Tokyo, Kyoto & Hiroshima
- 2 Weeks
This is a classic route for first-time visitors. It 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.
You'll need two or three days (minimum) 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.
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 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. Spend several days exploring the historic cities of Kyoto and Kanazawa, known for their culinary and artistic traditions, and a week driving through the Japan Alps, the setting for charming rural hamlets and hidden onsen (hot spring) villages.
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 in this area are famed for their farmhouses with dramatically angled thatched roofs. In the World Heritage–listed village of Ainokura, you can spend the night in one.
Continue to Takayama, a charming old post town with well-preserved wooden buildings (now housing galleries, sake breweries and craft shops) and narrow streets. For beautiful alpine scenery and a spot of hiking, head next to Kamikōchi; then, for rustic onsen (hot springs), to Shin-Hotaka Onsen.
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.
As snow can close mountain passes in winter, this route is best undertaken in spring, summer or autumn.
Tokyo, Mt Fuji & Around
- 1 Week
Japan often feels like a destination that requires a long trip and lots of advanced planning, but it needn't be. Between Tokyo and the towns in its orbit, on the coast and in the mountains, you can cover a lot of varied terrain, taking in both contemporary and traditional Japan.
Basing yourself in Tokyo has several advantages: you won't have to haul bags around while you travel and you can make plans on the fly, according to weather and mood. Though if you do back-to-back day trips, the JR Tokyo Wide Pass, which can be purchased in Japan, can save money.
For good transit connections, dining and entertainment options, Shinjuku is the best base, though other neighbourhoods, like Asakusa and Ueno on the east side, have cheaper digs.
In a few days, you can take in many of Tokyo's highlights, such as the bright lights and 24-hour buzz of Shinjuku and Shibuya; Harajuku's shrine, Meiji-jingū; the contemporary architecture along Omote-sandō; the seafood at Tsukiji Outer Market; and the charming old town of Yanesen. You can also just take it easy, hanging out in one of the city's fun, bohemian haunts, like Shimo-Kitazawa.
Summer is the season for climbing Mt Fuji, which is a two-hour train ride west of Tokyo. 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 you can visit the Fuji Five Lake region, to see Mt Fuji reflected in the lakes.
For shrines and temples head north to Nikkō, home of the grand World Heritage–listed Tōshō-gū, the 17th-century shrine for shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. There are hiking and onsen opportunities up this way, too. An hour south of Tokyo are more subdued Zen temples, founded centuries earlier, in the one-time medieval capital Kamakura. Kamakura, on the Pacific coast, has evolved into a hip beach community with cafes and surf shops.
Round off your trip with a visit to Hakone, a hot-spring resort town in the mountains southwest of the city, about two hours away by train. There are spa complexes here for day trippers, or you can splurge on a night in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn).
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. You can arrive via the new shinkansen (bullet train) line that opened in 2016, connecting Hakodate with Tokyo in four hours (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-Toya 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, among the neon 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 and blue caldera lakes, Kussharo-ko and Mashu-ko. This is also the best place on Hokkaidō to learn about the Ainu; there are some (albeit touristy) Ainu villages here, such as Akan Kotan.
Finally wend 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 a fantastic city in Fukuoka, riveting history in Nagasaki, excellent onsen and smoking volcanoes. Heading south, the Satsuma Peninsula dissolves into a long chain of semi-tropical islands, including Okinawa, stretching far into the Pacific. 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, known for its outdoor food stalls and rich, pork-bone 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 via the pottery town of Karatsu to Hirado, a small island that punches above its size history-wise. After visiting Hirado, Arita is another pottery town worth a stop on your way to Nagasaki.
History, of course, weighs heavily on Nagasaki, the second Japanese city destroyed by an atomic bomb. But Nagasaki also has a colourful cosmopolitan legacy that 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.
Next head south, past the active volcano Aso-san and the castle town Kumamoto (still recovering from a 2016 earthquake) to Kagoshima. The 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 for serious hiking).
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.