Making the most of your Japan tour: A traveller’s guide

November 27th, 2019
Making the most of your Japan tour: A traveller’s guide

Visiting Japan is on many traveller’s bucket list. Visions of cherry blossoms, opulent palaces, tranquil temples, steaming bowls of ramen, samurai, geisha, and Hello Kitty make them long to one day visit the Land of the Rising Sun. But before you pack your bags and go, it’s important to understand a few things about Japan.

For one, Japan is a very popular tourist destination. In 2018, a record 31.2 million foreign tourists came to the country. Spring and autumn are the peak seasons for tourism, with people visiting various Japan tourist attractions to see the cherry blossoms and the vibrant autumn foliage.

Map of Japan

Map of Japan

Ultimately, the best time to visit Japan depends on what you want to see and experience. But if you want to avoid the crowds, it’s probably best to go late in the summer or early in the winter.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Japan is an archipelago. It consists of about 6,852 islands, the largest of which are Honshu, Kyushu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Okinawa. And though Japan has many islands, tourists flock to the main island of Honshu. In fact, most Japan tour packages focus on Honshu, where you’ll find a number of the country’s most iconic landmarks.

In this guide, we’ll focus on some of the top-rated Japan tourist attractions so you can make the most of your trip.

Things to do in Tokyo

Mount Fuji sitting behind the skyscrapers of Tokyo
To say that Tokyo is massive would be an understatement. Encompassing dozens of cities and municipalities, the Greater Tokyo Area covers an area of 13,500 square kilometres, making it the world’s second-largest metropolitan area in terms of urban function landmass. The city of Tokyo itself is immense, comprising 23 special wards connected by one of the world’s most efficient railway systems, and each offering some interesting activity or landmark.

Shop and dine to your heart’s content

For starters, there’s Shibuya, a major commercial and entertainment district. Here you’ll find one of Tokyo’s most identifiable landmarks, Shibuya Crossing. Every day, millions of people scramble every which way across this busy intersection, hurrying to offices, homes, or any of the countless bars and restaurants in the area.

Shibuya is also where many Tokyoites go to shop. Aside from international retail stores like Uniqlo and Muji, one hundred-yen shops also abound in the area. Grab some pretty porcelain chopstick rests, sakura-themed stationery, whimsical socks, and dried squid snacks as souvenirs. Or get lost in the numerous department stores and malls across Shibuya, including the iconic Shibuya 109. Up on the rooftop, bask in the relative peace and quiet, and snap photos of the colourful frenzy below.

Nihonbashi is known as the ‘centre of Japan;’ since the Edo Period (1603–1868), the kilometre zero marker for Japan’s national highway network has been located in this Central Tokyo district. Many shops in Nihonbashi have been in operation for hundreds of years. Purchase traditional goods such as kimono, lacquerware, and handmade toothpicks as souvenirs, or pick up a packet or two of plum candies to snack on as you explore the neighbourhood.

The famous crosswalk of the Ginza district in Tokyo, Japan

The famous crosswalk of the Ginza district in Tokyo, Japan

Ginza is an upscale shopping district in Tokyo, with designer flagship stores and high-end department stores at every turn. Chuo-dori, Ginza’s main shopping area, is where you’ll find luxury brands Chanel, Fendi, and Bulgari, among others, as well as Japanese department store chains Mitsukoshi and Matsuya. It’s also the location of Tokyo’s newest shopping complex Ginza Six, which boasts of having more than 240 clothing, cosmetics, and other retail shops under one roof.

There’s no lack of dining options in Ginza, where Michelin-starred restaurants peacefully coexist with food trucks. Kyubey is a Tokyo institution, serving superior sushi since 1935. Gyuan specializes in Kobe beef yakiniku and shabu-shabu (a type of hotpot). And nearby Tsukiji Outer Market is sushi and seafood central, where several top-notch restaurants serve the freshest fish, crab, and octopus. Other culinary delights to discover in Tsukiji are Tokyo street food staples such as ikayaki (chewy, succulent grilled squid), grilled unagi (freshwater eel) skewers, morokoshiage (deep-fried fishcake with corn), and tamagoyaki, sweet and savoury omelettes with a side of ground daikon.

Related article: How Japan Mastered The Art Of Staying Alive

Hungry for more? Hit Togoshiginza in Shinagawa. The entire length of this 1.3-kilometre shopping street is lined with some 400 stores that sell everything from clothes to groceries to food. Togoshiginza is particularly known for korokke (panko-coated mashed potato croquettes deep-fried to golden brown perfection). Other must-try street foods include kushiyaki (grilled and skewered meats, organs, or vegetables), oden (fishcake stew with a slew of other ingredients), and pork-wrapped onigiri on a stick.

Immerse yourself in the Tokyo art scene

Art aficionados visit Ginza’s many art galleries, including those in the Okuno Building. What used to be a seven-storey luxury apartment building is now home to a number of art galleries and antique shops. Stepping into Okuno, you’ll be transported back in time, as the building has retained much of its original features, including the manually operated elevator doors and polished wood balustrades. Apartment 306 has even been turned into a permanent exhibit, featuring furnitur e and various curios from the 1930s through the 1970s.

Tokyo also has a number of museums that house artworks by artists from Japan and all over the world. Visit at least one of them to acquaint yourself with the uniqueness of Japanese art and aesthetics. Ota Memorial Museum of Art houses one of the largest collections of traditional woodblock prints or ukiyo-e. Since 1980, this museum has been holding rotating exhibitions of more than 14,000 ukiyo-e pieces. In the Nihonbashi district, Mitsui Memorial Museum has Japanese artworks and crafts — including pottery, textiles, tea ceremony utensils, and swords — on display.

Related article: The Irresistible Appeal of Japanese Art and Aesthetics

The Japanese art aesthetic Wabi-sabi is sometimes described as one of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete"

The Japanese art aesthetic Wabi-sabi is sometimes described as one of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete".

Take note that entrance to Tokyo’s popular museums will cost you a pretty penny, but fortunately, a few of the city’s leading art museums offer free museum days as well as discounts, primarily to students and senior citizens. Tourists can view the permanent collection of paintings, artefacts, and crafts in the National Museum of Modern Art for free on the first Sunday of every month. Meanwhile, admission to the National Museum of Western Art is free on the second and fourth Saturday of the month. This Le Corbusier-designed building has an impressive collection of artworks from the Renaissance to the modern period.

Aside from the visual arts, you’ll also see and experience the flourishing performing arts scene in Tokyo. The Kabukiza Theatre has daily performances of kabuki, a classical Japanese dance-drama. Each three- or four-act performance lasts between four and five hours; if that’s too much for you, get a ticket for a single act — that will give you just enough time to experience this highly stylized theatrical style and catch a Noh performance at the National Noh Theater in Sendagaya.

If you’re only staying in Tokyo for a day or two, but would still like to experience the local art scene, head to Bunkamura in Shibuya. This “cultural complex” is a museum, theatre, concert hall, and cinema in one.

Find zen in nature

Bright lights, lightning-fast trains, and soaring skyscrapers dominate Tokyo. Yet pockets of calm exist in this ultra-modern city. Hamarikyu Gardens in Chuo City, just a stone’s throw away from Ginza and the recently developed Shiodome commercial district, is one of Tokyo’s best-kept secrets. This traditional Japanese garden features a teahouse on an island in a seawater pond.

To the north is the Tokyo Imperial Palace and Gardens. The centrepiece of Chiyoda ward, the 1.15-square kilometre palace grounds comprises of several museums, administrative offices, and the private residences of the Imperial Family. While the inner grounds of the palace are not open to the public, visitors can stroll among the ruins of the original moats, gates, and guardhouses of Edo Castle. Colorful flowers and stately trees draw the locals, as well as a variety of birds and insects, to Ninomaru Garden. Meanwhile, Kitanomaru Park is popular during cherry blossom season, which typically takes place in early April.

A bullet train passes Mount Fuji near Tokyo, Japan

A bullet train passes Mount Fuji near Tokyo, Japan

And while Mount Fuji is some 101 kilometres away from the heart of Tokyo, you can always arrange for a day trip to this most iconic — and zen-like — of all Japanese landmarks. After all, it’s less than an hour away via the shinkansen, or bullet train — which is an icon in and of itself. Take the train to the Fujigoko (Fuji Five Lake) region, to the Fujisan Sengen Shrine in Fujinomiya, or to a hot spring resort in Hakone, and revel in the beauty and serenity of the sacred mountain. If you visit in July or August, you can choose to climb Fuji via one of several trails.

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If you don’t feel like travelling all the way out to Fuji, you can still catch a glimpse of its snow-capped peak from several skyscrapers within the city. Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree, two of the city’s tallest structures, have two observation decks each, and all of them afford panoramic views of the Greater Tokyo Area. Take note, however, that clouds often obscure views of Mount Fuji; visibility is better in late autumn and winter, as well as in the early morning and late evening.

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Things to do in Kyoto

As one can expect from a city that for more than a thousand years was the capital of Japan, Kyoto is the very heart of Japanese culture and tradition. In fact, the city has one of the world’s largest collections of UNESCO World Heritage Sites — 17 in all, including several shrines, temples, and a castle.

Trace the footsteps of the emperors

As the former imperial capital, Kyoto has a large number of palaces and castles where emperors and their families, as well as the members of their court, once lived. The Kyoto Imperial Palace was the official residence of the Imperial Family until 1868, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. It is now used exclusively for enthronement and other state ceremonies.

Within the grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace stands the Sento Imperial Palace. Unlike the former, Sento occasionally houses members of the Imperial Family when they visit Kyoto. While there is nothing remarkable about the palace itself, the gardens are spectacular and are a fine example of the Japanese-style strolling garden. Hour-long tours are conducted Tuesdays through Sundays; a guide (sadly, no English-speaking ones) takes guests around the North and South Pond Areas, pausing here and there to admire the architecture of the palace buildings.

The facade of Ninomaru Palace at Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan

The facade of Ninomaru Palace at Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan

Japan’s leaders once resided in Nijo Castle as well. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was the official Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa shoguns. Within the castle’s fortifications is the Ninomaru Palace, whose five buildings feature elaborate wood carvings as well as walls, sliding doors, and ceilings decorated with traditional paintings. Ninomaru Palace is also famous for its nightingale floors that make a chirping sound when you walk on them. Other places of interest within the Nijo Castle complex are the Honmaru Palace, where the 1928 enthronement of Emperor Hirohito was held, and the gardens, which include groves of cherry and plum trees, ponds, and teahouses.

Go shrine- and temple-hopping

There are more than 400 Shinto shrines are in Kyoto; the most famous and most important of these is the Fushimi Inari Taisha. It is instantly recognizable by the thousands of bright red-orange torii gates — known as Senbon Torii — lining the mountain path that connects the main and inner shrines. Fushimi Inari Taisha is dedicated to the veneration of Inari, the Shinto god of agriculture, industry, and fertility — as well as foxes, of which there are plenty of statues, fountains, and altars throughout the shrine.

Related article: Shinto: How Japan’s Religious Soul Is Surviving An Age Of Change

Another important and beautiful Shinto shrine is Shimogamo-jinja in Central Kyoto. It is one of the 17 Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto that together have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated in a patch of forest between two rivers, the grounds of the shrine are cool year-round, even in the summer. Visitors enjoy strolling along shady paths that wind around vermillion-painted buildings, curved bridges, and tranquil gardens. Every May 15th, a parade of people perform rites and make offerings at Shimogamo-jinja and its sister shrine, Kamigamo-jinja, as a culminating activity of the Aoi Matsuri festival.

Kinkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan

Kinkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan

Among Kyoto’s temples, a definite must-see is Kinkaku-ji, the famed Golden Pavilion. The temple’s exterior is covered in gold leaf, and the sight of it reflected in the pond below is truly breathtaking. Neither should you miss Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavilion, which was modelled after Kinkaku-ji. Although it’s not covered in silver, Ginkaku-ji and the other buildings within the temple complex are impressive, and they’re best enjoyed by taking a circular route around the grounds.

Other temples you should take the time to see, especially if it’s your first time in Kyoto, include Ryoan-ji and Byodo-in. Ryoan-ji is the site of Japan’s most popular rock garden, which features 15 rocks in a sea of white sand. Visit if you want to find some inner peace and to contemplate. Meanwhile, Byodo-in is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is depicted on the 10-yen coin. The temple’s Phoenix Hall is regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in Japan.

Eat the streets

Walking around in Kyoto can make you hungry. Grab a quick bite at Nishiki Market, a narrow shopping street that is known as ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen.’ Since 1615, Nishiki has had stall after stall specialising in a particular type of food — pickles, produce, and dried and fresh seafood, among others — as well as a host of sundries. There’s also a great selection of Kyoto street food: try baby octopus and quail egg skewers, deep-fried pufferfish, yatsuhashi (cinnamon-flavoured cookies), and chocolate croquettes.

Higashiyama has a large concentration of historical sites, and it’s also a treasure trove of good eats. There you’ll find hundreds of shops and stalls hawking all kinds of foodstuffs you’ll find only in Japan. Try mitarashi dango, grilled mochi dumplings on a stick covered in a sticky, sweet and savoury sauce. And there’s no better place to enjoy tempura than in a restaurant that has been frying it up for more than 100 years. Enjoy prawn, sea urchin, and other seafood favourites in a crunchy, cloud-like batter at Tempura Endo Yasaka, a restaurant located in a quiet neighbourhood of traditional houses and buildings.

Barbecue sold on the streets of Japan

Barbecue sold on the streets of Japan

Tofu is a local specialty in Kyoto; the Arashiyama and Nanzenji neighbourhoods, in particular, are well known for restaurants and food stalls that serve tofu-based dishes. One dish to try is yudofu, thick cubes of silky tofu simmered in broth with seasonal vegetables. There’s also yuba or tofu skin, which is made by boiling soy milk and skimming the skin that floats to the surface. Yuba is typically served with a dipping sauce made of soy sauce, ponzu (citrus dressing), and fresh wasabi.

For a spot of Japanese haute cuisine, visit one of the many restaurants and ryokan (traditional inns) that serve kaiseki. Guests are served an assortment of elaborate dishes carefully prepared using seasonal ingredients. Each kaiseki meal usually starts with sakizuke (appetizer) and ends with a bowl of soup, followed by a dessert of fruit, cake, or sugar confection. And remember that as befits the most traditional and refined form of Japanese cuisine, always mind your manners; at the very least, make sure to thank the chef before and after the meal.

Related article: Kyoto culture and cuisine: Where to go and what to eat

Dance, sing, and have tea with geisha

Kyoto isn’t the only Japanese city with geisha districts, but it is recognized as the centre of geisha culture. About 1,000 geisha — both full-fledged geiko and apprentice maiko — call Kyoto home, and they are one of this city’s most treasured traditions.

Geisha literally means “artist,” and artists are exactly what these women are. They are learned in Japanese dance and song, and can play the shamisen and an array of other musical instruments. They are highly skilled entertainers who go through four to five years of rigorous training to become the perfect embodiment of Japanese traditional culture.

A woman performs a Japanese tea ceremony

A woman performs a Japanese tea ceremony

Gion is the largest and most legendary of the five geisha districts of Kyoto. It is a relatively small area filled with shops, restaurants, and ochaya (teahouses), many of which have been around for centuries. Traditionally, ochaya are where geiko and maiko entertain guests during a night of dinner, drinking games, and dancing (done exclusively by the geisha). Nowadays, more and more geisha events are held at hotels and ryokan in the city.

Additionally, geisha often perform traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. In fact, hosting a tea ceremony is one of the things they are expected to master during their years of training. They carry out every step — from ritually cleansing the utensils to pouring the water to serving the tea — with the utmost care; the most traditional enter a meditative state to prepare the best bowl of tea. The guests take turns sipping from the bowl, bowing and thanking the host after receiving the tea bowl. Towards the end of the ceremony, each guest takes time to admire the bowl before returning it to the host.

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Geisha also play a central role in Kyoto’s spring dance festivals. The Miyako Odori, or Cherry Blossom Dances, showcases the talent of the geiko and maiko of the Gion district. Since 1873, these dances have been held at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre; these days, four hour-long performances are given every day throughout April. A similar festival is the Kamogawa Odori, which is held each May. Though not as well-attended as the Miyako Odori, this festival is also popular among locals and foreigners who come to see geisha of the Pontocho district dance and to take part in a tea ceremony performed by a maiko.

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Things to do in Kanazawa

Spring scenery outside Kanazawa Castle, Japan
Like Kyoto, Kanazawa’s centuries-old landmarks stand to this day. Unlike those in Kyoto, however, tourist attractions in Kanazawa are concentrated within a small area, so visitors don’t have to travel far to experience all the charms of this coastal city.

Stroll around Kenrokuen and Kanazawa Castle

Of all of Kanazawa’s attractions, Kenrokuen is by far the most visited. This traditional Japanese garden is regarded as one of Japan’s three best landscape gardens — many consider it the most beautiful of all. Originally the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle, Kenrokuen was opened to the public in 1871. Since then, people have been enjoying its serene loveliness.

One of the highlights of Kenrokuen are the various flowering trees all around. From season to season, the trees look different — bare in the winter, wreathed in varying shades of pink and white in the spring and summer, and blazing red and yellow in the autumn. And every year on November 1st, Kenrokuen’s caretakers begin putting up yukitsuri, or ‘snow suspenders;’ these cone-shaped structures made of long bamboo poles and rope protect the garden’s prized Karasaki pines from heavy snow.

A stone lantern in the Kenrokuen Gardens in Kanazawa, Japan

A stone lantern in the Kenrokuen Gardens in Kanazawa, Japan

Across a stone bridge right off the garden’s north entrance is Kanazawa Castle, an enduring symbol of Japan. The buildings within the castle complex are reconstructions of the originals, many of which were destroyed by a series of fires between the 16th and the 19th century. Those that have survived, including the Ishikawa Gate and Sanjikken Nagaya samurai warehouse, have been designated Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese government. For a small fee, you can enter some of the buildings to see the beautifully restored interiors. An extensive park filled with trees and sculpted shrubbery surrounds the castle.

Related article: The House That Flowed Like Water

Visit samurai homes and the ninja temple

Adjacent to Kanazawa Castle Park is Nagamachi, a well-preserved neighbourhood where samurai and their families used to live. Here you’ll find faithfully restored Edo Period houses flanking narrow flagstone lanes and canals.

The Nomura Samurai Family House is one of the most visited in the area. For 11 generations, the house was occupied by the Nomuras, a wealthy family whose members held prominent government posts throughout the Edo Period. The house is famous for its garden, which is laid out in the kyoku-sui (winding stream) style, as well as the storehouse out back where a suit of armour, katana, and other artefacts and treasures that the Nomuras acquired are on display. There is also a well-appointed tearoom on the second level of the main house, where you can enjoy the view of the garden while sipping a cup of green tea.

In contrast to the display of prestige and wealth in the Nomura home are the artefacts found in Ashigaru Shiryokan Museum and Shinise Kinenkan Museum. The former features two restored houses of ashigaru, or foot soldiers. Inside the restored ashigaru houses in Nagamachi, visitors can learn about the daily life of these lowest-ranked of the samurai class. Meanwhile, Shinise Kinenkan Museum was once a pharmacy, but now has displays of everyday items used by the merchant class of the Edo Period.

A Japanese katana

A Japanese katana

Across the Sai River is Myoryuji Temple, more popularly known as Ninjadera or Ninja Temple. Though it has nothing to do with ninja, it came to be known as such because of its very ninja-like secret rooms and passageways (one is rumoured to lead right into Kanazawa Castle), trapdoors, and defences. And though it appears to be only two-storeys high from the outside, it actually has four levels connected by cunningly concealed stairwells.

Get the freshest seafood at Omicho Market

Not only is Kanazawa the capital of the Ishikawa prefecture, but it’s also the seafood capital of Japan. It would be a pity to come to this seaside city and not try the bounty of great seafood it is known for.

Omicho Market should be any seafood lover’s first stop in Kanazawa. It’s the city’s largest fish market, where fish caught off Ishikawa’s coast are brought every day. Inside you’ll find stalls upon stalls of the freshest tuna, shrimp, snow crab, and seaweed of all colours and textures.

There are also plenty of restaurants that serve seafood in every way imaginable — grilled, seared, fried, boiled, raw. Come lunchtime, join the long queues in front of Omicho’s most popular establishments, many of which specialise in sashimi rice bowls made with fresh seafood right from the market. Cheaper dining options include kaiten sushi, or conveyor belt sushi, and grilled eel liver or broiled loach from one of the stalls outside the market.

Make a side trip to the gassho villages and hot springs

The Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama stretch across the border of the prefectures of Gifu and Toyama. These three villages are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and are among the best-known tourist attractions in Japan.

The quaint clusters of traditional farmhouses in the villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura, and Suganuma were built in an architectural style called gassho-zukuri, which literally means ‘praying hands construction.’ This refers to the resemblance of the houses’ steeply sloping thatched roofs to hands pressed together in prayer. The roofs are especially thick, too, consisting of a three-foot layer of densely packed straw. The design of the roofs allows them to withstand the heavy snowfall during winter.

Many of the houses are still inhabited by farming families who have lived in the area for centuries. They still practice traditional farming techniques and lead simple, easy lifestyles. Some houses are now museums, and Kanda House in Ogimachi is a prime example. This 160-year-old gassho house maintains many of its original features, including a grain drying shelter and an irori, a sunken hearth that is typical of many traditional Japanese homes. There are also sericulture exhibits on the second and third floors, and a storeroom on the fourth floor; gaze out over the village and the mountains beyond through the room’s window.

A traditional Japanese inn or Ryokan

A traditional Japanese inn known as a Ryokan

Before heading back to Kanazawa, pass by Kaga Onsen, where you can take a dip and in one of the town’s numerous onsen or hot springs. Kaga Onsen is actually a collection of four villages that are frequented for their high-quality public baths called soyu, which present tourists with a unique bathing experience. The waters are supposed to have healing powers, believed to cure everything from skin diseases to digestive problems. And being situated at the foot of Mount Haku, one of Japan’s three holiest mountains, Kaga Onsen also has great hiking trails.

For the ultimate Kaga Onsen experience, book an overnight stay at a ryokan. This will give you plenty of time to soak your weary bones and relax as well as explore the villages.

Related article: Soak Yourself in a Japanese Tradition

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Things to do in Hiroshima

Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima, Japan
The word tragedy has become inextricably linked with Hiroshima. The atomic bombing of this city in Western Japan is one of the most lamentable legacies of World War II, one that many cannot think of without feeling any guilt and horror. But today, 75 years on, Hiroshima is a booming city, modern on all accounts and a testament to the strength and resilience of its citizens.

Honor the fallen

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park opened its doors to the public in April 1954, built on the ruins of the city’s once-bustling commercial centre. The park was planned and designed by award-winning Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, and features several buildings, memorials, museums, and lecture halls as well as winding paths and open spaces.

The highlight of the park is the Memorial Cenotaph, a concrete arch monument near the centre of the park grounds. The arch shelters a cenotaph that holds the names of all those killed by the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Every year on the anniversary of the bombing, people gather in front of the cenotaph to remember the 140,000 lives that were lost on that fateful day.

Other monuments dedicated to the victims include the Peace Flame, which has been burning continuously since the park opened. There’s also the Children’s Peace Monument, a statue erected in memory of the thousands of child victims of the bombing. In particular, it is dedicated to Sadako Sasaki, who survived the bombing but died 10 years later of leukemia, which many Hiroshima residents called 'atomic bomb disease.'

Before you leave, ring the Peace Bells and wish for world peace.

See the floating torii and shrine at Itsukushima

Itsukushima Shrine near Hiroshima, Japan

Itsukushima Shrine near Hiroshima, Japan

The island of Itsukushima in the Seto Inland Sea is home to the famous Itsukushima-jinja, a Shinto shrine and its great torii gate that appear to float in the sea. Note that this is only so during high tide, so you’ll only get to see them 'floating' twice a day (it’s a good idea to research on the timings of the tides before heading out there) — but to see them so is nothing short of magical.

The name of the island literally means 'island of worship,' and it is actually worshipped as a god in Shintoism. Many of the Shinto religion go to Itsukushima to pray and pay their respects to the gods, but they also go to simply take in and marvel at the mystical beauty of the shrine.

The shrine itself is located on a small inlet, while the torii gate stands a few metres from the shore. Follow the paths that lead around the inlet for spectacular views of the sea. The shrine and the torii gate are lit up from sunset to 11:00 PM; while tourists are not allowed to enter the shrine after sunset, they can take a 30-minute boat cruise that takes them around the bay and through the torii gate (but again, only during high tide).

Have the best sake and okonomiyaki in Japan

Hiroshima is known as Sake Town — with some 50 brewers operating in and around the city, Hiroshima is one of Japan’s largest producers of sake, along with Fushimi in Kyoto and the Nada district of Kobe. What’s more, the National Research Institute of Brewing is located in Hiroshima.

To see how sake is made (and for free tastings, too), go on a tour of one of the many sake breweries in Hiroshima. Visit several breweries at once by joining a guided tour of the Saijo Sake District in Higashihiroshima, which has been one of Japan’s premier sake-producing areas since the time of the shoguns. You’ll visit all eight of the district’s breweries and get to taste ginjo-shu and daiginjo-shu, two variants of premium-grade sake, as well as the water that makes Hiroshima sake truly outstanding.

Traditional hand-painted barrels of Japanese rice wine

Traditional hand-painted barrels of Japanese rice wine

Related article: Sake: Japan’s oldest, most-loved, most-under-threat drink?

If you can’t make it to Saijo, you can still enjoy sake at one of the many bars, izakaya, and restaurants in Hiroshima city proper. Try Koishi, a sake bar in the Nagarekawacho ward, which has sake for everyone, from those who just want a taste to hardcore conoisseurs. Pair koshu (aged sake) and sparkling sake with fresh local seafood, and end the meal with kijoshu (aged dessert sake with a full, sweet flavour).

Besides seafood, okonomiyaki is another must-try dish in Hiroshima. While they are available anywhere in Japan, these pancakes overflowing with all sorts of ingredients from meat to seafood to vegetables to cheese are said to have been invented in Hiroshima. The Hiroshimans even have a unique method for making okonomiyaki; instead of mixing them together, each of the ingredients is cooked separately and placed on top of a thin crepe. The okonomiyaki is then served on top of yakisoba noodles.

You can grab this snack-, lunch-, and dinnertime favourite at specialty restaurants all over Hiroshima, as well as from sidewalk stalls that sell them hot off the teppan. Wash it all down with some sake.

A Day in Hiroshima

Visit the Memorial Museum and Atomic Bomb Dome in the Peace Memorial Park, learn how to make okonomiyaki, and explore and marvel at the mystical beauty of the floating Shinto shrine at Itsukushima.

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Other places to visit in Japan

A pagoda in Nara, Japan
Visit these cities in Western and Central Japan to round off your sojourn.

Things to do in Nara and Osaka

Because they’re only about an hour’s drive from each other, it’s possible to hit all the important landmarks in Nara and Osaka in a single day.

Begin in Nara, an ancient city with a wealth of historic monuments. The city was the capital of Japan for most of the eighth century, and so Nara has its own Imperial Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. Before the 1950s, all that remained of the resplendent palace complex was several temples. Archaeological excavation in the decades that followed uncovered an additional three major structures, which have been painstakingly reconstructed over the years.

In addition to the palace, five Buddhists temples, some of them dating back to the sixth century, also bear the designation of World Heritage Site. These temples include four of the Seven Great Temples of Nara, and one of them, Todai-ji, houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue.

Incidentally, Todai-ji is within the grounds of Nara Park, one of the oldest parks in Japan and widely famous for its free-roaming Sika deer. Buy some ‘deer crackers’ for the deer, who ‘bow’ their heads to visitors to ask for a nibble. The Nara National Museum is also within the park, as are the Yoshikien Garden and Humora Shrine. A path leads through the park to Kasuga Shrine, which, like nearby Kasugayama Primeval Forest, is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Osaka Castle in Osaka, Japan

Osaka Castle in Osaka, Japan

Osaka is a bustling, cosmopolitan center that is world-famous for its scrumptious street food. That’s not to say, however, that Osaka doesn’t have any important historical landmarks. Case in point: Osaka Castle, a 16th-century castle complex that is perhaps the most famous attraction in the city. The castle is especially popular in spring, when the cherry trees within the grounds come into bloom.

There’s also Sumiyoshi Taisha, one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines. Large crowds flock to the shrine during the new year to make wishes to the Sumiyoshi sanjin, the three Shinto gods of the sea and sailing. And south of the city centre are the Mozu Tombs, a group of about 50 ancient burial mounds, including one of the largest tombs in the world — that of third-century emperor Nintoku Kofun.

Other top Osaka attractions include the Osaka Aquarium, Universal Studios Japan, and the Umeda Sky Building. Not to miss is Dotonbori, which is akin to Ginza and Shibuya Crossings in terms of being extremely busy and chock-full of entertainment, shopping, and dining options. It’s where all the best street food in Osaka is! You’ll have no trouble walking around Dotonbori while snacking on takoyaki and kushikatsu, which are conveniently served on a stick. You do have to sit down for kitsune udon, however; this dish of thick noodles in hot soup topped with a large piece of deep-fried tofu is a favourite among weary locals as well as travellers to this fast-paced city.

Things to do in Matsumoto and Takayama

Although not as well known as other Japanese cities, Matsumoto and Takayama in Central Japan are still worth visiting, as they offer attractions that give tourists a unique perspective on Japanese art.

Matsumoto castle in Matsumoto, Japan

Matsumoto castle in Matsumoto, Japan

While Matsumoto is best known for Matsumoto Castle, a well-preserved historic landmark that has been designated a National Treasure of Japan, the Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum is another attraction you must visit. The museum has exhibits of more than 6,000 wood, bamboo, lacquer, glass, and ceramic items from the Japanese folk art movement called Mingei, which underscores the importance of finding beauty in everyday objects.

A similar museum is located in Takayama. Kusakabe Folk Museum has a collection of Japanese folk art and artefacts, including a magnificent Buddhist altar. The building that houses the museum was once the home of a wealthy merchant, and it showcases the craftsmanship of Takayama’s carpenters and woodworkers.

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Before you go

Prepare your documents

Canadian citizens are among those who do not need a Japan tourist visa to enter the country, provided that they stay for a period of 90 days only and do not receive any income while in the country. If they do receive and accept a job offer from a Japan-based employer during their visit, they must leave Japan and obtain a work visa from a Japanese diplomatic mission in Canada or another country.

Alternatively, you can apply for a working holiday visa. This allows Canadian citizens to stay for an initial period of six months in Japan, with the possibility of up to two six-month extensions. With such a visa, you can take on a job or do freelance work to supplement your travel expenses.

Get your passport ready

Get your passport ready...

While Canadian tourists don’t need a visa to go to Japan, they do need a valid passport. Japan is a little more lenient when it comes to passport validity, unlike some countries that require passports to be valid for longer than six months after the date of departure. As long as your passport’s date of expiry is not on the dates of your stay in Japan, you won’t have any problems entering the country.

If you have other questions about Japan’s passport and visa policy, click here.

Draw up a budget

Fact: Japan is one of the most expensive countries to live in and travel to. It currently ranks seventh among the nations with the highest cost of living index. So if one were to go on a tour of Japan for, say two weeks, things could get expensive really quickly, right? Well, not necessarily.

Though food and other commodities are pretty expensive in Japan, they’re not prohibitively so. This doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t try and skimp wherever you can. You can still book a room at a luxury or mid-range hotel and still stay on budget if you save on some things here and there. For instance, you can get great food for as little as 100 yen ($1.25); don’t write off convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Family Mart, which offer a lot of meals for 100 to 300 yen ($3.70). And while you’re in Japan, get your fill of authentic ramen, a bowl of which hardly ever costs more than 700 yen ($8.60).

But if money’s no object, then go ahead and splurge. On average, a high-budget two-week tour of the attractions mentioned in this article would set you back $343 (28,000 yen) per day if you’re travelling with a partner, and $227 (18,500 yen) if you’re going solo. Those prices include the daily cost of accommodation, meals, transportation, and sightseeing.

You could also opt to avail of Japan tour packages from a travel agency. A tour package that includes the places mentioned in this post costs anywhere between $6,000 and $10,000 per head. This usually covers accommodation, meals, ground transport, and the entrance fee to attractions included in the tour. On top of this, travel agencies usually charge a deposit to confirm your reservations.

If visiting Japan has always been your dream, 2020 is the perfect time to make it come true. Travel to Japan with Wheel & Anchor in May 2020, and soak in the rich history, culture, and traditions of the Japanese by partaking of local gastronomic delights, riding bullet trains, and visiting ancient and modern landmarks set in the most beautiful surroundings. Sign up today.

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The map for our upcoming Japan: Land of the Rising Sun tour

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