by Roy DuffieldJapan is unarguably one of the world’s most fascinating destinations, but it can be expensive to travel …especially as TEFL teachers are not entitled to the Japan Rail Pass. So, to save you some pennies, I’ve put together this list of highlights, all within easy reach of the major cities.
Firstly, with its own unique dialect, culture and cuisine, not to mention a night life to rival Tokyo’s (whilst more compact and easily navigable), Osaka is definitely Japan’s coolest city.
Secondly, let’s face it; for all the hype, Fuji really is an ugly mountain to climb, and since Japan is 70% mountainous, it’s not hard to find one without souvenir stands or queues to the summit. Matsumoto city is beautifully situated in the Japanese Alps, which span Nagano and the surrounding prefectures, making it a great base for exploring the highlands. It is home to one of only a few original Japanese castles that remain (another being Himeji). It is known as Crow Castle, due to its menacing black exterior. Nearby is Norikura Kogen, an alpine region of exceptional natural beauty where you can find skiing in winter and scenic hikes in summer. Another incredible route lies between Tsumago and Magome along the ancient Nakasendo postal road.
Shinto beliefs continue to have a huge influence on Japanese culture. They often involve spirits found in natural forces such as mountains, rivers, trees and the Sun. The most important Shinto shrine is near Ise, Mie prefecture, where you can find the Meoto Iwa, two rocks jutting from the waves, “wedded” by a rope of rice straw.
For temples, be sure to hit Nara (near Kyoto), home to the world’s largest bronze Buddha. Like Miyajima Island, just offshore of Hiroshima, the Japanese have shoved in a whole bunch of deer to scare children, steal food and wrestle you for your guide book. Enjoy.
Finally, no time in Japan is complete without a stay in a traditional Ryokan Inn. This historical form of Japanese hospitality includes traditional meals, green tea and yukata robes in your room, communal ofuro baths, and much more. They are found all over Japan but tend to concentrate around natural hot springs, in rural locations. Book in advance.