Japan is a heady blend of the historic and the high-tech, of ancient mystique and new-age modernity, as beautiful as it is beguiling. It’s been one of our favourite destinations for a while, serving up culinary and cultural experiences like few other places on the planet. From hyper-tech Tokyo to quaint Kyoto, sparkling city to serene countryside and snow-capped mountains, the Land of the Rising Sun is vibrant and varied in equal measure. Read on for our five reasons why you should plan to visit Japan now.
AWESOME AUTUMN COLOURS
Starting in the north of the country, high in the Hokkaido mountains in mid-September and continuing down to Kyoto into November, the captivating colours of koyo (autumn leaves) are a spectacular scenic draw, as the trees erupt in fiery reds and glorious golds. It’s an extremely popular time of year for domestic and international tourists alike, but their numbers peak in November, so September or October are good times to book now and beat the crowds. It’s also particularly rewarding to catch the first colours of the season with a hike in Hokkaido; entire slopes explode into stunning shades of scarlet, orange and yellow making for a truly majestic and memorable landscape. Temperatures have dropped after their summer peak, so conditions are ideal for a walk in the woods.
Daisetsuzan National Park, the largest park in Hokkaido, is by far the best place to see the earliest autumn leaves. In Kyoto, the elegant, ancient temples under the canopy of natural colour are one of the most enduring images of Japan. The Tokofuji Temple, one of the largest Zen temples in the region, is a top viewing spot. In Tokyo, we recommend Rikugien, possibly the finest landscape garden in the city; the network of winding paths around a large central pond provide a number of quiet spots to take in the tranquillity and stunning natural beauty of this serene city setting.
Spring brings sakura, the famous cherry blossom season, where the trees are painted pink across the country. It’s a very important time of year for the Japanese, who see the blooming of the trees as a symbol of transience and renewal. Many people hold flower-viewing parties known as hanami, celebrating the fleeting beauty of the blossoms under the colourful canopy with large gatherings, barbecues – and lots of sake.
In early April, Shinjuku Gyoen Park in Tokyo is one of the best blossom spots; featuring over a thousand trees of a dozen varieties and wide green spaces, it’s a great place to soak up the scenery. There are also early and late blooming trees to maximise your opportunity to see the colours. Hundreds of trees line the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, making for a very pleasant stroll. And, if you find yourself in the vicinity of Mount Yoshinoyama, make sure you have a camera to hand; 30,000 cherry blossom trees cover the slopes, making for a quite unforgettable view.
Sakura only lasts around two weeks, so it’s crucial to plan in advance to avoid disappointment.
Having secured hosting duties for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tokyo is getting firmly into the party planning spirit. An ambitious urban development program is already underway across the city, to deliver new cultural and convention centres, business and commercial districts – and a shiny new Olympic Village – over the next four years and beyond.
The Japanese government is also pushing forward initiatives to better cater towards new overseas visitors, particularly Westerners; despite the famous Japanese hospitality, some travellers have found themselves at the mercy of a complex (if extremely efficient) transport system, unfamiliar written language and relative lack of English speakers. Plans to include this include better access to free public Wi-Fi hotspots and currency exchange services. An ongoing (if controversial) economic policy designed at deliberately devaluing the yen has made Japan, historically considered almost prohibitively expensive for many, an increasingly bargain destination for foreign visitors. Eased restrictions on visas and an expansion of duty-free shopping have also bolstered inbound tourism, while an increase in immigration capacity and general access to airports are a welcome logistical boost.
Significant funds have been directed towards hotel renovations and areas outside the typical tourist traps, and the government have backed the use of minpaku – rental of private homes – to provide alternative and authentic accommodation to improve the visitor experience. The vast railway network is very much part of the initiative to lure visitors into more rural and remote areas, such as luxurious sightseeing trains touring the countryside of the lesser-known prefectures. One such bullet train bills itself as ‘the world’s fastest museum’.
Take advantage of the transformation – get in touch to plan your visit to Japan.
ALTERNATIVE ALPINE ADVENTURES
If you’re still searching for a ski holiday this winter, you should seriously consider hitting the slopes in Japan. The winter brings abundant snowfall to the northern and mountainous regions; the Niseko resort in Hokkaido is particular is famous for its perfect powder skiing, considered one of the best destinations in the world for the fluffy white stuff. Further south, Nagano, in the Japanese Alps – which hosted the 1988 Winter Olympic Games – is well worth a visit to catch the resident snow monkeys in greater numbers, bathing in the hot springs (onsen).
Of course, they’re not the only ones who can enjoy them; a soothing soak after a day on the slopes with a cup of hot sake in hand is the best après-ski experience you will find anywhere. Both offer excellent and accessible accommodation options which cater well to Westerners; Hokkaido is an hour’s domestic flight from Tokyo, and the Alps are under three hours by bullet train from the capital.
Whether you choose to strap on your skis in Niseko, Nagano, or any of the many other resorts up and down the country, you’ll find a welcome as warm as the hot springs and conditions as cold as the beer, making for a perfect powder adventure.
We couldn’t fail to mention the fabulous food; from sushi to soba, tempura to teppanyaki, Japanese cuisine is among the most celebrated in the world, not least amongst the Japanese themselves, whose enthusiasm and passion for their food is reflected in the meticulous preparation and presentation of even the simplest dishes. Distinct seasonality and regional specialities offer up an incredible variety of dishes. Seafood goes well beyond the infamous sushi; hundreds of species of fish and shellfish are served and eaten raw, boiled, steamed, deep fried or grilled.
In Tokyo, a trip to the Tsukuji Fish Market (the world’s largest wholesale seafood market) is unmissable; starting in the small hours of the morning, you can watch a frantic fish auction where mind-boggling amounts of produce are traded and sold, before tucking into some of the freshest sushi you can find anywhere. Kobe, world-famous for its signature marbled beef, is a must-visit for meat lovers. There is plenty for vegetarians, such as tofu steak or thick udon noodles served with vegetables.
Many restaurants specialise in one particular type of cuisine, which adds to the authentic experience, whether watching your food prepared in front of you at a teppanyaki restaurant, cooking your own Korean-style barbecue, or picking sushi off a conveyor belt at a kaitenzushi.