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Things to Do in Japan

In Japan, the past and the future are gloriously juxtaposed. Robots dance to techno beats in Tokyo; snow monkeys soak in hot springs in Yamanouchi; and geishas serve green tea ceremoniously in Kyoto. Tokyo, the Land of the Rising Sun’s capital, is the obvious starting point for any Japan trip. Must-do activities in and around the city include watching a cabaret show at the Shinjuku Robot Restaurant, witnessing an early-morning tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market, and taking a day trip to Hakone to gaze at the snow-capped peak of Mt. Fuji during a Lake Ashi cruise. Visit hundreds of UNESCO World Heritage–listed shrines and Buddhist temples in Nara; ski and snowboard on the frozen slopes of Hokkaido; or relax on white-sand beaches lapped by the Pacific Ocean in Okinawa. Super-speed bullet trains make ticking off less central cities such as Nagoya, Osaka, and Hiroshima (home to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park) possible on a day trip, while food tours of major cities showcase the best of local Japanese cuisine, from sushi to ramen and gyoza (dumplings). For the ultimate sensory banquet, take your Japan vacation during the sakura (cherry blossom) season between March and April, when the country is carpeted in pastel-pink blooms.
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Yokohama Zoo ''Zoorasia''
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At Zoorasia, a zoo in Yokohama with minimal fencing, animals live in an environment as close to nature as possible. The zoo is divided into seven different geographic and climatic zones, including Asian Tropical Forest, Japanese Countryside, and Subarctic Forest, that house animals belonging to more than 100 species.

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Sengan-en Garden
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A UNESCO World Heritage Site garden that once belonged to the ruling Shimazu clan, the Sengan-en Garden in Kagoshima includes the Shoko Shuseikan Museum and the Iso Residence, used as a summer villa by the Shimazu family. The Japanese-style strolling garden, which dates from the mid-17th century, features streams, ponds, and shrines.

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Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine
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With a long history dating back to 1063, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is the most important Shinto shrine in Kamakura, and the spiritual and cultural heart of the city. Dedicated to Hachiman, the patron saint of samurais, the complex contains several shrines and museums, and is a popular venue for festivals, weddings, and other events.

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Zenkoji Temple
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In the year 642, Zenko-ji Temple was founded when one of the earliest Buddhist statues in Japan, brought over from the Korean Peninsula, was enshrined at the site. Today, the temple is one of the most important Buddhist sites in the country, as well as Japan’s third largest wooden structure, with the entire town of Nagano built up around it.

The structure as it stands today dates back to 1707 and contains a large hall displaying a variety of Buddhist statuary, a main alter and an underground passage beneath the alter where visitors can pass in complete darkness, feeling for a single key on the wall -- the key to paradise -- that’s believed to grand salvation to any who touch it.

Behind the main temple, a newer pagoda houses the Zenko-ji History Museum with its collection of statues of the Buddha and his disciples.

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Arashiyama Park
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For classic Kyoto in a nutshell, head to Arashiyama Park. The perennially popular area is rich in temples and a riot of fall colors in November, with pink cherry blossoms in April.

The park area embraces several major sights, including Tenryu-ji Temple, founded in 1339. The main temple of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, Tenryu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounded by tranquil Zen gardens and bamboo forest.

There are many other temples in Arashiyama, including the Gio-ji, Jojakko-ji and Daikaku-ji temples. Another highlight is walking across the Moon Crossing Bridge, with views over to Mt Arashiyama.

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Asahiyama Zoo
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Located on the island of Hokkaido, Asahiyama Zoo is the northernmost zoo in Japan. Known for its innovative enclosures, which are designed to resemble natural habitats and to showcase natural animal behavior, Asahiyama Zoo is one of the most popular attractions in the Asahikawa region and draws millions of visitors a year.

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Kawaguchi-ko (Lake Kawaguchi)
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Located near Mt. Fuji, Lake Kawaguchi is the most easily accessible and developed of the Fuji Five Lakes. A popular day trip from Tokyo, Lake Kawaguchi offers plenty of natural beauty, access to Mt. Fuji and a variety of outdoor activities, as well as proximity to hot springs, museums, and other tourist attractions and amenities.

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Itsukushima Shrine (Itsukushima Jinja)
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Itsukushima Shrine (Itsukushima Jinja), a Shinto holy site on Miyajima Island in the Seto Inland Sea near Hiroshima, has a history dating back to the sixth century, when the first shrines were likely erected on the island, believed to be the above of gods. The iconic red torii, or shrine gate, that appears to float on the surface of the water just of the shores, guards the UNESCO-listed shrine. At the time the shrine was built, commoners weren’t allowed to step foot on the island due to its holy status, so the gate and temple were constructed in the water to allow visitors to approach by boat.

The entire Itsukushima complex, which in its present form dates back to the twelfth century, comprises several buildings connected by boardwalks, including a prayer hall and a performance stage.

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Maruyama Park (Maruyama Koen)
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Set at the base of Maruyama Mountain in the western suburbs of Sapporo, Maruyama Park (Maruyama Koen) comprises 15 acres (6 hectares) of virgin and secondary forest filled with oak, magnolia, maple and Japanese katsura trees. Some 1,700 Hokkaido wild cherry trees also grow within the park, making it a particularly popular destination come springtime.

Predating the park itself is the Hokkaido Shrine, located at the north end of the park. Built in 1869, the shrine sees a steady stream of devotees, especially on New Year’s Day and the last day of winter, seeking the good graces of the four protective deities believed to be enshrined within.

Visitors to Maruyama Park will also find Maruyama Zoo on the grounds. The zoo houses around 200 species of plants and animals and includes a tropical bird aviary and an insect house.

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Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
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Few will forget the fateful events of Aug. 6, 1945, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city, effectively ending World War II and costing the lives of some 80,000 residents, and Hiroshima will forever be tied to its tragic past. Despite its losses, the overwhelming sentiment in Hiroshima is of peace and wandering around the poignant memorials and tributes is an emotional experience, made all the more powerful by the moving exhibitions at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

Both a fascinating insight into the pre-war city and a harrowing glimpse into the horrors of the bomb’s aftermath, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is surely one of Japan’s most important museums and it’s compelling, if uncomfortable, viewing. Exhibitions chronicle the lives of Hiroshima residents during World War II and after the bombing, and depict the graphic reality of the bomb’s destruction, while simultaneously retaining a sense of hope for the future through the rebuilding of the city and the consequent efforts for international peace.

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More Things to Do in Japan

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)

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With its gleaming gold tiers reflected in the lake below and a backdrop of forests and twisted pines, Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) is an enchanting sight. Dating back to the 14th century, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions and among Japan’s most visited temples.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine (Fushimi Inari Taisha)

Fushimi Inari Shrine (Fushimi Inari Taisha)

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One of Kyoto’s most sacred temples and among the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, the Fushimi Inari Shrine (Fushimi Inari Taisha) is dedicated to Inari, the God of rice. The shrine’s five magnificent temples lie at the foot of the Inari mountain, and thousands of red torii gates (the Senbon torii) mark the forested trails to the top.

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Iriomote Island

Iriomote Island

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Beautiful Iriomote Island is one of the most remote spots in the Japanese archipelago. Not a lot has changed on the island in recent decades, and 90 percent of it remains blanketed in jungle and mangrove forest, the abode of the rare Iriomote wildcat. While the interior of the island, the second largest of the Okinawa Islands, can be explored via kayak, riverboat or trek, the main draw for most of the island’s visitors are the colorful reefs covered in virgin coral that ring the island.

Snorkelers and divers who explore beneath the surface near Iriomote might spot dolphins and manta rays, who school along the aptly named Manta Way during the spring and summer.

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Gion Corner

Gion Corner

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Gion Corner is a convenient place for art lovers to visit while in Kyoto, as it brings seven traditional Japanese performing arts together under one roof. Attending one of its nightly performances is an ideal way to spend an evening in the heart of the Gion entertainment district while learning about traditional Japanese culture.

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Sagano

Sagano

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Often mistaken for the Arashiyama district of Kyoto, Sagano expands north of the Togetsukyo Bridge in Kyoto. The tranquil area encompasses some of Kyoto’s most stunning landscapes. With rural residential areas, mountains dotting the horizon, fields ablaze with color and a famous bamboo forest, Sagano may just be one of Japan’s prettiest (and lesser known) spots.

By far, Sagano is best known for its bamboo groves. Walking trails wind through the forest, with thin, tall bamboos lining either side. Sun light filters through the narrow trunks, casting shadows along the path. Beyond the grove, one of the best ways to experience Sagano is on bicycle. In addition to the bamboo groves, there are numerous temples to explore, as well as the river and the well-traveled bridge. This idyllic nook on the outskirts of Kyoto should not be missed.

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Narukawa Art Museum

Narukawa Art Museum

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In a beautiful setting by Lake Ashinoko in Hakone, the Narukawa Art Museum Art holds a collection of more than 4000 Japanese (nihonga) paintings. Literally meaning ‘Japanese-style painting’, nihonga art follows traditional Japanese artistic conventions, and more recently has expanded to incorporate Western-style techniques too.

This is a small museum, yet each exhibition room has plenty of room for visitors to appreciate the art. In addition, there’s an impressive observatory lounge (and cafe) providing simply stunning panoramic views over Lake Ashinoko and the floating torii gate of Hakone Shrine from its huge glass windows. What’s more, on a clear day, the views extend to reveal the mighty Mount Fuji in the background.

There’s also a pleasant garden at the site, and don’t miss the museum’s unusual collection of kaleidoscopes.

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Okayama Korakuen Garden

Okayama Korakuen Garden

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One of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, Okayama Korakuen Garden was commissioned by regional ruler Tsunamasa Ikeda in 1686 and took over 14 years to complete. Today, the 13-hectare garden is a protected public park and retains its original appearance despite undergoing extensive restoration in the post-World War II years.

Its vast grassy lawn is Korakuen’s most unique attribute, but for many visitors, it’s the traditional Japanese features that draw the most attention, like the immaculately clipped bonsai trees, the blossom trees that bloom with color each spring and the network of water ways bridged by dainty stepping stones and narrow wooden footbridges. Climb to the top of the Yuishin-zan hill for a view over the garden and the neighboring Okayama Castle, gaze out over the central lake from the Enyo-tei tea house, then follow the walkways to discover the plum and cherry orchard, small tea plantation and rice field, and cages of rare red-crowned cranes.

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Jigokudani Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen Koen)

Jigokudani Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen Koen)

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If you’ve been captivated by photos of furry macaques sitting in steaming hot water, surrounded by snow, head to the Jigokudani Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen Koen). Located in the Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park, in Nagano Prefecture, this is believed to be the only place in the world where monkeys bathe in hot springs

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Osaka Castle (Osaka-jo)

Osaka Castle (Osaka-jo)

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Among the most famous castles in Japan, Osaka Castle (Osaka-jo) dates back to the 16th century, when it played a major role in unifying the nation. Today the reconstructed castle houses a museum filled with artifacts from the history of Japan and from the castle’s creator, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The main tower provides a nice view over urban Osaka.

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Fuji-Q Highland

Fuji-Q Highland

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The Fuji-Q Highland amusement park enjoys an enviable setting near the base of Mount Fuji. Aside from its scenic setting, the park is best known for its record-setting roller coasters—four in total—that make it one of Japan’s most popular amusement parks.

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Lake Shikotsu (Shikotsuko)

Lake Shikotsu (Shikotsuko)

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Located in southwest Hokkaido, close to Sapporo, Lake Shikotsu (Shikotsuko) is the second-deepest lake and second-largest caldera lake in Japan. Surrounded by volcanoes on all sides, the lake is a popular recreation area for locals and visitors looking to enjoy the outdoors, wildlife, hot springs, and beautiful scenery.

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Pola Museum of Art

Pola Museum of Art

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Located within the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, the Pola Museum of Art opened in September 2002. This is the former head of the Pola group’s private collection, which features more than 9500 works of art, including many from the French Impressionism and École de Paris eras.

The museum sits within a forest of 300 year-old beech trees and is predominantly made up of glass, creating a sense of seamlessness with the natural environment that surrounds it. In addition, a large part of the building is located underground. The museum’s permanent collection includes works by artists such as Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, and Renoir, plus there are also modern temporary exhibits, with sculptures, ceramics, and glassware alongside paintings by both Japanese and European artists.

A museum cafe and restaurant gives visitors a chance to relax beside huge windows that open out onto lush green forest, and there’s also a 670-meter nature trail for those who wish to explore the forest further.

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Mt. Fuji (Fuji-san)

Mt. Fuji (Fuji-san)

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As Japan's highest mountain, the legendary Mt. Fuji (Fuji-san) stands 12,388 feet (3,776 meters) tall. Travelers from around the world head to Hakone National Park to see the mountain, and over 1 million of them hike all the way to the top each year for the 360-degree views of Lake Ashi, the Hakone mountains, and the Owakudani Valley.

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Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market

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With more than 100 shops, stalls, and vendors selling everything from fresh-off-the-boat fish and seafood to tasty sweets and sushi takeaway, Nishiki Food Market is a wonderland of culinary delights. It's no surprise then that Kyoto’s biggest and most popular food market is a local institution and a popular attraction for traveling foodies.

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