Japan’s capital from 794 to 1868, Kyoto is bathed in history. The most iconic remnant of the city’s imperial past is the outrageously gilded Kinkakuji, once a shogun’s retirement villa and now a Zen Buddhist temple. Perched on the bank of a serene pond, Kinkakuji casts a famed golden reflection in the water. Just as captivating are Kyoto’s less ostentatious sites, such as the minimalist and cryptic dry landscape garden at Ryoanji.
In all, Kyoto boasts 17 World Heritage sites (Kinkakuji and Ryoanji included), but with some 2,000 temples and shrines across the city, not to mention numerous gardens, they represent a fraction of Kyoto’s alluring heritage.
Mount Koya has been a place of pilgrimage since the monk Kobo Daishi was inspired to found the Shingon school of Buddhism amid its ancient cedars in the ninth century. Among the highlights of a visit- besides wandering the eerie, almost primeval Okunoin cemetery and the multitude of temples built in Daishi’s honor - is the opportunity to stay with the monks at one of Koya’s mountaintop temples.
Eko-in is one of nearly 50 such places open to guests, and it offers a typical Koya experience - a Spartan and tranquil tatami-mat room, a multi-course vegetarian dinner exquisitely presented on lacquerware, and the chance to join the monks and pilgrims for early morning prayers.
With three major galleries and many smaller art venues, picturesque Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea is a standout on Japan’s contemporary art scene. The best of the galleries is the Tadao Ando - designed Benesse House, a sleek hotel and gallery that hosts work by artists such as David Hockney, Bruce Nauman, and Frank Stella.
But art isn’t restricted to conventional spaces on Naoshima. Nineteen dazzling outdoor installations dot Benesse’s beachfront grounds, while in the laidback fishing village of Honmura, several of the old wooden buildings have been transformed into permanent art installations. Even the island’s I Love Yu public baths have had a pop-art makeover. Naoshima has been dubbed “Art Island” for good reason
This small ski resort town in Hokkaido boasts the finest powder in the country and three major ski resorts to match: Niseko Village, Niseko Annupuri, and the Grand Hirafu/Hanazono.
Away from the resorts, the allure is prime backcountry powder and ample opportunities for ice climbing, telemark skiing, and boarding through virgin snow. It’s not bad in summer either, when winter activities give way to summer favorites like whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and kayaking. And Niseko also has a year-round draw - mineral-rich hot springs perfect for soaking away aches and pains from a day on the slopes.
The gentle scent of tatami, the understated elegance of the interiors, the meticulous service, the outdoor hot spring baths, the multi-course meal of local seasonal produce, the calming silence - all combine to make a night at a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, an unforgettable experience.
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