Neon lights and all-night karaoke. Tranquil temples and bowing geisha. Steaming hot springs and soaring Mount Fuji. Japan is brimming with evocative moments, and delicious contrasts. Where else can you spend the morning shopping in a skyscraper and the afternoon chilling in the forest with snow monkeys?
The question, for most visitors, isn’t why go – but how to put it all together. The good news is that it’s easier than you may think. From excellent transport links (the bullet train is world famous) to cheap dining and plenty of English-language signage, Japan is very user friendly. It’s clean, safe and suitable for everyone from solo travellers to young families. And, despite a pricey reputation, it’s doable on a budget.
Travel restrictions and entry requirements
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Japan has been slow to open its borders. While tourists may now enter the country, changes to entry requirements are still ongoing depending on your reason for visiting, vaccination status and recent travel history. Before booking a trip check gov.uk for the latest details.
While most Covid-related restrictions have been eased within Japan, in practice social distancing and mask-wearing is still commonplace. Visitors should take their steer from locals. If you have even the slightest sniffle – whether it’s a cold or hay fever – it is considered polite to mask up.
Best time to go
Japan is a proper all-seasons destination. Traversing 25 degrees of latitude – from northerly Hokkaido to subtropical Okinawa – it has diverse climates and landscapes, so the best time to visit depends on what you plan to do.
Generally speaking, summers are warm and humid (with typhoons in August and September), and winters mild. Some areas, including the Alps, see substantial amounts of winter snow. Spring is famous for its country-wide explosion of cherry blossom, but prices can be high and bloom dates variable. October and November’s autumn leaf colour is equally dazzling, longer and a bit quieter. If you’re strapped for cash, the cheapest time to visit much of the country is mid-January to early March.
Top regions and cities
Most visits begin in Japan’s capital city, Tokyo, and so they should – this neon-drenched, swallow-you-whole metropolis contains all the frenetic energy you’re expecting from urban Japan. Hop from 24/7 karaoke bars in Shinjuku to epic shopping in Shibuya or Ginza, and quirky gaming arcades in Akihabara. Feast on £5 ramen from a tiny train station eatery, or £300-a-head omakase (chef’s choice) sushi in a tranquil tatami-mat-lined restaurant. Getting overwhelmed? Easy day trips to seaside Kamakura, mountainous Nikko or nearby Hakone, famous for its onsen (hot springs), can break up the city intensity. Mount Fuji, Japan’s iconic peak, is only a speedy train ride away too.
Kyoto, a three-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo, is the country’s other essential must-see city, and it couldn’t be more different. Ancient temples and shrines, cobbled streets stuffed with atmospheric tearooms and darting geishas – it’s a proper historical throwback. Rather than just tick off the busy headliner stops like Kiyomizudera, Kinkakuji and Fushimi Inari, try to strike out to some of the quieter, lesser-known temples and shrines. There are around 2,000 within the city, and the smallest, sleepiest ones often feel the most magical.
Hiroshima is synonymous with the devastating 1945 nuclear bomb attack, but today this low-key cultural city has plenty for visitors. Both the haunting figure of the Atomic Bomb Dome and the Peace Memorial Museum are essential – if difficult – stops. Most travellers also come here to see one of Japan’s most iconic shrines: Unesco-listed Miyajima. Its ‘floating’ red torii gate has graced many a postcard. Active types also enjoy the nearby 70km-long Shimanami Kaido cycling trail, which sews up six islands in the Seto Inland Sea, ending in lush temple-studded Shikoku.
Beyond this classic trio of stops, where you should head in Japan depends on your individual interests and time scale.
Osaka, less than 30 minutes from Kyoto, is another major city with a thrumming restaurant scene and plenty of museums. In contrast, nearby ancient capital Nara is like a mini Kyoto with oodles of old-world charm and historic temples – plus a cheeky population of free-roaming deer.
Art lovers often head to rural Naoshima, one of the Seto islands, for its internationally acclaimed contemporary galleries, sculpture by Yayoi Kusama and boundary-pushing architecture by Tadao Ando.
Nature fans can’t go wrong with Shikoku, where remote temples, rope bridges and waterfalls are cloaked in dense greenery.
If visiting in winter, don’t miss the Japanese Alps. Wooden villages in Gifu prefecture look plucked straight out of Switzerland; Tayakama’s quaint old town is filled with the aroma of brewing sake. There are steaming onsens set in view of white-capped peaks and frolicking snow monkeys. Ski bunnies, meanwhile, have the Olympic slopes of Nagano, blanketed in reliable powder, to keep them busy.
Best under-the-radar destinations
Few first-time visitors make it to the southern island of Kyushu. Fewer still visit its remote north-eastern Kunisaki Peninsula, far from the (elsewhere comprehensive) train network. But they’re missing out. This hilly volcanic peninsula is an ancient religious centre, stuffed with timewarp temples and large-scale Buddhist carvings, and cloaked in bamboo groves and forest. To experience it properly you’ll need to be comfortable self-driving, or visit with an operator such as Walk Japan (walkjapan.com), which can arrange transport.
In Japan’s far southern reaches – closer to Taiwan than Tokyo – the subtropical Okinawan islands have a culture, food scene and landscape all their own. The main isles are largely host to holiday resorts, but the Yaeyama chain is still relatively rustic and untouched. Mangrove-covered Iriomote Island, recently named a Unesco World Heritage Site, is a tropical wilderness of peaks and waterfalls, and home to a petite endangered wildcat. Taketomi Island, in contrast, is villagey and beachy, with water buffalo and weaving centres turning out lovely handmade crafts.
Tohoku, the northern section of Japan’s main Honshu island, fell somewhat off the tourist circuit following 2011’s tsunami. But it has everything you could want in a Japanese break: atmospheric old towns, epic scenery, great food and buzzing matsuri (festivals). In Yamagata, Ginzan Onsen is the picture of a romantic hot springs town, with cosy historic inns and a 22m-high waterfall. Miyagi’s Genbikei Gorge, meanwhile, is a brilliant destination for hikers. In winter, you can visit ski resorts Appi Kogen and Zao, and in spring, stroll under rows of weeping cherry trees in samurai town Kakunodate. All without the tourist crowds of Tokyo or Kyoto.
Best things to do
Karaoke in Tokyo
Karaoke in Tokyo is iconic for a reason. It’s plentiful, cheap and discreet – with private booths, rather than onlooking crowds. What you’ll pay will vary depending on the location, karaoke chain, time of day and number in your party. Daytime midweek prices can sometimes be as low as £1-2 per 30 minutes.
Stay in a ryokan
You haven’t really experienced old-world Japan until you’ve stayed in a ryokan, a traditional inn. You’ll sleep on a roll-out futon mattress in a tatami-mat-lined room, lounge about in comfy yukata robes and sample traditional multi-course meals (sometimes served inside your room). Many ryokans also come with onsen, Japanese hot springs – another must-try. Do note: bathing is strictly in the buff, sexes are separated and, in most cases, tattoos are banded.
Eat from a kaiten
Japan has one of the richest, most diverse food cultures in the world. But if you have one culinary ‘must’, it’s visiting a kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi bar. Inexpensive yet good quality, it’s a self-serve experience, with each plate clearly colour-coded according to its price. At the cheapest outposts in Tokyo, you can have a feast for £10-15 a head.
Unless you’re going to sub-tropical Okinawa, internal flights don’t make much sense in Japan – the high-speed rail network is just too good. Unless you’re sticking to Tokyo, buy a Japan Rail Pass (japanrailpass.net), which allows unlimited travel on most major lines throughout the country. A seven-day pass costs about £186 and must be purchased before you travel to Japan.
For those rare parts of the country not covered by rail, there are usually good, regular coach services. Or you can hire a car; roads are well-maintained and driving is, like the UK, on the left side of the road.
How to get there
Direct flights land into one of Tokyo’s two airports, Haneda and Narita. The former is slightly closer to the main city districts you’ll want to explore, including Shinjuku and Shibuya. Before the pandemic it was also possible to fly direct to Osaka; time will tell if this route is revived. Try British Airways, Japan Airlines (JAL) and ANA for nonstop flights.
If you don’t mind a stopover, you can often save cash by flying via the likes of Dubai (with Emirates) or Finland (with Finnair).
Depachika, the underground food halls typically found under major department stores, are a wonderland for cut-price eats. You can get gourmet sushi, onigiri (rice balls), yakitori (skewers) and more for a bargain. Conbini (convenience stores) such as Family Mart, 7-Eleven and Lawson have great (if slightly less premium) options too.
What’s the weather like?
Tokyo weather ranges from mild winters to hot summers. Alpine regions get lots of snow in winter, whereas the southern Okinawa islands are subtropical. Pack according to your itinerary.
What time zone is it in?
GMT+9 hours. Japan does not observe Daylight Savings Time.
What currency do I need?
Japanese yen. Cash is still widely used. Convenience store ATMs usually accept foreign cards.
What language is spoken?
Japanese. In cities and other major visitor destinations, English is widely spoken.
Are there any cultural taboos?
Japan has a complex culture and visitors often worry about accidentally offending. In truth, you’re not expected to know the ins-and-outs, so try not to panic. But a few points to note: don’t talk on your phone on public transport. Don’t eat or smoke while walking. And never pass food between pairs of chopsticks or leave your chopsticks sticking upright in a bowl of rice; both mimic traditional Japanese funerary customs.
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