Known as the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, Japan promises ancient temples, neon-lit futuristic cities, geological wonders, incredible cuisine, a fascinating culture and captivating architecture. It’s a country that consistently features in our clients’ travel wish lists and if ever there was a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ destination… this is it!
From Tokyo’s bustling streets to Kyoto’s zen temples, Mount Fuji’s photogenic peaks, and Osaka’s street food we’ve cherry-picked our best bits of Japan just for you…(plus a few of our favourite South Korean gems thrown in too!) and if this leaves you wanting to find out more, simply get in touch with our eShores travel experts who’ll be delighted to help you craft your own personalised itinerary to Japan.
Tokyo: A Contrast of Ancient & Modern
Nowhere is the remarkable blend of ancient traditions and cutting-edge innovation more apparent than in the sprawling mega-metropolis of Tokyo. From the moment you arrive, Tokyo’s vibrant energy will leave you wide-eyed and eager to explore the city’s wealth of cultural activities and landmarks – which are all easy to get to thanks to the efficient public transport system.
A great place to start is the historic area of Asakusa where Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest and most famous temple is located. You’ll start at the Kaminarimon or ‘Thunder Gate’ which is the outer of two large entrance gates that leads to the Sensō-ji. The gate, with its lantern and statues has become cultural icon of the city and as you enter, you’ll find Nakamise-dori, a bustling shopping street lined with traditional stalls and street food. Sensō-ji’s main hall, or Hondo, is the heart of the temple. It features a beautiful interior with altars and religious artifacts. You’ll also be able to explore the five-storey pagoda, shrine and stunning gardens and courtyards. Other historic landmarks to visit in the city include Meiji Shrine, Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple, Zojoji Temple, Nezu Shrine and the East Gardens Tokyo Imperial Palace.
Featured in multiple films, TV series and pieces of art, the Shibuya Crossing is the world-famous pedestrian crossing located just outside Shibuya Station. It’s a fascinating sight, especially during rush hour when hundreds of people cross the road simultaneously from all directions. The surrounding area is a hub of shopping, dining, nightlife and entertainment, making it a fantastic place to soak up Tokyo’s energy, especially after dark.
Tokyo is a food lover’s paradise, offering an array of culinary experiences. From sushi at the famed Tsukiji Fish Market to street food in Harajuku, to the traditional kaiseki or ramen in the city’s noodle shops. There are also numerous ‘koshitsus’ that offer a quintessential Japanese dining experience where you can dine in private dining rooms featuring tatami mat flooring, low tables and sliding screens.
If you love a spot of shopping, you won’t be disappointed in the shopping opportunities on offer including the luxury boutiques in Ginza, the tech and electronic paradise of Akihabara and the unique and trendy shops in Harajuku’s Takeshita Street.
For the most spectacular views of the city head to the Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower, or the observation decks of Mori Building’s Roppongi Hills to take in the full panorama of the city, especially during sunset.
If your timing allows, visiting Tokyo during cherry blossom season (late March to early April) is a totally magical experience. Ueno Park, Shinjuku Gyoen, and Chidorigafuchi are popular spots for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties.
Hakone: Relaxation and Natural Beauty
Situated just 80km from Tokyo but a whole world away from the fast-paced lifestyle of the capital, Hakone is a region is famous for its hot springs (onsen), which are scattered throughout the region. These geothermal springs are believed to have healing properties, perfect for some downtime. The onsen experience often involves immersing yourself in an open-air bath while surrounded by lush greenery or even snow-capped mountains, depending on the season.
Hakone is also a great place to catch some stunning views of Mount Fuji. A lovely way to view the mountain is by taking a boat cruise on Lake Ashi, where you enjoy the scenic surroundings and, on clear days, catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the background. Another way to take in Hakone’s beauty is by going on the Hakone Ropeway which is an aerial tramway that takes you high above the region, offering sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, valleys, and Lake Ashi.
Shizuoka: Mount Fuji & Tea
Located southwest of Tokyo is the region of Shizuoka, where, standing at an elevation of 3,776.24 metres, the huge Mount Fuji mountain straddles the border between Shizuoka to the east and Yamanashi to the west. Whether you choose to climb the mountain via the walking trails or simply admire it from afar, it’s a truly breath-taking sight. There are plenty of places to catch a magnificent view of Mount Fuji, one of them being from Miho no Matsubara beach. On clear days, the peak of the mountain is perfectly reflected in the calm waters of the Suruga Bay, creating a postcard-perfect image.
One of Shizuoka’s other claims to fame is its tea production, particularly its green tea. A visit to a tea plantation in this region is a must for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Japanese culture and tradition. Stroll through the lush, meticulously maintained tea fields, where you can learn about the cultivation and harvesting processes that produce some of the finest teas in the world. The best bit of this tea experience is participating in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Kanazawa is located on the western coast of Japan, and one of its main highlights is the meticulously landscaped Kenrokuen Garden, renowned as one of the three best gardens in Japan. The garden’s name, ‘Kenrokuen’ translates to the ‘Six Attributes Garden,’ symbolising the six essential qualities of a perfect garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality (i.e. deliberate design), antiquity, use of water, and panoramic views.
Outside of the garden, Kanazawa is also famed for its beautifully preserved geisha districts, particularly the renowned Higashi-Chaya district, where you can immerse yourself in the traditional Japanese tea houses and geisha culture. Elsewhere, the Nagamachi samurai district invites you to step back in time and explore the beautifully preserved samurai residences and winding streets. Finally, Kanazawa is celebrated for its exquisite craftsmanship, particularly in its gold leaf production – in fact 99% of the country’s gold leaf is made in Kanazawa.
Osaka: The Food Lover’s Paradise
Osaka is often referred to as Japan’s ‘Kitchen’ and is a city where you can indulge in some of the country’s most delicious food and culinary delights. Start your culinary journey in Dotonbori, known for its neon lights and mouth-watering street food stalls. Try the iconic takoyaki, octopus balls or sample okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake. You will also find numerous restaurants that specialise in fugu dishes (puffer fish). The most popular way to enjoy fugu in Osaka is in the form of thinly sliced sashimi, known as ‘fugu sashimi’ or ‘fugu sashimi moriawase.’ Preparing fugu is a highly specialised and regulated skill (due to the potential of poisoning) and requires rigorous training and certification by fully licensed chefs who undergo years of apprenticeship to master the art of fugu preparation while ensuring the safety of their customers. Because of this, the chefs may demonstrate their expertise by preparing the fish next to your table – creating a real sense of theatre around the food.
Beyond its culinary fame, Osaka boasts rich history, with the magnificent Osaka Castle taking centre stage against the modern skyscrapers. While the original castle was destroyed in the 17th century, the current structure is a meticulous reconstruction that offers wonderful views of the city. You can also explore the museum inside the castle, which houses an impressive collection of artifacts and historical displays. Surrounding the castle, there are some beautiful grounds which offer a peaceful escape from the city and also a great spot in cherry blossom season in spring.
Hiroshima: A city of peace and history
Hiroshima is most famously known as the site of the atomic bombing during World War II, and the city’s Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum serve as a poignant reminder of the devastating consequences of this.
At the heart of the park lies the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, commonly known as the Atomic Bomb Dome. This iconic structure, which miraculously survived the blast, stands as a haunting silhouette against the city’s modern skyline. Also situated in the park is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, where you can explore exhibits detailing the events leading up to the bombing, the immediate aftermath, and the long-term effects on survivors (known as hibakusha). It’s a fascinating place with personal artifacts, photographs, and testimonies.
The Hiroshima Peace Boulevard, or Heiwa-dori, is a tree-lined avenue leading from the Peace Memorial Park to the Atomic Bomb Dome where you’ll find statues, monuments, and memorial stones donated by countries and organisations from around the world.
Miyajima Island: Shrine & ‘Floating’ Gate
Nestled in Hiroshima Bay, and accessible via a short ferry ride from the city, is the beautiful Miyajima Island.
The island’s most iconic structure is the Itsukushima Shrine, whose Torri gate is possibly one of Japan’s most photographed locations. The huge red coloured ‘Great Torii’ entrance gate to the shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site, appears to magically float on the surface of Hiroshima Bay and is truly an unforgettable sight. Beyond the shrine, Miyajima Island is also known for its dense forests that offer numerous walking trails where wild deer roam freely, leading to panoramic viewpoints such as Mount Misen, where you are rewarded with incredible view of the Seto Inland Sea.
Kyoto: Culture, tea and bamboo
Kyoto, often referred to as the cultural heart of Japan, is renowned for its well-preserved traditional architecture and historic temples. Fushimi Inari Shrine, dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, is one of Kyoto’s most iconic landmarks, located at the base of Inari Mountain. The shrine features thousands of red/orange torii gates that create a winding path through the forested hillside. The Ryoan-ji Temple is also a must-visit destination and a truly peaceful retreat. This Zen Buddhist temple is famous for its rock garden, which consists of 15 carefully placed rocks surrounded by raked gravel, which are meant to encourage contemplation and meditation. Located in the western outskirts of Kyoto, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a natural wonder and a must-visit destination in Kyoto. Walking through the forest of tall bamboo stalks is a truly immersive experience and is also located near to other attractions such as the beautiful Tenryu-ji Temple and the scenic Arashiyama Monkey Park.
Aside from stunning temples, Kyoto is renowned for its tea culture and sake production with numerous traditional tea houses throughout the city that specialise in tea ceremonies, and also multiple places to enjoy sake tasting experiences at local breweries. (Don’t forget to raise your glass and say ‘kampai’ as you enjoy the sake!)
Nikko: UNESCO marvels
Nikko, nestled within the Tochigi Prefecture, is famed for its UNESCO World Heritage Sites, known collectively as the ‘Shrines and Temples of Nikko’. These include Futarasan Shrine, Rinno-ji Temple and the most famous – the magnificent Toshogu Shrine, which is an architectural masterpiece dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. This shrine complex features exquisite wood carvings, elaborately decorated structures, and the iconic Three Wise Monkeys.
Also within the UNESCO site is the Nikko National Park where the breath-taking Kegon Falls takes centre stage with its cascading waters that drop 97 metres into the beautiful Lake Chuzenji.
Okinawa: Paradise beaches
The tropical haven of Okinawa is a beautiful region in the southernmost part of Japan and is ideal for a relaxing beachside break – thanks to its array of pristine beaches both on the main Okinawa Island and also on its neighbouring islands.
One of the most popular spots is Onna Village, situated along the picturesque western coast of Okinawa Island. Onna Village offers powdery sandy beaches and upscale beachfront luxury resorts, perfect for some R&R. Also, take a trip to Kouri Island, which is famed for its crystalline waters, Kouri bridge and heart-shaped rock formation that is meant to bring luck to couples. Another highlight is the remote and untouched Nishihama Beach, located on Hateruma Island. This hidden gem has incredibly fine white sands and is the perfect spot to explore the vibrant coral reefs just off its shores.
Fukuoka: Noodles and Shopping
Fukuoka, located on the northern coast of the island of Kyushu, is an important link for travel from Japan across to South Korea. It’s a large, buzzing city that is growing rapidly and becoming more of a tourist hotspot thanks to its art scene, culture, shopping and fabulous cuisine.
Start your exploration in the Tenjin district, for a great selection of shopping, entertainment and gastronomic delights. Here you’ll find department stores, boutiques, and quirky shops and also a vibrant dining scene, with numerous restaurants offering a variety of cuisines, from traditional Japanese to international food. Nakasu-Kawabata, which is located near the Naka River, is famous for its lively yatai (open-air food stalls), where you can enjoy delicious street food and local specialities including Fukuoka’s signature dish, Hakata ramen. This noodle soup features thin, straight noodles served in a rich pork bone broth. For a spot of history, head to the ruins of Fukuoka Castle, where you can explore the meticulously reconstructed keep and surrounding grounds.
Beyond Japan: South Korean Gems
A very popular add-on to our Japan travel itineraries is a trip to South Korea, which can be easily accessed across the Korea Strait from Fukuoka. Some popular choices include the major port city of Busan, known for its beautiful beaches, vibrant cultural scene, and a bustling fish market. Another popular destination is the capital city of Seoul, which is home to some incredible royal palaces, fabulous shopping opportunities and a thriving culinary scene offering everything from street food to Michelin-starred restaurants. Finally, a very popular choice is the stunning volcanic Jeju island, known as the ‘Hawaii of South Korea’ which offers breath-taking scenery, waterfalls and incredible beaches. The island is also home to ‘Seongsan Ilchulbong’, a volcanic crater and UNESCO world heritage site which was formed over 5000 years ago – and is a wonderful place to watch the sun rise.
If our travel guide has ignited your desire to embark on your own Japanese adventure, please get in touch with our team of experts. We’re here to help you create a personalised itinerary that ensures you experience the very best this captivating country has to offer.
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