Spend a little time in Japan and you’ll soon start thinking “why can’t we do things this way at home?”
The trains run with military precision, there isn’t a scrap of litter to be seen, and simple activities such as bathing and drinking tea have been elevated to high culture.
Japan is an enormously varied and diverse country, and the contrast in geography from one end of the country to the next is quite staggering. Comprising some 6,800 islands, Japan stretches over 3,000km from the quasi-Siberian snowscapes of Hokkaido to the subtropical beaches and mangrove forests of Okinawa.
Of this, over 70% of the terrain is mountainous and contains one-tenth of the world’s active volcanoes. Each region is unique and will provide you with a never-ending list of things to see, experiences to be had and tastes to savour.
In a land of such diversity and volatility, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Japanese are highly attuned to the power of nature and sensitive to the impermanence of things. Consequently, even the tiniest details are cherished – from the exposed skin at the nape of a geisha’s neck to the composition of an Ikebana flower arrangement, from the rhythmic beat of a taiko drum to the beautiful irregularities found in handcrafted pottery.
What’s more, the Japanese themselves are some of the most charming, gracious, hospitable people you’ll ever meet.
You may well have heard tales about Tokyo’s neon skyscrapers and Kyoto’s temples, but have you ever thought about sleeping in a ryokan, sipping icy beer in an izakaya or soaking in an onsen? Japan’s full of surprises, here are just a few of our favourites.
Hot spring baths
Just when you thought Japan’s lush green paddies and rolling mountains were beautiful, along comes the onsen (hot spring baths). Forget wild swimming, nature’s own hot tubs are for wild soaking. There are thousands across the country, with steaming turquoise waters, so take your pick, take a deep breath and relax.
Lazy afternoons in the onsen aren’t just for humans. In Yudanaka Onsen, groups of Japanese macaques, or snow monkeys, take respite from harsh winters in their very own hot spring baths. Nothing deters them from taking a dip, so visitors are welcome to walk to the clearing and snap the snow monkeys in action (or inaction!)
There’s no shortage of Western-style accommodation in Japan, but for something a little different, spend a night or two at a ryokan. With traditional interiors, including sliding paper doors and tatami mat floors, along with delicate multi-course dinners and private onsen, a stay at one of these authentic Japanese inns is a must.
Those interested in channelling their spiritual side should swap the frenetic life of Japan’s cities with serene temple lodgings. Mount Koya is a calm and secluded monastic retreat where you can stay in a shukubo, or temple lodging, with tatami mat floors, beautifully presented vegetarian meals and opportunity to join monks in zazen meditation.
Prepare to return home with an insatiable taste for Japanese food! From the finest Michelin starred restaurants to the most informal of izakaya (Japanese pubs), you certainly won’t go hungry. Get an overview of the foodie scene with a local expert; whether it’s a street food tour or an izakaya night, they’ll take you to the best places, help navigate the menu and make sure you don’t miss a crumb.
Sumo stable visit
The image of two larger than life loincloth-clad wrestlers battling it out is unmistakably Japanese. Becoming a sumo wrestler takes years of tough training at a heya, or stable, where they eat, sleep and train. Tournaments take place throughout the year, but for a unique experience, rise early and join a local to watch the wrestlers’ gruelling schedule at a Tokyo stable.
Gardens are serious business in Japan. Cultivated and curated to the highest quality. Expect pretty pagodas, lily ponds, wooden bridges, tea houses, brightly coloured flowers, Zen rock gardens, streams of koi carp and waterfalls. The perfect antidote to skyscraper strewn cities.
Meet a maiko (apprentice geisha)
Few Japanese experiences are as rare and special meeting a maiko. While elusive, these trainee geishas are recognisable for their striking patterned kimono and elaborate kanzashi (hair ornaments). Becoming a geisha takes years of highly disciplined training in traditional Japanese performing arts. Many Japanese people will never have chance to meet one of these performers, but with the right connections to okiya (geisha houses), meetings - with dances, live music and drinking games (prepare to lose!) – can be arranged.
With all that talk of temples and skyscrapers, few realise that Japan’s landscape is 70% mountainous. There are national parks boasting everything from snow-capped summits to colourful flower fields, so whether you’re a keen hiker or more of a gentle-bike-ride-on-flat-terrain sort of person, there’s no reason to stay indoors.
Journey is the destination
Have you ever seen a train conductor bow to a carriage before boarding? In Japan, public transport is a revered way of travelling and great care is taken to make it as efficient and enjoyable as possible. With a reliable luggage forwarding service, there’s no need to struggle with unwieldy suitcases – arrive at your destination to find your belongings ready and waiting. Despite reaching speeds of up to 200mph, the shinkansen swishes silently from station to station, so pick up a bento box (the perfect bullet train snack) and watch the scenery go by.
Japan is famous for the pretty pink puffs of cherry blossom that hover in the trees during spring, but each season has its charm.
Winter (December to February)
Winter might not spring to mind as the best time to visit Japan, but travelling at this time of year has its rewards – crisp clear skies and snow covered mountains for a start. This is the best time to see Mt Fuji as it tends to hide behind clouds for a good proportion of the year. Although just as beautiful as any other time of year, winter isn’t peak season. Those that do travel in winter find that shrines and temples are virtually crowd-free, making it a perfect time to travel for any keen photographers. Winter also provides winter sports enthusiasts with some of the best powder conditions in the world.
Spring (March to May)
Spring brings the world-famous cherry blossoms where you can befriend the locals at sake fuelled picnic parties under canopies of pink. It’s always a bit of a gamble timing a trip to coincide with peak blooming, but a two-week trip covering the main island of Honshu at the end of March or beginning of April shouldn’t disappoint. Due to the popularity of the cherry blossoms, accommodation tends to be considerably more expensive during this period and sightseeing spots can become very crowded.
Summer (June to September)
Summer in Japan is hot and humid and June/July see more rainfall than any other months - but don’t let that put you off. July and August are the only months of the year when Mt Fuji, Japan’s tallest mountain at 3,776m, is open to hikers. Summer also sees a packed programme of festivals which usually involve traditional dances, parades, floats, food stalls and fireworks with everyone dressed in yukata (summer kimonos).
Autumn (October & November)
Autumn sees the landscape burst into colour as the koyo front sweeps down the length of the country. Vermillion maple trees and rows of yellow ginko trees line the streets of many Japanese cities and a warm-hued patchwork reflects in the lakes of national parks. The magnificent colours of autumn provide the perfect backdrop for temples, shrines and country hikes and endless photo opportunities.
While Japan used to be a little-visited corner of Asia, the unique culture is no longer one of travel’s big secrets and it is little wonder tourist numbers are rapidly increasing. As the host of both the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics, interest shows no signs of slowing down, so there’s never been a better time to go.
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