Japan is a realm of captivating natural beauty, intertwined with a rich historical tapestry, cherished traditions, warm-hearted people, and delectable cuisine. The culinary scene in Japan is a testament to its global influence, drawing an increasing number of culinary enthusiasts from around the world to explore this emerging epicenter of gastronomy. With its distinctive and breathtaking landscapes, Japan offers a unique cultural experience that is nothing short of enchanting.
Tokyo: As Japan's vibrant capital and the world's most populous metropolis, Tokyo is often likened to one of the three global "command centers" for the world economy, alongside New York City and London. For travelers, Tokyo offers an astonishing array of shopping, entertainment, cultural experiences, and dining options. History enthusiasts can delve into Tokyo's past in districts like Asakusa, where the atmosphere of the city's bygone eras lingers, and in numerous exceptional museums, historic temples, and gardens. Contrary to common perception, Tokyo also boasts several charming green spaces within the city center and its surroundings.
Kyoto: Known as Japan's cultural heart, Kyoto is celebrated for its Buddhist temples, exquisite gardens, and vibrant shrines. The city seamlessly blends the old with the new, boasting 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, over 1600 Buddhist temples, and more than 400 Shinto shrines. Nature enthusiasts can explore the pristine wilderness of the Sagano bamboo grove, renowned not only for its natural beauty but also for the soothing sound of the wind rustling through the thick bamboo.
Shirakawa-go: A UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, Shirakawa-go is renowned for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, featuring steeply pitched thatched roofs, some of which have endured for over 250 years. The area's picturesque charm is particularly enchanting in winter, when it is blanketed in snow.
Kanazawa: Kanazawa is a pristine castle town with a wealth of cultural attractions, including the iconic Kenrokuen Garden, recognized as one of Japan's most stunning gardens, where visitors can witness the beauty of plum and cherry blossoms in spring. The city also boasts a rich historical heritage, with meticulously restored residences and districts, as well as modern museums like the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Takayama: Takayama retains a wealth of traditional elements rarely found in other Japanese cities, especially in its immaculately preserved Old Town. This charming area boasts numerous buildings and entire streets dating back to the Edo Period (1600-1868), when the city thrived as a prosperous merchant town. Some of the shops, coffee houses, and sake breweries in this historic town have been in continuous operation for centuries. Takayama is also famous for the Takayama Festival, held in spring and autumn, which is regarded as one of Japan's finest festivals.
When to go / useful information
When to go
Here's a breakdown of Japan's seasons and important travel considerations. Keep these in mind when planning your visit to Japan, as they can greatly impact your travel experience.
Winter (January to March): Winter is cool in most of Honshū, and there may be snowfall in the mountains. In late December to early January, many businesses may be closed.
Cherry Blossom Season (Late March to Early April): Honshū cities become bustling during the cherry blossom season, known for its breathtaking sakura blooms.
Golden Week (Late April to Early May): Travel in Japan can be very busy during Golden Week, a cluster of four different national holidays. It's advisable to avoid travel during this period if possible.
June and July: These months mark the rainy season in most of Japan, excluding Hokkaidō. While it doesn't rain every day, the humidity can be quite high during this period.
Autumn (September to mid-December): Autumn is typically cool and characterized by clear skies.
New Year: The New Year period can be quite busy, as many Japanese people engage in traditional celebrations and travel.
Currency Japanese yen
Language There is no official language, but the main language is Japanese
What makes it special: What's not to adore about the Land of the Rising Sun? Japan is an enthralling destination that offers a captivating tapestry of contrasts. Springtime in Japan, when the cherry blossoms bloom, is nothing short of magical. And if you're a food enthusiast, you'll find even more reasons to fall in love with Japan.
Weather: Throughout January to March, Honshū experiences cool winter weather, with potential snowfall in mountainous regions. Around late December to early January, numerous businesses may be closed. June and July usher in the rainy season in most of Japan (excluding Hokkaidō), characterized by occasional humidity. Autumn, spanning from September to mid-December, typically brings cool and clear conditions. In April, May, and August, Japan can be bustling due to Golden Week (early May), O-Bon (mid-August), and New Year celebrations. Honshū cities get especially busy during the cherry blossom season (late March to early April) and autumn foliage season (November).
Social customs: Japanese communication often relies heavily on body language, as words can carry various underlying meanings. For visitors, maintaining a passive facial expression is recommended, and making direct eye contact may be perceived as invasive of Japanese notions of privacy. Respect for hierarchy, status, and age is paramount, with each person holding a specific place within the group. Formal greetings are customary, and bowing the head signifies respect. Dining with Japanese hosts involves removing shoes before entering their home, arriving punctually, dressing conservatively, and waiting for seating instructions. When using chopsticks, avoid pointing or skewering food, and be open to trying whatever is offered. To decline additional servings, leave a little food in your bowl or a bit of liquid in your glass, as it's considered polite to never leave the guest with an empty plate. Lastly, it's customary to refrain from conversation while eating, as Japanese hosts prefer to savor their meals in silence.
Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Nara and Osaka
Japan is a mix of old and new, nature and city and will interest people of any age. We went in February which is Winter in Japan and the temperature ranged from 0 to 15 degrees Celcius. It was hot inside hotels, shops, trains and the bus so to pack layers!
Tips and tricks
Entry to Japan: Ensure you check on all procedures and requirements. At the airport there are a lot of staff assisting you through each stage.
Arrival: The Arrival’s hall in Narita is well signposted in English. The stairs down to the train are right opposite.
Our host from JNTO recommended that first time travelers to Japan have an arrival transfer arranged for them. Our transfer took 90 minutes to get to the Shinjuku [ West Tokyo], although it will take less time to get to East Tokyo.
Currency: We were advised to have a little bit of cash in case some small shops didn’t accept credit cards. There are ATMs in 7–11 convenience stores which are everywhere.
Shoes and Socks: We were advised to take slip on shoes and lots of good socks as you are in them when you are inside a traditional style restaurant or cultural venue. Some of these provided socks and often slippers and or shoes [ for the toilet at a restaurant and in a hotel]
Onsen’s – Public baths: The two Onsen hotels we encountered had options of Private also. Public Onsen’s are segregated for men and women and you go naked. I used both them both times and really loved that way of bathing. Tattoos are supposed to not be permitted and should be covered by skin coloured covers which can be bought at drug stores there.
Food and drink: Most restaurants had the food item displayed as a plastic model or in a photo so you could see what you were ordering. You can get an amazing range of food at the convenience stores which are everywhere. There are vending machines for drinks everywhere – even alcoholic - blue light for cold and red light for hot drinks. Each area or city had its own style or was known for a dish. For example, the Ramen in Nara is made with a broth with milk in it and traditionally you spoon out the chicken and vegetables and eat them first, then to the remaining broth you added rice and an egg which you then cook in the dish over a flame.
Use of a guide: I highly recommend the use of a local guide for first time to Japan travellers.
It could be on arrival, for a 4 hour time period to assist ticketing the Rail Pass and checking out things as well as visiting attractions or over a few days. We had a lovely lady who is also a certified Hokkaido Nature Guide.
Places we visited/activities we did:
Shibuya – the busiest crossing in the world and shopping. I loved just watching the different phases of the crossing and actually walking on it. Bright lights and great shopping. We went to a Nintendo and a Pokemon store here, also passed Ikea. You can evidently walk to Shibuya in about 20 minutes from Shinjuku. I loved the vibe and the look of the shops in Shibuya. Shinjuku has a massive train station and it was from here we caught the Romance car train to Hakone. So one other reason to stay in Shinjuku is for the train. Shinjuku Central Park is where the Tokyo Marathon starts from and there is the Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens that are famous for the Cherry Blossom.
Ginza is the very high end shopping area.
One of my highlights was Teamlab Planets, a sensory modern art experience. Incredible experience and very popular, you should pre-book. Note that you need to wear clothing that will roll up or be above the knees like shorts and that they will be get wet up to their knees in warm water.
Hisui Tokyo Batto Experience – These are cultural experiences, for example you can choose Samurai, including costume and a real sword, or Kimono and partake in a traditional Japanese Tea ceremony.
Asakusa is an older Tokyo area with traditional craft shops, street food stalls and Senso-jiTemple. Busy with tourists and locals dressed up in Kimono’s and funky dress. Nakamise street leads to the Temple. Kaminarimon is the gate house before the Temple – very impressive massive lantern.
Hakone is a town on a beautiful lake with Mt Fuji at the end of it and a big red shrine in the water. It is also a region which can be confusing! Very beautiful area about 90 km south of Tokyo [ 1.5 hours by car or train
Unfortunately we had our worst weather day and didn’t see Mt Fuji or the sweeping views across the lake or get to ride on the boat across the lake and on the Ropeway as planned!
We were met by our bus and taken to the Daikansan Observation Deck for the views. The lakeside town of Hakonemachi-ko where the local craft is incredible - wooden boxes and other things are made with intricate patterns of the wood glued together. We had a go at making a box which also had a secret way to open it. Samuari who travelled in the old days had these security boxes and only they knew the code to open their own. Was good fun, beautiful craft and we shopped up a storm here.
We visited Hakone Shrine the Tori gate in the lake. Very impressive.
One of the other big highlights for me was the Hakone Open Air Museum in Gora, more of a very cool sculpture trail with a Picasso Gallery. Also has a hot spring foot pool. Definitely recommend it - clever, quirky, beautiful.
Once the capital of Japan before Tokyo, Kyoto is a beautiful city surrounded by hills with many shrines and temples. It is home to the Geisha district of Gion that featured in the film Memoirs of a Geisha.
We caught a Bullet train [ Shinkansen] to Kyoto from Hakone. A Bullet train ride is another experience all travellers to Japan should experience.
Higashiyama Ward [ District] – Another highlight for me, we walked up and down these beautiful old streets buzzing with tourists and shops on the way up to the really impressive Kiyomizu Temple and beautiful grounds.
Higashiyama-ku preserves the look and feel of feudal-era Japan in a wood-built historic quarter of narrow lanes lined with traditional pottery stores, tea houses, and restaurants for multi-course kaiseki meals. Centuries-old Zen and Shinto sites include lantern-lit Yasaka Shrine and hillside temple Kiyomizudera, which overlooks the city. Maruyama Park hosts festive hanami picnics under springtime cherry blossoms.
Kodaiji Temple is another nearby with beautiful grounds.
Gion District – we walked around here in the evening trying to spot a real live Geisha, unfortunately didn’t see one.
Nishijin Textile Centre – We each had a loom weaved a small mat learning how the fabric for kimono’s are made. It was interesting to see silk worms and how silk is made. This activity would be enjoyable for women interested fabric crafts.
Gekkeikan Okura Sake factory and Museum – we had a tour of the historic part of one of Kyoto’s oldest Sake factory’s, got to bottle our own bottle and sample a few sake.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is famous for its many red Tori gates and is set on a beautiful hill. Definitely a highlight to go through these – very cool place.
Nara was the original Capital of Japan before Kyoto! It is known for deer which are sacred in Nara! They wander over the roads and come up to people.
Nara, Osaka and Kyoto are in a triangle and are about an hour away from each other
Dinner – Very authentic local style Ramen restaurant in Nakatanidou – the old part of Nara. Was a very special meal eating at a table on the floor with sunken pit for our feet. Served by a Japanese woman in Kimono style dress, who knelt at the door to our private dining room to open and close the door. We had to take our shoes off to enter the restaurant and the toilet was outside. They provided shoes to slip on to walk to the toilet then another pair of shoes in the toilet to wear in there!
Nara Deer Park and Todaiji Temple this was another highlight. The deer thronging around is certainly different and entertaining. The Park is lovely but dominating it is this huge impressive temple built mid 700’s that houses the worlds largest bronze statue of Buddha. Truly awesome.
Osaka is a very cool, funky modern city - much of Osaka was levelled in WW2 and the area we did our street food tour in [Shinsekai] was one of the oldest, built in 1912. Our Street food guide described its people to us as different to the rest off Japanese people who are very regimented and obey the rules without question. Osaka people are more laid back.
Another big highlight of the trip was the Walking Street Food Tour. The owner Andy is half Japanese half Australian and has lived with his wife and daughter in Osaka for the last 5 years. He also runs a very popular Backstreet tour. I highly recommend the food tour to all clients, they do take kids along as well. We stopped at 5 different small restaurants, 3 of them included a drink with the food. Andy explained so much more than just food; we learnt about the culture and history of Osaka, saw a Retro 80’s Video game arcade, Men’s board gaming hall were they actual gamble [ which is illegal], X rated vending machines and the Caesar’s Palace of Onsens hotel/onsen complex with 16 country themed baths!
After the tour I walked to the canal and Dotonbori Street in Namba area. Bright lights and lots of people – loved it and felt safe walking around at night.
Doguyasuji shopping arcade - Kitchenware street – an arcade of Kitchen, homeware and lantern shops was just up the road from the hotel. I loved this and could have spent hours in these shops!
Osaka Castle – Built in the 1500’s this impressive castle is in lovely grounds surrounded by a stone walled moat and in a Park that features the Cherry blossom’s in the spring.