It's 10:30 on a nippy autumn morning and I’m at lake Kawaguchiko, my first stop after a red-eye flight from Delhi to Tokyo. It’s one of the five lakes around one of Japan’s most revered sites — Mount Fuji (many locals call it Fujisan) where stunning panoramas of this mountain are guaranteed. There are few mountains anywhere in the world that are as perfectly sculpted as Mount Fuji, a two-hour drive from Tokyo.
Most business travellers to Tokyo, and more than the occasional tourists, don’t go further than Mount Fuji. Some travellers make the time to visit Kyoto, the country’s cultural capital.
From historic temples and regional culinary delicacies to stunning landscapes, there are a whole lot of experiences waiting across Japan. The country’s Shinkansen (bullet train) is one of the fastest and most efficient rail networks in the world, making it easy to cover the length and breadth of this island nation in quick time.
Our list is a great starting point for you next time you pack your bags to Japan.
Imagine a city where every corner is a photo op. Japan’s cultural capital is charming throughout the year, whether you visit when the cherry blossoms take over in spring, or in autumn. Kyoto’s shrines (the city is home to over 1,500) are its spiritual heart. The Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine is probably the first among equals. This shrine’s most striking architectural feature was immortalised in the film Memoirs of a Geisha — walking through these never-ending rows of vermilion torii (shrine gates) ranks among my most memorable moments in Japan.
Kiyomizu-dera, the city’s most historic Buddhist shrine that was founded in 778 AD takes its name from a waterfall within the complex. And then there’s the golden reflection of Kinkaku-ji, a stunning ‘golden leaf’-coated temple that is a picture of tranquillity despite the crowds that throng it. Kinkaku-ji is a splendid sight all through the year with its landscaped gardens. Other must-do experiences include a visit to Nijo Castle, a fine example of Japanese castle palace architecture or a Kabuki (a dance form that originated here) performance at Minamiza Theatre. And then there’s the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove with tall bamboo stalks that almost scrape the sky.
Aun, one of the best restaurants in the city to sample Shojin Ryori, Japan’s legendary vegetarian style of cooking that is strongly intertwined with the Buddhist faith in the country. Just like India’s satvic diets, many ingredients like garlic and onions are forbidden, yet the abundance of mushrooms, tofu and crunchy vegetables more than makes up.
An intimate luxury abode with less than 40 rooms, Suiran is not far from the magical Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. Now a Marriott Luxury Collection Hotel, it was once the home of a 19th century industrialist and is full of local design elements.
Wallet: Rs 60,000 onwards
A flattened lunch box, a kid's bicycle bent out of shape... these are some of the many stark reminders of the day when this city was razed to the ground and over 350,000 residents lost their lives after the first nuclear bomb was dropped here in 1945. These exhibits are part of the poignant
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. There was only one structure that partially survived the blast — the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall that dates back to 1915 and has come to be known as the A-Bomb Dome. The flame continues to burn at this memorial park and serves as a reminder to the whole world on the perils of nuclear war.
The city is just 40 minutes from Miyajima Island, home to the 6th century Itsukushima Shrine and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Do make it here at sunset and watch the colours of the setting sun complement the vermilion of the floating ‘torii’ (gate) that is actually built in the Inland Sea of Japan. The shrine itself is tranquil and close to the Omoto-Sande main street on the island with a busy local market.
Mitchan, a popular local establishment, is credited with inventing Hiroshima’s most popular dish — okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake with cabbage, bean sprouts, pork, egg and noodles. I also visited Benbe, one of the 2,000-odd okonomiyaki restaurants in the city. Hiroshima’s oysters are popular with gourmands all over the world — you can try grilled or fried versions or oysters cooked in vinegar. The Saijo district, popularly referred to as Japan’s Sake town, is an absolute must-visit and hosts an annual Sake festival
The ocean-facing Kurayado Iroha (www.visit-miyajima.jp) is a Japanese-style hotel that’s a five-minute walk from the Itsukushima Shrine. The hotel’s private residences offer sweeping views of the Seto Island Sea. You can also try an elaborate multi-course Kaiseki platter while you’re at the hotel.
Wallet: Rs 20,000 onwards
It wasn’t until 1972 that Hokkaido, Japan’s northern-most island came under the global spotlight. Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city played host to the Winter Olympics, and ever since it has been a popular destination for winter sports and skiing aficionados alike. In the 2010s, a whole new Instagram generation rediscovered Hokkaido, thanks to its picturesque landscapes that look equally magical in spring and winter, as well as its wide range of culinary diversions. Sapporo’s Odori Park comes alive each winter during the Sapporo Snow Festival with some of the finest ice sculptures in the world. Sapporo is also a gateway to Hokkaido’s other charming towns. I’d certainly recommend a visit to Otaru, an idyllic coastal town where Victorian lamps add magic to a winding canal. Otaru’s local market is a haven for gourmands, many of whom stop by at Rokkatei, famous for its soft-serve ice creams. Otaru is also a short drive to Yoichi, where whisky connoisseurs converge to visit the home of Nikka, one of Japan’s most celebrated whisky brands.
Hokkaido is one of the world’s most trending food destinations, especially among evolved travellers. Do check out Jingisukan, a popular ‘do-it-yourself’ style meat grill experience where convex metal skillets are placed at the centre of restaurant tables. Genghis Khan, that overlooks the legendary Okurayama ski jump, is a popular jingisukan venue. Sapporo’s soup curry is a popular, contemporary addition to Japanese cuisine; it’ is reminiscent of a laksa, except there’s no coconut milk and is served with sticky rice. Try it at Soup Curry King, a popular local chain. Hokkaido’s seafood is legendary, and you can head to any Izakaya — typical after-hours Japanese bar and restaurant, to sample delectable sushi rolls with sake.
The 85-year-old Sapporo Grand Hotel (www.grand1934.com) is one of Sapporo’s oldest luxury hotels and offers a host of dining options including a popular beer hall (the eponymous Sapporo is one of Japan’s best known beers) and a Japanese speciality restaurant.
Wallet: Rs 15,000 onwards
Japan’s third largest city has always been a busy commercial hub. A walk through Dotombori, at the centre of Osaka’s southern quarter is one of Osaka’s quintessential high-energy experiences. You’re bound to get lost in a maze of electronic billboards along the 400-year-old Dotombori-gawa canal. This big city buzz is a stark contrast to the Osaka-Jo or Osaka Castle that was originally built in the 16th century. The structure that you see today is a reconstruction from the 1930s and looks as imposing with its large moat and sprawling park. The castle is also a treasure trove of art and armour that take you back in time.
Osaka’s family attractions are designed to bring out the child in you. The Universal Studios complex is also home to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and its thrills. You can also grab a mug of butter beer while you’re here. There’s Kaiyukan, arguably Japan’s finest aquarium with its popular Pacific ring of fire where Antarctic penguins and Monterey Bay seals are among the star attractions. The city boasts of an interesting mix of museums including the quirky Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum where you can create your own custom variation of cup noodles.
Many locals will tell you that Osaka is the home of the bento box, although there are references in Japanese history that trace the bento as far back as the 12th century. Osaka’s train station is a hub for eateries that serve bento box meals that are aesthetically pleasing and scrumptious. You can try Temarizushi – Osaka’s signature bite-sized sushi at outlets like Eki Marche. While you’re at Dotombori check out Imai Honten, one of Osaka’s most iconic Udon establishments, that serves the traditional kitsune udon topped with fried tofu.
The Conrad Osaka (www.conradhotels3.hilton.com) is located between the Dojima and Tosabori rivers with beautiful views of the water and the Osaka skyline. The hotel is housed on the highest floors of Nakanoshima Festival West tower that is also home to an art museum and a host of dining and retail options.