With a brand new year ahead of us, we often look forward to our paid vacations and summer getaways – ”I know I do. If Japan is a future destination of yours, I have some great advice and a list of must-see places.
First of all, if you’re a tourist, avoid traveling during New Years, Golden Week (beginning of May) and O’Bon Week (mid-August), those are the three weeks with the greatest air traffic, and accommodations will be difficult unless you book months in advance. Usually Golden Week and O’Bon Week are a time for the Japanese to make domestic and international travels visiting families, so if you can avoid traveling during this time, I would recommend it.
If you are traveling on a budget, staying at a hostel is extremely affordable (approx. $30 USD/ night). Despite the season, the prices remain roughly the same, so just book early. Also, most people have this notion that hostels are dirty and disgusting, but Japanese hostels are really clean with very informative and friendly staffs. Just don’t expect room service.
When you are traveling be sure to stop by an information booth. These booths are located basically everywhere at major station stops. These staffs have always helped me a tremendous amount when I was traveling around. They will often offer you English maps and directions, as well as inform you about discounted ways to travel. Big cities like Tokyo or Osaka would often have one-day railway passes, and Kyoto has a one-day bus pass. Simple things like these information booths will cover, so remember to stop by them.
Since I was on a working visa I could not purchase the Japan Rail Pass. This pass may appear expensive; however, if it is used wisely it will benefit you greatly and save you a lot of money. Basically, this pass allows you to board any railway system in Japan. Yes, this even includes the Shinkansen (bullet train). In some locations, this pass also covers taking the bus and boarding the ferry. If you are interested, take the time in reading about all the details on their website: www.japanrailway.net
And finally, if you have never seen an electronic toilet seat, you should probably avoid playing with the buttons on the side unless you know what the functions do. It may surprise you that there is a button that imitates a flushing noise and even a button to spray water in order to give you that extra clean. But if you are feeling brave and you want the full Japanese clean experience, I dare you to push the button.
Now here are the must-see places in Japan
Without a doubt, there is nothing like Tokyo. The train traffic is painfully heavy during rush hour, shopping is amazing, and the whole city just buzzes with life. Tokyo can speak for itself. So I will introduce my next recommendation: Nara Park.
Nara used to be the capital of Japan prior to Kyoto and Tokyo, so it is definitely a place to visit, especially since all the must-sees are in one convenient location: Nara Park which is located outside the Nara JR station. It will take one day to visit the seven sites within the park, including T?dai-ji Temple, which has one of the largest bronze Buddhas. The free-roaming deers are often amusing to tourists and you will even find stands that sell deer biscuits to feed them with.
Within less than an hour’s distance away, by train, lies Kyoto. Like I’ve mentioned earlier, the Kyoto bus pass is a convenient method to visit all the major must-sees within a day, and it’s less than $6 USD. My favorite temple by far is the Golden Pavillion. And my favorite shrine is Kiyumizutera shrine. Do you remember that last scene in “Memoirs of a Geisha” where the young Sayuri (aka Chiyo) runs down this long passage with endless orange arches? That’s the Kiyumizutera shrine. Speaking of geishas, Gion is my favourite place in Kyoto. It’s a very small area, only a few streets long. But the atmosphere makes one feel as if they are back in the days when the geishas graced others with their presence. Nowadays, travelers may see apprentice geishas out at Gion around dusk. This is perfect timing since the temples and shrine closes at 4 pm.
Lastly, I highly recommend going to Miyajima, an island only ten minutes away from Hiroshima by ferry. Miyajima is one of Japan’s most scenic places, not to mention, many tourists go to Miyajima just to see Itsukushima shrine. This shrine is most known for its floating torii gate. The best time to visit the shrine would be during high tide around 9 in the morning. Also Miyajima is well-known for its free-roaming deers that will be greeting you at the ferry port and its adorable monkeys on mountain tops. And for all seafood lovers, Hiroshima is famous for its oysters and the best oysters that I have ever eaten were from a vendor near the Itsukushima shrine. It was lemon-squeezed, sea-salted and grilled to perfection – ”absolutely delicious.
Now, when people travel they often sight-see, eat local cuisines and visit tourist attractions. However, if you plan to travel to Japan you cannot excuse yourself to miss one of Japan’s many festivals. No matter the season, no matter the location, there is always a festival happening somewhere in Japan. They are definitely a country who likes to celebrate, drink and be merry.
In the winter, they have Japan’s most gorgeous winter festival in Sapparo which begins in early February and lasts for a week. There are hundreds of ice sculptures and snow statues which become illuminated and are quite a sight to behold. Around the very same time on the other side of the country, Okayama has its Naked Man Festival. To simplify this festival, it is basically a large population of local men drinking huge quantities of sake and stripping down to their loincloths. In the realm of Shinto, there is probably a much more spiritual and religious purpose for this act. But for those fun-loving travelers looking for an unusual experience, the Naked Man festival is perfect for you.
In the spring, they have what seems to be an endless list of festivals. Just attending any one of them will give you an excellent Japanese experience.
In the summer look out for dance festivals, even look out to Japan’s smallest of the four main islands, Shikoku. Within the time span of one week, Shikoku hosts two of the most famous dance festivals: the Yosakoi in Kochi and the Awa O’dori in Tokushima. They are both very different from one another, the Yosakoi having more modern dance routines; but each festival has amazing credentials.
Like spring, autumn is a time to celebrate and there is another endless list of festivals everywhere. Autumn is a time for harvest so many cities hosts festivals to give thanks to the gods that have given them another prosperous year and to pray for another great harvest.
So dear reader, I hope you learned a lot about Japan and things to do and places to visit. You will probably have many more to add onto the list once you have your own Japan experience. Happy travels!