(Note: Like many other popular visitor centers around the world, Japan has been impacted severely in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel to and within Japan may be challenging and difficult with varied local restrictions. Lodging, restaurants, and attractions may be closed, restricted or otherwise unavailable. Check with online travel resources and others to get the latest updates and information on travel to Japan in general.)
by John Penisten
Perhaps the most relaxing and stress free way to travel through Japan is by rail. Japan Rail trains are very dependable, fast, convenient and on time. With a Japan Rail pass you can say goodbye to airport check-in hassles, long security lines, delays and uncertain departures. Traveling by train through the heart of Honshu Island, Japan’s main island, is the smart way to see and experience Japan, whether you’re a first-time Japan traveler or experienced trekker. Japan Rail Pass vouchers are purchased in the US before your trip for about US$445-604 (depending on the exchange rate and whether first or second class pass) for two weeks of unlimited rail travel. See: www.jrpass.net.
From the market town of Kurashiki to the vibrant city of Hiroshima and its solemn Peace Memorial Park and museum, to Japan’s three most scenic places of Amanohashidate, Miyajima and Matsushima, to Hakone in the shadow of Mt. Fuji and the shogun’s tomb at Nikko, to the castle town of Hirosaki, these special places give a close up view of old and new Japan. And Japan Rail can take you there or wherever you want to explore and discover in Japan.
Kurashiki-Country Market Town
Depending upon your arrival point in Japan, most destinations on Honshu Island are mere hours away by connecting trains from the airports. With an arrival at Kansai Airport in Osaka, take the airport train to Osaka station. From Osaka, take an express train to the market town of Kurashiki, about two hours west near the seacoast.
Kurashiki provides a good introduction to Japan with a small town experience as it is a fun place to explore on foot. Old granary and warehouse buildings along the backlanes and canal (actually the Kurashiki River) have been transformed into trendy shops, stores and eateries. The shops turn out mochi, manju and all manner of Japanese goodies making for fascinating discovery.
Kurashiki’s historic old town area has many narrow lanes providing a close look at everyday life in a typical market town. And there are textile, arts and crafts, and specialty shops to explore as well. The residential neighborhoods with their rows of historic Edo-period houses invite exploration. The numerous shrines, temples, museums, gardens and other historic sites are also worth exploring.
For information on Kurashiki, see:
A few hours further west by train is the bustling metropolis of Hiroshima, the opposite of Kurashiki. Hiroshima was, of course, totally destroyed by the atomic bomb dropped on it which hastened the end of World War II in 1945. A visit to the Peace Memorial Park and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial is a must see. The park and museum are centrally located at the confluence of the Honkawa and Motoyasu Rivers and within walking distance of central downtown.
The park marks “ground zero” of the atomic bomb explosion. The museum, (entry fee of about US$1 per person, US$3 for recorded narrated tour) features detailed and stark displays, exhibits and photos of the atomic bomb tragedy. The museum is a very solemn memorial to those who perished and provides a sobering look at the impact of nuclear weapons. Regardless of one’s views, a visit here provides a healthy dose of realism on the horrors of nuclear war.
Near mid-town, the towering Hiroshima Castle was rebuilt after the war. Also known as the “Carp Castle,” it is completely surrounded by a moat and houses an interesting museum of early Japanese life and samurai culture and art. There are panoramic city views from the top level of the multi-tiered structure. It is interesting to note that most of the central core metro area of Hiroshima has been totally reconstructed since 1945. Only a handful of buildings remained after the war. The most famous is the ‘A-Bomb Dome,” the old prefecture industrial promotion hall on the bank of the Motoyasu River that somehow escaped destruction.
For information on visiting Hiroshima, see:
One of Japan’s three most scenic sites is Miyajima Island located just offshore of Hiroshima. It’s a 30-minute train ride from Hiroshima station to Miyajimaguchi and then a 10-minute ferryboat ride (about US$2 per person one way). Miyajima means “shrine island” in recognition of the 1400-year old Itsukushima Shrine (about US$5 per person entry fee). The temple was built over the seashore where the tide ebbs and flows. The towering vermilion torii gateway that stands at the temple’s entrance is Miyajima’s symbol. Miyajima has long been a cultural and scenic icon of Japan and was designated a UN World Heritage site in 1996.
Itsukushima Shrine is a ten minute walk from the ferry pier. However, be prepared for a heavy dose of commercialized tourism as you walk through the town area near the shrine. The Omotesando Street shopping arcade is a tourist trap with numerous souvenir shops and such in addition to many restaurants and eateries as well. With Miyajima promoted as a special sacred and historical site of Japanese culture, it is a bit of a surprise to find it a typically gaudy tourist center. Miyajima also has several other shrines and temples and a challenging nature walk climb to the summit of Mt. Misen at 1755 ft. above sea level. The Miyajima History and Folklore Museum (about US$5.00 per person entry fee) has an extensive collection of cultural artifacts dating from the Edo Period, 1603-1867, and is well worth a look.
For information on visiting Miyajima, see:
The old imperial capital of Kyoto was the cultural, economic and political center of Japan for over a thousand years. Today the bustling city is still recognized as “The Heart of Japan.”
The city attracts many with its numerous significant Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, traditional Japanese villas and homes, serene gardens, craft shops, old style Japanese inns, and narrow lanes and alleys waiting to be discovered.
The major attractions include the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, the Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji, the Zen garden at Ryoanji Temple and Kiyomizudera Temple with its panoramic views of the city and numerous shopping streets and food market arcades.
For information on visiting Kyoto, see:
The old mountain town snuggles amid the rugged Hida district of west central Honshu. It’s a bit off the beaten track but easily accessible via Nagoya or Kanazawa. It is a modern town but retains much of its traditional culture and architecture. Some refer to it as “little Kyoto.” The old town area between Sannomachi and Ninomachi has many well maintained inns, tea and coffee shops, local crafts workshops and typical houses and buildings reflecting the Edo period.
The town is easy to explore on foot as it is well laid out, mostly flat and easy to find your way around. Some of the more noted attractions of Takayama include the Hida Folklore Village which has many old thatched Hida farmhouses, workshops, and related buildings from an earlier era in Japan. There is also a daily Morning Market along the east bank of the Miyagawa River and fronting the Takayama Jinya, the old provincial government office buildings. A bit further afield from Takayama is the village of Shirakawago which features numerous steep roofed thatched farmhouses and buildings in the fassho-zukuri style, meaning “hands held in prayer.” The steep roofs help prevent the buildup of heavy snow in winter. Takayama’s famous festivals, the Spring Sanno Matsuri (April) and Autumn Yahata Matsuri (October) feature numerous beautiful and colorful floats (yatai) that are pulled through the streets to thrill the thousands in attendance.
For information on visiting Takayama, see:
Amanohashidate and the Bridge to Heaven
Amanohashidate , another of Japan’s three most scenic sites, hugs the western coast of central Honshu Island on the Sea of Japan. The quiet fishing village is a relaxing two-hour train ride from Kyoto. Noted for its quiet atmosphere, the village is well away from the hustle and bustle of urbanized Japan.
Amanohashidate means “bridge in the heaven,” for the two-mile long pine tree covered sand spit which majestically dissects Miyazu Bay. The sand spit makes for a pleasant walk to the other side of the bay and the Fuchu district. For an unconventional view of the scene, take the cable car or chairlift (about US$5 per person) at either the Fuchu or Monju (Amanohashidate) end to the lookout areas, bend over and view the scene from between your legs. It’s said that the view looks like “a floating bridge to the heavens.”
The Amanohashidate area also has several temples and historic sites to visit plus some interesting shops to pick up local style mochi and other goodies. There are also fish markets with local seafood products and numerous noodle shops and other eateries.
For information on Amanohashidate, see:
Mt. Fuji and More
A couple of hours by train southwest of Tokyo is the popular hot springs resort town of Hakone which lies near Mount Fuji in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. It’s a popular day trip destination from Tokyo but definitely worth staying for a night or two. Hakone is an area of high mountains and features the beautiful Lake Ashi with winding roads and railways that connect the towns and villages of the region. On clear days from various vantage points, Mount Fuji can be seen.
The area’s volcanic origins account for the numerous hot springs and the area’s hotels/inns feature soothing onsen baths. Visitors can also enjoy ferry boat rides across the lake and then a ropeway (cable car lift) ride across the still steaming spectacular Owakudani Gorge. Hakone, the main town, is small and compact and situated in a deep valley surrounded by high peaks.
For information on Hakone, see:
Matsushima-Bay of Islands
Sendai is one of northern Honshu’s largest cities, located near the eastern seacoast. It’s about 3-4 hours by train from Tokyo. Sendai is important as a base for visitors to nearby Matsushima, another of Japan’s three most scenic sights. Matsushima is on a sheltered bay that has some 200 pine-covered islets and is considered, at least in former days, one of Japan’s most scenic attractions. Modern growth, development and mass tourism have affected the once pristine attraction but it’s still worthwhile.
From Sendai station, take the short train ride to either Shiogama or all the way to Matsushima. Then catch a ferry boat at either place and take a one-hour scenic cruise through the maze of islets in Matshshima Bay. The town of Matsushima is a bit overly commercialized with numerous tourist shops and seafood eateries. You can enjoy fresh grilled oysters, scallops, crab and more from street side vendors. Craft shops specialize in the kokeshi, Japanese wooden dolls that make a good souvenir. It’s popular with the locals, so expect some crowds. But by late afternoon, the crowds are gone and the waterfront is quiet, making Matsushima a pleasant village to explore and discover. The Zuigan-ji Temple is one of Japan’s great Zen temples with a history dating back several hundred years.
For information on Matsushima, see:
Nikko-A Shogun’s Shrine
Nikko is about two hours by bullet train north of Tokyo. The town is located next to Nikko National Park, amidst a panorama of forest, mountains, lakes and gushing streams. Nikko is famed for the lavish Toshogu Shrine complex built in 1636 that serves as the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603. Visiting Toshogu Shrine is a solemn and spiritual experience as one strolls through the complex of colorful and intricately constructed temples and buildings. Visitors can also take in the attractions and nature of the national park, lakes, nature trails, fishing, hiking and more.
For information on Nikko, see:
Hirosaki – Castle Town
In the far north of Honshu, near Aomori, is the historic castle town of Hirosaki. Hirosaki is easily reached in a few hours by express train from most areas of Honshu to the south. From the early feudal days, Hirosaki flourished as a cultural center. Most of the town’s streets lead to Hirosaki Park, where the original castle stood. It was destroyed by lightening in the early 19th. Century. Several of the castle’s gates, moats and other structures remain along with a three-story replica of the main castle dating from 1810.
Hirosaki Castle is perhaps most noted for the 5,000 or so sakura, cherry trees, that burst into glorious pink and white blossoms each spring on the castle grounds. The annual cherry blossom festival brings some two million visitors to Hirosaki each April-May. It is one of Japan’s premier cherry blossom festivals, complete with an amusement park, arts and crafts vendors, food booths and more.
For information on Hirosaki, see: