One of the best travel deals out there happens to be in the country that most people (mistakenly) believe to be one of the most expensive. Japan has the JR Rail Pass, which, for under $300 gives you unlimited access to nearly every train in Japan for a week. Using this pass you can easily take thousands of dollars of trips within a week, putting everything in the country within your reach.
I've done this a few times and, as a result, have visited cool places all over the country. Here are a few of my favorites in no particular order:
1. Deshima / Nagasaki. In Nagasaki is a really cool island called Deshima (which is actually connected to the mainland), where the Dutch used to live. For a period of time the Dutch were the only outsiders permitted to trade with Japan, and they were quarantined to this small area of Japan. It's now preserved and restored so that you can see what it was like. I really loved seeing the mix of asian culture (the buildings) and western culture (everything in them). Nagasaki is also an unexpectedly cool city.
2. Takaragawa hot springs. I love hot springs, and Takaragawa is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Japan. I think it earns that title easily. It's a series of pool surrounding an outdoor stream in a really beautiful valley. Getting there is a little tricky, but well worth it.
3. Iga Ninja Village. This sounded so cheesy when it was described to me, but it really lived up to the hype. The descendents from one of the most famous clans of ninjas have created a sort of ninja theme park where you get to try a lot of stuff like throwing throwing stars and concealing yourself in a really fun secret hiding spot. My friends and I went here together and everyone loved it.
4. Yakushima. Yakushima is a world heritage site island off the southern coast of Japan. It's a bit tricky to get to, as you have to go to Kagoshima and then take the ferry to Yakushima. The first time I did it we ended up missing the ferry and sleeping on fishy-smelling boxes until the next one came the next day. The second time I didn't make it because a typhoon stopped the ferry. Once you get there, the forest is completely magical, full of trails, monkeys, and wild deer. The views are amazing and the forest itself is even better. There are little mountain huts that you can sleep in for free if you have a sleeping bag.
5. Shikoku Pilgrimage. On the island of Shikoku is a famous pilgrimage between 88 temples. I've never made it past four (all of which can be done in one day), but I always think about going back ond doing more. I've seen about a zillion temples in my day and feel no strong desire to see more, but each of these is different and interesting enough to make the journey worth it.
6. Uji/Inari. Uji is a must for tea drinkers just because it has a ton of amazing teahouses that serve Matcha in a traditional ceremony. The walk through the town weaves through stores and gardens along the river and is particularly beautiful during cherry blossom season. Nearby is a place called Inari with a very famous hike up a mountain through a bunch of orange torii gates. It's so close to the train station that you may as well go up and do it.
Of course, half the fun of going to a place like Japan is going to random places and exploring by yourself. Pick one or two as an excuse to get on the trains, and wander around to find even more great stuff.
Photo is actually a lava tube in Hawaii. My phone photos where I have a bunch of Japan photos seem to have become corrupted somehow.
We're going on a pilgrimage. We just realized that our train passes are valid starting today, so we need to take a long trip to start it off.
Fourteen hours to the island prefecture of Shikoku sounds about right. In Shikoku there is a traditional 88 temple pilgrimage through the countryside and woods that covers 993 miles. Most people do it in 40-60 days on foot, although others wimp out and take the bus.
We don't have time for that, unfortunately, but we're going to head out tonight and walk for a day or two.
Mt. Mayon, view from Daraga Church
Ferry to Virac, Catanduanes