Japan is a compact and spiritual country that is brimming with unique experiences you won’t see anywhere else. Classic samurai and elegant geishas, Onsen baths and the celestial Mount Fuji, temples, shrines and tea ceremonies are just the tip of the iceberg. Here we dig even deeper; how about roaming the Japanese Alps or enjoying a traditional Kaiseki meal? These 11 highlights bring you closer to the real Japan.
The highest mountain in Japan is sacred and an integral part of the visual arts and Japanese literature. The volcano, with its snow-capped summit towers at over 3,776m above sea level. Thanks to its almost perfect, conical shape, Fuji looks as if it has been painted. The hot springs and five lakes in the Hakone region offer dreamy conditions for an escape from the city. Those who love camping will find some of the best campsites in Hakone, complete with a clear starry sky at night. From July to August, the hiking trails are open to different levels of difficulty. If you want to dare to climb the summit, you can take a 2-day tour. After a break halfway you reach the top in time for sunrise – incomparable!
Torii are part of Japanese architecture and are used as real or symbolic entrance gates to Shinto shrines. They each consist of two pillars with two horizontal bars and mark the boundary between the profane world and the sanctuary. Naturally, the transition to Mount Fuji also takes place in the watchful and consecrating presence of a Torii. So stop for a moment in front of the Kanadorii gate, go inside and then proceed onwards in high spirits.
Temples and shrines
The majority of Japanese people associate with either Shinto or Buddhism and regularly bring their gods small and large offerings in the temples. Almost 2,000 temples fill Kyoto alone. Japan’s landmark Kinkakuji Temple is located in Kyoto. Its upper floors are covered with gold leaf, and if it is reflected in the surrounding lake, the resulting impression leaves you speechless. Of the shrines, the Fushimi Inari shrine is the most famous, a seemingly endless path through hundreds of orange torii. The Meiji Shrine is also just as impressive. Dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who is celebrating his 100th anniversary this year, and his wife Shoken. The area includes an evergreen forest of more than 100,000 trees donated by people from all over Japan. Perfect as an oasis of calm in insatiable Tokyo.
The Kiso Valley, located in the centre of Japan in Nagano, got stuck in another time. Bordering the east with the Central Alps and the west by Mount Ontake, it is here where you can experience true rural Japan. Mount Ontake is almost as high as Mount Fuji in size (3,067m) and has been a pilgrimage destination for over a thousand years. Do the as the pilgrims did, and cleanse yourself in the Kiyotaki and Shintaki waterfalls before hiking the mountain. Or make it easy for yourself and take the cable car up to the 2,150m point and explore the shrines and lakes of the Ontake.
In the middle of the Kiso Valley, between Kyoto and Tokyo, an old trade route leads into the days of the Shogunate, when the road was an important artery from the 17th to the 20th century. A total of 11 post towns line the path, including Magome and Tsumago. The well-to-do villages and the route that connects them are well preserved. A rather steep road leads through the picturesque Magome, which with its mill and the Japanese half-timbered houses is an image of an ideal world. Just 8 kilometres further awaits Tsumago. Cars are off-limits on the main street of Tsumago; traditional minshuku and ryokan (inns) make the journey through time even more impressive.
Hikers know Japan is an enchanting mountainous terrain. The Japanese Alps are formed by three mountain ranges: Hida in the north, Kiso in the centre and Akaishi in the south. The most outstanding attractions include the majestic Kamikochi mountain ranges and Matsumoto Castle. Hike through deep gorges, past turquoise lakes in the Hakuba valley to the Chubu Sangaku National Park or let the sublime Senjojiki valley work its magic on you. The sensational views in Senjojiki are very effectively lined by the colours of the trees and plants that change with the seasons.
Tea culture and Kaiseki
The meticulous procedures of a traditional tea ceremony have been determined by strict rules for over 1,000 years. This includes the seating arrangements and the use of certain utensils. A small meal creates the basis for the tea, Kaiseki. A successful Kaiseki menu is like a symphony of tastes and sensory impressions. Light broths, rice, pickled or cooked vegetables and fish relieve the stomach and are based, among other things, on the seasons. Such a ceremony should lead to serenity and contemplation and is described by the four terms Wa (harmony), Kei (respect), Sei (purity) and Jaku (silence).
In premodern Japan, the samurai were the elite warriors who lived by Bushido rules and were characterized by their loyalty and self-discipline. Since they were at the head of the social structure at that time, they had the privilege of living in their own quarters. In the small town of Chiran on the Satsuma peninsula, you can visit houses and gardens in the samurai district that are over 250 years old. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to enter the samurai building, but seven of the gardens are freely accessible. All are kept relatively small, and five of them are dry Kareansui gardens (like the famous Ryoan-ji), symbols of minimalism that are supposed to encourage meditation.
In general, landscape architecture in Japan is taken very seriously. Plants, moss surfaces and stones blend into well-thought-out compositions. A prime example of these melancholy scenic tableaus is the miniature rock garden by Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, which is reminiscent of an abstract work of art made of pebbles. Many of these gardens are designed as Kansho Shiki, that is meant for pure contemplation and not to be entered, giving the architects more freedom to impact the garden’s admirers.
Onsen bath culture
Japanese bathing culture also follows stringent rules. People bathe clothe-free and separated according to gender, and in many bathhouses, tattoos and piercings are prohibited. The average temperature of a Japanese Onsen is a sweaty 41-42 °.
In Hakone, at the foot of Mount Fuji, seven Onsen invite you to either wine or coffee baths. If that sounds too adventurous, then the open-air baths with a mountain panorama are just what you need. Elsewhere, the famous Dogo Onsen, according to legend, healed a wounded heron (and today you). The slightly alkaline pure water flows directly from the hot spring. In Hokkaido, Noboribetsu has some of the best Onsen in the country. The milk-white, mineral-containing spring water is known for its health benefits and flows from the ‘Valley of Hell’, a geothermally active zone. A hike in the area is very impressive, where the earth is steaming, and the rivers are foaming.
Geishas of Kyoto
The epitome of Japanese femininity and sophistication are the geishas, and Kyoto is the heart of Japanese geisha culture. During their apprenticeship, which lasts an average of five years, a so-called Kami-san accompanies the young girls. In small houses – called Okiya – these ladies of high culture entertain their guests in a private setting with singing, dancing, and poetry. If you want to experience the art of the geishas live in action, you should catch one of the public appearances. Every day in April, the geishas perform in the traditional Gionja district of Gion Kobu.