Japan is a nation with centuries-long history laden with great accomplishments, war and strife but also peaceful temples and amazing vistas and natural parks. The average gaijin however won’t know where to find those when visiting in the Land of the Rising Sun, so we have prepared a small list of wonderful locations ripe with historical facts and significance to the Japanese soul that every traveler should visit:
1. The Goryokaku Fort
This large and impressive structure in Hakodate, Hokkaidō served as the seat of the short-lived secessionist Republic of Ezo, which was founded by former retainers of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1869. The curious thing about the fortress is that it was built in the western model and the new members of this state had undertaken a government based on that of the United States and held the first democratic elections in Japan. Today the fort serves as a national park where a multitude of sakura trees grow, serving as a center for the traditional spring cherry blossom viewing.
2. Mōtsū-ji Temple
A Buddhist temple in the Hiraizumi, Iwate was an old site of spiritual enlightenment where monks and travelers spent their times throughout the centuries. The area holds ruins of two previous temples, Enryū-ji and Kashō-ji. The first one was built by the order of Fujiwara no Motohira, the lord of Northern Fujiwara somewhere around the middle of the 12th century. Even though the area is past its glory days it is still impressive by any standards, the temple held a large number of monasteries and the several temples mentioned. Unfortunately it was burned down in a great fire in the year 1226 and after that never rebuilt. Today a new temple stands here and the area has been populated with sakura trees and other beautiful plants and serves as a location for annual festivals held among this place of worship. The serene Jōdo garden here reminds of days long past and speaks volumes to those who listen.
3. Kairaku-en Garden
A Japanese garden in Mito city, Ibaraki Prefecture spanning an impressive 32 acres space which was built under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the year 1841. The best time to visit the gardens is in February to May because that is when the plum trees blossom and the place is at its best. The park has over a hundred different varieties of plum (ume) trees in a multitude or colors which create a breathtaking view and a sense of serenity.
4. Kōkyo, the Tokyo Imperial Palace
A 1.32 square miles spanning grandiose residence where the Emperor of Japan spends his days since the 1940s. There were two others before that, one equally beautiful and impressive Meiji era palace which was sadly decimated by allied bombing raids during WWII called the Kyūjō. The current and previous palaces stand on the site of the old Edo Castle where the Tokugawa Shogunate resided until 1868. The Emperor consolidated his power and moved into the residence of the dethroned Shogun thus effectively moving the capital from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo). Today the palace has impressive and gorgeous gardens as well as intricate traditional buildings. Guided tours are offered to travelers and tourists who wish to explore the palace grounds.
A favorite retreat of the Maeda clan which was built and expanded over the course of nearly 220 years; it stands outside of Kanazawa castle where the clan resided throughout the centuries. It is a private garden which requires a fee to enter, however the garden is one of the most beautiful and well-kept gardens in Japan. It houses the Ishikawa Museum of Art and the oldest water fountain in the country working by exploiting natural water pressure in the area.
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