Explore Japan

Japan Travel Guide

It is only comparatively recently that Japan came out of the shell of its isolation, but the country of pink cherry blossoms and genteel geisha girls has made up for lost time. There are few people in the western world who have not driven a Japanese car, eaten sushi or played on a Nintendo or Sony game console.

The nation of Japan consists of an island archipelago stretching from northeast to southwest off the coast of mainland China, Russia and Korea, separated from its Asian neighbours by the Sea of Japan. Between 1639 and 1859 Japan elected to cut itself off from trade or traffic with the rest of the world, except for some marginal contact through the southern Kyushu island ports. Since opening up its doors once more, about 150 years ago, the densely populated islands have developed in leaps and bounds and much of the country is now covered by sprawling neon-lit cities and the world's most sophisticated public transport networks.

Modern it may be, but Japan still retains plenty of its mystical oriental charm. From the intricacies of etiquette demanded in social situations, to the minimalist décor behind rice paper screens, Japanese culture is alive and well and cannot be ignored, which makes a visit to Japan a fascinating experience.

The modern metropolises are dotted with numerous ancient shrines and temples; the countryside is riddled with hundreds of volcanoes and hot springs overlooking pastoral paddy fields; parks are festooned with rigidly raked white gravel Zen gardens or coated with layers of lilac and cherry blossom.

Japan's islands are mountainous in the interior - 75 percent of the country's landmass is made up of mountains - and most of the people are tightly packed within the limitations of the coastal plains, particularly on the main island of Honshu. Tokyo, the capital and largest city, situated on Honshu's east coast, has a population of 12 million. Despite this seething mass of humanity Japan is well ordered. Everything runs on time, and crime levels are almost non-existent. It is still possible to find beautiful vistas and wide empty spaces in the countryside, and when you are forced to mingle with the urban throngs you will find the Japanese to be charming, courteous and friendly to foreign faces.

All foreign passengers to Japan must hold proof of sufficient funds to cover their expenses while in the country, return/onward tickets, and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.

Tokyo Imperial Palace

Address: Tokyo

Admission: Free East Garden is closed on Mondays and Fridays. Otherwise it is open daily 9am-4pm (until 3:30pm between November and February). Gardens closed from 28 December to 3 January and when Imperial Court functions take place.

Japan's Imperial Palace is regarded as the heart and soul of Tokyo, standing on a huge site that still bears the remains of Edo Castle, stronghold of the Tokugawa shogunate. The present palace was completed in 1888 and is still home to the emperor of Japan. The palace is off-limits but its grounds and surrounds provide a much-needed green open space for the city with Higashi Gyoen (East Garden), site of the Edo Castle keep, open to the public. On January 2nd and December 23rd each year visitors are able to enter the inner grounds and see the Imperial family make public appearances from the balcony. Guided tours of the palace are offered, but are only in Japanese, although an English pamphlet and audio guide are provided. These tours must be reserved in advance through the Imperial Household Agency. Be sure to take along your passport when you go to reserve a spot. In spring the gardens are awash with colour when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, particularly along the castle moat. Year-round the Imperial Palace is bustling with lots to see including a few small museums, some wonderful landscaping and many symbolic ornamental touches like the plants from every prefecture dotted strategically around the palace.

Yasukuni Shrine

Address: 3-1-1 Kadunkita, Chiyoda-ku Tokyo

Admission: JPY 800 (adults); concessions available. Shrine open 24 hours daily. Museum open daily 9am-4:30pm.

Telephone: (03) 3261 8326

To the north of the Imperial Palace lies the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, built long ago to commemorate the Japanese war dead and now regarded as home to the souls of about two and a half million who perished in conflict, mostly in the Pacific War of World War II. Japanese soldiers fought in the knowledge that their spirits would find rest and honour at Yasukuni in the after-life. The shrine has caused controversy for various political reasons over the years since it was built in 1869 in honour of supporters of the emperor, killed in the run up to the Meiji Restoration. More recently, with regard to the country's constitution, that requires the separation of state and religion, cabinet ministers have been criticised for attending anniversaries of Japan's defeat in World War II held at the shrine. The shrine is confined behind a huge steel torii gate, opening onto a long avenue lined with gingko and cherry trees. The Worship Hall itself is a simple Shinto style building. North of the shrine is the Yushukan Museum, containing war memorabilia, some of which is disturbing and thought-provoking such as the human torpedo and kamikaze suicide attack plane. The shrine and museum will be fascinating for those interested in military history.

Edo-Tokyo Museum

Address: 1-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida-ku Tokyo

Admission: JPY 600 9.30am - 5.30pm. Saturdays: 9.30am - 7.30pm. Closed on Mondays.

Telephone: +81 3 3626 9974

Tokyo's museum dedicated to detailing the city's history, art, culture and architecture through the medium of visual displays is an impressive, not to be missed attraction. Edo was the old name for Tokyo when the country came under the rulership of the warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Exhibits include a replica of an ancient Kabuki theatre, maps, photographs and portrayals of the lives of the city's merchants, craftsmen and townspeople in days gone by. It is a huge museum which takes a few hours to explore properly and should captivate people of all ages. There are numerous interactive exhibits and many intricate models with such wonderful detail that binoculars are provided for visitors to better appreciate them. Traditional performances are held in the recreated theatre, which is not the only historic building to be recreated life-size. If you are interested in Tokyo's general history then this is the best museum to start with to get an overview of the city's development; a wander around the Edo-Tokyo Museum will enrich your experience of the city. Volunteers give regular free tours of the museum and many of them speak fluent English. There is good English signposting and information throughout the museum.

Akihabara

Address: Tokyo

Tokyo's electronic wonderland has become world-renowned. In a small area west of Akihabara Station lies a bright cluster of electrical appliance and electronics shops, many of them now dealing in computer hardware and software, where expert staff can answer queries and visitors can browse through the showrooms of major manufacturers. There are duty-free shops and various events to draw attention. The suburb has been specialising in electrical equipment since the 1930s and is now regarded as the world's biggest and best electrical equipment enclave. Although the cheap and impressive technology draws many visitors this is also a paradise for gamers, geeks and anime and manga fans, with shops full of merchandise and numerous arcades. The arcades carry everything new and novel but also have many of the vintage games that are difficult to find these days. The neighbourhood is a riot of colourful advertising and a fun place to do some people watching, if nothing else. There are a lot of restaurants and fast food joints to try out and some funky themed eateries. Akihabara is also an entertaining area to stroll around at night, when everything is lit up and neon.

Senso-ji Temple

Address: 2-3-1 Asakusa Taito-ku, Shitamachi (downtown) Tokyo

Admission: Free Main Hall: 6am to 5pm (from 6.30am between October and March). Temple grounds are always open.

The Asakusa neighbourhood of Tokyo draws visitors to admire the city's oldest temple, Senso-ji, founded in 628 AD with a quaint legend attached to it. The story goes that two young brothers fishing in the nearby river netted a golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and the statue kept turning up in their nets no matter how many times they threw it back. The brothers were inspired to enshrine it in a temple dedicated to the deity. The statuette is still inside, but never shown to the public, though pilgrims flock here every day seeking the favour of the goddess. There are also numerous festivals associated with the shrine, and a hugely popular firework display is held on the Sumida River every summer. Tourists enjoy the visit to the temple mainly because the approach is a colourful pedestrian lane, Nakamise Dori, lined with shops and souvenir stalls. The area has become touristy but it is still a stronghold for ancient traditions and a wonderful place to do some people watching. For many tourists the temple is one of the highlights of a visit to Tokyo; the temple complex is usually bustling with activity and there is lots to see and do. Nearby, the Demboin Garden is a good spot to grab a break from the city crowds.

Tokyo Disney Resort

Address: Tokyo

Admission: There are several ticket options, including multi-day passports that allow entry to both parks. Check the official website for details. Check website for details, as hours vary according to season and day of the week. Generally open daily 8am-10pm with shorter hours in winter.

There is plenty of fun to be had for the young and young at heart at Tokyo's Disney Resort, in many ways virtually a carbon copy of the theme park found in California in the United States. The Tokyo amusement park was opened in 1983 and it has gradually developed a character of its own, growing into one of the most popular amusement parks in the world and considered by many to have surpassed its American predecessor. The park now has many unique attractions, and a fusion of American and Japanese culture which is interesting, but you will still find all the old favourites. The resort consists of Disneyland Park and DisneySea Park, along with several hotels. It is divided into seven different themed lands: World Bazaar, Adventureland, Westernland, Critter Country, Fantasyland, Toontown and Tomorrowland. Visitors can expect attractions like the Jungle Cruise, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain and many more, which are all included on this huge site, and are very well-maintained and presented. The Tokyo park is known for its cleanliness and smooth operations but visitors should expect crowds and come prepared for some queuing. The premier attraction for kids in Tokyo, the Disney resort is unmissable for families.

Tokyo National Museum

Address: 13-9 Ueno Park,Taito-ku Tokyo

Admission: JPY 620 (adults), JPY 410 (students), free for scholars. Daily 9:30am to 5pm, depending on season; closed Mondays. Closing times vary with the seasons, visitors are advised to check before arrival.

Telephone: (0)3 3822 1111

Close to Ueno Station, and enclosed in the beautiful, spacious park of the same name - also called the Tokyo Metropolitan Imperial Gift Park - the National Museum is host the largest collection of Japanese art in the world. Exhibits range from antique kimonos and delicate pottery to woodblock prints and archaeological finds. The vast collection is displayed on a rotating basis with at least 4,000 artefacts visible at any time, so the museum always has something new to offer. The museum consists of five different buildings containing numerous galleries, so one needs sufficient time to do it justice. The Imperial Gift Park is a lovely place to enjoy a stroll, with big ponds and shaded areas to rest; the grounds also contain some other cultural institutions, including a zoo, the Metropolitan Art Museum, Bunka Kaikan Cultural Hall, the Western Art Museum and the National Science Museum. There should be something here to interest the whole family and all the educational attractions can easily fill a whole day of sightseeing.

Mount Fuji

Address: Tokyo

The dormant volcano of Mount Fuji, 62 miles (100km) southwest of Tokyo, has been revered since ancient times and no exploration of Japan is complete without visiting the mountain that is known fondly as 'Fuji-san' by the locals. Its symmetrical 12,388-foot (3,776m) cone towers and snow-crowned summit have become as symbolic of Japan as the country's own flag, featuring in poetry and art through the ages and considered a holy site in Japanese culture. The mountain, which is the highest in Japan, has many historical and mythological associations; for instance, ancient samurai used the base of the mountain as a remote training area, near the present day town of Gotemba.

The closest town to the volcano is Fuji Yoshida, from which buses leave frequently for Fuji's 'fifth stage' (the usual jumping-off point for hikes up the mountain) from outside the train station. There are six trails to the summit, of which the Kawaguchiko Trail is the easiest, being quite manageable even for children and the elderly as long as they have stamina and good shoes. Overnight huts are available for those wanting to stay a night or two on the mountain. The official climbing season is from 1 July to the end of August as in winter snow makes the ascent too dangerous.

Kamakura

Address: Tokyo

The city of Kamakura, about 30 miles (50km) southwest of Tokyo, at the base of the Miura Peninsula, was the political powerhouse of Japan in the middle ages and the seat of government for most of the 13th century. Because of its historic importance Kamakura boasts numerous monuments, temples and shrines which are of interest to sightseeing tourists. As an added bonus the city sports some sandy beaches and good hiking trails in the nearby wooded hills so that a day or two can be spent very happily in the city enjoying both the natural and historical attractions. Kamakura's many sights are too numerous to detail individually, but most important of them all is the Great Buddha. This bronze statue of the seated Amida Buddha is located in the grounds of the Kotokuin Temple and, standing at almost 44ft (13,35m) high, it is the second largest Buddha statue in Japan after that found in the Todaiji Temple in Nara. The Kamakura Great Buddha was cast in 1252 and was originally contained in the temple hall. A tidal wave (tsunami) washed away the temple in the late 15th century, but the Buddha prevailed and has since stood triumphantly in the open. Kamakura is a very popular daytrip from Tokyo, but many visitors will find that they want to spend at least one night in the city to fully appreciate all it has to offer.

Yokohama

Address: Tokyo

While visiting Japan's largest city, Tokyo, it is quick and easy to pay a visit to the country's second largest metropolis as well: Yokohama can be reached in less than 30 minutes by train from Tokyo, lying south of the capital. The main reason for visiting Yokohama is to marvel at its futuristic new city centre, and perhaps take a stroll through Japan's largest Chinatown. Yokohama's Chinatown, entered through four colourful gates and teeming with restaurants and shops, was developed after the city became one of the first Japanese ports to be opened to foreign trade after generations of isolation ended in 1859. Chinese traders flocked to the city, establishing a cultural neighbourhood. Minato Mirai is the new central city area around the harbour, characterised by the Landmark Tower, rising to 971ft (296m). Visitors can ride to the tower's observation deck in the world's second fastest elevator, travelling at 41ft (13m) a second, for a view that on a clear day stretches as far as Mount Fuji. The city also boasts the tallest inland lighthouse in the world, the Yokohama Marine Tower. The city is a commercial hub with wonderful shopping opportunities and restaurants and a fun nightlife.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Address: 3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto Kyoto

Japan's imperial family lived in the Kyoto palace from 1331 until 1868 (when they moved to Tokyo), and today visitors can view the furnishings and delicate decorations. Once only accessible via a guided tour that required advanced booking, the palace grounds can now be entered and viewed at the visitor's leisure without any prior arrangements. English guided tours are, however, still possible, and those interested should book a space in advance in order to avoid disappointment by calling at the Imperial Household Agency office. Visitors should note that even on the official tours it is impossible to enter any of the palace buildings, although you should be shown a video and photos showcasing the interiors. There are lockers at the site to store anything you don't want to carry while walking around the complex.

To-ji

Address: 1 Kujo-cho, Minami-ku Kyoto

To-ji, with the tallest pagoda in Japan, was the Buddhist temple founded in 794 as guardian of the then young capital city's welfare. Today it stands about 10 minutes' walk to the south of Kyoto Station, drawing curious tourists to admire in particular its five-storey pagoda, which was rebuilt in the mid-17th century. During the span of centuries a treasure trove of statuary, calligraphy and paintings has been collected at the temple, now housed in the various historic buildings making up the temple complex. The statues include a six-metre-tall Senju Kannon (thousand-armed Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) carved in 877. The gardens at the temple are lovely and the temple is an active place of worship which holds many ceremonies and religious services, giving the place a serene and authentic atmosphere which the popular tourist temples sometimes lack. Although many foreigners do choose to visit To-ji, the majority of people at the temple are locals there to pray and worship. There are many temples in the area but To-ji stands out because of its historic pagoda.

Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji)

Address: 1 Kinkaku-ji-cho Kita-ku, Kyoto Kyoto

One of Kyoto's most popular attractions is to the north of the city. The Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) is a three-storey pavilion covered in gold leaf, glittering in the waters of a calm pond and surrounded by beautiful gardens. Kinkakuji was built in 1397 as a retirement home for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who lived there in luxury until he died in 1408, after which the building was converted into a Zen temple. In 1950 a mad monk burnt the pavilion down, and it was not rebuilt until 1955. Today it is covered in gold leaf five times thicker than the original coating, and presents an awesome sight. The pavilion is worth visiting at any time of the day and in any season - in fact, it is strikingly magnificent in winter, when surrounded by white snow. Although sunset can be particularly special, because the temple glows in the setting sun, the popularity of the place means that there are often big crowds and the best time to visit to really experience the tranquillity and beauty of the pavilion is early in the morning. A short walk from the pavilion is Ryoanji, Japan's most famous Zen rock garden, laid out in the 15th century. A veranda overlooks the garden in which 15 rocks are set among raked white pebbles.

Sanjusangen-do

Address: Shichijo Dori Kyoto

The temple of Rengeoin, in eastern Kyoto, is better known by its popular name of Sanjusangen-do, and houses an amazing sight. Inside the longest wooden building in Japan stand row upon row of life-sized statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, carved from Japanese cypress and covered in gold leaf, dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. There are 1,000 statues altogether and each is unique, bearing a religious symbol or making a religious gesture. The statues surround the large, central figure of a seated Kannon, carved in 1254 in the Kamakura Period. The building and statues were once part of a large Buddhist temple complex known as the Lotus King Temple which was sadly destroyed leaving only a few buildings intact. The effect of all the golden statues, which create a kind of yellow haze, is mystical and somewhat hypnotic, giving credence to the local myth that if you stare at them for long enough one of the statues will assume the form of a loved one. No photos are allowed inside but you are permitted to photograph the outside of the building and the lovely grounds. There is a gift shop where you can buy some souvenirs at a reasonable cost. There are guides and prayer books in English for those who want more information.

Gion

Address: Gion, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City Kyoto

Most visitors to Japan are fascinated with the traditional Geisha: white-faced kimono-clad women specially trained to entertain and spoil men in a soothing setting. Kyoto boasts one of the most famous Geisha districts in the country, a neighbourhood of plain wooden buildings to the east of the Kamo River known as Gion. There were once thousands of Geisha and Maiko (apprentice Geisha) performing their genteel tasks in this area. Today the number has dwindled to a few hundred, but visitors who stroll the Hanami-koji street at sunset, past teahouses and restaurants, will probably catch a glimpse of one or two en route to the Geisha houses in their clattering wooden shoes and full traditional finery. The Geisha houses themselves are sadly strictly off-limits to anyone not properly introduced and invited, but from behind the paper screens you will hear the strains of music and laughter. It is fascinating to read up on the Geisha tradition before visiting the area but it also seems fitting that the Geisha still retain their mystery behind the paper screens. While geisha-spotting in the Gion district, take in the Yasaka Shrine with its many paper lanterns and the Minamiza Kabuki Theatre.

Kiyomizu-dera

Address: Kyoto

The 'Pure Water Temple', Kiyomizu-dera, is one of Japan's most celebrated temples, founded in 780 and associated with Nara Buddhism, the oldest sect in Japan. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of its main features for tourists is the lovely view afforded of the wooded hills of eastern Kyoto from its terrace. Below the terrace is the spring from which the temple got its name; visitors can sample the water, which is said to have healing powers. Nearby is an interesting three-storey pagoda, and the Otawa Falls. The approach to the temple, along Kiyomizu-michi or Gojo-zaka, is steep and narrow, the streets lined with stores specialising in local sweets, pottery and the inevitable souvenirs. Behind the temple is the Shinto Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the god of love. There is lots to see and do in the temple complex, which tends to be bustling with visitors and worshipers, and provides a fascinating cultural and historical experience for foreigners. The gardens are beautiful and, like many in Japan, are at their best when the cherry blossoms bloom in spring or when the leaves are at their most radiant in autumn. It is especially lovely to stay until it is dark (when possible) to see the temple light up at night.

Katsura Imperial Villa

Address: Kyoto

Considered to be the finest example of pure Japanese architecture and garden design, Katsura Rikyu, built in 1645 by Prince Toshihito, is beautiful in its simplicity. The buildings are constructed of entirely natural materials and consist of a moon-viewing pavilion, an imperial hall, teahouse and the wooden villa itself. The garden is designed for leisurely strolls with surprises around each turn of the path, from stone bridges and lanterns to ponds and manicured trees. The grounds are particularly beautiful in the autumn, when the rich colours of the trees make for even better photos than usual. It is very interesting to see how the imperial families lived and the Katsura Imperial Villa is one of the most popular attractions in Kyoto.

The villa may be visited only on pre-arranged, guided tours organised by the Imperial Household Agency, with tours held each weekday, on Sundays and occasionally on Saturdays. Tours are in Japanese only, and can be arranged at the office of the Imperial Household Agency next to the Imperial Palace in central Kyoto. Foreigners will be given audio guides. The villa is closed between roughly 28 December and 4 January and for imperial functions. Be sure to take along your passport when you apply for a permit, and book at least a day in advance.

Nara

Address: Kyoto

The city of Nara, 26 miles (42km) south of Kyoto, could be regarded as the place where Japan's culture was formalised. The city, originally called Heijo, became the first permanent capital of the country in 710. Although its capital status only lasted for 74 years, they were years that entrenched and enshrined Japan's arts, crafts and literature. Nara flourished as a political and cultural centre and thus was blessed with numerous temples, shrines, pagodas and palaces, which today attract locals and foreigners intent on glimpsing historic Japan. Most of Nara's historic treasures are conveniently contained in a vast park which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making sightseeing easy and pleasurable. Highlights are Todaiji, the huge temple that contains Japan's largest Buddha statue, and Horyuji, the temple containing the world's oldest wooden structures. A good way to explore the city is on a historic walking tour and visitors should ensure that they take a stroll around the old Naramachi merchant district. It is easy to find your way around and enjoy a solitary foray into history with a guidebook should you so desire, but joining a guided tour can be very informative.

Inokashira Park

Address: Gotenyama 1-chome, Kichijoji-Minami-cho 1-chome, Musashino City Tokyo

Inokashira Park is a tranquil oasis amid the bustle of Japan's capital city and is often lauded by locals and visitors as the best urban park in Japan. The park contains a temple dedicated to the goddess of love, a petting zoo and an aquarium, and is lively with musicians, artists and street performers. There are frequent free magic shows and other entertainments for kids to enjoy. One of the more popular attractions in Inokashira Park is the Ghibli Museum, featuring displays on popular animated films from the studio of the same name, including Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. The park is beautiful year-round but the best time to visit is in spring and autumn when the colours are at their most magnificent. Inokashira Park gets very crowded in the spring when the cherry blossoms are flowering and it is best to arrive early in the morning to avoid the crowds and make the most of the spectacle. Possibly the best activity to enjoy in Inokashira is a drift in one of the swan-shaped paddle boats around the lake. Floating along in the reflective water is particularly romantic in March and April when the trees overhanging the water are in full bloom. The park is a must for anybody visiting Tokyo.

Peace Memorial Park

Address: 1-2 Nakajima-cho, Naka-ku Hiroshima

Around the epicentre of the atomic bomb explosion in Hiroshima in 1945, a complex of buildings and monuments has been erected in the Peace Memorial Park to commemorate the earth-shattering event. The park is dedicated to the promotion of world peace. Central to the park is the only remaining city building damaged in the blast: it was formerly the Industrial Promotion Hall, but is now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park also contains the Peace Memorial Museum, featuring exhibits that graphically portray the horrible effects of the bomb on the city and its citizens. Between the museum and the dome stands the Memorial Cenotaph containing a stone chest, inside which is a list of all those killed in the explosion or who died subsequently from the long-term effects caused by radiation. The Cenotaph also houses the peace flame, which will burn until nuclear war is no longer considered a threat to humanity. Other monuments contained in the solemn park include the Statue of the A-Bomb Children and the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound that contains the ashes of tens of thousands of unidentified victims. The Peace Memorial Park is a must for all those visiting Hiroshima and an important place to mourn, reflect and pay tribute for locals and foreigners alike.

Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art

Address: Hijiyama Koen Hiroshima

Hiroshima boasts the first public art museum in Japan devoted exclusively to contemporary art. The museum was founded in 1989 and is housed in an interesting building designed by Japanese architect Kurokawa Kisho, based on the shape of a Japanese warehouse (Kura). The building is set high on a hill in Hijiyama Park, famed for its cherry blossoms and splendid city views. The museum itself contains the works of established and up-and-coming Japanese artists covering a range of different mediums and hosts regular temporary exhibitions. For those not familiar with Japanese art the museum has provided information books on the individual artists represented, written in English; however, aside from these, there is very little signposting or information in English. There is an outdoor sculpture garden to enjoy in the lovely grounds and the Hiroshima Manga Library is also located here. The museum is a little bit out of the way but those interested in contemporary Japanese art should find the effort rewarding, and a stroll in the grounds is pleasant.

Hiroshima Castle

Address: 21-1 Motomachi, Naka-ku Hiroshima

Hiroshima's original castle, built in the late 16th century, was totally destroyed in the atomic blast during World War II but has been reconstructed as a perfect replica of the original. When the castle was established by a feudal lord in 1589 Hiroshima didn't exist; the city that grew around the fortress took its name. At the time the area was called Gokamura, meaning five small villages, and the lord ruled over a vast territory spanning nine provinces from the stronghold. The castle now houses a museum detailing the region's history up until World War II and particularly the historic feudal system. The exhibits include some models of ancient Hiroshima and the castle and, for those who like playing dress-up, there are even some traditional costumes to try on. The museum is informative and easy to navigate with plenty of information in English. There is a great lookout point at the top of the castle which affords some nice photo opportunities. The grounds are also lovely, housing three trees - a eucalyptus, a willow, and a holly - which survived the bombing in 1945 and endure to this day. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Hiroshima, the castle is definitely worth a visit for anybody with an interest in history.

Miyajima

Address: Hiroshima

The romantic little island of Miyajima lies about eight miles (13km) off the mainland in the Seto Inland Sea. Apart from being scenically beautiful with steep wooded hills, the island is famous for its Itsukushima Shrine featuring a massive red wooden torii (gate). The shrine is partially built over water, and was founded in the 6th century. During high tide the shrine stands in the ocean, which is particularly picturesque when the building is illuminated at night. The route from the ferry to the shrine is lined with food stalls and souvenir stands to cater to all the tourists and although the shrine can get crowded it is a charming attraction. The Daishoin Temple is situated about half way up the mountain with incredible views and a pathway strewn with hundreds of statues. There are also temples and shrines near the summit of Mount Misen which are worth exploring. The island offers great hiking opportunities, particularly in spring when the many cherry trees are in bloom, and in autumn, when the colours are at their most vibrant. Deer roam free and monkeys chatter in the woods. Visitors may find the deer a bit of a nuisance as they are very tame and will disrupt picnics by trying to get to your food.

Sandankyo Gorge

Address: Hiroshima

The erosion of the limestone plateau in the northwest of the Hiroshima prefecture has left a beautiful deep gorge, stretching for about 11 miles (18km), full of primeval forest, waterfalls, monkeys, unusual rock formations and the Onbashi Bridge, the largest natural bridge in Japan. Sandankyo Gorge is one of only five ravines in Japan that have been designated as National Scenic Beauty Spots and the country takes great pride in the beautiful area, which is a great favourite with hikers. It is closed in winter because snow makes the ravine impassable and dangerous but visitors are welcome between the end of April and November. As with most scenic spots in Japan the ravine is at its most lovely in spring and autumn but is certainly still a worthwhile excursion in summer. One of the most popular walking trails is a round-trip that begins at the Sandankyo front gate with the lovely Kurofuchi pool as the turning point. The hike only takes about an hour each way and is not overly strenuous. The Kurofuchi pool is known for its emerald green water and it is possible to take a short ferry ride across it to a restaurant on the far bank. On this route you will also see the stunning Shimai waterfall and Ishidoi rapids.

Shofukuji Temple

Address: 6-1 Gokuso-machi, Higashi-ku Fukuoka

The Shofukuji Temple was the first Zen temple to be built in Japan. It was founded in 1195 by the priest Eisai who introduced the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism into Japan from China. The wooden buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries but they are exact replicas of the original structures. In the temple grounds are the remains of two other ancient temples, Jotenji and Tochoji, as well as a number of other structures. Unfortunately the ancient temple buildings cannot be entered but visitors can explore the lovely temple grounds and examine the exteriors of the buildings. Photography is welcome. Although the temple complex is a historic and ancient site it is not frequented by tourists and is seldom crowded, although locals do visit regularly. As a result it is a peaceful and serene place which affords a nice break from the busy city; the age and history of the temple is almost palpable. It is a lovely spot for a walk or rest and there is a lot to see in the complex, although there is little information provided on what you are seeing.

Fukuoka Asian Art Museum

Address: Riverain Complex, 3-1 Shimokawabata-machi, Hakata-ku Fukuoka

Fukuoka's Asian Art Museum is housed in a new complex in the Shimokawabata district of Hakata Ward, in the heart of the city. The museum houses a collection of more than 1,000 works including paintings, sculptures, prints and handcrafts. It also serves as a centre for art education. This popular modern museum offers a wide array of contemporary Japanese art and art from many other Asian countries; if you are lucky you will even get the chance to watch some local artists at work in the museum. It is a small museum but gives an impressively comprehensive overview of current trends in the region. The permanent collection is wonderful and should appeal both to the uninitiated and those well-versed in Asian art. There are regular temporary exhibitions and special events as well. There is a lovely little cafe attached to the museum, which is particularly nice on sunny days when visitors can sit outside. There is also a gift shop with gorgeous postcards, prints and books for souvenirs, and a children's play area to keep the kids occupied. The museum is situated in an interesting part of town, and it is fun to stroll around the area and explore a bit after your visit.

Kushida Shrine

Address: 1-41, Kamikawabatamachi, Hakata-ku Fukuoka

One of Fukuoka's best-known shrines is Kushida, founded in 757. It is situated in the heart of ancient Hakata with a huge gingko tree, said to be 1,000 years old, shading its forecourt. The shrine honours the grand deity, Ohata Nushina-mikoto, and was built during the Heian Period for the common people. Today it is very much enjoyed by locals and visitors alike during the summer's major event, the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival. On the last day of the festival the Kushida Shrine becomes the starting point for this fun run where hundreds of young men clad only in loin cloths carry heavy wooden shrines through the streets along a set route, vying to clock the fastest times. The shrine itself contains several items of interest, particularly the Eto Arrow plate bearing carvings of the Chinese zodiac and a brace of anchor stones, recovered from the harbour, that were once attached to ships of the Mongolian invasion fleets. The Hakata Historical Museum is also situated in the shrine grounds, which are pretty and well-kept. There is lots of shopping and many food stalls to enjoy in the area and the shrine complex is great for a stroll, a rest, some meditation and some historical sightseeing.

Dazaifu

Address: Fukuoka

In the northern part of Kyushu Island, in southwestern Japan, lie the ruins of Dazaifu, a city that during the 1st century was the seat of government for the island and first line of defence against threat from the East Asian countries. The walled city once stood in open fields, but now the ruins on the southern slopes of Mount Ono are surrounded by modern Dazaifu, and the valued historic site has been turned into a park. Apart from the interesting ruins, Dazaifu also boasts one of Japan's most important shrines. The Dazaifu-tenmangu Shrine is dedicated to a great scholar named Sugawara Michizane, who died in the year 903 and subsequently became revered as a deity because of his wisdom. The shrine is now a place of pilgrimage for students from all over the country, especially when examination season comes around. The approach to the shrine is lined with teahouses specialising in a local rice cake delicacy, which is believed to keep illness at bay. The ancient Komyozenji Temple, situated close to the shrine, is also worth a visit, mainly for the stunning gardens, which are particularly beautiful in the autumn when the leaves turn a magnificent array of colours.

Mount Aso

Address: Fukuoka

The composite active volcano of Mount Aso lies almost in the centre of Kyushu Island and is Japan's largest active volcano and among the largest in the world. Mount Aso also boasts one of the world's largest caldera (volcanic depressions), which stretches about 11 miles (18km) from east to west and 15 miles (24km) from north to south. Inside the caldera are five volcanic peaks: Mount Neko, Mount Naka, Mount Eboshi, Mount Taka and Mount Kishima. Mount Naka is still active and regularly emits smoke and ash. The rest of the landscape inside the caldera is beautifully green and grassy, grazed by cows and horses and inhabited by about 50,000 people in several towns and villages, seemingly not perturbed by living inside a volcanic crater. In the city of Aso there is a museum dedicated to the volcano which is worth visiting for those interested in the region's remarkable geology. At the museum visitors can watch presentations about Aso in addition to viewing a live image from a camera positioned at the active crater site. There is a cableway up to the Mount Aso crater lake, called the Mount Aso Ropeway, which allows visitors to see the steaming turquoise water up close, but when the sulphur level rises too high the site is closed as the fumes can become toxic.

Nagasaki

Address: Fukuoka

The beautifully situated port city of Nagasaki lies at the southern end of Kyushu Island, 95 miles (152km) southwest of Fukuoka. Nagasaki was open to the world for centuries between 1639 and 1859 while the rest of Japan was secluded from foreign contact by governmental decree. The exposure to foreign cultures has left the city with a sophisticated and liberal air that makes it popular for tourists, enhanced by the many attractions in the city itself and surrounding prefecture. Feudal castles, samurai houses, smoking volcanoes, hot spring baths, rugged offshore islands, beautiful beaches and friendly people are all here to be enjoyed. The most important site in the city is the Peace Park (Heiwa Koen), commemorating Nagasaki's darkest hour on 9 August 1945, when a nuclear bomb intended to be dropped on the Mitsubishi Shipyards exploded instead over the Urakami district, killing approximately 80,000 people. A black stone column marks the blast's epicentre, alongside the Atomic Bomb Museum. Nagasaki has many attractions for visitors and one of the most popular short excursions is a boat trip to the spooky Hashima Island, once a coal mining facility but now called the 'lost island' and completely uninhabited and covered in ruins.

Historical Village

Address: Konopporo 50-1, Atsubetsu-chyo Sapporo

This impressive and entertaining outdoor museum village, depicting Hokkaido life in days of old, is situated in Sapporo at Atsubetsu Ward in a corner of the Hokkaido Nopporo Forest Park. The site features restored or recreated buildings from the Meiji and Taisho periods, and includes edifices like the old Sapporo railway station, old Otaru newspaper company buildings, fishermen's cottages, mountain villas and the like. Horse-drawn trolleys run through the village and in winter horse-drawn sleighs carry visitors around the site. The historical village is a popular and worthwhile attraction which is fun to explore and should entertain the whole family for a few hours.

For those particularly curious about the local culture and history of the area, and who enjoyed the historical village, it is also interesting to pop into the Hokkaido Ainu Centre which is a free attraction a little further out of Sapporo. The Ainu people, with their unique culture, have lived on the island of Hokkaido for hundreds of generations. The Ainu Centre details the history and culture of the island's indigenous people using interesting exhibits and demonstrations and makes the perfect companion attraction for the historical village.

Sapporo Beer Museum

Address: 9-1-1 Kita 7-Jo Higashi, Higashi-ku, Sapporo 065-0007, Hokkaido Sapporo

For beer lovers, a visit to the beer museum in the historic Sapporo Brewery building is a must, together with a tour of the brewery itself, which, of course, ends with a tasting. The red brick brewery building was opened first as a sugar factory in 1876, and has been the home of Japan's famous beer since 1887. One-hour tours are conducted at 15-minute intervals every day throughout the year; however, these are in Japanese only. It is possible to book in advance and request an English interpreter and the people at the front desk will happily provide an English leaflet detailing a brief history of Sapporo beer. Despite the fact that the exhibits are almost totally in Japanese it is still interesting to see the old photographs, memorabilia and visual evolution of the brand. There are lockers at the entrance so you don't have to carry stuff around and there is a little gift shop for souvenirs.

Mount Moiwa

Address: Sapporo

Fondly known as Sapporo's 'backyard ski resort' Mt Moiwa offers 10 different courses for all grades of skiers from beginners to advanced. There are fun family slopes and a children's play area as well as some more challenging options; advanced skiers may find it a bit too friendly but all levels are ultimately catered for. It is possible to rent all the equipment you might need. Most of the slopes are well lit to enable visitors and locals alike to enjoy the fun of night skiing, taking in the breathtaking view of the city as they fly down the sparkling slopes under the stars. There is an observatory on the mountain which can be reached by cable car, and even if you have no intention of skiing it is worth a trip up to this platform to enjoy the incredible views. There is also a restaurant, a souvenir shop and some tributes to lovers including a bunch of love locks (padlocks bearing the initials of couples and locked to signal eternal love). The best time to go up the ropeway is in the evening so that you can enjoy the daytime views of the slopes and city, and stay as darkness descends to see the city light up beneath you. The cableway may stop running in bad weather but is usually operational.

Noboribetsu

Address: Sapporo

The famous hot-spring resort of Noboribetsu Onsen is situated inside the Shikotsu-Toya National Park. The spa complex is one of many found in Hokkaido, but being closest to Sapporo is very popular. Hot mineral springs gush out about 10,000 tons of water a day, and it is said to have healing properties for a range of disorders. There are more than 30 hotels and bath houses grouped together along a narrow street along with shops, souvenir stores and whatever else visitors may need. The street itself is not particularly picturesque but the natural surroundings are beautiful, with the hot water originating in the sulphuric volcanic springs above the resort. The area is also known for its cherry trees, which make a stunning sight in spring, and there are some worthwhile hiking trails in the park. If you're after luxury you can find high-end accommodation and spa treatments that are some of the best in the country but there are also cheaper options for those travelling on a budget. It is possible at some spots to bathe in the natural springs outdoors, which is the most atmospheric option. The springs are a popular excursion from Sapporo and the trip can easily be made in a day, which is all you need to enjoy the relaxing hot water.

Tokyo Tower

Address: 4-2-8 Shiba-Koen, Minato-ku Tokyo

Admission: Main Observatory: JPY 900 Adults; JPY 500 junior high and primary school students; JPY 400 children. Daily 9am-11pm. The Special Observatory is currently closed for renovations.

Telephone: 03 3433 5111

The Tokyo Tower is modelled in the vein of the Eiffel Tower in France, only in true Japanese style, it is more colourful and serves a technological purpose. Tokyo Tower functions chiefly as a television and radio antenna but it is also Tokyo's premier landmark and a proud symbol of Japanese culture, celebrating the country's industrial and technological success. At 1,091 feet (332m) it is the tallest structure in Tokyo and a great vantage point from which to take in the city. There are two observation decks in the tower, both with magnificent 360° panoramic views. Admiring the city from this high vantage point is only one aspect of the tourist's experience at the tower, however. At the base of the tower, tucked snugly under its 'legs', is the four-storey FootTown. Inside FootTown visitors will find shops, restaurants, a wax museum, the Guinness Book of World Records Museum, an aquarium and the Mysterious Walking Zone, a fascinating display of holographic technology and imagery. The top floor of FootTown is an interactive art gallery, featuring optical illusions which can be manipulated by visitors. There is lots to see and do and the Tokyo Tower should delight people of all ages.

Meiji Jingu

Address: 1-1 Yoyogi-Kamizono-cho, Shibuya-ku Tokyo

Admission: Daily from sunrise to sunset. Hours vary month to month.

A hop, skip and jump away from the Harajuku Station, the Meiji Jingu is an easily accessible shrine and worthwhile stop for tourists in Tokyo. Built in homage to the Emperor Meiji and his wife, the Empress Shoken, this monument is located in a 175 acre (70ha) evergreen forest and consists of two main areas. In the inner Naien there is a garden featuring shrine buildings and a treasure museum holding articles belonging to the Emperor and Empress. In the outer cloister, the Gaien, the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery presents murals depicting significant events during the Meiji rule. It also consists of a sports arena, the National Stadium, and the Meiji Memorial Hall, which was an important political meeting place during the Meiji era. Today traditional Shinto weddings are held in the Hall and newcomers to Japan are always intrigued when witnessing the unique Shinto wedding procession. The lush grounds are wonderful to explore early in the morning when they are peaceful and empty, and the gardens provide sanctuary from the busy city at any time of day. There is a lot to see and do in the complex, which can easily take a few hours to explore properly and should delight the whole family.

Minamiza Kabuki Theatre

Address: 198 Nakanomachi Yamatooji Nshi-iru, Shijo Ohashi, Higashiyama-ku Kyoto

Kabuki is a traditional Japanese dance-drama known for its stylised take of performance and the elaborate make-up worn by some performers. It is a very old art form, which had its golden age in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Today it is the most popular style of traditional Japanese drama and its star actors can be seen in television and film roles as well as on the stage.

While there are many wonderful places in Japan to view Kabuki theatre, the Kyoto Minamiza Theatre is one of the principal venues for such performances and a major hub for the art form. The building itself is an architectural wonder, built in a traditional style in 1929, on the edge of the Geisha district of Gion. Visitors can pay to see individual acts of plays or to see the entire performance. Because the theatre has become popular among tourists, an English voice-over or purchasable programme explains the show to foreigners. A trip to the theatre is a fascinating cultural experience and shouldn't be missed by any tourists with an interest in theatre and Japanese culture. For the uninitiated, one act is generally enough. It is often best to begin with an individual act and then book for a full performance if you enjoy it.

Tokyo Joypolis

Address: 1-6-1 Daiba Minato-ku Tokyo Tokyo

Admission: Adult: JPY 800. Children: JPY 500. 10am to 10pm.

Telephone: +81 3 5500 1801

Every child's dream come true, Tokyo Joypolis will thrill and entertain children of all ages. Offering rides, games and much more, kids will be kept busy for hours on end in one of the world's most famous theme parks and enjoy rides such as Geikon Live Coaster and games such as Halfpipe Tokyo, Let's Go Jungle and The House of the Dead. There is also a 3D cinema, a caricature booth and a stage for live entertainment. Apart from all the rides and games there are several shops and a wide selection of restaurants to choose from (visitors should note that they can't take any food or beverages into the park with them). The park is lots of fun, even for adults, and its reputation is justified; however, although Joypolis once seemed almost futuristic, with groundbreaking forms of entertainment and gaming, the rest of the world has since caught up and things like 3D cinema are no longer as novel as they once were. Despite this, the park provides hours of entertainment for the whole family and is a wonderful attraction for a rainy day. The queues can get frustratingly long so it is best to go during the week, either early in the morning or in the evening.

Nanbantei

Address: 4-5-6 Roppongi, Minato-ku Tokyo

Food Type: Japanese

This well-known establishment has become something of a tourist landmark in Roppongi, probably because of its delicious yakitori fare and reasonable prices. Yakitori is the Japanese version of the barbecue, with chicken, beef, pork or fish kebabs grilled over oak coals, served with large bowls of crudité vegetables like crisp raw cabbage, carrots and courgettes. Nanbantei offers bargain lunch menus and specialities like namban-yaki (grilled beef dipped in hot miso) and asapura-maki (green asparagus wrapped in thinly sliced pork). Open for dinner only, Monday to Saturday, with the last order at 10.30pm.

La Tour D’Argent

Address: New Otani Hotel, 4-1 Kioi-cho, Chiyoda-ku Tokyo

Food Type: French

Decidedly opulent, the lavish La Tour D'Argent, like its famous sister in Paris, sets the standard for French haute cuisine. The high standard of the food and décor is only matched by the prices in this celebrated establishment situated in the New Otani Hotel. The house speciality is the duck, specially flown in daily from Brittany in France. Other highlights on the menu are pigeon and fricassee of lobster. It is all prepared by chefs trained at the Paris restaurant and an impressive wine list accompanies the outstanding menu, which changes seasonally. Closed Mondays. Dinner only. Reservations essential and dress code is jacket and tie.

What the Dickens?

Address: 4th Floor, Roob 6 Building, 1-13-3 Ebisu-Nishi, Shibuya-ku Tokyo

Food Type: British

Good old English steak and kidney pie in the heart of Japan? Charles Dickens himself would feel at home in Tokyo's British pub which serves up a variety of ales and a down-to-earth atmosphere helped along with wooden beams, sprung floors, hand-painted pub signs and dried hops. What the Dickens? also offers live music every night of the week. The menu is reasonably priced and consists of several traditional British favourites such as cottage pie, accompanied by heaps of potatoes and vegetables. Closed Mondays.

La Granata

Address: TBS Garden building, basement, 5-1-3 Akasaka Tokyo

Food Type: Italian

The twin restaurants of La Granata and Granata Moderna are situated in the basement of the Tokyo Broadcasting Systems building, but the Italian cuisine on offer is top level. La Granata offers a traditional ambience with check tablecloths and brickwork, while Granata Moderna is elegantly modern with mirrors and stained glass. Both offer delicious pasta specialities.

Tonki

Address: 1-1-2 Shimo-Meguro, Meguro-ku Tokyo

Food Type: Japanese

It is worth waiting in line to sample the fare at Tokyo's most renowned tonkatsu (deep fried pork) outlet. Waiters take orders while patrons queue for a spot at the well-worn Formica-topped tables, watching the hustle and bustle of the dozens of busy cooks in action. The reward is delectable treats like hirekatsu (fillet of lean pork) reishoki, or rosukatsu (loin cut), crunchy on the outside and melt-in-the-mouth tender on the inside, or perhaps a tasty kushikatsu (skewered meat with onions). Tonki is closed Tuesdays and the third Monday of every month.

Roti

Address: Piramide Building, 1F, 6-6-9 Roppongi, Minato-ku Tokyo

Food Type: American

Roti serves some of Tokyo's most authentic American grill and rotisserie cuisine. The ambience is relaxed and causal, the waitstaff friendly and helpful, and the food delicious! Many expats frequent this eatery due to its wide selection of beers and old favourites such as the deluxe blue cheese burger, char-grilled steaks and sticky Shanghai style pork ribs and the classic Mexican tortillas and jalapeno cheese dip. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Booking recommended.

No vaccination certificates are required for entry to Japan. Long-term travellers, staying for more than a month in rural areas, should consider getting a Japanese encephalitis vaccination if they are travelling between the months of June and September. Medical facilities are very good in Japan, but medical assistance can be very expensive and visitors have to pay the whole cost upfront. Travellers should ensure that they have adequate medical insurance before travelling. Vicks inhalers and other common medications used for allergies and sinus problems are banned under the strictly enforced anti-stimulant drugs law, and visitors are advised to check with the Japanese embassy if in doubt. It is always best to take prescribed medications with you when you travel, in the original packaging and with a signed and dated letter from your doctor detailing what the medication is and why you need it.

The Japanese are formal and reserved and visitors are expected to behave politely. Their system of etiquette is one of the most complex in the world, with a strict code of conduct for almost every situation. It is important to avoid causing 'loss of face' by insulting or criticising someone in front of others. Bowing is the customary greeting.

Tips and bargaining are not expected in Japan; in fact, tipping is usually considered almost rude and shouldn't be attempted.

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