Japan Beyond Tokyo

IGNACIO MAZA at Miyajima Island, which is home to a celebrated shrine ‘floating’ over the water.

Compared to other Asian destinations, Japan is often overlooked. This is a shame because Japan has so much for sophisticated travelers in search of authentic and new experiences. Japan has a wealth of cultural treasures and historical sites, stunning natural beauty, active options year-round—especially hiking, winter sports, and golf—a rich culinary tradition, entertainment of all sorts, great shopping, and much more. Best of all, Japan is more affordable now with the strengthening of the U.S. dollar, which buys 20 percent more Japanese yen than just a few months ago. Getting around is simple as Japan has one of the best rail and public transportation systems in the world. Finally, hotels in Japan truly welcome you like an honored guest—you’re never a number or just another arrival. The best times to visit Japan are spring and fall—but—these are also peak seasons. If traveling during this time, book at least six months out to secure reservations. Tip: Avoid New Year's, the so-called “Golden Week” (April 29 to May 5), and the Bon Festival (around August 15).

Buddha statute at Kotoku-in temple in Kamakura
The colossal Buddha statute at Kotoku-in temple in Kamakura is a must-see.

Japan is roughly the size of California but stretched out. Nagasaki to Hokkaido is over 1,500 miles, so plan carefully.

Here are a few recommendations: At the top of the list is Kyoto, Japan’s capital for over a thousand years, and the cradle of Japanese art and civilization. You will need at least three days in Kyoto, just to cover the highlights. The city is home to one quarter of all national treasures, over 2,000 temples and shrines, and superb museums. My favorite temples were the Sanjusangen-do and its 1,001 life-size statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy; Daitoku-ji, for its beautiful architecture; and the Kiyomizu-dera, a series of pavilions and sacred waterfall on a hill with fantastic views of Kyoto. Do not miss the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine and its two miles of bright red torii gates, and the Kinkaku-ji, the famous Golden Pavilion, set in a vast garden. Another must in Kyoto are the many gardens. I loved the Zen “dry gardens”, made only of raked gravel and rocks, made for you to think and contemplate. The best example of these is the Ryoan-ji. The top day trip from Kyoto, by far, is to visit Nara, about 40 minutes away by train. The top site here is the massive statue of the Buddha within the Todai-ji temple, the largest wood structure in the world. Beyond Kyoto: Miyajima Island, one of Japan’s holiest sites, is home to the celebrated Itsukushima Shrine, with its spectacular temple and famous vermillion gate, 53 feet high, which “floats” over the water at high tide; Hiroshima, on the main island of Honshu (opposite Miyajima), is also a must. Regardless of your opinion of World War II history, you cannot remain indifferent to this city. Take time to see the so-called atomic dome, one of the few structures still intact from the bombing in 1945, as well as the moving Peace Park across the river, both Unesco World Heritage Sites. The Hakone region is also a popular destination, especially its Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, and many world-class art museums, both indoor and out. Closer to Tokyo, do not miss seeing the colossal Buddha statue at Kamakura, and the unique and colorful temples and monuments of Nikko.

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Where to stay: Japan offers a wide range of options from world-class luxury hotels to ryokans, traditional Japanese inns. I recommend spending at least one night in a ryokan, it is an experience unlike any other.

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, is set in a vast garden.

In Kyoto, my top choices: In the best location, the Hyatt Regency Kyoto, a superbly run, modern style hotel, with 189 rooms and suites. Outside the city, stay at the Hoshinoya Kyoto, for a taste of contemporary Japanese hospitality and design. You reach this property traveling up the Oigawa River on the hotel’s private boat. In Hakone, stay at the Hyatt Regency Hakone, which has 80 very spacious rooms and suites that start at 560 square feet. Tip: Do not miss the Japanese onsen, hot baths fed by thermal mineral water, on property. In Miyajima, the best place to stay is Iwaso Ryokan, a simple, classic, Japanese inn that has welcomed Japanese royalty and celebrities for years. In Tokyo, two top choices: First, Shangri-La Tokyo, offering guests an excellent location next to Tokyo Station. The hotel has 200 oversized rooms with breathtaking views of the city and excellent service. For clients wanting to stay in the heart of vibrant Roppongi, Grand Hyatt Tokyo is the best choice. Tip: Request a room with views of Mt. Fuji.

Where to start? For expert advice when planning your next Japan itinerary, contact David Lee at Into Japan ([email protected]). David and his Japan-based team will create the perfect custom-tailored trip for your clients, including experiences your customers could not do on their own.

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