Landing at Osaka airport, one would not think much of Japan. The airport does not seem like one of a technologically advanced nation. The first impression of Japan is that it looked like any other country. There was nothing to make it stand out.
Generally from Osaka, some of the most common places to go to are Tokyo or Kyoto. It is only when you get out of the airport and board the Maglev (from magnetic levitation) trains, that you start to see the country for what it really is. A country of endless discovery, one which is a perfect blend of the old and the new.
A taste of old Japan
Kyoto is usually the first place on most people's itineraries. It is probably one of the places steeped in rich history. It is so rich in history that during World War II, the allies avoided bombing Kyoto. You can't throw a stone in Kyoto without hitting a temple. There is a temple everywhere you go in the city but contrary to what everyone may think, none of these temples are the same. One of the main temples to visit would be the Kiyomizu-Dera, a Buddhist temple situated on a beautiful mountain with a brilliant view, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
A nice climb up the Fushimi Inari (approximately an eight-hour walk up and down) is a great way to get rid of those love handles. For those who love precious metals, the Kinkaku-Ji and Ginkaku-Ji temples (the golden and silver temples respectively) will be right up your alley.
Even with all these varieties, the temples might start getting a bit much for any sane person, which is why the Philosopher's Path and Arashiyama Bamboo Grove are two nice scenic routes one can take to just relax.
For everything new
People mostly head to the crown jewel of Japan – Tokyo, after visiting Kyoto. The apple of Japan's eye, Tokyo is the perfect representation of the country. In Tokyo, those more inclined to the historical side have the Sensoji temple and the Kaminarimon Gate, but after Kyoto, seeing more temples might be a tipping point. That's why the Akihabara district in Tokyo or the Tsukiji market might be some of the places you want to visit. Akihabara is the most famous tech district in the world. For all the geeks and computer nerds, there is no other better place to go, it's like Valhalla for them.
Tsukiji market, on the other hand, is not for everyone. It's a bit more for the strong-hearted. The market opens around 4 am but only for the buyers. It's only later at 8 am that it is opened to tourists. Blood on the floor and walls, large fish heads lying around, fish getting chopped are some of the things which for some reason does not appeal to everyone. It's an experience, that's for sure.
In addition to these, Hakone and Hiroshima are very good places to visit. Hakone is a place to enjoy the gift of nature. From the cherry blossoms to the beautiful lake along with the best view of Mount Fuji, the place is just full of beauty. A direct contrast, Hiroshima is a must-see. It is a memorial to man's mistakes and the sheer amount of destruction caused by a pilot flipping a switch. The museum and memorial there cannot be ignored, they will both touch your heart in a different way.
Eat like a locavore
Disregarding all the history, the scenic views and the gory fish markets, Japan's main attraction is its wide range of food. You can eat from anywhere you want, may it be a five-star restaurant or a street shop, the quality of food is on another level. Although sushi is probably the most famous dish there is much more in store for your palate.
After climbing the Fushimi Inari, the food lovers may treat their taste buds to some street fried chicken and pot-stickers (fried dumplings). If you've just gagged after seeing a tuna head, a couple of blocks away you can get the greatest beef curry one could ever have. It'll be pretty easy to spot, the line would be stretched around the street. Okonomiyaki, a kind of Japanese pancake can be relished in Hiroshima. Sukiyaki, Tempura, and Katsus are some of the traditional delicacies which should definitely be tried as well. For the more adventurous, octopus balls are always there. These are just some of the scrumptious food, one can have there.
Japan is a country that is a treat to all senses. It is a place rich in history and also, without a doubt, one of the most modern places in the world. The land of the Rising Sun is a timeless place, which attracts millions of people every year. From Osaka to Tokyo to Kyoto, the country has something for everyone. One can go there more than a thousand times but still manage to find something new.
Top five places in Kyoto
1. Fushimi Inari shrine
A mountain shrine that leads to a multitude of sub-shrines, Fushimi Inari is the head of 'holy powers' of rice and agriculture in Japanese religion Shinto.
2. Kiyomizu-Dera temple
This is a UNESCO world heritage site undergoing renovations for the upcoming Olympics. The peculiarity of the building lies in the number of nails used in its construction – zero!
3. Kinaku-ji temple
The top two storeys of this three-storey historical complex are covers in gold leaves. It was converted into a Budhist zen temple by the son of it last owner and attracts a cavalcade of peace-seeking travellers every year.
4. Ginkaku-ji temple
'Temple of the silver pavilion' was the retirement of statesman Ashikaga Yoshimasa. This, too, was converted into a zen temple.
5. Arashiyam Bamboo Grove
It is unlike standing in any other forest of the world. The pictures rarely do justice to the grandness of these bamboo trees that will take your breath away.
Top five places in Tokyo
1. Akihabara district
It is the hub of Japanese popular culture and a major shopping district for video games, anime, manga, electronics, and computer-related goods.
2. Meiji shrine
This is a shrine is dedicated to one of Japan's most revolutionary rulers Emperor Meiji and his wife. The shrine lies inside a forest that has trees donated by the people of Japan.
3. Tsukiji Market
Once the largest wholesale market for fish and other seafood, Tsukiji is now only operational for retail business from its outer circle as the inner circle has been moved to a different location.
4. Senso-ji temple
This oldest temple in Tokyo is also the most visited spiritual site in the whole world with over 30 million visitors annually.
5. Kaminarimon Gate
'Thunder gate' is the outer gate to Senso-ji temple and is popular because of its unique construction. A gigantic lantern weighing almost 700 kg hangs from the centre of it. Statues of different deities adorn the four pillars of this gate.
NB: Chris Rowthorn's Japan guides are best to follow to plan an itinerary in Japan.