The beautiful and exotic East Asian country of Japan has long captured travellers’ attention and it’s no cliché to say that this mesmerising country is one of contrasts – gleaming skyscrapers sit alongside traditional temples; the ubiquitous kimono is as common as the very latest European fashions; and the alarmingly futuristic tech scene rubs shoulders with the traditional ways, which are centuries old.
Explore the temples and museums of Tokyo
Start your journey in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ in its electric-paced mega metropolis capital of Tokyo. Gorge yourself on frighteningly fresh sushi, shop til you (literally) drop and scare yourself with the pace of technology. And when you’ve had your fill of futuristic delights, explore the history and heritage that this pulsating city was built on.
Magical temples and intriguing museums are plentiful in Tokyo, the most well-known of which is the elaborate Buddhist Senso-ji Temple in the city’s Asakusa district. Dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy, the temple complex dates back to 645 AD. Don’t miss the Zojo-ji Temple in Shibu which contains the graves of six Tokugawa shoguns and the exquisite Shibamata Taishakuten Temple in Katsushika which was built in 1629.
Of the hundreds of museums in Tokyo, the best are the Edo-Tokyo Museum, the Tokyo National Museum and the National Science Museum. The Edo-Tokyo Museum within the Sumida district focusses on Japanese artefacts and architecture and contains replicas of the Edo Castle and a Kabuki theatre. The Tokyo National Museum in Taito contains over 100,000 items on display at any one time, covering Japanese art and history. The National Science Museum in Taito skilfully combines interesting exhibits and educational displays.
Experience Kyoto: UNESCO World Heritage Site
Kyoto served as the capital for more than a millennium and the historic monuments of the ancient capital collectively form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of particular note are the traditional wooden structures of the palaces, temples and homes and the carefully manicured Japanese gardens, which inspired professional gardening across the world.
Don’t miss North Kyoto which is brimming with centuries-old temples and shrines and the iconic Kinkaku-ji Temple, aka the Golden Pavilion which was built in the late 14th century. Wander the 17th century Ninnaji Temple which is a five storey pagoda and the almost deserted Daitokuji Temple which is actually a complex of twenty four sub temples set within a beautiful Zen garden.
Admire Osaka Castle
Japan’s third largest city, Osaka, is home to the exquisite cultural gem of the Osaka Castle, which is the most visited tourist attraction in the country, is particularly resplendent during cherry blossom season. Built in the 1583 Osaka Castle was, at the time, the largest within Japan with the main tower covering one square kilometer. Within the expansive 15 acre
grounds are various cultural gems, including gates, turrets, wells and storehouses, which all played a part in Osaka's history. Today the castle offers panoramic city views from atop the observation deck and an interesting history museum that utilises 3D imagery and holograms to bring the subject to life.
Discover the Sapporo winter wonderland
The largest city in Hokkaido is Sapporo, which is relatively new (founded in 1850) and what it lacks in traditional architecture and history, it makes up for in its vast open spaces. Sapporo is best known for hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics and the city is renowned for its annual snow festival. As well as skiing and snowboarding atop Mount Okura, there is also an excellent observatory that looks out over the landscape. Take a free tour of the Sapporo Beer Museum and walk off the calories at the serene Takino Suzuran Hillside National Park.
Eat and drink in cosmopolitan Kobe
In western Honshu is the cosmopolitan city of Kobe, which is probably the most popular Japanese city for expats. And of course, it’s most famous export is its exquisite wallet-busting Kobe beef – once tried, never forgotten. In fact Japan has more Michelin starred restaurants than Paris and London combined. Kobe also specialises in ‘tachinomiya’ – the stand and drink bars. As well as the usual international fayre you’ll also find traditional Japanese cuisine such sushi, tonkatsu (pork cutlets) and sashimi and seafood such as ebi (shrimp) and kaki (oyster). Don’t miss the red bean paste, mochi and kakigori desserts. Kobe Zoo is also home to a pair of giant pandas; female Tan Tan and and male Kou Kou.
Prepare to be moved in Nagasaki
History taught us of the nuclear bomb that was dropped on the harbour city Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, where 100,000 people lost their lives. And within the city are memorials which both move and educate. Stop off at the Atomic Bomb Museum and take in the powerful exhibits. Wander the Oka Masaharu Memorial at the Nagasaki Peace Museum which documents the war crimes committed within World War II. And finally pass by the Roman Catholic Urakami Cathedral (St. Mary's Cathedral) which was completely rebuilt after the bomb.
Listen and learn in Hiroshima
Visiting Hiroshima is both a humbling and emotional journey, which takes in the very darkest side of 20th century culture. There are several museums, temples and monuments dedicated to that day - 6 August 1945 when Hiroshima suffered the first atomic bomb attack in the world.
Explore the vast Peace Memorial Park which contains a fountain, peace bell and various monuments, including the famous Hiroshima Peace Memorial, aka the Atomic Bomb Dome (Genbaku Dome) which is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also within the park is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which contains many exhibits of the period.
Image credit; wikipedia