Japan is a fascinating land of contrasts, an engaging combination of futuristic cities, ancient culture and stunning natural landscapes. From the white sandy beaches of Okinawa, and the mountain hot springs of Hakone, to the tranquil beauty of Kyoto and the big city excitement of Tokyo; each region of Japan has something special to offer.
The Extended Golden Route
The loop from Tokyo to Kyoto via Mt. Fuji in Hakone is one of the most popular sightseeing routes for tourists in Japan. Shake things up a bit by stopping off en route to visit Japan's most sacred Shinto shrine, Ise Jingu, shrouded by mysterious misty forests, and ama female pearl divers in central Ise.
Arriving in Tokyo, you’ll need some time to shake off the jet leg and prepare yourself for an evening of neon lights, karaoke booths and alleyway bars filled with Japanese lanterns, merriment and plenty of sake.
A great first stop for those needing a tranquil retreat lies in Yoyogi Park – where you’ll find the Meiji Shrine awaiting you deep within a tranquil forest. Whilst there, you can get up close with Japan’s indigenous religion, Shintoism, and learn the correct method of paying respect to the Shinto deities (hint: it’s a series of bows and claps!)
From Meiji Shrine, head onwards to Takeshita-doori – one of Japan’s maddest shopping streets, which is great for tweens and teens keen on fashion bargains and Japanese idols. Once you’re through the crowds, you’ll be able to wander the pleasant back streets behind Aoyama-doori, where an assortment of stylish cafes, boutique shops and treasures awaiting you.
It’s possible to walk from here all the way to the magnificent Shibuya crossing – reputedly the world’s busiest – where you’ll bump into the towering Shibuya 109 department stores. If you’re still looking for some serenity in your wobbly state, however, you could hop on the tube and head to upmarket Daikanyama instead, where an oasis of Japanese design awaits at the T-site; filled with books, much needed coffee and calm.
In the evening, if you’re up to it, seize the opportunity to appreciate just how large Japan’s capital really is by seeing it from above. Two great options for this are the Peak Bar or the New York Bar – made famous by the film ‘Lost in Translation’. With the lights twinkling below, a cocktail in hand and an abundance of friendly Japanese waiters and waitresses pottering around you, you’ll know that you’ve definitely arrived in Tokyo.
Travel: You will need to travel from Haneda or Narita airport to central Tokyo. From Narita, take the Narita Express train or limousine bus. From Haneda, you can take the monorail to Shinagawa station, which connects many underground and JR lines, in 12 minutes. You can use a SUICA or PASSMO card for this journey.
For visitors hoping to see the majestic mountain up close, the key is of course not to get too near this active volcano – as you’ll only get the dramatic photos you’re hoping for from a reasonable distance.
If you head to the Fuji Five Lakes area, you’ll be able to see this iconic mountain from the water. The journey takes around 2 hours (70 minutes between Shinjuku and Otsuki stations, and then a further 55 minutes between Otsuji and Kawaguchiko station. Use www.hyperdia.com for train timetables).
Take a canoe or kayak out on to the lake and lay back, with the sun on your face, and the sight of the mountain looming fully in front of you. If you’re in Japan for a special occasion, or want to make a truly memorable trip, we recommend the Hoshinoya Fuji – Japan’s only glamping hotel. Its stylish sleeping pods peak out from the mountainside, and the hotel’s concierge can arrange and kayak rental, as well as various outdoor dining experiences.
There are other ways, of course, to meet and greet Mt Fuji. Those travelling by bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya might catch it through the window of the train, on a good day. Or, for the thrill seekers, spot it from the top of a rollercoaster at nearby Fuji-Q Highland (possible to reach via bus from Shinjuku’s bus station).
The Fuji climbing season takes place between July and September, and is not for the fainthearted – climbing this 3,776m mountain takes around 12 hours, with most people climbing through the night to arrive in time for sunrise.
Continuing your journey further south, you will arrive in Ise. A million miles away from Tokyo’s hustle and bustle in atmospheric serenity, this area of Japan perhaps looks more like your images of the Mediterranean; with green islands dotted around a glistening blue sea.
Ise is home to an abundance of sights, not least Japan’s most famous shrine: Ise Jingu, which sits inside a sacred forest.
Next to the shrine sits Okage Yokocho – traditionally a rest and snack stop for weary travellers making pilgrimages to Ise Jingu shrine. Nowadays, these beautifully restored, Edo-period-style wooden shops offer both an aesthetically attractive wander as well as a Japanese culinary adventure.
You’ll find delicious tofu donuts, matcha ice cream, yakitori skewers, udon noodles and more, all made in the traditional way using local ingredients. If you can get a guide, a tour of the area with explanations about the various foodstuffs and preparation methods will make a fascinating historic and culinary exploration for you and your travelling companions.
Most of the sights in this area sit within the Ise Shima National Park, but venture slightly further afield and you’ll find the coastal villages home to Japan’s ama divers. These female freedivers have fished the seafloors, without employing any technical equipment, for generations. These days, this dying profession welcomes visits from tourists, who can dine with the divers on today’s catch in their traditional huts by the sea. Arrange a visit via the Kaito Yumin club, who offer fantastic tours in English or Japanese.
(For those who want a luxury stay, you could try the nearby Amanemu – an Aman property with an enormous outdoor hot spring and stylish spa).
There is never enough time to explore Kyoto. This city of temples, of old shopping streets, bamboo groves and world class cuisine is never far from visitors’ hearts, even once they have returned home.
Start by exploring the old streets of the Higashiyama area, where days gone by seem alive and thriving. This is where you’ll begin to see the differences between this ancient capital and its contemporary counterpart, Tokyo. The old shopping lanes mark the approach to the Kiyomizu-dera temple – an incredible architectural feat, made entirely without the use of nails. From the platforms of its main hall you’ll see the city spread out below, a particularly beautiful view in autumn when the trees turn red, amber and gold.
Behind the temple, you’ll come across Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the deity of matchmaking. According to the old wives’ tales, walk between two large stone set outside of the shrine with your eyes closed and you’ll find success in love!
In the afternoon, why not try a traditional Japanese activity such as a tea ceremony, or try and spot a maiko-san or geiko-san (Kyoto’s version of Geisha) in Gion Corner.
The next day, waking up early, you could hire a bicycle or two from near Kyoto station, and cycle up to Kinkakuji, or ‘Golden Pavilion’ as it is known in English. Take a tranquil stroll through the temples gardens and see this building (which is as every bit as beautiful as the pictures) from every angle.
Returning to the station in the afternoon, catch a 15 minute train to the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. As you begin to walk beneath the 10,000 bright vermillion ‘torii’ gates you’ll be surrounded by throngs of people, but those who continue walking will find the crowds tail off, providing an oasis of tranquillity (and a better chance at getting some good photos).
In the evening, jump in a taxi and ask the driver to take you to his favourite ramen restaurant. This is a sure-fire way to make sure you’re eating off the beaten path, at some of the best ‘B Kyuu Gourmet’ places in the city.
Take a 30 minute train ride to Nara – the even more ancient, ancient capital of Japan, which preceded Kyoto as the home of the Emperor’s seat.
Nara Park sits at the heart of the area, and is packed with some of its most famous World Heritage Sites. Travellers who visit Nara delight in meeting the Nara Park deer, who have learned to ceremoniously bow for crackers.
Not to miss here is the enormous bronze Buddha statue which sits within Todai-ji temple, easily one of Japan’s most photogenic, built all the way back in the 8th century. Also inside the temple are tables filled with ‘omikuji’ – Japanese fortune telling strips. Once you’ve discovered your destiny, walk a little further into the park and you’ll find Kasuga Taisha Shrine, whose vermillion coloured buildings beautifully contrast with the background of lush green trees. The surrounding Kasuga Primeval Forest offers the perfect opportunity for travellers to try a little ‘shinrin-yoku’ or ‘forest bathing’, by strolling meditatively amongst its trees.
There are several restaurants in a rest area near the park, along with souvenir shops should you need to pick up any deer-shaped treats for friends back home.Finally, a stop off at Kofuku-ji Temple, with its five-storied pagoda, will make your trip to Nara complete. The best time to visit is perhaps during the Nara Tokae Festival, when the approach is lined with candles and the pagoda is reflected in the surrounding Sarusawa-ike pond.
Though smaller than the capital, Osaka – Japan’s second city – certainly makes up for its smaller size. Lively bars, friendly residents and culinary brilliance make this a city with a big personality, and a common favourite amongst travellers.
With two days in Osaka, you’ll have plenty of time to properly explore. Start your adventures here by visiting Osaka Tenmagu Shrine, just east of JR Osaka Station. If you’re visiting in July ensure to time your visit with the Tenjin Matsuri, one of the most lively the country has to offer.
From here, your next stop off should be Osaka Castle, which can be explored both inside and out. Finishing the day with another cultural monument, make time for the National Museum of Art – even if only to admire this striking building from the outside. For dinner, try visiting Kiji in the Umeda Sky Building. This small okonomiyaki restaurant will knock your socks off!
The next day, try visiting Shinsaibashi and Namba. Particularly popular with the younger crowd, the vividly decorated America-mura area thrives with unusual fashions. The nearby National Bunraku Theatre is a stop off option for those wanting to learn more about Japanese traditional arts, and offers English audio guides so you can understand the action.
If Osaka were famous for one thing only, then it would have to be good food. The Osakans know how to eat, and often do so ‘til they drop’ as their saying ‘kuiadore’ goes. Conveyor belt sushi, okonomiyaki and takoyaki all hail from this city, known as ‘Japan’s Kitchen’.
Therefore no stay in the city is complete without sampling a range of the local delicacies. The best place in the city to try a bit of everything? Downtown Dotonbori, where hole in the wall eateries are a dime a dozen, lining the neon-lit streets. Spend an evening wandering and sampling the variety of street food creations (particularly kushikatsu and takoyaki) but also ensure you make time for a quick dip into Don Quixote – one of Japan’s most famous and bizarre stores, where you’ll find all sorts of goodies to take home as omiyage (souvenirs).
Back in Tokyo, you’ll have free time to roam the enormous city. With no real centre, it’s more about getting out into Tokyo’s various districts and soaking up the atmosphere.
For a slower pace and a side of Tokyo that perhaps goes more undetected than the skyscraper clad streets of Shinjuku, try visiting Yanaka. The untouched architecture and wooden homes of this district sit alongside ancient temples and shrines. Take a walk down Yanaka Ginza, a shopping street where nostalgic music tinkles gently through speakers, and visitors stop for delicious tasting snacks.
To keep with the slow pace, visit Japan Folk Crafts Museum, where the nation’s craft art collections are showcased. Slipping off your shoes upon entry, you’ll find ceramics, textiles and more displayed in these grand, yet tranquil, surroundings.
Finally, to mix things up and get back to the Tokyo of today, head to dizzyingly fast-paced Shinjuku. Once you’ve escaped from the subway, take a walk to the Golden Gai, or Omoide Yokocho, where teeny wooden bars sit side by side, seating around eight people. Whilst snacking on yakitori, ramen or a number of other delicious B-kyuu gourmet foods, you can settle in with a tankard of beer and the knowledge that you’re in for a good night.