From its ultra high-tech cities and world-beating food to its grand temples and bamboo forests, there really is no other country like Japan. Tuck into a steaming bowl of ramen at a station counter or watch a tea ceremony in an imperial castle, and you’ll see for yourself the wonderfully Japanese fascination with detail that has ensured that the country has one of the least diluted cultures in the world. With over 6,800 islands in its archipelago, Japan is more than just neon cities and cherry blossom beauty. Read our guide below for an insight into some of the best places and things to do in this truly fascinating country.
It has to be said that Tokyo sets the tone for the country’s great metropoleis, with skyscrapers that stretch deep into the night's sky. Neon-lit backstreets, wooden shanty bars and thriving shopping centres give the city a positive pulse, while foodies are well catered for: it’s also got the highest number of Michelin starred restaurants in the world. Consider Sukiyabashi Jiro, a three-starred sushi restaurant located in an unpromising basement adjacent to Ginza Metro Station. At this restaurant, sushi master Jiro Ono will preside over the training of his apprentices as they learn, sometimes for over a decade, on how to handle sushi before being entrusted with senior duties. If your tastebuds have been tickled, be sure to ask your travel consultant about booking in advance – reservations are your best chance of experiencing this sushi sensation.
With 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, hundreds of Shinto shrines and a geisha culture that is without compare, Kyoto offers myriad reasons to visit. Add in over 1,500 Buddhist temples, Japan's most famous rock garden and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (known locally as Kinkaku-ji) and you could spend days simply wandering on foot marvelling at a world both literally and figuratively thousands of miles from home.
Moving east, while Hiroshima’s history is painfully overshadowed by the events at the end of the Second World War, today its Peace Memorial Park and leafy boulevards are well worth a visit. Nagasaki, once similarly blighted, is also coming into its own as cobblestone streets reward travellers with evocative shrines, churches and temples, framed by a sweeping harbour and hilly landscape. There’s even the Koshibyo Shrine, the only Confucius shrine the Chinese built outside of their homeland.
However, head out of the cities and you’ll find perhaps Japan’s best-kept secret – its spectacular countryside. Bisecting the main island, the Japanese Alps stretch from Tokyo until they fall dramatically into the Sea of Japan. Dotted with temples, tearooms and castles, they offer fantastic hikes, skiing and welcome respite in naturally occurring onsen hot springs. For warmer climes, the coral reefs, cobalt-blue waters and sweeping beaches of cruise-favourite Okinawa Island are more Bali than Japan. Ships often call at Shimizu where a shogun burial ground has fantastic views to the conical peak of Mount Fuji.
Itineraries also often include Hakodate, at the southern tip of Japan’s northernmost island. Take a tram through its historic streets to the hilly edge of town, sprinkled with wooden buildings and brick churches. For another blend of urban and rural, look to Kobe, Japan’s ancient maritime gateway. Be sure to take in the striking curves of its modern, portside architecture before sampling its most famous export, Kobe beef. Tenderly massaged, this impeccably marbled delicacy is recognised as among the best meat in the world.
The best times to visit Japan are spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November). Spring is when Japan’s famous cherry trees bloom. Starting in March, the sakura zensen (cherry tree blossom line) advances northward, usually passing the main cities of Honshu and Hokkaido from early April. The autumn foliage line reverses the advance of the cherry blossom, starting in the north in October and peaking across Honshu in early-to-mid November.