The spelling of Japan’s name literally means “sun-origin” which is why it is also referred to as the Land of the Rising Sun. This is a country where the past and future meet since it is blessed with a culture that stretches back over many millennia, rich in history and tradition, and yet has taken on as well as conceived some of the most up-to-date trends and fashions. Additionally, although the cities are as contemporary and high-tech as any other location in the world, you can still find crumbling wooden houses neighboring directly with high class designer condos. Some of the country’s most breathtaking temples and gardens can be found in the middle of gaudy signs and unattractive buildings. Right where you will find a high tech skyscraper, you may also find a sliding door which will take you to an old-fashioned room filled with tatami mats and a traditional tea ceremony. With these kinds of unexpected combinations, you will rarely be bored by your visit to Japan.
Most Westerners, when they think of castles, naturally think of countries such as England or France. It is a less commonly known fact that Japan was once a nation of castle-builders. Several castles were present in each of its prefectures during its feudal era. Regardless, there are only twelve castles in Japan that are considered original to the period in which they were built and used. These twelve castles still have their original fortified/main central towers. The island of Shikoku boasts four of these castles, while the Chubu region has three. The Chugoku and Kasai regions each boast two of these castles and the Tohoku region only boasts one. Unfortunately, none can be found in Hokkaido, Okinawa, Kanto and Kyushu.
Of course, with so many castles in existence, you can find many “reconstructions” throughout Japan. Some of these castles even attract more visitors than the original twelve. In order to better understand, a reconstructed castle is one in which its donjon (main fortified tower) has been rebuilt during modern times. Regardless, many of these castles still boast other authentic structures original to the castle within their grounds. A good example of this is the Nagoya Castle which still has three of its authentic turrets. These reconstructed castles, although slight alterations may be present, still provide a genuine insight into the past. Many castles, such as Osaka Castle, are also museums that house many important artifacts from the period. One of the best reconstructions of Japan is Kumamoto Castle where most of its structures have been rebuilt (in addition to the donjon). Hokkaido has only one reconstructed castle and that is Matsumae Castle. One of Japan’s most unique castles is Shuri Castle (in Okinawa). This is because it is actually from the Ryukyuan Kingdom which is built in the architectural style of China (combined with some Okinawan features).
Japan is also well-known for its gardens. This is attributed to the unrivaled aesthetics that are present in both their Zen sand/rock gardens as well as their landscape gardens. The country officially has Three “Top Gardens”. These have been chosen based on authenticity (not drastic altercations have occurred), size, historical significance, and of course, beauty. These “Top Three” are Korakuen (in Okayama), Kenrokuen (in Kanazawa) and Kairakuen (in Mito). Ritsurin Park (in Takamatsu) should receive an honorable mention, though, since it is the largest garden and often a favorite of many tourists.
Whatever you interests are during your travels, one thing you should not miss out on is visiting some of the temples and shrines of Japan. Although there are many remarkable spiritual sites of various religions, the most common are Buddhist and Shinto.
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