When I think of Japan, Tokyo is generally the first image that comes to mind. A fascinating place, modern yet traditional, always changing, always on the move.
However, it is the world's largest metropolis, with over 37 million residents (9 million in the city alone). It goes without saying this means lots of crowds. And just imagine trying to cross the street at major intersections!
Japan has 6852 islands, of which 430 are inhabited. Most of the population live on the four main islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. Honshu, the largest, is considered the mainland and is home to Japan's largest cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Nagano, Kyoto).
Being an island country, a great way to see Japan beyond these large cities is on a small ship cruise. Explore a quieter side of Japan, visiting smaller port towns, full of history and culture and retreat back to an intimate ship at the end of the day, to relax and wake up in a new port of call.
Wonderful, less crowded ports of call include:
Hakodate, a city of under 300,000 residents, is the capital city of the northern island of Hokkaido. The island is the least developed of Japan's main islands, full of unspoiled nature and a lot of outdoor activities. The 1972 Winter Olympics were held just to the north, in Sapporo.
This region of Japan offers a unique culture, Western, Japanese and Russian, with a a fascinating history of the Ainu people, who are ethnically Japanese and Russian.
Kanazawa is most famous for the Kenrokuen Garden, one of Japan's top three most beautifully landscaped gardens. The gardens used to be the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle. With a large variety of trees and plants, the gardens offer something for every season. Beautiful are the cherry blossoms in April.
The town of Kanazawa escaped war damage and natural disasters, and has interesting museums and districts to experience.
Sakaiminato, a small fishing port with fewer than 40,000 residents, is well known for its superb seafood. Izumo-taisha Grand Shrine and the black Matsue Castle, one of the oldest Samurai castles, are located nearby.
The Izumo-taisha Grand Shrine is considered to be Japan's oldest (believed to have been built in the 700's) and second most important Shinto shrine. The Matsue Castle is a six story structure, one of only a dozen original castles to have survived fire, earthquakes and feudal demolitions. Sitting atop a hill and surrounded by thick walls and a moat, it luckily never saw a battle.
Kitakyushu is the northern most city on the island of Kyusha. The most famous sites include the fully restored Kokura Castle and its Japanese Garden and the Kawachi Wisteria Garden with its spectacular flower tunnels (open only seasonally and unfortunately gets quite crowded).
Want to learn about the evolution of toilets? Check out the Toto Museum.
Takamatsu is a small port on Shikoku Island. Here one can explore Ritsurin Park, one of the largest and prettiest gardens in the area. The Takamatsu Castle, though not intact, is famous as a seaside castle with a moat that utilizes sea water.
One of Japan's best loved noodles and famous in Takamatsu is the Udon noodle, which you can find all through out the city prepared in a number of ways. Not to be missed!
Kobe, one of Japan's largest cities with 1.5 million residents, is considered to be one of Japan's prettiest. It is also quite new, having been completely rebuilt after the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake.
Kobe of course is well known for its beef, and the Nada district is Japan's top sake producing area. Arima Onsen is a famous hot spring town located within Kobe city limits, on the opposite side of Mount Rokko and city center. Panoramic views of Kobe and neighboring Osaka can be enjoyed from the mountain.
Shimizu is a wonderful port town south of Tokyo, with stunning views of Mt. Fuji, best seen from the Nihondaira Plateau, where you will also have stunning views of Suraga Bay and Shimizu. A unique attraction is Shimizu Sushi Museum, Japan's first museum of this kind.
Laurie Marschall - Owner and Founder