Because Japan has always been dedicated to the unique, it's fitting that the country has a dazzling group of volcanic islands forming its own culture in the Pacific. Nothing is copied. Whether it's ancient Buddhist temples, ebullient fish markets, or neighborhoods flashing with neon, the country screams of originality at every turn. Almost every city street is an attraction, the ethereal concoction of sights and sounds providing endless entertainment. But contrast iconic cities with snow-capped Mount Fuji or white Okinawa beaches that make tropical postcards look dull. Even the forests are inimitable, flickering between immense stretches of green bamboo, coy carp filled rivers, and delightful blossoms. Like the classic Manga comic, you have an effervescent collection of stories to discover, each radiating a commitment to showcasing local culture.
Even transportation exudes originality. Bullet trains speed across the country and connect distant lands in astonishingly punctual Orient-Travel. You may even travel around in a yet-to-be exported model from one of the huge automobile companies. The world's most sophisticated transportation infrastructure is just another smooth edge that makes traveling through Japan wonderfully easy.
Every Japan journey is a riveting ride through glorious tradition and contemporary elegance, with hypnotic stops at the futuristic brilliance and natural splendor. Just like the classic Manga comic or the Murakami novel, your journey is infused with a radiant array of narratives, each oscillating from the sublime to the surreal. Strange juxtapositions envelope the country, often unfathomable to the Western mind, yet infused with absolute normality. For example, take a speeding elevator to the 40th floor, and then open a cute sliding wooden door and sit on a tatami floor mat to enjoy a traditional tea ceremony while gazing out over a hundred skyscrapers.
Japan's immense capital shines with lights and bursts with colors, offering an insatiable feast of fresh experiences. Distinct neighborhoods unveil an elaborate array of novel superlatives, from the flashing neon of Akihabara to the famous pedestrian crossing in Shibuya. From the painted faces of sub-cultured Harajuku to ancient temples hidden from urbanity. Not only is there something for everyone, but there's also something at every turn; immense fish markets where tuna is auctioned, rooftop restaurants with fabulous panoramas, skyscrapers in Shinjuku or tradition in Asakusa. Tokyo isn't merely a sightseeing experience; it's a fully immersive jump into one of the planet's most iconic and original cities.
Perfectly preserved and dancing with enchantment, Kyoto serves up a sublime blend of ancient Japan in all its nuances. No fewer than 17 World Heritage sites dot the city, epitomizing Kyoto's regal history and showcasing the center of a mesmeric cultural heartbeat. A pervasive atmosphere of tranquility accompanies the sights, with the serene Buddhist undercurrent bringing indelible spirituality to the architectural eminence. Then add in sculpted gardens and delightful flower blossoms and it's hard to imagine a Japan itinerary without Kyoto.
Hiroshima will be forever etched in world history, yet this blossoming city is far from a mournful ode to an unfortunate past. While the poignant A-Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park are essential stops, Hiroshima is engulfed in enthusiasm and vibrancy, epitomized by food stalls that line quaint, wide boulevards. Like most of Japan, your local itinerary can head into the future (like visiting the Mazda car factory) or revel in a glorious past (the seemingly floating red shrine gate of Grand Torii).
While nearby Kyoto laps up the fame, 8th century Nara prefers its role in the metaphorical shadows. In Nara, you'll find the world's largest wooden building, Japan's biggest collection of national treasures, the tallest pagoda, and the largest Buddha statue. However, Nara's greatest appeal is the hypnotic harmony and preservation of these ancient wonders, and the serene capital never relinquishes its evocative deliverance of charm.
Japan isn't the first country that springs to mind when it comes to white sand and turquoise ocean. But let's remember, these are Pacific Islands, as unforgettably imbued by tropical beauty as any other in the world's largest ocean. Okinawa epitomizes the idyllic beauty, mile after mile of pristine island beaches fulfilling the most demanding of getaway dreams. There's a different rhythm out here, one of swaying palm trees, lush jungle clad retreats, and irresistible marine adventures.
Ever since the 7th century, Osaka has been a land of conspicuous consumption and elaborate Orient-Travel. It's a city of indulgence, one of the finest on the planet for eating like royalty and thoroughly treating yourself. While the flashy city lights are integral to the city's attraction, it's easy to escape into millennia old shrines, endless spring cherry blossom, and intricate puppet theaters.
Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
Nestled on forested mountain slopes and swimming with charm, the historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama take you into another brilliantly original Japanese narrative. Thatched roof gassho-zukuri homes fill the villages, indicative of a longstanding dedication to tradition and a harmonious adaptation to an isolated environment. Recognized as World Heritage sites, and dazzling amongst a white blanket in winter, they provide the intermediate stop between Japan's ancient traditions and modern wonders.
While the omnipresent Japanese culture and style are an unforgettable highlight, the country is far from being one-dimensional. Few countries can serve up such an eclectic mix of experiences. Here are just a few iconic ideas to have you turning the pages.
Spring Cherry Blossom and Fall Colors
Seasonal changes bring new blankets of artistic brilliance to the whole of Japan. Opening cherry blossoms provide a spring covering of delight, and many city streets are briefly dominated by a captivating full bloom. Fast forward to after the fall season and a magical transformation brings a new palate of color with the country flickering through a kaleidoscopic blend of profound reds and fading oranges as the maple trees explode into life.
Quaint Mountain Retreats and Famous Hot Springs
In rural Japan, taking a bath isn't merely about getting clean. Naturally heated water fills outdoor tubs, the steam gently rising towards a landscape of jagged peaks and forests of pine, cedar, and bamboo. These traditional 'onsens' - or hot springs - punctuate the mountain revelry, mingling with cute old-fashioned towns and shimmering Japanese gardens. With the irrefutably efficient local transportation, escaping from city lights to mountain solitude can take less than an hour.
Rich Immersion in Buddhist Culture
Japan's commitment to the original can be traced back to its spiritual leaders, a myriad of indigenous religions epitomizing the country's hallowed harmony. It should come as no surprise that 'zen' entered the English dictionary from Japanese Buddhism. Insights into ancient temples and beliefs are easily sprinkled into any Japan itinerary while intimate journeys can also delve into the heart of this spiritual heritage. The origins of Japanese mythology are revealed in destinations like Shimane and Kumano.
Exploring a White Wonderland
Wintery Japan provides a provocative white blanket packed with classic adventures and inimitable festivals. Exquisite powder in Nagoya makes for some of the planet's best skiing and snowboarding while fabled snow monkeys tumble through the cute forests of Jigokudani in search of hot springs. When winter arrives, Japan offers just as many innovative itinerary options. Epic ice sculptures cover former Winter Olympic host city Sapporo, snow festivals bring out artistic brilliance, and boat cruises take you through thick drifting sea ice in Abashiri.
Sensual Japanese Cuisine
A trip into Japanese gastronomy is far more sensual than your local sushi restaurant. Culinary delights come alive in their native land with world-class chefs blending innovation, tradition, and organic freshness with exuberant panache. Tailored journeys seek out the very finest examples of authentic local cuisine, but a delightful buffet of unique flavors is an omnipresent narrative on every Japan vacation. From atmospheric food markets to sumptuous fine dining, the country leaves an unforgettable impression with every meal.
Japan changes dramatically through the seasons, from endless blankets of white snow to blooming cherry blossoms, tropical summer beaches to forest journeys across fallen leaves. Likewise, there are vast disparities between the northern mountains of Hokkaido and the Pacific Ocean tropics of Okinawa. The following seasons typically follow similar months as the US seasons:
Despite the regular inclement rain, spring is one of the best seasons for visiting Japan. Cherry blossoms douse the streets in color, the temperatures are pleasant (mostly in the 60's and low 70's), and there's an opportunity to explore all of Japan's diversity. Snow may just be clinging to the northern mountains while tropical beaches are more than hot enough.
A humid summer is ushered in by June's tsuyu (rainy season) bringing occasional typhoons and flash storms. It's not overbearingly hot, although the climate has a distinctively tropical feel and sultry atmosphere. The mountains, however, aren't as warm, so it's a great place to cool off.
After another shower of rain in September, fall is perhaps Japan's most beautiful season. The forests explode with color and like spring, most of the country will be pleasant and easy to visit.
Winter varies across Japan, with the Pacific coastline delivering dry, clear days and the Sea of Japan bringing snow and cold winds. Mountain retreats and ski conditions are magical this time of year. However, remember that winter brings significantly fewer hours of daylight.
Japan rules the world when it comes to efficient transportation. In most countries, train punctuality is measured in percentage terms, and anything above 90% is considered good. In Japan, a briefly delayed commuter train ends up in the next day's newspaper. Famous bullet trains speed across the country at 200 miles per hour, crossing immense bridges as they connect the length of the country. Even second-class seats are wonderfully luxuriant when compared to trains in the West. Trains are part of the Japanese experience, while also dramatically reducing travel time to next to nothing. Even when you transfer onto 'local' trains, you're still traveling with remarkable speed and comfort.
A network of local flights help catapult you to far destinations, and no fewer than nine Japanese car brands provide the Orient-Travel on the road. New models are released in Japan before they are exported, so expect an insight into the future of the automobile industry.
Befitting Japan's cultural juxtapositions, accommodation options range from the ultra-modern skyscraper suites to a wooden ryokan in the mountains. The cities are heavily business orientated, and there are thousands of modern hotels covering almost every district. All of the big international names are found here, but the less common Japanese ones can be equally luxuriant.
Far more traditional, a ryokan imbues a real sense of Japanese intimacy and authenticity. A stack of tatami mats is brought into minimalistic rooms when you want to sleep. Green tea and meals are served around low tables, and you'll usually sit on cushions on the floor. They're more common in rural destinations, although anywhere with an ancient heritage will feature a choice of ryokans. Most have elegant gardens fluttering with bird song, and opening the sliding doors reveals charming vistas. Note that it's rare that ryokan rooms are en-suite. You'll probably be bathing in the traditional style, having a hot bath and then getting wrapped up in a cotton kimono.
Japan features a myriad of unique choices, from capsule hotels to sleeping in Buddhist temples, and houses that blur the distinction between guesthouse and homestay; trying it all out is part of the experience. Like everything in the country, expect impeccable cleanliness and service.
Visa and Passport Requirements
Citizens of the U.S., Canada, and most EU countries do not need a visa for tourist visits up to 90 days. Technically, you may be required to prove that you're visiting for non-remunerative activities. A copy of your travel itinerary is sufficient.
Japan has some very strict laws on what constitutes illegal pharmaceuticals. Many over the counter medications are prohibited, such as pseudoephedrines like Sudafed or Vicks inhalers. Even with a prescription, strong painkillers and things like EpiPens are likely to be confiscated by customs, and you could even end up being deported. This medication can be brought into Japan by applying for a Yakkan Shoumei, or import certificate that you then declare to customs.
Japan easily ranks as one of the world's safest countries. Leave your expensive DSLR camera on a train and there's a very strong possibility that you'll get it back within a couple of hours. Destinations like Tokyo are remarkably free of the opportunist crime found in most world cities, and locks are rarely required in rural areas. An overarching culture of honesty pervades throughout the culture and people. Even the old Samurai warriors lived by a very strict moral code.
It's also one of the world's healthiest nations, with a strong commitment to balanced diets and staying fit at all ages. You'll see pensioners taking tai-chi group sessions in the park and little pre-frozen food in the store. The Japanese obsession with cleanliness is almost overbearing, and anyone with a cold will wear a mask to prevent transmission to others. Tap water is always drinkable, and food hygiene couldn't be of a higher standard. The only negative is the propensity of public smoking.
Physicians and international heath organizations generally recommend no additional immunizations for travel in Japan. There is no malaria risk. Japan has an outstanding infrastructure of cutting-edge medical facilities, although English speaking staff and doctors will not be omnipresent. Going with a local guide is always recommended. Make sure your travel and health insurance are up to date; otherwise the costs will be astronomical.
The Japanese obsequiousness can be too much to take in for some. Repeated thanks and eager bowing is something you'll come across on an hourly basis. Present an entrance ticket and you'll get excessively thanked for coming, even as you protest that you should be thanking them for allowing you to visit. The locals enthusiastically aim to please, whether it's in a restaurant, shrine, onsen, train, or hotel. On the surface, it results in exceptional service and personal attentiveness. At its heart, there is a rich culture of welcoming strangers and impressing visitors.
Japan does induce a strange culture shock, one that isn't always immediately apparent. As you journey through the country, you'll start to pick up on more unique everyday customs. This continual portrayal of local life is part of what makes Japan so fascinating. Many unwritten social norms form the backbone of Japanese culture. However, the locals are extremely understanding and don't expect foreigners to conform. A few simple things will ensure you're never offensive: follow the dedication to cleanliness, recycle and never drop garbage, and also take the time to express gratitude.
A large number of Japanese establishments maintain the traditional style of sitting on tatami mats on the floor, including hotels, restaurants, bars, and local homes. The biggest cultural faux pas is to walk on the floor with your shoes on. There is a transitional area for removing and leaving your footwear.
ATMs are ubiquitous, and the majority of them accept Visa, Mastercard, and Amex. It's rare that you'll go somewhere and not be able to pay by card. Currency exchange can be found in all major cities and destinations.
It's almost impossible to blend into the local dress. You'll see millions of sharply tailored suits, and young females dressing relatively provocatively, given the overarching cultural conservatism. Just stick to wearing what's most comfortable for you.