There are so many places to be visited and sights to be seen in Japan that planning a first-time trip can be overwhelming. Japan is a destination that you can explore for a lifetime and still keep finding something new, so don’t worry about seeing everything in one go – give yourself time to relax and enjoy what you see because once you’ve got a taste for it, you’ll certainly want to come back for more. We got some advice from experts Inside Japan to get you started with a great itinerary for your first trip to Japan. Taking in some of the country’s most famous urban and rural spots and giving you a taste of both old and new Japan, there’s no doubt that this itinerary will make you fall in love with each enchanting destination.
Japan’s iconic capital city, this heaving metropolis is bursting with culture, from the ultra-modern (and ultra-surreal!) tech-fuelled Robot Restaurant, to ancient temples and bustling backstreets filled with jam-packed bars and traditional eateries. Even within such a busy city there are pockets of peace and tranquillity. Head to any of Tokyo’s numerous parks and gardens to enjoy a moment of serenity and a sense of space away from the crowded streets of the city.
Just a short walk from Tokyo Station, surrounded by vast moats and only accessible by guarded bridges, is the Imperial Palace – wander through the East Gardens, historically the former Edo Castle’s innermost circle of defence, and enjoy the calm at the eye of the storm.
Takayama retains a traditional charm, which is unmatched in few other Japanese cities, especially in its beautiful Old Town made up of narrow lanes lined with merchant houses from the Edo period. Moreover, it’s a haven for foodies, serving up Hida beef, the region’s answer to the world-famous Waygu beef, and boasting a host of traditional local sake breweries.
Thanks to its cool climate, pure mountain waters and high-quality local rice, the sake produced in Takayama is some of the finest in Japan. Take a tour of a brewery to learn about this quintessential Japanese drink and indulge in a sake tasting. Make the most of that fresh mountain air with a bicycle trip out into the country to explore the rice fields.
Shirakawa-go is one of the regions of the Shogawa River Valley that were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 thanks to their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are over 250 years old.
The farmhouses’ Japanese name translates as ‘constricted like hands in prayer’ as their steeply sloping, thatched rooves are said to resemble the praying hands of a Buddhist monk. Shirakawa-go is the largest village in the area and is a great stop on the way from Takayama to Kanazawa – you can visit for the day or stay over in one of the traditional farmhouses for a really special experience.
This city is most noted for its well-preserved historic districts traditionally dedicated to Geisha and Samurai. The Geisha Districts (or Tea Districts) are home to chaya, exclusive tea houses where guests are entertained by Geisha. The highlight of the erstwhile Samurai district, Nagamachi, which lies at the foot of the former Kanazawa Castle, is a restored Samurai residence, where you can see how high-ranking Samurai family, the Nomura, would have lived before the end of the feudal era brought about the decline of the Samurai. Another unique attraction of Kanazawa are its many shops selling gold leaf, which has been produced here for over 400 years.
You can’t leave Kanazawa without visiting the breathtaking Kenrokuen Gardens, which are recognised as one of the three most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan.
Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto is now the cultural centre and traditional heart of the country and the best place to immerse yourself in the Japanese way of life. The city is home to over 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, including some of the oldest and most famous in Japan. In northern Kyoto you’ll find the stunning Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple, which is decorated in gold-leaf from none other than Kanazawa!
Head south to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for its endless rows of bright torii gates. Just an hour away and en-route to our next destination is the city of Osaka, which is renowned for the amazing street food served up in its Dontonburi district – a visit to ‘Japan’s Kitchen’ is a must for food-lovers.
The name Hiroshima became known around the world when the first atomic bomb exploded over the city on August 6th 1945. Once synonymous with the destruction wreaked by a brutal and merciless war, Hiroshima now stands as a symbol for peace. The Peace Memorial Park contains a museum exploring the history of Hiroshima and the atomic bomb, the A-Bomb Dome (also known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial), the skeleton of a building at the epicentre of the blast which remains as it was left on the day of the explosion, and the Cenotaph for A-Bomb Victims. The Peace Memorial Park, despite its conception in tragedy, is suffused with an atmosphere of peace and positivity, a wonderful place to pay your respects to the 220,000+ people who lost their lives to the bomb.
Make sure you head to the lively downtown district to try Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki – this savoury egg and noodle dish is a Japanese favourite and Hiroshima’s own version is not to be missed!
Across Hiroshima bay, Miyajima is another popular choice with visitors. The island, officially named Itsukushima, has popularly become known as Miyajima, meaning ‘shrine island’, because of its centuries old Itsukushima Shrine. This particular shrine is most famous for its enormous torii gate. The gate, like the shrine itself, is unique for being built over water and at high tide appears to float above the surface, giving it its well-known epithet, The Floating Gate. What makes this island even more magical are the wild deer which wander the walking paths side by side with tourists.
After the day trippers head back to the mainland, stay overnight in a traditional ryokan (Japanese-style inn) for a perfect romantic experience as the sun sets and the illuminated shrine shines brightly over the water.
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