Top 10 Places to Visit in Japan
Mount Fuji From 17,000 Feet
1. Mount Fuji
Japan’s highest mountain (3776 meters, 12,377’) is unquestionably the country’s most iconic natural landmark. Photographed in all seasons from all angles, its near perfect cone is climbed by one quarter million people yearly, usually during the months of July and August. Its high visibility and traffic is partially owed to its proximity to the Kanto, or the plain surrounding Tokyo. However the best time to view the mountain is in the winter months when visibility is best. Considered one of the three holy mountains in Japan, along with Tateyama and Hakusan, there is understandably a collection of shrines on the crater rim. Since many people climb the mountain hiking trails and facilities are well established and there is a considerable amount of development on the mountain. The meteorological station marks the high point of the mountain and the country. Popular hiking routes to the summit are Gotemba, Fujinomiya, and Kawaguchiko. All of the trails have ten stations each, which are situated strategically to offer refreshments, lodging, and facilities for the hikers and tourists alike. Most hikers start from the 5th station/s, which are located between 6,000’ – 7,000’ and have access by paved roads. However, Mount Fuji lacks train access. If you are interested in climbing and don’t have a POV the best way to get there is by catching one of the many Fuji-bound buses departing from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo during the months of July and August. Fuji, a strato-, or composite volcano, last erupted in 1708 and is considered dormant.
Ginza at Dusk
The National Diet Near Ginza
2. Ginza, Tokyo
A UNESCO World Heritage Site it is not, but instead an unofficial shrine to Japan’s industry, technology, and material culture, if there is one. Ginza epitomizes Tokyo, if not Japan. It’s ground zero for neon, shopping, and as close to what Tokyo calls center, or downtown, for such a huge city. Within walking distance are the National Diet, the center of Japan’s government, and the Imperial Palace, a vast complex of buildings, which houses Japan’s Head of State, the Emperor of Japan and his administrative apparatus. Ginza is best experienced at night so you can view the electronic fireworks. There are so many interesting places in Tokyo and this is a logical place to orient yourself if you visit Japan’s largest city and capital.
Himeji Castle in Himeji
3. Himeji Castle
Japan’s most famous castle and one of twelve that is in its original condition. Known as the “White Heron Castle”, it is one of the three most famous in the country, and the most visited. Its fame, not to mention its beauty, is perhaps why it was used as one of the locations for shooting the 007 film, You Only Live Twice (1967) starring Sean Connery. Located in Himeji, Hyogo prefecture, not far from Osaka, the castle is surrounded by pine and cheery trees, which make it especially scenic in the spring. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, its original construction was between 1333-1346 with other expansions occurring in 1601-1608, a well-known period for castle building in Japan. Not without coincidence it was during this time period when warlords fought for control of the country.
Hiroshima's Bomb Dome
4. Bomb Dome, Hiroshima
The Bomb Dome has the dubious distinction of being almost directly under “Little Boy” when it detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The remains of the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall have, ever since, come to be known as the Bomb Dome, or Genbaku Domu. Designed in 1916 by a Czech architect named Jan Letzel, the structure survived reasonably intact even though it was a mere 150 meters from the hypocenter. Today, it’s the centerpiece of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and consequently attracts thousands of people to the otherwise industrial city. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 although both the United States and China strongly objected. The museum has some very graphic photos of the aftereffects, which killed 70,000. Much debate continues today over the necessity of the bomb. The FDR and Truman administrations expended an incredible amount of time, money, and manpower into the development of the A-bomb, and some historians believe this weighed heavily on the decision to use it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Battle of Okinawa gave further pause to the U.S. military and the planned land invasion of Japan because of the tremendous loss of military and civilians estimated at 120,000.
Kamakura's Daibutsu in Early Spring
The outdoor Daibustu is, alongside Miyajima’s “floating torii”, the best known monument in Japan. Kamakura is close to Tokyo, even closer to Yokohama, so day trips from the Kanto are easy. Known as the Great Buddha it was once housed in a building that was destroyed by a typhoon in the 15th century. For the curious, the statue is 13.35 meters (44 feet) high and weighs 93 tons. The first mention of the bronze statue dates to 1252. Now hoards of tourists come to get their photos taken in front of the Daibutsu and the many edible (and rotten) offerings left at its foot. The city has a long history and perhaps that’s why the Daibutsu stands. Although the Daibutsu gives Kamakura its deserved recognition the city’s historical record is long and rich. It is no accident that a period in Japanese history is named the Kamakura period (1185-1333), which marked the beginning of the shogunate established in the city. The city is also famous for Nichiren Buddhism, found by the Japanese monk Nichiren (1222-1282) and sometimes associated with radicalism. It is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Golden Temple, Kyoto
6. Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto
It is best known as the Golden Pavilion and it said to be Japan’s most visited site and its beauty, accented by surrounding pine trees and ponds, is remarkable. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion’s history dates to 1397 and it is affiliated with Zen Buddhism. The one you look at today dates to 1955 thanks to a radical Buddhist monk who burned it down in 1950. Despite its relatively recent date, it still draws crowds of the camera-ready Japanese who become frenzied with picture taking. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is however only one of many historic and cultural sites in Kyoto, Japan’s cultural capital. A trip to Kyoto would not be complete without visiting Heian shrine, Kiyomizu-dera, Nijo castle, To-ji, and of course the less spectacular Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Temple Pavilion. There’s much more too as the city has 17 places designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Most date from between the 10th and 19th centuries. The incidence of many prewar buildings in Kyoto is because the city was largely sparred as a bombing target in WWII.
7. Matsumoto Castle
Construction started in 1504 and the castle eventually was nicknamed the “Crow Castle” because of its resemblance of that bird with outstretched wings. It remains one of twelve castles in Japan that have survived reasonably intact of any major structural damage other than routine repair since the Meiji Restoration began in 1868. Its fame is further enhanced by the well deserved designation as one of the three finest in Japan along with Himeji (see above), and Kumamoto Castle. What makes it unique is the water-filled moat, something the other two do not have. Following the Meiji Restoration the Castle was slated to be demolished but locals, led by a school principal, managed to save it from destruction by land developers. Still the outer castle was demolished and what remains is the beautiful keep. Some of the gates have been rebuilt as have many other castles across Japan that once stood during the long period of shogunate, or warlord, rule. The castle is considered a National Treasure of Japan and it does not belie such a designation. Located away from the coastal area, Matsumoto is as far inland as you can get in Japan and it remains a gateway to the Kita Alps. The Kaichi gakko (school) in Matsumoto is also worth seeing and is located close to the castle. Modeled after western school buildings with a central cupola adjoined by two wings, it looks out of place in Japan, yet it was built in the 1870s.
The “floating torii” is arguably Japan’s most iconic man-made landmark along with Kamakura’s Daibutsu. Often featured on JTB posters, this monument symbolizes Japan, but is actually a small part of a complex of shrines on Miyajima, which translates to the “Island of Shrines” for good reason. Located close to Hiroshima in the Inland Sea, the island is more formally known as Itsukushima (StrictIsland) and, like Nara, has a population of resident deer that are ready for handouts, too skittish to pet, and leave droppings everywhere. Of course many come to photograph the torii (shrine gate) built in 1874, although one has stood in the water for the last seven centuries. At low-tide it actually sits on a mud flat. Still, the island has played host to other shrines as early as the 6th century since the island is a holy Shinto site. Take your time and allow a day. Adjacent to the torii is the five story pagoda built in 1407 and Senjokaku Hall (c. 1587). Although there is a ropeway to the top of Mount Misen (535 meters, 1755’) hiking to the top of this mountain along one of the paths is suggested because of the virgin timber stands. The torii and shrine have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Abyss in Nikko
Nikko is a long day trip from Tokyo, but possible if you take the shinkansen, or high-speed rail, which stops in Utsunomiya 35 km to the east. Set in the mountains, the town has a number of famous shrines and temples that make it well worth the visit. Against a backdrop of mountains, beautiful forests, and rocky, wooded, ravines with fast flowing streams the temples and shrines are perfectly set in their natural background. The town essentially developed around the temples, the first said to have started in 766. Among the most famous are the Toshogu Shrine, founded in 1617, with its ornamental gate and Three Wise Monkeys. The Shrine is set among giant cryptomeria trees, a relative of the cedar. The Futarasan Shrine, founded in 767, is at the base of Nantai-san, a sacred mountain popular with hikers. Nearby is the beautiful Sacred Bridge which spans a brook. Finally there is the Rinno-ji, a complex of Buddhist temples, with its beautiful ornamental wood work, established in 766. All three are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Besides the shrines and temples there is the nature of Nikko: Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls, one of the three highest in Japan, which drains the aforementioned lake. The mountains are breathtaking and rise abruptly from the town. Watch for the monkeys on the winding road that leads up to the lake. The Japanese Macaque can often be seen foraging along the road.
School Kids En Route to Todai-Ji Hall
10. Todai-ji Hall, Nara
Nara is not to be missed by any visitor to Japan. It’s Japan’s oldest capital and traditionally ranks as its first city. Founded in the 8th century, Nara’s best known monument is Todai-ji Hall, the world’s largest wooden building. It’s hard to get a sense of scale until you stand beneath it. Inside are the gigantic Daibutsu (Buddha) and other humungous statues. A number of buildings have stood on the site and the latest dates from 1709; only two-thirds the size of the building that preceded it, which was destroyed by fire. Todai-ji Hall incidentally is also the center of Kegon Buddhism in Japan. There are other interesting sites in Nara as well and some archaeological foundations of the ancient city. Also of interest are the skittish deer that inhabit the city and wander the streets looking for handouts.