I’ve been to roughly 80 countries, but in all of that travel I had only spent one day in Japan – a 14-hour layover in Tokyo over a decade ago. It was a huge gap in my travel experience. With a credit from National Geographic Expeditions from a cancelled trip in March, and a Japan photo expedition on NatGeo’s website focused on the fall colors, it was finally time to travel to Japan and do it right.
This time I skipped Tokyo. My philosophy is always to spend more time in smaller areas of a country and travel a little deeper, rather than try to get everywhere. The agenda was ideal for that – 10 days starting in Kyoto and ending in Hiroshima, with stops in Mount Koya, the Iya Valley, Takamatsu and Naoshima Island. And the timing turned out to be close to perfect – the fall colors were vibrant most of the places we traveled.
It was a trip of, um, unusual foods, and more culture than photography, but it gave me a great feel for the Kyoto, Wakayama, Tokushima, Kagawa and Hiroshima prefectures. There were ten unique places that I would recommend on any future trip to southern Japan:
Kyoto: Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
This is on every tourist’s radar in Kyoto, and it’s well worth a visit. The mistake that we made was going there in the afternoon with peak crowds. The best photos have just one or two people in them, and I struggled to get those shots with the sheer mass of visitors walking through. I finally got two shots that I liked.
Next time: I’ll head there first thing in the morning, or will go in the afternoon and stay until sunset.
Kyoto: The Torii Gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine
Another site that’s commonly visited, it is very impressive in person. I had always seen photos of the gates, but assumed that it was a short walkway. I had no idea that there were more than 10,000 gates, or that they went up the side of a mountain. Every gate was donated by a business to bring good fortune.
Next time: I’ll spend several hours there and hike as far up as I can. An hour there wasn’t nearly enough time.
Kyoto: The Saihoji Temple (Saihō-Ji) Moss Garden
I’ve been to a lot of beautiful places in the world, and I would put the moss garden at Saihoji up there in my top five list. It’s an absolutely stunning garden with paths, lakes and a bed of emerald-colored moss everywhere. Add in the changing leaves and women in kimonos and this was one of my favorite places on our itinerary.
In order to obtain access to the garden, we first spent half an hour hand-copying sutras (in Japanese characters) with monks in the nearby Zen Buddhist temple. I also wrote my wish, name and address on my sutra paper, and it has since been placed in the pagoda for the monks to pray for. So I have that going for me.
Next time: I wouldn’t change a thing. Ninety minutes was a perfect amount of time to spend there. It’s the maximum that you’re allowed to be there anyway.
Mount Koya: Okunoin Temple and Cemetery
One of the most sacred locations in Japan, this is where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, is in eternal meditation as he awaits the Buddha of the Future. Prior to arrival at the main temple and Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum you walk for two kilometers on stone walkways through tall cedar trees, passing the tombs and burial monuments of more than 200,000 monks, samurai warriors and dignitaries. The forest reminded me of the Ewoks’ planet of Endor, but with a Buddhist sensibility. An amazingly peaceful place to spend an afternoon.
Next time: I’d love to do the night walk through the cemetery. There are lanterns along the paths, so it’s not as creepy as it sounds.
Iya Valley: The Okuiya Niju Kazurabashi vine bridges
The entire Iya Valley is beautiful, especially in autumn. While we were there it rained all day, and the fog came in and out of the valley, changing the view from one one second to the next. It was perfect! My favorite spot was deep into the valley, where there are twin bridges made of intertwined vines. There’s also a self-powered rope-chair that allows you to pull yourself from one side of the river to the other.
Next time: I could have stayed there all day, but an hour and a half is sufficient to explore the area around the bridges.
Iya Valley: Scarecrow Village
Nagoro, Japan has been losing inhabitants for years to larger cities. Only 35 residents remain. So Tsukimi Ayano created scarecrows (more than 150) and placed them around the village to fill the void. It’s simultaneously cute and creepy, and I could see a horror film being made there (one of the scarecrows already has a chainsaw). Tsukimi welcomed us into her house, which is also filled with scarecrows, including an entire wedding party. I have dozens of photos and should do a separate blog post at some point.
Next time: 20 minutes is sufficient for a visit – especially since the scarecrows will be haunting my dreams for years to come.
Takamatsu: Ritsurin Park
We went to a LOT of gardens over ten days and after a while they started to look the same – pretty lakes, old bridges, fall colors. Having said that, Ritsurin Park (Ritsurin Garden) stood out. The 17th century buildings, including the tea house, add to the historic feel and complement the nature perfectly. We photographed a beautiful girl in a kimono for an hour, and I would have loved to have explored more.
Next time: I want to spend a couple of hours there, do a proper tea ceremony, and take a boat ride on the lake.
Naoshima Island: Chichu Art Museum
I liked everything about the island of Naoshima. Our hotel, the Benesse Park Hotel, was a museum. The grounds and nearby beach were beautiful, and the famous giant yellow pumpkin was fun to photograph. The Benesse House Museum was fascinating, and the Art House Project on the island added to the artistic vibe everywhere. But the single best place we visited on Naoshima was the Chichu Art Museum. No photos were allowed, even of the exterior, so click here to get a feel for the museum, and then book a plane ticket to see it in person. It only consists of three permanent exhibits, but architecturally and artistically, it’s one of the best museums I’ve been to.
Next time: I’ll spend several nights on Naoshima. I would have loved to photograph more sunrises and spend more time at each art site.
Miyajima island is a common day trip from Hiroshima, and it’s worth going – charming even with all the tourists. The island is best known for the Itsukushima Shrine and its nearby floating torii gate. Beyond those structures, though, I loved exploring the town of Hatsukaichi, the paths into the hills, and the temples. Oh, and there are deer everywhere – fun at first, annoying by the end of the day. One took my map out of my pocket and ate it.
Next time: We spent a full day on the island, but even then there wasn’t enough time to really go hiking. I’d stay overnight next time to be able to explore more, and to photograph the torii gate at sunrise.
Hiroshima: The bomb memorials and museum
Go to Hiroshima. Just go. It’s extremely sobering visiting the sites, monuments and museum dedicated to the atomic bomb explosion there 60 years ago. I was particularly affected by all of the items dedicated to the children who were killed – the clothing and trinkets that they had with them when the bomb was dropped, and the paper cranes made by one local girl until her early death, and then made by thousands of school children around the world since then.
Next time: A full day to visit the sites was sufficient.
I’ve subsequently returned to Japan several times – primarily to Tokyo and Kyoto with my daughter. If you’re looking at visiting Tokyo and Kyoto, my relevant posts are:
Is Japan Child-Friendly?
While most of my travel is family-oriented, I take 1-2 trips a year centered around photography. Photo trips aren’t appropriate for kids – there are often early-morning starts, fully-scheduled days and late dinners. Unless a child loved photography, he/she would likely be bored during the photography portions, and it’s not likely that many kids would be engaged during the cultural sessions (dances, speeches). There’s also a lot of time on buses. Beyond that, is Japan kid-friendly? Yes! My kids LOVE Japan, and we return often. Highlights are anime, temples, parks and museums. The lack of widely-spoken English isn’t a big deal. We love being adventurous with street food. And everything is incredibly safe.