Ultimate highlights… of Japan
Our list of Japan’s ultimate highlights should furnish you with plenty of travel inspiration.
Select an itinerary that allows you to get a sense of the wondrous variety Japan offers. Here, we offer an overview of the nation's ultimate highlights, which should provide more than a soupcon of inspiration to kick start your travel plans.
The intermingling of the traditional and modern
This quality is one of the defining factors of Japan's uniqueness. Of course, the country is by no means alone in the fact that it manages to marry its past and present with aplomb. However, the scale with which it does so, the sense that the past is very a part of living culture and the vast gulf between its deeply traditional and modern facets renders Japan more than a little different from the norm.
That is what makes a carefully chosen itinerary such an important factor on any tour of Japan. One that can reveal these different qualities to you – not only to unveil contrasts but to demonstrate how they harmonise – is one that will truly cement itself in your memory.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to gain a well-rounded experience of Japan. Visiting a number of the destinations that follow is a good starting point, but the accommodation you choose also has a part to play. For instance, staying in a Ryokan is the perfect way to experience traditional Japanese hospitality first-hand.
Home to 17 Unesco World Heritage sites, Kyoto is the ideal place to discover Japan's traditional side. In fact, for more than 1,000 years it was the imperial capital, and is one of the few places where it is still possible to get a glimpse into geisha culture.
The Gion District is the place to do so. A simple stroll is perhaps the best way to explore here, as this will give you the chance to observe local life unfolding in this historic part of the city. As you amble, you will encounter a variety of traditional teahouses which look tempting – but remember that these will almost certainly be the preserve of geishas and their clientele.
However, enjoying teahouse culture is an important part of visiting Kyoto and indeed Japan as a whole. By visiting the teahouse at Kinkaku-ji Temple, you can do this while discovering another aspect of Kyoto's charm – its temples. This particular temple is splendidly decorated with gold leaf – a feature which has earned it the name of the Golden Pavilion.
Japan's fast-paced, intensely modern capital could hardly present a more dramatic contrast to traditional Kyoto. That is not to say that heritage has no place here; indeed, part of the intrigue of Tokyo, as with Japan as a whole, is the fact that its past manages to maintain a very present hold on the current day.
However, the fact remains that this is one of the best places to experience Japan's modern side. This effervescent cocktail of pop culture and commerce offers cutting-edge cuisine, high fashion (particularly in the ultra-modern Ginza district) and dramatic skyscrapers. Shibuya Crossing is the place to go to see the city's never-ending throng of people –a famously busy intersection (perhaps the busiest in the world), it is a visual cacophony of neon, traffic lights and bodies.
Step off the main streets, however, and you'll often find yourself getting reacquainted with traditional Japan – quiet alleys, bars made of wood, hanging lanterns...
Natural beauty – Mt Fuji and beyond
In amongst all Japan's cultural highlights, its natural attributes often get somewhat overshadowed. However, this is country as blessed with scenic beauty as with heritage – from its glorious cherry blossom season to the elegant grandeur of Mt Fuji.
Of course, being something of a symbol of Japan, Mt Fuji is certainly an exception to the idea that its natural wonders often get forgotten. Standing some 3,776 metres tall, this conical dormant volcano has been a mainstay of Japanese art and literature for centuries. While it is certainly possible to climb it, its simple beauty is best admired from a distance. Hakone National Park is a particularly lovely spot from which to do so, and is itself blessed with a wealth of natural wonders, including volcanic hot springs and lakes.
Visit Japan during April, meanwhile, and you will catch one of its most beautiful natural spectacles – the cherry blossom season. This is, of course, when the nation's cherry blossoms burst into bloom, and is as such one of the most visually appealing times to visit Japan. Mount Yoshino in Nara Prefecture possesses one of the best displays.
The Japanese Alps and Hokkaido are just a few of the other destinations awash with stunning scenery.
Hiroshima's name may, inevitably, evoke images of a war-torn past and the horror of the world's first atomic-bomb attack - but this city is far more than a dark point in 20th-century history. And indeed, its tragic past now serves to spring hope, because once you see this city's thriving, leafy streets, it's impossible not to feel a flood of inspiration.
Indeed, this friendly city is an endlessly refreshing place to visit, and one that contains important, if upsetting, windows into Japan's past. One of the most unmissable attractions here is Peace Memorial Park – a beautiful place that stands in memory of the day the atomic bomb fell. It is home to many moving monuments, including the Flame of Peace, which will remain lit until every nation has destroyed its nuclear weapons.
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