A few weeks ago, I posted my own wishlist of places I hope to hit this year on my travels. But the longer I am here, the more “obscure” my list admittedly becomes. Of course, I want to return to Hakone or soak up the atmosphere of Kyoto in autumn. But I’m also just as thrilled to head for the hills and bed down in a random ryokan I came across online, just to try their famous mountain vegetables or bathe in their outdoor, riverside onsen.
So for first time travelers or those wanting to hit some of Japan’s “biggies”, what should be on your agenda in 2015? Well, the nation is celebrating numerous milestones this year so lace up your traveling boots and don’t miss the following locales:
My grandfather turns an incredibly respectable 93-years-old this year. But that pales in comparison to the 1200th “birthday” that the Buddhist temple complex of Mt Koya (or Koyasan) is celebrating in 2015. Founded by the monk Kobo Daishi (he of the 88 Temples Circuit in Shikoku) as the center of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, the temples of Koyasan still thrive as a place of worship. As you read this, I’ll actually be on my way to a weekend at this famed retreat from civilization. There’s no better time than the present to leave the stress of the modern world behind and seek out your own enlightenment in this venerable pilgrimage destination.
It may not be an anniversary that anyone would actually like to celebrate but there is no escaping the fact that 70 years ago this year, the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, forever earning the city an important – albeit depressing – place in the annals of history. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum has been undergoing a series of renovations in what I think is preparation for the 75th anniversary (their work is scheduled to be done by 2018) but with each passing year, fewer and fewer survivors remain. One of my most memorable and meaningful travel experiences here in Japan was meeting a hibakusha (survivor of the A-bomb) and listening to his story. If you want that opportunity yourself, now is the time to act.
Himeji isn’t exactly celebrating an anniversary but it IS spreading its wings (sorry, bit of a pun for the castle known as the “White Heron”) after a half-decade long renovation. It’s now as snowy white again as the bird to which it’s always compared and I personally can’t believe the difference between my pictures from 6 years ago and the ones of the newly freshened up main keep. While the castle did an excellent job of allowing visitors access to parts of the restoration process previously unseen by the casual public, the scaffolds are gone and now is the time to go bask in Himeji-jo’s full glory.
Now might not be exactly the best time to go to Nikko, as the work that is being done on the famous Toshogu Shrine is slated to continue for a few more years. But 2015 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Japan’s first Tokugawa shogun (the family of military leaders who governed Japan during its most isolated period) and the city has taken it upon itself to really spruce up the elaborate mausoleums. While work will continue on certain parts of the complex until 2024, the paint that has been retouched on Toshogu’s main hall is truly impressive. During my visit this past December, only the main gate of the Toshogu Shrine was unable to be seen.
If you’ve done Kyoto or you’re looking for an accessible escape from Tokyo, Kanazawa should be on the top of your list. A castle? Check. Stunning gardens? Check. Two old districts remarkably preserved and barely visited? Check. Add in geisha and some of the best seafood in Japan and you’ll quickly see why Kanazawa is one of my favorite destinations in Japan. And it can be yours too, thanks to the new Hokuriku shinkansen opening this March, which will link Tokyo to Kanazawa in just 2.5 hours.