Japan’s cities

It’s hard to be a city in Japan when you are upstaged by the glittering, glamorous go go go greatness that is Tokyo. But to overlook the other cosmopolitan greats is a bit like just opting for the only thing you know on the sushi menu. Why would you only go for maki, albeit delicious, revitalising and packed with different flavours and colours, when you could also have ones of different sizes, shapes, flavours, traditions and fillings?

When people talk about cities in Japan, they refer first of all to which island they are on and, in many cases, which prefecture, or ‘state’, they are in. Japan has four main islands, all easily accessible by rail or road. Honshu is the largest, with the capital Tokyo as its heart. The northernmost is Hokkaido, famous for its mountains and winter sports, with the main city of Sapporo hosting a famous Winter Festival every year. Shikoku is the smallest island with Matsuyama its biggest city, and Kyushu is the southernmost, subtropical hotspot. Here, Fukuoka has the highest population, but Nagasaki is the best known city for tourists.
Both Tokyo and Osaka are fairly easy for wheelchair users to navigate, with cut pavements, wheelchair accessible public transport and priority lifts in stations. Cities such as Kyoto can be a little trickier however, and private tours are recommended to make getting around more convenient.

All the main cities in Japan are linked by the country’s super efficient bullet train, or shinkansen. Most vacations in Japan use these because not only would it be rude not to, it would be downright silly. They are the icing on the cake of an already fine metropolitan menu.

Here are seven of our favourite Japanese cities:

Tokyo

Bizarrely, Tokyo is not a city, and hasn’t been since 1943, when it was given the designation of ‘Special Metropolis’ divided into 23 wards. Needing little introduction, this capital has one of the largest populations in the world. Originally known as Edo, it became capital after Emperor Meiji moved in 1868. This was the beginning of the Meiji Restoration Period, when Japan went into high gear industrialisation mode – and never looked back.
You do really stick out as a foreigner in Japan, even in Tokyo. It is not the cosmopolitan city that you might think, like London. But that is part of its charm.
And yet, through all of Tokyo’s bright lights, high tech, crammed and crazy cosmopolitan goings on, there are so many places where Japanese cultural heritage jumps out at you. Beautiful breathing spaces include Hamarikyu Gardens City Park, the imperial gardens of Chiyoda, or Asakusa, where the Kaminarimon Thunder Gate and Senso-ji Temple sit astride a bevy of artisan shops. Or go to the top of its landmark Skytree building and take it all in from 634m, way above the city. Always take a guided tour if you can, to get your head around the different districts.
Kyoto always has its jaw dropping moments, with hundereds of years of history mingling with what is essentially a modern city.

Kyoto

Kyoto sits in southern Honshu, and was the ancient capital, home to samurais and sentos, temples and tea houses. In fact, it boasts 14 UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the Golden Temple of Kinkakuji and the historic district of Gion. Here you will find ancient, wooden buildings crammed into narrow streets, a plethora of tea houses and hundreds of tiny temples where incense adds to the headiness of this cultural trip. Like all Japanese cities, however, this is also a dynamic metropolis, with its fair share of tourist tat and in your face consumerism. And then you turn a corner, walk into an exquisite green tea house, see a Geisha skirt pass or are stopped in your tracks by a stunning shrine, and you are transported back centuries.

Hiroshima

This extraordinary city will, in many ways, leave you speechless. With the most tragic past, having been totally wiped out by the 1945 atomic bomb and 70,000 of its residents killed, its reconstruction into the urban utopia that it is today is a total eye opener – how a country can embrace post war pacifism and educate and inspire national and international visitors in the process. Many of our Japan cultural vacations visit this city, taking in sites such as the A-Bomb Dome, Peace Park and Peace Memorial Museum.
Hiroshima's Flame of Peace is a place to sit in peace and think about our place in the world. This flame is meant to keep burning until the last nuclear weapon in the world has gone.
Hiroshima also has three superb art galleries and is famous for its cuisine, such as the indigenous Hiroshima-okonomi, which is like an omelette/pancake prepared with everything from seafood to cabbage, then topped with an egg. Hiroshima certainly is a multi layered city.

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Nara

To go south and only visit Kyoto, overlooking Nara, is like going to Rome and overlooking Florence. Nara, just over an hour by train from Kyoto, is another ancient capital from – you guessed it – the Nara era, 710-794 AD. At the time, the Empress Genmei modelled the city after Chang'an, the ancient Chinese capital today known as Xi'an. Highly influenced by Buddhism, it now has the highest number of buildings designated National Treasures in the country. Most of the city’s sites are in and around its magnificent central park including Daibutsu, the largest Buddha statue in Japan, which is just one of the features of Tōdai-ji temple. The Nara Museum of Buddhist art is also a transcendental treat.

Matsuyama

Small by Japanese standards with a mere half million residents, this is the biggest city on the island of Shikoku, and it’s a stunner. Shikoku is known for its pilgrimage walking trail which takes you around 88 temples. Eight of these are in the city, which also boasts the magnificent Matsuyama Castle which was built in 1603 on Mount Katsuyama (the city’s name means ‘pine mountain’). Another medieval marvel of Matsuyama is its public baths, called Dogo Onsen Honkan, a Meiji Period wooden public bathhouse dating from 1894. There is no better way of letting this exquisite, historical island soak in.

Nagano

Bang in the middle of Honshu Island, the city of Nagano is surrounded by the Japanese Alps and is most famous for having hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics. It is also the gateway city to Joshin'etsukogen National Park. Only 90 minutes from Tokyo by bullet train, transcend urban normalities here by staying at the 7th century Zenkōji Temple, also a major pilgrimage site. Soak up culture at the Nishi-no-Mon sake brewery which is housed in beautiful traditional buildings, the Shinano Art Museum or, for full immersion head to one of its celebrated public bath houses or onsen.
One of the most special things that we do on our trip is listening to monks chanting in Nagano, really early in the morning.
Hypocenter Park in Nagasaki is the equivalent of Ground Zero. It is a place to really contemplate the bigger picture, and give thanks that this is now a city with peace at its heart.

Nagasaki

Nagasaki is the island of Kyushu’s best known city, because of the devastating destruction of the nuclear bomb that was dropped on it, three days after Hiroshima. Today, this is a busy thriving city and although there are important memorials such as the Peace Park and Peace Museum, the city has a lot of other history. Because it was the only harbour that allowed international visitors during its isolationist years, it became home to Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese and many more traders.

These influences remain and the city has an unusually high Christian community, so churches are a-plenty, such as the Oura Cathedral, built by French Catholic missionaries in 1864. Glover Gardens is an interesting place to wander around, basically a museum of mansions and their gardens, named after Thomas Glover, a Scottish entrepreneur who settled here during the years when the city was opened up to foreigners. The best way to take in Nagasaki’s fascinating history, however, is by going to the top of Mount Inasa which has a panoramic viewpoint.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: aotaro] [Intro: Timo Volz] [Tokyo: oimax] [Hiroshima: Maarten Heerlien] [Nara: Ray in Manila] [Nagano: 663highland] [Nagasaki: AG2016]
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