Top 3 in Japan

intro

My time in Japan will soon be at an end, so I thought it would be appropriate to look back on some of the places I’ve been and talk about the things Japan has to offer. It’s been a difficult process. These are the things I liked most: I have not attempted to order them, and I confined myself only to those things I have direct personal experience of. But the wait is now over, and I am proud to present Watson’s list of the Top 3 in Japan!

The top 3 what? I’m so glad you asked…

itsukushima

Top 3 Shrines:
Everyone loves a good Shinto shrine, and Japan has plenty of them. Fushimi Inari in Kyoto is famous for its thousands of tori, the red gates that line the mountain paths. Itsukushima shrine in Hiroshima is only famous for one gate, but that gate can best be described as imposing. And Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka is almost unique in that its architecture has not been influenced by other Asian traditions. It is also incredibly old, having been founded in the 3rd century AD.

kiyomizudera

Top 3 Temples:
The other main religion in Japan is Buddhism, and there are no shortage of Buddhist temples either. Kyoto is positively littered with temples and shrines, so it should come as no surprise that two of my choices are from there.

Ginkakuji is known as the silver pavilion. Less well known than Kinkakuji (its more ostentatious golden sibling), I found I preferred Ginkakuji. It seemed to blend better with its surroundings. On the same side of Kyoto lies Kiyomizu-dera. It is surrounded by maples, and looks absolutely stunning in autumn. I recommend visiting early in the morning, before the crowds arrive. Over in Himeji, Mt. Shosha is the site of Engyoji. The Engyoji complex covers a good deal of the mountain, and its forested surrounds combined with the lack of modern infrastructure means you get an excellent feel for what Japan was like 1500 years ago.

Honourable Mention: Meisekiji
Meisekiji is the main Buddhist temple where I live. It’s number 43 on the 88-temple Shikoku pilgrimage, and nestles in a forested valley on the mountainside. But while beautiful in autumn, I can’t honestly say that it is significant enough to merit a place in the top 3. I still have a soft spot for it, though.

inuyama-castle

Top 3 Castles:
I’ll admit it: I have an interest in Japanese castles, and I’ve visited as many as I reasonably could. I’ve been to six of the twelve original castles in Japan, and three of the four designated as national treasures.

Inuyama castle is one of the best I’ve seen. It’s also the oldest still standing, and you can really see the difference in architectural styles. With beautiful grounds and a fantastic view from its hill, it’s hard to go past from a historical viewpoint. Kochi castle is another good one. Smaller and much more remote, it also has an understated elegance which goes well with its seaside setting. Turning to reconstructed castles, Nagoya castle offers an exceptional experience with the exhibits in the museum it contains. If you can cope with the incredible throng of visitors, it gives a great idea of what life was like for both the people who used it and those who built it.

Honourable Mention: Himeji
Before anyone starts frowning about this not being on the list: yes, I know Himeji is reckoned to be the number-one castle in Japan. And I even visited it, sure that it would take the top spot on my list. But the day before I arrived some idiot crashed a quad-rotor drone on the roof. The authorities got very excited about that, and entrance was still being restricted when I got there. A 3-hour queue to enter the castle grounds simply couldn’t be managed, and so I couldn’t actually go inside. As a result I felt it was unfair to include in the top 3.

ninja museum

Top 3 Museums:
There are museums for just about everything in Japan – dogs, toilets, cup noodles… the list is almost endless. I find it difficult to get the most out of them because I can’t read Japanese. As a result I prefer museums which are more visual or interactive.

For those interested in Shogunate-period Japan, the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya is very good. It also has an excellent set of exhibits relating to tea and the importance thereof. If you want to really dive into the history of a specific area, then I strongly recommend the museum of Ehime History and Culture in Seiyo. It covers practically every aspect of life in Ehime prefecture, from the earliest known settlement right up to the modern day. Well worth a visit! And finally, for people who want it all – information, history, and a good deal of fun – the Ninja Museum in Iga-Ueno is absolutely worthwhile. With tours, exhibits, and demonstrations of ninja skills and equipment it is a thoroughly good day out for everyone. And it will be a day out, because the train trip there and back takes hours. On the bright side you get to see more of the wild country of Mie prefecture, so I can’t really call that a downside.

Honourable Mention: Hiroshima A-Bomb Museum
Yes, it’s effective. It’s full of powerful exhibits that thoroughly bring home what happened on August 6th 1945. It personalises events in a way that simply reading accounts of the time cannot. It is moving and powerful and effective in a way that very few other museums are. And it feels extremely strange to walk through the riverside park and look up, seeing a single contrail in the sky. But I am just not comfortable with saying I liked it.

curry-rice

Top 3 Foods:
Japan has plenty of healthy and delicious dishes to sample. Every town in every prefecture has something which they are firmly convinced they make better than anywhere else, and trying the local speciality is a good way to get an authentic taste of Japan. For me, however, there are some things which more than anything else remind me of Japan.

Okonomiyaki is one of them. A sort of savoury pancake, okonomiyaki is stuffed with odds and ends of vegetables, meat, and more or less anything else. It’s an excellent way to use up leftovers, which is exactly how it developed. Some people even put noodles in there, but I just can’t agree with that. Kansai-style for life, dawg. Curry and rice is another good choice. Japanese curry is a thing unto itself, sweeter and less spicy than other curries. But it is warm and tasty and comforting, and I enjoy it a good deal. And finally, kaiten-zushi (conveyor-belt sushi) is a fast food version of sushi that is nonetheless an excellent way to have a cheap and tasty meal. If you’re lucky you’ll even find a restaurant that has a special shinkansen to bring out your order!

Korakuen

Top 3 Gardens:
Most houses in Japan don’t have much of a garden. If they do it’s always small, and while it might be beautifully formed it’s a garden for sitting and looking at, not walking around in. But that’s not to say there are no gardens like that in Japan.

Korakuen in Okayama is perhaps the biggest and certainly one of the best I’ve been to. It manages to include a variety of landscapes and features without feeling in any way artificial, something of an achievement considering it is entirely so. It also includes large lawns, which I didn’t realise I missed until I saw them here. Back in Nagoya, Tokugawa-en is an excellent example of traditional daimyo gardens. It manages to condense most of Japan’s scenery into one garden, and uses vertical elements well. And, since it surrounds the Tokugawa Art Museum, it’s easy to fit into the same trip. In Inuyama, Urakuen offers a charming setting for a tea house built by Oda Nobunaga’s brother. It’s not large but it is very pretty, and the bamboo grove is a nice feature.

nashikun

South Love, baby.

Top 3 Mascots:
Japan is in love with mascot characters. Mascots exist for absolutely everything and attain status reserved only for celebrities in other countries – it can be very strange to see a crowd of hundreds of adults suddenly go mad because a fat-headed cat with a samurai helmet has appeared in a doorway. That being said, there are some mascots I have a soft spot for.

Wanmaru-kun, the mascot of Inuyama, is an entirely fitting representative of the city. Over in Kochi, Katsuo-nyanko manages to include both cats and bonito with an irrepressible good nature. But I have a special place in my heart for Nashi-kun, the mascot of a little Ehime town called Ainan. Nashi-kun is an overworked otter because he has to include all of Ainan’s most important aspects: bonito, pearls, mikan, swimming and so on. It’s little wonder that he’s gone cross-eyed from trying to keep up with everything. But just look at that face!

Honourable Mention: Belligerent-orange-kun
This chap is the mascot of the Ehime Football Club, and believe me he is wasted in that role. Ore-kun (his “real” name) has what can only be described as a snarl fixed to his face at all times, and every citrusy fiber in his body promises maximum effort at all times come hell or high water. If both don’t follow in his wake it won’t be for lack of effort.

Maiko

Top 3 Cities:
Cities in Japan aren’t always cities. I live in one, technically… It spread over more than 500 square kilometres and had a population of about 40,000; it wasn’t exactly downtown Tokyo. But there are still plenty that aren’t just administrative politenesses, and here are my favourites.

Kyoto was spared most of the bombing that flattened other Japanese cities, and as a result it has a wealth of cultural and historic treasures. More than that though, it also has an open feeling that makes visitors feel welcome. Hiroshima is also a very pleasant city to walk around in, with wide streets and well-spaced buildings. This isn’t simply a result of the one-second slum clearance plan either, since even the areas unaffected by it show the same characteristics. And finally we’re back on Shikoku for the city of Kochi. Kochi is a seaside city and has a relaxed, friendly atmosphere which I really enjoyed. Come for the seafood, stay for the atmosphere!

katsurahama

Top 3 Scenic Spots:
Sometimes Japan just doesn’t seem real. Every so often I saw something that made me think “Have I walked into a postcard somehow?” Practically everywhere you go you can find beautiful mountains or forests shrouded in mist or rugged coastlines, or maybe rice fields stretching out like tatami mats across a river valley. There’s always something.

Since I lived on the island of Shikoku I got see more of it than elsewhere, so that’s where two of my favourite spots are. In Ehime prefecture there is a tiny little town called Mikame, home to the world’s saddest aquarium (just one sunfish!) and the annual pig rodeo (officially – and deservedly – described as “infamous”). A few minutes drive up the coast is also the Suzaki Kannon. This is a small temple dedicated to Kannon, Buddha of mercy. Going up there in summer rewards you with magnificent views across the sea all the way to Kyushu, as well as the Ehime coastline and islands, all while surrounded by native oaks and chrysanthemums. The best part is that you’re practically guaranteed to have it all to yourself.

Over in Kochi prefecture, Katsurahama beach is almost impossibly picturesque. White sand curves under the pine trees while huge waves roll in off the Pacific; it’s no surprise that a shrine complements the rocky point at one end because how could a god not inhabit such a place? The best part is that it is not only easy to get to and free, but also offers a wealth of other activites – an aquarium (much less sad than Mikame), a dog museum (where you might just get licked by a puppy), and all the history you could ever want about the life and times of Sakamoto Ryoma (gunslinger, samurai, reformer, and all round Bad Dude). There’s something for just about everyone there.

Finally, the Kibi Plain near Okayama offers a variety of shrines, temples, and burial mounds. Cycling across it in summer also takes you through the rice fields of the region. The cycle tour loosely follow the story of Prince Kibitsuhiko, who (fun fact) forms the basis for the legend of peach-boy Momotaro. Even if you don’t like Momotaro, however, the plain is an excellent opportunity to enjoy the delights of the Japanese countryside.

Shikoku bridge

Top 3 Prefectures:
With 47 prefectures in Japan choosing the top 3 is difficult, particularly because all of them offer something different. I’ve only visited 10 of them, so I certainly can’t speak with any authority on the subject. But, for what it’s worth, here are my picks.

Kochi prefecture isn’t the most rural and remote prefecture, but it’s fairly out of the way. It has a wealth of history to delve into, beautiful beaches along the Pacific coastline, and a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Not a bad spot to come home to. If you’re more of a big-city person, though, then Kyoto prefecture might be your thing. It has a positive embarrassment of riches in terms of cultural and historical treasures, all the entertainments and opportunities you would expect from a thoroughly populated area, and if all that begins to pall it also has excellent transport links to everywhere else. And finally, if you really want to get lost in the woods, Mie prefecture is definitely the place to go. The train ride from Kyoto to Iga-Ueno magnificent views of the forested hills and rocky rivers of Mie, and it’s easy to see why the ninja chose to make it their base of operations.

Honourable Mention: Ehime Prefecture
I lived in Ehime, so I have to admit to a degree of bias in favour of it. In my defence I think that all right-thinking people would agree with me once they became acquainted with its charms, but in order to avoid accusations of favouritism Ehime did not get a place in the top 3 prefectures. Which is a shame, because it really deserves one… It has a fascinating history, some lovely spots to visit, cute mascot characters, and the best mikan in Japan. No, Wakayama, don’t start anything over this. You know it’s true.

winter onsen

Top 3 Japan Experiences:
Choosing only three things that sum up the experience of being in Japan is difficult, but I’m willing to give it a shot.

The first word I would use to describe the Japan experience is “convenience”. Trains run exactly on time, there are vending machines around every corner, the local konbini can be relied on to have pretty much whatever you might want on a casual basis, mail is delivered several times a day (even on Sunday). Many things in Japan are very convenient for the people who will be using them, and you can expect the staff to put customer service high on their list of priorities.

Secondly, I would choose “tradition”. From visiting an onsen in winter to how you greet your neighbours, the country is full of not only buildings but also ideas that have survived for centuries. Many of these are admirable, some are strange to foreign eyes, and in my opinion a few are downright unhealthy for the people and society they are part of. But they all still exist, and all still have an effect on the country.

And to round out the list, “hospitality”. People here can be very generous and kind if they think you are genuinely trying to engage with Japan on its own terms. This can range from being given a bag of ice at the supermarket to keep your food cold, to drinks and snacks for any reason (or none at all), to being given a huge box of mikan when people find out you like them. This isn’t an everyday occurrence for me, but it has happened often enough to be noticeable. Others in different situations have stories of even more kindness being heaped on them.

Honourable Mention: Engrish
It’s always there. Awkward phrasing, weird word choices, and divergent meanings play a part in it, but even after more than a year I can still be amused by a particularly egregious example. You can usually work out what people were trying to say, but sometimes you run across something completely mystifying. What does “iron whiz amplification” actually mean? That aside, however, Japan is hardly the only country that struggles to use foreign languages correctly, so it isn’t a defining characteristic of being here.

Question of the post: What do you think are the Top 3 in Japan, or where you are? And what defines the experience of living there?

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About Dr. J.H. Watson

I’m a New Zealander, in my 30s, and until recently I lived in rural Japan. I have interests in history, pop culture, video games, and the clever use of language.
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