Must-see attractions during a trip to Japan

by Oscar Johnson and David Hurwitz
Stripes Guam
So, you found a cheap flight and are headed to mainland Japan or Okinawa? Here are some places to check out.
Mainland Japan
Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood is an electronics goods Mecca and, more importantly to many, the hub of Japan's “otaku” (diehard fan or geek) culture. Countless shops – from one-man stalls to multi-floored mega malls – hawk a wide range of electronics, from antique to new to futuristic. Those into Japanese anime or manga will find all they could ever dream of and more in Akihabara’s shops selling magazines, models, collectables and more – all related to their favorite animation, comic book or video game characters. Some passersby may even be decked out as their favorite characters.
For a taste of old Edo (the former name of Tokyo) Asakusa is the place to go. The main attraction is Sensoji, a famed Buddhist temple built in the 7th century that is fronted by Nakamise market, which has been serving temple visitors with local snacks and souvenirs for centuries. The huge market offers a plethora of wares and street performers on weekends. A den of kabuki theaters and a large red light district during the Edo Period (1603 to 1867), Asakusa became a different kind of entertainment district in the late 1800s and early 1900s, giving way to modern entertainment and eventually tourism. Peruse the market on foot or hire a rickshaw for a 30-minute tour. Visit the recently opened 2,080-feet-tall Tokyo Skytree for a birds-eye view of the city.
There’s a reason why Kamakura is a UNESCO World Heritage site: A 44-feet-tall bronze Daibatsu, or Great Buddha, numerous historic Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, sculpted gardens and a rich history. In fact, one of the famed periods in Japan’s history, the Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333), is named after this city, whose founding coincides with the start of the shogunate, or military government, that was established there. Kamakura is also famous as the birthplace of Japan’s Nichiren sect of Buddhism.
Tokyo DisneySea
Tokyo Disney Resort features Tokyo Disneyland, but the real attraction is the adjacent Tokyo DisneySea – the first and only theme park of its kind in the world. It boasts seven so-called ports of call, ranging from Mediterranean Harbor and Mermaid Lagoon to a “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” port and the sci-fi-themed Port Discovery. Frolic like a little mermaid under the sea in a giant bobbing jellyfish or walk the decks of the Nautilus submarine’s home port. Journey to the center of the earth and get belched out the side of a smoldering volcano. Try to visit on U.S. holiday weekdays to avoid the larger crowds.
Matsumoto Castle
Built in the early 16th century, Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s 12 castles that have remained largely intact over the centuries – water-filled moat included. It has been called “Crow Castle” because it resembles the bird with outstretched wings. It’s also considered one of Japan’s three finest castles along with those in Himeji and Kumamoto.  Matsumoto Castle is a designated National Treasure and is located at the gateway to the Kita (Northern) Alps, which contributes to its picturesque backdrop.
The vacation area of Hakone, located within a two-hour car or train ride from Tokyo, is one of the top places to visit in Japan when you have had your fill of temples and other cultural sports. Hakone offers hot spring resorts, golf courses, cruises on replicas of 17th, 18 and 19th century ships, and gorgeous views of Mt. Fuji. It is one of the most popular destinations for Japanese to go when they want to get out of town, too.
Mount Fuji
It has been said that, “He who climbs Mount Fuji once is wise; he who climbs it twice is a fool.” Standing at 12,388 feet, Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan. It is one of the nation’s three “holy mountains” along with Mount Tate and Mount Haku. In ancient times, the summit was thought to be sacred and women were not permitted to climb it until the Meiji Era (1868 to 1912). Luckily, times have changed. In addition to a memorable climb, Fuji offers breathtaking sunrise vistas. Climbing season is July 20 through August.
Nagano Prefecture, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, has an abundance of ski areas, including the Olympic ski resort of Happo-One (pronounced Happo o-ney). The prefecture’s close proximity to Tokyo means there are huge crowds on weekends, so you should spend at least one overnight at one of the region’s hotels or bed and breakfasts. Not a skier, visit one of the area’s many onsen hot spring resorts and soak contentedly in hot mineral water while your friends and family chill out schussing down the slopes.
Ueno Park
Ueno Park is much more than the sum of its parts and not only because there are so many parts to it. From a nationally famous zoo (with pandas) to some of the capital’s finest museums, and from Buddhist temples to a pond known for its lotus plants, it offers something for everyone, in fact a lot for everyone. Just nearby, there is another well-known attraction, the one-third of a mile long shopping street of Ameyokocho, where the noise of the crowds and shouting of vendors make shopping an interesting and fun day out.
Yasukuni Shrine
Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine was built in 1869 to commemorate and honor those who lost their lives fighting for Japan. To date, more than 2.4 million people have been enshrined there. The physical appearance of the shrine is grandiose, built on a larger than life scale. But the whole experience can be somewhat disconcerting for Americans when they realize that supporters of Yasukuni believe Japan was justified in attacking Pearl Harbor and starting World War II, or the Great Pacific War as it is known here. For a more modest take on honoring soldiers and civilians who died for their country, visit Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, only a 10-minute walk from Yasukuni.
Tsukiji Fish Market
One of the largest fish markets in the world, Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo offers a chance to see the world of fishmongers and related businesses on a scale that’s hard to imagine. So popular is this real-life attraction that tourists were once banned because they were considered a distraction, but local authorities relented so the show could go on. It’s not just the old-school hawking and auctioning of huge tuna and countless other marine products, the area is surrounded by many other businesses that cater to the community. The show starts about 5 a.m. and many tourists drop by after a long night out on the town (adding to the entertainment value).
Yamate Bluff
In late 19th and early 20th century Japan, rich foreigners living in Yokohama could look down on the hoi polloi below from their beautiful homes on Yamate Bluff, on the city’s east side. This Japanese version of Nob Hill was damaged in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and by American bombing raids during World War II, and what was left has been artfully preserved for visitors seeking a glimpse of the past. Nearby is the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery, where about 4,500 people from more than 40 foreign countries are laid to rest.
The Harajuku district of Tokyo is said to be the fashion capital of Japan, with crowds of young people descending on the area daily and even more so on weekends to check out the offerings of its numerous stores, but more importantly to eye each other. Harajuku is also famous for “cosplay,” or “costume play,” a type of performance art in which ordinary young people, mostly girls, wear costumes that mimic fictional characters, like Little Bo Peep. You can enjoy the show whether you dress up for it or not.
Yokohama Chinatown
Yokohama’s “Chukagai” district is Japan's largest Chinatown. It became home to Chinese traders who settled there after Yokohama became one of Japan’s first ports to open to foreign trade in 1859. Four ornate gates mark the main entryways to the area, which is famed for its countless Chinese stores – and especially its restaurants and food stalls serving up Chinese ramen, dumplings and other cuisine. Another attraction is brightly colored Kanteibyo Temple in the center of Chinatown. Built in 1873, it’s dedicated to a Chinese deity of business and prosperity. For the full effect, visit the district during the annual Chinese New Year celebrations.
During your assignment to Okinawa, take advantage of the island’s many beautiful and historic cultural sites and events. The following are a few of the most popular attractions:
Naha Dragon Boat Races: The Naha dragon boat races are held in Okinawa’s capital city during the “Golden Week” holiday period in early May that marks the start of the annual tourist season. This style of racing began in China around 278 B.C. as a part of prayers for good harvests and safety, and was imported into Okinawa in the 14th century. Each year, men’s and women’s teams from the island compete for glory against other local teams and those from U.S. military bases, who are among the race favorites every year.
There are dragon boat races at different venues throughout Okinawa. For a complete schedule, check out Okinawa Story, the official Okinawa Tourist Information Web Site, at
Naha Great Tug-of-War: This annual event, whose history goes back more than 400 years, has been certified by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s biggest tug-of-war. Next scheduled for Oct. 7, 2012, it is expected to attract the participation of more than 25,000 people, including many U.S. service members, who will flex their muscles and try to pull the other team 15 meters (49 feet) using a rope weighing 40 metric tons. Participants are encouraged to take a piece of the rope home with them to bring good luck for the rest of the year.
Okinawa City Festival: Every year in November, Okinawa City hosts its annual Okinawa International Carnival/Gate 2 Festival. The celebrations feature a tug-of-war between 100 Okinawan children and 100 American kids as well as one between grownups. Enjoy samba and other dance performances, live concerts and other entertainment, while sampling the local cuisine found at food stalls lining the street outside of Kadena Air Base’s Gate 2. Many base members also march in the local parade.
All-Okinawa Eisa Dance Festival: This three-day festival in Okinawa City marks the end of summer and the Obon period when, according to traditional Okinawan belief, ancestors return to their homes for a short period of time. Scheduled for Sept. 7 to 9, 2012, the festival features a competition between teams representing different cities in Okinawa. Team members dress in brightly colored costumes native to Okinawa and include dancers, musicians, flag bearers and clowns. Think Rio Carnival in Asia. International groups comprising Japanese, Americans and people of other nationalities also perform bon dances. The Orion Beer Festival is held nearby at the same time. It features local music artists, a spectacular fireworks show, and great-tasting beer.
Mabuni Hill: The site of the final fighting of the Battle of Okinawa, Mabuni Hill is inside Peace Memorial Park, where different Japanese prefectures and cities have erected memorials to honor those who lost their lives during World War II. The park is a tribute to the hundreds of thousands of people who died there, including about 1,200 Americans.
Nearby are the "Suicide Cliffs" that many Okinawan civilians threw themselves off of rather than suffer the disgrace of surrender. Lt.  Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima, commanding general of the 32nd Imperial Japanese Army, also performed "seppuku," or ritual suicide, here.
The Cornerstones of Peace, erected in the park, were built to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the battle and World War II. The names of all who died in the fighting are inscribed on the memorial, regardless of nationality and whether they were military or civilians.
Peace Memorial Hall, which houses the Prayer for Peace Buddhist Statue as well as war artifacts, is located just north of the cliffs.
Southeast Botanical Gardens: The Ryukyu Islands are known for their tropical beauty and lush foliage. The Southeast Botanical Gardens has more than 100 acres of palm trees, tropical flowers and rolling hills as well as an aquatic garden, a Polynesian Lake with carp and an insect collection. It’s a great place to bring a picnic lunch. The gardens are located just outside of Kadena's Gate 3 off Highway 74.
Okinawa City Children's Zoo: Though relatively small, the Okinawa City Children's Zoo offers the entire family a place to enjoy animals and the outdoors. lt provides plenty to hold children's attention, including an amusement park with a merry-go-round and train. “Nature Land” exhibits over 150 species of animals and the “Wonder Museum” displays the works of Japanese artists and holds workshops. During the Christmas season, the zoo is ablaze with holiday lights.
For more information, including operating hours and entry fees, check out
Shuri Castle offers an opportunity to rediscover the Ryukyu Kingdom. Shuri, the capital city during the Ryukyu dynasty, was used as the king's residence, administrative center and hall for ceremonies. The castle, which has been a World Heritage Site since 2000, represents a refined Ryukyu style which incorporates both Chinese and Japanese influences.
Shuri Castle: The Shuri Castle Festival, scheduled for Oct. 26 to Nov. 3, 2012, features a parade, in full regalia, of the king and queen, and lords and ladies of the Sho dynasty of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, offering a fun way to learn the history of Okinawa’s medieval era. Other events at the castle during the year include: demonstrations of Ryukyuan dance; a reenactment of a traditional New Year ceremony attended by the king, the royal family and senior court officials; a recreation of a mid-autumn ceremonial banquet to entertain envoys from China; and a daily Illumination.
Japanese Naval Underground Headquarters: After World War II, only a few structures on Okinawa remained intact. The Japanese Naval Underground Headquarters, honeycombed beneath the hills above Naha, survived the constant U.S. military bombardment. Visitors can tour the long narrow hallways and rooms of this structure that Japanese soldiers carved into the earth with picks and shovels. They will also find an aboveground museum displaying articles used by troops during the Battle of Okinawa.
Underwater Marine Observatory: The Underwater Marine Observatory offers an opportunity to see Okinawan marine life up close – without getting wet. Descending a spiral staircase, visitors find themselves 25 feet below the East China Sea. There is also a shell shop, marine museum and glass-bottom boat tour.
Okinawa Exposition Memorial Park: Dedicated to man's relationship with the sea and its inhabitants, the Ocean Zone at the Okinawa Exposition Memorial Park features an indoor aquarium, dolphin shows, a museum, foreign pavilions, playgrounds, game rooms, picnic areas, a large amusement park and a white sand beach. The park, which is located on the Motobu Peninsula, also has a History and Culture Zone that features a native Okinawan village and arboretum as well as a planetarium that introduces the Okinawan starry sky and folklore. The Flowers and Greenery Zone offers a garden displaying over 2,000 orchids and a tropical and subtropical arboretum.
For more information, see
Bullfighting: Bullfighting has been a part of Okinawan culture for centuries. Completely different than traditional bullfights in Spain and South America, which pit men against bulls, in Okinawa, two bulls (each weighing more than 2,200 pounds) battle by locking horns and muscling against each other. Judges determine the winner and loser of each match when necessary, but usually one bull runs away, ending the contest. Bouts usually last around 10 minutes and no serious injuries occur. Bullfighting takes place on some Sundays at the Ishikawa Dome in Uruma City, around a 45-minute drive from Naha Airport on Highway 58.
Nago Paradise: Nago Paradise offers visitors a spectacular view of the Okinawan landscape, featuring tropical flowers, plants and trees. Vendors near the park sell tropical flowers, plants and trees as well as tropical fruits like papayas, pineapples and bananas. Nearby is Nago Pineapple Park, which features exhibits explaining the history, cultivation and refinement of the Okinawan pineapple. Visitors can take a free 10-minute tour through the gardens on a pineapple cart. Neo Park, also located in Nago, offers the sight of flamingos and other waterbirds. This open-air zoo also displays animals from Central and South America, Africa, Southeast Asia and Australia.
Ryukyu Folk Village: Featuring numerous exhibits depicting traditional Okinawan homes and customs, most buildings at Ryukyu Folk Village, or Ryukyumura in Japanese, are filled with Okinawan antiques. Weaving, “bingata” dyeing and pottery demonstrations show Okinawan life as it was in the past. Visitors can walk around the theme park wearing Ryuso, a traditional Ryukyu garment worn by nobles. One of the highlights of a visit to the village is a "habu" (snake) fight with a mongoose.
- Source: 18th Wing Public Affairs and Okinawa Story at

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