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50 Things to Do in Asia Before You Die

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Whether you prefer to meet a holy monkey, eat sushi for breakfast, receive a monk’s blessing, helicopter over the Himalayas, or just enjoy the myriad unique views—we’ve rounded up 50 things that you need to do, eat, see, shop for, and experience in the wide world of Asia.

SRI LANKA

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Experience one of the oldest—and newest—cultures on the Asian continent

Sri Lanka’s recorded history dates back to the sixth century B.C. The decades-long war between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamils, the largest single ethnic minority here, ceased in 2009. And now, just under a decade later, the country is poised for a rediscovery: very old Asia made new again.

Asia holiday destination

Drive into Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle

If you find yourself in seaside Colombo, take five hours to drive inland to Polonnaruwa, one of the country’s eight UNESCO World Heritage sites. Construction of the 1,200-square-mile capital began in the 11th century; it was once a sprawling fortified city and the second seat of Sri Lanka’s royal dynasty. Explore the ruins of the palace and the carved Buddhas of Gal Vihara.

Asia holiday destination

Face the Lion’s Rock

The ancient royal compound of Sigiriya, or Lion’s Rock—the star attraction in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle—is best visited in the morning, before the day heats up: It takes roughly 45 minutes to reach the summit, but you’ll be treated to frescoes, rock gardens, and other splendid sights with every step.

Asia holiday destination

Feel the awe of history in the Buddhist cave temples of Dambulla

There are about 80 caves in this first century B.C. complex that was once inhabited by monks and hermits. Ignore the god-awful Buddha-goes-to-Vegas museum and facade, and instead take the 15-minute climb to the temples. Stop along the way to buy an offering of fresh white lotus blossoms. The first temple you’ll see is also the oldest, and is dominated by a 46-foot-long statue—carved directly from the granite mountainside—of a dying Buddha, one of the traditional poses in which he is depicted. The space is so small, and the Buddha so large, that the encounter is unexpectedly intimate: No matter how silent the other visitors are, you can’t help but feel the crush of millennia.

INDIA

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Stand in awe of the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is one of the most-visited tourist sites in all of India. To see the temple before the mobs arrive, be on-site by daybreak.

Asia holiday destination

Purify yourself in the Ganges

Varanasi is the Hindu holy city, and to bathe in the Ganges here, even just ceremonially, is to purify yourself.

Asia holiday destination

Salute the sun at Bhangarh

You can visit Bhangarh—an ancient town near Jaipur—as a day trip from Amanbagh, and join the thinning crowds for a session of sunset yoga. It may be touted as one of the most haunted places in India, but we’d rather call it spiritual.

Asia holiday destination

Shop Jaipur’s Gem Palace

Fancy an emerald-and-diamond necklace? Even if you can’t find something within the Gem Palace’s troves, they will custom-make almost anything you dream up—and turnaround can be as fast as 24 hours.

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Visit the palace of India’s last maharaja

At the heart of Jaipur’s old city is the City Palace, which is a complex of mini-palaces arranged as a series of unfolding boxes—so the deeper the realm, the more private and less accessible it becomes. The palace today is mostly under the control of the last maharaja’s daughter, Princess Diya Kumari. Despite the fact that the princess and her family still live in the palace, it serves very much as a public living room—you’ll see locals chatting in its squares and relaxing in its open-air pavilions—and isn’t at all forbidding.

NEPAL

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Be stunned by a stupa

Boudhanath Stupa is one of Nepal’s largest and holiest stupas. It’s most impressive in the evening or at daybreak, when it becomes crowded with circumambulating pilgrims.

Asia holiday destination

Fly over the Himalayas at sunrise

In her Grand Tour of Asia, former editor-at-large Hanya Yanagihara signed up for a flight with Tashi Tenzing Sherpa, the grandson of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, who summited Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953. Book a tour similar to hers, through Geographic Expeditions.

Asia holiday destination

Meet a holy monkey

Swayambhunath Stupa is a fifth-century temple complex, also known as the “Monkey Temple” for the holy primates that are said to live on its grounds. (Alas, the complex is also full of monkeys of the less-holy ilk, all of whom are on the prowl for food and alarmingly fearless.) Swayambhunath is as fascinating as it is picturesque, with sweeping views over Kathmandu Valley. If the small monastery on the top floor is open, ask your guide to take you in to light five candles and to wish good fortune for someone else as you do so. You’ll be barefoot, of course, so take extra caution when walking on the floors—they will be greasy with ghee, especially near the candles.

BHUTAN

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Pay the fee to visit Bhutan

Bhutan is rare among Asian countries in that it decided to forgo large numbers of tourists in favor of high-paying ones. Visitors must pay a fairly steep tariff—between $200 and $250 a day, depending on the month—which has discouraged swells of backpackers and gap-year wanderers (it also explains why the average age of touristshere is 56-65). As a visitor, it’s easy to get too carried away by the romance of this plan, as smart as it is. The fact remains that Bhutan is a very poor country, and that the government’s resolve is being sorely tested: Tourism provides jobs, and convincing people that they’ll applaud their own prudence 20 years from now is a hard sell. But still, the plan speaks for itself—you’re not likely to see such pristine countryside anywhere else on your tour of Asia.

Asia holiday destination

Drive through the countryside

What you’ll notice first about Bhutan is its splendid beauty and the remarkable lack of development. The countryside unfolds as a series of lush pleats of green. The hillsides (the country is largely mountainous) are thick with spruce and blue fir, and wild magnolia trees and rhododendron bushes that have grown to treelike proportions punctuate the roadway. The second thing you’ll notice is the emptiness. Cars purr down roads briskly, and there’s no honking. Indeed, the roads are so quiet you can hear the breeze and birdsong as you go. By the way, the tales of Bhutan’s harrowing roads are overblown: Yes, they’re narrow and twisty and full of corkscrews, but only the most anxious will feel unsafe.

Asia holiday destination

Learn where Buddhism and government mix at Punakha Dzong

When the dzong‘s founding monk arrived here, he brought with him a sacred relic from Tibet, and the compound was attacked three times by the Tibetans who were eager to reclaim the relic. This particular dzong (a type of fortress found mainly here and in Tibet) served as Bhutan’s capitol until the 1960s, and still has special significance: The first king was crowned here in 1907, and all the kings since have been married here, including Jigme Khesar in 2011. The first national assembly also met here. Today, the dzong may no longer be the seat of government, but it is still the administrative headquarters of the central Buddhist body, as well as the dzong of the Punakha district (each of Bhutan’s 20 districts has its own dzong).

Asia holiday destination

Light a yak-butter candle for fertility at Chimi Lhakhang

The monastery of Chimi Lhakhang, built in 1499, commemorates a sort of bad boy of Buddhism—saint Drukpa Kunley—who came from Tibet and won over the Bhutanese by skillfully conquering a number of pesky demons (Kunley’s other interests included drinking, partying, and womanizing). Along the way, he also acquired a reputation for blessing women with children, and so on the way up, you’ll see that the houses in the surrounding village are painted with huge phalluses, and in the temple itself, you’ll find families with squirming babies and kids, back to thank Kunley for his beneficence. You too can light the traditional five yak-butter candles, after which the monk will pour into your palms a splash of saffron-scented holy water. Take a sip (or at least hold it up to your mouth), and then rub it into your head and throat. Outside, you’ll circle the bodhi tree clockwise, as you always do around Buddhist sites, whether you’re circling a stupa, a temple, a prayer wheel, or a tree.

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Brave the climb to the Tiger’s Nest

Taktsang Palphug, commonly known as Tiger’s Nest, is a 17th-century structure clinging to a mountainside a dizzying 10,200 feet above Paro Valley. Why the name Tiger’s Nest? Because it’s said that in the eighth century, Guru Rinpoche flew to this exact spot on the back of a tiger. The initial part of the temple was constructed in the 1400s, although the expansions that give the complex the shape we see today weren’t done until the late 1600s. In 1998, a fire swept through the buildings, but the temples were restored to their original shape. There are 15 temples in Tiger’s Nest, and all are beautiful, their wall paintings restored by UNESCO.

MYANMAR

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Try something spicy and something sour in Burma

Much of Yangon life is lived in the streets—culinary life being no exception. You’ll see varieties of chilies and limes here that you won’t be able to identify, and sample hot bowls of soup like mohinga (a rice noodle and fish soup) or Rakhine mone-ti (a clear fish noodle soup).

Asia holiday destination

Behold Bagan

The 20-square-mile Bagan (formerly Pagan) is one of the most impressive Buddhist temple complexes in Asia. The seat of the first Myanmar dynasty in the 11th Century, it once contained 7,000 monuments, temples, and shrines within its borders. (Today, somewhere around 2,200 remain.) The gold-topped Shwezigon stupa, which was built in 1050, is the prototypical Burmese pagoda. All of them from this period onward have seven tiers (the bell-shaped stupa itself is the sixth tier), which is meant to echo the seven concentric rings around Sumeru, the mythical Buddhist holy mountain.

Asia holiday destination

Pay homage to “The Lady”

Yangon is a mix of old ghosts and new hopes. Along the old colonial buildings, you may stumble upon vendors selling posters bearing the image of Aung San Suu Kyi (aka “The Lady”), for years the thorn in the Burmese junta’s side and now a member of Parliament.

VIETNAM

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Sail Halong Bay

Halong Bay is a 580-square-mile natural cove containing some 2,000 limestone islands, all occupied only by trees, ferns, birds, and monkeys. It is these peaks—some of them cragged and hewn by years of erosion into fantastic shapes—that have inspired centuries of Vietnamese poetry and paintings.

Asia holiday destination

Experience Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Hanoi’s bustling Old Quarter buzzes with activity all day long. Come early to browse the food markets in peace, then drive a few minutes south to Bun Cha Huong Lien, the noodle shop where Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama once famously shared a meal.

Asia holiday destination

Feel like you’re back at school…in the 11th century

The 11th-century Temple of Literature (located in Hanoi) is Vietnam’s first university and a fascinating glimpse into how deep the country’s ties are with China: The temple is a series of five courtyards arranged in the classic Confucian style. Today, Vietnam’s most-practiced religion is Buddhism, specifically Mahayana Buddhism, which is found mainly in China and Japan. In China, this form of Buddhism was coupled with Confucianism and Taoism (as it is here); as you’ll see, despite the magnificent, highly lacquered red temple sanctuary, its decoration is of an altogether more sober (or at least more formal) sort.

Asia holiday destination

Revel in the café culture of Hanoi

As you drive through the streets, you’ll see all the little tableaux that, in between the omnipresent neon-lit shops selling cheap clothes and cell phones, make Hanoi the place it is: dozens of pho stands, with their big cauldrons of simmering broth; vendors selling mountains of fruit; bicyclists pedaling by with basketfuls of fresh-baked bread; and, especially, those little street restaurants with their low tables and domino-shaped stools on which men while away the afternoon, eating, smoking, and chatting. This casual café culture can, of course, be partly attributed to the French influence, but it’s not all their doing: Hanoi is an ancient city and the seat of Vietnam’s university, court culture, and poetry. There is a very long tradition here of sitting around with some tea and gabbing, quoting lines of poetry, and arguing politics.

Asia holiday destination

Walk through Vietnam’s cultural history at the Museum of Ethnology

Unlike some other countries in Asia, Vietnam is notably accepting—even encouraging—of its 53 minority groups, as witness by Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology. Some of this is practical, and some of this is strategic. First, the great majority of these groups live in Vietnam’s north, on the border with China, and are therefore best not antagonized with such a powerful neighbor. Second, they’re a great tourism draw. Many of the costumes on exhibit at the Museum of Ethnology aren’t from a hundred years ago; some could well be from last week. The durability of these tribes’ signature presentations is astonishing in an age of jeans and T-shirts.

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Asia holiday destination

Discover a lost city

The lost city of Angkor Thom is now part of Angkor Archaeological Park (yes, where famous Angkor Wat is located). Built in the late 12th century, it was the final capital of the Khmer empire. Visit the Bayon temple between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., when the crowds will have gone back to their hotels for lunch (the sun can be intense, though).

Asia holiday destination

Do Angkor Wat right

First rule: Forget sunrise at the Angkor Wat complex. It is so popular now that it’ll be more crowded at 5:30 or 6 a.m. than at 7, when those sun-risers are on their way back to their hotels for breakfast. Instead, opt for less-frequented temples such as Beng Mealea (pictured). In the morning, most visitors beat a path to Ta Prohm—known as the “Tomb Raider” temple for its cameo in the 2001 film of the same name. Swing by at around 4:45 p.m. and you’ll have it almost to yourself.

THAILAND

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Bathe an elephant

Make a splash at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, where you won’t just get to walk with elephants—you’ll bathe with them, too.

Asia holiday destination

Give an offering to a monk at Wat Sri Soda

Each country in Asia has its own relationship to religion, of course, but it’s fair to say that the Thai relationship to Buddhism is unusually vivid. Even Thai men who aren’t active-duty monks try, in small ways, to “make merit” for themselves. At Wat Sri Soda, as across the region, this quest can manifest in spectacular ways—remember Jayavarman VII and his prolific temple-building?—but it is often done in a more quiet, quotidian fashion, such as donating an offering of food to one’s local temple. Bring (or ask your guide to bring) a packet of food for you to give to one of the monks, who will receive it with a chant. As you descend the hill after spending an hour so exploring the temple, you’ll see a chain of young monks walking along with their begging bowls, accepting food from the penitent locals who line the streets early in the morning to receive a blessing. It’s a sight both timeless and touching, a reminder—despite the motorbikes and hotels—of this area’s unshakable belief and age-old rituals.

Asia holiday destination

Watch the sunset from Chiang Mai’s holiest shrine

Take the 30-minute drive outside Chiang Mai to the 14th-century Wat Phra That, Chiang Mai’s holiest shrine, which overlooks the city atop Suthep Mountain. Take the 304-step staircase and note the lovely nagas (dragon-headed serpents) that flank the steps: Like so much Buddhist iconography, their origins are Hindu, but in Southeast Asia they are often shown as the Buddha’s protector, guarding either him or the temples. At the summit—blissfully empty and a few degrees cooler in the late afternoon—you’ll hear the monks chanting their evening sutras and watch as the sinking sun paints the city in vibrant pinks and purples.

SINGAPORE

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Land in an airport you won’t want to leave

Singapore’s Changi International Airport (truly, the best-run airport in the world) is not only clean and efficient, it’s packed with perks you wouldn’t expect to find in an airport—and that might make you not want to leave. It has a butterfly garden, a swimming pool, a gym, a spa, a movie theater, an arcade, a playground, and free tours of the city for those with a layover of five or more hours. Next up? It’s getting a canopy bridge and two mazes.

Asia holiday destination

Stuff your face with street food at a hawker center

Airport Road Food Centre has a couple dozen excellent food stalls, including Lao Ban. Join the queue for a small tub of soya: barely sweet, custard-soft tofu that satisfies, variously, as a dessert, an appetizer, a ­palate-cleanser, or a digestif. Maxwell Food ­Centre is another food court with even more stalls selling even more tempting dishesfrom everywhere across southern Asia. One of the iconic stalls is Tian Tian Chicken Rice, which serves, well, chicken rice—an utterly succulent chicken cooked in chicken broth and served with chicken broth–boiled rice.

Asia holiday destination

Discover Singapore’s unique Peranakan culture and cooking

An ethnic group specific to this part of Asia—created by the mostly Hokkien Chinese merchants and traders who arrived here and married Malay women—the Peranakans flourished from the 15th through the early 20th centuries. They developed their own language, a kind of Malay-Hokkien creole; their own dress; their own religion (a sort of Taoist Catholicism, if you can imagine such a thing); and their own cuisine, which married Chinese flavors and spices with the sugar and coconut of Malay cooking. Your menu at Peranakan restaurant True Blue might include simmered beef, gently seasoned with cardamom (a kind of Peranakan version of short ribs), or banana blossom salad with star fruit, or chicken stew with Indonesian black nuts. Just hope your meal ends with the addictive glutinous black rice porridge, which is gently sweet and pairs well with the longan tea that’ll be served alongside it. The restaurant’s decor—which features artwork, objets d’art, and furniture from chef-owner Benjamin Seck’s collection—is as colorful as the food. If you ask, you’ll even get to go upstairs to see a Peranakan Catholic altar. Although it’s Chinese in style and color, you’ll note that at its center is a depiction of the Virgin Mary, though rendered as a Qing dynasty–era ­figure. For more on the culture, you can check out the small ­Peranakan Museumnext door.

BALI

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Find peace in Bali

Skip Bali’s party-centric Kuta-Legian-Seminyak region, and set up instead in Ubud. The area is rightly celebrated for both its crafts and artisanship, as well as its emerald rice fields that morph slowly into jungle.

Asia holiday destination

Sip watermelon juice while you walk through rice fields

If you’re staying at our recommended Uma by Como hotel, within a short 20-minute walk, you can leave the din of Ubud behind and replace it with the sounds of running water, coconut fronds rustling in the breeze, the low drone of dragonflies, and the occasional local carrying a yoke from which green coconuts dangle. It’s a delicious jolt: Just down the road is the 21st century in all its unstoppable modernity—although here, it could be anytime. But it couldn’t be anyplace: This landscape is wholly Bali’s. After 20 minutes or so, you’ll come across Sari Organik, a juice-and-snack villa with extensive raw/vegan offerings, right in the middle of the fields. Stop and refresh yourself with a cacao bowl or watermelon juice.

CHINA

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Follow in the emperor’s footsteps in Beijing’s Forbidden City

To best experience the Forbidden City, the enormous walled 15th-­century structure at Beijing’s heart, later in the day is actually better. Skip the museum within the complex’s grounds and head to the North Gate, going backward toward the main entrance at Tiananmen. This is where every emperor—and his family and staff—lived from 1420, when the 7.8-million-square-foot, 980-building compound was finished, until 1912, when the Qing dynasty went out with a whimper.

Asia holiday destination

Walk the Great Wall—without all the tourists

There are a few main sections of the Great Wall that people visit. Badaling and Juyong Pass, which are among the closest to the city, are so densely packed with tourists that you might as well stay home. Then there’s Mutianyu, about 90 minutes outside the city center, and Jinshanling, which is two hours away. Both options have their benefits. Jinshanling, which will be all but untouristed, is an especially nice choice if you want to walk a long section of the wall. If, however, your main goal is not to hike the wall but to just get a feel for it, opt for Mutianyu.

Asia holiday destination

Be awestruck by the terra-cotta warriors of Xi’an

China’s first ruler, the great emperor Qin Shi Huang, not only began construction on the Great Wall, but he’s also responsible for the terra-cotta warriors of Xi’an. Shi Huang’s secret remained just that until 1974, when three local farmers were digging a well and came across stone body parts. They reported it to their local official, and no sooner could you say, “Sorry, Shi Huang,” than the eighth wonder of the world was discovered. But the emperor may have the last laugh: The terra-cotta warriors are in fact not part of his official tomb. They’re an adjunct to it. The official tomb is about a mile away from the warrior site, and writings from that time record it as having mountains of jade and rivers of mercury, atop which the emperor’s body could float forevermore. And, indeed, recent soil testing confirms high levels of mercury in the soil around the tomb (which is the largest in the world at about 22 square miles). However, given mercury’s toxicity—and, again, the lack of proper technology—the government has stopped excavation work in the area. Which means, of course, that there may be a ninth wonder of the world yet to be unearthed.

Asia holiday destination

Wind down a long day at the Summer Palace in Beijing

This enormous complex of gardens, official buildings, and pagodas was commissioned in 1750 by the great fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty, Qianlong, but is probably best associated with the so-called “Dragon Lady”, the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), a formidable royal concubine turned regent who essentially ruled China from 1861 until her death, making a big mess of it along the way. The grounds are vast, and you could easily spend a day here, but you’ve come in the late afternoon when the crowds are thinning out and you can see the sun begin to make its creeping descent. Unless you’re an aspiring Qing dynasty scholar, you won’t need to see every last building and pagoda, but don’t miss the spectacular covered hallway that follows the shore of the man-made lake, which was built to resemble the shape of a peach, the traditional symbol for longevity. This is the longest covered hallway in the world and is not only lovely, but functional: On a hot day, the hallway creates a sort of wind tunnel, with the breeze off the lake circulating coolly throughout the walkway.

Asia holiday destination

Discover the Chinese contemporary art scene in Shanghai

The Chinese contemporary art scene is the country’s most-buzzed-about export since silk itself. The Moganshan Lu gallery district has the highest concentration of galleries and makes for a fascinating afternoon looking at the fruits of a very young, booming market. But beware: While real, lasting talent has emerged from China’s contemporary scene, there are scads of the merely trendy, the not-very-inspired, the ephemeral, and the downright bad (as there are in any contemporary art scene).

Asia holiday destination

Discover Shanghai’s Jewish quarter

You needn’t be Jewish to find Dvir Bar-Gal’s tour—and the history of Jews in Shanghai—mesmerizing. Although Shanghai found its footing as a commercial city in the 1500s during the Ming dynasty, it really took off in 1842, when the British signed the Treaty of Nanjing with the Qing government, which gave them access to a number of ports around China, including Canton and Shanghai. People from all over the world came to Shanghai to make their fortune. Some of the earlier and most powerful Westerners to arrive here were the Sassoons, a family of Baghdadi Jews who eventually came to control large swaths of not only the shipping trade but the real estate business as well. More Jewish groups followed, including Russians fleeing anti-Semitism, Bolsheviks, and, in the late 1930s, refugees from the Holocaust. It was estimated that 20,000 Jewish people were living in Shanghai in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

JAPAN

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Glimpse a fading cultural icon in Kyoto’s Gion neighborhood

If Japan has a face, it’s to be found in this small district directly adjacent to Yasaka Shrine, for it’s here that the geisha—or geiko, as they’re known in Kyoto—live and work. Contrary to popular belief, geiko are not prostitutes. Yes, many of them once came from poor families—especially in the 19th century, when the geiko community was at its height—and yes, many have had powerful male patrons. But they are trained in the arts of dance, song, and especially conversation. Today, very few geiko remain; fewer than 1,000 still practice in Japan. “Geisha are so stunning and shocking to see in the streets,” says photographer Darren Keith. “They’re stoic, with amazing posture considering their high clogs. Sometimes they’re surrounded by crowds, but for the most part they walk around totally unbothered.”

Asia holiday destination

Meander through a bamboo forest

No trip to Kyoto is complete without a visit to Arashiyama Bamboo Forest (sometimes referred to as Sagano Bamboo Forest). In the Heian period (794-1185), when Kyoto was not only Japan’s capital but the center of arts and culture, this district was a summer retreat for nobility—it’s cool year-round, but especially in summer. The dense stands of ancient bamboo—so green and silent that the very air seems to taste of dew—are at their quietest in the early morning.

Asia holiday destination

Tour the world’s biggest fish market

Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market moves nearly 3,000 tons of seafood a day to restaurants, wholesalers, and grocery stores in Japan and abroad. Wander the rows and rows of stalls selling everything you’ve ever imagined could be pulled from the sea (and plenty of unidentifiable stuff as well). Just be sure to keep to the sides and steer clear of the motorized carts; this is a working market, after all.

Asia holiday destination

Eat sushi for breakfast

Sushi for breakfast? Yep. There are dozens of tiny and delectable restaurants at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, but few rival Sushi Dai, where waits run an hour (or longer) as early as 6 a.m. The sushi is strictly omakase, or chef’s choice, and is so fresh and perfectly cut that it seems to dissolve in your mouth.

Asia holiday destination

See a fashion show on Tokyo’s streets

Harajuku was once Tokyo’s SoHo—all artists and punks. And like today’s SoHo, it’s now all luxury boutiques. But stop by on a weekend—when the kids are out in force—and it’s the most thrilling fashion show you’ll ever see.

Asia holiday destination

Stroll pre-WWII Tokyo

Yanesen is the triangle formed by the old neighborhoods of Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi. These three neighborhoods—with their little streets and low-slung houses—are among the few that survived World War II bombings, and in them you can see what a humble, even cozy place pre-war Tokyo must have been. Today, the area is known for its small shops, bakeries, and eateries, most of which are independently owned.

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Create a feast out of Japan’s top-notch convenience store cuisine

How good is the food in Japan? So good that even pre-packaged and ready-made food in convenience stores (known as konbini and ubiquitous throughout any medium- to large-size city) is pretty darn spectacular. Stock up on limited-edition Kit Kats and Mitsuya Cider for a shinkansen ride…or after a long night of drinking. Best of all? Pretty much everything you’ll find is well under $5 apiece.

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Dine in a department store basement

Every department store in Japan—and there are many—dedicates its basement floor to a vast food hall. The Tokyu Department Store may not be as refined as, say, Mitsukoushi’s, but god, it’s fun: row after row of fresh fish (some of which was probably bought at Tsukiji that morning), vegetables and fruits in foam snugglies, and every manner of prepared food you can imagine (bentos, gyoza, sushi, rice balls, tempura). And that’s just the Japanese side: Make sure you check out the bread and pastry section while you’re there—just follow the smell of butter. And buy some snacks for later, as Japanese do not walk and eat.

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Receive a jukai blessing

The jukai ceremony at the Garan complex in Koyasan takes place in a temple that’s almost entirely dark. After chanting, the priest will call you up to receive from him a small paper charm upon which is inscribed Shingon’s ten commandments. Kneel before him, bow your head, receive the paper with both hands, bow again, and return to your seat on the tatami mat in front of him. He will then deliver a brief sermon that will be translated by your guide. It’s an utterly mystical experience: The priest appears as a black silhouette, the only light an illuminated painting of Kobo Daishi behind him, his voice and that of the junior priest’s filling the air like smoke.

 

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This article originally appeared in CNTraveler.com.

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