Ah, Japan. The place where tropical white-sand beaches, thousands of years of culture and tradition, and snow to die for if you’re a seasoned snowboarder or skiier, meet in one country. And there’s plenty more where that came from: think festivals, manga, food, and bullet trains. Think unique and you’re getting there…
Japan travel resources
So what’s so unique about travel in Japan? Well, like Britain, it’s an island nation. The country has four main islands: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku. It has no immediate bordering neighbours and, in fact, was cut off from the rest of the world for a period of over 200 years from 1635 until July 8, 1853. As a result, tradition and culture are an essential part of Japanese life and, as a visitor, this gives you the chance to experience some spectacular festivals and local events that are truly different to anything you’ll see elsewhere. It also gives you the opportunity to experience a way of life that is deeply rooted in respect — which also means it’s one of the safest places you can travel.
If you’re a sun-worshipper, snorkeller, diver, or salt-water fisher, consider heading south to the islands of Okinawa. The waters here are some of the most beautiful in the world, with fish in all colours and sizes. In contrast, Hokkaido to the north provides the famous Sapporo snow festival along with some of the best powder snow if you’re a winter-sports fanatic.
Then of course there’s Honshu, home to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Yokohama, and Hiroshima. Mount Fuji also lives here, along with Miyajima temple with its torii in the sea, and Kinkakuji, the golden temple. Connecting all of these is the iconic bullet train or shinkansen — a ride on this super-fast mode of public transport should definitely be on your Japan agenda.
City focus: Tokyo
Tokyo has been the capital of Japan since 1869 and it’s a city that’s all about the experience. It doesn’t have the traditional beauty of Kyoto, but it has a life and character of its own that shouldn’t be missed. It’s not something you see; it’s something you feel. There’s a vibrant undercurrent that touches everything that goes on here — a pace and rhythm of life that makes Tokyo so different.
What should you do in Tokyo? There’s plenty to choose from. Check out Asakusa, the oldest part of the city, and take a stroll around Sensoji Temple and Nakamise Dori shopping street. Go to the Miraikan, the future-science museum at Odaiba, for a look at what technology will look like in the not-too-distant future, and to see Asimo and other robots in full swing. Or hit the backstreets in the suburbs and explore a local shotengai (high street), for a more local take on life.Read more about Tokyo
Getting to and from Japan
If you’re flying into Tokyo and you have the choice of a flight to Narita or a fight to Haneda, choose the Haneda option. Why? Haneda is only about 20 minutes away by train from the very heart of the city. Contrast this with Narita which is actually located in the next prefecture, Chiba, and is around 60km away, and you get the picture.
If you’re visiting Kyushu island in the south of Japan then you’ll likely be flying into Fukuoka airport although you may well be on an indirect flight via Narita or Kansai. The New Chitose airport in Sapporo, Hokkaido, also handles a few international flights but again, most flights here will be indirect.
For most travellers to Japan a visa is not required although you should always check before booking your flight. For more information see this Japan visa information.
Getting around Japan
Japan has a huge network of buses that criss-cross the country from top to bottom. The more local buses can be a little confusing especially if you’re not such a confident traveller, but if you’re willing to take a leap of faith and trust that you’ll know when to get off, they are a great way of seeing the country. Of more use to travellers, especially if you’re on a budget, are the overnight buses that connect Tokyo with Nagoya, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and Kobe. These can save you a lot of money compared to other means of transport and they’re safe and relatively comfortable to use. See Japan buses.
The train network in Japan is probably the easiest way for a traveller to get around for local journeys. If you’re going to be doing lots of travelling across the country and want to use the bullet train to get you from A to B then a Japan Rail Pass or a JR East Pass can be great money-savers. As with the discount domestic plane tickets, if you want to buy the Japan Rail Pass you must purchase this before you arrive in the country; it is not available after you arrive. Trains run on time and are fast and frequent.
Car and camper rental
If you decide you want to drive in Japan you’re going to need a current international driving license. It’s relatively easy to hire a car using any of the major car-rental companies; however, be aware that many road signs, especially outside Tokyo, will not be in English but in kanji. Finding your way may be harder than you’d expect!
Road rules are also different here and you need to get familiar with them. If you hit a pedestrian, even if they’ve stepped out in front of you and would be in the wrong in your home country, you will most likely be found the offending party here and prosecuted as such.
Cycling and hiking
Cycling is big in Japan. The most popular bike you’ll see is the mamachari or mother’s bike. It usually has a shopping basket or kids’ seats attached front and back and is used by mums, salarymen, and tourists alike. You’ll also see many people riding on the sidewalk and it can be pretty unnerving the first time a cyclist comes hurtling along in your direction. Should you cycle on the sidewalk in Japan? Good question! And the answer is very hard to find — you hear different things from different people. For an idea of the cycle laws and how to avoid getting yourself into trouble see Tokyo by bike.
For travelling inside Japan, foreign visitors have access to a couple of great deals offered through JAL as part of the Yokoso Japan campaign (welcome to Japan). There are two discount options available: the first is Oneworld’s Yokoso/Visit Japan Fare and the other is the Welcome to Japan Fare. If you want to take advantage of either of these deals they have to booked before you land in Japan so you need to plan ahead. To find out which of these offers would be best for you visit JAL.
Cruise and sail
We’ve already noted that Japan is an island nation so there’s bound to be boats in the mix somewhere. There are a number of ferry routes that connect Japan with China, Russia, Taiwan, and Korea; if you like the high seas and you fancy exploring more of Asia while you’re here, this could be what you’re looking for. More locally, if you’re in Tokyo, the Sumida river hosts a range of cruises including the very funky Himiko boat.
Top 10 things to do in Japan
- Explore the temples and shrines. From big to small and from Buddhist to Shinto, Japanese temples and shrines definitely deserve a place on your vacation agenda. They’re usually surrounded by lovely Japanese gardens so you can enjoy a walk as well as try your hand with some good-luck charms on sale nearby. If you get lucky you might get to see something like a traditional wedding or cultural event taking place while you’re there.
- Ride the shinkansen. If you’re in Japan it would be a real shame to miss out on the bullet train. Reserve your seats and be sure to be there on time as the trains here won’t wait for you. Buy an ekiben (station lunch box) for your journey and then just sit back and enjoy the ride.
- Go to a local Japanese festival. Take a look at the Japanese calendar and plan your activities around any festivals taking place. These can be truly mad affairs with the locals really letting their hair down — and you’re more than welcome to join in. You might be carrying an omikoshi or you may end up doing the bon dance. Whatever it is, it’s guaranteed to be fun.
- Experience museums and special events. Museums in Japan, particularly in Tokyo, are up there with the best. You can choose from art to ramen or from science to parasites. My favourite? Definitely the Miraikan in Odaiba.
- Go souvenir shopping in a 100-yen store. Souvenirs can be a pain to buy as well as a drain on your spending money. Japan has the perfect solution: shops stocked from floor to ceiling with all kinds of goodies including Japanese bowls, chopsticks, sake sets, and green tea sets that all cost 100 yen. If you’re not sure where to find one just ask in your Tokyo hotel, and then enjoy having a good old nose around.
- Relax in an onsen. What’s an onsen? It’s a hot spring with water sourced from nearby volcanoes. Each onsen has special qualities that the Japanese believe will help with particular ailments of the body such as arthritis, skin conditions, rheumatism, and many more. Whatever you believe, they’re great for a spot of relaxing especially at the end of a long day. If you can afford it, go for a private outdoor onsen for a really romantic experience.
- Climb Mount Fuji. For two months of the year, July and August, you can join the many Japanese who make the annual trek to the top of Mount Fuji. It’s a rite of passage in Japan and it’s said that he who climbs Mount Fuji once is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool. Wise or not, catching the sunrise and views from the top is an experience that will mark your adventure. Why just July and August? For the rest of the year the weather at the top is considered too dangerous for any except the most seasoned climbers.
- Go diving or snorkelling in Okinawa. Turquoise waters, white-sand beaches, a chilled-out and extremely friendly environment, and a local cuisine that’s different from anything just add to the appeal of these beautiful islands. Stay on the main island or choose one of the less populous nearby isles then get ready for some seriously fine diving and snorkelling.
- Try a Japanese izakaya. What’s a Japanese izakaya? It’s the local drinking and eating venue where all the locals will go to hang out after work and talk business, laugh, share stories, and generally relax at the end of the working day. The other bonus? Food here is served in small portions and is shared between the members of your group. It’s a great way to try out loads of Japanese dishes without spending a fortune and without feeling that you’re going to offend the chef if there’s something you don’t like.
- Eat sushi, drink sake. Last but not least you’ve got to try some sushi and sake while you’re here. Be ready for the wasabi kick you’ll get in your sushi; it’s a little like horseradish and is an essential ingredient in any good sushi. Drink your sake hot or cold. Whichever you choose be careful! Sake is a potent drink and can quickly go to your head. Don’t be surprised if you end up getting tiddly a little faster than you expected.