Japan is truly timeless, a place where ancient traditions are fused with modern life as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
On the surface Japan appears exceedingly modern, but travelling around it offers numerous opportunities to connect with the country's traditional culture. Spend the night in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), sleeping on futons and tatami mats, and padding through well-worn wooden halls to the bathhouse (or go one step further and sleep in an old farmhouse). Meditate with monks or learn how to whisk bitter matcha (powdered green tea) into a froth. 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.
Wherever you are in Japan, it seems, you're never far from a great meal. Restaurants often specialise in just one dish – perhaps having spent generations perfecting it – and pay close attention to every stage, from sourcing the freshest, local ingredients to assembling the dish attractively. And as you'll quickly discover, Japanese cuisine has great regional variations. The hearty hotpots of the mountains are, for example, dramatically different from the delicate sushi for which the coast is famous. It's also intensely seasonal, meaning you can visit at a different time of year and experience totally new tastes.
Japan is a long and slender, highly volcanic archipelago. It's over two-thirds mountains, with bubbling hot springs at every turn. In the warmer months there is excellent hiking, through cedar groves and fields of wildflowers, up to soaring peaks and ancient shrines (the latter founded by wandering ascetics). In the winter, all this is covered with snow and the skiing is world class. (And if you've never paired hiking or skiing with soaking in onsen, you don't know what you've been missing.) Meanwhile in the southern reaches, there are tropical beaches for sunning, snorkelling and diving.
Ease of Travel
Japan is incredibly easy to get around: you can do a whole trip using nothing but its immaculate, efficient public transport. The shinkansen (bullet train) network now runs all the way from the southern tip of Kyūshū (the southernmost of Japan's major islands) up to Hokkaidō (its northernmost), and reasonably priced rail passes make it affordable. Major cities have subway networks that are signposted in English and these days we're seeing and hearing more English all over. But if getting off the beaten track and outside your comfort zone is what you're after, you can have that experience, too.
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Why you should go Fuji-san is among Japan 's most revered and timeless attractions, the inspiration for generations of poets and the focus of countless artworks. Hundreds of thousands of people climb it every year, continuing a centuries-old tradition of pilgrimages up the sacred volcano (which, despite its last eruption occurring in 1707, is still considered active). Whether or not you don the hiking boots to climb its busy slopes, taking some time to gaze upon the perfectly symmetrical cone of the country’s highest peak is an essential Japan experience. Hiking Mt Fuji The old adage about those who climb Fuji once being wise and a second time a fool remains as valid as ever. The hike is not the most scenic in the world, with barren landscapes and a summit that is often shrouded in cloud (obscuring views). Still, the sense of achievement and significance that comes with reaching the top of this sacred peak draws around 300,000 people during the annual climbing season, which runs from 1 July to 31 August – though in recent years this has often been extended to 10 September. Fuji is divided into 10 concentric ‘stations’ from base (first station) to summit (10th), but most climbers start halfway up at various fifth station points, reachable by road. The most popular climbing route is the Yoshida Trail, because buses run directly from Shinjuku Station to the trailhead at the Fuji Subaru Line Fifth Station (sometimes called the Kawaguchi-ko Fifth Station or just Mt Fuji Fifth Station) and because it has the most huts (with food, water and toilets). For the Yoshida Trail, allow five to six hours to reach the top and about three hours to descend, plus 1½ hours for circling the crater at the top. The other three routes up the mountain are the Subashiri, Gotemba and Fujinomiya trails; the steepest, Gotemba, is the most convenient to reach for travellers coming from Kansai-area destinations such as Kyoto and Osaka. Trails below the fifth stations are now used mainly as short hiking routes, but you might consider the challenging but rewarding 19km hike from base to summit on the historic Old Yoshidaguchi Trail, which starts at Fuji Sengen-jinja in the town of Fuji-Yoshida and joins up with the Yoshida Trail. Trails to the summit are busy throughout the official trekking season. To avoid the worst of the crush head up on a weekday, or start earlier during the day to avoid the afternoon rush and spend a night in a mountain hut (arriving at the summit for dawn, which can offer great views if there’s no cloud!). Authorities strongly caution against climbing outside the regular season, when the weather is highly unpredictable and first-aid stations on the mountain are closed. Despite this, many people do climb out of season, as it's the best time to avoid the crowds. During this time, climbers generally head off at dawn, and return early afternoon – however, mountain huts on the Yoshida Trail stay open later into September when weather conditions may still be good; a few open the last week of June, when snow still blankets the upper stations. It's highly advised that off-season climbers register with the local police department for safety reasons; fill out the form at the Kawaguchi-ko or Fuji-Yoshida Tourist Information Centers. If you plan to hike, go slowly and take regular breaks to avoid altitude sickness. Hiking poles are a good idea to help avoid knee pain (especially during the descent). Hotels and restaurants From the Fifth Stations up, dozens of mountain huts offer hikers simple hot meals in addition to a place to sleep. Most huts allow you to rest inside as long as you order something. Conditions in mountain huts are spartan (a blanket on the floor sandwiched between other climbers), but reservations are recommended and are essential on weekends. It's also important to let huts know if you decide to cancel at the last minute; be prepared to pay to cover the cost of your no-show. Good choice mountain huts include Fujisan Hotel, Higashi Fuji Lodge and Taishikan. Camping on the mountain is not permitted, other than at the designated campsite near the Fuji Subaru Line Fifth Station (aka Kawaguchi-ko Fifth Station). Permits Permits are not required to climb Mt Fuji
If you visit only one museum in Tokyo, make it the Tokyo National Museum. Here you'll find the world's largest collection of Japanese art, including ancient pottery, Buddhist sculptures, samurai swords, colourful ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), gorgeous kimonos and much, much more. Touring the museum Visitors with only a couple of hours to spare should focus on the Honkan (Japanese Gallery), which has a specially curated selection of artistic highlights on the 2nd floor. With more time, you can explore the enchanting Gallery of Hōryū-ji Treasures, which displays masks, scrolls and gilt Buddhas from Hōryū-ji (in Nara Prefecture, dating from 607); the Tōyōkan with its collection of Asian art, including delicate Chinese ceramics; and the Heiseikan, which houses the Japanese Archaeological Gallery, full of pottery, talismans and articles of daily life from Japan's prehistoric periods. It's also worth checking whether it's possible to access the usually off-limits garden during your visit, which includes several vintage teahouses; it opens to the public from mid-March to mid-April and from late October to early December. The museum also houses a restaurant, cafe and coffee shop, as well as a souvenir shop in the main building. History The museum held its first exhibition in 1872, making it the oldest museum in Japan. It moved to its current location in Ueno Park in 1882. Today it is one of the four museums, alongside Kyoto National Museum, Nara National Museum and Kyushu National Museum, operated by the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage, and is considered one of the largest art museums in the world. Tickets and other practicalities The admission fee for adults is ¥1000, while entry is free for under 18s and over 70s. The museum regularly hosts temporary exhibitions (which cost extra); these can be fantastic, but sometimes lack the English signage found throughout the rest of the museum.
A still, serene and deeply moving place, Nagasaki's Peace Park commemorates the atomic bombing of the city on August 9, 1945, which reduced the surrounding area to rubble and claimed tens of thousands of lives. Together with the Atomic Bomb Museum and National Peace Memorial Hall (both a short walk away), this is an essential stop for any visitor who wants to understand how the disaster shaped the city. The green, spacious park is presided over by the 10-tonne bronze Nagasaki Peace Statue, designed in 1955 by Kitamura Seibō. It also includes the dove-shaped Fountain of Peace (1969) and the Peace Symbol Zone, a sculpture garden with contributions on the theme of peace from around the world. Practically adjoining the park to the south is the smaller Atomic Bomb Hypocentre Park, with a monument marking the epicentre of the deadly blast. On 9 August a rowdy antinuclear protest is held within earshot of the more formal official memorial ceremony for those lost to the bomb.
The covered Nishiki Market (Nishiki-kōji Ichiba) is one of Kyoto ’s real highlights, especially if you have an interest in cooking and dining. Commonly known as Kyoto no daidokoro (Kyoto’s kitchen) by locals, this is the place to see the weird and wonderful foods that go into Kyoto cuisine – and where most of Kyoto’s high-end restaurateurs and well-to-do do their food shopping. Take a stroll down its length and you'll wander past stalls selling everything from barrels of tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and cute Japanese sweets to wasabi salt and fresh sashimi skewers. The market is quite narrow and can get elbow-to-elbow busy, so try visiting early or later in the afternoon if you prefer a bit of space, but keep in mind many of the stalls close by 5pm. Free samples are on offer in many places, but refrain from eating while walking as it is considered impolite. Some stores also don't appreciate visitors taking photos, so it's a good idea to ask politely before snapping away. History The pedestrian-only, covered Nishiki Market is right in the centre of town, one block north of Shijō-dōri, running from Teramachi shōtengai (market streets) to Takakura-dōri (ending almost behind Daimaru department store). It’s said that there were stores here as early as the 14th century, and it’s known for sure that the street was a wholesale fish market in the Edo period (1603–1868). After the end of Edo, as Japan entered the modern era, the market became a retail market, which it remains today. The emphasis is on locally produced Japanese food items like tsukemono, tea, beans, rice, seaweed and fish. In recent years the market has been evolving from a strictly local food market into a tourist attraction, and you’ll now find several souvenir shops selling Kyoto-style souvenirs mixed in among the food stalls. What to eat There's all manner of delicacies on offer here, with stalls selling soymilk donuts, hand-baked bean crackers, eel rolls and takotamago (small octopus head stuffed with a quail egg on a stick). Just follow your nose and dive right in. If you're scared to commit to a purchase, free samples are often available. But it's not just food stalls worth visiting here: Aritsugu turns out some of the most exquisite chef knives on earth. Take time to pick the perfect one for your needs, then watch as the craftsmen carefully put a final edge on the knife with the giant round sharpening stone.
This museum is the heart of the Studio Ghibli world, a beloved (even 'adored') film studio responsible for classic, critically-acclaimed animated titles like Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo and Princess Mononoke, among countless others. Unlike Disney World, this is a museum, not a theme park, but the levels of fandom on show are likely to be just as intense. Master animator Miyazaki Hayao, who co-found Studio Ghibli and directed some of its best-known works, designed the museum, and kids will become immediately captivated by the fairy-tale atmosphere, from the spiral staircases seemingly leading to dead ends to the replica of the giant cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro. Fans will enjoy the original sketches on display, as well as the host of original short films playing at the small on-site Saturn Theater. The museum also houses exhibitions relating to the history of animation, plus a popular gift shop, a good-quality restaurant and a reading room. How to get tickets for the Ghibli Museum Tickets can be purchased up to four months in advance from overseas travel agents or up to one month in advance through the convenience store Lawson's online ticket portal. Both options are explained in detail on the official Ghibli Museum website. For July and August visits especially, we recommend buying tickets as soon as you can from an agent as they will definitely sell out early. Tickets are non-transferable; you may be asked to show an ID. The ticket price is ¥1000 for adults (19+), ¥700 for 13-18 year olds, ¥400 for 7-12 year olds, ¥100 for 4-6 year olds, and free for ages 3 and under. How to get to the Ghibli Museum The Ghibli Museum (which is pronounced ‘jiburi’ – its full name is 'Ghibli Museum, Mitaka') is on the western edge of Inokashira-kōen in West Tokyo, and you can walk there through the park from nearby Kichijōji Station in about 30 minutes. A minibus (round trip/one way ¥320/210) leaves for the museum every 20 minutes from Mitaka Station (bus stop 9).
Golden Gai – a Shinjuku institution for over half a century – is a collection of tiny bars, often literally no bigger than a closet and seating maybe a dozen. Each is as unique and eccentric as the ‘master’ or ‘mama’ who runs it. In a sense, Golden Gai, which has a strong visual appeal, with its low-slung wooden buildings, is their work of art. It's more than just a place to drink. The district has long been a gathering spot for artists, writers and musicians. Originally many bars here functioned more like clubhouses for various creative industries. Some bars prefer to keep their doors closed to customers who aren't regulars (foreign tourists included) to preserve that old atmosphere; others will welcome you (if there is space, of course). Recently there's been a changing of the guard, as new, younger owners take over, and the exclusive atmosphere of old is giving way to a lively scene of international bar hoppers, instinctively drawn to Golden Gai's free spirit. The best way to experience Golden Gai is to stroll the lanes and pick a place that suits your mood. Bars that expressly welcome tourists have English signs posted on their doors. Many bars have a cover charge (usually ¥500 to ¥1500), which is often posted on the door. Note that while Golden Gai is highly photogenic, it is also private property; do not take photos unless you have explicit permission. Hotels near Golden Gai Shinjuku, the ward of Tokyo in which Golden Gai is located, is a convenient and popular base for visiting the city, with hotel options at all price levels. It's worth noting, however, that many budget hotels are in the red-light district, Kabukichō; while not dangerous exactly, the district does have seedy pockets and solo female travellers in particular might feel uncomfortable. Hotel options within walking distance of Golden Gai include Hotel Gracery Shinjuku (7-minute walk), Imano (7-minute walk) and Shinjuku Granbell Hotel (5-minute walk).
Digital-art collective teamLab has created 60 artworks for this museum, open in 2018, that tests the border between art and the viewer: many are interactive. Not sure how? That's the point – go up to the artworks, move and touch them (or just stand still) and see how they react. Making your way from room to room feels like entering a sequence of discrete worlds – a bit like being in a fantasy role-playing game. Don't miss the maze-like Crystal World, where strands of shimmering light extend from floor to ceiling like disco stalagmites, and the Forest of Lamps, where Venetian glass lamps bloom into as you approach. The latter you'll likely have to queue for. On the 2nd floor, the Athletics Forest is a collection of installations designed with kids in mind (but grown-ups can join in, too). Jump up and down on a bouncy plain and see your energy transformed into expanding stars. Add colour to a drawing of an animal or insect and watch as it is born into an animated creature – then follow it on its course along the crags and divots of this playful indoor landscape. Worn out? Take a break at the on-site En Tea House, where you can see digital flowers bloom inside your cup of tea (¥500). Tickets and other practicalities Tickets cost ￥3200 for adults and ￥1000 for children aged 4-14. Children aged 3 or under enter free. One adult can accompany up to three children, and there is no time limit in the museum after entry. There are no minimum age or height requirements to enter teamLab Borderless; however, keep in mind the museum is dark and often crowded. Prams must be parked at the entrance. Artworks on display at the museum vary by season.
Rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world (and definitely in Japan), Shibuya Crossing is like a giant beating heart, sending people in all directions with every pulsing light change. Nowhere else says ‘Welcome to Tokyo’ better than this. Hundreds of people – and at peak times upwards of 3000 people – cross at a time, coming from all directions at once, yet still to dodging each other with a practised, nonchalant agility. Mag's Park, the rooftop of the Shibuya 109-2 department store, has the best views over the neighbourhood's famous scramble crossing. It's screened with plexiglass, so you can still get good photos, without having to worry about losing anything over the edge). The intersection is most impressive after dark on a Friday or Saturday night, when the crowds pouring out of the station are at their thickest and neon-lit by the signs above. The rhythms here are, however, tied to the train station and after the last train pulls out for the night, the intersection becomes eerily quiet. Hotels near Shibuya Crossing Shibuya has several new accommodations, among them boutique hotels, flash-packer hostels and 'cabin style' capsule hotels (roomier than the average capsule hotel) – suddenly, there's a lot to choose from here. If you're keen to immerse yourself in urban Tokyo and its nightlife, Shibuya makes for a great base; it's got great transit links, too. Options within walking distance of the crossing include Mustard Hotel (15-minute walk), Millennials (six-minute walk) and Hotel Mets Shibuya (12-minute walk).
This impressively slick attraction is dedicated to, you guessed it, cup noodles. But in reality, its focus is more broad, with numerous exhibitions detailing the entrepreneurial spirit of Momofuku Ando (the inventor of instant noodles), and, even more broadly, the vital importance of creative thinking. Its host of wacky exhibits are a hit with children from all over Japan. After months of trial and error, Momofuku Ando invented instant chicken ramen in a shed behind him home in 1958, partly as a response to on-going food shortages in the post-war era. Despite the name of the museum, the cup wasn't actually added until 1971. A recreation of Ando's work shed is on display at the museum, as well as artwork retelling the story of his life. Interactive exhibits include a cooking station, where kids can make their own chicken ramen, a popular workshop for designing your own cup noodle packaging, and a large play park where kids take on the role of a noodle working its way through a giant factory. The museum is also home to a shop selling branded goods and a restaurant serving up varieties of noodles from around the world. Tickets and other practicalities Tickets to enter the museum are ¥500 for adults, while entry is free for kids. There are additional fees for undertaking the ramen making workshop (adult/child ¥800/500), designing your own cup noodle packaging (¥400) and entering the play park (¥400 for 30 minutes). Tickets are purchased at the museum.
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