Top Places To Travel In Japan
The fascinating country is full of natural and historic landscapes, culinary experiences and adventures all just waiting to be explored.
Tokyo, the unique buzzing Japanese capital that merges modern boldness with tradition, has more than enough attractions, including some exciting new additions like the YOKU MOKU Museum and Miyashita Park. However, do yourself a favour and add some extra time to your schedule so you can discover the surrounding prefectures. Perfect for an overnight stay or a just a day trip, they offer some of Japan’s most exciting destinations. Whether it’s one of the country’s most beautiful gardens where you can experience the delight of plum blossoms or a UNESCO World Heritage site of exceptional natural and architectural splendor, there are several must-visit places within close reach to Tokyo. If you also want to become immersed in Japan’s obsession with ramen noodles or fancy a visit an historic Buddhist temple complex, then read on to find out more about all the Japanese National Tourism Organization-approved spots.
1. Kairakuen Garden, Ibaraki Prefecture
Visiting Japan for the annual cherry blossoms may be a bucket-list dream for many, however, before the cherries take centre stage, there are the spectacular plum blossoms to consider. Flowering from mid-February through to mid-March, plum blossoms herald the beginning of spring, and one of the most iconic places to enjoy them is Kairakuen Garden. This Ibaraki Prefecture gem is not only considered to be one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens, but also boasts around 3,000 plum trees of 100 different varieties. The result is a tapestry of pink and white-clouded tree tops, perfect for strolling through while enjoying the sweet plum-scented atmosphere and immaculately curated garden landscapes.
Tip: While you’re in Ibaraki Prefecture, head to the Fukuroda Falls, which is a 75-minute drive from Mito City. The breathtaking scenes offered by the four-tiered cascading waterfall, which is around 120 metres tall and 73 metres wide, will make it well worth the trip. Each season offers its own beautiful setting, for example in winter the waterfall freezes to create a stunning ice sculpture spectacle.
2. Nikko Toshogu, Tochigi Preferecture
If you’re on the hunt to discover the best traditional Japanese architecture, Nikko Toshogu is the place to do it. The elaborate shrine complex includes 55 buildings ornately crafted and beautifully set amongst a deep-green forest. The complex was created as the resting place for the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Its lavish designs and intricate wood carvings are second to none, resulting in the area becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site. The recently opened The Ritz-Carlton Nikko is in the area for visitors who are looking for a luxurious overnight stay. The rooms with private balconies are perfect for enjoying the stunning views of Lake Chuzenji and with Kegon Falls nearby, it’s a top option.
Tip: This is the top strawberry-producing area in Japan. When visiting Nikko, make time for a sweet treat and drop by the Nikko Strawberry Park. The park receives many international tourists annually and is famous for its 30 minutes all-you-can-pick and all-you-can-eat strawberry courses. As well as being delicious, strawberry picking, which can be enjoyed from the end of December right through to the end of May, is great fun, for adults and kids alike.
3. Naritasan Shinshoji, Chiba Preferecture
Visiting Naritasan Shinshoji, which is conveniently close to Narita airport, should be on the top of anyone who wants to catch a glimpse of historic Japan’s list. The expansive and highly popular Buddhist temple complex is located in Narita City and was founded in the year 940AD. It includes the temple's new and former main halls, a three-storied pagoda and a huge Tahoto style pagoda, named the Great Pagoda of Peace. The grounds also include a park, which features traditional Japanese and European elements. Part of the fun of visiting Naritasan is its one-kilometre approach called the ‘Omotesando’. It’s a lively street lined with numerous restaurants and stores, which have been selling traditional crafts, delicacies and souvenirs to pilgrims and tourists for centuries.
Tip: With easy access from downtown Tokyo and Narita airport, the Mitsui Outlet Park Makuhari is filled with duty-free shops and brand outlets offering excellent bargains, making it the ideal place for last minute shopping before leaving Japan. It is also conveniently connected directly to the airport by a 40-minute bus ride.
4. Kamakura & Hokokuji, Kanagawa Prefecture
Less than an hour south of Tokyo lies the historic coastal town of Kamakura. This Kanagawa Prefecture place of interest was once the political centre of Japan in the late 12th century. With its many historical sites, old residences, often renovated to restaurants and cafes, and curated gardens where you can enjoy seasonal flora, Kamakura offers a plethora of sightseeing and photography opportunities. What’s more, it’s where you have an opportunity to delve into Japan’s early history. The foremost attraction is naturally the bronzed Great Buddha of Kamakura, or Kamakura Daibutsu, which dates back to the 13th century. Standing at 13.35 metres, it is the second tallest bronze Buddha in Japan. As the country's largest outdoor Buddha, the statue is an iconic sight and one of the most visited tourist attractions in the Kanto area.
While in Kamakura, try to also visit Hokokuji, a small Zen temple, which has a three-star rating in the Michelin Green Guide Japan. It is best known for its grove of 2,000 green bamboo stalks. For a small fee of 300 yen (around US$3) visitors can navigate the narrow pathways that lead to a tea house. On arrival, relax and enjoy a cup of traditional matcha tea while soaking up the beauty.
Tip: A trip to Kanagawa Prefecture should also include the Ramen Museum in Shinyokohama, a 40-minute drive from Kamakura. Displays showcase the variety of noodles, broths, toppings and bowls used throughout the country, along with demonstrations on how the noodles are made. Nine ramen restaurants are located at the museum featuring different ramen tastes and traditions from various regions of Japan. Pork-free and vegetarian ramen menus are available.
5. YOKU MOKU Museum, Tokyo
Recently, the western-style confectionery company YOKU MOKU, which was established in 1969, has been making a name for itself in the Middle East for their exceptional cookies. The company is best known for their Cigare cookies, which are light textured roll shaped cookies highly appreciated as gifts, or for self-indulgence. And now fans can visit the YOKU MOKU MUSEUM, which was opened in October 2020 in the highly stylish Tokyo neighbourhood of Aoyama. Through various exhibitions, the museum showcases over 500 ceramic pieces of art created by Pablo Picasso, which were selected by the company’s Chairman, Toshiyasu Fujinawa. Spanning a period of 30 years, the YOKU MOKU collection is one of the best collections of its kind. Mixing art with the sweet life of confectionery, the museum’s Café Vallauris serves a limited series of mignardises, or bite-sized desserts, especially created for the museum, which cannot be experienced anywhere else in the world.
Tip: One of Tokyo’s latest urban developments is Shibuya’s Miyashita Park, which opened in July 2020.The trendy three-storey complex boasts numerous shops, a variety of restaurants, cafés, and a hotel. A major highlight of Miyashita Park however is the spacious 330-metre long rooftop park complete with sports facilities, including a skate park, a bouldering wall and even a sand-covered court perfect for beach volleyball.