Things to see and do in Japan
Attractions in Japan
Cherry blossom parties
From April through May, sakura (cherry blossom trees) start blooming across the country, and lively parties are held underneath the pretty blossoms. Known as a Hanami party, friends and family gather for a picnic with food and drinks. The best places include the Ueno Park and Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, the historic neighbourhood of Gion in Kyoto, and the Himeji Castle in Himeji.
Himeji, Himeji Castle
Himeji-jo is Japan's most impressive castle. Dating from the 17th century, it survived WWII bombings and is still in excellent condition. Dominated by a towering six-storey central donjon, Shirasagi-jō (or "white egret castle" as it is nicknamed) is supposed to resemble the shape of the bird in flight. In 1993 it was added to UNESCO's World Heritage list.
Destroyed by the world's first atomic bomb on 6 August 1945, Hiroshima today promotes peace and tolerance. The vast Peace Memorial Park, home to a couple of museums and many monuments, is where most visitors spend a good day or two visiting. Worthy sites within the park include the Peace Memorial Museum (which traces deaths and sufferings following the bombing) and the A-Bomb Dome (remnants of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall).
Hiroshima, Miyajima Island
Just off the coast of Hiroshima is the picturesque island of Miyajima – the name means 'Shrine Island' and accordingly, it is home to many shrines and temples, including the Itsukushima Shrine with the famous Torii gate that seems to float on the sea at high tide. Another famous temple on the island is Daishō-in, a holy site of Shingon Buddhism. Other attractions include the Museum of History, Miyajima Aquarium and Mount Misen – accessible by cable car and a network of walking trails.
For a long time, this northern island was Japan's Wild West, and it still retains a distinct pioneer feel. Hokkaido is also home to Japan's indigenous Ainu people with a unique language, religion and culture. If you're short on time, visit the National Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, 90km (56mi) south of Sapporo.
When the Japanese want to relax, they head to a natural hot spring resort called onsen. Famous soaks include Dogo in Matsuyama – even the Imperial Family comes to one of the bathhouses here, and Ibusuki, renowned for its hot-sand saunas on the southern tip of Kyushu.
Situated in the Seto Inland Sea, Naoshima is about halfway between Kobe and Hiroshima. Originally a fishing port, it is now home to an exciting array of outdoor art exhibits and contemporary art museums, including one that functions as a hotel. Old houses on the island have also been converted into exhibition spaces.
Kii Peninsula, Kumano Kodo trail
The Kii Peninsula is a vast area of stunning natural beauty blessed with sacred forests, towering waterfalls, and soothing hot springs. The area is crisscrossed with a network of ancient pilgrimage trails known as Kumano Kodo, which is a key part of the region's UNESCO designation.
Don't miss Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan for over 1,000 years. Founded in 794, Kyoto's best sights include the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), the trail with 10,000 Torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine and the Nijo Castle. The historic Gion geisha district also makes for a wonderful late afternoon wander.
Kyoto, International Manga Museum
The Kyoto International Manga Museum, housed in an old primary school, is the first in the world devoted to Japanese manga comics. The museum has a massive collection, both historical and contemporary, as well as international editions of Japanese comics. Visitors can take the comics off the shelf and read them in one of the many reading spaces.
One-hour south of Kyoto, Nara was the first imperial capital of Japan and marked the far eastern end of the Silk Road. Today, it is famed for its many temples (notably Tōdaiji Temple and Horyuji Temple), ancient rituals and festivals including the Wakakusa Yamayaki fire festival, and the large Nara Park where hundreds of deer roam freely.
Osaka is renowned for its abundance of world-class restaurants, a historic castle (an excellent reproduction of the original) and the performing arts of kabuki (classical Japanese dance and drama) and bunraku (traditional puppet theatre). The city's Dotonbori area is particularly vibrant after dark, and its aquarium shouldn't be missed either – it is one of the largest in the world.
Come winter, do as many Japanese do and hit the slopes. Mountains here are sprinkled with top-class ski resorts, especially in the central Japanese Alps and Hokkaido, where pistes are famed for their powdery snow. Many resorts also have on-site onsen (hot springs) for guests to relax in after a fun day on the mountain.
Watch the theatre of a sumo contest. Witnessing sumo wrestling is an exciting and truly traditional Japanese experience. Six major tournaments are held throughout the year in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. Tickets can be purchased in advance or on the day.
Japan's capital is also the world's most populous metropolis. Tokyo offers visitors excellent entertainment, shopping and dining options, along with many museums and historic temples. Check out Akihabara for electronic items, Shibuya for underground live music venues and Harajuku for amazing cosplay culture. For a serene escape, head to Tokyo's many gardens, temples and shrines.
Tokyo, Sensō-ji Temple
Pilgrims have flocked to Sensō-ji Temple, Tokyo's most revered Buddhist sanctuary, for over 1,000 years. Originally founded in 628 to enshrine a statuette of the Kannon Bodhisattva (the Goddess of Mercy), damage from bombing raids means that today you'll find a lavish, five-storey reconstruction. Walk under its giant lantern to reveal smoking incense, swirling crowds and teeming shops.
Tokyo, Studio Ghibli
If you're a fan of animated films, head to the Ghibli Museum of Miyazaki Hayao's Studio Ghibli and see many of the famous characters produced by the studio, including characters from My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, along with a life-sized robot from "Castle in the Sky" in the rooftop garden.
Traditional Japanese tea ceremony
Arrange to take part in a traditional tea ceremony. The elegant ritual takes place in a chashitsu, a tranquil room designed and designated for tea. Kyoto and Uji (a city between Kyoto and Nara) are two excellent destinations to enjoy the country's tea culture.
Whale and dolphin watching
Several former whaling ports have turned into active whale watching communities with enthusiastic operators taking tour groups out to spot humpback and sperm whales. For the best chance of seeing these incredible mammals, take to the seas between January and March. Dolphin watching is also popular in eastern and western Japan.
Ōno District, Gassho-zukuri farmhouses
In the mountains of central Japan, you'll find the remote yet utterly picturesque area of Shirakawa-go. It is famed for its Gassho-zukuri farmhouses, which are charming traditional houses with high and narrow thatched roofs – said to resemble gassho (hands together in prayer). Many are still inhabited and open to the public, offering a fascinating glimpse of both traditional and modern rural life.
Japan National Tourist Organisation (JNTO) in the USAAddress: 60 East 42nd Street, Suite 448, One Grand Central Place, New York, 10165
Telephone: +1 212 757 5640.
Japan National Tourist Organisation (JNTO) in the UKAddress: 32 Queensway , 3rd Floor, London, W2 3RX
Telephone: +44 20 7398 5670.
Mon-Fri 0930-1200 and 1300-1730.