What to seeTokyo
is an exciting city of bustling squares such as Shinjuku, flashing neon, high-rise department stores, noodle bars and top class hotels including the Park Hyatt, whose bar famously featured heavily in Lost in Translation. Also worth visiting are the Imperial Palace gardens and Tsukiji Fish Market.
Southwest of Tokyo lies Mount Fuji, and the most famous spot to appreciate the volcano is Hakone National Park, a region of lakes, peaks and volcanic hot springs. There is a fantastic cable car ride from Mount Soun-zan, which in good weather conditions offers superb views of Mount Fuji, and once at the bottom you can take a cruise on the beautiful Lake Ashino-ko. It is worth spending an evening or two at a traditional onsen (hot spring) hotel here and enjoying the clean air and natural beauty of Hakone National Park.
Kyoto and Nara are the best places to seek out the more traditional side of Japan. Kyoto was the imperial capital from 794 to 1868, and is still considered by many to the cultural heart of Japan, with its geisha culture, huge array of temples and shrines and jaw-droppingly beautiful gardens. From here it is worth visiting Japan's most beautiful castle Himeji-jo, easily visited on a day-trip from Kyoto.
Nara, Japan's first real capital, has a total of 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites amongst its temples and shrines, and is a small and welcoming place. In Nikko Japan's loveliest shrines can be seen in a beautiful forest setting, including Toshogu Shrine, Futarasan Shinto Shrine and Rinoji Temple.
Hiroshima is far from a depressing place, having become a vibrant city in recent years, although the Peace Memorial Park is a sobering experience. Miyajima Island close to Hiroshima is where the famous floating shrine Torii Gate is located, and this is a good place to experience traditional Japanese hospitality and stay in a ryokan.
In Nagano Prefecture, the Japanese Alps feature some of Japan's most dramatic scenery and picturesque rural villages. The area is also famous for its many onsen or hot spring resorts, the most famous of which is the Jigokudani Onsen, "Hell Valley Hot Springs", in Yudanaka, where one can see wild monkeys gathering to bathe in the natural hot pools. The main hub of the area is the laid-back town of Takayama, whose numerous hillside shrines make it a great place for hiking.
For more off-the-beaten-track experiences, the tropical islands and beaches of Okinawa Prefecture in the far south have yet to fully open up to Western tourism. The rural mountainous area of Hokkaido in the north, with its spectacular natural scenery, is a great place to go to enjoy isolation.
Japan's festivals: Japan has many famous festivals, including the Aoi Festival in Kyoto, which dates back to the 6th century, and the Toshogu Festival in Nikko, which features a procession of over 1,000 people dressed as Samurai. Kyoto's largest festival, the Gion Festival, spans the entire month of July and is crowned by a beautiful parade, the Yama-boko Junko. October's Jidai Festival commemorates the founding of Kyoto. During cherry blossom season, locals gather below trees to celebrate the beautiful flowering of the trees, and seemingly everything turns pink, with themed chocolate, beer and clothing hitting the shops. There are even ‘sakura (blossom) forecasts’ with pink dots covering maps of Japan on television and in the daily newspapers.