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Japan

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Japan destinations

Kyoto

Tokyo

Japan

I went to Japan to write travel articles and ended up writing books. But even though I’ve been writing about Japan for more than thirty years, I always feel at a loss for words when trying to describe the country in a nutshell. Sure, everyone’s familiar with Mt. Fuji, Toyota and Sony, sushi and sake, and maybe even anime or Hokusai, but that doesn’t begin to cover the depth of Japanese culture, history, technology, lifestyle, topography and cuisine.

Although it’s a cliche to call a country unique, for Japan it’s the country’s defining adjective. Some of that is due to its insularity as an island nation and to its homogenous population. But it’s also due to Japan’s 200-some years of self-imposed isolation, when the country was closed to the outside world and maintained a tightly controlled feudalistic society under the rule of the shogun. It’s startling to think that as recently as the mid-19th century, when the West was marching forward into the Industrial Revolution and Japan finally opened its ports to outside trade, this was the land of samurai, peasants, merchants and monks, even in what is now the center of Tokyo.

Japan: Tokyo

Tokyo, of course, is Japan’s largest city, capital since 1868 after the shogun was overthrown and the emperor was restored to power. Hub of the world’s largest metropolitan area, with a combined population of 37 million people (Tokyo itself has 13 million residents), it’s a maze of crowded streets and quiet backstreet alleys, innovative high-rises and rickety two-story wooden homes, sophisticated cocktail bars and smoky Japanese-style pubs. Yet it’s also surprisingly easy to navigate due to a superb subway system, and with the 2020 Olympics on its horizon, Tokyo is becoming more user-friendly all the time. I love the traditional Asakusa neighborhood with its Sensoji Temple and craft stores, but equally entertaining is Harajuku with its swarms of teenagers in search of the latest fashions just steps from venerable Meiji Jingu Shrine.

In Ueno, the Tokyo National Museum houses the world’s largest collections of Japanese art and antiquities, while wacky Akihabara is a colorful maze of electronic stores, anime shops and maid cafes. Visitors with more time on their hands should also spend the day in Nikko, where Japan’s most famous shogun was laid to rest in a gorgeous forest of majestic cedars. Tokyo is also a foodies’ delight, with more Michelin-Star-rated restaurants than Paris. It may well also be the pop culture capital of the world.

Japan: Kyoto

Japan’s other famous destination is Kyoto, and rightfully so. In fact, Kyoto is Japan’s star attraction, home to the Imperial court for 1,000 years and a whopping 17 structures and sites that comprise the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Site. The only major Japanese city that wasn’t bombed during World War II, it’s a city for walking and biking, with narrow-laned neighborhoods filled with traditional wooden homes and artisan shops. Spend a few days here, and you’ll understand why I consider Kyoto to be Japan’s most romantic city.

Japan: Elsewhere around the country

But just as New York and San Francisco can’t begin to define the United States, there is much more to Japan than Tokyo and Kyoto. One of the most striking characteristics of Japan – and one that catches many first-time visitors off guard – is how varied the country is in topography and climate. It stretches about 2,900km (1,800 miles) in an arc from Okinawa in the southwest to Hokkaido in the northeast, giving it both tropical and subarctic regions. As much as 70% of Japan is mountainous, mostly volcanic in origin, which explains why bathing in hot springs is so engrained in Japanese culture. Stunning coastlines, island-studded seas, tree-cloaked mountain ranges laced with hiking trails, and world-class skiing resorts with some of the best powder snow in the world are only now starting to attract world-wide attention.

You can bike from Hiroshima Prefecture to Shikoku island via a series of bridges that hopscotch from island to island and provide great views of the Seto Inland Sea. You can scuba dive in Okinawa all year. You can follow in the footsteps of the samurai on a hike along the old Nakasendo Highway from one village to the next. Naoshima is an island famous for its cutting-edge art both indoors and out, while Kobe and Nagasaki, both port towns, are among what I consider Japan’s prettiest cities, with rising hills and 19th-century western architecture complete with Japanese flourishes. Hiroshima is a huge draw, ironically, because it has the awful distinction of being the first city destroyed by an atomic bomb, with a museum that depicts that horrifying day and the aftermath.

One of my favorite places is Mount Koya, reached by cable car and home to Buddhist temples offering simple lodging and to one of the world’s most striking cemeteries, but I also love wandering around Mt. Unzen with its bubbling hot springs, Takayama with its superbly crafted traditional homes, and Hiraizumi with its 12th-century landmarks constructed to create a Buddhist utopia on earth.

Many ways to experience Japan

That’s the dilemma – I have lots of favorite places, all for various reasons. But the threads that tie every place and every time together are Japan’s history and its rich cultural traditions. The tea ceremony, sumo wrestling, traditional flower arranging, Kabuki theater, the kimono, and Japan’s outstanding craftsmanship all have roots to its long past. With both Shintoism and Buddhism as the major religions, there’s probably a festival going on somewhere almost every day. Castles from the feudal era dot the landscape, with Himeji Castle considered the most spectacular. Gardens, once the private pleasure grounds of aristocracy, are achingly beautiful, with ponds, landscaped grounds and vermillion-colored bridges creating pictures of perfection. And what better way to experience old Japan than staying in a traditional Japanese inn, sleeping on a futon and dining on Kaiseki, a feast of a meal that delights the eyes, the palate and the spirit?

On the other side of the coin, Japan has some of the most high-tech innovations you’ll see anywhere, from robots in public service positions and the fastest trains you’ll ever experience to toilets that do everything but. Japan also has its fair share of quirkiness, whether it’s hot-spring baths flavored with coffee, themed cafes ranging from the benign (filled with cats to play with) to the weird (Alcatraz, anyone?), or those overly cute mascots representing prefectures, theme parks and everything in between (can’t wait to see what they come up for the Olympics).

But what makes travel in Japan especially compelling is its people. My own personal experience is that the Japanese are honest, polite and hospitable. If you stop someone for directions, don’t be surprised if they go out of their way to get you there. If you lose something in a restaurant or on the subway, chances are good you’ll be able to retrieve it. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, if not the safest. That alone makes it a pretty darn good place to be.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Japan doesn’t have its own problems, including an aging population, the fact that women are under-utilized in the work force and top-level failures like the Takata air bag fiasco and the slow response to the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. But the positive aspects greatly outweigh the negative.

My short list of what I like about Japan:

  • Its ever-changing landscapes, from the balmy tropical beaches of Okinawa and Kyushu to the wooded mountain peaks of Hokkaido
  • Its unbridled energy in cities like Tokyo and Osaka
  • Its astonishing variety of local cuisines
  • Japanese beer
  • Its villages, many nestled in mountain valleys or along the coast
  • Its hot-spring spas, which vary from simple outdoor affairs to elegant facilities with countless baths of various sizes and minerals.
  • Its remarkable history, evident today in temples, shrines, castles, gardens, historic quarters and more
  • Its fashion sense, from the yukata (cotton kimono worn for sleeping) to fun Japanese designer wear
  • Its people, particularly for their honesty and helpfulness
  • Its punctuality; trains run on time and everything works!
  • Its safety, and knowing I’ll be ok no matter how lost I am or how badly I blunder
  • Its police officers patrolling on bicycles
  • Did I mention Japanese beer?

When To Go

There’s never a bad time to go to Japan, because the country is so large, you can always get away from the heat, the cold, the rain or the snow. Of course, this being Japan with its spectacular powder snow, you might find that snow is just what you’re looking for. On the other hand, you might want to avoid Japan’s peak travel times, especially around New Year’s, Golden week and the Obon festival in mid-August.

How Much Time To Spend

A year wouldn’t be enough time to see all of Japan, so barring that, you’ll have to choose an itinerary that fits both your interests and your schedule. If it’s your first time to Japan, you’ll want to spend at least 8 or 9 days seeing the highlights of Tokyo and Kyoto, with side trips to the Hakone area, Hiroshima or Mount Koya for contrast. Two weeks are even better, allowing, perhaps, other destinations like Kanazawa or Takayama.

In any case, travel by train is efficient for most destinations frequented by
visitors. If it’s your second or third trip to Japan, consider a two-to-three-week exploration of farther flung regions, like Okinawa or Hokkaido.

High and Low Season

The Japanese have always been passionate about traveling in their own country, but in recent years international travelers have joined them in ever greater numbers, which I expect to continue right up to the 2020 Olympics and beyond. The busiest travel dates in Japan are around New Year’s (from the end of December to January ), Golden Week (from April 29-May 5, when the entire country seems to go on vacation) and during the school holidays from about July 20 to the end of August, especially during the Obon holiday in mid-August.

During these times, it’s imperative to book transportation and hotels in
advance, especially when traveling to resort and vacation destinations.

The cherry blossom season and fall colors also bring huge crowds to popular viewing spots. Note, too, that festivals might make hotel reservations tight, such as the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto in mid-July or the Autumn Festival in Takayama. In any case, Japanese inns and hotels in resort areas usually charge more on weekends and national holidays, so travel in the off season or on weekdays to these areas if you want to save money.

Weather and Climate

Because Japan has both tropical and subarctic climates, there is no bad time to visit Japan. In winter, for example, you can ski in the Japan Alps, Tohoku and Hokkaido or go scuba diving in Okinawa. In summer, when much of Japan is unbearably hot and humid, it can pleasantly cool in Hokkaido.

For the best overall weather, however, both spring and autumn are optimal. Much of Japan experiences four seasons, and I’ve never seen a country that celebrates the changing seasons as fervently as the Japanese, expressed in everything from cuisine and the kimono to flower arranging and festivals. Spring, of course, ushers in the cherry blossom season, which blazes across the country from south to north, starting in southern Kyushu about mid-March and reaching Hokkaido in early May. In autumn, fall foliage brings crowds of admirers to Japan’s many wooded hills.

In summer, the rainy season runs from about mid-June to mid-July, making umbrellas a necessity, after which it becomes unbearably hot and humid until September. Hokkaido, however, doesn’t have a rainy season, making its northern climate a cooler alternative in summer. Typhoons are most frequent from the end of August to September, though they generally don’t reach far inland. In winter, snow blankets regions throughout Tohoku and Hokkaido, with less occasional flurries in Tokyo and regions south. Kyushu and Okinawa have milder temperatures still.

Events and Holidays

Japan’s party schedule is jam-packed with festivals, most related to its Buddhist and Shinto religions. While festivals are a great way to see the Japanese at play, they can also wreak havoc on travel plans when it comes to booking hotels or taking local transportation. The Gion Matsuri in Kyoto, for example, is spectacular with its huge wheeled floats, but you’ll want to book way in advance. In fact, you might want to check festival schedules to know which dates to avoid, though if it’s a festival in a larger town, like Tokyo, you’ll be able to secure a hotel room and by all means go.

There are several national holidays, however, that should be avoided if possible, because transportation will be crowded and hotels may be booked. Peak holidays are New Year’s (from the end of December to January 4), Golden Week (April 29 to May 5) and the Obon Festival (mid-August). In addition, the cherry blossom and fall foliage seasons are also very popular for certain destinations, but with advance planning you should be ok.

Japan’s national holidays are January 1 (New Year’s Day), second Monday in January (Coming-of-Age Day), February 11 (National Foundation Day), March 20 (Vernal Equinox Day), April 29 (Showa Day, after the late Emperor Showa), May 3 (Constitution Memorial Day), May 4 (Greenery Day), May 5 (Children’s Day), third Monday in July (Maritime Day), August 11 (Mountain Day, new holiday beginning in 2016); third Monday in September (Respect-for-the-Aged Day), September 23 (Autumn Equinox Day), second Monday in October (Health Sports Day), November 3 (Culture Day; many municipal museums are free), November 23 (Labor Thanksgiving Day), and December 23 (Emperor’s Birthday).

When a national holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday becomes a holiday.

Time Zone

All of Japan is in the same time zone, 9 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, 14 hours ahead of New York, 17 hours ahead of Los Angeles and one hour behind Sydney. Japan doesn’t go on daylight savings time, so adjust the time differences given here accordingly.

What To Pack and Wear

You can buy almost anything in Japan, but the one thing you must remember is prescription medicine, since you’ll need to see a Japanese doctor if you need to have prescriptions filled in Japan. You’ll also want a good pair of walking shoes, well broken in, and since you’ll be removing them to enter Japanese inns and some temples, shrines and restaurants, make sure they slip on and off easily.

Business cards are a given in Japan, so bring plenty with you (you can also have them made in Japan with both English and Japanese, though it’s expensive). Hotels are pretty well equipped with hair dryers, refrigerators, hot water for tea or coffee (you might have to supply your own coffee, readily available in convenience and department stores) and amenities like toothbrushes, razors and shampoo. Because Japan doesn’t go on daylight savings time, the sun rises pretty darn early in summer (as early as 4am), so eyeshades can come in handy, as well as earplugs to block out noisy neighbors or traffic.

As for clothing, almost anything goes nowadays, though Japanese tend to dress up more than their Western visitors. In any case, you’ll want to pack as lightly as you can, because storage space on trains is limited, there are lots of stairs everywhere and cheap business hotels can be so small you might be forced to sleep with your luggage.

What it Costs

Japan has long ranked as one of the world’s most expensive countries, but it in the past few years it’s become more affordable due to a more favorable exchange rate for most foreign visitors, giving you more buying power.

Currency

The Japanese Yen (JPY, ¥) comes in coins in denominations of 1, 5, 10,50, 100 and 500 yen and in denominations of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 yen in bank notes. You’ll find that the 100 coin and 1,000 bill come in handy when using vending machines, local transportation and coin lockers.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest in Japan. Note, however, that you can expect to spend more in major cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and others, while small towns off the beaten path can cost less.

Price ranges are quoted in Japanese Yen.

See & Do

N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than ¥700 per person
$$ => Tickets ¥700-¥1,500 per person
$$$ => Tickets more than ¥1,500 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than ¥12,000 for a double
$$ => Rooms ¥12,000-¥25,000 for a double
$$$ => Rooms more than ¥25,000 for a double

Eat
$=> Up to ¥1,000 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => ¥1,000-¥4,000 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => ¥4,000 and more per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than ¥2,000 per person
$$ => Tickets ¥2,000-¥6,000 per person
$$$=> Tickets ¥6,000 and more per person

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

Your major expenses in Japan – hotels, meals in tourist-oriented restaurants, train tickets, purchases in department stores and
many other shops – can be made using a credit card. Although just a few decades ago Japan was largely a cash society, the weaker yen, more international visitors and the upcoming Olympic games translate into an increase in places that accept credit cards. That being said, many ma- and-pa-owned shops, inexpensive Japanese inns and hostels, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, bars and other inexpensive establishments often do not accept credit cards. Be sure to have plenty of cash with you, therefore, if you are traveling to more rural areas or are traveling on a budget.

You can use credit cards to withdraw money from ATMs, but only those located at Japanese post offices and 7-Eleven convenience stores. Frustratingly, Japanese bank ATMs accept cards only issued by Japanese banks; maybe this, too, will change by the 2020 Olympics, but it’s
useful to keep in mind that only 25 years ago, there were virtually no ATMs in Japan that accepted any foreign credit cards whatsoever.

There are some 26,000 Japan Post Bank ATMs that give money for overseas bank cards, including in major post offices located near train stations with long hours (usually 7am-11pm weekdays and 9am-7pm
weekends but some open almost 24 hours). Rural or neighborhood post offices have more limited hours. A better bet for finding an ATM is at the ubiquitous 7-Elevens, most open 24 hours. You’ll need to know your 4-digit
PIN and withdrawal limit.

Although I generally don’t bother with traveler’s checks when traveling abroad, for Japan I find it useful because cash is still widely used and continual money withdrawals from ATMs is be expensive due to fees. Banks that display a foreign exchange decal can cash traveler’s checks, but quicker are Travelex and World Currency Shop kiosks. Hotels and department stores also exchange money and traveler’s checks. Note
that you may need to show your passport, and banks in small towns may not be able to cash traveler’s checks.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

One of the joys of being in Japan is that there is no tipping, whether it’s bellhops, taxi drivers or waitresses. Note, however, that a service charge of 11%-20% is added to bills in fancier restaurants and in higher-priced hotels. Cheaper establishments do not add service charge, simply because service is thought to be minimal.

An 8% consumption tax, however, will be added to goods and services, including restaurant meals and hotel stays. International visitors, however, can receive a refund on the consumption tax on purchases, mostly at department stores and other shops that cater to foreigners. Restrictions apply (you must spend a given amount on the same day at the same store) and most will charge a small handling fee. Best is to ask the store whether they give refunds, and if they do, you’ll be given the refund right away.

Transportation

Getting There

Most international travelers fly to Japan. If your main destination is Tokyo, you’ll probably want to land at either Narita International Airport or Haneda Airport (officially called Tokyo International Airport). Narita serves more flights, but the train to Tokyo takes 40 to 80 minutes,
depending on which line you take and where you want to go. Haneda is much closer, connected to Hamamatsucho Station by monorail in just 16 minutes.

Because Haneda also serves as Tokyo’s domestic airport, it’€™s your best bet if you’€™re transferring immediately for a flight elsewhere in Japan.

Kansai International Airport serves Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and other towns in the Kansai area, while Central Japan International Airport lies between Tokyo and Osaka and serves flights mostly from Asia.

In any case, all four international airports provide easy access to city centers, including limousine airport buses that deliver passengers directly to hotels or major train stations.

Getting Around

Japan’s transportation infrastructure is dependable, sophisticated and extensive, making it easy to travel from one end of the country to the other. Flying is obviously the quickest way to reach places like Sapporo in Hokkaido or Okinawa, but otherwise trains are the most popular mode of transport. Buses serve more remote areas not covered by trains, but they are also useful for long-distance travel for people on a budget. Ferries are often the only way to reach Japan’€™s many islands.

Traveling by Plane

Japan has about 90 airports, mostly domestic but some also with international flights. Because of long distances between Japan’€™s main four islands, like between Nagasaki on the island of Kyushu and Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido, it sometimes makes more sense to fly.

Japan’s two domestic airlines, Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA), provide the most coverage, but there are also smaller airlines with competitive rates, like Jetstar Japan.

If you think you will be taking more than one domestic flight, you’€™ll save money by buying your domestic ticket in conjunction with your international flight. Both JAL and ANA sell domestic tickets for passengers flying internationally with them to Japan or with one of their alliance partner airlines, but slightly more expensive domestic fares are also sold regardless of which international airline you use. Note that tickets must be purchased before coming to Japan and several restrictions apply, including blackout dates.

Traveling by Train

Traveling by train in Japan can be considered a cultural experience, whether it’€™s aboard the legendary Shinkansen bullet train traveling up to 200 miles an hour on its way from Tokyo to Kyoto or a quaint three-car train chugging up a mountainside in Hakone. Adding to the experience is the ubiquitous eki-ben boxed lunch, available either onboard long-distance trains or at train stations across the country and filled with delicacies specific to the region.

The Japan Railways Group (JR) is Japan’s leading railway company, with an elaborate network of trains running throughout the country. There are several JR Shinkansen lines, with the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen the most widely used, as it runs from Tokyo through Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Himeji, Hiroshima and many other towns before ending at Hakata Station in Fukuoka. Newer lines include the Hokuriku Shinkansen connecting Tokyo with Kanazawa in just 2.5 hours and the Hokkaido Shinkansen linking Tokyo with southern Hokkaido in just over 4 hours.

The most economical way to see Japan by JR train is with a Japan Rail Pass, which allows travel on all JR trains and buses (exceptions include certain Shinkansen trains), provides free seat reservations and discounts on more than 50 JR-owned hotels. Passes are available for 7, 14, and 21 days, but note that they must be purchased before arriving in Japan.

Otherwise, there are also regional JR passes available only to overseas
visitors, which cover specific regions (like Kyushu or Hokkaido) and can be
purchased in Japan by showing a passport.

Information on JR trains, schedules and fares is available at Travel Service Centers located in larger JR stations throughout the country. Or, check the website www.hyperdia.com.

In addition to JR, there are also private regional companies, like Odakyu Electric Railway operating in the Hakone area and also offering its own Hakone Free Pass good for 2 or 3 days.

Traveling by Bus

Buses are also widely used by the Japanese, whether it’s metropolitan buses used by local commuters or buses that serve remote areas not covered by trains such as Hokkaido or Japan’s many islands.

Long-distance buses, most of them operated by private companies like Willer Express or VIP Liner, link major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto and are much cheaper than trains, with many of them operating overnight, thus saving travelers also the cost of a hotel. There are also dedicated sightseeing buses in regions with spectacular scenery, such as southern Kyushu or national parks in Hokkaido.

Traveling by Ferry

Ferries are often the only way to reach Japan’€™s many islands and can be a good way to see the country’s coastline. Even when you can fly, such as from Tokyo to Okinawa, a long-distance ferry can be more relaxing if you have the time and is also cheaper.

Rental Cars in Japan

Because public transportation in Japan is so efficient, most international visitors find rental cars unnecessary. In addition, expensive highway tolls, the high price of gasoline, little signage in English in remote areas, limited parking in urban centers and the British style of driving on the left can serve as a deterrent for rental cars. That being said, rental cars are sometimes the best way to see certain regions, including Okinawa, Tohoku and Hokkaido. Renters need an international driver’s license and should seek a car offering GPS guidance in English.

Trip Ideas

Itinerary 1

Japan for First-Timers

Start your Japan experience in Tokyo, the city that sets the pace not only for Japan but the rest of Asia. Over the next couple of days, see the world’s largest fish market, lively Asakusa with its Sensoji Temple, Ginza’s department stores and art galleries, and venerable Meiji Shrine. Then head to Hakone for an adventure via mountain railway, cable car, ropeway and even sightseeing boat through gorgeous scenery, spending the night in a Japanese inn. Next it’s on to Kyoto, where you’ll want to devote at least three days for must-sees like Nijo Castle, Kiyomizu Temple, the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji Temple’s Zen rock garden.

Gardens & Castles

Take the new Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kanazawa in just two-and-a-half hours, where you’ll find Kenrokuen Garden, considered one of Japan’s best landscaped gardens, and adjoining Kanazawa Castle Park with its reconstructed castle structures. Kyoto is also famous for its gardens, including Nijo Castle’s adjoining one designed by renowned gardener Kobori Enshu. With prior permission, you can also see Saihoji Moss Temple and Katsura Imperial Villa.  Himeji is famous for Himeji Castle, Japan’s most castle, but you should also stroll through Koko-en, laid out only in 1992 but impressive for its nine different gardens typical of feudal Japan. Stop off in Okayama to see Korakuen, completed in 1700 and considered one of Japan’s best gardens, and Okayama Castle, destroyed in World War II but rebuilt and famous for its black exterior. Off the beaten track, Matsue is worth the train ride from Okayama for its Matsue Castle and Adachi Museum, which makes its landscaped gardens seem part of its art collection through viewing platforms and windows.

Active Travelers

Travelers who most enjoy themselves being engaged with the great outdoors will find plenty to do in Japan. Okinawa boasts Japan’s finest beaches and clearest waters, with the swimming and snorkeling season lasting from about March through October and scuba diving available year-round. For cyclists, the 70km (43-mile) Shimanami Kaido biking path that hopscotches across the Seto Inland Sea provides great vistas and  attractions along the way, while for hikers, the Shikoku Pilgrimage takes 45 days to cover a circular, 868-mile religious route to 88 Buddhist around the island of Shikoku. Of course, the trek up iconic Mount Fuji is Japan’s most popular hiking trail, with as many as 8,000 people of all ages using the Kawaguchiko-Yoshidaguchi Trail daily during the July and August climbing season. Japan’s many mountain ranges make it also a skiing and snowboarding paradise, with some of the world’s best powder snow in Nagano and Hokkaido prefectures.

Japan with Kids

Japan is a great country for families, with many attractions geared toward kids. In Tokyo, the Edo-Tokyo Museum dedicated to the capital’s history, the free Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s 45th-floor observatory, Tokyo DisneySea amusement park and National Children’s Castle can entertain families for several days. In Osaka, the Osaka Aquarium and Osaka Aquarium are top hits, while in Kyoto there’s the Kyoto International Manga Museum and the Toei Kyoto Studio Park, where samurai and period films are made, with related attractions and shows. Nearby Nara Park contains 8th-century temples and shrines and is home to more than 1,200 deer. For older teenagers, Hiroshima Peace Park, dedicated to victims of the first atomic bomb, is both an educational and a sobering experience and is one of the most visited for Japanese school excursions.

World Heritage Sites

Japan has 19 World Heritage Sites, including Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, a castle, Mt. Fuji, historic village and even a silver mine, most of them on the island of Honshu. In northern Honshu is Hiraizumi, where the 12th-century Golden Hall, gardens and other sites were built to represent a Buddhist utopia on earth, while just north of Tokyo is Nikko, resting place of Japan’s most famous shogun. The former capitals of Nara and Kyoto and their surrounding area are home to more than two dozen historic sites, but Mount Koya in the Kii Mountains and  Shirakawa-go with its thatched farmhouses are memorable for their atmosphere and natural beauty. Stop by Himeji Castle on the way to Hiroshima, where the ruined Peace Memorial is the only structure left standing in the epicenter of the atomic bomb, and to Miyajima, home of Itsukushima Shinto Shrine. In southwest Honshu is the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine, in use from 1526 to 1923, while the Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution covers the iron and steel industry, shipbuilding, coal mining and other businesses, mostly in southern Honshu and Kyushu. In Okinawa, castles and other structures pay tribute to the ancient Kingdom of Ryukyu, which ruled over Okinawa for 500 years.

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