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Beyond Tokyo Japan offers tranquility, history and cute monkeys

<strong>KYOTO</strong><br />When America was at war with Japan, it left Kyoto off of its list of air raid targets. Even as an enemy, the US realised that it would be inhuman to destroy the city, with its countless temples and winding streets that drip with history, some of it dating back to the Eighth century. Having been spared, Kyoto&rsquo;s government has passed several laws to preserve its history and restrict new construction, including a rule that says buildings can be no higher than 10 floors or so.<br /><br />The result is a cityscape like no other. While Tokyo thunders towards the sky with brash, neon signs that blink at the heavens, Kyoto is a city with low-slung temples and delicate, wooden framed houses. Its people are different too; proper and proud, they have little time for the frazzled energy of modernity. This is a place of quiet reflection and respect. <br /><br />TEMPLE TIME<br />Temples? There are many. But then again, too many to mention. The bigger ones, such as Kiyomizu-dera and Nanzen-ji are spectacular, although they have become increasingly commercialised. On a busy day, a visit to Kiyomizu-dera is like a pilgrimage to Lourdes without the Catholicism; school parties and coach trips mix with throngs of traders selling green tea flavoured ice-cream and traditional Yatsuhashi sweets.<br /><br />Head off the beaten track, however, and there are tranquil and peaceful temples of outstanding but understated beauty. Nanzen Ji&rsquo;s quiet sub-temple, Konchi-in, is well worth seeking out for its simple wooden frame and unfussy shrine. The dry rock garden is the piece de resistance; dazzling brilliantly in the sunlight, it is a place for contemplation, that rarest of spaces. In keeping with Buddhist teachings, the gardens are low-key and modest, allowing you to get lost in your thoughts, rather than intruding on them. <br /><br />Something more elaborate can be found in Kyoto&rsquo;s local restaurants. It&rsquo;s well worth trying kaiseki, a local version of haute cuisine that dates back to the 16th century.&nbsp; The menu comprises a banquet of small, perfectly formed and carefully balanced dishes that always use seasonal produce. Kaiseki is expensive, with some restaurants charging over &pound;100 a head before sake, but it&rsquo;s well worth the cost. <br /><br />The Touzan restaurant in the basement of the Hyatt Regency does a good version; although the menu is constantly changing, expect to find staples like Wagyu beef, Tempura and fresh sashimi, as well as&nbsp; more unusual fare such as jelly fish, rolled eel and lotus root. The restaurant itself, with a dark slate interior that contrasts against the brilliantly bright Zen garden &ndash; which is visible through floor-to-ceiling windows &ndash; is also stunning. <br /><br />Unsurprisingly, Kyoto is not famed for its nightlife &ndash; for that you&rsquo;ll want to take the 20-minute bullet train to Osaka. But there are plenty of cool bars and cafes which line the river Kamo-gawa, such as E-fish near the main station, which provides a perfect view of the paper lanterns that burn dimly in front of the small riverside dwellings.<br />&nbsp;<br /><strong>HIROSHIMA<br /></strong>With its unrivalled high-speed train network, Japan is one of the most travellable countries in the world; there really is no excuse not to take a day out of your schedule and hop on one of the bullet trains to explore another city. Train enthusiasts will want to try the Concorde-shaped, tilting Nozomi trains, which travel at speeds of up to 186mph &ndash; so fast they make your teeth hurt.<br /><br />If you&rsquo;re planning on zipping across the length and breadth of the country, it&rsquo;s well worth investing in a JR Pass, a special seven or fourteen day ticket that gives you access to all bullet trains &ndash; except the Nozomi &ndash; for around &pound;190 or &pound;300 respectively. This ticket is only for tourists and a coupon must be bought in the UK, which is then exchanged when you get to Japan.<br /><br />BULLET TRAIN<br />Hiroshima, which is around two hours away from Kyoto by bullet train, must be seen by anyone who visits the region. Most Brits with general knowledge of World War Two will see the conflict through the prism of the fight between the allies and Germany, which means we often forget the city that was entirely devastated by the first A-bomb. <br /><br />When &ldquo;Little Boy&rdquo;, as the device was paradoxically known, was dropped on Hiroshima, it engulfed the population of 350,000 in what one survivor described as &ldquo;a sheet of sun&rdquo;. The surface temperature of the ground reached 4000 degrees Celsius and a kilometre-wide radioactive firebomb burnt the city to a ground, killing 80,000 people instantly; a further 60,000 died from radiation sickness or burns within the year. <br /><br />By far the most potent symbol of the disaster is the A-Bomb dome, one of the few buildings that survived the attack (ironically because it was so close to the epicentre of the blast). Previously the Industrial Promotion Hall, the early modernist structure with its striking dome has been preserved as a potent reminder of the dangers of nuclear warfare; it is a chilling, heart-rending sight. <br /><br />A few steps away is the international peace park, with dozens of monuments and a statue commemorating the victims of the A-Bomb. One of the most moving is the Children&rsquo;s Peace Monument, which is decorated with hundreds of pieces of origami. The Memorial Cenotaph and the coffin beneath it, which displays the names and pictures of the dead, is the centre-piece of the park and the tone of the place is not angry, but humbling in its acceptance that Japan&rsquo;s government itself was partly to blame for Hiroshima&rsquo;s destruction.<br /><br />Hiroshima is also a testament to the commitment of local survivors; after dropping the A-Bomb, the American occupying forces wanted to condemn the city to the history books and their scientists said it would be decades before plants and trees began to grow. Within a year, grass covered virtually every inch of the ground and the 250,000 survivors, or hibakusha, built the city from scratch. <br /><br />Today Hiroshima, which is still home to some 95,000 hibakusha, is a bustling city famous for its jazz and nightlife, not just its tragic history. It is this triumph over adversity that is its most remarkable legacy. <br /><strong><br />MIYAJIMA</strong><br />A quick tram and a boat trip takes you a world away from Hiroshima to the island of Miyajima; nature &ndash; not history &ndash; is the dominant force here. Although guidebooks boast of the island&rsquo;s wildlife, I expected to have to look for it. But the island is like a Japanese remake of Bambi: the deer walk the streets, lie in the shade and enjoy the surroundings while visitors are the ones who feel as though they have intruded. <br /><br />The deer are perfectly happy to co-exist with these newcomers, and are happy to put up with furtive patting, flashing cameras and the kind of cooing that is normally reserved for newborn babies. Because visitors are asked not to feed the deer, they tend to help themselves, devouring maps, fast-food and whatever else they can smuggle out of your pocket. <br /><br />Miyajima is a mountainous island, so the best way to enjoy the view is to take a ride in a cable car. The cars are disconcertingly antiquated but it is well worth overcoming irrational fears; the upper reaches of the island are largely unspoilt, offering a lush, verdant canopy sliding down into the sea. <br /><br />The real surprise comes at the top of the mountains, with a monkey colony whose members pick fights and carry their impossibly adorable babies. <br /><br />These creatures aren&rsquo;t so friendly though; the aggressively shrill noises they emit counteract the cuteness, and danger signs repeatedly instruct you to keep your valuables hidden and not to look them directly in the eye. <br /><br />FLOATING GATE<br />Miyajima also has its man-made attractions. One of the main draws is the Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site which has existed, in one form or another, for 1,500 years. Most famous of all is the orange floating torii gate, a sight that travellers will have seen scores of times on postcards and brochures before they see the real thing as they approach the island. <br /><br />Low tide gives a chance for a closer look while the dozens of tacky tourist shops let you buy any number of replicas. Those with money to spend can also snap up the island&rsquo;s signature souvenir, a wooden spoon for serving rice. The island takes great pride in the utensil and is home to a giant spoon eight metres long. <br /><br />Miyajima is a curious mix of the surreal, the beautiful and the slightly tacky. But in a country where customs seem to take a lifetime to learn, and where the cities are constantly overwhelming, it&rsquo;s a joy to find somewhere that you can enjoy in a single afternoon.