Tuesday, October 18, 2011

25 things to do in Japan - my personal favourites!

As part of my freelance work at Europe a la Carte, I've been writing up a bunch of articles on 25 things to do in particular European countries. It is such a lot of fun to think about countries in this way, and since I've been wondering about the itinerary I'd choose if I get to enter Japan's contest for free flights to the country, I decided to come up with a list of 25 things to do in Japan. Actually I came up with a longer list but I have whittled it down to 25. Now, I have to admit it's a biased list - I was thinking mostly of the places and activities I'd like my family to experience, and there's not much of Tokyo in it because I spent most of my time elsewhere (so yes, there's a lot centred around the Osaka/Kansai region). But it's my blog and my list so that's why my 25 things to do in Japan is just how it is. Enjoy (and add your ideas at the bottom, please!).

1. Mount Fuji

If you take the train between Osaka and Tokyo, you'll at least get a glimpse of Mount Fuji's familiar dome. But if you can arrange to be in Japan for the climbing season and have a reasonable level of fitness, climbing Mount Fuji is a fantastic experience.

View of Mount Fuji from the shinkansen

2. Miyajima, the island off Hiroshima

Containing the deservedly World Heritage-listed Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima (which now is officially called Itsukushima, although I suspect most locals still say Miyajima - it only changed in 2005) is a surprisingly quiet and relaxing place and just a short boat trip from Hiroshima.

Famous torii at Miyajima

3. Okinawa

As you might guess, the island of Okinawa is kind of different to the rest of Japan. For a start, the locals had their own culture, somewhat different to that of the mainland, and on top of that, the American base there has given it a much greater Western influence. I still loved it.

Clear ocean in Okinawa

4. Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea

You might be surprised that I put this on my list but like all Aussie children of the 70s and 80s I grew up seeing the Disneyland castle on TV every Sunday evening and I always wanted to go to Disneyland. As a fully-grown child I got to visit Disneyland in Los Angeles and more recently Tokyo Disneyland and to be honest - I had a heap of fun! I also have this idea of taking me son to Tokyo Disneyland rather than Hong Kong, LA or Paris because the Tokyo version is not too far away and is full of lovely polite people - if you want to stand in a queue somewhere in the world, I recommend a queue of Japanese people.

5. Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum

It's an eerie sight when you come across the A-Bomb Dome building on the river's edge in Hiroshima, and the museum continues that feeling. More than likely there will also be long chains of paper cranes around the various memorials in the park area, too. It's all quite disconcerting but appropriately done and important to see. Hiroshima is a lovely city and you can easily distract yourself later in the day.

Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

6. Kinkakuji - Golden Pavilion

This truly gorgeous temple is in Kyoto (a totally must-visit city!) and it really is golden! It's set on a lake and is just incredibly photogenic. When I visited, I had a typical foreigner-in-Japan experience when some locals gave me a bus ticket as a gift simply because I was a foreigner.

Kinkakuji, Kyoto

7. Nara Park and Todaiji

I used to live within cycling distance of this enormous park and visited regularly. It's full of (usually friendly) deer, lakes of koi and several temples, most impressively Todaiji which has a daibutsu (giant Buddha) inside.

Deer in Nara Park

8. Hanami - Cherry Blossom Viewing

My favourite season in Japan is easily cherry blossom season, or hanami. It's fickle - they only blossom beautifully for a relatively short time and it varies quite a lot each year - but it's so worth at least trying to time your trip right. It's such a fun time of year to be in Japan because all the locals are trying to make the most of the short window of blossoming too and going on trips and having picnics with friends.

Picnic spots being claimed at Osaka Castle Park

9. Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle is THE castle in Japan - the biggest, the most popular, the most typical Japanese-style castle, and so on. It's also pretty old - dating back to the 1300s - with a few renovations and refurbishments since then, of course. I consider it a must-visit.

10. Peace Park Nagasaki

Once I'd been to Hiroshima, I felt the need to get the full picture by also visiting Nagasaki. It turned out to be an interesting city for all kinds of reasons - it was one of the few places in Japan to have constant contact with foreigners over the years and the influence is obvious - but the Peace Park was once again very touching.

Peace Park, Nagasaki

11. Shikoku

This is the only thing in this whole list that I haven't actually done, but I want to, so it's here - Shikoku is one of the four main islands making up Japan, and I visited the other three, but didn't quite make it to Shikoku. Friends invited us (even though it wasn't far from Osaka, it wasn't too cheap or easy to get there) so we could drive there, but something happened - one of them was sick, perhaps? - and our trip was cancelled. So next time I'm in Japan, I want to visit Shikoku just to feel like I've "completed" Japan!

12. Okonomiyaki

Regular blog readers will already know that one of my favourite Japanese foods is okonomiyaki (a "cabbage pancake" - but much more delicious than it sounds). Osaka and Hiroshima have local specialities but you can buy it everywhere in all kinds of versions and it is SO delicious!

My friend Chie ready to eat okonomiyaki in Kyoto

13. Sumo Tournaments

Sumo wrestling is one of those sports that the average (especially young) Japanese person is not really interested in, and every time I went to a tournament most of my students would be rather surprised I was interested. But it's fascinating! There is so much culture and tradition bound up in it and it's such an interesting experience to spend a day at a sumo tournament.

Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka

14. Kiyomizudera

Kiyomizu in Kyoto was the very first temple I visited in Japan (well, in my life I suppose!) and I have been back several times since. It's an impressive structure on the side of a hill and it has some lovely traditions, like the two rocks you should walk between with your eyes closed - if you get to the other rock successfully then you will find true love in your lifetime!

Kiyomizudera during a special light festival

15. Izakaya Restaurants

All Japanese food is amazing, but the casual experience of an izakaya is something you may not expect. Some of my favourite izakayas had "holes in the floor" where you would sit on ground level at a table yet be able to dangle your feet underneath (a great compromise, I thought), served all different flavours of a sweet alcoholic drink called Chuhai and had the most amazing assortment of dishes to choose from. At an izakaya - kind of like a pub with good snack food - you generally order a bunch of different foods for your table and (in my experience anyway) then order a whole lot more again because they were so tasty!

16. Lake Toya

Hokkaido, the northern-most island of Japan and one that's pretty different to the rest - a lot emptier and colder! - is home to some incredible natural scenery and Lake Toya is easily one of my favourites. It's one of those picture-perfect lakes and the sculptures around the outside of it take full advantage of this!

A view over Lake Toya, Hokkaido

17. Arashiyama Monkeys

Near Kyoto, walk up the mountain at Arashiyama and you can see up close - up very close - a bunch of semi-tame monkeys which live there. Ironically there is a cage at the top of the mountain for humans - you can go inside the cage and then get a really close view of the monkeys as they climb around on your cage.

Monkey at Arashiyama, Kyoto

18. Koyasan

I visited Koyasan, not too far south of Osaka in Wakayama, at a quiet time in winter and particularly enjoyed wandering around the cemetery there - it's the largest in Japan and as I was there it was getting a light dusting of snow so it was particularly beautiful! When I return to Koyasan one day I would love to stay in one of the Buddhist monasteries there.

19. Fushimi-inari

I love the Shinto orange! This shrine is located in Kyoto and is famed for all its orange torii (like gates), built so close to each other that it becomes a bright orange tunnel. The torii are all donated so they have names of businesses on them - fortunately in Japanese kanji so it's not too disturbing to a Western eye!

Fushimi-inari near Kyoto

20. Mt Usu

On the edge of Hokkaido's Lake Toya is Mt Usu, a still-active volcano which last erupted in 2000, a couple of years before I visited. You can ride a cable-car type contraption to get to near the top and have some incredible views, and when I was there you could still see some damaged areas, too - I guess they have since fixed them up as the Lake Toya was used for the G8 Summit recently and was probably in proper working order for all the VIPs.

Destruction from Mount Usu's 2000 eruption

21. Kobe Earthquake Memorial

Kobe is such a great city and I visited it multiple times when I lived in Osaka. Unfortunately, part of the reason I like it is thanks to the terrible Kobe earthquake of 1995, because much of the city has been rebuilt since then so it's sleek, clean and modern. A part of the city I always took visitors too was the earthquake memorial at the harbour, where a part of the damage has been preserved, complete with crooked street lamps, as a reminder of the disaster. I think these things are important to remember because they become a part of the soul of the city and its people.

22. Sapporo

I found Sapporo - the main city of Hokkaido - to be a rather unique city by Japanese standards. It lacked the hustle and bustle of Osaka and Tokyo yet still seemed important, and it seemed more modern and more orderly than most places I'd been. I enjoyed going up Mt Moiwa for a meal and a view - I felt like I could nearly be in any small city in the world, it didn't quite feel like Japan anymore - strange but true!

Aka-renga Old Government Building in Sapporo

23. Shinkansen

You have not been in Japan until you have ridden the shinkansen, or bullet train. If you're travelling as a tourist you will very likely buy a JR Rail Pass and then you'll probably ride heaps of shinkansens, but because I was living there and not eligible for the pass, then I usually took the slower (and much cheaper) trains - but on my birthday trip to Tokyo I splurged and shot across the country like a speeding bullet!

24. Nagano Alpine Route

Some good friends took me on a weekend driving trip to Nagano (via incredibly expensive toll roads, I remember!) and I got to see some of the Japanese alpine area. Since then it's become popular for Australians to go skiing there so some of my friends probably know this area better than me.

Beautiful view in Nagano

25. Karaoke

I've saved the best for last! Many of us Westerners are shy about singing karaoke. First, you have to realise that in Japan it's never the kind where you sing in front of a large group of strangers - you go to a small "karaoke box", a usually cramped room with a handful of friends and sing away with your own song choices and lots of great snacks and drinks (sometimes ordered via the TV screen!). There is no need to sing well, there is only a need to have a good time. I would heartily encourage all of you to have a go because it's some of the best fun you can have in Japan!

Karaoke in Japan with Jules

3 comments:

  1. ahhhh... so many great memories!
    I have to agree with you - all of these are musts!! There are a few on the list that we haven't done so I guess we need to win one of those tickets too!

    ReplyDelete
  2. My parents went to Japan recently. Best photos ever.what a country.

    ReplyDelete
  3. @ Rach - I'm sure you'd have a few on your list that I haven't done since you were living a few hours away - we should compare notes before we get back there!

    @ Claire - Agreed! Such a vibrant, different and colourful place. Definitely put it on your list!

    ReplyDelete

I love to hear from you ...

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...