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Japan

A guide to its main attractions
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Selected by piero scaruffi | Back to the travel page | Suggestions
My pictures of Japan
This page provides a list of the main things to see in Japan. "++" identifies the top attractions.
  • Hiraizumi (northern Honshu): +Chuson-ji (1005), Konjikido (1124)
  • Akita prefecture (northern Honshu): ++Oyu stone circle of 2,000 BC (46m diameter) in Kazuno (Address: Aza, Manza 45, Oyu, Towada, Kazuno-shi, Akita-ken)
  • Akita prefecture (northern Honshu): +Yoshinogari ruins of Yayoi Period (300 BC-300 AD)
  • Matsushima Bay (northern Honshu): +Zuigan-ji (828)
  • Nikko: +Toshogu shrine with Karamon gate and five-story pagoda, Daiyuinbyo/Taiyuin-byo
  • Nagano: +Zenko-ji with Korean statues of 552, Idojiri Archaeological Museum (Jomon period)
  • Matsumoto: +Castle (1504)
  • Tokyo:
    • North: Tange's Cathedral near Gokokuji station or Edogawabashi station (1965): Edobawabashi station exit 1a, wal under the expressway, then coast it to the right, then walk up the alley until you see the Four Season Hotel to your left (2010) and the cathedral is on the right handside
    • Asakusa: Senso-ji
    • Asakusa: Phillippe Starck's Asahi Super Dry Hall (1989) at 1-23-1 Azumabashi (across the bridge from Asakusa)
    • Ueno: Ueno Park
    • Ueno: LeCorbusier's The National Museum of Western Art (1959)
    • Ueno: +National Museum (closed on mondays)
    • Ueno: Kunio Mayekawa's Metropolitan Festival Hall (1961)
    • Central: Imperial Palace near Tokyo station (photo op at the bridge before gate)
    • Central: Tatsuno Kingo's Bank of Japan (1896)
    • Central: Tatsuno Kingo's Tokyo Station (1914)
    • Central: Okada Shinichiro's Kabukiza (1924, demolished in 2010)
    • Central: Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel (1922, destroyed),
    • Central: Rafael Vinoly's International Forum near Yurakucho station (1996),
    • Ginza: Pias Building on Harumi Dori
    • Ginza: Ricardo Bofill's Christian Dior Building (2004) at 5-6-1 Ginza on Harumi Dori
    • Ginza: Renzo Piano's Maison Hermes Building on Harumi Dori
    • Ginza: Ashihara's Sony Building on Harumi Dori
    • Ginza: Waco Building on Harumi Dori
    • Ginza: Seibu complex on Harumi Dori
    • Ginza: Ricardo Bofill's Shiseido Building (2001) at 8-8-3 Ginza (same street as Waco, one block from Mitsui Gardens)
    • Ginza: Kisho Kurokawa's Nakagin Capsule Tower/ Nakagin Kapuseru Tawa
    • Ginza: Jun Mitsui's DeBeers building
    • Ginza: Kabukiza/ Kabuki Theater (1924)
    • Shiodome: S-City Center (2003) at 1-5-2 Higashi-Shimbashi
    • Shiodome: Jean Nouvel's Dentsu building (2002)
    • Omotesando: Toyo Ito's Tod's Omotesando Building (2004) at 5-1-15 Jingumae,
    • Omotesando: Christian Dior Omotesando Building (2003) at 5-9-11 Jingumae,
    • Omotesando: Japanese Nursing Association
    • Omotesando: Jun Aoki's Louis Vuitton building
    • Omotesando: Kengo Kuma's One Omotesando
    • Omotesando: Prada building
    • Yoyogi: Tange's Stadium in Yoyogi Park (1964): Meiji-jingumae station exit 1
    • Yoyogi: -Miji Shrine
    • Shinjuku: Kenzo Tange's Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Building One (1991)
    • Shinjuku: Yasuda Kasai Kaijo or Sompo Building (1976)
    • Shinjuku: Tange's Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower
    • Shinjuku: Island Tower
    • Shinjuku: Sumitomo building
    • Shinjuku: Hilton
    • Shinjuku: Park Towers
    • Shinjuku: NS building (giant water clock inside)
    • Akasaka: Tange's Sogetsu Art Center (1957) near Aoyama station
    • Akasaka: Canada Place (Canadian Embassy)
    • Atago Green Hills: Cesar Pelli's Mori Tower (2001) near Kamiyacho station (if you don't see it, walk around the station)
    • Atago Green Hills: Forest Tower near Kamiyacho station (if you don't see it, walk around the station)
    • Roppongi: Kisho Kurokawa's National Art Center (2005) near Nogizaka Station
    • Roppongi Hills' Mori Tower (2003)
    • Roppongi: Sekkei's Izumi Gardens Tower (2002)
    • Akasaka: Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's Midtown building (2007)
    • Sekkei's NEC Supertower at 5-7-1 Shiba, Minato-ku (1990), above the Mita station
    • South: Sone Tatsuzo's Memorial Library (1912) of Keio University ("Kyukan" at the very beginning of the Mita campus after the eastern gate, seven blocks west from the NEC Supetower)
    • South: Tange's +Fuji Broadcasting Center in Odaiba near Odaiba monorail station (1990),
    • South: Kazuo Shinohara 's Tokyo Institute of Technology's Centennial Hall in Ookayama (1987), right outside the subway station
    • South: Hiroshi Hara's Yamato International Building in Heiwajima, five monorail stations south of Shinbamba (1987)
    • Sone Tatsuzo's Memorial Library (1912) of Keio University
    • Okamoto's "Myth of Tomorrow" in Shibuya Station
  • Nagano (northwest of Tokyo): Shell House (2008)
  • Narita (near Tokyo): Shibayama Kofun and Haniwa Museum
  • Mt Fuji (near Tokyo): 5 hrs hike (3100m)
  • Yokohama (south of Tokyo): Hugh Stubbins' +Landmark Tower (1993)
  • Kamakura (near Yokohama):
    • Tsurugaoka-Hachiman Shinto shrine
    • Shariden relic hall of Engaku-ji (1285), largest of Kamakura's five Zen temples
    • Daibutsu +colossal bronze Buddha of Kotokuin-ji (1253)
    • Hasedera: +11-faced Hase Kannon
    • Kencho-ji (1253)
    • Scam alert: Kamakura is probably the biggest scam in Japan. Nothing is left of the ancient capital. Most of its temples are Buddhist, which means that you have to pay an entrance fee (unlike Shinto shrines, Christian churces and Muslim mosques), and Buddhists are also particular about what you can photograph and even about what you can see. The Shinto shrine is worth a visit, but the three main Buddhist temples are ridiculous. They are mostly modern reconstructions of buildings that were rather uninspiring to start with. It is forbidden to photograph the only statue that is worth seeing (the Hase Kannon) and the Shariden of Engaku-ji is permanently closed to visitors (and, being a bad copy of Chinese architecture, it would have long been burned down in China). They are also expensive (Y300 each of the three main Buddist temples). If you do have money to waste, get off the train at the Kita Kamakura station, walk to Engaku, then Kencho, then Tsurugaoka-Hachiman shrine, then down the steps to the wide avenue that leads to the main station, then walk behind the station towards the Hasedera, then up to the Daibutsu. Exit the Daibutsu, turn right, follow the road to a tunnel and just before the tunnel is the hiking trail to Kita Kamakura (4kms, about 1 hour).
  • Kanazawa: Kenroku-en Park
  • Shokawa valley: traditional "gassho-zukuri" houses
  • Hiroshima: Kenzo Tange's Peace Park (1956) with Cenotaph
  • Iwakuni: Kintai-kyo bridge (1673)
  • Takamatsu: Kenzo Tange's Administration Building (1958)
  • ++Nara:
    • Scam alert: Nara temples are way overpriced and photography is generally not allowed inside them. Save the money and buy a good book on the history of Japanese art, which probably has all the pictures that you are not allowed to take. See below for details on Nara.
    • +Horyu-ji (7th c) with Nandaimon southern gate, Chumon middle gate with two guardians (red and black) of 711, Kondo (oldest surviving wooden building in the world), bronze +Shaka Trinity of 623 in the Kondo, bronze statue of Yakushi-nyorai of 607 in the Kondo, five-storey pagoda (with +four tableaux of 711 depicting scenes from the life of Buddha), four guardian kings in the altar of the kondo (7th c), Daikodo of 990 (with gilded wooden Yakushi Trinity and four celestial guardians), +Tamamushi Shrine of 650 in the treasure house (top is oldest representation of a temple and the painting is one of the oldest paintings) and +Yumedomo Kannon, photographs of the Kondo frescoes of 710 in the Great Treasury/Diahozoden, Kyozo, Shoro bell tower, Shoryon (1121), Todaimon east gate, Yume-dono, Dempodo,
    • +Yakushi-ji with east pagoda of 8th c, +bronze trinity of 726 and Kichijouten painting of 8th c and Yasumigaoka Hachiman shinto shrine with three sculptures of 9th c (earliest extant shinto sculptures) and Toindo (1285)
    • +Todai-ji of 752 with south gate of 1199, four guardians/shitenno and their pedestals (73#) in the Kaidanin, Nigatsu-do, Fukukenjaku Kannon(74#) and shukongojin (733) and Bonten and Taishakuten and celestial guardians in the +Hokke-do/Sangatsudo, wooden yakushi statue of 9th c, priest Ruben of 11th c, bodhisattva of the Songatsu-do (8th c AD), priest Jugen of the Shunjo-bo (13th c), +Shosoin with thousands of paintings, Daibutsuden with reconstruction of colossal Buddha of 1692, +Nandaimon south gate on 18 columns with two guardian statues, guardian Kongorikishi by Unkei of 1203, Hachiman by Kaikei (1201), +Daibutsuden
    • +Toshodai-ji with Kondo of 759 (with Buddha altar of 8th c and +sculpture of blind priest Ganjin and thousand-arm Buddha of 8th c, statue of Yakushi-Nyorai, wooden statues of Bonten and Taishakuten) and Kodo and Mieido with statue of Ganjin
    • Muro-ji (9th c) with Kondo, wooden seated sakyamuni of 9th c, 12 wooden generals of 13th c, five-storied pagoda;
    • Horin-ji with Kokuzo Bosatsu of 7th Century
    • Kanaya Miraku-dani (sakyamuni and miraku stone reliefs of 9th c)
    • Joruri-ji (Kichijo-ten statue of 12th c, best example of Fujiwara style, nine images of Amida, wooden Bato Kwannon of 1241),
    • +Kofuku-ji of 720 with sculptures of the saikondo of 734, statues by Unkei of 1208, Kongorikishi statue by Jokei of 1288, lamp bearer by Koben of 1215, octogonal hall Hokuendo of 1210, Fukukenjaku Kannon by Kokei (1189), +Hokuendo, +Tokondo, +pagoda of 730,
  • Asuka, near Nara: +Asukadera temple (+gilt bronze statue of Asuka Daibutsu of 609)
  • Kyoto (NW=northwest, S=south, TS=train station, E=east):
    • NW: +Kinkaku-ji (properly Rokuon-ji) with golden pavilion of 1397
    • NW: +Daitokuji with five-storey pagoda, Kotoin surrounded by bamboo forest, +Daisen-in garden of 16th c, the Ryogen-in with most famous zen garden of Japan, hojo by Kano Eitoku of 1566 in the Juko-in (Kitaoji station of Karasuma subway line)
    • NW: Seiryo-ji with statue of Sakyamuni (987) and Daikaku-ji
    • NW: Ryoan-ji with +Kare-sansui rock garden
    • NW: Koryu-ji of 603, oldest temple in Kyoto, with wooden image of Miroku-Bosatsu-Hanka-Shii-zo and wooden female shinto bust of 9th c (Uzumasa station of Keifuku subway line), three statues from early Heian period in Hatto and with Hokkado (octagonal building)
    • TS: Kyoto station (1997)
    • TS: Higashi Honganji (near train station)
    • TS: +Nishi Honganji (near train station)
    • TS: +To-ji (Kyoogokoku-ji) of 794 with five Akasagarbha of 9th c and tallest pagoda (1644) in Japan (near train station)
    • TS: +Sanjusangendo of 1164 with 1,001 wooden statues of the thousand-handed Kannon around Tankei's large seated Kannon of 1254, Fujin gods on altar by Tankei (eastern Kyoto)
    • +Shishinden of old imperial palace Gosho
    • +Nijo castle (1603)
    • E: +Ginkakuji with Silver Pavilion of 15th c
    • E: +Kiyomizu temple of 1633 to honor goddess of mercy Kannon
    • E: Nanzen-ji: Okunoin, garden (Keage station on Toza line)
    • E: Chion-in
    • E: Eikan-do
    • E: Yasaka shrine
    • S: +Tofuku-ji of 1236, one of the earliest zen temples, with +sanmon of 1425 and "Death of Buddha" (1408) by Mincho
    • S: Katsura Imperial Villa (Katsura Rikyu) of 1624 (Katsura station on the Hankyu line)
    • S: Fushimi-Inari shrine of 1499 (Inari station on the Nara line)
    • S: Uji (40 minutes south of Kyoto on the Nara line): +Byodo-in of 1052 with +Ho-o-do/Phoenix Hall of 1053 (standard for Fujiwara's Amida halls), Jocho's 1053 +sculpture of Amitabha and ornate ceiling, and Ujigami Shrine of 12th c, oldest surviving shrine architecture in Japan
  • Kyoto temples by price and importance:
    • Kinkaku-ji/ Rokuon-ji ++ Y400
    • Daitokuji + free to roam around but ticket for each subtemple
    • Seiryo-ji - Y?
    • Ryoan-ji Y500
    • Koryu-ji free except Y700 for Treasure Hall
    • Higashi Honganji - free
    • Nishi Honganji ++ free
    • To-ji free except Y500 for the gardens
    • Sanjusangendo + Y600
    • Gosho - free but appointment required
    • Nijo + Y600
    • Ginkakuji + Y600
    • Kiyomizu - free except hall
    • Nanzen-ji - free except Y500 for garden
    • Eikan-do - Y600
    • Chion-in - free
    • Yasaka - free
    • Tofuku-ji + free except Y400 for hall
    • Katsura + Y?
    • Fushimi-Inari + free
    • Byodo-in + Y600
  • Takao (northwestern suburb of Kyoto): Jingo-ji of 9th c with +wooden statue of Yakushi of 9th c, five kokuzo of 9th c, Godai Kokuzo Bodhisattva of 9th c, Kongo-kai mandala of 9th c
  • Mt Kasatori: Daigo-ji (913) with Yakushi triad (10th c) and five-storied pagoda (951)
  • Osaka: Kirin Plaza, Kisho Kurokawa's Sony Tower (1976), +Umeda Sky building (500 meters from Umeda subway station), Shitennoji temple of 593 (reconstruction), Suntori museum in Tempozan (Osakako subway station)
  • Sakai: +Tumulus tomb of Emperor Nintoku 5th century or Daisen-Kofun (Mikunigaoka station near Osaka: the tomb cannot be visited but walk to City Hall and use observatory at 21st floor to look at its layout)
  • Himeji (one hour from Osaka): +Himeji Castle of 1609 (being remodeled in 2010) or Shirasagi-jo castle
  • Kobe: +Hondo (1304) of Taisan-ji, Municipal Museum (Kano Naizen's six-panel painting of Christian mass celebration)
  • Ise (two hours from Osaka/Kyoto): +Naiku shrine, Kongosho-ji, Geku (Scam alert: you won't be able to see any of the important buildings).
  • Wakajama: Wakayama castle of 1585, Choho-ji of 1000, Dojo-ji of 700, Koya-san holy mountain with Kongobu-ji with +Fudo-do (1198) and large hanging scroll of 1086, Kimii-dera temple, Kokawa-dera temple of 770, Negoro-dera of 1130
  • Miyajima: +Itsukushima shrine (12th c)
  • Taisha (southern Honshu): +Izumo Taisha Shrine (oldest shrine in Japan)
  • Southern islands:
    • Kyushu: Beppu: +Usa shintoist shrine (725), Fukuoka city skyline (Japan's Silicon Valley); Kokonoe: 173m-tall and 390m-long Yume suspension bridge
    • Shikoku: Kochi: Tosa shrine, Chikurin-ji, Kokubun-ji
Notes (2010)
  • Japan is very expensive (in 2010) by the standards of any place in the world, but there are many Y100 stores where one can buy everything from drinks to souvenirs, notably Daiso.
  • New Koyo Hotel has the cheapest rooms in Tokyo (three stations north of Ueno on the Hibiya line)
  • Osaka is much cheaper than Kyoto. The train from Osaka to Kyoto costs Y600-900 (in 2010) and takes 30-45 minutes. It is worth staying in Osaka (near the Shin-Imamiya and Dobutsuen-mae train stations) to save 20-30 dollars for the hotel in Shin-Imamiya. In 2010: Lucky Y1800 with free Internet station, Toyo Y1500 with free wi-fi. They all have the same small Japanese-style rooms. At the same time the cheapest private room i could find in Kyoto was at the infamous Uno guesthouse for Y5000, although it advertised a room for Y2650. Osaka also has the largest Daiso store in the country (Rainbow Plaza in Sakai city): all items are Y100 or so.
  • Nara is an ugly modern city. If you hope to find any traces of the old medieval capital, forget it.
  • Nara temples are ridiculously expensive for what they offer, and for what you can do. The buildings (with a few exceptions) have no historical or artistic value because they are modern reconstructions (often made of concrete). The artistic masterpieces are inside but you are not allowed to photograph them and some of them are not visible at all. You can see the five main temples in a day. It takes two hours for the largest and ten minutes for the smallest. The problem is the distance: they are spread over a large area. All in all, Nara is a very unpleasant experience. Here is my breakdown:
    • Todai-ji: 2 hours (you can roam for free, but need to pay Y500 to enter Daibutsuden, Hokkedo and Kaidain, none of which is essential to enter because photography is not allowed inside)
    • Kofuku-ji: Y300, 20 minutes (but save the money: all the best buildings are visible for free)
    • Yakushi-ji: Y800, 30 minutes plus 10' for the northern addition (all modern reconstructions or brand new buildings except the eastern pagoda)
    • Toshodai-ji: Y600, 15 minutes (but save the money: only one building is worth it, and you can take the pictures from outside)
    • Horyu-ji: Y1000 (the biggest scam, but the two best statues are visible for free at the front gate
  • Basically, the artistic masterpieces are simply used as a display window to lure customers to real center of the Buddhist temple: the souvenir shop.
  • Kyoto is generally more reasonable: the ticket price is usually reasonable, there are indeed artistic masterpieces inside, and most of the grounds of a temple are free of charge.
  • Horyu-ji has it own train station (a 500 meter walk though) on the Osaka-Nara line.
  • The bus from Nara to Yakushi-ji is very expensive: Y320
  • Train Osaka to Nara: Y540, 30 minutes
  • Train Osaka to Himeji: Y1450, which roundtrip is almost exactly the amount of a day pass on all JR trains (including Kyoto and Nara), so it's better to buy the day pass. Entrance: Y400. The main tower was under reconstruction in 2010.
  • Buses are essential to tour Kyoto (unless you rent a bike). A day pass for all city buses is Y500 (2010). Individual rides are Y220.
  • Kyoto temples: Byodo-in Y600 (just to walk around the building plus Y300 to get in), Kinkaku-ji Y400 (just to walk around the pavillion and no entrance inside),
  • To get to Ise. Train from Namba station in Osaka to Iseshi on the Kinketsu line Y3030 2 hours. From Iseshi the bus to Naiku takes 15 minutes. The bus is extremely expensive for such a short distance: Y400. On the other hand, there no ticket is charged to enter the compound. As usual, photography is not allowed inside buildings. The main building is not visible, but tourists routinely peer through fences and wherever feasible.
  • The Isejingu in Ise is the most important shinto complex in Japan. It contains several shrines. Naiku is the biggest and most important, because it is dedicated to the sun goddess Amateratsu, the grand-grand-grand...-mother of all emperors. All the buildings are only 20 years old but they date from the 3rd century. The reason why this is possible is that every 20 years the government builds an exact replica of each and every building and destroys the old building. The rebuilding is faithful: original techniques of 2,000 years ago are employed (for example, no nails can be used). The last wave of rebuilding took place in 1993 and cost a fortune. This also means that an army of carpenters are paid by the government to train for twenty years and be ready for the next wave of rebuilding. The Naiku contains a sacred mirror that only the emperor is allowed to see (but apparently no emperor has ever wanted to).
  • Scam alert: there is absolutely nothing to see in Ise other than the crowds. The "ancient" architecture (actually rebuilt every 20 years by tradition) is not visible. You can catch a glimpse of the inner sanctuary but you are not allowed to take a picture. In any event their "classic" architecture is truly uninspiring: stone-age. The style dates from the 3rd century, when the Colosseum had already been built and the Parthenon had existed for seven centuries. At that time Japanese imperial shrine was just a simple wooden building with not the slightest sign of imagination. The joke is "if you were a Japanese, you too would not want to show these buildings to tourists". Naiku is the largest and most popular site. It is also the most crowded. Geku is a smaller version of it and more enjoyable (also just a five-minute walk from the Iseshi train station). If you have to waste your time and money, Geku is a way to cut your losses.
  • Iseshi 3030 for limited express or 1750 for rapid express. Bus to Naiku: Y410 each way.
  • Train to Kansai airport: Y1030

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