In 2019, we’re cruising to Japan on an immersive country-intensive voyage. These unique itineraries allow travelers the opportunity for in-depth exploration of some of the world’s most fascinating and beautiful countries – so of course, Japan is on that list.
What makes Japan so alluring? It’s that beguiling mix of rich history contrasted by futuristic modern life. It’s the art, the food, the architecture, and the stunning natural landscape. Here are seven things to do during your trip to Japan.
1. Travel Back In Time
People have inhabited Japan since prehistoric times. On this voyage, delve into the country’s rich legacy of samurai warriors, aristocratic families, and powerful emperors.
Visiting the Kakunodate Samurai District in Akita is a must. Samurai, usually referred to as bushi, were the military nobility in Japan and the highest-ranking social class during the Edo Period (1603 to 1867). Their origins can be traced back to around 1192, when the shogun, or Supreme Military Commander established a new military government after emerging victorious in a battle between clans. Akita’s Kakunodate Samurai District is a well-preserved neighborhood in an otherwise youthful and modern city and showcases what samurai life was like. Around 80 families once lived there, and some buildings in the district are centuries old. There are also museums to explore, artisan boutiques to shop at, and cafes to enjoy.
In Takamatsu, history buffs should visit Tamamo Park to see the ruins of the 16th century Takamatsu Castle and its impressive surviving walls, moats, and turrets.
To explore Japan’s more recent history, a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is sure to be a moving experience. A cenotaph in the park lists the names of the known victims of the devastating atomic bomb. The Peace Memorial itself, often called the Atomic Bomb Dome, is a structure that survived the bombing and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
2. Step Into The Future
Of course, to focus only on Japan’s fascinating past would be foolish. After all, the country is famous for being cutting edge and technologically advanced. Visiting Japan can often feel like you’ve stepped into the future. Japan is home to the lightning-fast bullet train, vending machines that sell everything under the sun, innovative inventions and futuristic fashions.
At the heart of ultra-modern Japan is Tokyo, a city that simply buzzes with energy. Pay a visit to Akihabara Electric Town in Tokyo, the heart of otaku – or geek – culture. You’ll see everything and anything here – stores selling the latest gadgets, boutiques devoted to elaborate costumes, manga (Japanese comics), and anime, and “maid cafes” with servers dressed in elaborate maid costumes.
Tech-savvy travelers may be interested in the Toshiba Science Museum, Sony ExploraScience Museum, or the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, all located in or near Tokyo.
For something a little out of the ordinary, considering visiting the eclectic Toto Toilet Museum in Kitakyushu and discover the unique innovations that have gained Japan a reputation for having the most elaborate toilets in the world.
3. Shop ‘Til You Drop
If you love to shop, you’ll love Japan – and particularly Tokyo. Head to the city’s famous Harajuku neighborhood first. Made famous by Japan’s trendy youth, fashions here are an eclectic mix of runway couture and vintage finds. It’s worth a visit just for the people-watching, if not the shopping.
Nearby Aoyama skews more sophisticated than sassy. This wealthy neighborhood is home to high-end boutiques and trendy restaurants. Stroll Omote-sandō boulevard and do a little window – or actual – shopping. For more designer goods, visit the posh neighborhood of Ginza.
If you find you preferred the youthful energy of Harajuku to the upmarket elegance of Ginza, head to Shibuya. This is another of Tokyo’s trendy teen haunts, home to quirky boutiques and a vibrant nightlife.
Finally, we cannot talk about shopping in Tokyo without mentioning Shinjuku. This neighborhood is home to Isetan, the city’s most famous department store. If you skipped Akihabara Electric Town, check out the latest and greatest gadgets at shops in Shinjuku instead.
4. Explore Exquisite Gardens and Forests
When you need a break from chaotic crosswalks (Tokyo is home to the busiest in the world, Shibuya) and flashing, neon signs, escape the cities for something a little more tranquil. Japan’s natural landscape has an astonishing beauty – and our immersive voyage calls on more than just the largest cities.
Within Tokyo, the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a peaceful and beautiful urban retreat. The gardens blend the styles of traditional Japanese, French Formal, and English Landscape. It boasts more than 20,000 trees – including 1,500 cherry trees, which are simply breathtaking should they be in bloom when you visit.
Other gorgeous gardens along our itinerary include Hakodate City Tropical Botanical Garden, Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa, Kawachi Wisteria Garden in Kitakyushu, and Ritsurin-kōen in Takamatsu. At Kawachi Wisteria Garden, purple wisteria flowers canopy two 100-meter long tunnels creating a stunning scene. Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en Garden is renowned as one of the top three gardens in all of Japan, and dates back to the 16th century.
In Kobe, nature lovers should consider a visit to the nearby Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The towering, green bamboo trees give the paths an otherworldly quality and make for a startlingly photogenic scene.
Of all the ports on this incredible voyage, though, Shimizu boasts the most beautiful natural landscape. Sitting beneath the striking Mount Fuji, Shimizu is home to pristine lakes, forests, rivers, and coastline. Kakita River Park, with its natural springs, and Miho-no-Matsubara, with its ancient grove of 30,000 pine trees, are highlights. Both offer incredible views of Mount Fuji.
5. Go On A Culinary Adventure
One of the best ways to explore authentic food is to visit local markets – that’s certainly the case in Japan. As a nation of islands, seafood is an integral part of the cuisine. A visit to one of Japan’s many fish markets will showcase the unique ingredients used in cooking.
Check out these markets in the ports along our itinerary.
Tsukiji Fish Market
This Tokyo market is the largest, busiest fish market in the world. Early birds should make a point of visiting around 5:00 a.m. – not to catch the worm, but to catch the market’s famous live tuna auction.
Hakodate Morning Market
Do a little shopping at Hakodate’s tourist-friendly morning market, where hundreds of stores sell live and fresh fish as well as dried goods, sweets, and souvenirs. In Japan, gift-giving is an important aspect of culture, politeness, and tradition. These gifts are known as omiyage. For a true #AzaLocal experience, select omiyage for loved ones back home.
Shimizu Fish Market
Shimizu is a fishing town, so it's no surprise they have a bustling market. See where restaurants acquire their fresh fish before going out for a meal!
Kanazawa’s market has been going strong for around 300 years and is popular with locals and tourists alike. Inside you’ll find stalls selling fresh produce, seafood, and dried goods as well as clothing, kitchen tools, flowers, and more.
Furukawa Fish Market
Aomori’s market boasts fish, seafood, produce, and more. Visit and order up the market’s signature dish, nokkedon. This popular type of seafood bowl is typically served seasonally, but at the Furukawa market, it’s available year round.
Want to learn more about Japanese cuisine? Check out this handy infographic!
6. Tour Temples, Shrines, and Castles
No trip to Japan is complete without visiting some of the country’s incredible temples, shrines, and castles.
Japanese castles date back to the 16th century when they were built as defensive fortresses. Though over one hundred castles remain today, many were destroyed over the years – it’s thought that at one time, there were more than 5,000 castles in Japan.
Shinto Shrines are the dwellings of the kami, Shinto deities. Sacred objects are stored in the innermost chambers and worshipers come to pay respect or pray for good fortune. The first recordings of Shinto beliefs and mythology date back to the 8th century. Today, Shinto is the largest religion in Japan. It is practiced by 80% of the population, though it is regarded as an ethnic rather than institutional religion.
Temples are places of worship in Japanese Buddhism. Buddhist shrines and Shinto shrines share very similar architectural features, including the tori gates. It is thought that Korean monks introduced Buddhism to Japan in 552 AD. There are several schools of Buddhism in modern-day Japan, including Zen, Shingon, Pure Land, and Nichiren. Over a third of the Japanese population identifies as Buddhist and the religion’s popularity is growing. Buddhism and Shinto are not mutually exclusive; many Japanese people identify as a combination of both.
During your trip to Japan, visit Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples to gain a deeper respect for and understanding of the country’s spiritual culture. To learn more, check out our blog “The Castles, Shrines, and Temples of Japan”.
7. Stay Out Late
When you travel with Azamara, you stay longer and experience more than you would on other cruises. Our immersive Japan itinerary includes overnight stays in Kobe and Tokyo, and late-night departures in Hakodate and Hiroshima.
That gives you plenty of time to explore the vibrant nightlife of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, enjoy snacks and drinks at local izakayas, or take in the sights in a whole new light.
In Hakodate, a three-minute cable car ride up Mount Hakodate delivers incredible vistas that are especially stunning after dark. You can even have dinner up there, as you take in the glittering panoramic view.
Speaking of views, in Kobe the place to get a great one is Kobe Port Tower. It’s open until 9:00 p.m., allowing another opportunity for dazzling nighttime views.
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