With the Rugby World Cup in September and the Tokyo Olympics next year, Japan is more in the public eye than ever. It really is a fantastic time to travel to the Land of the Rising Sun. Visitor numbers have more than doubled since 2014 and British Airways have put on a new route to Osaka. That’s not to say, however, that the nation has given itself over to tourism. A country that imposed over two centuries of self-isolation knows a thing or two about preserving homegrown culture.
That’s something I found abundantly clear on my recent trip. I met with a geisha in Kyoto, learnt the ritual tradition behind a tea ceremony, found out about samurai culture in centuries-old castles, and donned a kimono in a ryokan – a historic inn complete with tatami mats and hot-spring onsen baths. Less appealing were the Owakudani eggs, blackened from being boiled in sulphurous volcanic waters.
Yet, when we talk of Japan, we love bringing up its futurism – the neon bars and the bullet trains, whose average delay is as low as 24 seconds. It’s amazing to see both sides. In Tokyo, for example, one moment I’d find myself marvelling at a thousand-year-old temple and the next dining at a robot café, complete with lasers and metal dragons. Even behind the glass-and-steel skyscrapers of Shibuya, home to the world’s busiest crossing, you’ll find a huddle of ramshackle bars. With each hosting only around half-a-dozen patrons, they’re counter-service only and hark right back to old Tokyo.
To guide you in the right direction, I’ve picked out the following itinerary, designed to showcase all of Japan’s contrasting delights. Expect the best in bullet trains, ryokan accommodation and private guides throughout.
This curated rail itinerary focuses on Tokyo’s neon, Kyoto’s UNESCO-listed world wonders and Hakone’s ryokan-inn traditions. Throughout, you’ll enjoy both the use of included transport passes to explore at your own pace, and the services of private guides. They’ll put together itineraries based on your interests, whether they’re the capital’s Shinto-shrine parks and hole-in-the-wall ramen joints or Kyoto’s imperial palaces and golden sanctuaries. You’ll even be able to mix in the likes of Nara’s bowing deer and Japanese gardens. Nights are also spent in luxury accommodation, including a ryokan inn where you’ll enjoy onsen soaks and included kaiseki multi-course feasts. From here, boat rides and mountain railways will bring you among historic hamlets and shrine-dotted lakes with views of Mt. Fuji.