Where the past meets the future
On a Japan holiday, discover a country where ancient temples sit side-by-side with towering skyscrapers, and where cherry blossom is as celebrated as cutting edge inventions.
It would be hard to imagine a more futuristic country than Japan; it’s at the forefront of technological development, as the neon-lit electronics quarter of Tokyo so ably demonstrates. But it’s also a deeply traditional country that’s rightly proud of its rich cultural heritage and natural beauty.
Speeding through the Japanese countryside on a gleaming white bullet train, you might catch a glimpse of ‘Fuji-san’ - the beautifully symmetrical volcanic peak that, for many, symbolises this island nation. Whether you’re hopping across stepping stones in the garden of a tranquil temple, wandering through herds of sacred deer, or watching traders at work in the world’s biggest fish market, you’ll never be short of new experiences on a Japan holiday.
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On the face of it, the towering skyscrapers and neon lights of Japan's capital make it seem the very image of modernity. However, dig a little deeper and you'll discover that it's a city with a deep respect for the past. From the grandeur of the imperial palace to the noisy bustle of the world's biggest fish market, and from the towering heights of the Tokyo Tower to the tiny shrines hidden away in unexpected corners, Tokyo offers an insight into the many fascinating facets of Japanese society.
It's not far from Tokyo, but the pace of life in Hakone is worlds away from that of the energetic capital. With its misty views of snow-capped Mount Fuji, a cruise on peaceful Lake Ashi-no is like stepping into a traditional Japanese wood-block print. The area is famous for its hot springs, some of which enable you to enjoy fabulous views of the volcano while you relax in the geothermal waters.
If you've ever seen a nature documentary featuring Japanese macaques bathing in geothermal waters surrounded by snow, it was almost certainly filmed at the Monkey Park in Yudanaka. The pools may be man-made and the monkeys bribed with food, but the experience of visiting is nevertheless a novelty. The trip is also worth it for enjoying a nostalgic experience of old-world Japan in the neighbouring spa towns, Shibu Onsen and Yudanaka Onsen.
Incredible mountain scenery surrounds Nagano, earning it the nickname 'The Roof of Japan'. At its heart is the spectacular 7th century Zenkoji temple, one of the most popular in Japan and one of the country's last remaining sites of pilgrimage. Visit at sunrise and you'll witness the morning prayer ceremony, an age-old tradition in which you'll receive a blessing from a priest or priestess. Nagano also played host to the 1998 Winter Olympics, and as you explore the city you'll see structures associated with the Games dotted around amidst the ancient monuments.
A popular starting point for trips into the Japanese Alps, Matsumoto is famous for its splendid castle, Matsumotojo. Unlike many castles in Japan, it's original rather than reconstructed, so you can explore its black wainscoted rooms in the knowledge that you're looking on the very same walls that once housed the Ogasawara clan. Look out over the beautiful mountain scenery and the city from the upper floors, before heading down into the lovely streets of Matsumoto to discover its art galleries and coffee shops.
This charming little Honshu city oozes old-world charm. The perfect size for exploring on foot, it's packed with peaceful temples and shrines, impeccable bonsai gardens, sake breweries and fascinating museums. Discover its character with a stroll around its sleepy backstreets, and see how many of its hidden treasures you can uncover in surprising places. Come nightfall, soak up the ambience of this quiet place lit up at night as you go out in search of dinner in one of its renowned local-style restaurants.
It may be an industrial city, but you'll soon see why Nagoya is renowned for its friendliness. Welcoming locals make a trip to this city delightfully rewarding, and there's much interest to be had in exploring the city's imposing reconstructed castle. Discover the modern side to Japan by learning about the iconic bullet train at the excellent Railway Museum, and take a tour of the sprawling Toyota Headquarters. If you visit in the autumn, venture outside the city to Korankei to see the trees in vivid orange hues.
Discover the Japan of days gone by with a visit to Kyoto, its cultural centre and former capital. Experience tranquillity in the beautiful gardens of its many temples, in particular the gleaming Kinka-kuiji, or Golden Pavilion. Observe Japanese culture in action by joining in with a tea ceremony at one of the city's famous tea houses, or by wandering the streets of Gion, the Geisha district.
Heavily bombed in the Second World War, Osaka has been rebuilt in a modern style that makes it less aesthetically pleasing than cities such as Kyoto. However, wandering the streets of Osaka in the neon-illuminated evening dark, you'll discover that there's a lively atmosphere to this commercial centre that makes it an enjoyable place to spend time. It's especially strong on cuisine, so there's lots for you to sample from the food stalls that light up the night (be sure to try okonomiyaki, or savoury pancakes). By day, cultural gems such as Osaka Castle are waiting to be explored.
Infamous for its tragic fate in the Second World War, Hiroshima has risen like a phoenix from the ashes to become a thriving seaside city. The brutal legacy of the atomic bomb lives on in the peaceful memorial park to the victims; the sobering shell of the so-called 'A-Bomb Dome' is all that remains of the carnage wrought that terrible day. Board a ferry to sacred Miyajima Island for a more uplifting experience, and come face to face with friendly deer and the famous scarlet Torii Gate.
Sitting amongst the 3000 islands that pepper the Seto Island Sea is fascinating Naoshima. With sandy beaches and a relaxed atmosphere, it is best known for the modern art that is dotted all around the island. It is possible to visit on a day trip, but staying overnight gives you time to enjoy the slower pace of life. The island is small enough to explore by foot, or travel by bike or bus to conserve your energy and allow more time for sightseeing.
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Stay in a tatami mat room in a ryokan
This historic style of Japanese Inn originated in the Edo Period and is an insight into local culture. Many ryokans have an onsen, or hot spring, on site and offer traditional multi-course dining called kaiseki.
See Mount Fuji from Hakone
Perhaps Japan’s most iconic sights, Mount Fuji can be seen from Tokyo on a clear day, but travelling a couple of hours to Hakone allows travellers to enjoy the mountain views surrounded by the beautiful natural scenery and hot springs, as well as a variety of options for viewing the mountain itself, such as a cruise on Lake Ashi-no.
Meet a maiko in Kyoto
An exclusive Maiko dinner and performance in Kyoto gives you a unique opportunity to learn about the life of an apprentice Geisha.
Wander old-world towns in the Kiso Valley
Travel back in time and soak up the old-world atmosphere of the Kiso Valley. Wander the villages of Magome and Tsumago or explore World Heritage-listed Shirakawago, dotted with traditional thatch-roof homes.
Tsukiji fish markets in Tokyo
The fish market in Tokyo is the largest in the world, and it is well worth rising early to explore the markets as they bustle with local trade, before a sushi breakfast as fresh as they come.
Spot a geisha in Kyoto or Kanazawa
Spot a beautiful Geisha steal through Kyoto's atmospheric Gion district in the quiet of dusk or visit the old Geisha Quarters of Hagashi Street and Nomura-ke House in the samurai district of Kanazawa.
Visit the snow monkeys
When the snow begins to fall, the macaques of Yudanaka jump into the natural hot springs to keep warm. Watch them frolic in the pools as the steaming water melts the sprinkling of snow from their winter coats.
Race through the countryside on a bullet train
Rail in Japan is reasonably priced, fast and extremely reliable, and a trip on one of the high-speed bullet trains is not only a convenient form of transport but an exciting experience.
Discover Japanese cuisine
The Japanese passion for food means meticulously-prepared dishes are an art form in themselves. Produce is both seasonal and regional, and culinary tourism is popular with both local and international guests. Get your hands on some of the huge variety of typically Japanese dishes and taste it for yourself.
Take part in a tea ceremony in Kanazawa or Kyoto
A renowned part of Japanese culture, take part in a traditional Tea Ceremony in Kyoto or Kanazawa.
From the blog
Planes, Trains and Automobiles in Nagoya, Japan
January 2016A major manufacturing centre, Nagoya also offers a number of museums, temples, shops and restaurants. For those interested in transport new and old, it offers an interest not many other cities in Japan can.
Food in Japan: How to order like a local
Everything you wanted to know about Japanese food but were afraid to ask. Our guide to Japan’s most popular dishes, and the ingredients used to make them, will have you ordering like a local in no time.
Just Arrived: new tours unveiled in the beautiful Japanese Alps
Japan’s Alps reveal unexpected delights from snow monkeys to ice breakers.