Gion District, Kyoto / photo: © JNTO
Japan is a country that’s relatively easy to travel about and, surprisingly to many, much less expensive to visit than many other major destinations.
And although it may sound more like promotional hyperbole, the truth is that Japan really is a country of contrasts. Yes, it is ultra-modern with city streets filled with businessmen in dark suits and young people in Harajuku-style Japanese street fashion, and bullet trains, among the fastest in the world, linking its cities.
But it’s also a country of tradition and traditional beauty. On the streets of Kyoto, for example, you still find kimono-clad geisha, ancient temples all over the country and a culture that goes back thousands of years.
It’s been less than a year since the earthquake off the country’s coast triggered the immense tsunami and which caused the ensuing problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Presently, however, the U.S. government advises travelers to only avoid unnecessary travel to areas within 20 kilometers (about 12½ miles) of the plant. Travel in other areas poses low risks.
For those travelers who desire to delve deeper into this beautiful country and fascinating culture, here are the top tourism destinations in Japan, as reported by the Japan National Tourism Organization.
photo: © Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau
Japan’s capital city, with its mixture of traditional and modern urban life, is the most popular tourist destination in the country. Sensoji Temple is one of its iconic historic sites, and the Imperial Palace provides a traditional and royal air. The city’s Ginza, the equivalent of New York’s Madison Avenue, is world famous, as is the Harajuku Japanese-teen street fashion that influences international fashion industry. While you’ll find plenty of authentic Japanese dining in Tokyo, you’ll also find top-quality international restaurants as well, since Tokyoites have a discriminating palate for authentic quality of international cuisines such as Italian, Chinese, French, etc. Sushi restaurants are plentiful in the outer market of the renowned Tsukiji Fishmarket.
photo: © City of Kyoto, JNTO
According to the Japan National Tourism Organization the ancient capital of Kyoto is the most popular destination for foreign visitors to Japan. It’s a city that embodies all that people think of in terms of Japanese tradition including centuries-old temples, ryokans (Japanese traditional style inn), teahouses, geisha, etc., all maintained in the authentic tradition by the city. The cityscape is also well maintained, and there are many cultural workshops in which visitors can participate.
While the name may not be very familiar to American tourists, this is the prefecture where Yokohama (Tokyo’s neighboring city) and Kamakura (a historic city along the coast) are located. With a huge Buddha statue, Kamakura is a popular and easy destination for those who stay in Tokyo (just an hour or so away by train) and travelers come to stroll between temples along the calm beaches. Hakone, where people go for hot springs, ryokan, and the magnificent view of Mt. Fuji, is also in the Kanagawa prefecture.
photo: Akato Marui
As the second largest city and a major business travel destination, Osaka is the home of several major international companies. But in addition to business, Osakan culture is also heavily focused on food. In fact some lovers of Japanese cuisine view Osaka is the capital of affordable dining spree! Outside of the urban centers, pockets of tranquility are tucked away in the countryside.
Just east of Tokyo, Chiba is where Japan’s gateway Narita International Airport is located. The city of Narita, close by the airport, is sometimes visited by international travelers as a “quick taste” of Japan during a layover. The Tokyo Disney Resort is also in Chiba, just cross the border with Tokyo. The Tokyo Motor Show usually takes place in Makuhari Messe, one of the largest and popular convention centers in the country.
In addition to being the home of Toyota Motors, Aichi is known for traditional manufacturing and thus attracts many business travelers. Midway between Tokyo and Osaka, is Nagoya, a major location for business conferences that also attracts visitors with its castle, museum and gardens.
photo: Tim Notari
Nara is actually the very first capital of the country even before Kyoto. Although the Nara era was less than 80 years long, the city is the birthplace of the fundamentals of Japanese tradition. In spite of an obvious Chinese influence in architecture, UNESCO designated Nara’s landmarks and designated them as World Heritage Sites.
photo: © JNTO
World-renowned because of the atomic bomb, Hiroshima today is known as the global peace center. The Peace Memorial Museum, located right next to the dome that was the only structure to survive at ground zero (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site), is a must-see for visitors here. The city also has another World Heritage Site: Itsukushima Shrine of Miyajima Island, one of the post-card icons of Japan.
photo: Steve Pomeroy
Okinawa, a group of islands stretching southward from Japan, is the country’s equivalent of Hawaii. The islands have a unique indigenous culture andare popular for their sub-tropical climate, beautiful beaches, some of the world’s best diving spots and its incredible Churaumi Aquarium.
photo: Toby Oxborrow
The greatest attraction for tourists to Hyogo prefecture is Himeji Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most impressive castles in all of Japan, if not all of Asia. Close to Osaka the prefecture is also home to the city of Kobe, considered by some to be one of Japan’s most attractive cities, despite being leveled in a massive earthquake in 1995.