To many travelers, Japan poses an enigma with its deep-rooted traditions and ultramodern technology that peacefully coexist among volcanoes, atomic bomb sites and mineral springs. The country is not geared towards visitors, but those who go will be rewarded with a kaleidoscope of ritual and history, lush islands and urban wilderness, gardens, shrines and cherry trees, even if the trip bankrupts you!
Why You Should Go
What’s Cool: Kimonos, tea ceremony, bullet train, medicinal hot springs, sumo wrestling, wild Hokkaido Island, skiing in the Japanese Alps, cherry blossom season, cool Snow Festival, shopping in Ginza, Kodo ‘samurai percussionists’, geishas, Hello Kitty!
What’s Not: Drunken salary men, fake students, Hiroshima troubled past, everything’s expensive, urban wastelands, orientation difficult for tourists, earthquakes, outdoor urinating, groping commuters, not for big sizes, Yakuza, noisy karaoke bars.
When to Go
Japanese are proud of their four seasons, and like to believe they are unique to Japan.
Spring (March to May) is warm but not hot and there’s not too much rain. This is the time for cherry blossoms, revelry and festivals.
Summer (June to August) begins with a dreary rainy season and turns into a boiling steam bath in July/August.
Autumn (September to November) is also a good time to visit, with mild days and wonderful colors.
Winter (December to February) offers skiing or hot spring hopping, but central heating is still a mystery and it’s often miserably cold indoors.
Getting There & Away
Tokyo is the main air hub, and domestic flights are a good way to get to the smaller islands. Trains are the way to go; fast, frequent, clean, comfortable and often very expensive. Driving is difficult if you can’t read Japanese. Buses are comfortable and much cheaper than trains, but also slower. Public transport in cities is extensive but often very crowded.
Health & Safety
You’re more likely to get overcharged in a karaoke bar than mugged in a back alley. Women travelers should beware of gropers on crowded trains. Earthquakes do occur. Cleanliness is next to godliness to the point of being an obsession, but many toilets don’t have soap or tissue paper. If you catch a cold, get a surgical mask to filter your sneezing and coughing.
Food & Hospitality
Not all sushi and capsule hotels, Japanese food and accommodation have their own sets of rules. There is a great variety of restaurants including revolving sushi bars, noodle shops, curry joints and vending machine restaurants. Beer gardens are popular in summer. Many traditional Japanese hotels are reluctant to accept foreign guests, while those that specialize in catering for foreigners often make the highlight of any trip.
Ten days is the least you can get away with to enjoy some of the highlights.
Three or four days to see the capital’s highlights and maybe the extraordinary Toshogu Shrine in Nikko.
Two or three days in Kyoto, home to hundreds of intricate temples, Buddhas and Zen gardens. Don’t miss the Imperial Palace.
A couple of days in Nagasaki, with a museum and park commemorating the A-bomb and terrific recreations of old European homes.
Four days to climb the iconic Mount Fuji; the official climbing season runs from July to August.
Two or three days in Kirishima, in southern Kyūshū, with fantastic mountain scenery, hot springs, the remarkable Senriga-taki waterfall and spring wildflowers.
Two or three days in Hiroshima. Don’t let the name scare you, there’s excellent museums and a park as well as the ‘floating’ Itsuku Shima Shrine in nearby Miyajima.
Tokyo: offers a surprising mix of futuristic cityscapes, historic attractions and cultural entertainment.
Hokkaido: used to be called Japan’s ‘Wild West’ and hasn’t lost its distinctive pioneer feel. The last of Japan’s native Ainu people live on this island.
Japanese Alps: cut through the center of Honshu Island, also known as the ‘Roof of Japan’. Popular in all seasons with hikers, climbers and sightseers, large parts of the area are protected as a national park.
Okinawa: boasts a subtropical climate, clear turquoise seas and lots of fine beaches. Many of the islands have recently developed as eco-tourism destinations.
Kamakura: one hour south of Tokyo offers historical highlights including the giant bronze Great Buddha, colorful Hachimangu Shrine and scenic Enoshima Island.
Cultural sightseeing: is a must, with all the lovely shrines and landmarks, beautiful scenery and intriguing ancient traditions.
Hiking: in Nikko National Park, packed with hot mountain springs, and the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, a recreational heaven offering hot spring resorts and fine camping facilities.
Nightlife: in Tokyo, especially in Akasaka and Roppongi, offers vibrant entertainment of every sort, from geisha tea houses to discos.
Tea ceremonies: can be arranged through the tourist information centers in Kyoto and Tokyo. They are held in special rooms by highly trained staff.
Hot springs and baths: are fun and authentic, and let you get in contact with ordinary Japanese people. Warning - no soap in the pool!
Festivals & Events
Japan has a profusion of local festivals (matsuri) that are associated with shrines and temples all over the country.
February: Snow Festival in Sapporo features 170 snow statues which are displayed along the main street. The tallest ones can be as high as 15 meters.
May: Sanja Festival in Tokyo goes back more than 200 years and features three portable shrines paraded from Sensou Shrine.
May: Golden Week lumps together Green Day, Constitution Day and Children’s Day and is when the country comes to a standstill.
July: Gion Festival in Kyoto dates back more than 1,100 years. Dozens of attractive floats parade through the city.