Highlights of Japan’s stunning south

Most trips to Japan start in its extraordinary capital, Tokyo. And for a first-time visitor, it’s not to be missed. But having previously been to Tokyo on a stopover from Australia, I decided this trip should explore new territory in the south of Japan. Here’s the itinerary I put together and why I wouldn’t have missed out any part of it.

1. Neon lights and fab food in Osaka

If you want to head to the southern part of Japan then Kansai International Airport is where you want to land. And it’s only 40 minutes by train to Osaka. The city is second only to Tokyo in size and has all the neon lights and energy you’ll need to kick-start your trip.

Osaka is famous for its food and one of our highlights was the okonomiyaki pancakes at Chibo in Dotombori. They were so good we had them on our first and last days in Japan. We also did a great Osaka Local Bar Crawl on our first night with a guide who helped us navigate, and get a taste for, some other local dishes and drinks like Shochu and Whiskey Highball.

And Osaka has a bit of culture too. The city’s castle is a stunner and you’ll even find a tiny temple tucked away down Dotombori’s narrow alleyways. I’d also recommend our hotel, the Hotel Gracery Osaka Namba which is in a great location for transport connections and fun!

Running Man, Dotombori, OsakaChibo, OsakaOsaka Castle2. Feeling zen in Koya-san

Koya-san is undoubtedly unlike anywhere I’ve been before. And it couldn’t have been more of a contrast from vibrant Osaka. A temple town near the top of one of Japan’s holiest mountains, Koya-san has been a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists for centuries. And while it takes some effort to get there it’s a physical and spiritual journey worth making. From Osaka’s Namba station, we went on two trains, a funicular railway and a bus, but Japan’s transport network is so good it felt pretty easy.

We stayed in a shukubo, which are temple lodgings run by Buddhist monks. That was a highlight in itself, along with the town’s grand temples and an evening tour of the atmospheric Oku-no-in cemetery. Early the next morning the head monk at our gorgeous temple lodging Joki-in invited us to join him for morning prayers in a beautiful lantern-lit ceremony room. An experience not to be missed.

Jokin-in temple, Koya-sanKoya-sanJokin-in temple ceremony room, Koya-san3. Capturing Japan’s finest castle at Himeji

Himeji could easily be a stop on the bullet train that you pass through and don’t get off. But if you do, you’ll be rewarded with seeing the most impressive of the castles that remain from Japan’s feudal era.

The beautiful pearly white castle has a five-storey main building and is set in a park filled with cherry blossom trees. Not surprising then that it has featured in both James Bond and Tom Cruise movies.

To get there, we did the journey in reverse from Koya-san to Osaka’s Namba station. Then crossed the city by metro to Osaka station to pick up a train to Himeji. The castle is a short walk from the station and the Daiwa Roynet Hotel is perfectly positioned between the two. We decided to stay over in Himeji as we’d travelled a fair way that day. But you could easily hop off the Shinkansen (bullet train) for a few hours while en route elsewhere. You can store your luggage in a coin locker at the station while visiting the castle.

Himeji CastleHimeji Castle4. Naoshima’s extraordinary art in a gorgeous setting

Like Koya-san, visiting Japan’s art island Naoshima isn’t done without some effort, but is also very worth it. The small islands of the Seto Inland Sea lie between Japan’s main island Honshu and Shikoku island. So from Himeji, it was a bullet train to Okayama, two local trains and a ferry, but that’s all very easy in Japan. We never missed a connection in two weeks.

I’d recommend spending at least a couple of nights to enjoy all Naoshima Island has to offer at a leisurely pace. There are six incredible art galleries designed by Ando Tadao, plus installations and a multitude of outdoor sculptures, including several by Yayo Kusami. Her iconic Yellow Pumpkin has become something of a symbol for Naoshima.

But what really sets the island apart is the glorious setting for all this fabulous art. It’s small so we mainly walked from place to place with plenty of stops to enjoy the scenery. Benesse House is the most famous and expensive place to stay, but we chose Quaint House which was much cheaper and only a five-minute walk from Miyanoura’s ferry port. I’d also recommend the nearby New Olympia restaurant and Queens Bar for great cocktails. And also make sure to book a slot at Chichu Gallery in advance. You won’t want to miss the gallery or the amazing views from the terrace. As you can see below we paused here to take in the view with a glass of fizz!

Chichu Gallery terrace, Noashima IslandYayoi Kusami's Valley Gallery, Naoshima IslandYayoi Kusami's Yellow Pumpkin, Naoshima Island5. Hiroshima’s stark but peaceful reminder of the past

For Hiroshima, it was the same journey in reverse until Okayama where we got the bullet train in the other direction. I can’t imagine many people don’t know why Hiroshima is famous. But if not, the memory of the atomic bomb that destroyed the city in 1945 is rightly very evident.

The Peace Memorial Park is the perfect way to remember and honour those who lost their lives. The stark remains of the Atomic Bomb Dome contrast with the pond that leads to a cenotaph containing the names of the known victims and framing the Flame of Peace. Nearby, the Peace Memorial Museum tells the story graphically but factually. There were no obvious signs of the blame or recrimination we saw in Vietnam. It simply aims to illustrate the devastating effects of nuclear weapons and see them banned forever.

And the rebuilt city of Hiroshima has plenty more to offer. It’s vibrant with a great tram network and plenty of shops and restaurants. Another highlight for us was an okonomiyaki cooking class at Okosta. Good fun and you eat what you cook, so at £15 each it was great value too.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial ParkHiroshima Peace MemorialCooking okonomiyaki at Okosta in Hiroshima6. Miyajima’s iconic floating shrine gate

If you spend at least two nights in Hiroshima you’ll have time to visit lovely Miyajima Island. It’s easy to get there from the city centre as both trams and trains run to the port. Once off the ferry, you’ll soon be greeted by the sacred island’s resident deer. Just keep an eye on your lunch if you’re eating outside as they are very sneaky!

There are plenty of temples, pagodas and shops to browse but the highlight is the Itsukushima-jinja shrine with its iconic shrine gate in the sea. Or at least it is when the tide comes in and the gate seems to be floating on the water. Also worth making time for is Daisho-in, Miyajima’s oldest Buddhist temple, which is on a hillside and surrounded by greenery.

Miyajima's floating shrine gateDaisho-in, Miyajima7. Kyoto, the beating heart of Japanese tradition

A speedy bullet train journey from Hiroshima and we were back in the Kansai region for the final stop on our itinerary, Kyoto. Previously Japan’s capital city, Kyoto is now known as its cultural capital. And my main advice is to allow plenty of time. It was bigger than we expected and quite spread out, so it can take time to see everything Kyoto has to offer. We didn’t manage it in four and a half days (not helped by it being quite rainy!) so there are a few things on our list to go back for.

Our top highlight in Kyoto was the Miyako Odori Spring Dance which is performed by the geisha and maiko of the Gion district. It only takes place in April while the geisha from the Pontocho district do their show in May. You need to book Miyako Odori tickets well in advance and you can opt for the tea ceremony which we did. I’d also recommend the audio guide so you know what’s happening on stage while you watch the beautiful dances.

Other highlights in Kyoto included Fushimi-Inari Taisha – 4km of paths through the forest framed by more than 10,000 tori (shrine gates) painted in the distinctive vermillion colour we became so familiar with in Japan. Also the Kiyomizu-dera temple with its wooden platform overhanging a valley with far-reaching views of Kyoto. And Nishiki Market which is known as Kyoto’s kitchen and is buzzing and filled with tempting tastes and smells. I’d also recommend our hotel Gion Misen, which has lovely rooms and staff and is in an excellent location.

Miyako Odori, KyotoFushimi Inari, KyotoNishiki Market, Kyoto8. Nara’s Great Buddha and sacred deer

One of our Kyoto days was spent on a day trip to Nara which I’d recommend making time for. Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital before Kyoto and was hugely influential, though its period at the top was fairly short-lived.

The sights are in Nara’s vast park where one of the highlights are the sacred deer. There are lots more deer than on Miyajima and they seem better behaved. They waited to be given deer snacks rather than stealing our lunch. They have also learned to bow and it’s hard not to reciprocate! Another highlight is the huge Great Buddha statue, but Nara Park is also just a lovely place to wander around. And we were delighted to finally find vegetarian noodles at the Mizuya Chaya teahouse in the park. Almost all noodles in Japan seem to be made in pork broth, even if they don’t have chunks of meat in them. So if you’re veggie, watch out!

Sacred deer, NaraGreat Buddha, NaraVegetarian noodles, Mizuya Chaya, NaraKyoto was the last stop on our itinerary, but having spent our final day there, we then went back to Osaka for our last night. Originally we planned to travel from Kyoto to Kansai Airport, but it was a longer journey than we realised and would have meant a very early start. So rather than end our trip in a boring airport hotel, we headed back to the Hotel Gracery Namba for one last blast of Osaka’s neon lights and excellent food before a quick journey to the airport the next morning.

Watch out for another post coming soon with tips on planning a trip to Japan. And for more posts about countries I’ve visited across Asia, including Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan and Myanmar, visit the Asia section of my blog.

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