I’ve done plenty of top whatever lists here on Otaku Lounge before – usually anime-related – but particularly when it comes to Japan itself, my posts have mostly remained fairly impersonal. Not that I see writing about the personal on a blog such as this as being in any way a bad thing; experience helps shape everything people write about in one way or another, even when an article is largely factual in nature. Besides, I can only imagine that a blog post limited strictly to cold, hard fact would make for pretty dry reading – reading that people could probably do just as well on Wikipedia. However, for various reasons I tend to shy away from writing anything on here that could be deemed purely personal, and there have been only a couple of exceptions to that over the years.
Given that I recently came back from a 4-year stint in Japan though, and that one of the ways I like to process things is through writing, this would be one of those exceptions.
Needless to say, the following is confined to those things which I’ve seen or done first-hand. It in no way encompasses all of what Japan has to offer (though ticking off 35 out of 47 prefectures is pretty respectable if I do say so myself), and it’s all based completely on my own impressions. It’s not intended as any sort of guide or even as a recommendation list.
It’s a celebration.
Admittedly this probably isn’t the first thing that pops to mind when people think of Japan and sightseeing – yet there are a surprisingly large number of impressive aquariums around. Conspicuously, zoos won’t be getting their own category in this post because I found nearly all of them (with the sole exception of Ueno Zoo, Japan’s oldest) to be uniformly depressing, but most of the aquariums I visited seemed both thoughtfully constructed and perfectly enjoyable.
The Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium in Aichi Prefecture is one of these, in big part due to their highly spirited dolphin show. Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan in, you guessed it, Osaka is great too, and one of Japan’s largest and most diverse aquariums. My favourite had to be Okinawa’s Churaumi though – a popular choice thanks to its sheer spaciousness. Oh, and its fecking huge tank featuring several whale sharks. I could’ve stared at that thing for hours.
Gardens might not be the first thought in the mind of most visitors to the country either – after all, aside from Mt. Fuji the physical Japanese landscape is all about high-rise buildings and flashing neon signs, right? Wrong. Sure, the whole concrete jungle thing is definitely one part of Japan but even smack bang in the middle of Tokyo, natural beauty makes up another important part of that same landscape.
Sankei-en in Yokohama, Kanagawa is incredibly spacious and felt more like Kyoto than Yokohama. Ritsurin in Takamatsu, Kagawa is another major landscape garden like Sankei-en but to my mind even more beautiful with its many ponds and pavilions. When it comes to favourites it’s a toss-up between that and Urakuen in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture. Urakuen isn’t nearly as popular with tourists as the other two gardens but is worth a visit if only for that reason – and if you need another, it’s also the site of Jo-an, one of Japan’s most celebrated teahouses and a national treasure in its own right.
Nor are gardens the only places of beauty in Japan. In fact, given that the larger and more famous of them tend to be in or near densely-populated areas, you’d be missing out on some of the most beautiful sights Japan has to offer if you limited yourself to them.
Climbing down Mt. Fuji was highly memorable – and I specify climbing down (Yamanashi Prefecture side) because believe me, climbing up wasn’t pretty at all. Bare rock just ain’t that interesting after a while, no matter how sacred. That sky in the morning though? I’ve never seen a bluer one in my life, totally worth the 8-hour overnight clamber. Cycling Kibi Plain in Okayama was another biggie for me, showcasing the Japanese countryside with its bright green rice paddies and heavily forested mountains at its most charming. Katsurahama beach in Kochi finishes up my trio; the incredibly strong currents make swimming impossible but I spent the day visiting the small nearby attractions and just soaking in the views, and I hope one day I’m lucky enough to spend another doing exactly the same thing. Photos don’t do the place justice.
If Japan isn’t known well for its museums then it probably should be. A lot of them might not be particularly well-known outside of Japan, and not all of them have exhaustive English alongside the Japanese either. However, that certainly doesn’t mean they’re not worth a visit – I found the vast majority of them to be not only informative but also well laid-out, and spacious without being overwhelming.
The Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum in Kanagawa is perhaps more food theme park than museum but if you want to be transported back to 1950s Tokyo, there’s no better place for it with its 1:1 street replica. Tokyo’s Edo-Tokyo Museum is large, superbly laid-out, and wonderfully interactive in nature. Finally, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is… well, upsetting, but frankly a must-see. Rhetoric alone does nothing for me but the matter-of-fact presentation you get here makes it hands-down the best and yes, most emotionally evocative museum I’ve ever visited, Japan or otherwise.
In general, I’d say tradition normally plays a bigger part than actual religion does when it comes to spirituality and everyday life in Japan – this despite the fact that Buddhism has been a major religion in Japan since the 6th century. Regardless, temples both large and small can be found anywhere and everywhere, many of them extremely popular with both foreign visitors and Japanese citizens alike.
Ginkakuji in Tokyo gets an honourable mention because while Kinkakuji is more popular, the former has the far superior surroundings. Onto my top three, Daisho-in on Miyajima in Hiroshima is pretty damn spectacular and has a lot of small walking trails lined on both sides by hundreds of jizo statues, all clad in specially-knitted hats. Engyo-ji in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture is built right at the top of a forested mountain and is highly atmospheric, particularly the main hall built on pillars. And finally, Fukui’s Eiheiji literally took my breath away, again built on a mountainside and with over 70 buildings connected by covered wooden walkways.
The other major religion in Japan is Shinto and personally, I prefer these shrines to Buddhist temples overall – not for religious reasons but because the architecture and symbolism just always appealed to me more. There’s also the fact that many shrines are tiny little neighborhood ones that are nearly always silent and generally poorly maintained, and as a result have gained an additional layer of both moss and mystery. I half-expected Totoro to amble out from a tunnel of bush at times. Not so much the ones on this list maybe, but shrines will still probably always have the advantage over temples for me.
Once again I have an honourable mention: Awashima in Wakayama has a nice enough shrine but amazing surroundings, and I’m not talking about the natural views. Hundreds, probably thousands of dolls are dedicated to the shrine each year before being eventually sent-off in a kind of ritual sacrifice in the ocean and yes, it’s as creepily awesome as it sounds. Among my top three, Hiroshima’s Miyajima gets another mention for Itsukushima, well-known for its ‘floating’ prayer gate but honestly should be better known for the main shrine building itself, with its bright walkways lit up at night by lanterns on all sides. Yutoku Inari in the small town of Saga, Kashima is extremely striking, built into the steep hillside of the valley like the famous Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto yet with the hundreds of vermilion prayer gates like Fushimi Inari. Admittedly though, Fushimi Inari itself is just impossible to ignore; thousands upon thousands on prayer gates leading all around the walking trails and thousands upon thousands of smaller, individual shrines dotted throughout. A cliché pick maybe, but undeniably gorgeous.
Japanese castles are quite different to their European counterparts and there are literally hundreds of them scattered all over Japan – some in major cities like you’d expect, others in rural locations that you probably wouldn’t. I have to stoop to making two honorable mentions here because honestly, even attempting to narrow it down to a handful was pretty damn difficult. And I wouldn’t even call myself a castle aficionado!
The first is Kumamoto-jo, closed indefinitely to the public thanks to the damage caused by the recent earthquake but still a highly impressive reconstruction – frequented by some highly impressive cosplayers to boot, at least on my visit! Kochi-jo is lovely too, much smaller in scale but charming and oddly graceful – probably because unlike most Japanese castles which were used solely for military purposes, this one also acted as a main residence. In my top three, Hyogo’s Himeji-jo is meandering, complex, and known as White Heron Castle for its distinctive white walls that from a distance remind me of a wedding cake. Shuri-jo on Okinawa likewise has a highly distinctive look thanks to its unmistakable Chinese influences, and is a lot more colourful and lavish than the norm on the Japanese mainland. Inuyama-jo in Aichi wins my number one vote however. It’s much smaller than Himeji but still one of Japan’s twelve original castles, with a beautifully preserved interior and a main keep built almost completely of wood and rock. It doesn’t get any more authentic than this.
While the majority of things on this list have been fairly limited to sightseeing, there’s plenty to actively do for visitors as well – especially if they happen to be in town around festival time. Luckily, Japan has festivals all throughout the year and it’s not difficult to jump in and participate in some way. Dancing, singing, eating, drinking, playing… festivals are truly one of the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of Japan.
The Saijo Sake Festival in Hiroshima gets an honourable mention because even if you don’t like sake/nihonshuu all that much, seeing so many Japanese so drunk in one place is pretty amazing – you get your own cup for keeps and everyone is your best bud even if you only met them thirty seconds ago. The Snow Festival in Hokkaido gets a new makeover every year with ice sculptures that need to be seen to be believed, to say nothing of all that amazing seafood. The lesser-known Earth Celebration on tiny Sado Island in Niigata is in fact a one in a million music festival with exceptional taiko from Japan’s own Kodo. Going back to Kagawa in Tokushima though, I can’t go past the Awa Odori – Japan’s largest dance festival. Every place in Japan tends to do its own special something in celebration of Obon, but Awa Odori really is something else. And trust me, that song will be stuck in your head for weeks.
Stage shows and similar performances can likewise offer a more vivid experience than just plain sightseeing, even if they’re sometimes not quite as accessible to foreigners (in terms of language and obtaining tickets) as festivals are. Still, I’ve enjoyed my fair share and have even some of my most memorable experiences in Japan as a whole at a couple, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the category.
The Iga-ryu Ninja Museum in Mie Prefecture has a pretty cool museum but would be worth visiting purely for the show, which is a lot of fun and surprisingly high quality given the relatively small size of the place as a whole. The Takarazuka Revue in Hyogo is a spectacle and a half that I can’t possibly sum up in just a sentence or two, but luckily I made a post specifically about this a while back so for now, let’s just say it’s fabulous, in every sense of the word. But speaking of fabulous, Fukuoka’s Anmitsu Hime just cannot be topped. Not to be confused with the manga of the same name, this is a professional okama outfit, meaning all the performers are men in drag. And it. Is. Amazing. I swear I’ve never laughed harder in my life and to be clear, this isn’t just some amateur theatre they have going on. Nope, this is high quality stuff with spot-on comedy and one hell of a set, well worth lining up an hour or so in advance for.
Psych! Thought I’d stay reasonably impartial the whole way through, didn’t cha? The first image should have tipped you off. As you can see, Ehime in particular really likes its fucking oranges. Clearly the very best of the thousands of mascots inhabiting Japan, from left to right:
Mikyan, the official (and completely adorable) official mascot of Ehime Prefecture stands next to Ore-kun, the main mascot of the Ehime Football Club, who I and a friend affectionately dubbed Belligerent Orange-kun. I’ve never met him in person and I’m not sure I’d want to, but dude. What a face. And last but never least, Nashi-kun, my Japanese hometown’s mascot. For reference, Nashi-kun is a sea otter. A hard-working sea otter who has a mandarin orange for a cap and a bonito for a tail. The bonito is called Kacchan and is a separate character in its (her?) own right. No I’m not making this up. Move over Funasshi, the real star is here.
Question: Got a no. 1 favourite sightseeing spot or experience from Japan you’d like to share? How about something you wished you could’ve seen or done but didn’t get the chance? And if you haven’t been to Japan, what do you think you’d be most excited about seeing or doing if given the opportunity?
All photos in this post other than the first one and final two were taken by me. Please do not use them without permission.