Where to go in Japan – the top attractions you won’t want to miss

The shimmering lights of Japan’s densely populated cities, interspersed with parks, temples and grand palaces, provide a vibrant kaleidoscope of colour and experiences that attracts millions of visitors each year.

The capital of Tokyo is renowned for all things shopping and pop culture quirky, but there is so much to do in Tokyo and beyond. And with an overwhelming 6,852 islands – from Hokkaido in the north to Honshu – knowing where to start could prove a challenge. Here are my top attractions to add to your sightseeing list.

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Japan’s best temples and shrines

To visit Japan and not stumble upon one of the country’s gorgeous temples would be nearing on the impossible.

Head for Kyoto, which is home to over 2,000 sacred sites. They are a central part of Japanese culture, and some of these have also been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Picking just one temple is no easy task but just an hour from Tokyo is Kotokuin Temple in Kamakura, home to the much-photographed bronze resident, the Great Buddha, the second largest of its kind in Japan.

The Buddha’s face represents contentment, serenity and compassion. Built in the 13th century, it was once gilded and there are still traces of gold leaf near the hollow statue’s ears.

If you like some opulence on your travels, venture north of Tokyo to Nikko, to visit Toshogu Shrine – reportedly one of the country’s finest shrines. Laden in over 2.4 million sheets of gold leaf, the site is dedicated to Japan’s most powerful shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Spend a few hours marvelling at the grand vision before you, and as it is set within a national park, you can find your own place for reflection and calm.

For a temple with a view, Kiyomizu-Dera’s location on a steep hill offers beautiful panoramas of eastern Kyoto. Relax at the top in the open air pavilion, and if you are visiting for a romantic break, stop by the smaller Jishu Shrine which is dedicated to the god of love.

Japan’s Great Outdoors

The unique sights, sounds of colours of a new place is all part of the beauty of travel in my mind. And discovering Japan is no different.

Sakura is an enchanting time in Japan, when the cherry blossom trees bloom and transform the country into a vibrant sea of pinks and whites.

The season varies across the country, with the first blossoms emerging in the south, and finishing off in the north, so time your visit and adventures while you are there accordingly. A bit of guesswork goes into this, but the forecast for 2018 is from March 29 to April 4.

If you are in the capital, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in the heart of the city is the best place to soak up the celebratory atmosphere. And the Sakura season lasts longer here. Wander the grounds which blend a mix of Japanese traditional gardens, English landscaping and French formal gardens.

Sakura season at Shinjuku Gyoen Park | Pic: Guilhem Vellut

To join in with the local customs, stock up on blossom infused drinks and snacks for a picnic under the trees and partake in the philosophy of eating, drinking and being merry.

Japan is certainly a place you could work your way through the rainbow, and the sights of the iconic green bamboo towering above you are worthy of writing home about – or posting on Instagram!

Wander through Arashiyama Bamboo Grove for an other-worldly experience, with stalks of emerald green reaching towards the sky and it’s something of a candy shop for the resident pandas.

And of course after all the excitement of vibrant Tokyo and Kyoto, you will be in need of some muted, serene scenes – but equally exceptional.

Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan standing stocky and impressively symmetrical at 12,388 ft. If you’re feeling active and sprightly, you can make the three to eight-hour ascent with the spectacular reward of the views below.

Where to go for history in Japan

Start out your tour in Himeji, Hyōgo at Himeji Castle which was fortified to defend during the feudal period. It has been rebuilt a number of times over the centuries according to the trends at the time. Today it represents one of the best examples of a Japanese castle.

The design has earned itself a nickname as the white egret castle, and it does have a unique movie star quality about it and has often been used as a film location.

The castle and its hilltop location in Hyogo Prefecture has featured in the James Bond action adventure You Only Live Twice, and The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise

I have regularly found that the best way to delve into local culture on my travels is through its art and history offerings. Tokyo Imperial Palace showcases Japanese art and history as far back as 66oBC, while also being home to the Emperor of Japan. Stop by to discover the journey of Japan and its people.

Imperial Palace in Tokyo is a must see attraction in Japan | pic Cynthia L. McLaughlin

You’ll need to plan a whole day of it here, as the palace and the grounds around it cover almost 3.5 square kilometres with the palace in the west, Kitanomaru Garden, Kōkyo Higashi Gyoen and Kokyogaien National Garden covering the other directions.

Gardens of the Imperial Palace | Pic Mike Haw.jpg

Book an organised tour to discover some of the palace grounds, but if you want something more exclusive, book a behind the scenes tour to discover life around the post WW2 buildings.

Japan has endured and prevailed throughout its colourful, and sometimes haunting history and you will find a whole host of museums and memorials throughout the country.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial is dedicated to the 70,000 lives lost in 1945 when an atomic bomb dropped over the city in western Honshu.

It was the only building left standing in the area after the attack. While it’s a haunting visit, it serves not only as an important reminder for honouring the victims but to value life as we know it today, and extend our hopes for world peace.

Where to shop in Japan

Even if you don’t plan on flexing the plastic too much, the technicolour storefronts and the curious items which lie within them are a sight to behold at Akihabara – consistently rated as one of top things to see and do in Japan.

Browse everything from anime and manga cartoon souvenirs to retro video games and out of this world electronics along Chuo Dori street, which is lined with stores from one man stalls to huge electrical stores.

There are mainstream designer bargains to be sought out too so a trip to one of the 30 outlet malls is essential. For high-end fashion, saunter over to the Ginza district in Tokyo for a selection of posh boutiques and sleek fashion malls such as Mitsukoshi and Ginza Six which are nestled between independent shops selling everything from gourmet foods to stationery supplies.

Head for the Ginza District for luxury shopping in Japan

For fashion and accessories, the Daikanyama district features an enclave of cafes and boutiques, and if you take a short stroll to Naka-Meguro, you will find bohemian vintage stores and hidden lounge bars to discover.

Selected stores (especially department stores) also offer tax-free shopping to foreign visitors spending over ¥5000. If you plan a day out shopping, be sure to bring your passport and look for the tax-free stickers in the window.

Where to eat in Japan

You have all manner of food options and the epi-curious will have plenty to satisfy their hunger pangs, especially at the street food stalls at Nishiki Market in Kyoto.

For £2 you can expect a sizeable portion, but I most like the sound of takoyaki, a fluffy batter infused with octopus, ginger, spring onion doused with takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise and tuna flakes.

Sample takoyaki in Japan an octopus ginger and spring onion concoction

If you’re in Tokyo, you’ll also want to head for Ginza, home to some of the finest sushi spots. Sushi Tokami is a small, basement establishment run by Michelin-starred chef Hiroyuki Sato offers a one of a kind atmosphere, and the chef is happy to discuss his heavenly fish based creations.

And for luxury travellers with a sweet tooth, order a gold ice cream in Kanazawa. The city has retained most of its historic districts and charm having escaped from bombing in the second world war. Today, it produces the majority of Japan’s gold leaf, so much so that it’s even used as an ice cream topping.

Visit one of the city’s stands in the historic district to try out the unusual sweet treat.

Gold ice cream makes an indulgent treat in Japan | Pic: Tjeerd Wiersma

Other unmissable places to visit in Japan

  • Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine in Kyoto for a vibrant, photo-worthy shrine.
  • For an aerial view of the city, Tokyo Skytree offers 360-degree views of the city, and it’s the world’s tallest tower.
  • If you’re looking for a family-friendly day out book tickets for Universal Studios Japan.
  • Visit the famous landmark Osaka Castle which was influential in the unification of Japan in the 16th century.
  • Harajuku for colourful street art and fashion in the Shubuya district of Tokyo.
  • If you’re in need of an art fix, the Hakone Open-Air Museum is a huge outdoor sculpture park blends art with nature and the great outdoors.

 

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Some images have been licensed under Creative Commons 2.0: Toukou Sousui 淙穂鶫箜, Guilhem VellutCynthia L. McLaughlin, Tjeerd Wiersma

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