Few destinations in the world have captivated us as much as Japan. After having been four times in the country of the Rising Sun we have realized that it is an archipelago where you can make your dream trip a reality. Japan goes far beyond the clichés of a place where tradition and modernity go hand in hand, because whatever your passions you will be able to enjoy them.
Refined gastronomy and street stalls, vertical metropolises and solitary forests, snow-capped peaks or dream beaches, avant-garde architecture and ancient scenic arts, onsens or design hotels, quiet paths crowded with temples or trains that go at dizzying speeds, festivals or stone gardens… whatever you are looking for, you will find it, so we are going to recommend you 10 essential experiences to enjoy Japan.
Index of contents
10 essential experiences to enjoy Japan
We are going to immerse ourselves in the rich depths of nature and Japanese culture, we begin a route from south to north in which we combine some classic experiences with exciting places that are outside the usual tourist circuits of the country of the Rising Sun.
Miyajima and Hiroshima: the island of the Gods and the city that rose from its ashes
We began our journey by discovering two very different faces from Japan but which are very close to each other. The first is a visit to some of the most emotional places in Hiroshima. You’ll get goose bumps as you walk through Peace Memorial Park, see the ravages of the atomic bomb on Genbaku Dome, or see the objects collected at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
To recover from the strong emotions, you can spend the rest of the afternoon and night in a ryokan in Miyajima, one of the most beautiful places in the country. In addition to enjoying its famous torii, as a sacred island Miyajima has many interesting places and temples to visit. The most famous are Momijadini-Koen Park, Itsukushima-Jinja Sanctuary, Tashoto Pagoda, Daigan-ji Temple, Daishoin, Hokoku Sanctuary, or even an ancient stage specially prepared for theatrical performances No. Koku.
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Visit Himeji Castle, one of the best in Japan
If you ask any Japanese about the three most important castles in their country, most will surely answer that of Himeji, Matsumoto and Kumamoto. Any of the three are worth a visit, but we especially like Himeji Castle, popularly known as the white heron. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993, it has regained some of its splendour after extensive restoration work completed in 2015. Its origin goes back to the middle of the 14th century when the Akamatsu clan built fortifications on its current site. However, it was not until the end of the 16th century that Toyotomi Hideyoshi began a major reform that gave it its spectacular present form.
The main building and the wall are almost brilliant snow and their sinuous forms are as elegant as those of the bird from which it has taken its name. The main tower has 5 floors and three smaller towers that are surrounded by imposing walls and several moats that give it the appearance of an impregnable fortress. Once you finish the visit (which usually lasts about 90 minutes) do not be in a hurry to leave the vicinity of the castle, as there are corners with spectacular views. Bridges, gardens, towers and cherry blossoms are combined in a masterful way.
Emotion in Osaka, disconnection in an onsen from Mount Koyasan
For us Osaka is the perfect counterpoint to Tokyo, as well as being a very happy and vital city. Osaka is a megalopolis that we loved, especially in the journey we made with our children. It is also the heart of Japan’s entertainment and gastronomy. It is a city where you can discover Japan’s futuristic technology and urbanization without losing the human side: its inhabitants are the warmest and most humorous in the country. A walk through Dotonbori and Den Den Town, Osaka Castle, Shinsekai or Amerikamura district is a must. Don’t forget to try takoyaki or octopus balls at their street stalls.
To contrast with the bustle of Osaka, we can travel a little further south to visit Mount Koyasan. It is one of the most important monastic centers in all of Japan, a sacred mountain that serves as the seat of the Shingon Buddhist current and the starting point and end of the pilgrimage of the 88 Shikoku Temples. Its mountain paths covered by lush forests are decorated with thousands of stone lanterns, torii gates and hundreds of thousands of memorials to the deceased. Undoubtedly, an unforgettable walk in which you can sleep in monasteries with the monks or in ryokan with relaxing onsen.
Kumano Kodo, walking on sacred paths
Spirituality, pure nature and hiking are combined in the Kumano Kodo or Kumano Path. This is an extensive network of trails that has been traversed for more than 1,000 years on the mountainous Kii Peninsula in Japan and would be the Japanese equivalent of our Way of St. James. In July 2004 the pilgrimage routes of the Kumano Kodo were registered as World Heritage by UNESCO. This fact and the singular beauty of its landscapes make it more and more attractive for travellers and locals.
The objective of the pilgrims who make the Kumano Kodo is to venerate the three Great Temples that are scattered throughout this mountainous region. This set of temples is known as the Kumano Sanzan and consists of the Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and the Kumano Nachi Taisha (pictured). In addition to these three main temples, the trails are filled with Oji, subsidiary temples of the Kumano deities that delineate the four main routes. Leafy forests, waterfalls and dream landscapes are waiting for you.
Kyoto, former imperial capital and kaiseki kitchen paradise
The name Kyoto is almost synonymous with traditional Japanese culture. It is one of those iconic, unrepeatable cities that would justify a journey to the other end of the world just by walking for a few days among some of its hundreds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Historically it has been a fundamental city for Japan, as it was the capital of the country of the Rising Sun for more than a thousand years. This long-lived period has filled the city (and its surroundings) with an invaluable set of heritage, which fortunately was saved from the bombardments that devastated other Japanese capitals during the Second World War.
Ancient temples, zen gardens, old geisha neighborhoods, narrow streets with traditional houses… the atmosphere that is breathed in this jewel of Kansai is unique and difficult to describe, so it is better that you check it for yourself. The ancient imperial capital has many ingredients to make your visit unforgettable, for example, more than a thousand temples among which is the Fushimi Inari Taisha. It is also a very special place to enjoy the sophisticated kaiseki cuisine. Each dish is so exquisite that you will always remember these moments the Japanese expression “ichigo ichie” (“one chance, one encounter”). In this article, we give you more information about what to see in Kyoto.
The traditional village of Shirakawa-go and the Japanese Alps
Shirakawa-gō is a true delight. This small village is famous for its more than 100 buildings gasshō-zukuri, wooden buildings, specially designed to combat the rigors of harsh winter in the region of Hida and around the Japanese Alps. Its main characteristic is the sloping shape of its thatched roofs, ideal for avoiding snow accumulation. You can get there by bus from Takayama or Kanazawa. It is often outside the classic itineraries of a trip to Japan, but it is worth a little detour to enjoy a very special visit such as the Japanese Alps.
In addition to spending the night in this traditional village you can visit Takayama, a city that has preserved a traditional lifestyle, especially in its charming old town full of small craft shops and sake distilleries that are clearly wonderful. Nor will you regret tasting Hida’s delicious veal, which has nothing to envy of Kobe’s. Kanazawa, for its part, flourished under the protection of the powerful Maeda clan and became one of the most prosperous cities in all of Japan. Today there are many vestiges of that feudal greatness, as it still has an old district of geishas, another of samurais and an imposing castle that hides one of the best gardens in the country.
See Mount Fuji from the Chureito Pagoda
Mount Fuji is probably one of the most famous images of the country of the Rising Sun. This perfect conical volcano is the object of desire for all who travel to Japan, although many times it is difficult to see, especially if the day is not completely clear in more touristic places like Hakone. Some people say that you can even see from Tokyo, although for that you have to align all the stars.
A very interesting place to see this sacred mountain is the Chureito pagoda located in Fujiyoshida’s Arakurayama Sengen Park in Yamanashi Prefecture, especially during the cherry blossom season. The image that gives us this beautiful pagoda with the Fuji in the background is very special. To reach the sanctuary where the Chureito pagoda is located you will have to walk about 10 minutes from Shimo-Yoshida station.
Tokyo, the metropolis that has everything
Tokyo is our favorite city and one of the most exciting in the world. In the 21st century, this metropolis resembles the Neo-Tokyo of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. There you can feel as if you were part of a huge anthill or as a Blade Runner character, but you also have the opportunity to escape among the thousands of cultural, leisure and gastronomic options offered by the city. Tokyo is a continuous surprise, a city where it is impossible for the traveller to get bored. Just for getting lost in the streets of Tokyo is worth a trip to Japan.
Tokyo is such an incredible metropolis that you could be there for a month, two, three… a year and never finish discovering it. There would be no need to draw up a plan, because only by wandering through their main neighborhoods would you find really mind-blowing plans. It’s a perfect base of operations for exploring other nearby cities and will probably be the starting point for your trip to Japan. If you want to complete this information we leave you our article on 10 essential places to visit in Tokyo, where you will surely find some of the essential tourist places to see in Japan.
Tohoku, unspoilt rural landscapes and historical treasures
The Japanese region of Tohoku is the northernmost of the island of Honshu which is the main island of Japan. This jewel that often falls outside the traditional circuits stands out for its magnificent virgin rural landscapes, its historical treasures, outdoor summer adventures and infinite amounts of powder snow in winter for ski lovers. Cities such as Sendai, Matsushima or Aomori (and their impressive Nebuta Festival and the Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival) are joined by large landscapes that offer many possibilities for nature lovers.
This huge region comprising six rural prefectures boasts spectacular scenery, places with great history, artisanal sake and a wide range of outdoor activities such as rafting, hiking and skiing. Much more rural than Tokyo and more developed than Hokkaido, the Tohoku region has interesting destinations to visit from the capital and enjoy other memorable excursions on your trip to Japan’s northernmost island.
Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido
Festivals or matsuri are one of the greatest passions of the Japanese. No matter the time of year when you travel to the country of the Rising Sun, there will always be some city, neighborhood or temple that goes out into the street to celebrate their traditions in style. On this route from south to north we have chosen one of the most important events of the remote island of Hokkaido (the northernmost in Japan): the Sapporo Snow Festival.
This is Japan’s largest winter festival and is usually held in early February each year when low temperatures allow sculptures and buildings to be made from ice and snow. In 2020 it will take place from 31 January to 11 February. Using one of Sapporo’s most abundant natural resources and imagination, some students created several snow sculptures in Odori Park in 1950. What began as something almost casual today attracts millions of visitors each year to see some of the 400 sculptures. The most spectacular and greatest compete in a very prestigious international competition. Don’t forget your non-slip winter shoes or boots. Also noteworthy are the beautiful video mapping projections, tree decorations or the snowball “war” at Tsudome. Fun is more than assured.
Did you like these 10 alternative experiences to enjoy Japan? Do you have another recommendation? Remember that whatever your passion is, you will find it in the country of the Rising Sun. We look forward to discovering yours in the comments.