This is Japan's main island and cultural epicenter.
Only one hour south of Tokyo by rail, this small, quiet town is
surrounded by rolling hills and sandy beaches. The capital of Japan
from 1192 to 1333, it's as close as you can get to "Old Japan" in
the Tokyo area.
There are 65 Buddhist temples and 19 Shinto shrines, some dating
from the 8th century. It is perfect for a day of strolling. The
main site is the Great Buddha, or Daibutsu. This bronze figure,
cast in 1252, measures 37 feet high and weighs 122 tons. Near
Kamakura lies the sacred island of Enoshima. Here visitors can take
in the various sights of the island, hike along its trails and
escape from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. We suggest a mid-week
excursion to this scenic Japan travel destination, as on the
weekend it's crowded with day-trippers from Tokyo.
There is a saying in Japan that goes something like, "Don't say
you know what beautiful is until you have seen Nikko." About two
hours north of Tokyo by train, this UNESCO World Heritage town is
full of shrines, mausoleums, splendid temples, a sacred bridge and
trails leading through mossy forests that host giant, 400-year-old
cedar trees. A mid-week visit is recommended.
Mt. Fuji (Fuji-san)
A must-see on any tour of Japan, this symbol of the Land of the
Rising Sun takes about five hours to ascend. Begin at night and go
in a single push to catch the sunrise, when the views tend to be
best. Or hike to a lodge two-thirds the way up for a steaming bowl
of ramen and a cozy night's sleep, then arise at 4 A.M. to reach
the summit. This quintessentially Japanese experience is part
tourist trap, part sacred pilgrimage, and a classic of the hiking
genre. The hiking season is only in July and August, the mountain
is closed to the public at other times of year. Be sure to have
winter clothing (even in July), a headlamp, water and a snack.
This small city is steeped in the history of the samurai era.
Explore the narrow, crooked streets and passageways of the
Nagamachi Samurai district. Visit the former samurai mansions and
old geisha quarters. An essential Japan travel destination is the
Kenroku-en Garden, considered one of the three most beautiful
gardens in Japan, with ponds, streams, waterfalls, bridges,
teahouses, trees, stones and flowers. The name Kenroku-en literally
means "garden combining six," referring to the six classical themes
of beauty incorporated: extensiveness, quiet seclusion, human
ingenuity, antique elegance, abundant water and wide prospect.
Kanazawa is a center of traditional arts and crafts including
superb lacquer ware, exquisite kimono cloth, and some of the finest
pottery in Japan.
Bandai-Asahi National Park
When Mt. Bandai erupted in 1888, it formed 100 lakes, each
tinted a different color from mineral deposits. They are believed
to possess calming and curative effects. The aesthetic effect is
spectacular, and it's a great place to wander around. Hiking Mt.
Bandai takes about two hours.
The "Roof of Japan" was center stage as the host city for the
1998 Winter Olympics: its natural beauty is grand and fragile.
Visit the 7th century Zenko-ji temple, then head to nearby
Yudanaka. Feast on the famous soba noodles, and visit the
Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park, home to over 270 Japanese macaques
(snow monkeys). Observe this endangered species as they play and
bathe in the natural hot springs.
This former imperial capital (710-784) predates Kyoto.
Amazingly, some of the temples from that period still stand. Second
only to Kyoto as a repository of ancient Japanese culture, it
boasts no fewer than eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, each
considered a priceless national treasure. Small in size and quaint
in layout, it is possible to see all sites in one day, though a
less hectic two days is recommended. The sites are: Todai-ji
Temple, Kofuku-ji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Kasugayama Primeval
Forest, Gango-ji Temple, Yakushi-ji Temple, Toshodai-ji Temple, and
the remains of the Nara Palace (Heijokyo). The Nara National Museum
is also worth a visit during your Japan trip, housing Buddhist art
and archaeological finds.
About an hour and a half east of Kyoto is the fabulous Miho
Museum, designed by the famous architect I.M. Pei. Housing a
stunning collection of antiquities from Asia to Greece, the
structure itself is a modern masterpiece of illuminated geometric
patterns and the play of light.
Defined by its atomic legacy, Hiroshima today is at the center
of an international peace movement. Its Peace Memorial Park is well
worth the visit here. The A-Bomb Dome has been left in ruins as a
reminder of the supreme destructive potential of nuclear weapons.
The Children's Peace Memorial is profoundly moving.
Not far from Hiroshima is Miyajima Island, a UNESCO World
Heritage site and considered by the Japanese to be one of Japan's
"three most beautiful places." The island is easily accessed on a
day trip by boat, or enjoy a more relaxed pace with an overnight
stay. The island is most famous for the picturesque
Itsukushima-jinja Shrine, which, together with its large red torii
(gate), stands in the ocean during high tide. Deer move around the
island freely, as do monkeys on top of the island's highest
mountain, Mt. Misen. A serene stop on your in-depth tour of
This is Japan's biggest temple complex, center of the Shingon
school of esoteric Buddhism. It is visited year-round by pilgrims
from all over Japan. Accommodations are in special shukubo (temple)
lodging where one is immersed in Buddhist religious life.
If you plan to visit Japan in the spring, don't miss the 20,000
cherry trees blossoming in Yoshino. A day trip from Koya-san would
capture a quintessentially Japanese experience.