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Highlights

If this is your first Japan travel experience, the must-see iconic cities, sites and destinations include Tokyo, Kyoto, Takayama and Hakone.

TOKYO

The capital is one of the world's great, must-see cities for good reason. It's absolutely thrilling and an essential stop on any Japan tour. Shinjuku is a great place to start in Tokyo. You'll experience modern Japan boiled down to its essence, with a stroll through the world's busiest train station, the high-end department stores, ramen shops, small shrines and public video screens.

Trendy Harajuku is the place for people-watching and the district where Tokyo's thriving youth/pop culture pulses. Stroll along nearby Omote-sando street with its abundant boutiques and bistros. The must-see Meiji-jingu is here as well, a lively shrine and garden that represents the best of traditional Shinto architecture.

For upscale shopping try the opulent Ginza district, renowned for its seven-story department stores. Go on a Sunday if you can, as many of the streets are closed to vehicles. Ginza is home to Kabuki-za, the place to see a kabuki theater performance. Take in one act if you don't have time for the whole thing. You'll have to get up early, but don't miss a trip to the fascinating Tsukiji Market, Asia's largest and busiest wholesale fish market.

Asakusa district is the old-world antidote to hyper-modern Harajuku and Shinjuku, and still retains an atmosphere of the Edo Period (1603-1867), considered by many to be the golden age of Japanese culture. Visit Senso-ji Temple (Asakusa Kannon), the main headquarters of the Sho-Kannon sect of Buddhism. It is a lively and active temple with worshipers praying for some sort of assistance. Many of the quintessentially Japanese items that still figure largely in everyday life are produced and sold in the side-streets and back alleys near the temple, including swords, pottery and kimonos.

Nearby Ueno district houses the Tokyo National Museum, home to a huge collection of Japanese art and antiquities. We highly recommend a visit during your trip to Japan. There are countless other museums and galleries in this area.

Roppongi and Shibuya are well known hot spots when the sun goes down; trendy neon-lit clubs are frequented by fashionable young Tokyo-ites and gaijin (foreigners).

If you're interested in sumo wrestling, head for the Kokugikan Sumo Stadium. There is a sumo museum open year round, but sumo tournaments only take place in January, May, and September and last for 15 days. Tickets should be purchased in advance.

KYOTO

A trip to Japan should allocate as much time as possible to Kyoto. The ancient capital of Japan for over a thousand years, it is home to invaluable treasures and is a repository of much of the best Japanese art, culture religion and thought.

No less than 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites head a cast of thousands that include fabulous temples, shrines, palaces, gardens, museums, parks and a castle. If you have time, all 17 are well worth the effort. If your stay is short, don't miss these:

Kiyomizu-dera Temple, the Buddhist temple of "pure water" founded in the 8th century is one of Kyoto's oldest and most revered temples. Perched high in the eastern hills, it affords panoramic views of Kyoto.

Daigo-ji Temple complex houses a total of over 100 halls, pagodas, and monasteries. The surrounding ponds and gardens are a riot of blossoms in the spring and beautiful any time of year.

The Ryoan-ji Temple is the classic Zen rock garden, and not to be missed during your tour of Japan. Its structured grace, fine lines and emphasis on absence is meant to inspire contemplation. With jostling hordes of Japanese tourists, its inspiring meditative mood may feel diminished, but a visit to this archetypal landscape is still worthwhile.

Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion) is an architectural masterpiece, embodying many quintessentially Japanese structural elements. Built in the 15th century, it became the basis for modern Japanese residential architecture. Its rock gardens and inner courtyards also showcase some of the different styles that have come to define the Japanese garden.

Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) is one of the most recognizable temples in the country, covered as it is in shimmering gold leaf. A monk suffering from mental illness set fire to the temple in 1950, destroying the structure. It was restored to its original glory in subsequent decades. The incident is explored by the great Japanese writer Yukio Mishima in his novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Nijo-jo Castle was built around 1600 for the warrior Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period. A historic drama of Shakespearean proportions surrounds the samurai and his ascent to power. Within the castle grounds is the Ninomaru Palace, famous for its "nightingale floors" that squeak when walked upon so as to warn residents of invaders.

A visit to the Sumiya, a functioning teahouse until WWII, will leave no doubt about the Japanese genius for design, architecture, and carpentry. No trip to Japan would be complete without visiting the Gion district's Hanami-koji street at sunset to glimpse geisha in their traditional finery.

It can be argued that Japan is home to the world's best gardens. The Saiho-ji Moss Garden at Kokedera Temple is a case in point. The temple and its grounds are covered with a thick carpet of 120 species of moss. But that doesn't begin to tell the story of this place. There is a spiritual gravity here, a deeply quiet beauty. You've traveled a long way in hopes of experiencing the "real" Japan. This may well be it. (Note: Permission to enter tranquil Kokedera is required in advance. A written request stating the date you intend to visit must be submitted, so advise your Travel Specialist if you plan to include Kokedera in your Japan itinerary.)

Kyoto is a great place to simply spend days strolling from site to site, along the Philosopher's Path and cobblestone streets, and from noodle shops to tea houses. Walking through the old quarter with a knowledgeable guide reveals thriving cottage industries producing all manner of traditional goods. Knotted prayer tassels, tofu, green tea candy, hand-painted silk fans, lacquer ware bowls; these arts are alive and well but one must know where to look. Our Japan tour guides will unlock the door to these ancient arts and reveal their meaning within the context of Japanese society.

If you arrive or depart Kyoto by train, prepare yourself for the most whizz-bang six-story train station-cum-shopping mall you've ever seen, a conspicuously ultra-modern steel, glass and neon study in functional constructivism and consumerist excess. It's the perfect-or perfectly jarring-structural antidote to Kyoto's famously quiet, less-is-more cultural traditions.

TAKAYAMA

Don't miss this picture-perfect town in a valley surrounded by the Japanese Alps. This area retains much of the atmosphere of old Japan, as for centuries it was cut off from the rest of the country by the almost impregnable encircling mountains.

Bicycle through the Sanmachi Suji district, a maze of old-world streets and home to a number of quaint museums devoted to everything from local history to traditional Japanese toys. The Kusakabe Folkcraft Museum is a great stop.

Takayama is world-renowned for two Japanese festivals that showcase a procession of elaborate floats through the streets. In April the Sanno Matsuri Festival marks the planting season, and in October the Hachiman Matsuri Festival celebrates the harvest. Early booking is essential during these times.

HAKONE

Part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Hakone is one of the closest and most popular Japan travel destinations for Tokyo residents. Find the bubbling mineral spas that make this hot springs resort famous. Take a boat trip across Lake Ashino-ko, with the perfectly shaped Fuji-san in the background.

Stroll through its wonderful outdoor sculpture museum. You can tour Hakone as a day trip if you leave early in the morning, but adding an overnight stay at a ryokan (Japanese inn) is much more pleasant.

Adventures

Have more time, second trip to Japan, or looking for something specific? Here are some additional highlights when creating your custom Japan travel plan.

HONSHU ISLAND

This is Japan's main island and cultural epicenter.

KAMAKURA

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.

NIKKO

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.

KANAZAWA

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.

NAGANO

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.

NARA

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.

MIHO MUSEUM

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.

HIROSHIMA

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.

MIYAJIMA

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.

KOYA-SAN

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.

MT. YOSHINO

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.

SHIKOKU ISLAND

Shikoku Island is the smallest of Japan's four main islands. It possesses great natural beauty and rugged mountains, but is perhaps most famous for its pilgrimage circuit of 88 sacred Buddhist temples. This pilgrimage has been popular since the Edo period in the belief that a successful completion of the tour exonerates Buddhist followers from the cycle of rebirth.

Of interest on the island is Dogo Onsen; with a 3,000-year history, it claims to be the oldest hot-spring spa in Japan. According to legend, the hot springs were discovered after a white heron healed an injured leg by soaking it in the thermal mineral waters.

The Iya Valley is known as one of Japan's "three hidden regions." Its tall peaks and deep gorges were historically a safe haven for the Heike Clan after its defeat by the rival Genji Clan during civil wars in the 12th century. Today, Iya's mountainsides are dotted with tiny rural hamlets where residents struggle to preserve their traditional ways despite considerable economic pressure to move to the cities or take jobs in the construction industry. This area has been highlighted in Alex Kerr's award-winning book, Lost Japan.

KYUSHU ISLAND

Beauty abounds in Kyushu, and Japan's friendliest people call this island home. See Iso-teien Garden, one of the most exquisitely manicured formal gardens in Japan. Stay at the famous spa town of Beppu, known for its Hells--bubbling, multicolored waters that form ponds as they ooze from the active volcanic soil.

Hike to the Mt Aso volcano caldera, or explore the vibrant port city of Kagoshima during your Japan trip.

HOKKAIDO ISLAND

The northernmost of Japan's four main islands, Hokkaido is in many ways the antithesis of Honshu. You won't find the fabulous cultural treasures of the large island: instead, prepare to be captivated by pristine wilderness areas, opportunities for observing wildlife, and by the traditional culture of the indigenous Ainu people.

We can recommend stints in Hokkaido's many national parks or ferry rides to remote islands to enhance your Japan travel experience.

Questions? Ready to start planning your trip?

CONTACT A JAPAN TRAVEL EXPERT

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