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Japan: Endless Possibilities Await
In a country with as many must-see highlights as Japan, working with a travel advisor to plan a custom journey is one of the best ways to ensure that you are not missing out an experience of a lifetime. Perfect for first timers and return visitors alike, the following are but a few of the countless unforgettable experiences that await you on your journey to the Land of the Rising Sun.
A government outpost during the Edo era, today Takayama Jinya is the last remaining historical governor’s office in Japan, a structure that evokes a marriage of elegance and power far different from the country’s shrines and temples. While every facet of this sprawling complex provides a fascinating insight into administrative life in the Edo Period, it is also a place of profound and unexpected beauty; head into the former living quarters of the governor and you will discover a tranquil tearoom alongside a picture-perfect Japanese garden, both of which come together to form a quiet, contemplative look at what life was like more than 300 years ago.
Nestled in the remote mountains of the Shogawa River Valley, a visit to Shirakawa-go is like stepping back in time to a world of pastoral splendor. While the scenery alone is reason enough for a visit, it is the hamlet’s unique farmhouses that are the main draw; constructed in the thatched gasshō-zukuri style, these nail-less structures are built tall and narrow with steeply sloping roofs designed to protect against the heavy snowfalls of winter – a technique mastered so well that many of the buildings today stand exactly as they did in the 1800s. Whether you visit during the mists of autumn, the vibrancy of spring, or the white flurries of winter, you will quickly discover why this region holds such a special place in Japanese culture.
Arashiyama Monkey Park
Kyoto’s Arashiyama District is famously home to a wealth of cultural treasures, but one of its most unforgettable attractions is the open-air Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama, which combines panoramic views of the city with the opportunity to meet Japanese Monkeys in their home environment. The journey begins with a short 20-minute hike to the peak of Mt. Iwata, at which point you will quickly spot the more than 100 Japanese macaques that live freely in the trees and fields of the mountain; while you take in the views of the city, you can even purchase a handful of snacks that the adorable mountain residents will eat right out of the palm of your hands – an experience as thrilling as it is memorable!
Kinkakuji - The Golden Pavilion
The pride and joy of a city already renowned for its World Heritage Sites, Kyoto’s Kinkaku-ji Temple is a gold-leaf wonder framed by pine trees, its reflection glistening in a mesmerizing lotus-filled lake. While the richly decorated temple, seemingly floating atop the water’s surface, is undoubtedly what draws visitors in, there is so much more to see than just its gilded main hall; the spacious grounds also play host to a delightful Muromachi-era strolling garden complete with waterfalls, natural springs and more, as well as the Sekkai-tei Teahouse, a modest 19th Century teahouse whose rustic simplicity is meant to direct all attention to the tea itself. As splendorous as it is impressive, one look is all you need to see why this golden vision is the most photographed temple in all of Japan.
Hakone Open Air Museum
The first of its kind in Japan, the sprawling Hakone Open Air Museum deftly marries the harmony between nature and art to form a world-class, 200 acre park amidst the picturesque mountains of Hakone. The artwork itself, be it a sculpture, a mind-bending installation, or a piece from a world-famous artist like Picasso, is a beautiful blend of cultures as inspiring as the scenery that envelopes it. Breathing new air into the modern art movement, few other places invite visitors to experience an artist’s creative spirit in a setting as equally inspiring as the Hakone Open Air Museum does.
Memory Alley / Omoide Yokocho
Lined with red lanterns, Tokyo’s atmospheric Omoide Yokocho is a narrow alleyway featuring more than 50 pint-sized restaurants and bars conjuring up yakitori, beef stew, and, of course, cheap beer and sake. Many of the quaint restaurants here feature intimate, kitchen counter-style seating with 5 - 6 seats; this cozy area began its life as a black market in the years following World War 2, and has since been transformed into one of Tokyo's premier Izakaya experiences.
While many flock to Miyajima Island hoping to see the towering, submerged torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine, many visitors miss one sight that is equally as visually arresting: the knitted hats of the Daisho-in Temple Complex. Tucked away on a little pathway amidst mossy rocks and centuries old trees, the complex is home to 500 beanie-clad statues representing the first 500 disciples of the Buddha Shakyamuni; each one of these statues – some smiling, some lounging, and others grumpy - is individually carved and then adorned with a scarf and cap knitted by local patrons as a means of keeping the Buddha’s original followers warm. Complemented by one of the most famous torii gates in Japan, few things are as guaranteed to bring a smile to your face as these cozy little statues are.
Maiko / Gion District
An inseparable part of Japanese culture as iconic as the samurai, the striking geisha (traditionally known as geiko) of Kyoto are one of the most sought-after sights amongst visitors to the former capitol. By some estimates, there are more than 200 geiko and maiko (apprentice geisha) spread throughout the city’s atmospheric geisha districts, the most popular of which is the Gion District. As the lanterns outside restaurants, bars, and teahouses come to life in the early evening, those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time can witness the local geiko and maiko gracefully making their way to their next appointment – an awe inspiring sight not easily forgotten.