On our very first trip to Japan we stepped off the Narita Express into the world’s busiest station of Shinjuku and we’ve been returning ever since. Tokyo as a whole is an amazing city, but Shinjuku is a destination in its own right. With canyons of neon, tunnels of shops and crowds of crazy youth it’s like nowhere else on Earth.
It’s not just the magnificently scenic train ride up into the mountains along the Hida river or the historically preserved streets and wood crafts. Nor is it just the magnificent festival floats that parade through the streets at night accompanied by drums and flutes. What brings us back time and time again is the Hida beef. Served on a skewer or grilled over a charcoal fire atop a magnolia leaf with mountain vegetables and local miso, all other beef has paled in comparison.
Japan is home to many onsen towns but few are as well preserved and as pretty as Kinosaki. Stepping off the train here is like walking into another age as yukata clad ryokan guests stroll alongside the willow lined canal between the seven famous hot springs, each with its own unique features. This is the only one of my favourites that has seen a single visit, but that surely won’t be our last.
The eastern Sanyo coast of Honshu is where all the action happens with cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Hiroshima. Me, I prefer the Sanin coast to the west, home of quiet cities like Matsue. This oft forgotten gem sits on the shores of serene Lake Shinji and is home to many decent sights. There’s its small, but original castle, surrounded by tall stone walls and a large moat on which you can go for a cruise. Nearby is a samurai district with museum homes you can enter and the peaceful Mei-Mei An teahouse for a relaxing cup of matcha. Bathe in an onsen or just rest your feet in the free hot bath in front of the Ichibata Dentetsu station, a quaint private line that takes you on a pretty journey around the lake to the very sacred Izumo Taisha shrine. And at the end of the day enjoy the fresh local seafood.
Nestled away in the foothills of the Japanese Alps this rural town has a surprising amount to offer. It is the centre of Japanese replica food production and visitors can try their hand at making their own wax food. The castle overlooking the town may be a reconstruction, but it is a faithful one and the views from the top are beautiful, as is the small garden at the Jionzen-ji temple. There are other attractive temples too, old streets with building from past eras and good food to eat, including delicious Hida beef. But the real stars of the town are the pure springs and the two clear rivers, their banks lined with a haphazard selection of the town’s buildings. Even the journey there is part of the fun, small diesel railcars chugging alongside the Nagara River past tiny towns, in Spring the trackside lined with pink cherry blossoms.
The light is different on Shikoku, smallest of Japan’s four main islands. It’s almost Mediterranean in nature and indeed you might sometimes think you are in Spain as you pass the orange groves which produce the region’s favourite fruit. I love the quiet city of Matsuyama, the old trams and the Botchan Ressha trundling along the streets to their terminus at the famous Dogo Onsen, the arcades of quirky shops and the well preserved castle overlooking it all. Even the Takashimaya department store has a giant ferris wheel on its roof. Life moves at a different pace on Shikoku and it’s a great place to escape from the frenzied life of Japan’s bigger cities.
When it comes to sights Kanazawa stands out by far. It’s not quantity, but quality and variety that count here. The greatest site of all is Kenroku-en, in my opinion, and that of many others, Japan’s best garden. Both times I have visited Kanazawa have been during peak cherry blossom season, when Kenroku-en is open both day and night, making for a magical experience. Another amazing garden, this one much smaller, can be found at the Nomura-ke house in the Nagamachi Samurai district, a beautifully preserved area with stone streets, high walls and gushing streams. There are also well preserved geisha and teahouse streets, such as in the Higashi Chaya district. Do take a look at the local crafts museum with the area famous for gorgeous gold leaf, lacquer and pottery craft amongst many others. And when you get hungry there’s fresh seafood at the Omicho Market. You can now do Kanazawa as a long day trip from Tokyo or Kyoto, but do yourself a favour and stay longer. You won’t regret visiting this jewel of Japan.
8 of the rest
A giant Buddha statue and a beautiful stroll through the woods between temples. The cute little Enoden tram is a great way to get there. Can be done as a day trip from Tokyo.
Shogun Tokugawa’s mausoleum and shrine is perhaps Japan’s most garishly decorated, but the setting amongst the cypress forest is beautiful. It was here that I fell in love with Japan. Can also be done as a day trip from Tokyo.
Near the top of Honshu, Hirosaki’s Neputa festival paper lantern floats are amazing. You can view them in the museum along with other local crafts. The castle grounds are pretty, especially during cherry blossom season. All sorts of local apple products are on sale.
Sure the eight hells are aimed at tourists, but these multicoloured pools of boiling water and mud are something new for those of us who live in less volcanically active places.
Best known for the atomic bomb destruction, a visit to the Peace Memorial Museum will help you understand why it must never happen again. But Hiroshima now is a thriving and lively city. Pop over to Miyajima Island while you are there.
So there you are, my top picks for Japan. As you can see they are concentrated around the central and southern regions of Honshu, the largest island where I have spent the most time (though I’ve passed through all but two of Japan’s prefectures). Obviously there’s much more to see and that’s the joy of Japan. Wherever you go there’s something special to see or do. So now it’s time for you to go out and make your own list!