Japan’s modern-city capital lacks the refined aesthetic Kyoto, or the tranquility of Nara, but comes up trumps with contemporary icons, like the forest of skyscrapers that dominates the Shinjuku district, the everchanging gadgets exhibited in the Sony building and the hyper-trendy street fashions and boutiques of Harajuku. Historic highlights include the country’s most venerated Shinto shrine, Meiji-jingu, and the impressive Senso-ji temple, while the old style early-morning Tsukji fish market makes a lively contrast with the shopping malls of super-chic Ginza, the latest gadgets on sale in Akihabara’s “Electronics Town” and the cutting-edge clubs in Roppongi.
This historic former capital city should be at the top of every visitor’s list. It has scores of breathtaking Buddhist temples, some of the country’s finest Zen gardens, and lovely neighbourhoods of wooden homes and traditional tea houses. Don’t miss the 1001 gilded statues of Buddha at Sanjusanngen-do temple, Ginkakuji’s Temple of the Silver Pavilion, or the inspirational Ryoan-ji rock garden. The modern face of Kyoto is energetic and youthful, with good bars, clubs and restaurants, and there are invigorating hill walks within day-tripping distance.
Many visitors to Japan make a pilgrimage to Hiroshima’s excellent Peace Memorial Museum, a balanced commemoration of the dropping of the atomic bomb here on August 6, 1945, and its horrific repercussions. The regenerated city has a breezy, upbeat atmosphere and is a pleasure to explore. Just a twenty-minute ferry ride away is the little island of Miyajima, site of one of Japan’s most scenically located Shinto shrines.
Although the walk to the top of Japan’s iconic snow-capped peak takes a grueling six hours, thousands of people make it up to the 3776-metre summit every summer. Unfortunately, the tracks are always heaving with hikers, the mountainside is strewn with unattractive volcanic debris and, due to persistent haze, the views are rarely spectacular. A better way to appreciate Fuji-san is to climb nearby Mount Tenjo, which you can do in just 45 minutes, giving you the chance to admire Mount Fuji from a more interesting perspective. Or, more leisurely still, take a slow train ride through the surrounding Hakone region, an area of lakes and hot springs which also offers fine views of the sacred peak.
With its five-tiered roofs, elegant proportions and chilly interiors, imposing Himeji Castle looks much as it would have done when it housed the local lord and his samurai in the seventeenth century. Take the free guided tour to discover the castle’s secret defenses-like floors that were designed to creak and a labyrinthine network of corridors.
The Tono Valey
For a glimpse of traditional life in rural Japan, hire a bike for a day’s cycling here, visiting some of the restored eighteenth-century farmhouses and stopping in at one of the local folk museums
Kenrokuen in the city of Kanazawa
Japanese gardens have inspired designers all over the world, and Kenrokuen, the country’s top garden, is a classic composition of ponds, pine trees, contemplative vistas and graceful teahouses.
Set in a huge forested park of mountains, lakes and waterfalls, this complex of elaborately carved and gaudily painted shrines and temples looks especially fantastical in the snow.
A popular side-trip from Kyoto, and also a former capital, Nara is dotted with venerable temples and shrines, in particular the historic Todai-ji temple, housing a fifteen-meter-high bronze Buddha.
Hiking in Kirishima National Park
The southern island of Kyushu boasts the most dramatic volcanis scenery in the country, nowhere more so than in Kirishima National Park, which has 23 peaks within its boundaries. There are plenty of bracing mountains trails here, plus waterfalls, an impressive gorge and an outdoor hot spring.
The northernmost of Japan’s four main islands is also its wildest and least populated. The volcanic landscape is dotted with lakes and forests, which makes it perfect hiking country: Shiretoko National Park is especially rewarding, with lakes linked by forest paths, plus natural hot springs and challenging trails.
A night is a ryokan
These traditional inns are like a genuine step backwards in time; the rooms have tatami mat floors, sumptuous futons, sliding paper doors and views onto traditional Japanese gardens. Everyone pads around in their socks, and you can often ask to have dinner served on low tables in your room.
A session at the onsen
Bathing in the outdoor hot springs is a big thing in Japan and there are many lovely spots to enjoy some communal soaking, including popular Bappu on the southern island of Kyushu.