On this brand-new voyage through one of Japan's least-developed islands, you'll be surrounded by wildlife as you search for Japanese pygmy-woodpeckers, white-tailed eagles, Eurasian bullfinches, and iconic red-crowned cranes; and explore spectacular Shikotsu-Toya National Park.
A look into the rich culture of Japan and South Korea
If you have any interest in culture or history, Japan is a truly fascinating destination to visit. This island nation holds on tightly to its ancient traditions, yet still manages to keep up (and often lead the way) with modern advances in technology and fashion.
From its vibrant cities to its sacred shrines and temples, Japan harmoniously blends the old with the new. Visitors can stay connected to the world digitally while also escaping to the country’s breathtakingly beautiful gardens and natural attractions. These are just a few of the reasons nearly 30 million people visit the country every year.
Thankfully, it has never been easier to dive into the history and culture of Japan first hand, and the best way to explore the island is via a small ship cruise. Here’s a look at some of the hidden gems travellers take in on Zegrahm’s Treasures of Japan With South Korea expedition, which includes a stopover in the South Korean city of Gyeongju.
JAPAN’S ANCIENT TEMPLES, SHRINES & CASTLES
Nijo Castle- With its impressive moat, colossal stone walls, and intricate gates, Kyoto’s Nijo Castle is a sight to behold. Visitors will enjoy viewing the castle’s nightingale floors and beautifully painted screen masterpieces depicting tigers, flowers, and birds. Founded in 1601 by the great Tokugawa Ieyasu, the castle may be missing its main tower, but what remains has been left well preserved.
Kinkaku-ji- Also found in Kyoto is the Zen Buddhist temple known as the Golden Pavilion Temple. The temple is one of Japan’s biggest tourism draws, and for good reason. The impressive structure is covered in gold leaf (right down to its floors) and set against a picturesque, snow-covered backdrop in winter and a lush green landscape in summer. The site has survived several fires during its history, and today offers visitors beautiful photo opportunities of the temple reflected off the pond on which it is located.
Heian-jingu Shrine- One of Kyoto’s most important Shinto shrines is marked by a 25-meter high torii, or gate. Heian-jingu was constructed in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto becoming the capital of Japan. (The country’s current capital may be Tokyo, but Kyoto held the title from 794 to 1868.) The shrine’s cherry blossoms really come to life around April each year, and captivate visitors and locals alike.
Sanjusangen-do Temple- Founded in 1164, this Buddhist temple is known for its 1,000 life-sized Thousand Armed Kannon sculptures, which are made of Japanese cypress dressed in gold leaf. At 120 meters long, the temple is Japan’s longest wooden building. The temple is considered one of Japan’s national treasures and is located opposite the Kyoto National Museum.
Itsukushima Shrine- Found on Miyajima or “Shrine Island,” this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you’ll find an iconic, 60- ton torii which looks as though it is floating upon the sea during high tide. During low tide, visitors can walk through the gate, which is said to mark the boundary between the spirit and human worlds. Living up to its nickname, Miyajima also features the Toyokuni Shrine (with its five-storied pagoda) and the Benzaiten Daiganji Temple.
Tokoji Temple- Offering a serene and spiritual atmosphere, this temple is located in mystical woods. The site also acts as a graveyard for many of the Mori clan daimyo (feudal lords) who governed Honshu’s west from Hagi during the Edo Period. Be sure to check out the rooftop gargoyles, known as Onigawara, and the numerous stone lanterns.
Matsue Castle- One of Japan’s last remaining medieval castles, Matsue’s dark exterior led to its nickname– the Black Castle– and dates back to 1611 AD. Cruise the castle’s moat by riverboat, where you’ll be taught about the area’s history, or head inside the castle to see its museum and many ancient artefacts on display.
HIROSHIMA & PEACE MEMORIAL PARK
Hiroshima became the first city in the world to be hit with a nuclear attack when the United States dropped an atomic bomb there in retaliation for Japan’s Pearl Harbor bombings during WWII.
Located in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the Genbaku Dome (now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome) memorializes the 140,000+ people that tragically lost their lives in the devastating attack.
The dome was the only structure left standing in the vicinity of the bomb’s main impact zone. The area surrounding it has been transformed from a disaster site into a picturesque park devoted to peace, located right alongside the Motoyasu River.
JAPANESE GARDENS & OTHER NATURAL AREAS
Koraku-en Garden- Located in Okayama, Koraku-en is one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens. Visitors can walk its trails around ponds, along streams, and up to lookout points where they can get a glimpse of Okayama Castle. They’ll also find an archery range, crane aviary, and rice fields there. The 17th-century garden is known as the “garden of pleasure after,” symbolizing the importance of a leader putting their people’s needs before their own.
Beppu- Beppu is famous for its numerous onsens, or hot springs. Visitors will encounter the eight hells of Beppu, which are geothermal hot spots where they can enjoy warm baths, mud baths, sand baths, and steam baths. Head to the Tadewara Wetlands to seek out birds, endangered wildflowers, and the racoon-like tanuki. You can also check out the Takasakiyama Monkey Park, home to over 1,000 wild Japanese monkeys that live on the 628-meter Mt. Takasaki.
Akiyoshi-do- This 300 million-year-old limestone cave is 10 kilometers long, with ceilings that reach nearly 80 meters in height. Visitors enter Japan’s largest and longest limestone cave via three designated entrances. From there, they can either follow the normal hike through the caves or opt for a more adventurous option.
Kenroku-en Garden- Beautiful during any season, Kenroku-en is another of Japan’s Three Great Gardens. It is a masterpiece of a garden, which took the Maeda clan nearly two centuries to create. Visitors will be greeted by the garden’s 2-meter tall Kotojitoro Lantern, which has become the symbol of the garden. They can also see several fountains and waterfalls around the garden’s ponds, which include Hisagoike and Kasumigaike.
Toki Forest Park- Located on Sado Island, this park is dedicated to the endangered Japanese crested ibis or toki. The birds became extinct throughout Japan in 2003, but a captive breeding program (using individuals gifted from China) has seen them returned to the island’s rice fields. Learn about these beautiful birds via the park’s museum and catch a glimpse of them in a semi-natural enclosure.
JAPANESE POTTERY & ART MUSEUMS
Hagi- This small town is home to one of Japan’s most famous forms of pottery, known as Hagiyaki Pottery. The skills needed for crafting the iconic pottery were introduced from Korea during the 1600s, and have always been greatly prized. Be sure to pay the Yoshika Taibi Memorial Museum a visit: There you can take in its expansive collection of Hagiyaki Pottery, see how it’s made, and purchase examples to take back home.
Adachi Museum of Arts- Founded in 1980, this isn’t your average art museum. The Adachi is renowned for its beautiful garden, for which it has received numerous awards. The museum also contains a wealth of 20th-century paintings and art, including prized ceramics. You’ll see a large collection of work by famed Japanese painter Yokoyama Taikan, a.k.a. Sakai Hidemaro.
Benesse House Museum- This museum blends nature, art, and architecture, all under one roof. Part hotel, part museum, the Benesse House overlooks the Seto Inland Sea and exhibits paintings, sculptures, photography, and installations in an expansive collection that spreads across four buildings.
Chichu Art Museum- Considered by many to be one of the world’s finest contemporary art museums, the Chichu Museum lies mostly underground. It offers visitors an opportunity to view works from revered artists such as Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria in a surprisingly abundant amount of natural light.
MORE CULTURE IN GYEONGJU, SOUTH KOREA
South Korea is best known for its bustling modern cities, like Seoul. But the country is also home to historically and culturally rich cities, such as Gyeongju.
Known as “the museum without walls,” the coastal city was the ancient kingdom of Silla, which ruled the majority of the Korean peninsula for roughly a millennium. At one time it ranked among the largest cities in the world. The Gyeongju Historic Areas were selected as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2000, and offer visitors a glimpse into South Korea’s rich culture.
The city offers incredible Buddhist art and archaeological wonders. You can explore eco-friendly traditional houses and try some traditional South Korean cuisine.
Craftier individuals can try their hand at glassmaking or pottery by way of classes and workshops. History buffs will want to check out the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, which is home to the remains of deceased kings and nobles of the Silla Kingdom.
Be on the lookout for Buddhist sculptures and temples such as Bulguksa, along with numerous pagodas along the way. –Megan Jerrard
BIO: Megan Jerrard is an Australian Journalist and the founder and Senior Editor of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe.