To begin with, let me offer a disclaimer. I am not an expert in either Japan nor a member of the travel industry. I do not write tour guides for a living. I simply happened to offer what little experience I had accumulated for fellow travellers to read as part of my Cynic's Guide to Visiting Japan. Before long, however, I began receiving questions like the following:
"If you have any special [places in Japan] you really want to recommend, would you e-mail me about that? I [would] appreciate that."
Each time a message like that comes in, I was faced with the choice of answering off the top of my head or ignoring the message. Since each time the request was accompanied with grateful praise of what little I had already written, I generally answered from my most recent experience.
This time, I decided to save what I had written and turn it into a full-blown web page in it's own right. After all, if Japan is listed as one of my hobbies, then I ought to be able to recommend where to go. In fact, I can use this as an excuse to get out to different places instead of visiting the same places every time I go.
That said, let me point out that my recommendations would vary dependng upon when you're travelling (what time of the year), how much time you have to spend, and upon which cities you intend to visit. Of course, if you're near Tokyo anytime around the 3rd of December, I would definately try to make it to Chichibu (in Saitama-ken) for the Yo-matsuri (Night Festival).
Most of my own experience is with the Tokyo area so my views are obviously biassed. If you have the time, you'll want to visit several different cities. I would include both Tokyo and Kyoto in your itinery, especially if this is your first trip (and if it's not, you probably know as much or more than me). Tokyo, being the present-day capital and largest city, offers a wide variety of experiences. Kyoto, being one of the "ancient" capital cities of Japan, offers a lot of historical culture, as well as some of the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen. Of course, I'm sure there are many other great places to visit but I'm afraid I can't offer much help there.
Around the Tokyo/Yokohama area, almost anything you enjoy can be found if you know where to look. I have collected several books detailing various specialty districts and little-known attractions but I still feel like I've only seen a tenth of what there is to see. I've separated the places I know of into the following categories:
There are various shopping districts, the most famous of which seem to be Ginza and Akihabara. In Ginza you can find everything from massive department stores to small artsy-like stores. On Sundays, the street is closed for a stretch of several blocks to accomodate the huge number of people who go there just to seem "hip".
For computers, audio, video, games, and general electronic stuff, Akihabara is a must. Right next JR Akihabara station is a series of narrow alley-like passages where everything electronic is sold by small-time operators in small booths, sometimes so small there is room only for the products and a single chair for the person behind the counter. This place is worth seeing even if you don't intend to buy anything of an electronic nature. And, depending where you're from, you may be better off just looking. The prices in Japan are still higher than in the US for most widely known brands and models (of nearly everything). That is slowly changing. Of course, you will also see things here that simply aren't available anywhere else. It's amazing just how small some of these gadgets can be.
There are lots of other shopping districts: Jimbocho for books, Ueno for motorcycle accessories, Kanda for sporting goods, Kappabashi-dori for restraurant supplies (you should check out the various food-sample stores here and pick up some plastic sushi to fool your friends back home), and so on. A good guide book will fill you in on what can be bought where.
Just about all the major train stations in Tokyo boast at least one large department store. Usually, the basement of each of these stores is filled with small food stands selling everything from sake to fish to cakes. This is worth a look if you like food.
If you like temples and shrines, then Meiji Jungu and Asakusa Kannon must be on your list of places to see. There are so many less popular temples and shrines all over Japan that it should be nearly impossible to avoid running into at least one or two during your trip. Of course, the huge statue of Buddah down in Kamakura is a pretty famous place for tourists and the Kamakura area has a wealth of other historical and culture to offer (just try not to go on a weekend if you value your sanity).
There is a vary nice garden right next to the Imperial Palace in the middle of Tokyo, open to the public whenever it's not closed to accomodate some guest of the Emperor. There is another very nice garden just outside of Shinjuku (Shinjuku Gyouen) that boasts a couple of greenhouses full of interesting plant life. And you simply must visit a place called Sankei-en in Yokohama where a bunch of old buildings from all around Japan have been dismantled, moved, and re-assembled as part of a historical collection.
Ueno-koen (park) is another popular place to visit. The park and surrounding area is large enough that you could easily spend the better part of a day there and still not see everything. Right in the middle of Ueno-koen is the Ueno Zoo. It's a pretty small zoo, as zoos go but they have a couple of pandas there so it's worth a look. Ueno koen also has a large number of museums of different types.
To see the "other side" of life in Japan, take a stroll through Shinjuku-koen, just west of Shinjuku station. There you will find dozens of cardboard shacks erected by the homeless of Tokyo. The amazing thing is that unlike the homeless in the States, these people actually make an effort to keep their places nice. Some of the places are quite elaborate, considering that they're made from cardboard and scrap.
For romantic places, there's a nice beach in an area called O-daiba. O-daiba was supposed to be a futuristic city representing Japan in the 21st century. That is, until the economic bubble burst and the money ran out. Still, some of the most interesting buildings can be found in O-daiba, as well as a park and a shopping mall which is right alongside the harbor.
There is a boat that leaves from a port near Asakusa station and travels down the Sumida River. The boat itself isn't very romantic but a relaxing river cruise is not a bad way to start off a date. And you get to see a number of historical and interesting bridges along the way.
In the Yokohama area there's Yamashita-koen and the pier area. You can walk what was described by a friend of mine as the "date course" which takes the better part of a day. Starting from the Moto-machi area, you climb the hill to a place called "Gaijin-bochi" (Foreigner's Cemetary). Since most Japanese elect to burn their dead, this place must have made quite an impression on the natives at the time it was first established. Since Yokohama has always been the port of call for foreign traders, there is quite a collection of historical figures buried there. From the cemetary, you proceed to "Minato no Mieru Koen" (the park where you can see the harbor). The view from there is spectacular and the crowds are not too bad. From there, you decend the hill until you reach Yamashita-koen. By then it should be about dinner time so you look about for a place in the pier area or, with a short walk, in Yokohama's Chinatown (another must-see).
This section isn't quite finished. There are, however, a number of places just outside Tokyo that are interesting to check out. Tokyo Disneyland is not worth doing if you can manage to make it to either California or Florida. But there are theme parks around Tokyo that are unique. Like Sanrio Puroland (home of Hello Kitty) or Tobu Dobutsu-koen (Tobu zoo).
If you have the time, you should also plan to spend a couple days at an onsen (hot spring). There are whole books listing various onsen -- you could pick up a magazine when you get there, select a place based on the pictures, and find a JTB office to make the arrangements for you. The only places I've tried are in the Izu/Ito area, in Hakone, and in Nikko -- all of which were beautiful. Most accomodations come with dinner and breakfast. Unless you're in a super-cheap place, this will be the highlight of your stay. Nikko, of course, also has a national park with a series of Temples and Shrines that you could spend a whole day exploring. And the bus trip up the mountain to Gozenji (I think that's the name) passes through an area where Japanese monkeys come right up to the car and beg for food.
Not far from Nikko, in a place called Kinugawa, there's a theme park where they've tried to replicate what life in the old Edo period was like. It's kinda touristy, but if you have any interest in Japanese historical stuff (like samurai and ninja), it's pretty cool.
If you go to one of these places on a weekend, expect crowds and traffic jams. If you pick a 3-day weekend resulting from a national holiday, expect to sleep on a park bench and to wait for hours for a seat on the train to get there.
In the heart of Tokyo, a few places stand out as good places to view the latest fashion trends and, in general, see what living as a teen in Tokyo is all about. Among thest are (in this order), Shibuya, Shinjuku (especially the Kabukicho area), Roppongi, Ikebukuro, and Harajuku. Each area has a slightly different flavor so where to go really depends a lot on what you like to do and/or see. You can afford to be adventurous, since there's really no "bad" area of town as long as you're reasonably careful. Try to avoid accepting any "great deals" on entertainment, though. That 5000 yen all-you-can-drink strip bar can easily end up costing you several hundred dollars in extra charges by the time you're done.
The following don't seem to fit into any category other than "things you need to see at least once if you come to Japan":
Another good source of information is the Japan National Tourist Organization. They have information in all sorts of places to go, things to do, and where to stay along the way.
If you choose to visit Japan, I hope you have a wonderful trip. If you find anything interesting that you think I should check out for possible addition to this page, feel free to drop me a line.
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