A long and slender volcanic archipelago situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan is nestled into an area slightly smaller than California. Mountainous and heavily wooded, its four main islands—Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku—comprise 97 percent of the country’s total land mass. People first arrived in Japan across a land bridge from Korea some 30,000 years ago. The country was ruled by emperors beginning in 660 BC up until the 12th-century AD. A series of military shoguns then controlled Japan for several centuries, beginning a 200-year period of isolation that lasted until 1868, when emperors returned and began modernization. After the devastation of the Second World War, Japan quickly rose from the ashes to achieve remarkable growth during the second half of the 20th century—holding the title of the world’s second largest economy for more than 40 years.
Japan remains an intoxicating blend of the ancient and modern, with villages steeped in centuries-old traditions in close proximity to the neon-lit streets of futuristic cities. Icons of Japanese culture include everything from geishas and gardens to sushi, sake, and Shinto shrines.
Most Popular Films
Films featuring Japan from international, independent filmmakers
A Taste of Delicious Tokyo
Follow a fearless Japanese food writer into Tokyo’s edgiest restaurants—where soup made from soil is a culinary sensation.Courtesy of CNN
Amasan Women of the Sea
Follow the last generation of Amasan, or Sea Women, in Japan as they search the ocean for Abalone.Produced by Amie Williams
Travelogue: Kyoto, Japan 1965
Turn back the clock to 1960s-era Kyoto, Japan, and stroll along garden paths lined with stone lanterns and centuries-old shrines.Produced by David Conover & Paul Villanova
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Immerse yourself in Japan with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Kyoto offers a glimpse into quintessential Japanese culture, including geisha history and sake samplings.
Comfort food is taken to the next level with this popular Japanese dish—try out the recipe for yourself.
From the unusual to the iconic, Japan sets itself apart with its unique temples—take a look at some of our favorites.
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First Departure 08/10/2017
Days in Japan
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Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
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Captivated in Kyoto
Finding the essence of Japan in its former capital
by A.C. Doyle, for Overseas Adventure Travel
There are a handful of destinations on Earth that make you feel blessed and privileged to have simply been there and seen them. You wish a parent had been alive to see it with you, or that you’d gone there sooner. You feel that delicious frisson of “I’m actually here, I’m actually seeing it!” Kyoto will do that to you.
Kyoto escaped the fate of a great many other Japanese cities. For much of the war, it was spared due to a principle in the Roosevelt Administration that mirrors the current UNESCO World Heritage Site designations—that is, that destruction merely for the sake of destruction is a wartime evil best avoided. Truman was, however, advised by some to consider Kyoto as a target for the first atomic bomb, since, as a cultural and intellectual center, it would serve as a crushing example of the folly in Japan’s continuing futile war efforts. Thankfully, for Japan, the world, and lucky visitors, Secretary of War Henry Stimson raised a violent protest against the choice, and Kyoto was spared.
Still, preservation alone does not the city make. Kyoto means, literally, Capital City, and for one thousand years it served as the Imperial home. Originally, in 794, Emperor Kammu settled there in order to remove his family and court from the growing influence of the Buddhist clergy. It was not until the Imperial Restoration of 1868 that the capital moved to Tokyo. Many Japanese still consider Kyoto their true capital. So for an entire millennium Kyoto was the heart of not only imperial power, but the art, architecture, culture, and scholarship that defines what we now think of as distinctively, classically, Japanese.
Explore the sights
I was once asked to name the most beautiful building I’ve ever encountered. After a few moments of speculation, the choice was clear: “The Kinkaku-ji!” The Golden Pagoda, or Kinkaku-ji, is a marvel for the ages. Its elegance lies in simplicity. It is entirely covered in gold leaf, and sits out on a rocky outcropping overlooking the lake of the Rukuon-ji temple compound. At sunset it is absolutely magnificent. A crazed monk burnt it to the ground in 1950, but the impeccable 1954 recreation is considered virtually indistinguishable from the 1397 original. It still serves as a shariden, housing ashes of the Buddha.
Another mandatory temple visit is to the Kiyomizu-dera, a stunning example of 17th-century Japanese architecture, perched atop a hillside overlooking the old town and affording magnificent views. The main floor is supported by massive wooden columns, and overhangs its base at a height of some 40 feet above the hillside. Tradition holds that anyone surviving the jump would have his wishes granted. Several hundred tried before the practice was forbidden, and five out of every six survived (about an 85% survival rate). It is also located at the confluence of three waterfalls, which spill into a fountain. The water is supposed to have healing powers, and visitors are still allowed to drink from it—they just can’t jump afterwards.
The Kyoto and Shento imperial palaces will undoubtedly reserve a prime seat in your Kyoto itinerary, and they are magnificent indeed. The Katsura Villa also served as a home for emperors and shoguns, and is located nearby. The architecture is quintessential, the sculptures lovely and fierce at once, the interiors stark yet regal, and you can envision the samurais guarding the shogun as the geishas shuffle past.
Witness the glamor of geishas
Kyoto was the geisha capital of Japan for centuries. At the Gion Corner, there are nightly performances by geishas. As you are most likely aware, the traditional geisha was not merely a high-priced courtesan, but rather a woman of education, culture, conversational skill, and extensive training in art, music, singing, and dancing.
The lion’s share of the geisha’s value was established with her clothes still on. Accordingly, you needn’t fear any unceremonious features to these traditional geisha ceremonies. Instead, you will see the geishas serve tea, arrange flowers, play traditional instruments, dance, and even perform bunraku (puppet theater, typically comedic).
Sample the spirits
As for beverages, there are five main types of sake, four of them known as Tokutei Meishoshu, or Special Designation, and distinguished by how much is pure rice wine versus the amount of distilled alcohol added. The fifth is a catch-all category. Because the brewing and fermentation processes determine the flavor, even the Japanese are often uncertain as to which type they are drinking—meaning, don’t trouble yourself with these categories at all. The best sake is often enjoyed cold, but I vastly prefer it as hot as possible. As for beer, all of the four major breweries (Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory) make excellent pilsner/lager styles of ale/beer.
Savor the spirit of Kyoto
If, after a day or so, you feel yourself strolling a bit more slowly, perhaps shopping for a parasol rather than slathering on SPF50, bowing to the locals instinctively rather than self-consciously, stopping to smell the abundant blossoms, and maybe even looking forward to some yudofu (blocks of tofu simmered in hot water along with veggies)… well, then you’ll more fully appreciate the opening paean of this article, feel the blessings of the Buddha’s jhana settling upon your soul, and feel the spirit of Kyoto. Sayonara, and gambatte (or “Good luck—Keep at it!”). I wish I were going with you.
Finding the essence of Japan in its former capital
from Harriet's Corner
The beauty of okonomiyaki lies in its versatility—there’s no one way to make it, and it’s a great way to use up leftovers. This savory dish is usually made from a batter of flour, grated yams, dashi (savory stock), cabbage, and eggs, mixed together and cooked quickly on a griddle. We’ve listed the standard toppings below, but the possible add-ons are infinite—fresh green onion, bean sprouts, and more. Get creative!
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups dashi soup stock or water
1 lb. (about 8 cups) cabbage, coarsely chopped into fine pieces
6 Tbsp. scallions, thinly sliced
6 Tbsp. cooking oil
12-18 strips of thinly sliced beef or pork, if desired
Katsuobushi (bonito fish flakes)
Aonori (green seaweed) to taste
Beni shoga (red ginger) to taste
Okonomiyaki sauce (Japan's answer to Worcestershire sauce), hoisin sauce, or American Worcestershire sauce to taste
Mayonnaise to taste (Japanese mayonnaise is recommended)
- If adding dashi soup stock, dissolve dashi in warm water according to directions. Mix together flour and dashi soup stock or water in a bowl. Batter will be somewhat thick. Rest the batter in the refrigerator for 30-60 minutes.
- Mix cabbage and scallions into the batter.
- Make a hole in the center of the batter and add one egg for every okonomiyaki you plan to make (for instance, if you will make four okonomiyaki, add four eggs). Mix well.
- Heat a flat pan or an electric griddle on low heat and add a small amount of oil.
- Pour the batter slowly onto the pan, forming a round. Cook for 5-7 minutes, until the bottom is firm and golden brown.
- If you are adding meat, cook the round until almost done on the first side, adding your chosen ingredients to the top of the round just before you are ready to flip it. Secure it to the round by spreading a small amount of batter thinly over the top of the meat.
- Flip the okonomiyaki carefully using two spatulas, supporting both sides and flipping the round very slowly. Cook another 5-7 minutes until the round appears fully cooked through and the other side is golden brown.
- Flip the okonomiyaki again and add toppings: okonomiyaki sauce first, then mayonnaise (many Japanese restaurants will squirt the mayonnaise in a crosshatch pattern), then sprinkle katsuoboshi and other fresh ingredients on top.
- Garnish with a generous pinch of beni shoga in the center for color if desired, and serve hot.
The Strange and the Sacred
Where to find Japan’s most unusual temples
by Rachel Fox
Japan is a destination that seldom shies from the bizarre, unique, and downright strange—and its religious sites are no exception. Below, you can take a look inside some of the country’s most unusual temples.
Fushimi Inari, Kyoto
Sitting at the base of Mount Inari, this complex of five Shinto shrines was built in the eighth century to honor Inari, the god of rice. Today, one of the most intriguing features of this shrine is its tunnel of an estimated 10,000 red torii gates, which cover a 2.5-mile trail that winds up the mountain. Strolling through this seemingly endless vermillion passageway is often enough to make visitors feel like they’ve entered another world, but those in search of more unfamiliar sights won’t have to look far. The complex is also surrounded by hundreds of statues of foxes—a sacred animal that many Japanese consider the messenger of Inari.
While Japan has countless Buddhist temples, Todai-ji has found several ways to distinguish itself from the rest. The temple’s grounds, for example, are filled with deer—near-domesticated creatures that are known to wander over from Nara Park and (literally) bow down to temple guests in the hopes of receiving a biscuit. There is even more to see inside Todai-ji’s Daibutsu-den Hall, the largest wooden building on the planet. The hall houses Japan’s famous Daibutsu (Great Buddha)—a statue hailed as one of the world’s largest bronze figures. In fact, the Great Buddha is so big that temple visitors are challenged with squeezing through a hole the size as the statue’s nostril—a strange, albeit, challenging task that is said to bring enlightenment.
Gotokuji Temple, Tokyo
Nestled in the quiet suburbs of Tokyo, Gotokuji can thank a famous feline for its place among Japan’s most unusual temples. The complex is covered in more than 1,000 statues of Maneki Neko (or Fortune Cats)—a popular feline that is thought to bring good luck to its owner. In fact, many people believe that the legend of Japan’s celebrated Fortune Cat began at Gotokuji, when a priest’s cat helped a wealthy samurai avoid being struck by lightning by beckoning him into the temple.
Located on Ikuchijima Island, the Buddhist temple of Kosan-ji was built in 1936 by a businessman-turned-priest to honor his mother. The temple complex—which took 30 years to build—is filled with expert recreations of some of Japan’s most iconic sites; however, the temple’s most unusual feature is its grotto cave, also known as the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas. Its 1,155-foot interior showcases the figures of people suffering from the tortures of Buddhist hell for crimes ranging from alcoholism to murder. Fortunately, when visitors emerge from the cave, their souls will have a chance to be saved by a 15-foot statue of the Goddess of Mercy.