Known around the world for its culture and cuisine, Japan is a favourite destination for Aussies jetting off on vacation. However, knowing where to start in creating your Japanese bucket list can be tough. After all, this country boasts centuries of history, awe-inspiring natural wonders and some of the world's most technologically-advanced cities.
To make things easier for you, we've created a rundown of our top four must-see places in Japan. Let's start our journey to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Two hours south of Osaka you'll find Japan's largest cemetery, Oku-no-in, a place of intense spirituality. This ancient forest graveyard grew out of a desire for people to be buried close to Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. So revered was Daishi that his followers believe he has been meditating in the Gobyo, the crypt where his body is interred, since the year 835.
The number of people buried here numbers over 20,000, and walking among the tombstones and soaring cedar trees is a uniquely still and calming experience. Once inside Oku-no-in there are different routes you can take, however there are several sites that are well worth checking out:
- The Ichinohashi Bridge - This is the traditional entry point to Oku-no-in. It's recommended you follow local custom and bow before crossing as a mark of respect to Kobo Daishi.
- The Gokusho Offering Hall - Near the Offering Hall is a row of statues depicting Jizo, an important Buddhist figure who protects travellers, children and the souls of the dead. You'll see people throwing water over the statues as they pray for departed family members.
- The Gobyobashi Bridge - Again bow before crossing, and note that food, drinks and photography are forbidden beyond this point.
- Torodo Hall - In the site's main hall of worship you'll find two lamps that are said to have been lit for over 900 years without interruption.
- The Gobyo - This is the furthest anyone can go. The entrance to Daishi's mausoleum is marked by a humble thatched-roof gate.
The cemetery itself is accessible all year round. However, the halls have set opening hours. The Torodo opens between 6.00am and 5.30pm, and The Goshuko Offering Hall between 8.30am and 5.00pm.
Perhaps the country's most lavishly decorated shrine, To-sho-gu is next on our list of places to visit in Japan. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is located in the town of Nikko, gateway to the beautiful Nikko National Park. The shrine itself is the resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan from 1600 to 1868.
The compound is set in a charming forest and consists of more than a dozen buildings decorated with wood carvings and gold leaf. Upon arrival, your eye will be immediately caught by the impressive five story pagoda. Once inside, the main highlights are:
- The Sunset Gate - Known in Japenese as Yomei-mon, this gate is covered with over 500 ornate carvings. The gate is named ‘sunset’ because its beauty is so intense you can stare all day without losing interest.
- Hondijo Hall - One of the most famous elements of To-sho-gu is the crying dragon painting in Hondijo Hall. This enormous artwork stretches across the whole ceiling, making for a truly awe-inspiring sight.
Getting to To-sho-gu involves a 10-minute bus ride, or 30-40 minute walk from Tobu and JR Nikko Stations. The site is open between 8.00am and 5.00pm from 01 April to 31 October, and 8.00am and 4.00pm from 01 November to 31 March.
The sacred pinnacle of Mount Fuji is Japan's highest point. Even if you don't fancy making the 3,776 metre ascent to the very top, the iconic shape and snow-capped peak of Fuji-san make it a wonderful photographic opportunity. There are plenty of options for enjoying this picture-perfect area, one of the best being from the comfort and relaxation of the hot spring resort town of Fujikawaguchiko.
It's worth knowing that even when close to the mountain, clouds can often obscure views. The best time to see the peak in its full glory is either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. To include the famous cherry blossoms for the perfect photo, mid-April is prime time.
Despite its location in Japan's capital city, Senso-ji harks back to a past era. Tokyo's most famous, and oldest, Buddhist temple is an unforgettable experience that will wow even the most seasoned traveller.
A 15-minute train journey from Tokyo Station, the most obvious starting point when visiting is the Kaminarimon Gate. This colourful entrance point is decorated with statues of the gods of wind and thunder, a large red lantern and an ornate carved dragon.
Walking around the grounds there's plenty to take in, but the obvious focal point is the five-story pagoda. Dating from the 10th century, like the rest of the complex, the pagoda was rebuilt following damage in World War II, but lost none of its magnificence in the process.
As the pagoda is a graveyard, access is only available to relatives of those interred, but don't miss out on the opportunity to take photos of its grand exterior. There are surprisingly few pagodas in Tokyo, and none as impressive as this!
With so much packed into one site, it's inevitable that somewhere like Senso-ji is going to be a big draw. We recommend going early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. At night the complex is illuminated, making for a particularly special experience.
If this article has got you excited to check out what else Japan has to offer, the time to start planning your trip is now. Get in touch with your local Travellers Choice agent to plan a tailored trip to tick everything off your list.