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With all the contrasts of this complex culture, what should you see and do on your trip to Japan?
Here are a few places we recommend for first-time travelers.
Meiji Shrine (Tokyo) - Located in the Shibuya neighborhood, the Meiji Shrine honors the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji (Japan’s 122nd emperor, who opened Japan to the west after a long isolation) and Empress Shoken. Formally dedicated in 1920, the original Shinto shrine buildings were burned during the war, then rebuilt in 1958. The shrine complex is composed of two parts: Naien, which houses a treasure museum of articles from the Emperor and Empress, and Gaien, which includes a gallery and sports facilities. The entrance’s torii gate is made from 1,500-year-old cypress, and the area is planted with over 100,000 trees. Learn more about the Emperor and Empress before you go; they were well-known for their progressive views, as well as their life-long dedication to writing Waka poetry.
The Samurai Museum - Located in Shinjuku, the Samurai Museum showcases over 700 years of samurai history. Permanent exhibits include clothing and weapons, all in a small but beautiful space. Visitors can explore the museum on their own; the museum is laid out in chronological order, with captions in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean. There are also guided tours available approximately every 20 minutes. Visitors can try on samurai clothing (battle coats, helmets, and kimono) and take photos while wielding a sword. There are also live performances every day, samurai calligraphy lessons, and a sword lecture.
The Ghibili Museum - Studio Ghibli is a world-renowned, groundbreaking animation studio with many beloved films, including Spirited Away (which won the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2003), My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle. The museum is a place of pilgrimage for Studio Ghibli fans. The museum has a cat bus replica (from Totoro), a theater, cafe, bookstore, rooftop garden, and plenty of interactive options for kids.
Kinkakuji - Most people travel to Kinkakuji, a Buddhist temple in northern Kyoto, for the beautiful Golden Pavilion. But you should also take a walk through its Japanese strolling garden (kaiyu-shiki-teien). This garden showcases natural and man-made design via a pond that reflects the golden pavilion. The landscape is also structured to represent famous places in Japanese literature. It is based on the minimalist Muromachi period of garden design.
Heian-jingu - At just over 100 years old, the Heian-jingu Shinto shrine is relatively new. Ogawa Jihei (1860-1933), created the beautiful, surrounding Shin’en Garden, a quiet leafy space where, if you visit in spring, has the best cherry blossom viewing spots in Kyoto. The shrine was built to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto. The strolling garden features a pond, dragon stepping stones, and a covered wooden bridge adorned with a phoenix.
Todai-ji Temple - Just one hour from Kyoto, Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 - 784 AD. The Todai-ji Temple complex. a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains the world’s largest wooden structure, which was built in 743. Within the temple complex, the Great Buddha Hall houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha. It’s known as Daibutsu, and was originally cast in 749. Visitors can also explore the Todai-ji Museum, the Bell Tower, smaller temples, a cultural center, and more. Note that small deer roam the grounds at will, and are believed within the Shinto religion to be messengers of the gods—today, they are considered national treasures. During a visit, be sure all bags are tightly closed and nothing is sticking out of your pockets or hands. The deer are quite adventurous and boldly seek out food. What you think might be a barrier (such as a zipper) may not be much of a deterrent to them! Special deer crackers are available for purchase and offer a great opportunity to grab a selfie with these adorable ambassadors.
Peace Memorial Park - Located in what was once the city center, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum is an important part of Japanese history. After an atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945, the area was burned, flattened, damaged, and vaporized. This UNESCO World Heritage Site seeks to educate visitors about this horrific event, as well as the damaging after-effects suffered by victims. The museum also places great emphasis on peace and understanding of the past through its exhibits, park, and the Peace Database. The park features the Children’s Peace Monument (also called the Tower of a Thousand Cranes), which is a beautiful area that includes millions of origami paper cranes.
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Miyajima - Located in Hiroshima Bay, the island of Miyajima is known for its beautiful forests, historic temples, and “floating” torii gate. This island, also known as the Island of the Gods, is one of the most beautiful places in Japan and is part of Setonaikai National Park. The Shinto Itsukushima Shrine, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, was established in the 6th century. The shrine is most famous for its red torii, or gate, that appears to float during high tide. The first gate was built in 1168, but being made of wood, there have been a number of replacements over the years. The current gate dates back to 1875. On the island, you’ll find other shrines and temples as well as beautiful maple trees. If you visit in the fall, be sure to plan a trip here to see the autumnal colors. Whenever you visit, partake in delicious pastries stamped with (or in the shape of) a maple leaf. As in Nara, watch for the deer, which are sacred and can be quite bold.
Read More: The Best Japanese Islands to Explore
Kanazawa is one of the best-preserved Edo-period cities in Japan where you will find many wonderful temples, shrines, and museums in a compact central area. Be sure to visit city’s historic teahouse and geisha district, as well as the Nagamachi Bukeyashiki samurai district, the bustling Omicho Market, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, and Myoryu-ji (the Ninja Temple). You can also explore the remains of the Takeda Shrine, dedicated to a revered local samurai.
Kenroku-en - Located just outside the gates of Kanazawa Castle, this ancient garden is considered one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan (the other two are Koraku-en in Okayama and Kairaku-en in Mito). The garden was initially developed in the mid-1600s and features a pond, waterways, teahouse, pagoda, the oldest fountain in Japan, and a flower viewing bridge. It is also known as the Garden of the Six Sublimities.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is an isolated mountain village located in central Japan’s Sho River Valley, where nature reigns supreme. The area offers gorgeous wintry scenes, an abundant hanami (cherry blossom) season, green summers, and beautiful fall colors that illuminate the importance of the changing seasons to locals. Ogi-machi Gassho Style Village showcases historic buildings dating from the 1800s. They have steeply sloped thatched roofs, which resemble two hands meeting in prayer. These roofs were designed to withstand the weight of winter’s heavy snow. The attics are typically utilized as work spaces, often as a space for breeding silk worms. While there, wander the Gasshozukuri Minkaen Outdoor Museum, which is comprised of 26 buildings, including a watermill, shrine, and temple. Also, visit the Tajima House Museum of Silk Culture, located in a gassho-style building dedicated to silk farming.
One of the best places in Japan for art lovers, the art island of Naoshima is home to a large collection of contemporary art museums, galleries, exhibits and installations. Benesse House (also home to Naoshima’s most noteworthy hotel) features works by an impressive collection of artists, including Hiroshi Sugimoto, Gerhard Richter, Shinro Ohtake, Richard Long, David Hockney, and many more. The gorgeous Chichu Art Museum was designed by Tadao Ando to let in an abundance of natural light, and features a small but impressive collection of works by artists including Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria. The Art House Project is a collection of abandoned houses and workshops, as well as a temple and a shrine, that have been converted into venues and art installations for artists from Japan and around the world.