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Essential Japan



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If this is your first Japan travel experience, the must-see iconic cities, sites and destinations include Tokyo, Kyoto, Takayama and Hakone. If this is your second trip to Japan or you prefer to get off the beaten path, explore our Extended Japan page.


The capital is one of the world's great, must-see cities for good reason. It's absolutely thrilling and an essential stop on any Japan tour.

Shinjuku is a great place to start in Tokyo.

You'll experience modern Japan boiled down to its essence, with a stroll through the world's busiest train station, the high-end department stores, ramen shops, small shrines and public video screens.

Trendy Harajuku is the place for people-watching and the district where Tokyo's thriving youth/pop culture pulses. Stroll along nearby Omote-sando street with its abundant boutiques and bistros. The must-see Meiji-jingu is here as well, a lively shrine and garden that represents the best of traditional Shinto architecture.

For upscale shopping try the opulent Ginza district, renowned for its seven-story department stores. Go on a Sunday if you can, as many of the streets are closed to vehicles. Ginza is home to Kabuki-za, the place to see a kabuki theater performance. Take in one act if you don't have time for the whole thing. You'll have to get up early, but don't miss a trip to the fascinating Tsukiji Market, Asia's largest and busiest wholesale fish market.

Asakusa district is the old-world antidote to hyper-modern Harajuku and Shinjuku, and still retains an atmosphere of the Edo Period (1603-1867), considered by many to be the golden age of Japanese culture. Visit Senso-ji Temple (Asakusa Kannon), the main headquarters of the Sho-Kannon sect of Buddhism. It is a lively and active temple with worshipers praying for some sort of assistance. Many of the quintessentially Japanese items that still figure largely in everyday life are produced and sold in the side-streets and back alleys near the temple, including swords, pottery and kimonos.

Nearby Ueno district houses the Tokyo National Museum, home to a huge collection of Japanese art and antiquities. We highly recommend a visit during your trip to Japan. There are countless other museums and galleries in this area.

Roppongi and Shibuya are well known hot spots when the sun goes down; trendy neon-lit clubs are frequented by fashionable young Tokyo-ites and gaijin (foreigners).

If you're interested in sumo wrestling, head for the Kokugikan Sumo Stadium. There is a sumo museum open year round, but sumo tournaments only take place in January, May, and September and last for 15 days. Tickets should be purchased in advance.


A trip to Japan should allocate as much time as possible to Kyoto. The ancient capital of Japan for over a thousand years, it is home to invaluable treasures and is a repository of much of the best Japanese art, culture religion and thought.

No less than 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites head a cast of thousands that include fabulous temples, shrines, palaces, gardens, museums, parks and a castle. If you have time, all 17 are well worth the effort. If your stay is short, don't miss these:

Kiyomizu-dera Temple, the Buddhist temple of "pure water" founded in the 8th century is one of Kyoto's oldest and most revered temples. Perched high in the eastern hills, it affords panoramic views of Kyoto.

Daigo-ji Temple complex houses a total of over 100 halls, pagodas, and monasteries. The surrounding ponds and gardens are a riot of blossoms in the spring and beautiful any time of year.

The Ryoan-ji Temple is the classic Zen rock garden, and not to be missed during your tour of Japan. Its structured grace, fine lines and emphasis on absence is meant to inspire contemplation. With jostling hordes of Japanese tourists, its inspiring meditative mood may feel diminished, but a visit to this archetypal landscape is still worthwhile.

Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion) is an architectural masterpiece, embodying many quintessentially Japanese structural elements. Built in the 15th century, it became the basis for modern Japanese residential architecture. Its rock gardens and inner courtyards also showcase some of the different styles that have come to define the Japanese garden.

Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) is one of the most recognizable temples in the country, covered as it is in shimmering gold leaf. A monk suffering from mental illness set fire to the temple in 1950, destroying the structure. It was restored to its original glory in subsequent decades. The incident is explored by the great Japanese writer Yukio Mishima in his novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Nijo-jo Castle was built around 1600 for the warrior Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period. A historic drama of Shakespearean proportions surrounds the samurai and his ascent to power. Within the castle grounds is the Ninomaru Palace, famous for its "nightingale floors" that squeak when walked upon so as to warn residents of invaders.

A visit to the Sumiya, a functioning teahouse until WWII, will leave no doubt about the Japanese genius for design, architecture, and carpentry. No trip to Japan would be complete without visiting the Gion district's Hanami-koji street at sunset to glimpse geisha in their traditional finery.

It can be argued that Japan is home to the world's best gardens. The Saiho-ji Moss Garden at Kokedera Temple is a case in point. The temple and its grounds are covered with a thick carpet of 120 species of moss. But that doesn't begin to tell the story of this place. There is a spiritual gravity here, a deeply quiet beauty. You've traveled a long way in hopes of experiencing the "real" Japan. This may well be it. (Note: Permission to enter tranquil Kokedera is required in advance. A written request stating the date you intend to visit must be submitted, so advise your Travel Specialist if you plan to include Kokedera in your Japan itinerary.)

Kyoto is a great place to simply spend days strolling from site to site, along the Philosopher's Path and cobblestone streets, and from noodle shops to tea houses. Walking through the old quarter with a knowledgeable guide reveals thriving cottage industries producing all manner of traditional goods. Knotted prayer tassels, tofu, green tea candy, hand-painted silk fans, lacquer ware bowls; these arts are alive and well but one must know where to look. Our Japan tour guides will unlock the door to these ancient arts and reveal their meaning within the context of Japanese society.

If you arrive or depart Kyoto by train, prepare yourself for the most whizz-bang six-story train station-cum-shopping mall you've ever seen, a conspicuously ultra-modern steel, glass and neon study in functional constructivism and consumerist excess. It's the perfect-or perfectly jarring-structural antidote to Kyoto's famously quiet, less-is-more cultural traditions.


Don't miss this picture-perfect town in a valley surrounded by the Japanese Alps. This area retains much of the atmosphere of old Japan, as for centuries it was cut off from the rest of the country by the almost impregnable encircling mountains.

Bicycle through the Sanmachi Suji district, a maze of old-world streets and home to a number of quaint museums devoted to everything from local history to traditional Japanese toys. The Kusakabe Folkcraft Museum is a great stop.

Takayama is world-renowned for two Japanese festivals that showcase a procession of elaborate floats through the streets. In April the Sanno Matsuri Festival marks the planting season, and in October the Hachiman Matsuri Festival celebrates the harvest. Early booking is essential during these times.


Part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Hakone is one of the closest and most popular Japan travel destinations for Tokyo residents. Find the bubbling mineral spas that make this hot springs resort famous. Take a boat trip across Lake Ashino-ko, with the perfectly shaped Fuji-san in the background.

Stroll through its wonderful outdoor sculpture museum. You can tour Hakone as a day trip if you leave early in the morning, but adding an overnight stay at a ryokan (Japanese inn) is much more pleasant.