Don't be married to guidebooks
Any "best of" list - or article or whatever you want to call it - should start with the basics. Which city is "can't miss"?
For Japan, there's really one city that just about everyone who isn't living in a cave will know for sure, and that is Tokyo. If you're planning on visiting Japan, you probably know more but Tokyo will be on your list of places to visit. Don't get me wrong, I really like Tokyo. But the flavour you get in Tokyo is often quite different from the rest of the country. If all you see is Tokyo, you really aren't getting the whole picture.
If someone asked me what my favourite city in Japan is, the answer would rattle off the tip of my tongue without hesitation.
Kyoto, of course.
Anybody who knows me and who knows anything about Kyoto wouldn't be surprised by this. For many others, the answer to that question would be Tokyo. If someone has spent a bit more time in Japan, their answer may be a completely different city or place. A huge part of that revolves around what you look for when you travel.
The term "can't miss" is really kind of a stupid one. Everything and nothing is "can't miss." You won't be able to see everything. There are great places and experiences that you're going to miss. Looking for the "can't miss" ones ignores the simple reality that not everybody likes the same things. Getting caught up in rankings and percentages is going to lead you to skip over things that might be better for your own interests. Even then, I think sometimes for the obvious reason of generating revenue, expectations are built up by showcasing things in a disingenuous way. Even "can't miss" cities are still cities. They're built for the convenience and utility of the people who live in them, not for your own aesthetic pleasure.
So we're going to look at the issue of "can't miss" cities in a tailor made fashion. Really broadly chopped up, I'll cover four cities that excel in four categories. A nice union, I think: something old, something new, something borrowed, something... green.
If there's a city that can possibly rival Tokyo for its popularity in travel books, it's Kyoto. There's no competition really. And there shouldn't be.
Kyoto is the cultural capital of Japan, with a history far deeper and older than Tokyo's. Kyoto is my favourite city because I like old, dusty things.
I'm not going to get into too much detail about history here but Kyoto was the seat of power in Japan with one stint in Kamakura until it moved to Tokyo in the 17th century. A huge number of cultural developments evolved from the city's imperial culture. For anyone who is interested in history, religion, or just learning about the traditional culture of Japan, there is no better place for quantity and quality.
Kyoto has so many great places. I've spent nearly two weeks there in aggregate and I didn't have nearly enough time to see everything I wanted to. A huge factor of that is the seasonal beauty of Kyoto. Every season in Kyoto is unique.
If you want to experience traditional culture, this is a great place to be. You have access to tea ceremony, geisha culture, Buddhist meditation, pilgrimage hikes to name a few.
The shopping districts are a lot of fun, and you can find some really good traditional goods that aren't just tourist junk. I've developed a bit of an addiction to collecting wood block prints. But there are also martial arts shops, knife shops, tea shops and myriad other products with a Kyoto flare.
All that said, in a lot of ways Kyoto is still a byproduct of the modern age. There's a downtown shopping area with gleaming windows on tall buildings. Less savoury, slightly dilapidated neighbourhoods.
Japan's economy took a big hit after their post-war growth, and it's pretty easy to see this in just about every city outside of Tokyo. Still, even in the shabbier neighbourhoods, you see the occasional old house that oozes character.
The location is good too. You have access to lots of cool day trips from Kyoto - Osaka, Himeji, Nara, Kobe, Okayama - and the Kansai airport isn't too far either.
No matter your interests, Kyoto is a fun place, but for those with an interest in Japan's culture and history, it really should be on your list of places to see. And you will need more than a day.
This one was also easy.
I haven't spent any significant time in Osaka, and it's the only potential city I can think of that is as close to being as modern as Tokyo. But really, Tokyo is in a league of its own. Central Tokyo, more specifically, is a sprawling, crowded mass of skyscrapers, shopping districts, and sharply dressed salary men and women that nestles in between the spiderweb of train and subway lines.
I often scroll past videos of strange things in Japan on my Facebook news feed, and they are almost exclusively from Tokyo. So my expectations of the city sort of aligned with the idea that Tokyo was a sort of hyper-modern city that lived in a post-modern cultural realm that had left the western world in its dust. This is a myth.
Tokyo is great. But if you're expecting to walk around in some futuristic alternate universe, you're going to be disappointed. That's not to say that there aren't bizarre, creative features of Tokyo that you can find if you know what you're looking for and where to look. They're there in abundance. Really, if something exists, you can find it in Tokyo.
But central Tokyo is huge and the further out you go, the less "Tokyo" it becomes. Most of it is just business as usual: people commuting to and from work, eating at typical restaurants that serve typical Japanese cuisine. Places like Akihabara and Harajuku are going to be a lot different than the neighbourhoods around Tokyo Station or Ginza.
I have no issues with people recommending Tokyo as a base for travel, even for those who aren't into the city scene. You can go on day trips to some really diverse places. Nikko and Kamakura share a lot of similarities with Kyoto. Tokyo is also in range of some good hiking places like Mt. Takao. Fuji is within reach too. It's by far the most convenient city in Japan.
Which is what Tokyo does best.
Convenience and big city life with a hefty dose of the strange and creative.
There's really no way I can suggest that Nagasaki is a more cosmopolitan city than Tokyo. Tokyo is far more diverse and tolerant by nature of being the country's capital and its biggest city.
But what Tokyo offers is a sort of hors d'oeuvre of Japanese culture, mixed with the comforts of a major international hub. Sort of like a native experience with the comforts of home. A snapshot into Japanese culture that's been modified for tourists. What you see is concentrated and simplified for the purposes of marketability.
For those who are looking for something really different, you might want to look further south.
Nagasaki has been a cosmopolitan city for much much longer than Tokyo. It was a trading port that housed pirates and priests and traders. The influences of the Chinese and the Dutch on the city are obvious. After you've been to a few Japanese cities, you sort of know what to expect. Nagasaki breaks the mould. It doesn't really feel like a Japanese city.
There's a China town district, with one of the local dishes in Nagasaki being a ramen that is much closer to a Chinese style than Japanese. Then there are influences from the Dutch, dating back to the only European polity that was permitted to trade with Japan after the expulsion of Portuguese priests a few hundred years ago. You can find Dutch sweets and there's even a Dutch theme park.
Added to this is the tragic history of Nagasaki as one of the only two cities in the world to have known the effects of the atomic bomb. Nagasaki is often overlooked as the second city to be bombed, and the city kind of reflects this. Far from crippled and insular, the city feels somehow more open. It's a somber experience visiting the Peace Park, but the message received is one of optimism.
On the Northwestern coast of Kyushu, Nagasaki is not exactly convenient, but if you can make it there, it offers a very unique experience.
It may come as a surprise to some that many Japanese people love nature and the natural world. They're avid hikers, and when seasonal plants are blooming, they travel in massive pilgrimages to the best flower or blossom viewing spots. Certainly, their culture is tied inherently to nature, but I think there's also a lot of weariness that builds up from living in the concrete jungles of modern Japan.
Yakushima is basically the antithesis of Tokyo. It's an island just south of Kyushu, the southernmost main island of Japan. Not far enough south to be tropical, the island is covered by mountains, in turn covered by green everything. Trees and moss latch onto everything in the forests. Many of the huge ancient trees on the island were cut down in the nineteenth century, but amazingly, trees have been planted on top of the massive trunks so that each yakusugi trunk often has its own small forest living on it. There are monkeys and deer that wander around. I was lucky enough to see monkeys on two occasions but no deer. Hiking through the woods is like transporting yourself into a fairy tale. And the best part about it is that there are no crowds.
Yakushima is the sole challenger to Kyoto for my favourite place in Japan. I had four days there and it wasn't nearly enough. The hikes I went on were the best I've ever experienced, without question. The sheer density of beautiful scenery is unbelievable. It's hard to make any progress in your walking because you spend all of your time drooling over the views.
Before I made it there, I was worried that the hype would exceed the actual experience. This is one of the only times that it didn't.
If you love nature, even if you don't care at all about Japanese culture, you will love Yakushima.
The location is not good, simply put. But this allows it to be so free of tourists. You have to fly to Kagoshima and then take a ferry. Bad weather is a huge factor - it rains for at least a short period of time nearly every day. But definitely worth it.
I think the important take here is to plan your travel for you specifically. It's great to get out of your comfort zone and try things you wouldn't normally, but it's also important that when you invest in travel, you're investing in the things that are going to hit you on a deeper level. And don't live or die by your travel guide.
I hope I didn't get too travel-mag in this one. This is as BuzzFeed as it's going to get. From here on out I hope to get back to the style I prefer.
We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!
OKSubscriptions powered by Strikingly