A truly timeless location, Japan’s ancient traditions effortlessly fuse with modern life, resulting in a melting pot of unique cuisine, diverse landscapes and unforgettable experiences. Whether you want to shop ‘fast’ fashion, hike a sacred mountain or simply eat your way through a lifetime’s worth of ramen noodles, here is our guide to exploring the fascinating mix of hype and history that is Japan.
A kaleidoscope of the old and the new, Japan’s vibrant neon-lit streetscapes are a unique combination of buzzing urban centres and age-old temples. From 24-hour dining scenes and sci-fi-like bullet trains, on the surface Japan appears exceedingly modern, but if you venture a little further, you’ll discover a host of opportunities to connect with its traditional culture.
Japan’s capital, Kyoto, offers a heap of temple viewing opportunities with around 2000 of them scattered across the city, including the outrageously blingy Kinkaku-ji (the top two floors are covered in gold leaf). Or if you like a bit of an adrenalin rush combined with your sightseeing, head to Tokyo for nostalgic rollercoaster riding at Japan’s oldest amusement park, Hanayashiki.
If you prefer touristy fun that’s a little more artsy, venture offshore to Naoshima (known as ‘Art Island’) with its galleries and outdoor installations, or if you’re a feline lover, take a visit to the island of Tashirojima.
Virtually uninhabited by humans, ‘Cat Island’s’ biggest drawcard is the hundreds of furry residents that call this place home. Meow!
Continuing with the feline theme, did you know that the cuter-than-cute Hello Kitty is a Japanese invention? A fictional character that first made its appearance way back in 1974, it’s a staple of ‘kawaii’, which in Japanese popular culture literally means the ‘culture of cuteness’. Now a global marketing phenomenon, this purr-fect celebrity appears on everything from dolls and clothing to stationery and home appliances, and even has her own pink and white bullet train!
For an up-close-and-personal experience of this Japanese icon, don’t miss Tokyo’s Hello Kitty World, where you can hop onboard a themed ride, visit Kitty’s house (complete with her personalised bath tub), and tour the totally sweet ice cream and chocolate factories.
With over two-thirds of the country’s landscape covered in mountains, Japan’s Northern Alps are certainly worth conquering if part of your travel routine involves some heart-starting outdoor fun. From the tiny town of Kamikochi, you can set out for an easy day hike, or really challenge yourself with a week-long adventure surrounded by lush forests and volcanic ranges. Prefer a hike up a sacred mountain? Head for Mt Fuji. Located around 100k’s southwest of Tokyo, it’s the country’s tallest peak at 3776 metres.
And if visiting in winter, don’t miss Hokkaido. Boasting some of the finest powder in the country, its three major ski resorts offer ample opportunities for carving up a storm with its skiing, snow boarding and ice climbing adventures.
After all that physical activity, there’s no better way to chill than at one of Japan’s famous onsens. With over 3000 onsen resorts located across Japan, these naturally occurring hot springs are not only divinely relaxing, they are also said to aid injury and illness. There are a total of 19 different types of onsen baths that are classified by their mineral composition, including sulphur onsens (totally skin-softening), iron onsens (ideal for upping your energy levels) and hydrogen onsens (just pure bubbly fun!).
Or truly bliss-out with a traditional Japanese massage. Shiatsu is an ancient technique that combines finger pressure with gentle stretches that target the body’s different pressure points. It will not only fix imbalances in your flow of energy (SO zen), it will probably send you off to a peaceful slumber as well!
If you love a good old chow-down, then Japan is definitely on the menu. Renowned for its fancy sushi and tempura dishes, a traditional multi-course dinner known as kaiseki is also a great value-for-money meal option. Then there are the revered ramen noodle shops where you can slurp your way to tastebud heaven, or why not experience a hearty mountain hotpot?
These consist of a variety of choose-your-own ingredients (including beef, pork, boiled eggs, tofu, noodles and veges) served in a deliciously warm clay pot.
Missing your feline companion while you’re away? Then make sure you check out one of Tokyo’s cat cafés. Housing all manner of furry friends including rare breed varieties, they are the perfect snuggling companions to a steaming cup of ryokucha (green tea).
Japan is renowned for its high-tech electronic gadgets, so if you’ve got room in the take-home luggage for new headphones or a camera, it’s the place to grab it. You may want to bypass the electronic toilet seat however (yes, believe it or not they sell these here too!).
Embracing a credit card frenzy is also worth it in Japan if you’re a fashion lover. GU, WEGO and UNIQLO are Japan’s top ‘fast’ fashion retailers, and the Tokyo districts of Ginza, Shibuya and Harajuku are where they’re at.
Keen to take home a traditional Japanese souvenir? Grab yourself some matcha. A food that’s in high demand across the globe, this finely ground green tea powder is not only super-good for you, it also tastes great.
Not convinced? Taste test a matcha pancake or a gelato parfait and we guarantee you’ll be grabbing a backpack-load of matcha Kit Kats for the trip back home.
For a truly authentic overnighter, track down a minshuku, which are family operated B&Bs where you can meet some of the charming locals and experience some of the delights of the traditional Japanese lifestyle. It’s the ideal way to enjoy a soak in a furo (a traditional bath) before settling down to a home-style dinner and a peaceful sleep on a fluffy futon.
Or to truly amp up your experience of Japan, why not stay overnight in a monk-filled temple? Located on an 800-metre-high plain, Mount Koya is not only a World Heritage site, it’s been a place of spiritual pilgrimage since the ninth century. Here you can feast on a multi-course vego dinner, sleep the night in a tranquil tatami mat room then wake early to join your hosts for their early morning prayers. What a divine way to end a holiday!