Inspired by a recent photography blog post that was getting shared around Facebook, I decided to make my own list of some great places I've been able to visit in Japan. These are the places that felt like another world, and that will stay in my memories for a long time even if I don't get to visit these places again.
You've heard maybe of the very famous 10000 torii gates or bamboo forest in Kyoto. But I think what a lot of people don't realize is that the beauty of a many places is seasonal. Cherry blossoms do not bloom all year around, and since a lot of Japan has pretty extreme temperature differences (below freezing in winter, reaching above 100F/37C in summer), your view is going to be radically different depending on the season you visit. In a popular TV show that follows around foreigners sightseeing in Japan, every so often some bug-eyed foreigner comes rattling on about cherry blossoms in a mountain village in February, or goes all the way to see tulips blooming in Hokkaido in November, and is bummed when they get there and find nothing in bloom. It pays to look things up well beforehand.
Anyway, here are my top 10, arranged in order of the season starting from Winter around New Year's time, when Kyoto is most likely to get a first snowfall.
1. Kinkakuji in the Snow
This temple is popular in any weather and season, but seeing it gold-on-white in the snow was really something special. I went on New Year's Eve in 2011. At the time I thought it was crowded, but when it snowed this past winter on a Sunday and I attempted going there again, the river of people takes about an hour to wait through. I decided I'd be content with my old 2011 photos and gave up!
2. The Bamboo Forest in the Snow
You've probably heard of or even been to this famous tourist spot in Kyoto, but have you been there at dawn after a snow dusting? It was unbelievably quiet, cold, and still. I'll never forget the beauty of Arashiyama waking up to snow. I went in February this last year. Getting up early and being floored by it all actually inspired me to start using a better camera. I felt a bit sad I was in such a stunning place but without a camera good enough to capture it well.
3. Nikko in Late Winter
3 hours train-ride from Tokyo, as far northeast as I've ever been in Japan. I went by myself for two nights in late February 2011. It was so cold, quiet, and pristine. I spent a day wandering over a snowy mountain of cedar forests, meeting no one except a friendly stray cat. I walked along a lake ringed with snow-covered mountains, watched tiny ice crystals glitter in the spray of its giant waterfalls. I rode a bus farther into the mountains and across a birch-covered plain, stark like a black-and-white photo. I soaked in an onsen bath near a steaming valley of natural hotsprings while the wind roared in the pine trees, as loud as jet engines. I'll never forget that trip.
4. Plum Blossoms at Jonangu Shrine
The cherry blossoms that bloom a month or so later attract more crowds to Kyoto, but this place during plum-blossom season (around the end of February and beginning of March) was just magical. It's popular among Japanese photographers who come from all over Japan to photograph the mossy garden covered in weeping plum blossom trees. The best part of the garden is near a grove of camellia trees that drop their flowers whole onto the green moss among the pink plum blossoms. It's such an artistic garden, like nothing I'd ever seen or imagined before. We went to see it on our wedding anniversary, Yuya took a day off just for us to be together and enjoy going out on a weekday afternoon!
The Japanese love of cherry blossoms is at least a 1000 years old, but ways to enjoy them are always being reinvented with new technology. Many temples in Kyoto hold nightly illumination events during cherry blossom season when the trees are illuminated by carefully-placed lights. This place was a little crowded when we visited in 2014--we had to wait about 20 minutes to get in--but inside the expansive grounds it felt more open. We went just as the blossoms were past their peak and starting to scatter. I remember feeling I was inside a living postcard, with petals blowing across the view of the pagoda like snow.
Two words for this place: Flower. Overload. This privately-owned garden that sprawls over a hillside was almost overwhelming. First of all, the weeping cherry trees were some of the tallest and fullest I'd ever seen, and there were a lot of them. The garden had also been planted with many many other varieties of flowers growing at different heights but only kinds that bloom all at the same time as the weeping cherry trees at the end of April, apparently. I went on a day it poured rain (after huffing and puffing up a mountain road that winds from behind Kinkakuji temple) and there was still plenty of people there. It seems to be popular with locals, certainly I'd not seen it advertised anywhere in all my 5 years in Kyoto, though it's getting more well-known thanks to social media. It's hard to access and there's no parking lot, so you have to take a taxi or hike there, but WOW. I had never seen anything like this place before. PARADISE.
7. Kawachi Wisteria Gardens in Kitakyushu
Wow, does this place live up to the hype, or what! I'd seen photos of it around on Pinterest, and managed to look up where it was located--it just happened to be an hour drive from a friends' house we were planning to visit just as the flowers would hit full bloom in the beginning of May. It happens smack dab in Golden Week (a string of national holidays) so when we drove there we found the narrow mountain road slowed to a crawl for miles. We ended up leaving the car with our friend's very kind brother who drove us, and who never got to enter the park unfortunately. We enjoyed a beautiful walk along a dam and lake before arriving at the gardens. It boasts two main wisteria tunnels, two wisteria domes, and at the top of the hill overlooking the rest of the garden, a whole wide lawn curtained with endless wisteria. The crowd was thinned out up there and we spent an hour or so just drinking it all in, the sparkle of the wisteria in the sun and humming of a thousand bumblebees and the SCENT. Even though a lot of people were there, it never felt crowded or rushed. No one could do anything but walk slowly and smile and breathe deeply. It almost felt sinful (especially when I remembered our poor friend in the car). Now, for crowd control a certain number of tickets per day are sold in advance through convenience store ticket machines.
8. Senjoujiki Park in Yamaguchi
The same friend who took us to the wisteria garden in the same first week of May said he wanted to show us "a place near Heaven"--and that's just what it was! What an expansive, high view, so high over the ocean one could just barely pick out the tiny wrinkles of waves. I almost cried when I saw this view open up before us and again when we had to leave. After so long of living in a city of tall buildings and narrow streets, it was just so liberating. We picnicked on convenience store sandwiches on the grass. I thought, "If I died right here right now, I wouldn't even be mad." It's nearby unique and beautiful Motonosumi Inari shrine, though I didn't know it at the time, or I might have asked to visit, though it's a bit awkward asking Japanese Christians to take you to a shrine.
9. The Beaches and Farmland of Iki Island in Nagasaki
Some people say, "we'll always have Paris" but we say, "We'll always have Iki." Looking for a place to spend the last days of our long Golden Week (longer than most folks, which turned out to our immense benefit since the island's beaches were empty except for us) I stumbled across the island on Google maps and thought its shape looked interesting. What a gem it was! No big resorts, not even a convenience store. One main road. Rolling green farmland (ah, that smell of flowers and growing things mixing with a salt tang! The whole island smelled so delicious!), pristine white beaches and brilliant blue water, almost tropical. We visited an uninhabited island by a little ferry as the only passengers. We ate a lovely modest hotel dinner (though one of the best on the island apparently, and our room was next to the one Emperor Hirohito had stayed in). Yuya's job was at its peak of terribleness. We were extremely stressed. We rented a car and drove around from beach to beach slowly, soothed by a guitarist friend's newest CD. I almost cry to remember those two precious days we had together, just the two of us in a new, beautiful place where unlike in the city no one is in a hurry and yet works hard fishing and farming. The love of the locals for the land and the sea was strongly felt. One day, I'd like to go back there again.
10. Mino Falls in Early Summer
You might not believe this lovely falls and walking paths through forested hillsides is only a few train stops from the heart of Osaka, but it is! I visited in early summer (early June, and again in early July another year) twice, and the first time, I think it impressed it me so much because I was living rather isolated in Kobe, with not much going on around me to mark the seasons by. Leaving the city all behind for a living breathing GREEN forest made me so happy. This place is famous for autumn leaves when all the maple trees turn color, but honestly (just judging now from photos I see in promotional material) the new green of the maple leaves still small and delicate in summer is better. The green is so soothing, and there's more water so the falls are fuller, it's never crowded in the off-season. It's a refreshing way to enjoy the Japanese idea of shinrin-yoku, "forest bathing" of enjoying a walk in the woods to rejuvenate.
11. Shojiji Temple in Autumn
However, we can't talk about spectacular places in Japan without mentioning fall foliage, loved almost as much as the cherry blossoms. Again Kyoto is especially famous for them, and people have been going to the most beautiful and popular "autumn leaf temples" Eikando and Tofukuji to see the leaves turn for centuries. These and other popular spots in Kyoto see extreme crowds every year, even before the number of foreign tourists started rocketing up a few years ago. They are very beautiful to be sure, but so crowded, like policemen standing around shouting in megaphones to keep moving and not take photos kind of crowded, my least favorite. I stumbled across Shojiji Temple on the outskirts of Kyoto City last year, when I'd done my Tofukuji and wanted to see someplace quiet and peaceful. The photos I found online were beautiful but not all that impressive. It seemed to be more famous as a cherry blossom spot in the spring so not many people seemed to visit in autumn. It completely blew me away. First of all, the ride there in the train and bus and then walking 20 minutes through cute little farmland was so peaceful, there was really not a soul. The temple was old, and blending into the surrounding forest, with that classic Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic. And the LEAVES. There was a colorful carpet of them all over the temple grounds, but who knows where they fell from, since the trees still seemed to be full of them! I went on a weekday, and there were only 4-5 other people in the temple grounds with me. I couldn't believe it, that a place of such beauty would be so left alone by the crowds. I spent an hour or two longer there than I had planned. That night when I went to sleep, the crisp smell of leaves and their warm fall colors were still there fresh in my mind.
This is a place I found through Instagram. I couldn't not go. It was 2015, I was sick of the fall foliage crowds all over Kyoto, and sad that the year was a bad one for the leaves anyway--many simply faded and fell without ever turning yellow or red. I had time off at the end of November and we decided to get out of the city and see some susuki grass (another symbol of autumn in Japan). Due to a limited number of buses per day that reach this place, we left super early in the morning, around 5 a.m. We got lost for a time in Osaka trying to find a tiny local train line that started just short of the main hub at Umeda (why Japanese people??) and then hours later on a bus into the heart of Nara prefecture, it started to snow! We had not come prepared, and luckily it stopped by time we arrived, so we go to see the lovely plateau and hillsides covered in brown susuki grass dusted with snow, as autumn became winter before our very eyes. What a dynamic landscape of wind, clouds, sun, snow, and blowing grasses--in some places taller than us--it was! I was disappointed we never got a chance to go last year, so I'm hoping for this year! I don't realize how cramped and plastic I feel in the city until I get out of it. Did you know only about 30% of Japan's land mass is inhabited? The rest is very wild (but not so rugged or high) mountains. You can find anything a human heart might desire within that 30%, which includes one of the world's most populous metropolises, if you have money. But the other 70%...that's soul-food right there, and you won't find it in any kind of city. The wildest places are hard to access, and we don't even get to nice parks within the reach of public transportation like Soni very often. It was a real treat.
So, there are my top 12. Japan is an extremely picturesque country with so much to be seen--from the super popular to little out-of-the-way spots only locals know about. One day I know I'll wish I'd explore more of it. But I'm very happy and grateful with the memories of the places I have seen that blew me away.