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Five cities in Japan you should visit to explore its history

Nagasaki
Standing on the porch at Glover House, the oldest Western-style wooden house in Japan, it’s hard to imagine what life must have been like for Scottish trader Thomas Glover when he moved to the city in 1859. One thing’s for sure, he had the prettiest view over Nagasaki port from his home. Glover was instrumental in the industrialization of Japan and even helped revolutionaries overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate (the last feudal government) during the 1868 Meiji Restoration. His residence, now a museum, is not far from Oura, the oldest Christian church in Japan (1864) which is dedicated to the 26 martyrs executed in 1597. For a different side to the city’s history, visit the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum – sobering but highly educational. To get around, hop on the trams, which have been transporting locals since 1915.
Best time to go: October, during the Kunchi festival.


Kumano

There’s one big reason to visit this region: to walk the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, as part of the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, these paths have been trod for over 1 000 years by people seeking to worship at the three Grand Shrines of Kumano. There are several options from easy half-day walks to more challenging multi-day treks, but they all offer the chance to connect with the country’s spiritual heartland.
Best time to go: Autumn, when the leaves turn to the colours of fire.

Kyoto
Japan’s ancient capital (794-1869) got a lucky break during World War II – it was removed from the atomic bomb target list and consequently spared much of the destruction. As a result it remains preserved as one of the country’s cultural hotspots and boasts around 20 per cent of Japan’s National Treasures, and 14 percent of its Important Cultural Properties. Skip the city center and venture to the Gion district where you can spot geisha strolling in the streets or watch them perform at Gion Corner, sip on matcha green tea in the centuries-old wooden townhouses called machiya, and dine on traditional multicourse cuisine, kaiseki.
Best time to go: In spring, when the riverside Philosopher’s Walk is decorated in cherry blossoms, and the city’s 1 600 temples are shrouded in greenery. (If you visit only one temple, let it be the Golden Pavilion).


Tokyo

Everything you’ve heard about Tokyo is true. It’s a jumble of rapidly burgeoning skyscrapers, crowded city centres, neon signage, and sci-fi ready fashion. What you may not know is that the minute you walk 10 minutes down any side street takes you into the polar opposite of the urban buzz: peace and tranquility. Tradition and history are everywhere. Get a taste of the contrasts in Asakusa, a neighborhood once revered as the capital’s entertainment district. It’s home to both Tokyo’s newest and tallest tower, The Skytree, and Tokyo’s oldest temple, Sensoji (645AD). Browse traditional goods in Nakamise-dori, a 250m shopping street that leads up to the temple, mingle with kimono-wearing locals and rickshaw around the backstreets.
Best time to go: In May during the Sanja Matsuri festival. You may even spot a member (or more) of the yakuza.


Hokkaido

Powder snow and seafood cuisine. These are two things that usually spring to mind when modern travellers think of Japan’s northern island. But Hokkaido also has an interesting backstory: it’s where the country’s indigenous people, the Ainu, originated (although in Japan they were only officially recognized as a group in 2008). Learn more about their culture at the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum. Or immerse yourself in the area they first inhabited by travelling up north to Okhotsk, the part of Japan that nearly merges with Russia (another interesting backstory).
Best time to go: December to February, to take an ice-breaker cruise (ms-aurora.com/abashiri/en).

How to get there: Emirates offer affordable flights to Tokyo from Johannesburg, Durban or Cape Town, with just one stop-over. Tickets are around 15 per cent more expensive than tickets to Europe. A four-star Tokyo hotel is priced at about R2000 per couple, per night. Visit booking.com for a large selection of hotels.