Japan Travel Guide
Japan is one of those special places under the sun that have the power to enchant you and make you fall in love instantly. The country is an amazing mix of ancient and modern traditions and it practically offers something for everyone out there. In fact, this fascinating archipelago of more than 6800 volcanic islands is not simply a bucket list experience for sushi and manga lovers as the country offers a plethora of charms and joys for anyone interested in culture, traditions, history, cuisine, art, architecture, etc.
From the moment you arrive in Japan and get out the plain, you will most probably feel like stepping on another planet. Despite the fact that the country is well-known as a tourist destination and there is plenty of information available online. Indeed, you can never be prepared for what you are going to see and enjoy in Japan. It is a once-in-a-lifetime journey you will be able to experience. So the only way you can prepare yourself for the trip is knowing that you will be pleasantly surprised around any corner. You will surely enjoy your disorientation and the overwhelming feeling this country of ancient gods, craftsmanship, customs, cutting-edge technology, futuristic fashion and architecture, and up-to-the-second style is providing you with.
There are many things in Japan that locals consider as a part of their everyday life but will definitely sweep off your feet. No matter where you come from and what your background is, there is impossible to not be impressed by the high-speed trains almost flying from one end of the country to the other with impressive punctuality. Paddy fields and farmers are easy to spot in the suburbs of the metropolitan cities, while the urban environment feels almost like you are in a video game. Japan caters for all tastes, desires and requirements and you can easily pick through the cutting-edge boutiques in the heart of the city one day, while the next day you can spend relaxing in an outdoor hot-spring pool and watching the cherry blossom while feeling completely zen.
There are not many countries in the world that can pride themselves with impressive experience, drastic changes, and a jaw-dropping development in the matter of just a few generations. The lightning speed of industrialization, urbanisation, technological and economic development is impressive, to say the least, while only for one century Japan managed to shed its feudal trappings and became one of the most powerful economics and countries in the world in a matter of just a few decades.
Shortly after the end of the World War II Japan managed to quickly overcome its situation of an atom-bomb victim and become an economic giant in such speed and with so much discipline that it can serve as a good example for the rest of the world. Mastering economy development to perfection, nowadays Japan is relishing its “soft power” and becoming one of the world’s most popular trendsetters, especially when it comes to trends such as Japanese pop music, manga, anime, and a bunch of quirky subcultures and outwardly styles that never fail to overtake and engage the rest of the world.
The big cities are the place to catch the latest trends. These metropolitan giants are hectic, dynamic, and hyperactive to say the least. The hippiest fashions and quirkiest styles are walking around on every street, admired by the majority of the young people… and a lot of the older too. The latest gadgets that look like straight out of a sci-fi movie are already sold in Japan before hitting the rest of the world so if this is your thing you better visit the country. However, big and popular cosmopolitan cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kanazawa are not mainly popular as a hot pot for trends and cutting-edge fashion but more like open-air museums of centuries-old history, culture, customs, traditions, architecture, art.
The combination between sci-fi modern and as-old-as-time history is impressive, to say the least, but it blends in a unique and balanced way here. Head outside the big cities and you will have so much to do and experience that you can book a whole year plus the weekends and you will still be left with a lot for the next year. From the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Shiretoko National Park in Hokkaido to the balmy subtropical islands of Okinawa, and all of the lofty castles, ancient temples and shrines, local celebrations and colourful street festivals, Japan’s province is fascinating, authentic, unique and you cannot fully explore it for a month, not even for a year!
As you can expect from such an economic giant, Japan is definitely not the cheapest country to travel in or to, but the good news is that it is also not wildly expensive. The best value often comes from the authentic Japanese places to stay and eat so don’t be afraid to consider a really authentic experience. Street food and vendors here are popular around the world with high quality, freshness, and an amazing taste, so fancy restaurants are definitely not recommended.
In recent years, some areas of Japan experience a significant price-cutting, especially when it comes to airline tickets, which is a great opportunity to visit the country even on a tighter budget. If you don’t fancy flying around when exploring the country, make sure to rely on the world-famous rail system of Japan that not only offers some great bargains but also a first-class, comfortable, and always on time travel.
However, it is not all flowers and roses. For a country that is known for its peddling cleanliness, organisation, order, and appreciation and preservation of nature, the rampant development and sometimes appalling pollution are definitely an issue in Japan. Despite the efforts, it is very hard to keep up with cleanliness in such gigantic metropolitan cities. Natural cataclysms such as earthquakes, typhoons, and tsunamis are something Japan struggles with a lot.
The rapid mass tourism in the country is another increasing problem. Not that Japan is not welcoming, hospitable, and doesn’t want to share its charms with the rest of the world, but many of the once idyllic and authentic places of the country are now completely changed with ranks of gift shops, ugly hotels, and enormous crowds. However, all of the above said, the good and the bad, all that forms Japan the way it is today – a unique country you definitely want to visit and experience.
When to go?
Japan is a vast and diverse land and you can expect some significant average temperature and weather pattern variations across the country. The best time to visit is not consistent across the country so first make sure what region you would like to visit. Honshu’s climate, for example, is highly influenced by the surrounding mountains and the warm seas and it experiences a lot of rain and snow. In wintertime, in the region of the western Sea of Japan is suffering cold winds and heavy snow.
Meanwhile, the Pacific coasts have drier and clearer winter days. In case you love skiing and winter sports, make sure to visit the mountains of Japan in wintertime as you can expect a lot of snow. Spring is one of the most pleasant time to visit the country despite the frequent showers almost everywhere in Japan. One of the main reason while so many people are visiting the country in springtime are the infamous cherry blossoms but make sure you calculate your time properly if you want to see them because they last for no longer than a week in a given location.
Cherry blossom can be enjoyed in Kyushu is March to Hokkaido in May. The rainy season in Japan starts in June and it is followed by the swamp-like heat of the summer shortly after. If you are not that much of a fan of tropical conditions, you better make sure to head to the cooler and more pleasant hills or the northern reaches of the country. The autumn season starts in September with typhoons and a lot of rain. Lasting to November, autumn time in Japan is very spectacular with an explosion of autumnal colours all around.
When planning to visit Japan make sure to take the national holidays into consideration too. During the time of holidays, the nation of Japan is on the move and it can be hard to get transport tickets and book a hotel. You can either avoid travelling during these periods or make sure to arrange your trips well in advance.
Where to go?
Japan truly has a lot to offer. Two weeks in the minimum period for visiting Japan and during this time period, you will be able to only touch upon the surface of this vast and diverse country. The tops of the list of the majority of the visitors are the capital Tokyo and the historical and thriving cultural centre Kyoto. Both places definitely deserve your attention but if you are really not interested in visiting them, you can skip and continue with heading to the mountains or the small islands for an alternative exploring on the country.
When it comes to Tokyo, even two weeks will not be enough to explore even a half of the city. This metropolitan city has everything you can imagine and even above and beyond your expectations. Some of the world’s most ambitious and quirkiest architecture and styles, stylish shops and world-class restaurants, atmospheric little streets and authentic bars, themed cafes and thriving cultural scene, glimpses of traditional Japanese culture and temples, shrines, and imperial gardens, these are only a few examples of the endless list of things you can see, do, and experience in the country’s capital city.
The city is surrounded by many attractions too so make sure to consider at least a couple of them such as the historic towns of Nikko, the amazing Tosho-gu shrine complex, Kamakura with its giant Buddha statue and tranquil woodland walks, etc.
Northern Honshu is a bit neglected by the overseas tourists but it definitely deserves your attention with its atmospheric sleepy little villages and relaxed cities. Escape the madness of Tokyo by visiting the region and enjoying its highlights such as the Golden Hall of Hiraizumi, the islet-sprinkled Matsushima Bay, the rural Tono, the sacred mountains including Dewa-sanzan and its ascetic mountain priests, the eerie wastelands of Osore-zan. The region is also known for its colourful and enchanting summer festivals, notably those at Sendai, Aomori, Hirosaki, and Akita.
Head even more to the north across the Tsugaru Straits and you will reach Japan’s final frontier Hokkaido and its breath-taking national parks including the amazing Daisetsu-zan National Park. Japanese people and tourists simply love the northern islands of Rebun-to and Reshiri-to for a relaxing summer escape. Hakodate is the most historical city in the region of Hokkaido and it is mostly known for its late nineteenth-century architecture of wooden houses and churches built by expat traders.
The capital of the region is the modern city Sapporo and it is home to the original Sapporo Brewery and a thriving nightlife in Suskino. In wintertime, you can visit and enjoy the amazing Sapporo’s Snow Festival. Some of Japan’s top winter and skiing resorts are located in Hokkaido and one of the most popular of them is Niseko.
Skiing and mountain sports are popular in Japan and also available in Central Honshu where they are part of the local culture along with soaking in hot springs. This area is dominated by the breath-taking Japan Alps and also offers a lot of highlights for you to visit and enjoy including the old castle town Matsumoto, Nagano with its atmospheric temple of pilgrimage, the tiny mountain resort of Kamikochi, the Edo-era preserved villages Tsumago and Magome linked by a 300-year-old stone-paved road, the beautiful town of Takayama, the rare thatched houses of Ogimachi, Suganuma, and Ainokura.
The most popular destination located on the coast of the Sea of Japan is the city of Kanazawa, home to one of the best gardens in Japan, Kenroku-en and the amazing 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Nagoya is yet another metropolitan city in Japan but definitely more manageable than Tokyo and Osaka so if you want to experience the feel of the big Japanese city but not to the extremes, make sure to visit the home of the fine Tokugawa Art Museum and a bunch of amazing restaurants. A short trip from Nagoya and you will reach to castle towns of Inuyama and Gifu and the summer displays of the traditional for the area cormorant fishing.
Kansai plains are located south of the Japan Alps and dotted with a bunch of ancient temples, shrines, remnants of imperial cities. Kyoto is one of the biggest and most popular cities in the country, a hot spot of the Japanese culture, home to refined traditional cuisine, classy ryokan, beautiful gardens, magnificent temples and palaces. A short trip to the nearby Nara is recommended because of the many venerable monuments you can see there including the great bronze Buddha of Todai-ji and Horyu-ji’s collection of early Japanese statuary. The surrounding region is dotted with religious foundations including the atmospheric temples of Hiei-zan and Koya-san, the Shinto shrine Ise-jingu, the beautiful countryside pilgrimage routes of the Kumano region that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The unique metropolitan city of Osaka will mesmerise you with its thriving and lively nightlife, the overall easy-going atmosphere, plus a lot of interesting sights. West from this urban giant are located the port of Kobe with its gentle cosmopolitan atmosphere and the city of Himeji with its jaw-dropping castle and some impressive modern gardens and buildings.
The most visited destination in Western Honshu is the city of Hiroshima and you can guess why. On the way to Hiroshima, you don’t want to miss visiting Okayama and stroll around one of the three top gardens in the country, Koraku-en, plus the Edo-era preserved town of Kurashiki. Appreciate the Inland Sea with the many little islands dotted around from the small fishing village of Tomonoura or the relaxed islands of Nao-shima, Ikuchi-jima, and Miya-jima.
For even a deeper dig into the Japanese culture make sure to visit the castle town of Hagi with some really beautiful samurai houses and temples. Further inland in the region to the San-in coast and you will reach the pretty town of Tsuwano where you can enjoy one of Japan’s most venerable shrines Izumo Taisha near the lake and the seaside city of Matsue.
Shikoku offers plenty to do and see as it is the location for the most popular pilgrimage in Japan and 88 Buddhist temples, dramatic scenery in the Iya valley and a rugged coastline. The largest city of the region is Matsuyama, home to an imperial castle and the splendid ornaments of one of the country’s best hot springs Dogo Onsen Honkan. Some of the other attractions in Shikoku include the magnificent garden Ritsurin-koen in Takamatsu and the ancient Shinto shrine at Kotohira.
Nagasaki, a cosmopolitan and dynamic city with a terrible war-time past is one of the most popular destinations on the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, Kyushu. The central inland of the islands is where you can enjoy the Aso-san’s smouldering peak, especially if you fancy some hiking and onsen. This is the largest volcanic crater in the entire world and the place is really worth visiting. On the east coast is where Beppu is located, also known as Japan’s hot-spring capital. Fukuoka is yet another city you would like to visit when in the region. Don’t miss to enjoy its modern architecture and its exceptionally buzzing and thriving entertainment district.
Okinawa is the region that comprises of more than hundred islands located between southern Kyushu and Taiwan. The region used to be an independent kingdom until the early 17th century and this is why here you can experience a more distinctive, unique, and special culture you cannot enjoy anywhere else in the country. The capital city of Naha is home of the beautifully reconstructed royal palace. Make sure to head to the more remote islands of the region for an even more authentic and unique experience, some amazing white-sand beaches, and great diving opportunities particularly around the subtropical islands Ishigaki and Iriomote.