Many first-time visitors to Japan are often surprised to learn that as one of the world’s most advanced industrialized countries, this relatively small Asian country also boasts a rich and fascinating history dating back thousands of years. Indeed, long before many of Europe’s most spectacular cathedrals were built, Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist temples were long established and attracted pilgrims and patrons for their often elaborate designs and decorations. At the same time, the country was already perfecting the skills and trades that would put it on the path to wealth, from fine porcelain and ceramics to textiles such as silk. Much of this rich tradition has, despite wars and natural destruction,
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1 Mount Fuji
Without a doubt Japan’s most recognizable landmark, majestic Mount Fuji (Fuji-san) is also the country’s highest mountain, rising 3,776 meters across an otherwise largely flat landscape to the south and east, high enough to see from Tokyo more than 100 kilometers away. Mount Fuji has been celebrated in art and literature for centuries and is now considered an important icon that UNESCO recognized in 2013 for its cultural value. Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Mount Fuji is climbed by more than a million people every summer as a pilgrimage that culminates in watching the sunrise from the summit. While some still choose to start their climb from the base, the majority of climbers now start above half the distance, at the 5th station, resulting in a more manageable six-hour climb. Of course, for many, simply viewing the mountain from afar, or from the comfort of an express train, is enough to say “been there, done that.”
2 Imperial Tokyo
Tokyo’s most famous monument, the Imperial Palace , with its beautiful 17th-century parks surrounded by walls and moats, is a must-see when visiting the country’s capital. Don’t be put off by the fact that most of the palace is closed to the public (it is still in use by the Imperial family), as there is still plenty to see by simply strolling the grounds. In addition to the many scenic views of the palace from various points in the surrounding park – including the famous Nijubashi Bridge , or “double bridge”, so named for its watery reflection – visitors are admitted to the East Higashi-Gyoen Garden, one of the few areas open to the public. Another must-see for tourists visiting Tokyo is the famous Ginza shopping area, home to Kabuki-za Theater with its Kabuki performances, as well as the Shimbashi Enbujo Theater with its traditional Azuma odoristansen and Bunraku performances.
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3 Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
While little needs to be said here about the horrors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945, there is much to be said about the incredible efforts this vibrant city made to protect the many victims of the world’s first nuclear attack and perhaps more importantly commemoration, the symbol of lasting peace that Hiroshima has since become. Visited every year by more than a million people, many from overseas, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (Hiroshima Heiwa Kinen Kōen) is located at the epicenter of the atomic blast in what was once a bustling part of the city and contains a number of important monuments, memorials and museums relating to the events of that fateful day. In addition to the grounds and gardens with their colorful cherry blossoms, the park’s highlights include thePeace Memorial Museum with its numerous exhibitions on the issue of world peace and the Cenotaph and Flame of Peace Memorial , as well as the Atom Bomb Dome , the ruins of an administrative building that was at the center of the explosion.
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4 Historical Kyoto
One of the most visited cities in Japan, beautiful Kyoto – one of the few cities in the country to be spared the destruction of WWII – attracts more than 10 million visitors every year to explore its beautiful old streets and architecture, largely unchanged since the imperial family settled here more than 1,000 years ago. Even then, the city was Japan’s most important cultural center, a legacy that continues with its many museums and art galleries, each bursting with important sculptures, paintings and other art forms. Highlights of Kyoto’s Buddhist architecture include its many well-preserved temples, 30 of which are still in use, and important structures such as the 14th century. Golden Pavilion(Kinkaku-ji), famous for its beautiful gold leaf covered exterior. Be sure to also visit Nijo Castle , a 17th-century fortress that retains its original walls, towers and moat; its beautiful gates; and its palace with a fine interior. Also worth a visit is the original Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyoto-gosho ) , built in AD 794 and one of the city’s most visited historical sites. Finally, no visit to Kyoto is complete without spending time exploring the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove , a beautiful area of tall bamboo just a few minutes’ walk from the city center.
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5 Itsukushima Island Shrine
Itsukushima Island Shrine
Just a short ferry ride from mainland Hiroshima is Miyajima Island, famous around the world as Japan’s Shrine Island. Covering an area of 30 square kilometers in Hiroshima Bay, Miyajima is best known as the home of Itsukushima Shrine, a Shinto temple dedicated to the princess daughters of the wind god Susanoo. From the eighth century, most of the sanctuary’s buildings rise from the waters of a small bay supported only by piles. The effect at high tide is simply breathtaking, making these structures – including the famous Great Floating Gate (O-Torii) – look as if they are floating on water. Linked together by walkways and bridges, it is a fascinating place to explore, especially the larger halls such as the beautiful Honden (Great Hall), the Hall of Sacrifice (Heiden), the Hall of Prayer (Haiden) and the Thousand Hall. (Senjokaku). Another notable feature is the shrine’s stage where visitors are entertained with traditional dances and musical performances. Also worth exploring are the island’s beautiful grounds and gardens, home to wild deer and numerous bird colonies.
6 Temple City: Historic Nara
Temple City: Historic Nara
For centuries the center of Japanese culture, the beautiful unspoilt city of Nara is home to a host of historic buildings, along with important national treasures and works of art. In addition to its many historic streets, the city features numerous important ancient temples, including the beautiful seventh-century Kofuku-ji Temple , and perhaps the best known of Nara’s seven great temples, the beautiful eighth-century Todai-ji(Great Eastern Temple), famous for its huge bronze statue of the Great Buddha (Daibutsu), cast here in 749 AD. Also of interest in Todai-ji are the Great South Gate (Nandaimon), a two-storey building on 18 columns with two Nio statues standing eight meters high and guarding the entrance to the temple, and the Hall of the Great Buddha,’ the world’s largest wooden building.
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7 Osaka Castle
Built in 1586 by the famous Japanese warrior and politician Toyotomi Hideyoshi , Osaka Castle (Ōsaka-jō) was the largest and most important fortress in the country at the time. Although it was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times, the current structure, built in 1931, remains true to the original. Highlights of a visit include the enormous five-storey 42 meter high main tower built on an imposing 14 meter high stone base and home to a number of displays detailing the history of the castle and town (be sure to visit the top floor for are beautiful views over Osaka). Also of note in Osaka Castle Park is Hokoku Shrine , while Osaka’s most famous temple, Shitenno-ji, is also worth a visit and dates back to 59 AD. Notable as Japan’s first Buddhist temple, this beautiful shrine features a five-story pagoda with a number of other beautifully decorated buildings, including the Golden Pavilion (Kondō) with its fine statues and paintings, the Lecture Hall (Kōdō), and a beautiful covered walkway connecting three of the site’s gates.
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8 Chūbu-Sangaku National Park and the Japanese Alps
Japan has a number of notable natural areas, many of which have been designated as national parks or, in some cases, UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One of the country’s most spectacular parks is the Chūbu-Sangaku National Park in central Honshu, where in the northern and central regions the mountain group is referred to as the Hida Mountainsor Japanese Alps. The region contains some of the country’s highest peaks, including Hotaka at 3190 meters, and Yari at 3180 meters. Similar in many ways to the Alps of Central Europe, both in the character of the landscape and in the abundance of snow in winter, the Japanese Alps attract large numbers of hikers and climbers in summer and skiers in winter. Of particular interest is the park’s abundance of flora and fauna, including the rare ptarmigan and mountain antelope found at higher altitudes. The park’s many hot springs also attract visitors and lead to the development of several spas and resorts, most famously Kamikochi .
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9 Het Atsuta-altaar, Nagoya
Het Atsuta-altaar, Nagoya
Atsuta Shrine, in the heart of Nagoya city, is the most important Shinto shrine in Japan, attracting more than five million visitors annually. Established in the first century, this religious site is known for its preserved imperial insignia, the “lawn-mowing sword” (kusanagi-no-tsurugi), one of only three in the country. Also of interest are the main shrine, Hongu, surrounded by a surrounding wall, and the treasury with its numerous works of art including ancient and modern paintings, ceramics, jewelry and traditional masks. If you are in Nagoya, you should definitely visit Nagoya Castle, a beautiful moated castle complex dating from 1612 with a 48-metre high main tower famous for its two gilded dolphins (shachi), the museum with art treasures from the former palace and its spectacular views over the city and the Nobi plain.
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10 Fukuoka Castle and ancient festivals
One of the few surviving examples of the once fertile and majestic hilltop houses favored by shoguns and city administrators, Fukuoka Castle (Fukuoka-jō) is one of the highlights of a visit to Fukuoka. This beautiful castle was once part of a gigantic complex covering an area of some 47,000 square meters and still impresses with its size and its location on a high foundation overlooking the Naka River. Fukuoka is also known for its many events and festivals, most notably the Hakata Gion Yamakasa , a famous two-week long 700-year celebration that takes place every July and attracts millions of visitors from all over the country to see colorful parades, traditional races and costumes. The city is also not without its modern attractionsCanal City Hakata , a city-within-the-city, complete with a canal running through the complex, along with great shopping, hotels, restaurants and a theater.