
Cities to visit
Tokyo - The capital and largest city featuring the Imperial Palace set amongst beautiful public gardens. Tokyo’s famous restaurant scene has collected the most Michelin stars in the world.
Hiroshima - A large port city destroyed by an atomic bomb during World War ll, this city has been rebuilt and features a peace garden and museums.
Kyoto - The cultural heart of Japan, filled with classical Buddhist temples, gardens, palaces and shrines.
Osaka - A large and dynamic city featuring the Osaka Castle surrounded by a moat and a park full of plum, peach and cherry trees.
Sapporo - Famous for beer and snow, it’s home to the Sapporo premium beer brewery and the dazzling Snow Festival held over a week in February.
In springtime, the Japanese celebrate the important tradition of Hanami (flower viewing). Cherry blossom season sees locals and tourists head out to picnic and drink under the beautiful blossoming trees. Held across Japan at different times, the cherry blossom is said to be especially good at Yoshino. Here, around 30,000 cherry trees decorate the mountain range and tourists can also visit the world heritage listed temples and shrines. Another great spot is Hirosaki, there are plenty of picnic spots and rowboats, and the Hirosaki castle moat fills with petals from the cherry trees.
A Japanese castle is different from anywhere else in the world. During the medieval period, 144 castles were built along mountainsides, coasts and in valleys to protect lands and families against enemies. Only 12 of Japan’s original castles are still standing today. Two castles worth a visit include Matsumoto Castle, which is one of Japan’s oldest castles featuring steep wooden stairs and openings originally used to drop large stones onto invaders. The other is world heritage-listed Himeji Castle, known as the most spectacular castle in Japan due to its size and beauty. Its labyrinthine approach to the main gate originally used to slow down and expose attacking forces.
Sing your heart out at Karaoke
A Japanese invention, Karaoke can be found on almost any street corner in a big city. Don’t be shy — there is no need to impress and you can hire a private room with your friends for an hourly rate. Karaoke venues serve drinks and waiters offer top-ups throughout the session. If you are having trouble locating the nearest Karaoke it could be your pronunciation — in Japan it’s pronounced "Kah-rah-oh-keh" not "kary-oki". Karaokekan, Big Echo or Shidax are some of the bigger chains in Osaka and Tokyo where you can get your groove on.
Japanese garden design, which creates miniature idealistic landscapes, is an art form refined over 1,000 years. The largest garden and most popular with tourists is Risurin Park in Takamatsu. A tour through Risurin Park will take about two hours travelling across bridges, footpaths and hills with amazing scenery including views of Mt Shiun.
Impressive Mt Fuji
Mount Fuji, the country’s highest mountain, dominates the horizon in Tokyo. The national symbol of Japan, the volcano is unique for its symmetrical shape. It attracts more than 200,000 visitors who trek to its summit every year. But if hiking isn’t your thing, you can view the mountain up close by visiting the Fujigoko region (a lake resort area with plenty to do including hot springs and museums) or catch the train from Tokyo to Osaka for a great view of Mt Fuji about 40 minutes into the journey.
Meet a Geisha or Sumo
Tourists often miss out on seeing a Geisha or Sumo because they didn’t plan in advance. A Geisha is a traditional female Japanese entertainer skilled at different arts, like playing classical Japanese music, dancing and poetry. Mainly located in Kyoto where the tradition is strongest, the best place to see a Geisha is at Gion Corner, a theatre where they perform smaller versions of traditional performing arts. Sumo is an exhilarating wrestling sport. Sumo tournaments are only held six times a year and are so popular that tickets need to be purchased in advance.
Sushi originated in Japan and is popular all over the world. Using the freshest seafood, sushi is traditionally served on a bamboo leaf. Tokyo’s Ginza neighbourhood is one of the best places to grab some, but don’t worry if you’re not nearby as there’s high quality sushi restaurants all over the country. Remember — eat the sushi quickly to show respect, pass food from your plate only with chopsticks to another plate, and use wasabi sparingly as it hides the flavour of the fish the chef has specially picked out for you.
In volcanic Japan you will find many Onsen (hot springs) to enjoy. Hakone Onsen and Yufuin Onsen are considered the pinnacles of the Japanese bathing experience, but there are amazing baths all over the country. However, the most famous hot spring is one not frequented by humans but by Japanese macaques. In winter, the Jigokundani hot spring is filled with snow monkeys that descend the steep cliffs and treetops to sit in the warm waters.
Become an Anime fan
Otaku — the serious anime fans — are found in the Akihabara district in central Tokyo. It’s the centre of gaming, manga and anime culture and home to some of the biggest electronic stores. Check out Gundam Front Tokyo, an indoor theme park centred around anime robots, including a life-size statue at the front of the building. Or the Ghibli Museum, featuring exclusive short films, exhibits and favourite characters like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.
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