Japan: Endless Discovery

Westernised, but different from any Western country, part of Asia, but clearly unlike any other Asian society, Japan is a uniquely adaptable place where tradition and modernity are part of one continuum.

When you hear the word ‘Japan’, what do you think of? Does your mind fill with images of ancient temples or futuristic cities? Do you see visions of mist-shrouded hills or lightning-fast bullet trains? Do you think of suit-clad businessmen or kimono-clad geisha? Whatever image you have of Japan, it’s probably accurate, because it’s all there.

Japan hits the travel sweet spot. It’s unique enough to give you regular doses of ‘Wow!’ without any downside. Indeed, travelling in Japan is remarkably comfortable, even with the language barrier thrown in – but it’s never familiar. Staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is marvellously different from staying in a chain hotel. Soaking naked in an onsen (hot spring) with a bunch of strangers might be a little odd at first, but it is beyond relaxing. Sitting in a robe on tatami mats eating raw fish and mountain vegetables may not be how you dine back home, but it is unforgettably delicious.

There are many misconceptions about Japan. For example, many people believe that Japan is one of the world’s most expensive countries. In fact, it’s cheaper to travel in Japan than in much of North America, Western Europe and parts of Oceania. Others think that Japan is impenetrable or even downright difficult. The fact is, Japan is one of the easiest countries in which to travel. It is, simply put, a place that will remind you why you started travelling in the first place.

Top Reasons to Visit Japan

AMAZING OUTDOORS

Beautiful and extreme contrasts are found throughout Japan, from the frozen peaks in Hokkaido to the tropical coral coast of Okinawa.

The wonders of Japan’s natural world are a well-kept secret. The hiking in the Japan Alps and Hokkaido is world class, and with an extensive hut system you can do multi-day hikes with nothing more than a knapsack on your back. Down south, the coral reefs of Okinawa will have you wondering if you’ve somehow been transported to Thailand. And you never have to travel far in Japan to get out into nature: in major hubs like Kyoto, just a short trip from the city will get you into forested mountains.

The best outdoor experiences:

  • Climbing Mount Fuji
  • Hiking the Japanese Alps, Tohoku and Hokkaido
  • Skiing in Honshu & Hokkaido
  • Scuba diving and snorkelling in Okinawa
  • Watching monkeys bathe in the geothermal waters of Jigokudani

FOOD & WINE

The Japanese attention to detail, genius for presentation and insistence on the finest ingredients results in food that can change your idea of what is possible in the culinary arena.

Savouring the delights of Japanese cuisine on its home turf is half the reason to come to Japan, and you can easily build an itinerary around trying regional specialities and dining in sublime restaurants. Eat just one meal in a top-flight Tokyo sushi restaurant – or gulp down fresh noodles at a station counter – and you’ll see why.
There’s more to Japanese food than sushi, including tempura, yakitori, and shabu-shabu, but part of what makes travel here so fascinating is the variety of national and regional dishes. Every prefecture, it seems, has is own style of noodles, its locally grown vegetables, its delicacies, and unique dishes, whether it’s mountain vegetables in Takayama or hairy crabs in Hokkaido. Japan is also renowned for sake, with about 10,000 varieties available throughout the country.

The best food & drink experiences:

  • Experience a kaiseki feast
  • Spend an evening in a robatayaki (Inakaya, Tokyo)
  • Dine on Western food in modern settings (New York Grill, Park Hyatt, Tokyo)
  • Slurping noodles in a noodle shop (Raitei, Kamakura)
  • Rub elbows in an Izakaya
  • Feel adventuresome in the Hinterlands (Hiroshima, Kumamoto & Okinawa)

URBAN SCENE

Modern architecture and cityscapes come to mind when one thinks of Japan’s major cities.

With its sensory overload, Tokyo is the nation’s trendsetter, whether it’s avant-garde installations at the Mori Art Museum or knock-out views from Sky Tree. Kyoto is arguably Japan’s most beautiful city, rife with historic structures like Kiyomizu Temple and Katsura Imperial Villa. Other top attractions include Himeji Castle, Nara’s Great Buddha, and Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen Garden, but not to be neglected are small villages, like Mount Koya with its many temples, the mountain resort of Unzen Spa, and Uchiko with its historic district.

The best city & small-town experiences:

  • Feeling the adrenalin rush of Tokyo
  • Spending a few days in Kyoto
  • Wandering the historic streets of Takayama
  • Reliving history in Nagasaki
  • Exploring the historic quarters of Kurashiki
  • Soaking in the baths of hell in Unzen

ARTS & CULTURE

From the splendour of a Kyoto geisha dance to the spare beauty of a Zen rock garden, Japan has the power to enthral even the most jaded traveller.

Standing at the far-eastern end of the Silk Road and drawing influences from the entire continent, Japan has spent millennia taking in and refining the cultural bounties of Asia to produce something distinctly Japanese. Traditional culture is only half the story: an evolving contemporary-art scene, dynamic design and a voracious appetite for pop-culture trends all help shape the fascinating old-meets-new cultural landscape.
Japan is known for its highly ritualised tea ceremony, offered in teahouses at many gardens, and ikebana (Japanese flower arranging). The theatrics of Kabuki, should be at the top of any one’s list, but equally entertaining are Bunraku puppetry and sumo wrestling matches.

The best cultural experiences:

  • Watching a sumo wrestling match (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka)
  • Visiting Tokyo National Museum, top museum for Japanese art and antiquities
  • Exploring contemporary art in Naoshima or Kanazawa
  • Joining the otaku (geeks) in Akihabara (Tokyo)

SHOPPING

Forget sumo and judo – Japan’s national sport is shopping. Whether your taste runs to expensive boutiques or ¥100 shops, if you’re a shopper you have to come to Japan.

Japan is famous for crafts ranging from lacquerware to ceramics (with Kyoto and Kanazawa being top destinations), but other fun shopping experiences include browsing department stores, antique and flea markets, streets known for their electronics and anime stores (like Akihabara in Tokyo and Den Den Town in Osaka), and local shops selling regional products – like sake, toys, handbags and other items made from locally made cloth, sweets, dolls, and much more – virtually everywhere in Japan.

Best places to go shopping:

  • Tokyo
  • Kyoto
  • Osaka
  • Kanazawa
  • Tsuboya Pottery Street, Naha, Okinawa
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Best Time to Visit Japan

Without doubt, the best times to visit Japan are the climatically stable seasons of spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November). Spring is the time when Japan’s famous cherry trees (sakura) burst into bloom. Autumn is an equally good time to travel, with pleasant temperatures and soothing colours.

Travelling during either winter or summer is a mixed bag – mid-winter (December to February) weather can be cold, particularly on the Sea of Japan coasts of Honshu and in Hokkaido, while the summer months (June to August) are generally hot and often humid. June is also the month of Japan’s brief rainy season, which in some years brings daily downpours and in other years hardly a rainy season at all.

Where is Japan located?

Japan is made up of four main islands – Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku – and several thousand smaller ones, lying to the east of mainland Asia, in the northwest of the Pacific Ocean. The archipelago curves across 3,000 km (1,900 miles) between Russia’s Sakhalin Island and Taiwan.

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