Japan blossoms again
The Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami and emergency at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011 was a national disaster and a great human tragedy, with many lives lost and huge damage to the country’s infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, tourism also suffered, but there was a significant upturn in the numbers of foreign visitors to Japan in 2013, a trend that looks set to continue.
March and April are the perfect months to visit Japan, as the start of spring is signalled by the blooming of the cherry blossom, or sakura, a breathtaking effulgence of delicate white and pale pink flowers which is celebrated nationwide with hanami flower-viewing parties and picnics beneath the trees. The event has deep social and cultural significance for Japanese people, and is an unforgettable sight.
Tokyo is the first port of call for most visitors, and this dynamic city has so much to offer. The grand Imperial Palace makes a good starting point, while other highlights include the picturesque Meiji Shinto shrine complex and the Art Triangle Roppongi, a collection of three absorbing art museums. Reflecting the technological obsessions of modern Japan, the Miraikan National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation is definitely worth a visit, if only to see some of the world’s most advanced robots in action.
Just 100km southwest of Tokyo, soaring, snow-capped Mount Fuji is a true icon of Japan. The almost perfectly symmetrical conical mountain - the highest in the country at 3,776 metres - has been reproduced in countless artworks, not to mention millions of tourist snapshots. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013 as ‘a sacred space and source of artistic inspiration,’ joining 16 other sites across the country, including temples, historic monuments, gardens and national parks.
Among the most engaging of these sites are the Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, in the Shogawa Valley in central Japan. The distinctive wooden houses with steep thatched roofs were once used for silk production, with colonies of silkworms kept in the attics, and today, the villages, with their Buddhist temples, shrines and rice paddies, offer a picturesque look into Japan’s rural past.
Japan’s countryside is dotted with centuries-old castles, recalling the days of the Samurai. These towering wooden structures with their ornamental gables were designed to be aesthetically impressive, as well as functional fortresses, and one of the best examples is the UNESCO-listed Himeji Castle, 50km west of Kobe. Considered a masterpiece of 17th century architecture, it’s the biggest and most visited castle in Japan, and with its gleaming whitewashed walls and multipleroof layers, it’s certainly a striking sight. A more poignant and thought-provoking monument on UNESCO’s list can be found further west in the city of Hiroshima. The Genbaku Dome, or Hiroshima Peace Memorial, was the only building left standing when the atomic bomb was dropped here on 6 August 1945. Today, this skeletal ruin stands at the centre of a city centre park dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives that day, and is a powerful symbol of peace.
Have we inspired you? There’s always something amazing to see in The Land of the Rising Sun. Experience the 24-hour buzz of its ultra-modern cities, enjoy the scenic tranquillity of its temples, castles and national parks or delve deeper into the unique culture of this mesmerising country at a traditional tea ceremony. Japan is a country that may surprise you.
Nicola considers herself very lucky to have had the opportunity to visit a number of places around the world and these experiences usually involve searching for as many kinds of wildlife as possible. Recent highlights include penguins in Antarctica, bears and whales in Canada and Alaska and sea otters in California - but there are always more animals to search for.
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