Five things to do
1. Picnic in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, the city’s most beautiful park. Armed with my bento box I visited in late March just as the cherry blossom was breaking out and it was breathtaking. Many locals were there, paying homage to this harbinger of spring and picnicking. Grab a map in English as you enter and be sure to hit all the major gardens: English landscape, French formal, Japanese traditional (with teahouse) and the Mother and Child Forest.
2. Stroll through a Shirakawa-go village in the snow to experience a winter wonderland. This mountain area is designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Visit one of its Gassho-style wooden beam houses – named for their resemblance to hands joined in prayer – built from around 1800.
3. Stay in a ryokan. I stayed in the Yajikitano Yu in Hakone and enjoyed a lovely Japanese “hotel” experience, with comfortable futons on tatami mats in a minimalist decor. The highlight was the traditional hot spring onsen in the hotel, where guests bathe naked in separate male and female areas. Sitting in the outdoor spa with my fellow travellers under the stars on a freezing night was awesome.
4. Visit Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum, on the site of the commercial and political centre of the city before it became the victim of the first atomic bomb dropped on August 6, 1945. It's both a beautiful and gut-wrenching experience to see this raw reminder of what humans can do to each other. Especially poignant are the filmed testimonials of survivors.
5. Eat oysters on Miyajima Island. The seafood has been farmed on this beautiful island off Hiroshima for over 330 years. It hosts an oyster festival every February. It’s also renowned for the Great Torii gate, which seems to float on the water, the Toyokuni shrine and the Itsukushima shrine, which is built over water.
Clockwise, from above, Shirakawa-go village; oysters on Miyajima Island; Shinjuku Gyoen garden; and Hiroshima Peace Memorial.