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Himeji Castle (Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture)

Himeji Castle thumbFondly known as “White Heron Castle”, the curved eaves and white walls of Himeji Castle remind visitors of a graceful bird. People are free to roam the ingenious layout of the entire 14th century complex, designed specifically for defense. With over 83 rooms, mostly in their original state, it’s worth taking half a day to explore.

Ancient castles seem incomplete without a ghost story or two, and Himeji does not disappoint. Legend has it that the castle well is haunted by Okiku, a beautiful maidservant falsely accused of stealing. She was killed when thrown inside the well as punishment. This tale was retold as the “Sadako and the Well” story in the movie, The Ring (very scary). Himeji castle is also featured in several other films, including You Only Live Twice and The Last Samurai, which starred Tom Cruise.

Kinkaku-ji (Kyoto)

Kinkaku-ji thumbKinkaku-ji was originally a retirement villa for the 14th century Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Although Yoshimitsu wished to coat the exterior in gold leaf, he only managed to gild the ceiling of the top floor. After he died, the building was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple, in accordance with his wishes. An arsonist destroyed the temple in 1955, but when it was reconstructed Yoshimitsu’s original wish was fulfilled: the outside of the top two storeys was finally coated in lustrous gold leaf.

Kinkaku-ji overlooks its own Mirror Pond, with striking effect. At certain times of day, a soft golden glow appears to rise from the water itself. The appearance of the temple also alters before your eyes as the sun’s position changes.

One of Yoshimitsu’s original bonsai has been allowed to grow into a full-size pine tree over the centuries. Known as the “Land Boat Pine Tree”, the ancient tree is now taller than a one-storey building and stands in the grounds across the lake and to the right of the pavilion. It has been transformed into the shape of a boat pointing back towards the water.

Miyajima Island (Near Hiroshima)

Miyajima Torii thumbMiyajima Island, off the coast of Hiroshima, houses the Itsukushima-jinja shrine, with its iconic red torii gate. This distinctive Shinto shrine and gate are built over the water, and appear to float miraculously in the sea at high tide. To preserve its sanctity, no deaths or births are permitted near the shrine; heavily pregnant women and the infirm or elderly are required to leave Miyajima for the mainland.

Part of the island’s charm lies with its colony of deer, wandering freely among the conifers and happily interacting with people. The island also has plenty of monkeys, but these are harder to spot, as they tend to inhabit the virgin forest covering the higher areas of the island.

Three different hiking paths lead to the top of Mt. Misen, the island’s holy mountain. Towards the summit, you will discover a number of Buddhist temples and shrines. Rich with legend, the whole area guards its own “seven wonders”. Among these is the Kiezu-no-hi, or “eternal flame”, which has been burning inside the Daishoin Temple for more than 1,160 years.

At the top of the mountain, you can take in a panoramic view of the Seto Inland Sea and even the mainland city of Hiroshima on a clear day. There is also a cable car for those who don’t wish to hike.

Kiyomizu-dera (Kyoto)

Kiyomizu-dera thumbRising amidst the trees on Otowa Mountain, this ancient Buddhist temple is famous for its vast wooden viewing platform. It overlooks copious cherry and maple trees growing along the mountainside, giving visitors a spectacular and different view all year round.

Kiyomizu-dera’s main hall is dedicated to the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Quan Yin, or Kannon, as she is known in Japan. A centuries-old image of this Eleven Headed and Thousand Armed Goddess, famous for answering prayers, is enshrined there.

Astonishingly, both the main hall and viewing platform were built without any nails. They were constructed atop 139 cleverly interlocking wooden pillars, resulting in an architectural marvel. Kiyomizu-dera was featured in scenes from the film, Memoirs of a Geisha.