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How to Visit Japan’s Most Beautiful Landmarks Virtually

From clouds of cherry blossoms to iconic temples, and from soaring hot-air balloons to seemingly endless bamboo forests, all of the amazing highlights of Japan are right at your fingertips with these virtual tours.

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Japan’s many wonders

Travel may be on the back burner right now, thanks to COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean you can’t dream a little—and even see the sights in a far-off locale. Instead of buckling into an airplane seat for a full day of travel, though, you’ll be taking off for the Land of the Rising Sun from the comfort of your couch. Google Earth’s technology makes it possible to tour the stunning scenery and iconic highlights of Japan without having to worry about social distancing. Where should you start? Japan rail travel company JRPass has compiled a virtual tour of Japan’s top 20 most beautiful spots—something that just might inspire you to plan a real trip when life gets back to normal.

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Surround yourself with cherry blossoms

Japan is known for sakura, its world-famous cherry blossoms, which create quite the spectacle every spring. Fluffy bursts of pink petals fill the air like clouds of cotton candy, while crowds of blossom lovers try to get close enough to take photos under the branches. Experience all of the cherry-blossom beauty without fighting for a prime spot by taking an up-close virtual look at iconic locales like Hirosaki Park and Kitakami Tenshochi. For more incredible views around the globe, check out these breathtaking drone images.

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mt fujiCourtesy

Watch the sunrise from Mt. Fuji without breaking a sweat

Climbing Mt. Fuji isn’t easy—the peak is more than 12,000 feet high and takes more than eight hours to reach, according to Japan Guide. To see the storied sunrise, which can be as early as 5 a.m., you’d basically have to hike through the night and/or stay in a rudimentary hut. Or you can take a virtual gander from atop the high summit without having to break a sweat. Here’s how you can virtually tour 10 of the world’s greatest landmarks right now, too.

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Skip the lines to tour Himeji Castle

The epic 17th-century Himeji Castle is considered one of Japan’s most beautiful buildings and the finest existing shogun temple in the entire country, according to UNESCO. Due to its incredible preservation and its scenic views from its hilltop location, you need to obtain a timed entrance ticket to visit—and even then, the lines to get in are legendary. But with Google Earth, it’s possible to walk around the castle complex and also explore the stellar Koko-en, the castle gardens. Or, if you have a VR viewing scope (one of those cardboard ones would work fine), there’s a soaring 360-degree version from the “view of a white heron,” too.

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Walkthrough Shibuya Crossing without crowds

Every time the traffic light turns green at Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya Crossing, 2,500 people jostle across the road at once. It’s a daunting experience, to say the least. With this virtual experience, it’s possible to traverse the intersection and feel the frenetic energy without worrying about getting sideswiped by a pedestrian or a passing car. Bustling Tokyo is actually one of the largest cities in the world.

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Relax in a Japanese onsen bath

Soaking in a hot spring, or onsen, is a time-honored Japanese tradition for relaxation. There are countless onsen around Japan, thanks to the country’s volcanic activity that sends the hot water bubbling into these natural baths. Here are a few particularly peaceful ones to check out: Manza Onsen Nisshin Kan, Jinata Hot Spring, and Shirahama Onsen. Need more peaceful images? These calming pictures are the virtual break that we all need right now.

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Take in the views on a luxury train ride

The whooshing bullet trains that speed through Japan are justly famous for their smooth rides and incredibly fast speed. The most luxurious train, Shinkansen “Gran Class,” can be boarded here. The line covers Tokyo Station to Shin-Aomori Station near Hokkaido and, in real life, takes three hours. During this time, you’ll melt into plush leather seats; get slippers, eye masks, warm towels, and blankets; and be served unlimited food and beverages, ranging from bento boxes to cocktails to Western-style lunch. Kick back at home and watch the scenery roll by. Then, check out another 15 must-see luxury trains around the world.

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Soar at the Saga Balloon Festival

Held every year in late October (but available for online viewing year-round), the colorful Saga Balloon Festival is the largest international hot-air balloon competition in Asia. The 40-year-old festival fills the sky with a spectacular array of 100 balloons in soaring shapes and colors—think: Darth Vader, a tentacled red octopus, and a smiling owl in addition to a rainbow of colored fliers—while 800,000 spectators watch in awe from the ground. Before your tour, learn the high-flying history of hot air balloons.

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Tiptoe through flowers at Hitachi Seaside Park

About two hours north of Tokyo, Hitachi Seaside Park boasts a stunning array of flowers that burst with rainbow colors all through the year. In autumn, the 500-acre park is a sea of flaming red from 30,000 flowering Kochia bushes. In spring, according to Japan Travel, a million narcissus turn the fields white. And in the summer, the baby blue eyes transform the terrain into a pale blue ocean. Trees such as Christmas rose, licorice, and nerine bloom all year long. Stroll through the park digitally here.

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Go Dutch in Japan

Tulips and windmills in Japan? Just one and a half hours north of Nagasaki is Huis ten Bosch, a Dutch-inspired theme park with all the hallmarks of Holland. It’s got quaint windmills, brightly colored fields of tulips, and even an “Amsterdam city,” which approximates a European village with shops, restaurants, and snacks (although we’re not sure how the robot coffee shop and Italian gelato got here). There’s also an authentic canal and a not-so-Dutch haunted house, along with a mirror maze and Ferris wheel. Hungry for more cultural mash-ups?

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Visit Japan’s most beautiful Zen garden

In a country filled with stunning gardens, it’s quite the accomplishment to be called the “most beautiful.” But the lovely Zen garden at the Adachi Museum of Art in the Shimane district has been ranked number one among Japanese gardens for an impressive 17 consecutive years (as of 2020) in Sukuya Living Magazine, an American publication devoted exclusively to Japanese gardens. When you’re exploring the grounds, keep an eye out for the Kikaku Waterfall, moss garden, and the traditional Tea House at the Garden of Juryu-an.

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hashima islandCourtesy

Get a rare look at the abandoned island of Hashima

Featured in the James Bond movie Skyfall, Hashima Island was once used as a base for the Mitsubishi Corporation’s undersea coal-mining operations. According to National Geographic, at its peak, more than 5,000 people worked and lived on the small island. But the mines were closed in 1974, and the island was abandoned almost immediately. Ever since, the island has remained uninhabited, but its frozen-in-time buildings earned it UNESCO World Heritage site status in 2015. Check out eerie virtual views of the ghost town island on this virtual tour. Next, explore these other historic places that are now abandoned.

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Traverse Tokyo Station without getting lost

From the outside, Tokyo Station’s elegant red-brick exterior that looks reminiscent of Europe’s grand buildings is an impressive sight. But that’s nothing compared to the inside, where an average three and a half million people per day pass through on their way to boarding nearly 4,000 trains. Look up to spot intricate Neo-Baroque-inspired ceilings. Go underground to discover an entire city’s worth of shops and restaurants; it’s all connected by passageways that whisk diners, shoppers, and travelers to their destinations. Enter Tokyo Station virtually here.

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Explore the endless torii gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha

The lacquered orange gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha, the head shrine of the Kami Inari, the Deity of Rice, is one of the most iconic sights in Kyoto. Because of that, it attracts massive crowds, especially large tourist groups. Traversing the seemingly endless gates takes about two hours on foot, but now it’s possible to explore them virtually from the comfort of your couch. Here are more virtual day trips around the globe that you can now take online.

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Get an Insta-worthy view of the Kyushu coastline

Sparkling sunshine, beautiful beaches, and stunning sunset views are all hallmarks of a visit to Sakurai Futamigaura. Visitors flock to its Sakurai Itoshima beach, famous for its postcard-perfect views and Insta-famous giant “married rocks” joined by a shimenawa rope and framed by a traditional torii gate that’s centered perfectly on the beach.

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Take in Mt. Fuji from the Chureito Pagoda

You know those pictures you see of Japan in travel guides? Chances are, one of them was taken from this very spot! Located in the Arakurayama Sengen park, the iconic Chureito Pagoda offers one of the most famous, must-see views in all of Japan. Take a look here, and enjoy the majestic view of snow-capped Mt. Fuji viewed through the pink sakura blossoms. Discover more of the most peaceful places on earth.

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See the Kagoshima skyline at Shiroyama Park

Shiroyama Park was formerly the site of a castle fortress called Kagoshima Castle, the setting of the final battle of the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. Although the castle no longer remains, the amazing view over the Kagoshima skyline, the active Mt. Sakurajima volcano, and the 1,000 cherry trees in the 60-acre park make this a popular stop on a sunny day.

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Watch the waves at Cape Nosappu

Sleepy but scenic Cape Nosappu is the most eastern point of Japan, which means it’s where the sun rises first, giving early risers a colorful, unimpeded view. Also located here is the oldest lighthouse in Hokkaido, built-in 1872. From this remote spot, it’s possible to spot Russia in the distance on a clear day, since it’s just 2.3 miles to Signaly Rock, which is Russian territory. If you’re looking for a different type of immersive experience, check out these 17 virtual museums and concerts.

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Search for monkeys in the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

There’s something magical about walking through the seemingly endless forest of swaying bamboo trees at Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Although Kyoto may be known as the city of temples for its 2,000 religious structures, this natural wonder is actually one of the most visited attractions in the city, a green getaway just a ten-minute walk from the Saga-Arashiyama rail station. It’s open 24 hours, so the best times to visit are early morning or dusk when the crowds thin. Although with a virtual tour, it’s always a good time to be surrounded by the tunnels of bamboo. Tip: Keep an eye out for the more than 170 wild monkeys that call the bamboo grove home.

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kawachi wisteria gardenCourtesy

Bask in the blossoms at Kawachi Wisteria Garden

Although there may be other spots in Japan to see delicate wisteria in full bloom, the Kawachi Wisteria Garden is by far the most dazzling. Tunnels of flowers twist overhead, creating a dome of purple, white, and lavender wisteria that perfume the air and dazzle all the senses. Although the bucolic flowered pathways seem completely removed from everyday life, the garden is just 30 minutes from urban Kokura City. Love this? Then you also need to see these dreamy lavender farms around the world.

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golden pavillionCourtesy

Marvel at the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, is perhaps the best-known temple in Kyoto, a city famous for its traditional architecture and 2,000 temples. Although it’s a Buddhist temple, it actually was built as a home for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who lived in the gilded structure in the late 14th century, according to U.S. News & World Report. It’s one of the reasons the building is so ornate and holds an especially beautiful spot above Mirror Lake, where you can see the glittering temple’s reflection. Usually, you need to fight fellow tourists to get to the top two floors that are completely covered in gold leaf or to access the beautiful Zen garden that surrounds it, but this tour can be done comfortably crowd-free from home right now.

For more strategies to stay sane and safe, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

Melissa Klurman
Melissa is an intrepid explorer and award-winning travel journalist with more than 25 years of experience. She covers topics ranging from family travel and Disney to honeymoons and romantic beaches, and everything in between.