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When we first travelled to Japan 21 years ago, every trip was like an adventure into the unknown. Fast-forward to more recent times, however, and our favourite country was welcoming more and more visitors every year – with a whopping 40 million international tourists anticipated for the Olympics in 2020.
As we all know, the Olympics were postponed, and Japan suffered an 87% drop in visitor numbers. But, there is light at the end of the tunnel; with vaccines being rolled out worldwide, the possibility of international travel is beginning to look more like an imminent possibility than a distant pipe-dream.
Here at InsideJapan, we’ve always had plenty of tricks up our sleeves for helping travellers get off the main tourist trail and on to some of the more hidden and tranquil destinations Japan has to offer. But post-pandemic Japan also offers a window of opportunity to experience some of the more popular destinations as they were 20 years ago – before that dramatic drop in visitor numbers turns back into a meteoric climb.
Here are our Insiders’ top places where you can experience Japan’s most famous sites like it’s 2000… if only for a brief time!
Description by Robert Moran
For me, Miyajima is a place that has everything. It’s a beautiful island, with little beaches and inlets, forested mountains and wild deer roaming the streets. It’s a local train (and ferry) ride away from a vibrant and fascinating city, Hiroshima. And of course, it’s home to incredible temples and shrines – none more famous than the “floating” torii gate in the Seto Inland Sea (a must for any photo collection of Japan!).
These are all reasons why Miyajima has become one of the most popular destinations in the country to visit – and why the number of ferries shuttling keen visitors back and forth from the mainland has increased so drastically over the past 10-15 years. The island, with its laid-back, romantic vibe, has never lost its charm; however, the chance to see it with few other travellers around is an opportunity that’s too good to miss. Make sure you stay the night at a local ryokan to get the full experience – and finish the day with a sunset stroll along the coastal path in your yukata (traditional robe). The only challenge will be trying to drag yourself back to the ferry port at the end of your stay. This place really does take a hold over you!
Description by Chantel Furbert
Everyone knows that cherry blossom season is the most popular time of year to visit Japan – but if you ask me, the time that Japan truly shines the brightest is autumn! Those who are lucky enough to make their way to Japan during the first post-pandemic autumn will have the lavish shrines and crimson leaves largely to themselves, for the first time in many moons. In just a two hour ride from the bustling city of Tokyo, you can plunge into a mecca of vibrant fall foliage – with crisp mountain air, hidden waterfalls, and some of Japan’s most ornately decorated (and historically rich) shrines and mausoleums.
Where is this mecca, you ask? Well, it’s none other than Japan’s city of sunlight, Nikko. Home to World Heritage sites, national parks, and plenty of hot springs to help you relax the Japanese way, Nikko is an unmissable travel spot for Japanese and international tourists alike!
Description by Brett Plotz
With a population of over 35 million, it had become a bit of a game in recent years to find a place in Tokyo that you could discover on your own; one that seemed as if it materialized out of nowhere just for you. Add in the tens of millions of tourists visiting the city every year, and that feeling of immersing yourself in uncharted territory gets more and more elusive.
Having spent the last few years leading tours with InsideJapan, I know first-hand that the city’s famous sites can get a little crowded. But post-pandemic, there’s a huge opportunity to see them in a new light. An example? Senso-ji, the oldest founded temple in the city (and one of the most stunning places you’ll see in the capital). Located at the end of a long pilgrim’s path lined with shop stalls on both sides, you may just be able to capture that feeling of discovery that’s so important for a memorable trip.
Recommended by Richard Farmer
Japan’s first permanent capital, established in 710 AD, lies just a stone’s throw from Kyoto, which took over the country’s administrative reins in 794 (and kept hold of that honour for much longer!). Before the Coronavirus pandemic turned our world upside down, coach tours had been delivering visitors in ever increasing numbers into the city’s most famous attraction, Nara Park, where the massive Todai-ji temple (housing the colossal bronze Daibutsu “Great Buddha” statue) can be found.
Nara Park is a huge area, and even the massive Todai-ji temple complex had been swallowing the crowds well (over 10,000 monks attended the inaugural “eye-opening” ceremony in 752 AD), but in recent years, visiting has felt far less tranquil than it did back when I first came here in 2007.
Once travel resumes, come and experience Todai-ji in all its glory, standing alone inside the temple hall beneath the Great Buddha’s compassionate gaze. Since most people visit Nara as a day trip from Kyoto, you could hedge your bets even more by opting to stay a couple of nights(there’s so much more to see besides the “main” attractions in Nara Park). After most visitors have left town at 5pm, you could enjoy walking along the cedar-lined approach to the Kasuga Shrine, admiring the towering five-storied wooden pagoda of Kofuku-ji temple – with only the legions of resident deer for company!
Recommended by Van Milton
Kyoto is probably one of, if not THE top travel destination in Japan, thanks to its concentration of historic sightseeing hotspots. The city is home to no less than 17 World Heritage sites! Famous locations like Kiyomizudera, with its incredible views across the city, the dry rock garden at Ryoanji Temple, and Arashiyama’s bamboo grove are all iconic images that you’ll see on the cover of travel books and websites about Japan. But because of this, the last couple of years have led to be it being talked about in conjunction with the dreaded “O” word: overtourism.
2020 saw the city return to the state most people probably imagine it in: quiet, tree-lined streets peppered with stately temples and hushed shrines, where you can take pictures of some of the best gardens and architecture in Japan with no one else in the frame.
The secret to Kyoto is that there is so much incredible stuff to see, so many corners of the city to explore, that it’s really only the major sites that run the risk of getting crowded in the first place. Many equally as impressive, but lesser-known, sites were relatively devoid of crowds even at the height of 2019. This is exactly where a guide can help; by sharing those hidden, quiet spots, special little restaurants, and recommending relatively quiet times to visit the major attractions.
Recommended by Robert Kodama
The foodie charm of the city nicknamed the “kitchen capital of Japan” is still alive and well today, though it’s been a little quieter during the pandemic. A couple of years ago, you could barely move for crowds of people clamouring to try local delicacies like takoyaki (cuts of octopus in batter), okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) and kushikatsu (deep fried everything!).
All those sounds, smells and flavours add to the energetic atmosphere of Osaka – and unlike the other locations mentioned in this blog, this is a city you definitely won’t want to miss once the tourists return in their droves. If anything, the hustle and bustle of people jostling each other out of the way in a rather “un-Japanese” fashion is a testament to the unique culture Osaka has built, seemingly separate to the rest of the country. The warmth and friendliness of local residents are waiting to welcome you into this wonderful city once travel resumes!
Eager to start planning your own post-Covid exploration of Japan? Drop our Japan travel experts a line and tell us about your ideas.