Touring Nara

One interesting facet of Japanese culture is its bond with nature and outdoor activities. Many of Japan’s greatest cultural sights are to be seen in the nation’s beautiful outdoors, which can have a far more breathtaking beauty than even the busiest city’s lights.

Given Japan’s long and preserved history, many smaller towns and cities exist that mainly revolve around some sort of cultural sight or event that tends to be heavily tried into the local tourism industry. The town of Nara, obviously located in the Nara Prefecture, is one of the best examples of this.

Nara is historically especially significant as it used to, at one point in time over 1000 years ago, considered the capital city of Japan. One of the reasons this changed was because of the city’s local Buddhist culture being too politically unchecked, resulting in the capital city of Japan moving to the town of Nagaoka.

Located only an hour away from Kyoto or Osaka, Nara is literally filled with amazing outdoor-based cultural sights to see for the tourist. There are about 10 different significant sights to see, and given the proximity of them inside the city and its surrounding region, two days are enough to see them all when working with limited amounts of time.

The main attractions to see in Nara are generally temples, ruins and shrines. These become especially interesting when one has a vested interest in Japanese history and the history or culture of Buddhism, the prevalent historic religion of the Land of the Rising Sun.

Nara is not a very large city either, but given its proximity to Kyoto and Osaka, a favored getaway for many looking to relax with nature away from the stressful city life. The city’s population measures in at around 350,000, with the city only spanning 22 kilometers from its northern most point to its southern most point. It is also considered home to a variety of UNESCO World Heritage sites, collectively referred to as the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara. Most of these sights are best explored in the outdoors and are generally available all year around making a trip to Nara from its nearby cities a breeze to organize.

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Sapporo Snow Festival

Japan is one of the best countries in Asia to truly experience the shift of the seasons in. Unfortunately, there are problems such as those that involve Japanese Comfort Women.  The winters are cold and crisp, the summers are pleasantly warm. The autumn’s leaves line the streets and the spring makes the glacier water in the rivers sparkle – a very scenic and aesthetically pleasing country to be in regardless of the time of year.

One of the most spectacular outdoor sights to see in Japan happens in some of the coldest months the nation has to offer and is perfect for those that enjoy the snow. Should the cold be your preferred your time of year, or if you don’t mind layering up the clothes for the sake of seeing some true craftsmanship, the Sapporo Snow Festival is the right place for you to be.

Held once every year in the first or second week of February, the festival is one of the most popular ones in Japan, especially during this time of the year.  Its roots go all the way back to the 1950s when a bunch of high school students spent their free time building sculptures from snow and ice in the Odori Park. The event caught on with locals and quickly became a yearly tradition, growing and attracting artists and enthusiasts from all over the country to come and either put up their own sculptures of merely appreciate the scenery. Today it is a rather commercialized event which attracts over 2 million visitors annually from both Japan and overseas.

There are three venues for the sculptures to be featured on: Odori Park, Susukino and at the Tsu Dome.  Each site will feature different types of sculptures to see and take pictures of, with the Odori Park being the largest site and normally housing the largest structures, some of which measure over 15 meters into the air. The night time makes the visuals even more stunning as the ice sculptures are illuminated until 10pm.

One very nice way to enjoy the event at is the nearby Sapporo TV Tower. Going to the observation deck costs a small fee but allows visitors to overview all three sites and see the works of art in all their icy glory.

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Hiking Mount Koya

One of the easiest, most affordable and self-invigorating outdoor activities is to simply go an explore nature by foot – hiking to be precise. Japan is a place with nature like no other, all different kinds of landscapes to explore and enjoy – and many mountains and trails to hike.

As mentioned, there is much to choose from when it comes to hiking – one can choose to go for a purely natural route and for instance see sights such as Mount Fuji or any of the other mountains that are classified as most famous ones across Japan. Mount Koya, or affectionately Koya-San by locals, can be considered to be a contender for being on the list of special places one must visit when in Japan.

It has special religious meaning as the Shingon Buddhists, an old Buddhist sect, considers it to be its religious center. The sect has roots all the way back to the year 805 and was founded by one of the most significant figures in Japanese religion, Kobo Daishi. He is one of the few people on this planet who has a mausoleum dedicated to him and it can be visited here, at the Mount Koya.

The area of Koya-san is littered with temples almost, with many stone roads winding through the buddist area. It is a wonderful experience to hike the streets of mountain’s valley and take in the sights of religious power – all the temples in the area are in some form dedicated to Shingon Buddhism and represent an important part of Japanese history and culture.

The most important temple to see in the area is the Kongobuji – the head temple of the sect alongside the mausoleum.

Another fun thing to do is to spend a night here, sleeping in one of the temple’s lodgings after wandering around for the day. Here one can truly experience what kind of lifestyles a monk used to live, including their food and watching their prayers. There are well over three dozen established temples in the area will take in visitors for a small fee, an d those courageous enough to tackle a pilgrimage will stay for free.

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Exploring Mount Tanigawa

Japan is a country filled with natural sights to see and explore, especially as the seasons change and different tourist attractions change their colors. Being an archipelago, Japan is naturally littered with many mountains to conquer.

One such mountain is Mount Tanigawa. Of the popular mountains, Tanigawa is likely the most rugged and craggy, measuring in at almost 2000 meters (6800 feet) vertically. The mountain can be found in the northern parts of Minakami, on the borders of the Gunma and Niigata prefectures.

Winter is likely the best time to visit the mountain as its majority gets covered in some very fine powder snow during the coldest of months. It is in this time when one can take advantage of the appropriately located ski resort of the side of the mountain. During the fall months, the surrounding valleys become especially picturesque in their deep brown and orange colors, a beautiful contrast from the bright and loud colors of the Japanese cities.

Mount Tanigawa is part of the 100 famous Japanese mountains and attracts appropriate amount of annual visitors for all sorts of activities. Hiking and mountain climbing is a frequent reason for visitors to make their way to the tall piece of nature. There are a variety of different trails available for all levels of hikers, with the most experienced ones often opting to trying their hand at exploring the mountain away from the beaten path. Of course, it must be noted that in order to do so one must be adequately equipped and experienced as a mountain like Tanigawa is not the right one to get lost in during Japan’s cold months. The hiking season only lasts from July to November, thus anyone wishing to pay a visit to the mountain should plan accordingly. An average hike from bottom to top takes around 4.5 hours and can be a very rewarding experience.

Another major attraction the mountain has for itself is the Tanigawadake Ropeway. Those not inclined for the adventure of hiking can enjoy some of the most beautiful natural sights of Japan from the comfort of a gondola going up and down the slope of the mountain.

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Stroll Through Odori Park

Should you find yourself lucky enough to be traveling in the Land of the Rising Sun, you may want to consider paying a visit to one of its most beautiful cities located in the Hokkaido Prefecture. Sapporo is the fifth largest city in all of Japan and has a name that interestingly translates to “important river flowing through a plain” in Hokkaido’s ancient languages. As a major city Sapporo is also the youngest one – 150 years ago, its population was a scarce seven inhabitants.

However, as a city Sapporo is not exactly a hotspot of outdoor activity and compared to its sister cities there’s a lack of ancient historical sites and such to explore. One of the nice parts of the city to relax in though, is the Odori Park. Odori Park has fondly been described as a tiny version of New York’s iconic Central Park. The park runs through the middle of the city, separating south and north Sapporo.

The park stretches over 12 city blocks, which roughly translates into one kilometer of length and has a pleasant atmosphere to it as it provides a discernible contrast to the busy city life surrounding it.

At the most eastern end of the Odori Park, one can find the Sapporo TV Tower. Similar to the famous Tokyo TV Tower, the Sapporo one also has a nice observation deck to admire the skyline from.The tower is just under 150 meters in terms of height and provides a very nice view of the greenery of the Odori Park cutting through the more muted colors of its surrounding corporate buildings.

One of the best outdoor activities to experience in Odori Park is the Sapporo Snow Festival, held in the early weeks of every February. Talented artists from all over Japan, and even from other parts of the world, come together to create some of the most impressive sculptures and structures made from ice. Odori Park is the main venue with the entire park covered in snowy sights to see. Combined with a trip up to the TV Tower in the time of dusk when the park buildings are alit by lights and you have yourself a safe and beautiful outdoor activity that can’t really go wrong.

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Culture Yourself in Naoshima

Japan is a country with many islands and they have some of the best outdoor activities you could ever wish for in a country, with many islands catering to different types of activities. Many smaller islands sustain themselves on an economy built around tourism and become a tourist attraction in that way.

Naoshima is one of those islands. On paper, Naoshima Island is an island town under the jurisdiction of the Kagawa District in the prefecture of the same name. Geographically, the island is located in the Seto Inland Sea, which can be found in the south-western part of the nation.

To be frank, Naoshima is tiny. With a population somewhere between 3000 and 4000, the island measures an area of just over 14 square kilometers, which are 5.5 square miles for users of the non-metric system. As mentioned earlier, islands such as these tend to have an economy built around tourism and Naoshima is the same, well known for its numerous contemporary art museums.

The island is home to some of the world’s greatest temporary artists’ works, mainly in thanks to the Benesse Corporation – one of the largest companies in Japan which has directed the construction and operation of the museums since the late 1960s. James Turell, Walter De Maria, Claude Monet, Tadao Ando – all names large in the community, and a lot of their works can be found right here on a tiny island in the south of Japan.

One of the most popular museums on the island is the Chichu Art Museum, which can quite literally be translated to museum “in the earth.” Designed by the aforementioned Ando, the buildings themselves are arts of work to appreciate and a dream for any architecture student and connoisseur, regardless of what’s held inside the buildings. In combination with the scenery of the island, Naoshima is one of the best places to visit for those that wish to experience real modern culture in an outdoor setting.

Outside of the art and tourism industries, Naoshima can attribute its sizable population to its association with Mitsubishi Materials, which has one of its largest refineries located on the island, further stabilizing the economy.

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Kiso Valley

When you visit the Land of the Rising Sun, you better be prepared to learn a lot about culture and history – two of the most defining aspects that have shaped this nation to be its state today. Some of the most beautiful outdoor activities are the ones that manage to incorporate both – and there are a lot that do.

One of the best outdoor sights to experience, especially when interested in history, is the Kiso Valley. Should you find yourself in the Nagano Prefecture, you should definitely pay a visit to the valley. Japan has its own mountain range called the “Central Alps” – of course, not nearly as large as the real deal in Western Europe, but respectable nonetheless. The Kiso Valley runs along the side of this mountain range, which once upon a time used to be a very important commercial trade route in historic times, especially around the Edo Period when this valley was rather populated.

Along the Kiso Valley ran the Kisoji, around 70 kilometres long. The route was once part of the Nakasendo, which literally meant “path through mountains” and is the setting of many ancient travel logs and diaries. Being part of the Nakasendo means that the Kisoji was part of the crucial methods of communication and transportation between Edo and Kyoto.

Given the length of the valley and its road, and given that it used to only be travelled by foot, a large number of post towns popped up, which catered to those travelers – early forms of economy fuelled by tourism in Japan.

Nowadays, along this valley, a few post towns still exist and they are modeled after how they used to be. The most popular ones are Magome, Tsumago and Narai, all of which are preserved rather well from the old days. Visitors to these towns can experience some of the most interesting and detailed parts of Japanese cultural history that are often overlooked – many only think of the castles where battles were fought or temples were the holy were crowned. Stone paths and wooden structures litter the town with some people actually selling goods and souvenirs just how merchants once did hundreds of years ago.

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Visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market

When you go out of your home country to do some traveling, you’ll get the most cultural experiences by staying outdoors – and Japan is the perfect place for doing just that. Rich with cultural events and places, there are many things one can see when exploring the outdoors.

One of the most rewarding experiences in Japan’s outdoors to have normally comes from being creative – hiking mountains and riding bikes can only be entertaining for so long – and is not always convenient when one has to travel within the country all the time to get to places worthwhile seeing.

One somewhat unorthodox outdoor activity would be to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market. And while that sounds royally boring I assure you it is most certainly far from that, especially if you hail from a country that isn’t all that big on delicacy from the sea or you haven’t had the opportunity to see what it is like to go see a proper fish market. One of the nearby areas is also well known historically for its

The Tsukiji Fish Market, or the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market for those not blessed with understanding of the Japanese language, is the single largest seafood market in the world and definitely one of the less common things you can experience when going to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Located in Central Tokyo along the Sumida River, the Tsukiji Fish Market is kind of hard to miss. The place is split into two parts, the inner and the outer market. The inner part is where most of the fish processing takes place and is likely not the right one for the ones who hate the smell of fresh fish, nor is it a place for the faint of heart as you’re more than likely to see a fish or two lose its head here or there.

The outer market might be more friendly for the average tourist looking for an outdoor experience. Many different stalls are set up here selling food (you’d be hard pressed to find one that isn’t selling some variation of sea food) and a lot of shops here sell kitchenware. An unorthodox outdoor experience for sure, but definitely filled with sights you’d never thought you’d see.

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