Japan is a place where ancient traditions are fused with modern life as if it were the most natural thing in the world. On the surface Japan appears exceedingly modern with its robot restaurants, karaoke, vending machines selling everything from snacks to fresh eggs to toilet paper and the world’s first digital art museum, but travelling around this incredible country offers numerous opportunities to also connect with its traditional culture. You can experience samurai sword-making, its religion in Buddhist temples and at Shinto shrines, its monarchy in Tokyo’s Imperial Palace and its traditional sport of sumo wrestling. We simply couldn’t summarise Japan in one mini tour so here are some of its highlights!
First off, we head to its capital city, Tokyo. There is so much to do and see in this bustling city with the combination of both modern and traditional sights. We recommend going to the Imperial Palace to start with. Located on the former site of Edo Castle, it is now the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family. According to mythology, Japan’s first emperor, Emperor Jummi, was a descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu and enthroned in the year 660 BC. While the myths are not considered historically accurate, it is commonly accepted that emperors have reigned over Japan for more than 1,500 years and they have all descended from the same family.
Next stop, embrace the modern and go to the world’s first digital art museum, Mori Building Digital Art Museum: teamLab Borderless. This 10,000 square metre space uses 520 computers and 470 projectors to create an experience that will stimulate all 5 senses. The art is dynamic and constantly in motion – it is unlike any museum you’ve ever seen!
If you are into anime and manga, the neighbourhood of Akihabara is the place to go. The geek capital of Tokyo, you will find streets and streets filled with huge anime, manga and electronic shops.
It doesn’t stop there. Go to the Robot Restaurant and eat dinner whilst being entertained by robots, dancing and fighting to techno music right in front of you. Apparently it cost a whopping 10 billion yen (US$89.5 million) to build, but don’t worry the food is surprisingly inexpensive – so definitely worth a trip.
If you want to try Japan’s traditional cuisine but without the robots, go to a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant. Sushi is one of the main dishes of Japan, as well as ramen and bento. You may not like the idea of eating raw fish but, when in Japan, you have to check out a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant.
One of the best times to visit the country is in Sakura Season or Cherry Blossom Season. The act of hanami (cherry blossom viewing) is an ancient tradition that represents appreciating the fleeting nature of life. As a rule of thumb, most places in Japan experience full bloom in a 2-week window between March and April.
You may have seen lots of photos of the cherry blossom with Mount Fuji in the background. Mount Fuji is one of Japan’s most famous sights. It’s one of Japan’s Three Holy Mountains and, at 12,388ft, the highest peak in the country. This extraordinary mountain is an active stratovolcano. Fortunately, the last eruption was in the 1700s.
From Mount Fuji, go to Arashiyama, located on the western edge of Kyoto. Arashiyama is an area that is filled with temples and shrines, but the main attraction is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
Then go to the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. This is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto, and is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates which straddle a network of trails behind its main buildings. The trails lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari. Fushimi Inari is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari – the Shinto God of Rice.
If you want to do something incredibly fun – try go karting whilst dressed up as Mario Kart characters, Power Rangers or anything you want, to see the sights of Osaka. You will pass the Shitenoji Temple. One of the oldest temples in Japan and the most important Buddhist structure in Osaka, the Shitenoji temple is a good place to get a glimpse into the country’s religion. This temple was originally built in the 6th century by Prince Shotoku as a way to help promote the introduction of Buddhism to Japan.
From Osaka head to Hiroshima and visit Peace Memorial Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was symbolically built around the Genbaku Dome. The Genbaku Dome was the only building to withstand the atomic blast of 6th August 1945. The surrounding sculptures, like the cenotaph, the Peace Flame, and the Children’s Peace Monument bear witness to the day when nuclear weapons changed the course of history. The site commemorates the victims and serves as a symbol of peace.
Finally, go to the Itsukushima Shrine at Miyajima. The centuries-old Shinto shrine and its torii gate are unique for being built over water, seemingly floating in the sea during high tide. The shrine complex consists of multiple buildings, including a prayer hall and a noh theatre stage which are connected by boardwalks and supported by pillars above the sea. The shrine is known worldwide for its iconic floating torii gate.
At some point on your Japanese adventure, try and witness two traditional practices. Firstly, Samurai Sword Smithing. Samurai sword smithing is becoming a dying art in Japan. There are less than 200 sword smiths in the country and to become a successful sword smith takes at least 10 years! With a production rate of 2 swords per month, it is a long and laborious task.
Secondly, sumo wrestling. The sport originated in Japan and is considered a gendai budo which refers to a modern Japanese martial art. However, the sport has a history spanning many centuries. The first mention of sumo can be found in a Kojiki manuscript dating back to 712 which describes how possession of the Japanese islands was decided in a wrestling match between the Kami Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata.
We hope this inspires you to expand your horizons, travel to Japan and explore even more of the delights of this fascinating country.