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Things to Do in Japan

In Japan, the past and the future are gloriously juxtaposed. Robots dance to techno beats in Tokyo; snow monkeys soak in hot springs in Yamanouchi; and geishas serve green tea ceremoniously in Kyoto. Tokyo, the Land of the Rising Sun’s capital, is the obvious starting point for any Japan trip. Must-do activities in and around the city include watching a cabaret show at the Shinjuku Robot Restaurant, witnessing an early-morning tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market, and taking a day trip to Hakone to gaze at the snow-capped peak of Mt. Fuji during a Lake Ashi cruise. Visit hundreds of UNESCO World Heritage–listed shrines and Buddhist temples in Nara; ski and snowboard on the frozen slopes of Hokkaido; or relax on white-sand beaches lapped by the Pacific Ocean in Okinawa. Super-speed bullet trains make ticking off less central cities such as Nagoya, Osaka, and Hiroshima (home to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park) possible on a day trip, while food tours of major cities showcase the best of local Japanese cuisine, from sushi to ramen and gyoza (dumplings). For the ultimate sensory banquet, take your Japan vacation during the sakura (cherry blossom) season between March and April, when the country is carpeted in pastel-pink blooms.
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Okayama Korakuen Garden
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One of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, Okayama Korakuen Garden was commissioned by regional ruler Tsunamasa Ikeda in 1686 and took over 14 years to complete. Today, the 13-hectare garden is a protected public park and retains its original appearance despite undergoing extensive restoration in the post-World War II years.

Its vast grassy lawn is Korakuen’s most unique attribute, but for many visitors, it’s the traditional Japanese features that draw the most attention, like the immaculately clipped bonsai trees, the blossom trees that bloom with color each spring and the network of water ways bridged by dainty stepping stones and narrow wooden footbridges. Climb to the top of the Yuishin-zan hill for a view over the garden and the neighboring Okayama Castle, gaze out over the central lake from the Enyo-tei tea house, then follow the walkways to discover the plum and cherry orchard, small tea plantation and rice field, and cages of rare red-crowned cranes.

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Yokohama Zoo ''Zoorasia''
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At Zoorasia, a zoo in Yokohama with minimal fencing, animals live in an environment as close to nature as possible. The zoo is divided into seven different geographic and climatic zones, including Asian Tropical Forest, Japanese Countryside, and Subarctic Forest, that house animals belonging to more than 100 species.

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Sengan-en Garden
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A UNESCO World Heritage Site garden that once belonged to the ruling Shimazu clan, the Sengan-en Garden in Kagoshima includes the Shoko Shuseikan Museum and the Iso Residence, used as a summer villa by the Shimazu family. The Japanese-style strolling garden, which dates from the mid-17th century, features streams, ponds, and shrines.

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Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine
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With a long history dating back to 1063, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is the most important Shinto shrine in Kamakura, and the spiritual and cultural heart of the city. Dedicated to Hachiman, the patron saint of samurais, the complex contains several shrines and museums, and is a popular venue for festivals, weddings, and other events.

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Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
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Few will forget the fateful events of Aug. 6, 1945, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city, effectively ending World War II and costing the lives of some 80,000 residents, and Hiroshima will forever be tied to its tragic past. Despite its losses, the overwhelming sentiment in Hiroshima is of peace and wandering around the poignant memorials and tributes is an emotional experience, made all the more powerful by the moving exhibitions at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

Both a fascinating insight into the pre-war city and a harrowing glimpse into the horrors of the bomb’s aftermath, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is surely one of Japan’s most important museums and it’s compelling, if uncomfortable, viewing. Exhibitions chronicle the lives of Hiroshima residents during World War II and after the bombing, and depict the graphic reality of the bomb’s destruction, while simultaneously retaining a sense of hope for the future through the rebuilding of the city and the consequent efforts for international peace.

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Zenkoji Temple
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In the year 642, Zenko-ji Temple was founded when one of the earliest Buddhist statues in Japan, brought over from the Korean Peninsula, was enshrined at the site. Today, the temple is one of the most important Buddhist sites in the country, as well as Japan’s third largest wooden structure, with the entire town of Nagano built up around it.

The structure as it stands today dates back to 1707 and contains a large hall displaying a variety of Buddhist statuary, a main alter and an underground passage beneath the alter where visitors can pass in complete darkness, feeling for a single key on the wall -- the key to paradise -- that’s believed to grand salvation to any who touch it.

Behind the main temple, a newer pagoda houses the Zenko-ji History Museum with its collection of statues of the Buddha and his disciples.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine (Fushimi Inari Taisha)
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One of Kyoto’s most sacred temples and among the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, the Fushimi Inari Shrine (Fushimi Inari Taisha) is dedicated to Inari, the God of rice. The shrine’s five magnificent temples lie at the foot of the Inari mountain, and thousands of red torii gates (the Senbon torii) mark the forested trails to the top.

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Shiraito Falls (Shiraito no Taki)
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Cascading from the spring waters of nearby Mount Fuji, Shiraito Falls is a wide waterfall standing 20 meters high. Located in Fujinomiya, it is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park and is a protected Japanese National Monument. It is is a tranquil natural space, unique in its 150 meter width, and is consistently ranked among the most beautiful waterfalls in Japan.

The water moves down the rocks and moss in thin streams resembling white silk, which is where the waterfall get its name. At the base is a deep blue pool of calm water that makes for excellent photographs. It is best to visit in the summer, when the greenery is lush and the falls are heavy with water melted from Mount Fuji snow. It’s also beautiful in the autumn season when the leaves change, but can be visited year-round.

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Fuji-Q Highland
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The Fuji-Q Highland amusement park enjoys an enviable setting near the base of Mount Fuji. Aside from its scenic setting, the park is best known for its record-setting roller coasters—four in total—that make it one of Japan’s most popular amusement parks.

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Narukawa Art Museum
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In a beautiful setting by Lake Ashinoko in Hakone, the Narukawa Art Museum Art holds a collection of more than 4000 Japanese (nihonga) paintings. Literally meaning ‘Japanese-style painting’, nihonga art follows traditional Japanese artistic conventions, and more recently has expanded to incorporate Western-style techniques too.

This is a small museum, yet each exhibition room has plenty of room for visitors to appreciate the art. In addition, there’s an impressive observatory lounge (and cafe) providing simply stunning panoramic views over Lake Ashinoko and the floating torii gate of Hakone Shrine from its huge glass windows. What’s more, on a clear day, the views extend to reveal the mighty Mount Fuji in the background.

There’s also a pleasant garden at the site, and don’t miss the museum’s unusual collection of kaleidoscopes.

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More Things to Do in Japan

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)

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With its gleaming gold tiers reflected in the lake below and a backdrop of forests and twisted pines, Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) is an enchanting sight. Dating back to the 14th century, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions and among Japan’s most visited temples.

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Pola Museum of Art

Pola Museum of Art

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Located within the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, the Pola Museum of Art opened in September 2002. This is the former head of the Pola group’s private collection, which features more than 9500 works of art, including many from the French Impressionism and École de Paris eras.

The museum sits within a forest of 300 year-old beech trees and is predominantly made up of glass, creating a sense of seamlessness with the natural environment that surrounds it. In addition, a large part of the building is located underground. The museum’s permanent collection includes works by artists such as Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, and Renoir, plus there are also modern temporary exhibits, with sculptures, ceramics, and glassware alongside paintings by both Japanese and European artists.

A museum cafe and restaurant gives visitors a chance to relax beside huge windows that open out onto lush green forest, and there’s also a 670-meter nature trail for those who wish to explore the forest further.

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Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

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The Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima commemorates the atomic bombing of the city at the end of World War II, in August of 1945. The park sits just below the site of the bomb’s mid-air explosion and includes the UNESCO-listed Atomic Bomb Dome, the Peace Memorial Museum, and many smaller memorials dedicated to affected groups of people.

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Iriomote Island

Iriomote Island

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Beautiful Iriomote Island is one of the most remote spots in the Japanese archipelago. Not a lot has changed on the island in recent decades, and 90 percent of it remains blanketed in jungle and mangrove forest, the abode of the rare Iriomote wildcat. While the interior of the island, the second largest of the Okinawa Islands, can be explored via kayak, riverboat or trek, the main draw for most of the island’s visitors are the colorful reefs covered in virgin coral that ring the island.

Snorkelers and divers who explore beneath the surface near Iriomote might spot dolphins and manta rays, who school along the aptly named Manta Way during the spring and summer.

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Kawaguchi-ko (Lake Kawaguchi)

Kawaguchi-ko (Lake Kawaguchi)

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Located near Mt. Fuji, Lake Kawaguchi is the most easily accessible and developed of the Fuji Five Lakes. A popular day trip from Tokyo, Lake Kawaguchi offers plenty of natural beauty, access to Mt. Fuji and a variety of outdoor activities, as well as proximity to hot springs, museums, and other tourist attractions and amenities.

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Gion Corner

Gion Corner

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Gion Corner is a convenient place for art lovers to visit while in Kyoto, as it brings seven traditional Japanese performing arts together under one roof. Attending one of its nightly performances is an ideal way to spend an evening in the heart of the Gion entertainment district while learning about traditional Japanese culture.

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Jigokudani Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen Koen)

Jigokudani Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen Koen)

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If you’ve been captivated by photos of furry macaques sitting in steaming hot water, surrounded by snow, head to the Jigokudani Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen Koen). Located in the Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park, in Nagano Prefecture, this is believed to be the only place in the world where monkeys bathe in hot springs

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Takayama Morning Markets (Asaichi)

Takayama Morning Markets (Asaichi)

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Each morning the historic city of Takayama hosts two morning markets. The smaller of the two takes place in front of Takayama Jinya and the larger — one of the best morning markets in Japan — takes place on the east bank of the Miya-gawa River in Old Town.

The morning market tradition dates back to the Edo Period, and modern day shoppers will find vendors selling fresh produce, local folk art, souvenirs, sweets, fresh milk and other traditional Japanese cooking ingredients, like miso. And while both markets remain open until around noon each day, they’re best visited around 6 am when they first open, as there’s an added energy in the air as vendors begin setting up their stalls and preparing their wares for the local early shoppers.

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Maruyama Park (Maruyama Koen)

Maruyama Park (Maruyama Koen)

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Set at the base of Maruyama Mountain in the western suburbs of Sapporo, Maruyama Park (Maruyama Koen) comprises 15 acres (6 hectares) of virgin and secondary forest filled with oak, magnolia, maple and Japanese katsura trees. Some 1,700 Hokkaido wild cherry trees also grow within the park, making it a particularly popular destination come springtime.

Predating the park itself is the Hokkaido Shrine, located at the north end of the park. Built in 1869, the shrine sees a steady stream of devotees, especially on New Year’s Day and the last day of winter, seeking the good graces of the four protective deities believed to be enshrined within.

Visitors to Maruyama Park will also find Maruyama Zoo on the grounds. The zoo houses around 200 species of plants and animals and includes a tropical bird aviary and an insect house.

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Todai-ji (Eastern Great Temple)

Todai-ji (Eastern Great Temple)

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Located in Deer Park (Nara Park) in Nara, about 35 minutes from Osaka by train, Todaiji Temple is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant Buddhist temples. Originally built in the year 752, the temple as it exists today dates back to 1709. The main hall, called Big Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden), is the world’s largest wooden building, even though it’s a third smaller than the original hall from the 700s.

The greatest attraction in the Todaiji Temple complex is the enormous bronze Buddha statue (Japan’s largest) housed with the massive main hall. When the temple was first built, Emperor Shomu planned for Todaiji to serve as the headquarters of Buddhism throughout Japan, and he ordered the casting of the statue as part of that plan. The 50-foot-tall (15-meter-tall) statue required eight castings to complete.

According to local legend, anyone able to squeeze through the hole in the pillar located behind the Big Buddha achieves enlightenment.

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Odawara Castle (Odawara-jo)

Odawara Castle (Odawara-jo)

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Towering on a stone foundation on a green hillside, the impressive Odawara Castle, with its five stories and three­-tiered roof, presides over a small grove of cherry trees that explode in pinks and whites come spring. Located an hour south of Tokyo and blocks from the sea in Hakone, the castle is perhaps the largest and best ­preserved example of a 15th­-century Japanese fortress in the area.

Behind two large decorative gates— Umadashi­mon and Akagane­mon—the castle complex spans multiple buildings and gardens while including moat­-like pools on two sides of the property. An onsite museum, inside the main castle tower, features artifacts, armor and weapons, as well as details of the castle’s storied history; the top floor affords views of Sagami Bay and the surrounding city. The castle was the built by the Omori Clan before changing hands in a late 16th­ century siege. The Okubo family, appointed to live there, ruled Odawara through nearly the entire Edo period before the castle went out of use in 1870.

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Asahiyama Zoo

Asahiyama Zoo

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Located on the island of Hokkaido, Asahiyama Zoo is the northernmost zoo in Japan. Known for its innovative enclosures, which are designed to resemble natural habitats and to showcase natural animal behavior, Asahiyama Zoo is one of the most popular attractions in the Asahikawa region and draws millions of visitors a year.

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Osaka Castle (Osaka-jo)

Osaka Castle (Osaka-jo)

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Among the most famous castles in Japan, Osaka Castle (Osaka-jo) dates back to the 16th century, when it played a major role in unifying the nation. Today the reconstructed castle houses a museum filled with artifacts from the history of Japan and from the castle’s creator, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The main tower provides a nice view over urban Osaka.

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Sannomachi Street (Sanmachi Suji)

Sannomachi Street (Sanmachi Suji)

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Take a walk down Sannomachi St (Kami Sannomachi) in Takayama’s old town, and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back into the Edo Period (1600-1868). This well-preserved portion of the historic city features traditional homes, merchant houses, sake breweries, shops and cafes — some of them have been operating for centuries.

Sake has long been an area specialty, and many of Takayama’s oldest sake breweries are congregated along Sannomachi St. Recognizable by the large globes of cedar branches (called sugidama) hung above the doors, these traditional breweries often welcome visitors to step in and sample the iconic Japanese beverage. Other points of interest along the street include the Hida Archeology Museum (Hida Minzoku Kokokan) and the Fujii Art Gallery, where visitors can browse exhibits showcasing folk art objects and household items from the Edo Period.

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