Japan is a study in contrasts between traditional and modern. Large bustling cities like Tokyo are only a short journey from traditional villages. Pop culture exists next to the grace of a geisha, bullet trains next to the spare beauty of a Zen rock garden. There is temple-rich Kyoto, beautified by cherry blossoms and fall colours; there are walks in the Japanese Alps and on pilgrim trails, followed by a long soak in a classic Japanese bath; there are stays at ryokans (traditional inns); and there is the food, made of the freshest of ingredients. This is Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun.
best time to travel
The best times to travel to Japan are spring and fall. Spring sees the cherry blossoms progress from south to north between March and May, while October and November see spectacular fall colours.
places to go
The neon-lit streetscapes of the capital form the archetypical image of Japan - a modern city rushing headlong into the future. From the hustle and bustle of Tsukiji Market to the excellent restaurants serving delicious sushi, this is one hyperactive city you must experience. Beyond the main streets you will find quiet alleys, immaculately tended gardens, wooden shanty bars, raucous festivals and peaceful neighbourhood shrines.
The pilgrim town of Nikko, just north of Tokyo, is home to the World Heritage-listed Tosho-gu shrine complex and a host of lesser-known temples, all set among hilly woodlands.
Located around a lake, the town of Hakone is home to a torii gate which rises from the waters with Mt. Fuji in the background. The town with its quiet onsen (public baths) and ryokans (traditional inns) is a blissful escape from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
Craggy peaks, babbling streams and ancient forests are hallmarks of the Japanese Alps, where Kamikochi is a popular hiking and mountain climbing resort. Takayama is a compact atmospheric town set along a pretty river, and home to a wealth of galleries, museums, old merchant houses and serene temples.
Quiet Buddhist temples as old as time, beautiful gardens of every imaginable size and description, ancient palaces and shrines: Kyoto is the Japan of yesteryear and the culinary centre of the country. Wooden sandals hurry down streets lined with traditional wooden houses, see the fleeting image of a geisha as she walks by a shrine surrounded by cherry blossom.
Second only to Kyoto in its rish heritage, home to the incredible Daibutsu (Great Buddha), the compact town of Nara is the ancient capital of Japan and the birthplace of Japanese civilization.
Japan’s holiest mountain hosts more than one hundred monasteries. Reached by a spectacular train journey and a vertigo-inducing cable car ride, the complex offers the chance to stay at a temple, where you can witness long-held traditions of Japanese religious life.
Recently renovated Himeji Castle is Japan's finest example of a feudal-era fortress. Nearby Koko-en is a series of nine meticulously reconstructed samurai houses with their beautiful interlinked traditional gardens.
The island of Naoshima offers some of Japan's best contemporary art, housed in several world-class art galleries and installations set in gorgeous natural surroundings.
Millions of people visit the city of Hiroshima every year to pay their respect at the Peace Park and museum, commemorating the nuclear holocaust that took place here at the close of World War II. Completely destroyed then, the city rose from its ashes to become a pleasant modern city with an old-world feel.
Just off the coast of Hiroshima, the island of Miyajima is one of Japan's most visited locations. The vermilion torii (shrine gate) of Itsukushima-jinja stars in many photographs, as it seems to float on the waves during high tide. Come early in the morning, or visit in the evening and enjoy the peaceful shrines and the tranquility of the parks filled with tame deer.
Yakushima & Kirishima-Yaku National Park
Ancient cedar trees, high peaks and subtropcial mossy rainforests form the backdrop for some great hikes on the island of Yakushima, just off the southern tip of Japan.
Tsukiji fish market Tokyo
Two million kilograms of fish are traded daily in this lively market. Get there early to witness the action at the tuna auctions.
Hiroshima - Peace Memorial Park and Museum
Being confronted with personal belongings of people that died in the nuclear holocaust of 1945 is a deeply moving experience.
Stay at a temple
Stay at a temple, interact with the monks that run the lodgings, learn about the customs of traditional Japanese accommodation. and experience long-held traditions of Japanese religious life.
Kaiseki-ryori, Japan’s haute cuisine
The crown of Japanese haute cuisine belongs to kaiseki-ryori, a meal with perfectly balanced flavours and textures, expertly presented and designed to appeal to all of the senses. Experience it in the restaurants and ryokan (inns) of Kyoto, Japan's cultural capital.
Climb Mt. Fuji
The picture-perfect volcanic cone of Mt. Fuji can be climbed in July and August. Most people undertake the tough hike from the end of the road halfway up and start at night so they can reach the summit at dawn after a hike of five to six hours.
Japan's best-known traditional theater art, Kabuki plays are dramatic, with fantastic stage settings and gorgeous costumes.
Stay at a ryokan
Walk up through a bamboo grove to your ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Your kimono-clad hostess will show you to your room, and serve a cup of hot green tea. Golden sliding doors decorated in ornate Japanese images open up to rooms where futons are spread out on wooden floors. Enjoy a meal of kaiseki-ryori, Japan’s haute cuisine, soak in a bath, relax and have the best sleep of your life.
A finely tuned combination of brutal force and carefully controlled ritual, sumo wrestling is for many the archetypal Japanese experience. See the best wrestling tournaments in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka.
Onsen, sento & rotemburo
Lying as it does in the Ring of Fire, Japan is extremely rich in geothermal pools (onsen). As a result, bathing has become a ritual, deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. Each town has its own sento (public bath), which is the place people come to meet, gossip, catch up and get a darn good scrubbing. And is there anything more gratifying than a dip in a rotemburo (outdoor bath) as the snow falls?
Japan's favourite tipple, sake, or rice wine, comes in many different forms and can be tasted at local breweries throughout the country. Find the best at breweries in Obuse, Takayama or Niigata, or try a variety at a Japanese-style pub, an izakaya.
Nightlife at Golden Gai
Behind Tokyo's neon-lit facades lies Golden Gai, a neighbourhood that is a jumble of tiny ramshackle, atmospheric bars, each with their own outlandish decor. Enjoy a drink standing shoulder to shoulder with locals: kanpai!
Visit a traditional garden
Miniature idealized landscapes form the backbone of the traditional Japanese garden. Visit rustic gardens with teahouses, a meditative Zen garden or stroll around one simply to enjoy the scenery. Kanazawa is home to Kenroku-en, one of Japan’s best gardens.
Ride a bullet train
Over 50 years ago, the first shinkansen pulled out of Tokyo station and ever since nearly 6 billion people have enjoyed the 320 km/h ride. Enjoy a bento box lunch, let a white-gloved conductor inspect your ticket, sit back and watch the landscape unfurl. All aboard!
Hike the Nakasendo Way
The 3-hour hike between the two lovingly preserved old post towns of Tsumago to Magome, northeast of Nagoya, takes you through gorgeous countryside, along a stone-flagged twisting, craggy post road lined with tea houses and plaster and wooden buildings.