Japan, a land of mystery and wonder, has so much to offer curious visitors all year-round
1 Mount Fuji
Grabbing the perfect shot of the majestic snow-capped mountain, with its classically sweeping symmetrical volcanic sides, can become an obsession. While visible from the skyscrapers of Tokyo on a clear day, it’s necessary to get closer for a decent shot. Many tours go to Fifth Station, halfway up the mountain itself, which offers a good chance of a great angle, even on a not so clear day, and is also a starting point for walks to the summit to catch the sunrise. Being accessible by both car and train (the Fuji Subaru Line), it gets packed with tourists. Alternatively, head to Mount Arakura and the Sengen shrine. One of the most photographed views of Mount Fuji can be seen from here, including a glimpse of the shrine’s Chureito pagoda. The nearby beautiful town of Hakone offers yet more scenic opportunities to frame the mountain, including the chance to take a cruise on Lake Ashi for shots from the water.
Another former Japanese capital — back in the 8th century — Nara is often, and easily, visited alongside nearby Kyoto. The two combined offer a great introduction to traditional Japanese culture and tradition. The city is renowned for its pantheon of famous temple sites, of which two of the most impressive are Tōdai-ji, with its great ‘cosmic’ buddha or ‘Daibutsu’, and Kasuga Grand Shrine, with its vast array of 3,000 stone lanterns. Nara Park, which houses Kasuga, is a lovely place to wander around and take in its herds of free-roaming wild deer. Come on the fourth Saturday in January to the eastern side of the park to catch the spectacular annual Yamayaki festival, when the grass on Mount Wakakusayama is set ablaze.
This southerly island offers a refreshing contrast to ‘mainland’ Honshu and is a great place for exploration by train, with some excellent rail routes at visitors’ disposal. Options include the great value Limited Express services through to the luxurious Seven Stars scenic train service, which mixes ryokan stays and high-end dining with local excursions to highlights such as Mount Aso; historic Kumamoto, with its historic wooden houses and castle; and Nagasaki, home to an excellent museum commemorating the dropping of the atomic bomb on the city in 1945. From the amazing eateries of Fukuoka to the hot springs of Oita and Beppu, not forgetting the world-class pottery and sake distilleries in Saga prefecture, there’s plenty to see.
The former ‘thousand year old’ capital is a scenic bullet train ride from Tokyo or Osaka. Much of what a first time visitor craves can be experienced here, whether it’s taking snaps of trainee geisha bustling between historic wooden buildings, or experiencing a tea ceremony in Gion. Temples feature highly, not least the gold Kinkaku-ji and silver Ginkaku-ji, plus Fushimi Inari-taisha, where a seemingly endless corridor of lacquered ‘tori’ gates beckons towards the Inari mountains beyond, and Saihō-ji Zen Buddhist temple, with its moss-covered gardens. Families may appreciate the Kyoto Imperial Palace and the Manga Museum, before hitting Kyoto Tower for the views from the observation deck or taking in the futuristic exhibits at Kyoto Railway Museum. One of the best things to do is to just wander around, along routes such as the cherry tree-lined Philosopher’s Path or navigating the spectacular bamboo groves of Arashiyama.
Set in the mountains in Gifu prefecture, this fascinating little historic town, known by hikers as the gateway to the Japan Alps — three volcanic ridges forming the backbone of Honshu island — has become a go-to place for tour operators seeking to provide a glimpse of old world Japan. Takayama attractions include the Hindu Hida-Kokubunji temple and Sanmachi Suji district, with its old wooden merchants’ houses. Hida no Sato folk village is an open-air museum featuring traditional local thatched houses, more of which can be seen in situ in nearby Shirakawa-go, a World Heritage Site. If possible, time your visit to coincide with the colourful biannual Takayama Festivals, which celebrate the arrival of spring and autumn (April 14 and 15; October 9 and 10).
6 Hiroshima and Itsukushima
With its Peace Memorial Park — home to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the devastated Genbaku Dome or A-Dome — Hiroshima acts as a poignant reminder of the destructive forces of mankind and is a popular inclusion on tour itineraries. Hiroshima Castle and the local food — do sample okonomiyaki (pancake) on a stick — are also must-dos. But, for sheer majesty, venture offshore. Iconic Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island, with its famous gate appearing to float in the bay, is instantly recognisable, as is the temple itself with its lacquered vermillion, gated avenues. Hike along the forest paths on Mount Misen, marvelling at the views of the Seto Inland Sea, and catch the magical sunsets. Better still, opt for a scenic bay cruise and book into an island ryokan.
7 Nikko National Park
This popular area of Tochigi prefecture is renowned for its mountainous hiking trails, dramatic landscapes and natural beauty, while the city of Nikkō itself, which sits at the entrance to the park, is just two hours by train from Tokyo. The park’s features include Kegon Falls, Lake Chuzenji, where you can take a scenic cruise, and the sprawling Toshogu shrine complex, with its impressive Yomeimon Gate. The area is a popular spot for viewing autumn leaves (koyo) around early November and is home to some wonderful ryokan with onsen or hot spring baths. One of the best places to experience onsen is Oku-Nikko, a quiet town nearby, and home to excellent examples, such as Yumoto Onsen. Just watch out for the cheeky wild monkeys.