This is Japan's main island and cultural epicenter.
Only one hour south of Tokyo by rail, this small, quiet town is surrounded by rolling hills and sandy beaches. The capital of Japan from 1192 to 1333, it's as close as you can get to "Old Japan" in the Tokyo area.
There are 65 Buddhist temples and 19 Shinto shrines, some dating from the 8th century. It is perfect for a day of strolling. The main site is the Great Buddha, or Daibutsu. This bronze figure, cast in 1252, measures 37 feet high and weighs 122 tons. Near Kamakura lies the sacred island of Enoshima. Here visitors can take in the various sights of the island, hike along its trails and escape from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. We suggest a mid-week excursion to this scenic Japan travel destination, as on the weekend it's crowded with day-trippers from Tokyo.
There is a saying in Japan that goes something like, "Don't say you know what beautiful is until you have seen Nikko." About two hours north of Tokyo by train, this UNESCO World Heritage town is full of shrines, mausoleums, splendid temples, a sacred bridge and trails leading through mossy forests that host giant, 400-year-old cedar trees. A mid-week visit is recommended.
MT. FUJI (FUJI-SAN)
A must-see on any tour of Japan, this symbol of the Land of the Rising Sun takes about five hours to ascend. Begin at night and go in a single push to catch the sunrise, when the views tend to be best. Or hike to a lodge two-thirds the way up for a steaming bowl of ramen and a cozy night's sleep, then arise at 4 A.M. to reach the summit. This quintessentially Japanese experience is part tourist trap, part sacred pilgrimage, and a classic of the hiking genre. The hiking season is only in July and August, the mountain is closed to the public at other times of year. Be sure to have winter clothing (even in July), a headlamp, water and a snack.
This small city is steeped in the history of the samurai era. Explore the narrow, crooked streets and passageways of the Nagamachi Samurai district. Visit the former samurai mansions and old geisha quarters. An essential Japan travel destination is the Kenroku-en Garden, considered one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan, with ponds, streams, waterfalls, bridges, teahouses, trees, stones and flowers. The name Kenroku-en literally means "garden combining six," referring to the six classical themes of beauty incorporated: extensiveness, quiet seclusion, human ingenuity, antique elegance, abundant water and wide prospect. Kanazawa is a center of traditional arts and crafts including superb lacquer ware, exquisite kimono cloth, and some of the finest pottery in Japan.
BANDAI-ASAHI NATIONAL PARK
When Mt. Bandai erupted in 1888, it formed 100 lakes, each tinted a different color from mineral deposits. They are believed to possess calming and curative effects. The aesthetic effect is spectacular, and it's a great place to wander around. Hiking Mt. Bandai takes about two hours.
The "Roof of Japan" was center stage as the host city for the 1998 Winter Olympics: its natural beauty is grand and fragile. Visit the 7th century Zenko-ji temple, then head to nearby Yudanaka. Feast on the famous soba noodles, and visit the Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park, home to over 270 Japanese macaques (snow monkeys). Observe this endangered species as they play and bathe in the natural hot springs.
This former imperial capital (710-784) predates Kyoto. Amazingly, some of the temples from that period still stand. Second only to Kyoto as a repository of ancient Japanese culture, it boasts no fewer than eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, each considered a priceless national treasure. Small in size and quaint in layout, it is possible to see all sites in one day, though a less hectic two days is recommended. The sites are: Todai-ji Temple, Kofuku-ji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Kasugayama Primeval Forest, Gango-ji Temple, Yakushi-ji Temple, Toshodai-ji Temple, and the remains of the Nara Palace (Heijokyo). The Nara National Museum is also worth a visit during your Japan trip, housing Buddhist art and archaeological finds.
About an hour and a half east of Kyoto is the fabulous Miho Museum, designed by the famous architect I.M. Pei. Housing a stunning collection of antiquities from Asia to Greece, the structure itself is a modern masterpiece of illuminated geometric patterns and the play of light.
Defined by its atomic legacy, Hiroshima today is at the center of an international peace movement. Its Peace Memorial Park is well worth the visit here. The A-Bomb Dome has been left in ruins as a reminder of the supreme destructive potential of nuclear weapons. The Children's Peace Memorial is profoundly moving.
Not far from Hiroshima is Miyajima Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered by the Japanese to be one of Japan's "three most beautiful places." The island is easily accessed on a day trip by boat, or enjoy a more relaxed pace with an overnight stay. The island is most famous for the picturesque Itsukushima-jinja Shrine, which, together with its large red torii (gate), stands in the ocean during high tide. Deer move around the island freely, as do monkeys on top of the island's highest mountain, Mt. Misen. A serene stop on your in-depth tour of Japan.
This is Japan's biggest temple complex, center of the Shingon school of esoteric Buddhism. It is visited year-round by pilgrims from all over Japan. Accommodations are in special shukubo (temple) lodging where one is immersed in Buddhist religious life.
If you plan to visit Japan in the spring, don't miss the 20,000 cherry trees blossoming in Yoshino. A day trip from Koya-san would capture a quintessentially Japanese experience.