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.
Japan's Ancient Traditions
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 PASMO card for this journey.
A viable alternative to Kyoto for exploring traditional Japan, Kanazawa is linked to Tokyo by bullet train, meaning you can arrive at this western capital in just two and a half hours.
Once you’ve arrived and settled in to your hotel, head out to the Higashi Chaya district – one of three well-preserved ‘entertainment districts’, where traditionally geisha would perform in ‘chaya’ (teahouses) for feudal lords – something still possible to witness today (minus the lords!) The picturesque exteriors of these Edo period buildings are beautifully preserved, thankfully spared from the US air force bombings during WWII. Visit Shima Teahouse or Kaikaro Teahouse, both of which are open to the public.
From there, you may want to explore the Nagamachi Samurai Residences District found at the foot of Kanazawa Castle, to complete the history lesson Kanazawa offers to all visitors. Nomura-ke, a restored samurai home, reveals the secrets of life as a Japanese samurai during the Edo period.
Make time for some of Kanazawa’s delicacies in the evening. Seafood is particularly good in this region, and the winter snow crabs are a meal not to forget in a hurry.
The next morning, pay a visit to Kenroku-en Garden, a Japanese landscape garden, which took more than 100 years to shape and prune into the pond-filled, winding stream-laden space of relaxation it has become today.
Between Kanazawa and Shirakawa-go you will need to take an hourly highway bus, which takes 75 minutes and costs 1850 yen. Online seat reservation is possible on this website: https://japanbusonline.com/CourseSearch/11900040002?afcd=MDI=.
Ogimachi is Shirakawa-go’s largest village, so stop here for photos and to wander around the picturesque farm houses. Each season casts a completely different light on this area, so expect snowy scenes in winter and rustic amber colours in the autumn. The Shiroyama View Point in the village is the best place to take photos.
More than a dozen of the gassho zukkuri (constructed like hands in prayer) houses are now open as fully-functioning minshuku (BnBs), and an overnight stay means you’ll be able to fully experience traditional, rural Japan. Open fireplaces in the dining room and tatami mat floors make your stay as authentic as your surroundings.
The next morning, take the bus from the Shirakawa-go bus terminal, at the entrance to Ogimachi village and head to Takayama. This journey takes under an hour, and bus timetable and seat reservation details can be found here: http://www.japan-guide.com/bus/shirakawago.html.
Once you’ve arrived in Takayama, store your luggage in a locker at the station or head onwards to your hotel to drop off your luggage. Ready to explore, you’ll find Takayama’s atmospheric townscape set out exactly as it was in the 17th century.
Head to the Sanmachi-suji district - a traditional merchant area - for sake breweries, cafes and shops which are immacutely preserved, with wooden fronted houses that are worthy of capturing on camera. The Takayamna History of Art, a free museum, will let you understand a little more about local culture through the ages, or alternatively the Hida Folk Archaeological Museum will impress with its secret passageways and status as a former samurai residence.Come in the autumn or spring to see the best of Takayama, when the postcard-perfect streets come alive during the twice-yearly Takayama Festival. Watch the parade of enormous and elaborately decoated carts, which are pulled through the streets by happi-clad festival participants. Street food stalls and the lively bustle of residents and tourists jostling for space on the streets will make you see what all the fuss surrounding Japanese ‘omatsuri’ is about.
Takayama - Tokyo
Today is a day for travel and relaxation. The journey between Takayama and Tokyo takes around 4.5 hours.
First, you’ll need to jump on a JR Hida Limited Express train to Nagoya, which takes 140 mins (please note, trains come once an hour).
Once in Nagoya, take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen to Tokyo. If you board a Hikari train, this will be covered by your Japan Rail Pass. The journey time is between 100-120 minutes. If you're lucky, you may catch a glimpse of Japan's most famous resident, Mt. Fuji, from the bullet train window on your way back - sit on the left for better photo opps.
Having arrived back in Tokyo, you’ll want to relax from your day of travel. Try Tokyo’s ‘super sento’, Spa LaQua, inside Tokyo Dome, where you can enjoy the massage baths and outdoor hot springs to get yourselves settled for the evening.
Daytrip to Mt. Takao
With two days left in Tokyo, you’ll still have plenty of sides of this city to explore.
Having spent the previous day mostly sedentary, we suggest a day of activity on your penultimate day in the city. Take a JR Chuo Line train from Shinjuku to Takao Station (covered by the JR pass), and switch to a train for Takaosanguchi (130 yen, 3 minutes, not covered by the JR Pass). Here, you’ll find yourself at the foot of Mt Takao, ready to ascend!
This tranquil mountain is not particularly busy on weekdays. Most hikers choose trail one, which is well paved and takes around 90 minutes to the top. If you really don’t fancy the walk, the cable car will zip you up there instead.
Once you’ve reached the top, you’ll be able to visit Yakuoin Temple or the mountain’s Monkey Park. On a clear day, you’ll be treated to magnificent views of Mount Fuji, poking up in the distance.
Once you’ve climbed back down, you can treat yourself to a rest stop at one of the many soba restaurants near the station. Or if you’re feeling really weary, Takao-san also has a hot spring facility.
On day seven, your final day in the city, see its historic roots in 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, make a stop off at Omoide Yokocho (memory lane) or the Golden Gai. These alleyways of wooden bars used to only be open to actors, directors and film industry stars. Nowadays, you’ll find an abundance of salary men, delicious snacks such as yakitori and noodles, and plenty of beer to see you through your last evening in Tokyo in traditional style.