Traveling to Japan anytime soon? If so, here are five things to do that might not already be on your list. Perhaps you’ve already seen the department stores and restaurants in Tokyo’s Ginza District or the Zen temples and beautiful gardens of Kyoto. What’s left to do? From dining in the clouds to learning about what life was like during the Edo period, here are five experiences that promise to be both memorable and unforgettable.
Dine In The Sky At The Tallest Tower In The World
Having dinner at “634” Sky Restaurant at Skytree, the tallest tower at the world, should be on top of anyone’s must-do list while in Japan.
One of Tokyo’s most recognizable landmarks, Skytree dwarfs the Eiffel Tower (324-meters) and Sydney Tower (309-meters). Similar to the famed Michelin 3-Star restaurant, Jules Verne which is located at the Eiffel Tower, 634 offers great food and amazing views. But while Jules Verne is situated at a height of 125-meters, 634 is at a level of 345-meters above ground, which is even higher than the top of the Eiffel Tower itself.
On a clear day, while dining at this exquisite restaurant it is possible to see Mt. Fuji and the Kanto plains. At night, the views are dazzling with tens of thousands of twinkling lights covering the landscape below. 634 offers Japanese cuisine with a French twist. Known as “Tokyo Cuisine,” it features fresh vegetables in-season, fresh seafood and other delicacies such as Wagyu beef. The restaurant’s impressive wine list includes a wide variety of French wines.
The restaurant offers several different prix fixe menus and teppanyaki and is open for lunch and dinner. Children under the age of 10 are not permitted in the restaurant for the dinner service. Advance reservations are recommended as it is a highly popular restaurant.
Visit A Sake Brewery
The traditional wine of Japan, the manufacturing of sake predates recorded history. There is evidence that sake was first made in Japan more than 2000 years ago.
Like beer, sake is made at a manufacturing facility called a “brewery.” Watanabe Sahei, a historic sake brewery in Nikko, offers a brewery tour that enables guests the opportunity to see the facility and learn about the mash-pressing and fermenting process. Nikko is a popular spot for making sake for a variety of reasons including access to the exceptional water of the Nikko Mountain Range. Watanabe Sahei Shouten is currently run by Yasuhiro Watanabe, the seventh generation in his family to run the brewery.
After the tour, visitors can participate in a sake tasting where they learn the difference between the various types of sakes, which range from dry to sweet and what foods are best consumed with each variety.
Advance reservations to take a tour are recommended (which includes a sake tasting), while sake tastings (with no tour) can be done on a drop-in basis. In its boutique, the brewery sells a wide variety of accoutrements for enjoying sake, including sake cups and serving flasks. It also sells the Watanabe Sahei Shoten sake produced here.
Stay At A Ryokan
Tochigi prefecture, located north of Tokyo, is known for being an onsen paradise. Indeed, here there ae as many as 630 onsen, each with its own source of spring water. Staying at an authentic ryokan is one of the best ways of to experience the Japanese traditional culture.
Hoshino Resorts KAI Nikko Hotel which is located on the banks of Lake Chuzenji in Nikko is a contemporary ryokan, that is luxurious, quiet, and private. Kai offers 34 guest rooms with a beautiful restaurant and onsen for the exclusive use of its guests.
The hotel is extremely private—you will rarely even bump into another guest. Guest rooms are spacious and feature a platform bed, sitting area and a bathroom with a deep soaking tub.
Hoshino Resorts KAI Nikko offers indoor and outdoor onsen separated by sex, fed by the natural hot springs. Massages, which are offered in guest rooms, are available upon request.
Its restaurant offers two seating’s for dinner (5:30 pm and 7:30 pm). Guests are seated in individual, private dining rooms where they are served a traditional 10-course Kaiseki menu that changes nightly. Breakfast and dinner are included in the hotel’s room rate. Guests are encouraged to wear robes to the restaurant.
Each evening, complimentary sake is served in the lobby from 7:30 pm to 10:30 pm and at 7 pm every evening, professional dancers perform a traditional dance on a stage outside the dining room. It is impossible not to relax at this hotel.
North of Tochigi, is Higashiyama Onsen, the retreat area of Aizu-Wakamatsu city is Fukushima prefecture. This area is renowned for its onsen which dates back to the late 8th century.
Ten minutes by car from the center of Aizu-Wakamatsu City is one of the most traditional and top ryokans. Called Konjaku-tei, it offers 25 guest rooms and is located by a beautiful stream. Most of Konjaku-tei’s guest rooms have private onsen on outdoor terraces where guests enjoy fresh hot spring water straight from the source. Guest rooms are traditional with floors covered by tatami mats. At bedtime, a futon bed replaces a table in the center of the room.
Multi-course meals are served in the guest rooms or one of several private dining rooms where guests can choose to wear kimonos and slippers.
Guests also have access to shared onsen facilities at the neighboring sister hotel, Harataki, where indoor and outdoor onsen are available.
One hundred fifty miles north of Tokyo in the Tochigi Prefecture is Nikko, a paradise known for its verdant forests, waterfalls, important World Heritage sites and natural hot springs.
Visitors from all over the world come here to see the incredible fall colors, which are among the best in the world. There is skiing here and other outdoor winter activities during the winter months while in the springtime, it is a famous destination to see the cherry blossoms. During the summertime, when it is cooler here than in Tokyo, people flock here to enjoy outdoor activities, from hiking to biking.
Nikko is an important, historic place as it is the location of several Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that comprise a world-renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Nikko Tosho-Gu Shrine, the most famous shrine in Nikko, was built to honor Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first Tokugawa shogun and founder of the Edu Bakufu. Here you can visit the site where Tokugawa is buried and also see the impressive and highly decorated Yomeimon Gate, which is a national treasure.
The Futarasan Jinja shrine is dedicated to the deities of Nikko’s three most sacred mountains. One kilometer from the shrine is the 28-meter long Shinkyo, a sacred striking red lacquer-painted wooden bridge that runs across the Daiya-gawa river. The bridge is considered to be one of the three most beautiful bridges in all of Japan.
The Tendai Buddhist temple was completed in 766 and is comprised of fifteen sub-temples. It is best known for its “Hall of the Three Buddhas” as well as for a 500-year-old cherry blossom tree.
Nikko is also famous for Lake Chuzenji, which is reminiscent of the European Alps. The lake was created by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Nantai more than 15,000 years ago. Nearby is Kegon Falls, a waterfall with a 97-meter drop (during the winter the falls freeze). Kegon is considered to be one of the three most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. There is a multi-level platform where you can get a bird’s eye view of the falls.
The easiest way to get to Nikko from Tokyo is to take a Tobu Railway train. The Tobu Nikko Line starts at the Asakusa Station and Tokyo Skytree Station with the final stop being the centrally-located Tobu-Nikko station. The trip, which takes less than two hours, is both scenic and comfortable with reclining seats. You can purchase tickets directly at the TOBU Information Center ASAKUSA and ASAKUSA Station’s ticket counter.
Step Back Into Time And Experience The Edo Period
Though the Edo period lasted only from 1603-1868, it was a time of great significance in Japan’s long history. It was a time of peace and prosperity and a period of isolation as the shogunate reduced foreign influence by forbidding contact with the outside world.
There are several ways to experience the Edo period, starting with a visit to the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Tokyo. Here, you will learn about the history and culture of Edo-Tokyo from a permanent collection that offers visitors a journey through its 400-year history beginning when the first shogun entered Edo.
The museum has a full-scale replica of the Nihonbashi bridge and scale model replicas of the chonin district and daimyo (feudal lord) residences as well as the Edo Castle from the late Tokugawa period. The museum has other exhibits that show how people lived and worked during the Edo period including a full-sized model of a “munewari nagaya” tenement of row houses. There’s also has a kabuki theater. Complimentary tour guides are available on a first-come, first served basis.
Next, visit Ouchijuku in Shimogo, a former post town along the Aizu-Nishi Kaido trade route, which connected Aizu with Nikko during the Edo period. Restrictions set by the shogunate required travelers to make their long journeys on foot and as a result, post towns developed along the routes to provide travelers with food and accommodations.
Today, Ouchijuku has been restored to look as it did in the Edo Period with an unpaved main street that is lined by thick thatched roof buildings. The buildings house a variety of shops featuring locally made crafts, such as lacquer and pottery.
There are also restaurants that sell soba (buckwheat noodles) that are a local specialty. One of the best-known restaurants here is Misawaya, a family-owned restaurant located in a 350-year-old thatched roof building. Per tradition, the soba dishes are accompanied by a long-curved leek that serves as the eating utensil.
Continue up to nearby Aizu which, during the Edo period, was a symbolic samurai town that supported the Tokugawa shogunate. As a result, there are many attractions in the Aizu area that highlight the Edo era.
At Aizu Bukeyashiki, for example, there is a recreation of a samurai residence where you take a self-guided tour. The residence of the influential Saigo family who served the Aizu-Matsudaira Clan (the feudal lord), it offers 38 rooms where you learn about the solemn lifestyle of the Edo period and the prestige of the Samurai class. Here, visitors learn about Jijin-No-Ma, the ritual suicide by sword and of the 21 women of Tanomo Saigo’s immediate family and other relatives committed suicide on August 23 1868 in order remove themselves as a distraction to his commitment to the protecting the Shogun. In addition to period buildings, there is a tea room, restaurant and boutique.
The Tsurugajo Castle, which is surrounded by a large stone wall and a moat, was originally constructed 600 years ago. During the Boshin Civil War that occurred at the end of the Edo period, many Aizu citizens were held inside the castle for a period of one month. After the Meiji Restoration, the castle, which was once considered to be impregnable, was completely torn down, except for the stone walls that surround its perimeter.
The current castle was rebuilt in 1965. Inside, is a museum about the Samurai who ruled there. It features displays of artwork, silk screens, samurai swords and at the top there are spectacular views of Aizu. After touring the castle, there is a traditional tea house where you can sip matcha and have a rice cake dumpling that is a specialty of Aizu.
While in Aizu, be sure to visit Sazaedo, a three-story hexagon-shaped Buddhist temple that is a nationally designated important cultural asset. Built in 1796, the visitors proceed single file up a helix-shaped stairway, making their way around the corridors of the 16.5 meters tall building and exiting without ever passing another visitor. The architecture of the temple, which is made entirely of wood with no nails, is considered unique worldwide. After crossing the Taiko Bridge (a small bridge at the top floor), you cross over to descend the left (second) staircase and exist through the rear side of the building. The Aizu Sazaedo is the only wooden building remaining from the mid-Edo period.