Travel

The Most Beautiful Places in Japan, from Castles to Floating Shrines

From Tokyo to Osaka, the Land of the Rising Sun is full of destinations just waiting to dazzle the senses.

DoctorEgg/Moment/Getty Images
DoctorEgg/Moment/Getty Images
DoctorEgg/Moment/Getty Images

More than most any other country on Earth, Japan is a land of head-spinning juxtaposition. Millennia of history are remarkably preserved and on vivid display in forests and cities alike. Sprawling metropolises are densely packed architectural marvels where you’ll be mesmerized by a neon cityscape one moment, then turn a corner to behold an ancient temple against a sea of skyscrapers. In a country half the size of Texas, the ancient and the futuristic coexist in a present where technology lives in tandem with vast nature.

The beauty of visiting Japan is that you can truly find almost anything you’re looking for, whether you’re seeking to explore a concrete jungle or an untouched wilderness. Its relatively compact size means much of it is an easy drive or bullet train away, allowing you to hit white-sand beaches and snow-capped mountains alike. To help beautify your dreams, we’ve rounded up some of the most awe-inspiring sights to see around the island nation. No matter where your travels take you, you’re sure to be dazzled.

Matsuo Sato/Shutterstock
Matsuo Sato/Shutterstock
Matsuo Sato/Shutterstock

Takeda Castle, Asago, Hyogo Prefecture

Often referred to as Japan’s Machu Picchu, Takeda takes the concept of “castle on a cloud” to Miyazaki levels of enchantment. It’s believed to have been built in 1443 but was ultimately left abandoned by the 17th century. To catch the morning mist shrouding the castle-and the magical views that follow-bring a Thermos of coffee and set up camp before sunrise.

Discover Japan/Shutterstock
Discover Japan/Shutterstock
Discover Japan/Shutterstock

Meoto Iwa, Mie Prefecture

This set of sacred rock off the shores of Ise Bay represent a husband and wife (Meoto Iwa is also known as the Wedded Rocks). The rope connecting them, called a shimenawa, is ceremoniously changed three times a year. On a lucky day, it’s possible to catch the sun rising between the rocks and the subtle silhouette of Mount Fuji in the distance.

Guitar photographer/Shutterstock
Guitar photographer/Shutterstock
Guitar photographer/Shutterstock

Sagano Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama, Kyoto Prefecture

In Japanese culture, bamboo is a symbol of strength, and it’s often found near temples to ward off evil. So, it only makes sense that Kyoto, the “City of 10 Thousand Shrines,” is home to a spectacular bamboo grove. Paths and bike trails weave throughout this otherworldly forest, but even the noisy rustling of tourists can’t disturb the chillingly calm sound of the bamboo swaying in the wind.

tvcuong8892/Shutterstock
tvcuong8892/Shutterstock
tvcuong8892/Shutterstock

Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo

The world’s largest city is a place of endless contradiction, yet somehow the ancient and the futuristic live in perfect harmony. That’s no more apparent than at Tokyo’s oldest temple. Founded in 645 CE-a full 1,000 years before the United StatesSenso-ji is a rare tourist attraction worth fighting the crowds to see. After passing through Kaminarimon, the entry gate with a massive lantern and throngs of selfie takers, the grounds turn into an eclectic shopping area with hundreds of stalls selling traditional Japanese souvenirs and snacks like chopsticks and mochi.

Sean Pavone/Shutterstock
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Motonosumi Inari, Yamaguchi Prefecture

In Japan’s native religion, Shinto, it is believed that the divine spirit dwells in all of nature. Motonosumi Inari might be one of the best places to experience this interconnectedness. Visitors ascend through 123 bright-red torii gates, which are typically found at the entrance of a shrine and symbolically mark the transition into a sacred space. At the end of the tunnel, attempt to toss coins into an offering box that sits 16 feet up on top of a torii gate. Just don’t forget to make a wish, because if your coin lands, it’s guaranteed to come true.

dimamorgan12/iStock/Getty Images
dimamorgan12/iStock/Getty Images
dimamorgan12/iStock/Getty Images

Lake Kawaguchiko, Yamanashi Prefecture

Lake Kawaguchiko is easily accessible from Tokyo and a prime spot for mind-blowing views of Mount Fuji, itself one of the most omnipresent and gorgeous sights in the entire country. Early morning mist gives the mountain an ethereal vibe in this sacred, inspiring landscape.

Ippei Naoi/Moment/Getty Images
Ippei Naoi/Moment/Getty Images
Ippei Naoi/Moment/Getty Images

Kabira Bay, Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture

Japan isn’t all skyscrapers and mountains. Far off the mainland, the island of Okinawa offers white-sand sand beaches with crystal-clear waters, coral reefs, and some of the happiest people around. Unfortunately, Kabira Bay doesn’t allow swimming or snorkeling in order to preserve its delicate ecosystem, but you can hop on a glass-bottom boat to see everything the waters have to offer.

Yellow Cat/Shutterstock
Yellow Cat/Shutterstock
Yellow Cat/Shutterstock

Tsutenkaku Tower, Osaka

Osaka’s Shinsekai (or New World) district was designed in 1912 to feel like a mix between Paris and New York. While the Tsutenkaku Tower may be an, er, ode to the Eiffel Tower, today this bustling area is fully Japanese with its bright alleyways of glowing neon signs, flashy advertisements, and floating paper lanterns.

Abo Anas 509/Shutterstock
Abo Anas 509/Shutterstock
Abo Anas 509/Shutterstock

Osaka Castle, Osaka

Sitting smack-dab in the middle of the city, Osaka Castle acts as an anchor that holds down the history and tradition of ancient Japan in a surrounding sea of skyscrapers. The castle’s had a tumultuous history-it burnt down in the 17th century and was attacked by Godzilla in the 1955 film Godzilla Raids Again-but has been repeatedly restored to its former glory.

Khunhua144/Shutterstock
Khunhua144/Shutterstock
Khunhua144/Shutterstock

Biei Blue Pond, Shirogane, Hokkaido Prefecture

Way up north, in rugged Hokkaido, swirls the Biei Blue Pond, aptly named for its enchantingly blue waters whose hue changes with the seasons (or even just the wind). The pond is full of lifeless larch and silver birch trees that reflect on the surface like a turquoise mirror.

Shawn.ccf/Shutterstock
Shawn.ccf/Shutterstock
Shawn.ccf/Shutterstock

Itsukushima Shrine, Hiroshima Prefecture

Situated on Miyajima-which literally translates to “shrine island”- Itsukushima was famously built over the water, and if you catch it at high tide, the whole complex appears to be floating. Two hundred meters offshore, the Great Torii has been warding off evil spirits since 1168.

Spyan/Shutterstock
Spyan/Shutterstock
Spyan/Shutterstock

Shikisai-no-oka, Hokkaido Prefecture

Arriving at Shikisai-no-oka, you might think your train was diverted and you somehow ended up in the tulip fields of the Netherlands. It’s not Europe, but the colorful patchwork of dozens of varieties of flowers in the dreamy hillside village of Biei-cho would leave any monarch jealous. The park is open year-round, but you’ll witness the fields at their best from April to October.

Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/Getty Images
Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/Getty Images
Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/Getty Images

Nara Deer Park, Nara Prefecture

The 1,200 deer who live in Nara Park are not only considered a national treasure, but also messengers of the Shinto gods. The deer are extremely friendly and always ready for snacks that can conveniently be purchased within the grounds. This is the antithesis of the ethically dubious animal cafes of Tokyo: A place to make pals with adorable animals on their own terms.

gualtiero boffi/Shutterstock
gualtiero boffi/Shutterstock
gualtiero boffi/Shutterstock

Fushimi Inari, Kyoto

Japan’s most popular tourist attraction is this Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. Thousands of torii gates form a maze of vermillion-colored tunnels snaking their way up Mount Inari, with small shrines throughout offering places to stop, catch your breath, and be with your thoughts. Each torii gate was donated by corporations or individuals as a way to give thanks for their prosperity. It’s a long, somewhat arduous hike to the top, but if you make it you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of Kyoto and beyond.

Blanscape/Shutterstock
Blanscape/Shutterstock
Blanscape/Shutterstock

Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park, Nagano

Like anyone having a spa day, the monkeys of Jigokudani just don’t really give a damn. The creatures can be found relaxing in the hot springs year-round, but are particularly fond of the water during the snowy winter months. Don’t expect to bathe with the little guys, though. This hot spring is “monkeys-only.”

Faula Photo Works/Shutterstock
Faula Photo Works/Shutterstock
Faula Photo Works/Shutterstock

Kiyotsu Gorge, Niigata Prefecture

One of Japan’s Three Great Gorges, this V-shaped canyon in Jōshin’etsu-kōgen National Park is surrounded by towering cliffs that offer up some of the very best fall foliage views in the country. The natural beauty is complemented by architectural wonder thanks to the Tunnel of Light, a 750-meter walkway that was restored to help visitors stay safe when the gorge’s trails were deemed too dangerous.

Horizonman/Shutterstock
Horizonman/Shutterstock
Horizonman/Shutterstock

Shirakawa-go, Gifu Prefecture

Japan’s most beautiful small town is dotted with gingerbread-style A-frame that, at first glance, make it look more like a Bavarian village than a rural Japanese community. Those thatched-roof Gassho-zukuri buildings surrounded by the densely forested Japanese Alps earned Shirakawa-go a UNESCO designation, and visiting during winter sees the whole place aglow amid the vast white wilderness.

LEOCHEN66/Shutterstock
LEOCHEN66/Shutterstock
LEOCHEN66/Shutterstock

Kumano Kodo, Wakayama Prefecture

Japan’s heavily forested lands are ideal for hardcore hikers and hobbyists alike, but the Kumano Kodo is definitely geared toward the former. This massive network of pilgrimage trails on the Ki Peninsula is home to hot springs, small towns, and many shrines, though the most breathtaking sight is arguably the three-story Seiganto-ji temple, which overlooks the huge plunge of iconic Nachi Falls.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Tanner Saunders is a contributor for Thrillist who would rather be a hot spring monkey.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.