At the beginning of September, I was fortunately enough to attend the International Council of Museums (ICOM) general conference in Kyoto, Japan, as a student travel grant recipient of ICOM-US. It was my first time visiting Japan, and as an architectural historian, Japanese cities, traditional houses and neighborhoods were always on top of my bucket list. I spent several days in Kyoto and Nara, two of the UNESCO World Heritage cities, and visited numerous temples, shrines, and old neighborhoods. Apart from that, I also visited 21st
metropolis like Osaka and Tokyo, and enjoyed many kinds of delicious Japanese cuisine. There are some exciting places and useful tips that I think all of you would be interested. So here is a first timer’s quick guide to visit Japan:
1. Architecture, history and culture
Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, former imperial and shogun residences are the most visited historical sites in Kyoto and Nara. Almost every site has English descriptions so it is a good way to learn Japanese history. Some of them have beautiful garden compounds that you can enjoy Japanese tea and snacks with your friends. For military defense architecture, there are many castles in Japan, and the most famous is Himeji Castle, a World Heritage Site. I also recommend the National Museums in Kyoto, Nara, and Tokyo. You can see both Japanese traditional arts (woodblock printings, armors, ceramics, costumes, etc.) and Western arts at a lot of art museums in almost every major city. A good way to experience local culture is to attend matsuri (parade festival to honor different indigenous deities), since it is a grand occasion when locals and visitors gather to celebrate.
Baseball and soccer are two of the biggest sports in Japan. Check the schedule and go enjoy a game in the stadium! Two of my favorite places are Yokohama Stadium and Tokyo Dome. Many internationally renowned artists have also performed in these stadiums. For those of you who like to visit fan-shops, you will be amazed by Japanese design. The merchandises are very cute and beautiful, covering almost everything you can think of.
Ramen, susi, seafood, tempura, tonkatsu (fried pork), gyoza, miso soup…. just to name a few. Japan is a fabulous place to try these dishes that you are probably already familiar with. There are many more locally famous cuisine and snacks in each city as well. In Tokyo I highly recommend the Tsukiji Market, which is a daily seafood market and open air food vendors are the best bargain for you. Go there early and try their products freshly from the sea!
Japan has a great public transportation system, very easy to use and navigate (English signage at every station). At the same time, its fare system is quite complicated and you need to spend some time calculating the best choice based on your travel plan. For example, except from JR (Japan Rail), there are many other private railroad company operating in all cities. The fare system for bus, metro, and railway are separated as well. You need to buy separate ticket for Shinkansen (high speed railway). For railway passes, there are some foreign national discount options for you, if you purchase from overseas before your trip. So the best way is to plan ahead, and buy accordingly.
(The picture is taken from the 350-meter observation desk on top of Skytree Tokyo.)
Mingqian Liu is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Architecture