In the first installment of our “Itinerary”-series our On the Road editor Cathérine Mester offers a guide to her favourite places in Japan.
The Itinerary Volume 1: Japan
As I am writing this the sun is shining, and I can go to the library without looking as if I am off to an
Summer is off-season in Japan, most tourists go to see the cherry blossoms in spring, or the foliage in autumn. Also, it is unbearably hot. On the bright side, the sites are relatively uncrowded, and I can report that at some point you do get used to constantly being drenched in sweat and covered in mosquito bites. You start doing as the locals do and carry a parasol as well as a small towel to wipe the perspiration of your face, and drink buckets of Pocari Sweat (yes, that is the name) and silently thank the universe because none of your friends from home can see (or smell) you. I promise, it is really not as bad as it sounds. Also, you have an excuse to eat a lot of excellent Japanese ice cream (not that you need one).
No matter when you journey to the land of the rising sun, this is the route I would take:
Japan in two weeks: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka (day trips to Nara, Kobe, Mount Koya, Yokohama)
You will probably arrive at one of Tokyo’s airports, and Japan’s capital definitely deserves to be at the top of everyone’s itinerary. As the largest city in the world it is unsurprising that Tokyo has something for everyone, and you could easily spend all your time here. But then you would miss out on one of the biggest joys of travelling in Japan which is riding the famous shinkansen. As a tourist you can purchase rail passes which allow for unlimited rail travel on the bullet trains and most other Japan Rail lines and will save you a lot of money. The typical two-week itinerary is Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, which has a lot to recommend it. With Kyoto and Osaka you get two very different Japanese cities, one steeped in history and culture, the other a modern metropolis. The area also boasts a lot of other interesting places that you can easily reach by train including Nara and Kobe, and Mount Koya, with Yokohama accessible via metro from Tokyo.
Three weeks: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Takayama, Kanazawa, Nagasaki
If you have a little more time, I highly recommend visiting Takayama and Kanazawa on your way to Kyoto. They are both small towns with well-preserved Edo-period houses and temples, and are not as overrun as Kyoto, but no less attractive.
It might be a little strange to put Nagasaki on a three-week itinerary, since it takes quite a lot of time to get there from Kyoto and Osaka, but it was one of my favourite places to visit, and I would highly recommend it. From all the places I have been to, it stood out to me as a city that looked and felt distinctly different. Nagasaki’s long colonial history has left its mark on the architecture and led to a stunning blend of Dutch-style buildings and Ming-dynasty temples, interspersed with the modern concrete blocks found in all Japanese cities. Especially noteworthy is the Glover garden, a park built for a Scottish entrepreneur, which overlooks the city, the harbour and the bay.
Four weeks: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Takayama, Kanazawa, Nagasaki, Himeji, Kamakura, Ise, Miyajima
If you are in Japan for four weeks, good for you, because you can add even more wonderful places to your route. One I wouldn’t miss is Miyajima, an island near Hiroshima, that is very famous for the red torii gate that seems to float on the water at high tide. But the island offers much more than that. Like the park in Nara, it is populated by wild deer, who have no qualms about eating your map, your rail pass and your return ticket right out of your pocket, if you are not careful. If a serene spiritual site sounds like your thing, a trip to the Ise peninsula should be in order. Himeji is famous for its white castle, the largest, and allegedly one of the finest, in Japan and compact enough for a day trip. If at this point you have had enough of trudging around cities, a trip to Kamakura, Japan’s beach town, will be a welcome change. Here you can still get your culture fix by visiting the Daibatsu, or one of the many shrines, hike in the hills (beware of vipers), or sip lattes in one the hipster cafes in the cute town centre.
If you have more time:
All the places mentioned (except for Nagasaki) are on Japan’s main island Honshu, but there is much more to explore. If you have more time to spend, you could also visit the Aomori region north of Tokyo, or even Hokkaido, the northernmost island. You might also consider a trip to the tropical islands of Okinawa, although this would most likely require you travel by plane.
Of course, this itinerary is by no means exhaustive. Japan is full of magical places, some of which I did not have time to visit myself, many of which I have not even heard about. That is one of the wonderful things about this country, it is full of spectacles, full of understated marvels, always refreshingly unpredictable and never boring.
If you would like to write about a place you are passionate about, or an interesting travel experience you have had, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org