It’s hard to distill the many amazing sights and activities Japan has to offer into one short list, but after much consideration, here is our Top Five:
Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market
Travellers to Tokyo can discover the spectacle that is the Tsukiji Fish Market (Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market), the largest and busiest of its kind in the world. Arriving at 5am might seem early (unless you’re still adjusting to the time zone difference), but that’s when the frenetic and fascinating tuna auctions begin, to which public access is limited. Licensed wholesalers sell to intermediate wholesalers, restaurants, processing plants and retailers for consumers that span the globe. A first-come, first-serve basis, registration begins at 4:30 am at the information centre, inside the Kachidoki Gate. The impressive unloading of tons of fish and seafood starts at 3am and market activity cools down around 8:30am. By then you’ll want to head over to one of the numerous sushi stalls located in the restaurant area and treat yourself to a sushi breakfast. Expect to pay a premium, but that’s a drop in the ocean considering it’s likely the freshest sushi you’ve ever sampled.
Kyoto’s World Heritage Sites
As Japan’s capital from the 8th century to 18th century, Kyoto is replete with ancient architecture and historic sites. There are 17 World Heritage Sites in Kyoto (that’s more than most countries even have), showcasing significant periods of Japan’s imperial past. These include the ostentatiously gilded Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), a Zen Buddhist temple that was originally a shogun’s home, to the serenely minimalist Ryoanii gardens, one of Japan’s most famous. With literally thousands of other temples, shrines, gardens and other captivating historic offerings, the sights are certainly not restricted to these heritage sites. Kyoto is centrally located on Honshu, Japan’s main island, about 500 km away from Tokyo.
Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park and Museum
Established in 1955 as a memorial to the devastating loss of life caused by the atom bomb dropped on August 6, 1945, Hiroshima Memorial Park honours Hiroshima’s victims, while the museum is a compelling, moving reminder of nuclear fallout. Particularly poignant is the Children’s Peace Monument, decorated in symbolic paper cranes. The horrors of this tragic World War II event were felt decades later, with babies born with leukemia and other related diseases. Children from around Japan visit the memorials, which also vitally encourage us all not to forget. Hiroshima is also a monument to the enduring tenacity of the Japanese people, extending to the present day.
A Japanese pastime steeped in tradition, onsen refers to hot springs, as well as the bathing facilities enjoyed by everyone from families, work colleagues and friends. These hot springs can be found all over Japan, naturally heated by volcanic activity and rich in minerals thought to have healing properties. Many resorts and bed and breakfasts are built around the onsen, making up a huge part of domestic tourism, rather than international. This means visiting an onsen is an excellent way for the Western traveller to experience what the Japanese do. If you choose to stay overnight, look into staying at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, featuring tatami mats, sliding doors and of course, hot baths and/or hot springs. By immersing yourself in onsen, you’re immersing yourself in Japanese culture.
No matter what time of year, chances are there’s a festival (matsuri) happening somewhere in Japan. Its main religions, Buddhism and Shintoism, have many festivals attached to their shrines and temples, while other matsuri are secular. Themes range from the seasonally sublime—harvest festivals, cherry blossom festivals, snow and ice festivals—to the playfully ridiculous— city-wide dance parties, phallus-toting revellers and processions in every costume imaginable (and some unimaginable, considering at times the excess skin exposure!) By attending a festival you can also take in other fun aspects of Japanese culture, from karaoke to Sumo, and choose to be a spectator or a participant (of course being a Sumo participant is not recommended!)
Do you have any recommendations to add to the list? We welcome your comments below! If this list has you ready to hop on the next plane to the Land of the Rising Sun, call an airfare expert at 1-877-967-5302 to find the best flight deals to Japan.