Japan Today

8 places you need to visit to really understand Japan

By Amy Chavez, RocketNews24

To truly understand a country’s people, you need to know something about their history and where they came from. This week we offer you eight places that contributed greatly to the development of Japan, its culture, and people.

Get ready to take your understanding of the Japanese people a step further with eight historical places that have helped shaped them into the people they are today. Let’s go!

1. Hokkaido 北海道

While winter sports and the Sapporo Snow Festival are some of Hokkaido’s biggest foreign tourism draws, the importance of the island to the Japanese is for other reasons. Hokkaido has 12 prefectural national parks and wetlands, and its vast farmland produces the majority of the nation’s potatoes, soybeans, wheat and corn. With large swaths of land, Hokkaido has a huge dairy industry and its forests support commercial timber enterprises. Wildlife includes Higuma bears, Ezo squirrels, Ezo owls, white-tailed sea eagles and the red-crowned crane. (In Japanese folklore, the crane is said to live 1,000 years and grants wishes in return for one’s sacrifices). Shiretoko National Park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and the ice floes of Abashiri on the Okhotsk Sea are a domestic tourist draw.

But Hokkaido is also home to the Ainu, an ethnic group indigenous to Hokkaido. With parallels to the US and the Native Americans, or Australia and the Aboriginals, the Ainu have been subject to discrimination, and land settlements are still a point of contention today.

During the Nara and Heian periods (710–1185), the Ainu traded with the Japanese mainlanders but as the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1868) became increasingly wary of the expansion of Russia, Ezo was procured as a protective buffer. In 1869 the island became known as Hokkaido and in 1947 was given status equal to a prefecture.

Despite attempted assimilation programs by the Japanese government, the Ainu have remained marginalized. It is difficult to tell the difference between the Ainu and mainland Japanese in this day and age, as many have moved out of Hokkaido to places like Tokyo and integrated to a degree, but the Ainu are said to be more hirsute than mainland Japanese. There are an estimated 25,000 Ainu living in Hokkaido. The plight of the Ainu is a common theme in media in Japan as the group pushes for more recognition and protection of their human rights.

Things to do: The Poroto Kotan Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, the lavender fields of Furano in summer.

Documentary on the Ainu by Al Jazeera English

2. Tokyo 東京

The face of Tokyo has changed over the years from its small fishing village past to what is now its own brand of highrises and modernized neighborhoods. From Akihabara, with its otaku culture and maid cafes, to Shibuya scramble crossing and the debut of a new LCD screen as large as a basketball court, and the strange vending machines in Asakusa, much of the excitement of Tokyo can be found by just walking around. But even as the archipelago’s financial center, Tokyo still retains its small-town flavor among its unique neighborhoods, where you’ll find absolutely everything you’ve ever dreamed of, and more. For example, did you know that in Asakusa the art of sharpening and polishing samurai swords is still taught at the “Tokyo Polishing Master Craftsmen Institution?”

During the Edo period (1603-1868), Tokyo was a castle town and the seat of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Daimyo visited from other regions of Japan to report to the Shogun every second year and these feudal lords brought with them large entourages who were housed around the castle in Yanamote.

The Edo period is a period when Edo shigusa (values and manners of Edo) is thought to have been prevalent, temple bells were tolled to tell the time, and the city of one million retained a strict sense of order. The hierarchical society of the time was responsible for much of the propriety, a system based on neo-Confucianism stressing morals and education and dividing the population according to their role in society. The emperor at the top, was followed by the Shogun, daimyo, samurai, peasants (for their role in providing sustenance), artisans, and merchants. At the very bottom were the "eta" (or "burakumin"), those who had occupations considered kegare (unclean) such as butchers, leather workers, undertakers, and executioners. Despite their necessary role in society, people of this class were forced to live in the northeastern corner of the city as outcasts.

This was also the period of "sakoku," or isolation, when Japan was closed to the rest of the world except for limited trading with the Chinese, Koreans, Dutch, Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa) and the Ainu. But this sequestration of the country also allowed Japanese culture to thrive and develop. The floating world was in full swing as was bushido – the way of the samurai. Samurai (anywhere from five to eight percent of the Japanese population at that time) strutted about with their swords and honed their warrior skills by practicing archery on horseback. The warriors not only practiced martial arts, but also found time for literature, poetry, calligraphy, painting, and tea ceremony. The Edo period and the Genroku period that immediately followed (1688 – 1703) saw ukiyo-e woodblock prints became a major art form and works by Hokusai (“Views of Mt Fuji) and Hiroshige’s “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido” (the main travel and transport route between Kyoto and Edo) printed. Kabuki came into vogue as a new art form and "wagashi," traditional Japanese sweets, became popular.

During the Meiji era (1868–1912) when Japan moved away from the feudal system, Japan’s iconic samurai no longer had a means of support. Class restrictions on employment were revoked in 1871. Even though the Meiji government abolished the "buraku" caste, the stigma lives on today for the three million or so "buraku" people who suffer injustices, especially in the areas of employment and marriage. In 1946, what developed into the Buraku Liberation League, formed to fight for the rights of these people, but remains controversial due to some of its tactics.

Things to do: Tokyo Imperial Palace, kabuki theater, Tokyo Giants baseball game.

Movies: "Tanpopo" (Directed by Juzo Itami, starring Ken Watanabe), "Tokyo Story" (Directed by Yasujiro Ozu)

3. Osaka 大阪

Osaka is known as Japan’s commercial center. Osaka’s location on Japan’s Seto Inland Sea surely gave it an advantage over Edo with the huge potential in domestic sea trade stretching the length of the inland Sea from Osaka all the way west to Kyushu.

Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the daimyo who ordered the construction of Osaka castle, aimed to build the largest and most intimidating of all castles in Japan. The erection of the edifice started in 1583 and was completed in 1590 (the current castle is a reconstruction). Toyotomi hosted lavish social events and tea ceremonies, inviting acclaimed masters and using the finest ceramic implements of the time. He even constructed a mobile tea room covered with gold leaf, fashioned after the Golden Pavilion (Kyoto) which he could take with him.

Tokyo and Osaka enjoy a rivalry today similar to the East coast vs. the West coast in the U.S.; Tokyo is seen as sophisticated, conservative and the people a bit indifferent compared to Osaka, where people are more friendly, passionate and gregarious. To this day, Osaka is known for its cunning businessmen and manzai comedy. It is also known for Osaka-style "okonomiyaki," "takoyaki" (fried octopus balls) and "naniwa" mixed sushi.

Things to do: Hanshin Tigers baseball game, Osaka castle and museum, Spa World, the Sumo Spring Basho, and Mino Park for hiking.

Movies: "Black Rain" (Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Michael Douglas)

4. Nara 奈良

During the Nara period (710-794), named for when Japan’s capital was located here, Buddhism was sponsored by the state and acted as protector of the state. Todaiji Temple in Nara served as the head. Japan’s oldest Buddhist structures and wooden buildings are located in or near Nara. Buddhist iconography was imported from China and Nio statues (that stand in pairs and act as guardians at temple gates) were one of the influences from this time.

The Nara period is also when the two oldest extant documents on Japanese creation and history were written: the Kojiki (712) “Records of Ancient Matters” of which is Japan’s oldest surviving written work and on which many Shinto myths are based, and the Nihon Shoki (720), “Chronicles of Japan,” which was written entirely in classical Chinese. These two texts are often referred to and consulted for earliest references to places and events, similar to how the bible is referenced in Western cultures. Themes and names of characters from the Kojiki continue to pervade Japanese pop culture appearing in films, manga and anime. You’ll sometimes find a copy of the Kojiki in Japanese hotels the way bibles can be found in Western hotels.

Things to do: Todaiji Temple and other UNESCO world heritage sites, take a private, guided walking tour.

Video of Nio statues at Todaiji Temple

5. Kyoto 京都

Kyoto, with over 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, served as the imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years. Buddhist temples, court nobles and the refined lifestyles defined the flavor of the Heian period (794–1185).

“The Tale of Genji” includes lavish descriptions of social life including the Imperial water gardens where people glided around on wooden boats admiring the scenery or while moon-viewing to observe the moon’s reflection in the water. Music, singing, painting and writing tanka poems under the moon all took place in this era. Kyoto city was populated with traditional "machiya" style houses (many of which have now been turned into restaurants and shops). While Japanese gardens have their origins in Shinto, the end of the Heian period saw a new type of garden called a Paradise Garden (such as the garden at Byodo-in Temple in Uji near Kyoto) develop in line with beliefs of Pure Land Buddhism and Amida Buddha’s paradise of the West. In art, "raigo" paintings depicting the Buddha on a purple cloud (who visits at your deathbed) became popular as well as "e-maki" illustrated hand scrolls. Imperial court cuisine called "yusoku ryori" -- a type of traditional Japanese haute cuisine -- came to the fore. Rakugo storytelling was introduced by Buddhist monks hoping to liven up their sermons.

At this time the Buddhist priest Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi) went abroad to China to study Shingon and brought this new form of Buddhism back to Japan and to his aristocratic roots in Kyoto in 806. Shingon greatly influenced Buddhism in Japan by introducing mandalas and pilgrimages. Shingon temples were constructed in more contemplative spots in the mountains, away from the city. Though not as well-known abroad, Shingon is the third most popular sect of Buddhism in Japan.

During the Muromachi Period (1337 to 1573), Kyoto again introduced new cultural aspects that came to be known as “Muromachi culture,” which compromised noh drama, kyogen, tea ceremony, landscape gardening (such as that of the Golden Pavilion) and flower arranging, all largely spread via the influence of Zen Buddhism.

Things to do: Geisha performances, any of the many UNESCO World Heritage sites, Toei Uzamasa Eigamura film studio and amusement park, International Manga Museum.

Books: "Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide," by Judith Clancy, "The Lady and the Monk" by Pico Iyer.

6. Hiroshima 広島

To most of the world, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were what ended WWII. To Japan, they were much more than that. The radiated explosions also convinced Japan that they should never go to war again. This is what is behind Article 9 of the National Constitution of Japan that renounces war and prohibits Japan from maintaining an army other than Self Defense Forces. Article 9 has done much to promote peace education within Japan and around the world. The Hiroshima Peace Park is a popular destination for Japanese public school graduation trips.

Things to do: Hiroshima Peace Park, Miyajima Island and Itsukushima Shrine and torii gate.

Books: "Black Rain" by Masuji Ibuse.

7. Nagasaki 長崎市

The first Portuguese merchants arrived in Tanegashima in 1543. Subsequent trade brought tobacco, bread, textiles and castella (sponge cake), tempura and, perhaps most importantly, firearms. Then in 1549, Francis Xavier arrived in Kagoshima to spread Christianity throughout Japan.

During the Edo period when Japan was closed off to the rest of the world, the only Europeans the country maintained trading with was the Dutch and in 1643, Dejima, an artificial island, was used as a trading post for this. Japan maintained limited trade with China in Nagasaki too. Eventually, Nagasaki became a free port in 1859.

Besides Nagasaki being an important trading location for Japan, it also became a refuge for Christians in 1580 as the evangelizing of Christianity had converted over 300,000 people and was beginning to be seen as a black cloud as Christian followers increasingly followed the word of priests and the Christian teachings rather than their rulers. To maintain control of the population and rule, Ieyasu Tokugawa eventually banned Christianity nationwide in 1614. What followed was the enforced suppression and persecution of thousands of Christians. The many Christian-related sites in Nagasaki led to the establishment of Nagasaki as a center for Japanese Christians.

Things to do: Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, Dejima museum, Oura Church, sites at Satome including Karematsu Shrine, Endo Shusaku museum, and Bastian’s Hut.

Books: "One Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell, "In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians" by John Dougill, "Silence" by Endo Shusaku and the upcoming film by Martin Scorsese based on it.

8. Tohoku 東北

The Tohoku region consists of six prefectures: (from north to south) Aomori, Akita and Iwate, Yamagata and Miyagi, and Fukushima. Haiku poet Matsuo Basho wrote his famous account of "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" while traveling through this region. Akita Prefecture is the home of Japan’s own breed of dog, the Akita, the most iconic of which is Hachiko, a dog enshrined outside Tokyo’s Shibuya railway station in Tokyo. Matsushima, in Miyagi Prefecture, is one of Japan’s Three Great Views, and in the prefecture’s town of Naruko they make traditional Japanese kokeshi dolls. Aomori Prefecture hosts Mt. Osore, the mythical entrance to hell and where Japan’s uniquely female-only "itako" fortune-tellers live.

Fukushima Prefecture, though recently brought to the front in the wake of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, is the third largest prefecture in Japan. While many Japanese are wary of buying produce grown in the prefecture as a result of the events of March 11, 2011, due to its size much of Fukushima is actually further away from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant than some neighboring prefectures. The Tohoku area as a whole, meanwhile, is further away from Daiichi than Tokyo (200 km), so tourists considering visiting Tohoku need not be concerned for their safety. Japan has a history of earthquakes and tsunami and they know what a devastated area needs. With numerous natural springs, lakes, and mountains, Japanese people are heading to Fukushima Prefecture to help support the economy and put the region back on the map as a tourism destination. Maybe you should too.

Things to do: Inawashiro Lake and Tsuruga Caslte in Aizu, Bandai-Asahi National Park, fantastic skiing and snowboarding in winter.

Books: "The Roads to Sata" by Alan Booth, "On the Narrow Road," Lesley Downer

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Experience history and culture with a cup of green tea in these beautiful Kamakura temple gardens -- TripAdvisor Ranks Top 20 Japanese Travel Destinations For Foreign Visitors, Hiroshima Edges Kyoto For Top Spot -- Japan’s World Heritages Fly Well Under Radar

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This list is a load of bollocks. Really understand Japan? lol. Eh? Better off going to a local supermarket to gain insight than visiting castles etc..

23 ( +25 / -2 )

I've been to all of these places, and I wouldn't say I really understand Japan. I remain baffled.

A better title for this would be "A list of places in Japan".

22 ( +24 / -2 )

A crowded Yakitori-ya with baseball on the TV. A rural matsuri. A pachinko parlour on a friday night. (or join the queue to get in on a saturday morning for a grittier reality). Climb Mt. Fuji. A shrine at midnight on New Year's Eve. (or watch Kohaku at home for a grittier etc.) Join a gokon. Get taken to a Kyabakura. A regional food festival at a department store. can be replaced by catching a commuter train to Tokyo for a grittier etc.
20 ( +21 / -1 )

The best way to understand Japan is to work here and you'll realize that nothing here is what it seems.

17 ( +18 / -1 )

Why must Japan constantly be in need of being understood ? Enough of this endless navel-gazing already. Sheesh.

13 ( +14 / -1 )

The title is a bit over the top. You don't need to visit most of these places to understand Japan, nor will visiting them magically make you understand Japan. I would guess that most Japanese haven't been to all the places on this list. But then, many Japanese don't understand Japan either - like the rest of us, they just know what they personally experience.

Aside from the link-bait title, it's a pretty much standard list of the usual tourist stops. I think a better idea is to just visit places that seem interesting, or (even better) where you have local connections who can show you around. Little known places are often more interesting than places that regularly handle large influxes of tourists.

11 ( +12 / -1 )

A slapdash travel guide is limited enlightenment material. You can get to know Japan intimately by being in one place.

Get a job here.

form a romantic relationship with a native, get married and if you are insane enough have children (then the system will really have you.)

Try to learn Japanese.

Visit a historic places on a weekend or a holiday.

Eat Japanese food no matter how odd. (You already know how to use chopsticks.)

Or try to be like a modern Japanese: Wear a Rolex watch, drive a BMW, live in a Western style house with a wash toilet, eat French food, try to speak English, vacation in Europe, refuse to have children and text all the time.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

Just because you've visited these places, please don't say you understand Japan.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

It's absurd to say that it's possible to truly "understand" any nation with over 100 million people. What the heck does that mean? The claim that one can "understand" Japan comes from 2 sources:

1-Japanese themselves who like to perpetuate the myth that they all uniquely understand each other in a way that is impenetrable to foreigners.

2-Foreigners who fetishize Asian cultures and happily buy into the impenetrable (dare I say inscrutable?) myth.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Bossu is on the mark. The best way to understand Japan is to realize that nothing here is what it seems.

Japan is not all that hard to understand. It is not intellectually impossible (not even very difficult, contrary to all the mythologizing) as long as you appreciate that Japan is a paradox and complete contradiction of itself in almost every respect. If you can command that dissonance and hold its continuum of incongruities simultaneously you've got it!

Visiting 108 places is not going to get you there.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

All these 8 regions can be good places to visit, but can anyone visited these regions understand Japan may be a bit over statement. Japan and its culture is very complex and must be hard to fully understand for foreigners by just visiting some regions. One thing you may agree is that there are two different perspectives of Japanese culture characteristics. One is the traditional perspective, the other is current ever changing perspective. These two are mixed in so many layers To form today's Japan. So you may want to experience both, in order to grasp what makes Japan so Japan. For that purpose, even if you have only limited time in Japan, you can enjoy experiencing these two different perspectives in just going around in Tokyo. You just need a real good guide who can show you around with deep knowledge of Japanese culture.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

This is a pretty narrow list. For one, grouping Tohoku into one place to visit is very odd. Tohoku is huge and each area has its own unique aspects. At the end of the article it mentions the late Alan Booth`s Roads to Sata. Written back in the 70s I think but it is a fantastic read. I highly recommend it.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

To truly understand a country’s people, you need to know something about their history and where they came from

This is all very well, but how many Japanese people themselves know this?

2 ( +6 / -4 )

I have been to all of the places on the list and almost every other prefecture in Japan and can say that every prefecture has good places. You don't learn about the entire Japanese culture from each place but you learn about local customs, dialects, food and events.

I do agree though that a lot of people think a trip to Japan means going to Tokyo then getting "cultured" by taking a day trip to Nikko, Kamakura or Kyoto. There is so much more to Japan than Tokyo.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Why isn't Love Hotel on that list?

2 ( +4 / -2 )

i have never lived in japan but married a japanese girl from a small town in niigata and had two kids. i have traveled from top to bottom in this amazing country, there is always something new around every corner. ive been to heaps of tourist spot and i've found that the trip getting there is always better then thing you go to look at. Just leaving you business hotel catching trains, talking to locals, walking the back streets, small hole in the restaurants full of salaryman and small villages in the middle of nowhere where few foreigners go makes japan more special and when you think you are starting to know whats it all about it changes and just make me love it more i will never understand it and i hope i never do!!!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

To most of the world, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were what ended WWII... [and the bombings] convinced Japan that they should never go to war again.

That was a pretty definitive statement. It caught me off guard.

Based on that, I would guess the author of this piece is in the camp that feels the atomic bombings were necessary and justified.

Full disclosure, I have mixed feelings on the matter, and I have long appreciated Amy Chavez's work and contributions to Japan's English-speaking community.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Full knowledge would only lower Japan in their estimation.

As it goes in the Matrix: " It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. " Japan (the government at least) seems to welcome foreign visitors, as long as they leave again after shopping to help Japan's economy. So in the end, who really does understand Japan?

1 ( +5 / -3 )

What a load of tripe, these are the most visited places in Japan, anyone could make that list.

Paustovsky, your list is spot on!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Heck, all you have to do to understand Japan is learn to like eating natto and shirako. Good luck!

1 ( +3 / -2 )

I'm very happy and proud to say I've vist in this 8 places in Japan. I love Japan like my second home. Rohan

0 ( +4 / -4 )

I think it's a good starting point if someone is planning a trip to Japan and doesn't have to care about the expenses. However the list could be sorted to reflect chronology of events associated with these places. Either from modern to old, or the other way around. It would be interesting to visit some of the graves of major historical figures, because it shows modern attitude towards them and how the buried people are perceived nowadays. Still, imagining myself a fictional scenario that I've already "been" to all those places, I wouldn't say I "understand" Japan or am "enlightened" about it. The more you know, the more you're aware of the things you don't know. There is also cultural distance to consider - Chinese or Korean people visiting Japan may relate to their own culture, as there are many cultural similarities between Japan, China and Korea. Despite rivalry on political level, folk cultures of all the 3 nations share a common vision of reality in general (with the Confucian emphasis on praising the ancestors), of course with the particular religious dogmas out of the picture (because they always divide people, even in the most monolithic societies). I live in Europe, so, to paraphrase words of historical Italian traveler to Japan "A Pole will always stay a Pole."

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I agree with a lot of others who have made comment here on Japan, this is just a tourist list get to know Japan is far better by 1/ Work in Japan 2/ Date a Japanese Girl 3/ Go to an Onsen 4/ Visit a Love Hotel with a Japanese Girl 5/ Visit a multi level Porn store and watch Japanese men shop for porn like Western Men shop for a steak. 6/ Get out of Tokyo, or any other major tourist city and rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel. 7/ Realise nothing in Japan is as it seems - Japanese women are polite and courteous even if they hate you.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

How about 8 things to do in Japan, Go to a Onsen, go to the baseball at Kaishien Stadum Osaka, visit Fuji-Q, visit the Otaru fish market for the Y1000 bowl of fresh Sashimi, Ajin Firework in Ito, Dashi festive in Takayama, Nozawa fire festive, Take a trip on the Shinkansen, This is the fun way to start to understand the Japanese culture.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

"This week we offer you eight places that contributed greatly to the development of Japan, its culture, and people." - article

Cheers JT! Quite right. Five of eight and admittedly no idea. Funny, love, respect and in awe still. Love Japan because it cannot be known. China should try so hard. Gods bless, so beautiful. Love you Japan.

-7 ( +1 / -8 )

The Potuguese did not introduce Tampura to Japan. Tampura was a style of deep fry that develop from deep frying with batter that the Portuguese induced. The Japanese with expertise altered the batter so It will become very crispy when fry at a certain tempiture They realise when ice water is used instead of tempid water. it changes the chemistry of the batter mixture. Portugal is a tempid country and ice was rare in during that period of history and could not acheive the Tempura style.

-17 ( +2 / -19 )

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