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.
Why I Love Japan
By Rebecca Milner, Writer
I’ve lived in Tokyo for over 15 years now and am continuously surprised – sometimes on a daily basis – by something new. Such is the joy of living in a place that prides itself on constant renewal and reinvention; it seriously never gets old. Over the years I have had many opportunities to introduce visiting family and friends to Japan. The awe on their faces when first seeing Kyoto's golden temple, Kinkakuji, or experiencing the kindness of complete strangers never fails to take me back to the moment I first arrived and was instantly smitten.
Budget: Less than ¥8000
- Dorm bed: ¥3000
- Bowl of noodles: ¥750
- Happy-hour beer: ¥500
- City one-day subway pass: ¥600
- One temple or museum entry: ¥500
- Double room at a business hotel: ¥10,000
- Dinner for two at an izakaya (Japanese pub-eatery): ¥6000
- Half-day cycling tour or cooking class: ¥5000
- Temple and museum entries: ¥1500
Top End: More than ¥20,000
- Double room in a nice hotel: from ¥25,000
- Dinner for two at a good sushi restaurant: from ¥15,000
- Taxi ride between city sights: ¥2500
Kyoto, Japan's imperial capital for a thousand years, is home to more than a thousand temples. Among them are the monumental, like Kinkaku-ji (an exquisite pavilion sheathed entirely in gold leaf), and the meditative, like Ryōan-ji, with its stark Zen rock garden. And temples are only the start of it: there's the culture of tea, which you can appreciate at one of the city's many elegant teahouses; the art of the geisha, those iconic performers of traditional music and dance; and also a rich food culture, including kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine).
Some locals will tell you that the only distinctively Japanese aspect of their culture – that is, the only thing that didn't ultimately originate in mainland Asia – is the bath. Highly volcanic Japan has thousands of onsen (hot springs) scattered across the archipelago, which feed baths. The Japanese have turned the simple act of bathing into a folk religion and the country is dotted with temples and shrines to this most relaxing of faiths. Not convinced? Wait until you give it a try (and feel years of stress melt away).
One of the joys of travelling in Japan is experiencing the true breadth of the country's cuisine. Sushi (raw fish on vinegar-seasoned rice) may be synonymous with Japan, but head to the mountains, for example, and you'll discover a hearty cuisine that draws from the land. It's hard not to eat well in Japan: such is the care and thought put into ingredients and presentation. What's more, you can have a superlative meal on any budget: even (and often especially) a humble bowl of noodles can be sublime.
Staying in a Ryokan
Ryokan simply means 'inn', but in this modern age of hotels, the word has come to mean an inn with a particular aesthetic and attitude towards service that feels more traditionally Japanese. Ryokan have tatami (woven reed mat) floors where guests sleep on futons (quilted mattresses) rather than beds. They're usually low-slung buildings with winding corridors of highly polished wood. In better ones, staff wear kimonos and are highly attuned to guests' needs. These will also serve exquisite meals of local, seasonal ingredients – a truly memorable experience.
Tokyo is a city forever reaching into the future, pushing the boundaries of what's possible on densely populated, earthquake-prone land, adding ever taller, sleeker structures. It's Japan's top spot for contemporary art and architecture, pop culture, shopping, drinking and entertainment (and a tie with Kyoto for dining). But more than any one sight, it's the city itself that enchants visitors. It's a sprawling, organic thing, stretching as far as the eye can see. Always changing, and with a diverse collection of neighbourhoods, no two experiences of it are ever the same.
Cherry-Blossom Viewing (Hanami)
Come spring, countless cherry trees around Japan burst into colour, a spectrum that runs from the palest of pink to a riotous magenta. That's the cue for locals to gather in parks and along river banks for cherry-blossom-viewing parties called hanami. It's a tradition that dates back centuries and one that is no less beloved today. The blossoms last only for a week or two, symbolic of life's ephemeral nature but also a reminder to seize the present. Do so and join the festivities.
For centuries Japan's remote mountains were criss-crossed by mountain ascetics seeking spiritual enlightenment in what then must have felt like the ends of the earth. Somewhat less self-punishing pilgrims continue to follow their paths. Deep in southern Kansai, in the interior of the Kii Peninsula, the network of trails known as the Kumano Kodō links three important Shintō shrines that, as part of local culture, were historic sites of nature worship. The Kumano Kodō offers both gentle day hikes and weeklong treks, with the opportunity to soak in onsen along the way.
Daibutsu (Great Buddha) of Nara
Nara's 15m-tall gilt-bronze Buddha statue was first cast in the 8th century, at the dawn of the Japanese empire. It's among the largest gilt-bronze effigies in the world and the temple that houses it, Tōdai-ji, is among the world's largest wooden structures. It's hard, in fact, to describe the Great Buddha without using superlatives; it's simply remarkable. It's also just one of many outstanding examples of Buddhist art to be found in Nara. There are several other important temples here, as well as the Nara National Museum.
Naoshima is one of Japan's great success stories: a rural island on the verge of becoming a ghost town, now a world-class centre for contemporary art. Many of Japan's most lauded architects have contributed structures, including museums, a boutique hotel and even a bathhouse – all designed to enhance the island's natural beauty and complement its existing settlements. The resulting blend of avant-garde and rural Japan is captivating. It has also inspired some Japanese to pursue a slower life outside the big cities, relocating to Naoshima to open cafes and inns.
Even from a distance Mt Fuji will take your breath away. Close up, the perfectly symmetrical cone of Japan's highest peak is nothing short of awesome. Dawn from the summit? Pure magic. Fuji-san is among Japan's most revered and timeless attractions. Hundreds of thousands of people climb it every year, continuing a centuries-old tradition of pilgrimages up the sacred volcano. Those who'd rather search for picture-perfect views from the less-daunting peaks nearby can follow in the steps of Japan's most famous painters and poets.
Come winter, copious dumps of dry, powdery snow turn the mountains of Japan into peaks of meringue. In recent decades, Niseko has emerged as Asia's top ski resort and a global destination, backed up by a thriving, cosmopolitan après-ski scene. If first tracks and an evening hot-spring soak are all you desire, there are hundreds of smaller resorts around the country that see fewer visitors (reminiscent of the days when Japan's excellent snow was still a well-kept secret). For thrill-seekers, there are backcountry opportunities, too.
Kanazawa is an old feudal-era capital on the Sea of Japan coast that, in its heyday, rivalled Kyoto as a centre for the arts. This vibrant artisan tradition is today evident in a number of shops and galleries. It also has one of Japan's top gardens, Kenroku-en, an excellent contemporary art museum and a rich food culture that draws heavily from the seafood pulled from the ocean. And yet Kanazawa has long flown under the radar, though that's starting to change. Go now, before everyone else catches on.
Tsumago & Magome
Tsumago and Magome are two post towns along the old Nakasendō, a foot highway (used by lords and messengers alike) that connected Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto during the feudal period. The old path remains, paved with large stones, and it is possible to hike 7.8km between the two towns, through sleepy alpine hamlets and cedar forests, past waterwheels and rice paddies. The towns themselves are a treat too, with narrow lanes and low-slung dark wooden buildings that serve as inns, noodle restaurants and craft shops.
Hokkaidō is Japan's northernmost island: a largely untamed, highly volcanic landscape of massive mountains startlingly pock-marked with crystal-blue caldera lakes and opalescent, sulphur-rich hot springs. Its flora and fauna (of which there is a lot) is more closely related to Sakhalin, part of Russia, to the north, than the rest of Japan to the south. Hikers, cyclists and casual road trippers are all drawn to the island's big skies, wide open spaces and dramatic topography. With shinkansen (bullet train) access and cheap flights, it's easier than ever to add Hokkaidō to your itinerary.
Hiroshima today is a forward-thinking city with attractive, leafy boulevards. It's not until you visit the Peace Memorial Museum that the true extent of human tragedy wreaked by the atomic bomb becomes vividly clear. A visit here is a heartbreaking, important history lesson and the park around the museum, much of which was designed by Japan's great modernist Tange Kenzō, offers many opportunities for reflection. But the city's spirit of determination – as well as its food – will ensure that you'll have good memories to take with you when you leave.
Yakushima, a small island off the coast of southern Kyūshū, is often described as magical, enchanting – other-worldly even. It's a place where words fail and clichés step in. Home to some of Japan's last primeval forest, here you'll find the yakusugi, an ancient cedar native to the island, whose giant roots form alien tentacles. Hiking trails underneath them cover craggy terrain often fuzzy with moss. The landscape here is believed to have been an inspiration for the iconic animated film Princess Mononoke.
One of the most stunning natural vistas in Japan, Kamikōchi is a highland river valley enveloped by the soaring peaks of the Northern Japan Alps. Easy day hikes are possible along the pristine Azusa-gawa through tranquil forests of willow, larch and elm trees. The birthplace of Japanese alpinism, Kamikōchi is also the gateway for more challenging treks up some of the country's tallest mountains, such as Yariga-take (3180m). Private cars are banned from Kamikōchi, which lessens the impact of the crowds.
Riding the funicular up to the sacred Buddhist monastic complex of Kōya-san feels, appropriately, like ascending to another world. There are over a hundred temples here, the highlight of which is Oku-no-in, where paths weave their way among towering cryptomeria trees and time-worn stone stupas covered in moss and lichen. Other temples offer a different experience: the chance to spend the night, dine on traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine and wake up early for (optional) morning meditation with the resident monks.
Okinawa & the Southwest Islands
Okinawa and the Southwest Islands offer a totally different experience from the rest of Japan. This semi-tropical archipelago forms an arch between Kyūshū and Taiwan. Until annexed by Japan in the 19th century, they formed their own kingdom – the Ryūkyū Empire – and the cultural differences are apparent in everything down to the architecture and food. This is where you'll find Japan's best beaches, like those in Ishigaki and Kerama, with sugar-white sand fringed with palms and turquoise waters. Bask in the sun, or snorkel and scuba dive.
The purifying salt sails into the air. The two giants leap up and crash into each other. A flurry of slapping and heaving ensues. Who will shove the other out of the sacred ring and move up in the ranks? From the ancient rituals to the thrill of the quick bouts, sumo is a fascinating spectacle. Tournaments take place several times a year, in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Fukuoka; outside of tournament season you can catch an early-morning practice session at one of the stables where wrestlers live and train.
Tokyo doesn't nab all the superlatives when it comes to urban experiences. Osaka, Japan's third-largest city, is tops for street food: don't miss its signature dish, tako-yaki (grilled octopus dumplings). It also has the most dramatic of nightscapes: a dazzling display of LED lights, animated signage and flashing video screens along the canalside strip Dōtombori. The city, Japan's oldest merchant centre, has a pace, spirit and zest for life all of its own: it's unofficial slogan is kuidaore (eat until you drop).
Japan's castles are evocative of its feudal past, peopled with fearsome samurai, whisper-footed ninja and all-powerful shoguns. The graceful curving roofs of the castle keeps, often stacked several storeys high, are emblematic of the country's traditional architecture. Japanese castles are made of wood, though they might sit atop foundations of enormous stones. Few originals survive; among those that do, the must-sees are the recently restored 'White Egret Castle', Himeji-jō, and its natural foil, Matsumoto-jō, the fearsome black 'Crow Castle'.
Of Japan's four major islands, Shikoku is the smallest, the least populated and the least visited – and we don't mean that as a slight at all. This is the place for a deep dive into rural Japan and all its spectacular, scenic glory. There are riveting gorges crossed by old-fashioned vine bridges, rapids and lazy rivers, sacred mountains to climb and old farmhouses to sleep in. Shikoku is most famous for its 88-temple pilgrimage; several of them are truly amazing, perched on peaks accessible by foot or ropeway.
Catching a matsuri (traditional festival) is like stepping back in time: men and women wear colourful cotton kimono – and sometimes the men just wear short coats and fundoshi (the loincloths worn by sumo wrestlers). Some see rollicking parades of portable shrines or floats go through the streets; others involve dancing, bonfires or drumming. These celebrations have their roots in Shintō and Buddhist traditions, but they also serve to renew age-old community bonds. August sees the lion's share of festivals, but they happen year-round. For major events, book accommodation well in advance.
If You Like
Temples & Shrines
Kinkaku-ji Kyoto's iconic golden temple.
Tōdai-ji Grand wooden home of Nara's famous Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue.
Sensō-ji Tokyo’s most famous Buddhist temple and a pilgrimage site for more than a millennium.
Tōshō-gū Ornate mausoleum for Japan's legendary shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Oku-no-in Other-worldly, ancient Buddhist temple full of moss-covered stupas and soaring cedars.
Ise-jingū Japan's spiritual centre, dedicated to the Sun Goddess.
Zenkō-ji Nagano temple with fascinating secret passages and stories.
Fushimi Inari-Taisha Photogenic procession of torii (gates) up a Kyoto hillside.
Kenroku-en Kanazawa's strolling garden is considered a masterpiece of the form.
Ryōan-ji Kyoto's famous Zen rock garden.
Ritsurin-kōen Seventeenth-century landscape garden in Takamatsu, once the playground of lords.
Katsura Rikyū Former imperial villa with gardens that unfold in a series of stunning vistas.
Byōdō-in Rare surviving example of a Heian-era 'Pure Land' garden.
Saihō-ji Kyoto's 'Koke-dera' (moss temple) has enchanting, velvety grounds.
Adachi Museum of Art The museum's picturesque landscape garden rivals the paintings inside.
Kōraku-en Sprawling strolling garden with ponds and teahouses in Okayama.
Downtown Kyoto Japan's highest concentration of high-class shops specialising in crafts like washi (Japanese handmade paper).
Kanazawa A city with a well-preserved artisan culture, especially known for lacquerware and gold leaf.
Bizen Pottery centre known for its bold earthenware; tour a kiln or shop the galleries.
Morioka The place in Japan to buy tea kettles and other wares made of cast iron.
Kyūshū Ceramic Museum See examples of the different styles produced in this region famous for pottery.
Kogensya Sendai boutique with high-quality crafts from all over northern Honshū.
Tsuboya Pottery Street Folksy Okinawan pottery in Naha.
Nishiki Market Kyoto's central food market, with plenty of packaged items – like rice crackers and sake – for souvenirs.
Daichi Makishi Kōsetsu Ichiba Naha's central market brims with island specialities.
Asa-ichi A mix of old and new at this morning market at the tip of the Noto Peninsula.
Dōguya-suji Arcade Covered arcade for myriad kitchenware items in Osaka.
Sunday Market Running for over 300 years with all sorts of stalls in Kōchi.
Ōmi-chō Market Kanazawa's central fish market, full of tasty creatures from the Sea of Japan.
Ameya-yokochō Tokyo's last open-air market dates to the tumultuous days after WWII.
Hakodate Morning Market Popular spot for browsing and seafood breakfast in southern Hokkaidō.
Naoshima An island of contemporary art museums, including several designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando.
Omote-sandō Boutique-lined boulevard that doubles as a walk-through showcase for contemporary Japanese design.
DT Suzuki Museum Meditative monument to Zen scholar DT Suzuki by Taniguchi Yoshio.
Meiji-mura Repository for fascinating examples of Meiji period (1868–1912) architecture, when Japan opened to Western influence.
Miho Museum IM Pei–designed museum of ancient artefacts sunk into a mountain.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Tokyo's city hall, by pre-eminent modernist Tange Kenzō.
Gion Matsuri Kyoto's famous festival is a traditional summer rite and street party rolled into one.
Yuki Matsuri Sapporo's annual snow festival never fails to grab headlines with its elaborate ice sculptures.
Nebuta Matsuri The deep north's spectacular parade of colourful, illuminated festival floats.
Awa-odori Matsuri Japan's biggest (traditional) dance party takes over Tokushima in August.
Earth Celebration Quiet Sado-ga-shima rocks out to the beat of world-renowned taiko drummers (and more).
Takayama Matsuri Parade floats roll through the charming mountain outpost of Takayama.
Fuji Rock Festival The biggest weekend of the year for music lovers in Japan.
Daimon-ji Gozan Okuribi Kanji (Chinese characters) are spelled out in fire on the hills above Kyoto.
Akihabara Tokyo's famous hot spot for fans of anime, manga and video games.
Ghibli Museum Enchanting museum designed by Japan's leading animator, Miyazaki Hayao (the king of Japanese anime).
Unicorn Gundam True-to-size model from the beloved anime series Gundam lording over Tokyo Bay.
Kyoto International Manga Museum Galleries of manga, plus special exhibitions and workshops.
Mizuki Shigeru Museum Pilgrimage spot in Western Honshū for fans of Mizuki's other-worldly characters.
Godzilla Head See the monstrous icon of Japanese pop culture among Tokyo's skyscrapers.
MariCAR Cosplay (costume play) go-karting through the streets of Tokyo.
Nishibama Beach This stretch of Aka-jima is possibly the best of several white-sand stunners in Okinawa's Kerama Islands.
Sunayama Beach Postcard-perfect beach with a rock arch on Miyako-jima.
Habushi-ura This long sandy stretch on Nii-jima is a favourite destination for Tokyo surfers.
Kominato Kaigan Quintessential tropical scene 1000km from the mainland, on Chichi-jima.
Ikumi Beach Laid-back hub of Shikoku's growing surfing community.
Ōkinohama Two-kilometre stretch of unspoilt sand in remote southwest Shikoku.
Himeji-jō Majestic castle, original (but recently restored) and considered the greatest in the country.
Matsumoto-jō Japan's oldest surviving wooden castle, in the mountains of Nagano.
Matsue-jō Excellent views from atop the original wooden keep and boat rides around the moat.
Matsuyama-jō Among Japan’s finest original castles, lording over Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku.
Hikone-jō This 17th-century stunner has a rare, intact keep.
Inuyama-jō Japan's oldest standing castle began life as a fort in 1440.
Nijō-jō Kyoto's castle is known for its 'nightingale' floors that creak when you walk on them.
Shuri-jō The seat of power of the former Ryūkyū Empire, painstakingly reconstructed from historical records.
Osaka-jō Reconstruction of Osaka's famously flamboyant castle.
Tokyo National Museum Home to the world’s largest collection of Japanese art.
Kyoto National Museum Kyoto's top museum with classical artworks, historical artefacts and temple treasures.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum Evocative (and often heartbreaking) account of the atomic bomb and its aftermath.
Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum Deep dive into Okinawa's history, way of life and ecosystem.
Mori Art Museum Blockbuster shows by top contemporary Japanese and foreign artists.
Kyūshū National Museum A collection that highlights the island's historical ties to the Asian continent.
Edo-Tokyo Museum The story of how a fishing village evolved into a sprawling, modern metropolis.
Nara National Museum Excellent collection of early Buddhist sculpture.
Kurobe Gorge Railway Thrill ride along bridges suspended over the dramatic Kurobe Gorge.
Ibutama Limited Express Wood-panelled with window-facing seats, rounding the scenic coast from Kagoshima to Ibusuki.
Resort Shirakami Stylish sightseeing train hugging the rugged northern coast between Akita and Aomori.
Sunrise Seto/Izumo Japan's last, old-school sleeper train travels from Tokyo to Takamatsu and Izumo.
JR Senmō Line Tiny two-car train running along Hokkaidō's northern coast, past antique wooden stations.
Enoden Beloved streetcar that winds through the coastal communities between Kamakura and Enoshima.
Miyajima See the island's famous floating torii (gate) at high tide.
Matsushima Look over the bay towards the hundreds of tiny windswept islands, spiked with wispy pines.
Kamikōchi Admire the snowcapped peaks of the Japan Alps from this idyllic river valley.
Kussharo-ko Crystal-blue caldera lake in Hokkaidō, best viewed from the mountains above.
Inasa-yama See Nagasaki's stunning nightscape from atop this nearby mountain.
Iya Valley Head to Oku-Iya ('deep Iya') to see the vine bridges suspended over the gorge.
Hakone Catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji reflected in Ashino-ko on a clear winter morning.
Oki Islands Rugged coastal cliffs on remote, barely developed islands.
Tokyo, Kyoto & Hiroshima
- 10 Days
This classic route for first-time visitors hits many of Japan's star attractions, can be done year-round and takes advantage of the excellent value and seamless travel offered by a Japan Rail Pass.
Start with a couple of days in Tokyo, getting your bearings and a taste of big-city Japan – the skyscrapers, the bustle and all those lights. Then hop on the bullet train for Kyoto. (If you wait until now to activate your rail pass, you can get by with a seven-day pass.)
You'll need two or three days to sample the best of Kyoto's temples and gardens. From here you can make side trips to Nara, home of the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), and Osaka, famous for its vivid nightscape and street food. Then head west on to Himeji to see Japan's best castle, Himeji-jō.
Next stop is Hiroshima, for the moving Peace Memorial Park. Further down the coast is Miyajima, with its photogenic floating shrine. You can spend the night in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) here before making the train journey back to Tokyo. On your way back there, drop into the mountain hot-spring resort of Hakone to get your onsen fix.
Kyoto, Kanazawa & the Japan Alps
- 2 Weeks
This route highlights Japan's traditional culture and its natural beauty. As snow can close mountain passes in winter, it is best undertaken in spring, summer or autumn.
Spend the first few days in Kyoto exploring the city's famous temples, shrines and gardens. Be sure to budget some time for the less-famous ones too, which are more peaceful, and for a day trip to Nara. Both Kyoto and Nara have excellent national museums with classical art and artefacts. In the evenings, stroll Kyoto's historic geisha district.
Next take the train to Kanazawa, a city that, in its heyday, rivalled Kyoto in its contributions to the arts. As befitting its location near the Sea of Japan, Kanazawa is known for excellent seafood, but also for its lasting artisan tradition and its strolling garden, Kenroku-en. Both Kyoto and Kanazawa are excellent places to shop for traditional crafts.
Now get a car and head for the mountains of Hida. The villages of Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama are famed for their farmhouses with dramatically angled thatched roofs. Continue to Takayama, a charming old post town with well-preserved wooden buildings (now housing galleries, sake breweries and craft shops) and narrow streets.
Then head to Shin-Hotaka Onsen for outstanding rustic onsen (hot springs) and ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), followed by a visit to Kamikōchi for alpine scenery and hiking (closed from 15 November to 22 April). You'll eat well travelling in the mountains: local specialities include soba (buckwheat noodles), beef, hoba-miso (sweet miso paste grilled on a magnolia leaf) and foraged mushrooms and shoots.
From here drive east to the castle town of Matsumoto, home to one of Japan's best original castles, Matsumoto-jō. Near Nagano, pretty Obuse, another well-preserved mountain town, is home to the Hokusai Museum. End your trip in Nagano with a visit to the city's impressive temple, Zenkō-ji.
Nagano has a shinkansen (bullet train) station, so you can catch a train onward or drive straight on to Narita Airport.
Tokyo, Mt Fuji & Around
- 1 Week
Japan often feels like a destination that requires a long trip and advance planning, but it needn't be. In and around Tokyo you can cover a lot of varied terrain, taking in both contemporary and traditional Japan.
Base yourself in Tokyo and do day trips or hop around. In three or four days you can take in the capital's highlights, eating well, and still have time to explore some of its less touristy neighbourhoods, like Shimo-Kitazawa and Kōenji.
Mt Fuji is open to hikers from June through mid-September; you can do it as one long overnight climb – to hit the summit for sunrise – or stay a night in a mountain hut. Year-round, visit the Fuji Five Lakes region for views of the iconic volcano.
For temples and shrines head north to Nikkō, with 17th-century structures set among cedars, or south to Kamakura, a one-time medieval capital with many Zen temples. On the Pacific coast, Kamakura is also a hip beach town with cafes and surf shops.
Round off your trip with a visit to the hot-spring resort Hakone. There are spa complexes here for day trippers, or you can splurge on a night in a ryokan.
The Wilds of Hokkaidō
- 2 Weeks
Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaidō, has much of what you want out of Japan: steaming onsen and rugged, volcanic peaks, city lights and foodie cred, as well as something you wouldn't expect – the opportunity for an epic road trip. Snow falls early in Hokkaidō, so this is a summer trip.
Start in Hakodate, Hokkaidō's southernmost port, which has a charming 19th-century city centre. The journey here by shinkansen (bullet train) takes four hours from Tokyo (though it's probably cheaper to fly).
After a fresh seafood breakfast at Hakodate's fish market, pick up a rental car and drive to Shikotsu-Tōya National Park, home to caldera lakes and an active volcano. Budget time to soak in the springs of Noboribetsu Onsen inside the park.
Next stop: Sapporo, Hokkaidō's capital city (and Japan's fifth-largest). Get your city fix here, basking in the bright lights of the dining and drinking district Susukino. Then head to Hokkaidō's second city, Asahikawa, deep in the interior; like Sapporo, Asahikawa is a famous ramen town. It's also the gateway for Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan's largest national park and a mostly untouched wilderness of dense forest high in the mountains.
There are three villages on the perimeter of the park: Tokachidake Onsen, Asahidake Onsen and Sōunkyō Onsen. All have hot springs, lodging and good day treks. Don't miss Fukiage Roten-no-yu, near Tokachidake Onsen, one of Japan's best in-the-wild onsen. It's also worth spending a night at Daisetsu Kōgen Sansō, a truly remote mountain lodge.
Continue east to the World Heritage–listed Shiretoko National Park, a spit of land that Hokkaidō's indigenous people, the Ainu, referred to as 'the end of the world'. There are hikes here through primeval woods and more hidden hot springs.
Akan National Park is most famous for its startlingly clear blue caldera lakes, Kussharo-ko and Mashū-ko. This is also the best place on Hokkaidō to connect with Ainu culture, starting with a visit to the village, Akan Kotan.
Finally head down to Kushiro-shitsugen National Park, home to the endangered Japanese red-crowned crane. From Kushiro it's easy work on the expressway back to New Chitose Airport, south of Sapporo.
Kyūshū & Okinawa
- 2 Weeks
Considered off the beaten track, Kyūshū really delivers: it's got vibrant cities, layers of history, excellent onsen and smoking volcanoes. If you've been to Japan before, or want to see something totally different, this trip is for you.
Fly into Fukuoka from Tokyo and spend a day getting to know this hip young city, famous for its ramen. You can tour Kyūshū easily enough by train – there's a rail pass just for the island – but it helps to have a car. This will come in handy for working your way down the coast to Nagasaki through the pottery towns, Karatsu and Arita, with a detour to Hirado.
History, of course, weighs heavily on Nagasaki, the second Japanese city destroyed by an atomic bomb. But as Japan's only truly open port during the 200-year period of isolation in the 17th to 19th centuries, Nagasaki has cosmopolitan legacy that predates its historic tragedy and lives on today in its food and architecture.
From Nagasaki cut into the heartland to Kurokawa Onsen, one of Japan's best onsen towns, where you can stay in a ryokan. Continue south, past the active volcano Aso-san (if it's calm, you can get close) and the castle town Kumamoto (still recovering from a 2016 earthquake) to Kagoshima. This city at the tip of the Shimabara Peninsula is known for tonkatsu (breaded and fried pork cutlets), shōchū (strong distilled liquor) and Sakurajima – the smoking volcano that lords over the skyline. South of Kagoshima are the hot sand baths of Ibusuki.
Return the car and catch a speedboat from Kagoshima to magical Yakushima, an island with primeval, moss-strewn forests and seaside onsen. Make it an overnight trip (or longer – there are great hiking options here).
Back in Kagoshima, take the slow ferry for an epic overnight ride to Okinawa-hontō, the largest of the Okinawa Islands. Spend a day or two exploring the capital city Naha, the former seat of the Ryūkyū Empire, sipping fresh juice from the market and getting your fill of island delicacies. From Naha, it's a one-hour jet-foil ride to the idyllic, palm-fringed Kerama Islands – where you can get your beach fix. Then catch a flight back to Tokyo from Naha.
Kansai In Depth
- 2 Weeks
Take a slow, deep dive into Japanese history and culture; you'll cover a lot without having to travel far. Arranged with public transport in mind, this itinerary is possible year-round, though Kōya-san will be cold and possibly snowy in winter. Fly in and out of Kansai International Airport.
Start with Kyoto, Japan's cultural storehouse, and spend several leisurely days exploring. Then head to Nara – not for the typical day trip – but for a few days' trip. Beyond the city there are fascinating historic temples, very old shrines and country rambles around Sakurai and pre-Buddhist burial mounds around Asuka.
Then pop over to Osaka for a jolt of city life, before taking the train to Kōya-san. This mountain monastery was founded in the 8th century and is still active today; spend the night in a temple for a taste of monk life.
Buses run April through November to your next destination, the ancient pilgrim trails of the Kumano Kodō. Outside of these months you'll need to do some backtracking via train. Spend a few days walking through woods and rural hamlets, to temples, shrines and some of Kansai's best onsen between Hongū, Shingū and Nachi-Katsuura.
Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com/japan) Destination information, hotel bookings, traveller forum and more.
Japan National Tourism Organization (www.jnto.go.jp) Official tourist site with planning tools and events calendar; download its useful Japan Official Travel App.
Navitime Travel (https://travel.navitime.com) Tourist info; get its app, Japan Travel, for working out transit routes.
Japan Meteorological Agency (www.jma.go.jp) Get up-to-the-minute weather advisories – a must before heading out on hikes (especially during typhoon season).
- The Japan Rail Pass offers unlimited use of the extensive, fast and efficient Japan Rail system; if your itinerary focuses on a limited area, look into regional rail passes, which are cheaper.
- Stay a night in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) and visit an onsen (hot-spring bath) – two great ways to engage with local culture.
- Splurge at lunch. Many restaurants offer midday meals that cost half (or less!) of what you'd find at dinner, often for a meal that is not significantly smaller or lower in quality.
- Rent a pocket wi-fi device. Japan has free wi-fi networks in spots but these can be frustratingly clunky. Having constant internet access means you can rely on navigation apps to help you get around.
- Learn a couple of basic Japanese phrases. The locals will love you for trying.
- New Toyosu Market
In a move years in the making, Tsukiji's famous wholesale market moved to a new, state-of-the-art facility in Toyosu in autumn 2018. A taste of the old market can still be found at Tsukiji Market, which remains in place.
- teamLab Borderless
Tokyo's hottest new attraction is this museum holding some 60 installations from Japan's leading digital-art collective, teamLab. It's an immersive, interactive art experience unlike anything else.
- Yayoi Kusama Museum
Another noteworthy opening in Tokyo is this museum, devoted to one of Japan's most prominent contemporary artists. Admission is limited, so book well in advance.
- Kyoto Ukiyo-e Museum
Kyoto's small new ukiyo-e (woodblock print) museum is now the permanent home of Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa – perhaps the most iconic ukiyo-e work ever.
- Nikkō Restorations
For years Nikkō has been restoring its 17th-century shrines and temples. Work on Tōshō-gū's spectacular gate, Yōmei-mon, is already complete, with the whole project scheduled to finish in March 2020.
- Sanriku Kaigan Rail Lines Restored
Heavily damaged by the 2011 tsunami, the Sanriku Railway lines are now up and running, with a final new section added in 2019. It's now possible to travel the whole coast between Ōfunato and Kuji.
- Michinoku Coastal Trail
Parts of this 700km hiking trail, along northern Honshū's east coast between Soma in Fukushima Prefecture and Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture, are already open, with the whole route set to be completed by the end of 2019.
- Guesthouses Everywhere
Suddenly it seems every small city (and even some rural destinations) has at least one very cool guesthouse, usually run by a savvy, local English-speaker. This makes travelling outside the major cities cheaper, easier – and way more fun.
- Designer Hotels
In Tokyo and Kyoto the design wars are heating up, with several new properties, from both established international hoteliers, like Four Seasons, and local upstarts, like BnA, promising an all-encompassing aesthetic experience.
- Sake & Tea
Japan went all in on the recent craft beer and third-wave coffee trends, but now we're seeing that same spirit of innovation and attention to detail being poured into two distinctly Japanese drinks: tea and sake. Keep an eye out for craft sake bars and third-wave-style teahouses, especially in Tokyo and Kyoto.
When to Go
High Season (Apr & May, Aug)
- Cherry-blossom season (late March to early April), Golden Week (early May) and O-Bon (mid-August) are peak travel periods, when sights will be crowded and accommodation more expensive (and often fully booked).
- Mountain (read: cooler) destinations are most popular in August; this is also the month for many festivals.
Shoulder (Jun & Jul, Sep–Nov)
- Autumn foliage draws crowds during specific periods in October and November (depending on elevation).
Low Season (Dec–Mar)
- Sights are uncrowded and accommodation at its cheapest.
- The exception is the ski resorts, which are now hitting their stride.
- Many businesses close over the New Year period (end of December to early January).