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The Japanese city of Kobe needs no introduction. The name is synonymous with its home grown superstar. We are not talking of its stunning shrines, cherry trees laden with blossom during sakura or effervescent city, buzzing with life 24/7. We are of course talking of a much more grass roots hero – its eponymous beef. The delicacy might have put the city on the map, but there is far more to Kobe than its meat. Naturally, Kobe wears its cuisine as a badge of honour. View less
Its port history has given it a gastronomy that is quite different from its neighbours. Seafood and sushi is naturally some of the freshest and most diverse you can find, but Kobe’s multi-cultural nature (the city is home to 98 different nationalities) means that it has one of the most diverse gastronomic cultures in Japan. Bread and bakeries are also an (unexpected) delicacy. Additionally, Sake is taken very seriously – Kobe even has its own museum dedicated to the national spirit. Historically, Kobe has always been a key city for Japan. Renamed in 1889, it was known as Owada no Tomari during the Nara Period (710-784 C.E.). Kobe’s location on the calm Inland Sea between Osaka and Kyoto has proven to be pivotal in Japanese history; it is mentioned in famous literary works such as The Tale of Genji (from approximately late 9th century) and the Taiheiki (14th century). The city and region are home to many attractions including the Himeji Castle (widely considered to be Japan’s most beautiful feudal castle), a short ride away.
One of Japan’s most southerly major cities, Kagoshima is dominated by the imposing Sakurajima volcano’s cone – a legendary active volcano that broods, churns and puffs out ash nearby. A pretty old-time ferry chugs across the still waters to the gently sloping foothills of the volcano’s cone, and it’s easy to imagine where the comparisons with its sister city Naples materialised, as you sail the glorious sweeping Kinko Bay, below beaming sunshine, towards the immense volcanic spectacle. View less
This is certainly no historic relic, and the volcano remains revered and feared, with the most dramatic recent eruption taking place in 1914, and spewing out a new bridge of land into the sea. Make the most of the geothermal activity in the area by indulging in a stress-simmering black sand bath. Incredibly relaxing, you’ll be submerged in the warm sand, as you feel your muscles relaxing in the heat, and rejuvenating blood pumping around your body. Enjoy a privileged view of the iconic volcano’s loom from the terraced garden of Senganen Garden. Built in 1658, this elegant, traditional garden has belonged to the Shimadzu family for 350 years. Wander the gardens – which bloom with Japan’s renowned cherry tree blossoms and feature tiny bridges looping over ponds and rock pools – before sitting back and sipping a wholesome green matcha latte. Elsewhere, museums offer Feudal Era and Satsuma Province history, as well as insights into the Kamikaze squadrons of World War II. Lake Ikeda is also close by, so be sure to keep an eye out for the legendary Issie monster.
You will want to be on deck as the ship cruises into this splendid natural harbor, which has played such an important role in the history of this city, and Japan as a whole.
The accidental arrival of an off-course Portuguese ship in 1543 was the beginning of Nagasaki’s longtime role as Japan’s “Door to the West.” The missionary St. Francis Xavier visited briefly, and there was a substantial number of converts during the period known as the “Christian Century.” Eventually the Japanese authorities perceived the growing influence of Christianity to be a threat, leading to the banning of the religion. The Catholic Spanish and Portuguese were expelled in favor of the Dutch, who were felt to be more interested in trade than religion. All contact with foreigners was forbidden, and no Japanese were allowed to travel abroad. The only exception was the closely watched Dutch enclave of Dejima. Through this small outpost a trickle of Western thought and science continued to filter into the country, and Nagasaki became an important scientific and artistic center. When the city was again opened to the West in 1859, Nagasaki was quickly reestablished as a thriving industrial center, especially in shipbuilding, the industry that made it a prime target in World War II.
“A tapestry of kaleidoscopic colours, intense seafood flavours, and urban beach bliss, Busan rolls across a glorious natural setting on the Korean Peninsula’s south-east. One of the largest and busiest ports in the world, 3.5 million people call South Korea’s second city home, and the amiable locals help to lend the city its quirky, offbeat outlook. A spacious, playful and cosmopolitan place, Busan is a lively, liveable city, cradled by lush mountains and endless ocean scenery.
Haedong Yonggung Temple nestles on a dramatic cliffside, just above the crumbling rocks and crashing waves of the East Sea. Dating back to 1376, the temple’s multi-storey pagoda is adorned with lions – each representing a different emotion. Elsewhere, lanterns glitter in the night sky around Mount Geumjeongsan, freshly released from the beautiful Beomeosa Temple, which was established in AD 678. The hillside shantytown of Gamcheon Culture Village has completed an improbable transformation, blossoming from a sea of makeshift homes for Korean war refugees, into a colourful explosion of creativity and curiosity. Local artists have been let loose to create interactive installations, and the entire area is now an expansive canvas for expression. Lose yourself among vibrant alleyways of flamingo-pink, lemon-yellow and baby-blue painted facades in this unique area. Sample bibimbap, fiery-hot beef and rice, from street food vendors, before relaxing on one of South Korea’s best beaches – Haeundae’s banana bend of sand. Metallic skyscrapers offer an unusual backdrop to this pristine expanse of golden powder and are mirrored by elaborate sandcastles and sculptures during the annual sand festival – when spontaneous water fights and firework displays also take place. Gwangalli beach is another urban option, laying out spectacular views of the reaching Gwangan Bridge – the country’s second largest bridge. At night, 16,000 bulbs bathe this engineering marvel in colour.”
The capital of the Ishikawa Prefecture, Kanazawa once rivalled Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) as a town rich in cultural achievements. Kanazawa escaped destruction during World War II and accordingly has been able to preserve many of the old districts in good shape. The city is famous because of Kenrokuen. Located next to Kanazawa Castle, Kenrokuen is classified as “One of the Three Gardens of Japan”. The garden has an artificial pond, and hills and houses are dotted within the 11.4 hectares. View less
It has Japan’s oldest fountain using natural water pressure and a tea-house dating back to 1774. Close by is the Higashi Chaya Gai Geisha District, designated a National Cultural Asset and the biggest of the Geisha districts of Kanazawa. Some of the houses not only retain the original structure, but still are used as Geisha houses. Some of the streets have traditional shops creating a nostalgic atmosphere. Kanazawa is also known for its lacquer ware, Kutani-style pottery, gold-leaf workmanship and delicately painted silk kimonos.
A sophisticated sake capital, Niigata is an intoxicating, creative place of Japanese traditions and flavours. Learn of the many crafts and creativities that are practised here, from kite-making to alcohol fermentation and ceramic work, and immerse yourself in the beautiful coastline and waterfall-laced mountains of Niigata prefecture. The city evolves with each season, taking on a new appearance – whether it’s the thick layers of snow during winter, or the cherry blossoms of spring. View less
Look out for the gorgeous curved black roof tiers of Shibata Castle, rising from a picturesque bed of pale-pink flowers. Sitting overlooking the Sea of Japan, out towards the intrigues of Sado Island, where the rare Toki bird – with its scythe-like beak – lives protected. This busy port city is famous for the high-quality and pure taste of its rice. As a result, sake produced here is among Japan’s finest, and distilleries will teach you the artistry behind its creation, and to appreciate the subtle flavours. Pia Bandai market is a bustling place to take a stroll and sip a morning coffee. Japan’s first public park, Hakusan Park was built in 1873 and is perfect for whiling away an afternoon, among drifting lotus flowers and swaying trees. Appreciate a magical tea ceremony in the Edo-era Shimizu-en Gardens, or savour the tranquillity of the peaceful Hakusan Shrine – dedicated to the god of marriage.
Say the word Sakata and you would be forgiven for thinking immediately of the lovable dog of the same name. But in fact, visitors to Sakata will be treated not to a friendly furry face, rather to a beautiful city located on the northern tip of the island, around 500 km north of Tokyo. Lucky visitors will arrive in time for the superb sakura (cherry blossom), and surely there can be no sight more lovely than the elegant dip of the cherry trees alongside ancient Samurai residences. View less
Akita is also home to a 2km tunnel of blossoming trees that run along the banks of the Hinokinai River, which is said to “bring a grown man to his knees and weep at its beauty”. If to you, Japan is synonymous with peace and serenity, then a trip to one of the onsens is a superb bucket list experience. Buses and taxis are easily available in the centre of town that will take you to Mizusawa, Oyu and Oyasukyo hot springs, some of the loveliest onsens in the country. Some of the superb sights in Akita are: Senshu Park, on the former site of Kubota Castle, the elegant red-brick folk Museum (housing works by block printer Katsuhira Tokushi (1907-1971) and metalwork by Sekiya Shiro (1907-1994) and the Old Kaneko Family Home. The Akita Museum of Art opened in 2012 and is home to the largest canvas painting in the world, Events of Atika, by Foujita (1886-1968). The painting measures a staggering 3.65 x 20.5 m (12 x 67 ft). The Museum also has many works by European masters such as Goya, Rubens, Rembrandt and Picasso.
Gaze down over Hakodate, from the heights of its namesake peak – Mount Hakodate – to see the city stretching out spectacularly, with back-to-back twin bays splitting the ocean. Hakodate port was one of the first to open Japan up to the world, and to international trade in 1859 – a fact reflected in the architecture, with its influences from the West and beyond. The port area is a redbrick wash of warehouses turned shopping malls, all observed by the onion domes of the city’s Russian Orthodox church.
From fiery festivals to spectacular mountain scenery, soaring temples to castles surrounded by cherry blossom blooms, Aomori is one of Japan’s most enchanting destinations. Framed by dark peaks clad with dense forestry, the city enjoys a picturesque location on Japan’s main island Honshu. While there are gorgeous pink tinted parks, tiered castles and towering Buddha statues to explore, the Aomori Prefecture’s capital is perhaps best known for the summer festival of fire that lights it up each year.
Lavish illuminated floats fill the streets during Nebuta Matsuri festival, as dancing locals wave flickering lanterns through the night sky – and drummers pound out pulsating rhythms. Nebuta Matsuri has a euphoric and energetic atmosphere which makes it stand out as an unmissable experience compared with some of Japan’s more restrained festivals. At other times of the year, places like the stunning Hirosaki Castle bloom with rose-pink cherry blossom, as spring’s sunshine clears away winter’s plentiful snowfall. The castle’s moat, glowing with the pale hue of fallen blossom, is a truly mesmerising sight to behold. Don’t worry if you’re too late though, you might be able to catch the pink-flush of the apple blossom – which comes slightly later. Extraordinary prehistoric Jomon period history is waiting to be unearthed at the living archaeological site, Sannai-Maruyama Ruins. Or, the untouched wilderness of UNESCO World Heritage Site Shirakami Sanchi is within reach. This sprawling mass of beech trees covers a third of the Shirakami mountain range, and the dense forestry once blanketed the majority of northern Japan’s land. Visit to scratch the surface of this untamed landscape’s beauty and see sprawling waterfalls cascading down mountainsides, in a beautiful off-bounds landscape, where black bears roam freely.
Flying as far under the radar as Japan’s second-biggest city possibly can, only a 30-minute train ride separates Yokohama from Tokyo’s metropolis. Sat a little further to the south of the Bay of Tokyo than the Japanese capital, Yokohama is a place to enjoy waterfront strolls and the warmest of welcomes, as you arrive and acclimatise to this city in the bustling heart of Japan. View less
Step into this ocean of urbanity, where major cities merge and blend together, and it’s hard to square Yokohama’s fishing village origins with the vast urban sprawl that you encounter today. An outward-looking place, Yokohama was one of the first to open its harbour to international trade, leading to a rapid transformation from village to big city. The opening of the ports drew many Chinese traders to the bay, and Yokohama houses the country’s biggest Chinatown – a colourful and historic explosion of Chinese shops and more than 250 eateries. Landmark Tower is hard to miss, puncturing the sky as Japan’s second-largest building, it looks out over the water and rises before the distant loom of Mount Fuji. The towering ferris wheel nearby is one of the world’s tallest, and flashes with colour amid the glowing skyline at night. Enjoy breezy strolls along the lively waterfront, with heritage ships, museums and tempting restaurants bordering the sparking bay’s waters. Offering the excitement that only landing on Japanese shores can offer, Yokohama is a great starting point for any adventure to this land of culture, colour and grace. Whether you want to venture onwards to Tokyo’s neon-bathed wonders, see Mount Fuji up close, or find peace and tranquillity in Kyoto’s majestic temples and shrines, Yokohama opens up the best of Japan’s wonders to you.
Japan’s third-biggest city has thrown off its shackles and stepped out of the shadows to light up the sky with glaring neon signs and a larger than life outlook. Giant octopuses cling to buildings and bustling restaurants pack in the crowds in this great and garish place, which is Japan at its most friendly, extroverted and flavourful. So dive in headfirst to experience an all-out sensory assault of delicious food, shopping cathedrals and glittering temples. View less
Dotombori Bridge bathes in the multicoloured, jewel-like lights of signage-plastered buildings, and the neon lights dance on the canal’s waters below. Osaka is known as the nation’s kitchen, and the Kuromon Ichiba Market has served as the city’s spot to tuck in for almost 200 years. Full of street food stalls – try pufferfish, savoury Okonomiyaki pancakes, or ginger and onion flavoured octopus, among the endless feast of exotic flavours. Osaka Castle is another of the city’s landmarks, built in the 16th century by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. A modern museum now waits inside, where you can learn about the country’s history, and why this castle is a symbol of Japanese unity. Be sure to take the elevator up to the observation deck for a panoramic view of Osaka’s spread. A colourful park encloses the castle and blooms with an ocean of pale pink cherry blossom during the season – the elegant black tiers rising from the pink haze below is one of Osaka’s most alluring visions. Kyoto’s peaceful cultural treasures and temples are also just a short jaunt away on Japan’s sleek trains, should you wish to explore further afield.
Dense and delightful, there’s nowhere else like Japan’s kinetic capital – a city where ancient traditions blend seamlessly with a relentless pursuit for the future’s sharpest edge. See the city from above, as elevators rocket you up to towering viewing platforms, from which you can survey a vast urban ocean, interspersed with sky-scraping needles. Look out as far as the distant loom of Mount Fuji’s cone on clear days. View less
Futuristic – second-accurate – transport seamlessly links Tokyo’s 14 districts, while the glow of flashing advertisement boards, clanks of arcade machines, and waves of humanity flowing along its streets, adds to the sense of mesmerising, dizzying and glorious sensory overload. One of Tokyo’s most iconic sights, don’t miss the flood of people scrambling to cross Shibuya’s famous intersection. Join the choreographed dance, as crowds of briefcase-carrying commuters are given the green light to cross at the same time – bathed in the light of massive neon advertisements. The culture is immensely rich and deep, with 7th-century, lantern-decorated temples, stunning palaces and tranquil scarlet shrines waiting below cloaks of incense and nestling between soaring skyscrapers. Restaurants serve up precisely prepared sushi, and wafer-thin seafood slivers, offering a unique taste of the country’s refined cuisine. Settle into traditional teahouses, to witness intricate ceremonies, or join the locals as they fill out karaoke bars to sing the night away. In the spring, cherry blossom paints a delicate pink sheen over the city’s innumerable parks and gardens.
Set on the eastern coast in Japan’s Iwate prefecture, Miyako promises stunning scenery and Jorman history in equimeasure. The coastal city of around 50,000 inhabitants is around 600 km from Tokyo, but boasts one of the finest beaches in Japan, as well as a treasure trove of succulently fresh seafood restaurants. While travellers to Miyako might arrive expecting the usual amalgam of cultural attractions and high tech wizardry, they will leave with memories of one of the greatest garden cities they have ever experienced. View less
During the Edo period (1603-1868) the town was considered as Japan’s main seaport. Today this is no longer the case, perhaps due to Miyako’s precarious placement and underwater seismic activity; four tsunamis have engulfed the city since 1700, with waves reaching almost 40 metres in some cases. Thus, local attractions tend to be of the natural kind, as historical building have been all but wiped out. Luckily, Mother Nature really does come into her own in Miyako. The city is bordered by the Sanriku Fukkō National Park, one of the National Parks of Japan. Sanriku Fukkō stretches for 180 km along the coast and homes a wonderful variety of flora and fauna, including groves of Japanese red pine, rhododendrons and Rosa rugosa. Numerous bird species, including the black-tailed gull and shearwater call the park home. What’s more, bird lovers will undoubted love that the nearby Hidejima Island and Sanganjima Island are the only breeding grounds in Japan for the band-rumped storm-petrel.
Gaze down over Hakodate, from the heights of its namesake peak – Mount Hakodate – to see the city stretching out spectacularly, with back-to-back twin bays splitting the ocean. Hakodate port was one of the first to open Japan up to the world, and to international trade in 1859 – a fact reflected in the architecture, with its influences from the West and beyond. The port area is a redbrick wash of warehouses turned shopping malls, all observed by the onion domes of the city’s Russian Orthodox church. View less
Elsewhere, the star-shaped Goryokaku fortress glows with natural colours and a beautiful haze of cherry blossom during the season. Goryokaku Tower, which rises up beside it, offers a sweeping bird’s eye view of the green fortress and mountain backdrop. Buses trundle up the 335-metre incline to the top of Mount Hakodate, but the best way to reach the views is to jump on the ropeway, which swings high above downtown’s buildings, over a carpet of pine trees. Head up to the mountain’s heights as sunset approaches. With darkness sweeping in, and the lights flickering to life, the panorama is one of Japan’s most spectacular. Soak it all in, and look out to the horizon, dotted with the shimmering lights of ships hauling in harvests of the city’s renowned squid. The plankton-rich waters attract a delicious variety of feasting sea life to Hakodate’s coast, which is then plated up in the city’s numerous, skilled restaurants. For an eye-opening, whirring morning, see the freshest produce being doled out at Hakodate Morning Market – amid a cacophony of noise and activity.
Surrounded by spectacular national parks – and sheltered from the majority of winter’s ice, Kushiro is one of northern Japan’s most important cities. A deep-sea fishing port that specialises in Pacific saury, Kushiro hugs the coastline of the most northerly of Japan’s major islands. See the riches plundered from the ocean at the busy Washo Fish Market, dive into the native Ainu culture, or head out to explore the immersive beauty of Japan’s largest wetlands. View less
Kushiro City Museum is an imposing, castle-like structure, but there’s a warm welcome waiting inside, where exhibitions showcase the area’s history, and the extraordinary animals that you can meet on your adventures here. Explore Japan’s wilder side at the vast wildlife oasis that is Kushiro Marshland. A world away from the country’s urban metropolises, look out for the tanchō-zuru red-crowned cranes, which are some of the world’s rarest, and a revered symbol of luck and longevity. Spot pairs of the elegant birds, as they dance together on the plains of the wetlands. Head out to Lake Akan – in Akan National park – to see another side to the area’s landscapes and encounter the bizarre marimo moss. Growing here only, it forms large, perfectly manicured bowling balls. Hot mud pools also burble, while the cone of the volcanic Mount Oakan watches over the area, echoing Mount Fuji’s symmetrical splendour. Ainu Kotan is close by, and you can visit to experience the authentic culture of northern Japan’s native people.
Majestic volcanoes and stacked mountains layer Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky with one of the world’s most epic backdrops. A business-like city of everyday life, set amid this utterly extraordinary scenery, Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky is a staggering visit to a land where volcanoes churn, geysers spurt, and geothermic pools simmer. Glaciers slowly carve out magnificent valleys, while the meltwater fuels roaring rivers, rapids and waterfalls. A far easterly outpost, cut off from the rest of the world’s road network, the only way in and out is via sea or air. View less
Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, there is no shortage of natural spectacles and amazing scenery to enjoy – with lively geothermal displays, and colossal forces plotting below the earth’s surface. No fewer than 29 active volcanoes brood in this stunning wilderness, while dozens more extinct ones punctuate its skies. It’s hard to prepare for the beauty of Avacha Bay – as you’re welcomed by the three claw-like rocks of the Tri Brata formations, and spot sea lions yawning on the bay. Admire the Koryaksky volcano – a perfectly formed cone of snow, and a mighty volcano that last erupted in 2008. You may still see wisps of smoke emanating from its towering peak. Look out for the bright yellow beak of the Steller’s sea eagles, the biggest and heaviest eagles in the world. The waters, teeming with Pacific salmon, draw keen anglers here, in the hopes of landing the big one. Elsewhere, the wondrous Kamchatka Valley of Geysers is a choreographed natural demonstration of power, with plumes of mist firing up into the sky along its expanse.
With Bald Eagles soaring overhead, emerald-green volcanic peaks chafing the clouds, and raw ocean scenery as far as the eye can see, this far-flung destination is the definition of remote and wild. Part of the outlying Aleutian Islands archipelago, which spirals out across the Bering Sea into the wilds of the Pacific, Dutch Harbor offers a dramatic backdrop and rich military history – as one of the few pieces of US soil to be directly attacked by the Japanese during World War II.
The town settles into the embrace of a vast deepwater harbour, which helps to protect from the unpredictable churn of the Bering Sea. Enjoy hikes along coastal trails to birdwatch among more than 100 different species – and look on as huge clouds of cawing seabirds float on gusts of wind, filling the air with their raucous calls. Dutch Harbor is famous for its crab fishing industry – a dangerous, challenging pursuit – and the town is well known to many Americans as the setting of the television show Deadliest Catch. The Aleutian WWII Visitor Center and the Museum of the Aleutians provide extensive information on WWII in the Aleutians, prehistory, the Russian period, Unangan (Aleut) culture and recent history. A visible reminder of the Russian past is the Holy Ascension Cathedral, the oldest cruciform-style Russian Orthodox church in North America and a National Historic Landmark.
The domain of grizzlies, brown and black bears, Kodiak Island is a raw, wild, and utterly authentic Alaskan wilderness. The Emerald Isle is the USA’s second-largest island, and with a wilderness stretching out over 3,670 square miles, it’s a thrilling voyage into the Alaskan unknown. The weather may get a little cloudy at times, but the locals actively welcome a covering of cloud – perhaps partly because the clouds and fog are said to have deterred Japanese attacks during World War II’s hostilities. View less
Be sure to bring your camera with you; it’s nigh on impossible to take a bad photo of these irresistible vistas – and you’ll quickly see why Kodiak Island is the destination of choice for wildlife documentary producers. Cinematic setpieces regularly play out, as eagles soar over expansive sweeps of fir-tree forested mountains and still lakes, releasing occasional piercing calls. Some of the animal kingdom’s most feared and revered creatures call Kodiak Island home, and your first sight of a bear reaching a massive paw into the water, or treading through a gently burbling stream, will live with you forever. Soar in a seaplane to track the bears with an expert guide. Masters of disguise, it often takes a trained eye to spot the bears in their natural habitats. Brush up on the skills you’ll need in advance, with a read of our bear watching blog. [Insert blog: 7 tips for bear watching in Alaska]. The waters of Kodiak Island are also home to some of the world’s most productive fishing. Try out your own skills, or accompany a seafaring fishing vessel, to witness life on the waves first-hand, as they plunder the depths of the ocean.
Monumental scenery surrounds you in this remote corner of the world, where glaciers calve and whales cruise through inky waters, before an immense mountain backdrop. Almost totally submerged by the colossal landscapes around it, Seward – and the wonders of Kenai Fjords National Park – offer some of astonishing Alaska’s most thrilling scenery. Located in a deep gash in the Kenai Peninsula, Seward is a place to immerse yourself in nature’s majesty. View less
Fjords carve into the landscape, while the Harding Icefield – which caps Kenai Fjords National Park – reaches out its icy fingers, with glaciers spilling down between mountain peaks. Head to Holgate Glacier, to come face to face with a breathtaking stack of intense blue and white ice. Get up close in a kayak or boat ride, to slalom through the discarded confetti of ice chunks, and perhaps even witness the powerful spectacle of an ice ledge creaking and groaning, before plunging to the waters below. The city of Anchorage is easily within reach from here, offering an incongruous contrast to the wild wonders of Alaska. A place where deep-sea fishermen bump shoulders with businesspeople on the 9-5, it’s a fascinating, remote city. Home to almost half of the Alaskan population, Anchorage and its humble skyline is dwarfed by the snowy peaks of the wilderness beyond. Don’t miss the opportunity to immerse yourself in the unique culture, traditions and heritage of the First Nation people of these lands too.