Main(land) Attractions: Must-see places for visitors

Main(land) Attractions: Must-see places for visitors

by Oscar Johnson
Stripes Okinawa

So, you found a cheap flight to mainland Japan? But what do you plan on doing? We've got some great places for you to check out.

Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood is an electronics goods Mecca and, more importantly to many, the hub of Japan’s “otaku” (diehard fan or geek) culture. Countless shops – from one-man stalls to multi-floored mega malls – hawk a wide range of electronics, from antique to new to futuristic. Those into Japanese anime or manga will find all they could ever dream of and more in Akihabara’s shops selling magazines, models, collectables and more – all related to their favorite animation, comic book or video game characters. Some passersby may even be decked out as their favorite characters.

For a taste of old Edo (the former name of Tokyo) Asakusa is the place to go. The main attraction is Sensoji, a famed Buddhist temple built in the 7th century that is fronted by Nakamise market, which has been serving temple visitors with local snacks and souvenirs for centuries. The huge market offers a plethora of wares and street performers on weekends. A den of kabuki theaters and a large red light district during the Edo Period (1603 to 1867), Asakusa became a different kind of entertainment district in the late 1800s and early 1900s, giving way to modern entertainment and eventually tourism. Peruse the market on foot or hire a rickshaw for a 30-minute tour. Visit the recently opened 2,080-feet-tall Tokyo Skytree for a birds-eye view of the city.

There’s a reason why Kamakura is a UNESCO World Heritage site: A 44-feet-tall bronze Daibatsu, or Great Buddha, numerous historic Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, sculpted gardens and a rich history. In fact, one of the famed periods in Japan’s history, the Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333), is named after this city, whose founding coincides with the start of the shogunate, or military government, that was established there. Kamakura is also famous as the birthplace of Japan’s Nichiren sect of Buddhism.

Matsumoto Castle
Built in the early 16th century, Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s 12 castles that have remained largely intact over the centuries – water-filled moat included. It has been called “Crow Castle” because it resembles the bird with outstretched wings. It’s also considered one of Japan’s three finest castles along with those in Himeji and Kumamoto.  Matsumoto Castle is a designated National Treasure and is located at the gateway to the Kita (Northern) Alps, which contributes to its picturesque backdrop.

Mount Fuji
It has been said that, “He who climbs Mount Fuji once is wise; he who climbs it twice is a fool.” Standing at 12,388 feet, Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan. It is one of the nation’s three “holy mountains” along with Mount Tate and Mount Haku. In ancient times, the summit was thought to be sacred and women were not permitted to climb it until the Meiji Era (1868 to 1912). Luckily, times have changed. In addition to a memorable climb, Fuji offers breathtaking sunrise vistas. Climbing season is July 20 through August.

Tokyo Disney Sea
Tokyo Disney Resort features Tokyo Disneyland, but the real attraction is the adjacent Tokyo DisneySea – the first and only theme park of its kind in the world. It boasts seven so-called ports of call, ranging from Mediterranean Harbor and Mermaid Lagoon to a “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” port and the sci-fi-themed Port Discovery. Frolic like a little mermaid under the sea in a giant bobbing jellyfish or walk the decks of the Nautilus submarine’s home port. Journey to the center of the earth and get belched out the side of a smoldering volcano. Try to visit on U.S. holiday weekdays to avoid the larger crowds.

Tsukiji Fish Market
One of the largest fish markets in the world, Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo offers a chance to see the world of fishmongers and related businesses on a scale that’s hard to imagine. So popular is this real-life attraction that tourists were once banned because they were considered a distraction, but local authorities relented so the show could go on. It’s not just the old-school hawking and auctioning of huge tuna and countless other marine products, the area is surrounded by many other businesses that cater to the community. The show starts about 5 a.m. and many tourists drop by after a long night out on the town (adding to the entertainment value).

The vacation area of Hakone, located within a two-hour car or train ride from Tokyo, is one of the top places to visit in Japan when you have had your fill of temples and other cultural sports. Hakone offers hot spring resorts, golf courses, cruises on replicas of 17th, 18 and 19th century ships, and gorgeous views of Mt. Fuji. It is one of the most popular destinations for Japanese to go when they want to get out of town, too.

Nagano Prefecture, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, has an abundance of ski areas, including the Olympic ski resort of Happo-One (pronounced Happo o-ney). The prefecture’s close proximity to Tokyo means there are huge crowds on weekends, so you should spend at least one overnight at one of the region’s hotels or bed and breakfasts. Not a skier, visit one of the area’s many “onsen” hot spring resorts and soak contentedly in hot mineral water while your friends and family are schussing down the slopes.

The Harajuku district of Tokyo is said to be the fashion capital of Japan, with crowds of young people descending on the area daily and even more so on weekends to check out the offerings of its numerous stores, but more importantly to eye each other. Harajuku is also famous for “cosplay,” or “costume play,” a type of performance art in which ordinary young people, mostly girls, wear costumes that mimic fictional characters, like Little Bo Peep. You can enjoy the show whether you dress up for it or not.

Yokohama China Town
Yokohama’s “Chukagai” district is Japan’s largest Chinatown. It became home to Chinese traders who settled there after Yokohama became one of Japan’s first ports to open to foreign trade in 1859. Four ornate gates mark the main entryways to the area, which is famed for its countless Chinese stores – and especially its restaurants and food stalls serving up Chinese ramen, dumplings and other cuisine. Another attraction is brightly colored Kanteibyo Temple in the center of Chinatown. Built in 1873, it’s dedicated to a Chinese deity of business and prosperity. For the full effect, visit the district during the annual Chinese New Year celebrations.

Ueno Park
Ueno Park is much more than the sum of its parts and not only because there are so many parts to it. From a nationally famous zoo (with pandas) to some of the capital’s finest museums, and from Buddhist temples to a pond known for its lotus plants, it offers something for everyone, in fact a lot for everyone. Just nearby, there is another well-known attraction, the one-third of a mile long shopping street of Ameyokocho, where the noise of the crowds and shouting of vendors make shopping an interesting and fun day out.

Yasukuni Shrine
Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine was built in 1869 to commemorate and honor those who lost their lives fighting for Japan. To date, more than 2.4 million people have been enshrined there. The physical appearance of the shrine is grandiose, built on a larger than life scale. But the whole experience can be somewhat disconcerting for Americans when they realize that supporters of Yasukuni believe Japan was justified in attacking Pearl Harbor and starting World War II, or the Great Pacific War as it is known here. For a more modest take on honoring soldiers and civilians who died for their country, visit Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, only a 10-minute walk from Yasukuni.

Yamate Bluff
In late 19th and early 20th century Japan, rich foreigners living in Yokohama could look down on the hoi polloi below from their beautiful homes on Yamate Bluff, on the city’s east side. This Japanese version of Nob Hill was damaged in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and by American bombing raids during World War II, and what was left has been artfully preserved for visitors seeking a glimpse of the past. Nearby is the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery, where about 4,500 people from more than 40 foreign countries are laid to rest.

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