Japan has fascinated me since my first visit as a young child; it seems in many ways like a parallel universe; a society so polite, punctual, and completely different from our own. The country is one of the most densely populated places on earth, famous around the world for its vast cities rife with canyons of glass and steel and the picturesque Mount Fuji, as well as the beautiful rows of cherry blossom in the spring months. Yet beauty can be found in the autumn too, for Japan is a society in which so much is informed by aesthetics; not only in the way you appreciate cherry blossom, but in painting, sculpture, the way you drink tea, and even the arrangement of your lunchbox. It is perhaps this feature which inspires me most about Japan, for here almost everything has the capacity to become art.
JAPAN AT A GLANCE:
LOCATION: East Asia
CURRENCY: Japanese Yen
CLIMATE: Most areas on Honshu have a humid subtropical climate, with warm and rainy summers and mild winters. The island of Okinawa has a subtropical climate with high humidity and rainfall.
HOW TO GET AROUND: In cities, walking and public transport are the best ways to get around. Japan’s extensive railway network is an extremely efficient way to get from city to city. Travelling on one of the Shinkansen (bullet trains) is an experience not to be missed!
WHAT TO EAT: Tokyo is one of the culinary capitals of the world. Its restaurants have been awarded more Michelin stars than any other city; delicacies such as ramen, tempura, omurice are abundant. Alternatively for the freshest sushi and sashimi, head to the Tsukiji fish markets.
Tokyo is one of the largest and most exciting cities on the planet. Rocked by earthquakes and scorched by war, Tokyo has continued to rise like the sun. Here, the new lives in harmony with the old. The city is held together with an efficient train system that never rests, allowing you to go wherever you want at any hour.
Start your adventure in the ancient temple town of Asakusa: at the city’s oldest temple, you can pay your respects, and you may even be lucky enough to receive good fortune. During November, you can attend Tori no Ichi Fair, a traditional festival held at Otori Shrine in Asakusa, where attendants pray for good luck and success in business. To escape the crowds, Ueno park is a good place to recenter yourself and delve into the treasures of the Tokyo national museum. Not far from Ueno, the suburb of Harajuku is renowned around the world as a centre of youth culture and fashion. It is also home to one of Tokyo’s largest green spaces: Yoyogi park. To the north of Yoyogi park, take a walk beneath the towering torii gate and into a forest of over 100,000 trees, originally sent as saplings from all over Japan. From here you can pass through the main gates to Meiji shrine. Here, many come to pay their respects to Emperor Meiji, the beloved 19th century ruler who helped Japan to throw off its feudal cloak and grow into the dynamic country it is today.
South of the city is Shibuya, home to one of the busiest crossings in the world. In nearby Ginza, there are huge department stores, selling everything from robots to paintings. If you like anime, manga or gaming, Akihabara Electric Town will be right up your street. As it’s name suggests, this area glows after dark. As the sky begins to be illuminated by a haze of neon, head to the restaurants and bars in Shinjuku for some respite, renowned as one of Tokyo’s main dining and entertainment areas.
Only 1 hour south of Tokyo, Kamakura is an excellent day trip destination to escape the city. Popular not only for its iconic giant Buddha and temples, the town also boasts sandy beaches and a popular shopping district. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu is the most important shrine in Kamakura. Additionally, at the base of the shrine’s staircase stands a stage where dance and music performances are occasionally held.
Alternatively on the western side of Tokyo is Mitaka, home to the Ghibli museum. A Ghibli themed bus will collect you from Mitaka station and take you right to the museum itself. Inside, the attention to detail matches the films themselves, and it is the perfect place to let your inner child free and reminisce over your favourite Ghibli creations. On the roof the giant robot from the film Laputa calmly looks down on all the visitors and the museum, and makes a great photo opportunity.
At the bottom of the main island of Honshu lies Hiroshima. For lovers of history, the Atomic Bomb Dome has to be first on your list of places to visit. The Exhibition Hall was the only building able to survive the blast of the first atomic bomb ever to be used in war. Surrounding the dome is the Peace Park, containing the Peace Flame, which will burn until the production and use of nuclear weapons are banned worldwide; the Peace Bell; and a museum which is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the history of the place.
A short train Journey from Hiroshima is Miyajima train station, from which you can take a short ferry ride to visit the island of Miyajima. Once you step onto the island you may feel like you have been taken back in time, as restrictions are in place to make sure the island retains a classical Japanese Edo era architectural design. Miyajima has a long history as a holy site: Itsukushima Shrine and its torii gate are unique for being built over water. During high tide, it even looks like it is floating in the sea. Be sure to try some of the maple shaped Castella which the island is known for. As deer wander freely throughout the island, be careful that they don’t steal your food!
For those looking to explore even further, Okinawa is a short plane journey away from mainland Japan. The birthplace of Karate, the island is a popular tropical getaway and has its own distinct culture, with influences from Taiwan and China as well as modern influences from America. Train and bus transportation is not as efficient as in other parts of Japan, so I would recommend renting a car to explore the island. Churawmi Aquarium is not to be missed, as it is the second largest Aquarium in the world. The Aquaroom houses over 60 different types of sea creatures, including the huge and rare Whale Sharks. You can even walk around the grounds of the aquarium and see beautiful beaches, gardens and views, as well as walk through an old Okinawan village museum.
Japan is a place of multiple personalities: whether you are a lover of history, a gamer, or simply just looking for white sandy beaches, everyone can find somewhere for them in this vibrant country.
Photography by Gracie Linthwaite