Visiting Japan is like going through a two-way time tunnel. This country gives home to one of the most ancestral traditions and to the last word on technology simultaneously, a fascinating combination that puts the traveller in a permanent state of shock and eager to come back as soon as he sets foot in to the plane back home. In that very moment, you become an addict to the land of the rising sun, an illness that can only be treated with regular visits.
But let’s start at the beginning. Let’s say that you are travelling to Japan for the first time next Easter and you only have about 10 days to spend there. Time is a drawback when it comes to exploring a 7,000-island archipelago with plenty of things to offer, so let us give you a hand in planning your first 10-day trip to Japan.
Tokyo, the infinite city
Tokyo is such a fascinating metropolis that the traveller could spend a couple of years there and still find a way to be surprised. If we combine the city and its metropolitan area, we come across a population that is similar to the one living in Spain, but within a much more reduced space. This is why vertical cities come to be, with skyscrapers creating the illusion of a jungle made out of concrete, steel and glass that is lighted up by thousands and thousands of neon lights when the sun sets.
Torii at the entrance of Meiji Jingu
In Tokyo, I recommend visiting the spectacular Tsukiji fish market, the colourful Yoyogi park on a Sunday morning, the Meiji Jingu shrine, the gorgeous Sensō-ji (a Buddhist temple), the futuristic seaport district of Odaiba, the vibrant boroughs of Shibuya, Harajuku or Ginza, or the peculiar district of Akihabara, where otakus and lovers of new technologies cohabitate.
Nikkō and its sacred shrines
Nikkō is located in the northern part of Tokyo and you can plan a one-day trip to visit it, in such a way that you’ll be back to spend the night in the capital. This is one of those old, solemn and historic complexes that deserves to be savoured slowly. The importance of Nikkō resides in the figure of the great shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who, prior to his death in 1616, decided that his remains were to rest in Nikkō. His decision was obeyed by his grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu, who erected a shrine of extraordinary beauty. The combination of shrines and natural areas make Nikkō a must-see in a first trip to Japan.
Tōshō-gu shrine complex in Nikkō
Kyoto, the city of the thousand temples
The former imperial city of Kyoto was one of the less affected areas by bombings during the II World War, which is partly why it still preserves that halo of the old Japan with its pedestrian streets and secret alleys topped by traditional roofs. To go to Kyoto from Tokyo you can take the impressive bullet train, which in a way becomes this vessel for time travelling. The Shinkansen Nozomi, which is the fastest in Japan, takes around 135 and 140 minutes to get from Tokyo to Kyoto.
This sacred city stands out for its more than a thousand temples, particularly the Kiyomizu-dera, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Sanjūsangen-dō and its 1,000 Buddha statues, the celebrated golden pavilion, which enamoured a monk in the novel of the same name by Yukio Mishima, and of course, the Fushimi Inari and its multiple red gates. It would also be interesting to pay a visit to the Nijō Castle, located in the district of Gion, where you can still see the geishas and maikos, or the bamboo forest in Arashimaya.
Kinkaku-ji, in Kyoto
Nara, Japan’s first capital
Historic city, not far from Kyoto, where deer (which are considered sacred animals) have free rein. Nara was the first capital of Japan and it has some very interesting sites for the traveller to visit. The highlight is the Tōdai-ji, the highest wooden building in the world. Inside you’ll find the Daibutsu-den, one of the biggest bronze statues in the planet. The Buddha is 16-metre high and was made by melting 437 tons of bronze and 130 kg of gold. Another essential is Nara is Kasuga-taisha, a place that is famous for its stone and bronze lanterns, deer and the Mantōrō or lantern festival.
Deer and stone lanterns in Kasuga-taisha (Nara)
Memories of Hiroshima, Miyajima charms
Hiroshima is one of those places that remind us of the vileness and turpitude of mankind. In order to understand that, you have to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the Genbaku Dome and the Peace Memorial Museum, which will move you to tears. To recover from this hard, but inescapable, experience there is nothing better than a visit to the sacred island of Miyajima. It is famous for the astonishing semi submerged 16-metre torii, which, together with mount Fuji, become one of the most iconic images of Japan.
Genbaku Dome, building destroyed in the Hiroshima bombings
Osaka, final destination
Or maybe the first, given that the futuristic international airport in Kansai also works as the entrance gate to Japan. Osaka is the perfect counterpoint to Tokyo, and a fun and vital ending for the experience. Its castle and buildings, such as the Umeda Sky Building, have a great plasticity. You should also save a little time to visit Dotonbori (so that you can take the mandatory picture with the Glico billboard) or spend a few yens (which you can change for your currency with Global Exchange) in the trendy shops of Amerikamura.
Cover picture: Miyajima.