Top 10 things to do in Japan

Top 10 things to do in Japan
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This article was originally published on the flight comparison site Skyscanner.

There are thousands of islands in the Japanese archipelalago, which extends for over 3,000 kilometres from icy Hokkaido all the way down to the idyllic tropical islands off the coast of Taiwan.

So, depending on the time of year and the particular island you stop off at, you might be stomping through metres of snow or sweltering in 35-degree heat, and the range of activities on offer is just as varied as the climate.

Geeks are well catered for in the otaku heaven that is Tokyo, while Kyoto appeals to the more spiritual with its dozens of serene temples, and the love hotels of Osaka showcase Japan's quirkier side.

1. Dance with dragons in Nagasaki

From the early 17th century to the mid 19th century, Japan effectively closed its borders.

But during this sakoku period, the city of Nagasaki in southern Japan remained open to trade with Dutch and Chinese merchants, and as a result the city has a surprisingly different feel from the rest of the country; it's one of the few places you will see historic Western-style buildings in Japan.

And the Chinese influence on the city is showcased each year in the Kunchi festival in October, when dragons take to the streets… and even find their way into shops and restaurants, much to the surprise of diners.

2. Sunbathe on tropical beaches in Okinawa

The Okinawa islands are part of the Ryukyu archipelago, which stretches almost all the way down to Taiwan, and they have a tropical climate much unlike the temperate weather on the mainland.

The main island, Okinawa Honto, is home to a huge US military base and gets rammed with Japanese tourists in summer, but the smaller Ryukyu islands further south, like Miyako-jima, tend to be deserted and have some stunning beaches.

And if you head to Zamami-jima island in spring, you can even see humpback whales.

3. Admire the snow sculptures in Sapporo

The Sapporo Snow Festival takes place in February each year, and it's worth making the long trip to the northern island of Hokkaido just to see the enormous sculptures. Previous works of art have included a Japanese castle, the Taj Mahal and even a giant Darth Vader.

Make sure to pack your snowboard too: the Niseko ski resort just outside Sapporo has some of the best powder in the world.

4. Climb Mount Fuji

The almost perfectly conical Mount Fuji is breathtaking, literally so if you plan to climb it.

The air gets pretty thin at the top, 3,776 metres above sea level, but the climb is relatively steady and easy. Beware of being overtaken by ultra-fit Japanese grannies though, and be prepared to queue your way up the mountain in particularly busy periods.

The climbing season is July to mid-September, check here for details.

5. See snow monkeys bathing in Nagano

It's essential that you go to an onsen - a mineral spa - at some point during your stay in Japan. Onsens are a way of life in the country, although when stripping naked in front of strangers, you might feel a bit self-conscious at first.

There are onsens everywhere, but the ones in Nagano prefecture are some of the most famous - and the monkeys there have learned the benefits of taking a hot bath too.

6. Explore the Hiroshima Peace Memorial

On 6 August 1945, an atomic bomb was detonated above Hiroshima, killing around 70,000 people and changing the world forever.

Remarkably, the building directly below the blast survived when everything around it was flattened, and it's now been preserved as the Atomic Bomb Dome (or Hiroshima Peace Memorial) in remembrance of that day, while the nearby Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum provides a by turns fascinating and harrowing record of the events of 1945.

7. Visit a love hotel in Osaka

Love hotels are a peculiarly Japanese phenomenon - with privacy at a premium and many young couples living with their parents, boys and girls who want a bit of alone time can head off to one of these kitsch neon hotels, which charge by the hour.

Often payment is via vending machine, or the money is passed beneath a screen to ensure privacy is retained. But these love palaces are far from seedy - in fact they can be a lot of fun, with themed rooms that run the gamut from cute to bizarre.

Osaka is the capital of love hotels, although the authorities are currently clamping down on them, so these cultural oddities may soon cease to exist.

8. See a samurai castle in Himeji

There are many impressive castles all across Japan, although very few are actually ancient - thanks to frequent earthquakes, rampaging warlords and walls made mostly of wood.

A lot of the castles that have been reconstructed, like Osaka Castle, have been remade with modern building materials like concrete, but Himeji castle has been rebuilt using ancient techniques.

And not only is it freaking huge, it's home to some real-life samurai armour and swords.

9. Seek serenity in ancient temples

Kyoto is the place to go if you want to see temples. The most famous is probably Kinkakuji (Golden Temple), although Kiyomizudera is much bigger and provides some stunning views across the city.

But if you want to go beyond the tourist temples and see a real-life retreat, you can arrange a stay of contemplation at Eiheiji, a working temple north of Kyoto in Fukui prefecture.

10. Go geek crazy in Tokyo

If you grew up on Akira and video games, then Tokyo is your Mecca, and the Akihabara district in particular.

Battle all comers in the five-floor-high arcades, shop for Godzilla figures in the enormous collector shops and then head to the Pokemon Center Mega Tokyo for all the plush toys you can eat.

And don't forget to stop off at Odaiba Island to see the moving, 12-metre-high Gundam robot (sorry, mobile suit).

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