If you’ve ever eaten sushi, sipped sake or seen anime, you may be confident that you have a grasp of Japanese culture. That is, of course, until you step foot in the country. A marvellous myriad of contrasts, Japan blends the quirky and the peaceful; the polite and the outrageous, and ancient customs with futuristic technology with minimal effort. The result is a truly timeless country full of surprises which makes Japan travel a pleasantly disorientating experience.
Japan is a country that has its modern exterior gently stripped away the deeper you travel. At first, the extremely efficient public transport, hyperactive metropolises and technology that seems to be woven into every part of this 6,800-island archipelago make Japan appear exceedingly modern. Beyond the contemporary, you’ll find numerous opportunities to bridge the gap between old and new within the country’s traditional culture. Spending a night in a ryokan, dining on tatami mats, bathing in hot springs, attending a tea ceremony and visiting ancient towns are just several ways to tap into Japan’s old-age customs and traditions.
Pioneers in design, technology and fashion, Japanese cuisine also rarely disappoints. Regardless of where your Japan tour takes you, you are never far from a unique dining experience. Like much of Asia, often restaurants will specialise and excel in one dish, with generations having spent years perfecting it. As you travel, you’ll find that the best places to visit in Japan often come hand-in-hand with some attractive regional dishes, fresh ingredients and seasonal produce.
Japan’s lightening-speed industrialisation and modern-day penchant for technology trends are gloriously offset by its devastatingly beautiful landscapes and abundant nature. Head into the mountains to find some of the best powder snow in the world and steaming hot springs, go north for the tropical beaches or revel in the autumnal beauty of Kyoto. Slender, diverse and highly volcanic, Japan has the ability to wow at every turn.
We’re only scratching the surface here, we could go on and on. However, if you’re planning to visit Japan, then you’ll want to carry on reading. This Japan travel guide covers everything you’ll need to know about this wonderful country;
The wonderful thing about Japan is that every season is a great time to visit. From blooming cherry blossoms in spring and summertime hiking to the vivid oranges of autumn and ski runs in winter, there's a Japan trip for every season.
Japan is not an overly huge country, but it is long and slender, spread across 6,800 islands and spanning 1,800 miles from north to south. This means that the weather and climate can vary dramatically depending on where you are.
Winters can be cold and snowy whereas summers are hot and humid. As it is in the northern hemisphere, January tends to be the coldest month while August is the hottest. It is worth bearing in mind that summer is also the typhoon season and Japan is prone to extreme weather during this time.
Ultimately, there is no one best month to visit Japan. However, for comfortable temperatures and reasonable humidity, the best months are between March and early April or late October to November. Of course, if your Japan travel itinerary involves skiing, then you'll want to aim for December to late March.
Allow us to offer a taster of the wonders that await you in Japan.
A futuristic, bustling metropolis, Tokyo is Japan's be-all-and-end-all spot for pop culture, shopping, drinking, food, architecture and entertainment. However, Kyoto runs a close second for dining.
With a diverse amalgamation of neighbourhoods, things to do and experiences, Tokyo's tourist attractions will keep you on your toes. Dine in a robot restaurant, conquer the mighty Shibuya crossing and marvel at the many palaces, temples and shrines just like on this 5-day Tokyo travel itinerary.
Go on a Pilgrimage
Dating back 1,200 years, the 88-temple Ohenro pilgrimage on Shikoku island is one of the world's oldest and longest pilgrimages. A Japan tour like this 5-day Japan pilgrimage tour by private car will take you deep into the story of these 88 temples and the culture surrounding them. You'll even have the chance to stay overnight in a temple.
Stay in a Ryokan
Leading on perfectly from the above experience, staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is a must-do in Japan and something you'll do on a pilgrimage tour. On this 16-day Japan tour package, you'll spend several nights in quaint, traditional ryokans, learning about Japanese hospitality and soaking in the onsens (hot springs) which often accompany ryokans.
Want to know a bit more about ryokans? Skip on down to the ‘Where to Stay & Accommodation in Japan’ section of this guide.
Retaining much of the traditional Japanese lifestyle, Kyoto is one of the top destinations in Japan and provides a welcome break from the technology-overloaded, fast-paced Tokyo. Kyoto travel should include a visit to the impressive bamboo forest, snapping a picture in the torii gates of the Fushimi Inari Taisha and enjoying the charming atmosphere. Do this city justice on this 12-day Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo tour.
Boasting some of the best powder snow in the world, Nagano is an easy trip from Tokyo and is home to the famous Snow Monkey Park where you'll find these animals bathing in the hot springs as well as the famous Zenkoji Temple. On this Nagano skiing tour in Japan, you'll be skiing by day and soothing your muscles in the onsens by night.
Spot a Geisha in the Gion District
The Gion District in Kyoto is otherwise known as the Geisha District. Filled with fascinating architecture, temples and dining spots, the Gion District is the place to spot geishas. These traditional, professional entertainers are very shy and don't like to be bothered as they shuttle from one appointment to another. So, keep your distance and observe them from afar.
Cover the Best Places to Visit in OsakaJapan's second-largest city after Tokyo, Osaka is the capital of the Kansai Region. Known as the 'Kitchen of Japan', your Osaka itinerary should be spent tasting local dishes, sampling fresh seafood at Kuromon Ichiba Market and embracing the food culture here. This Osaka travel package incorporates a healthy dose of cooking classes, market visits and dining experiences.
Japan travel is known to be expensive, and transportation is one of the most expensive elements of any trip. Despite being expensive, Japan is an extremely easy country to travel around. Here are the best ways to get around Japan;
Public Transport in Japan
Getting around the top places to visit in Japan would be difficult if it wasn't for the magnificently efficient, immaculate public transport that operates in the country. Here, you can set your watch by the shinkansen (bullet train), it is that efficient.
You'll be pleased to know the trains, metros and buses are also some of the cleanest transport services in the world. Getting around the major cities couldn't be easier with options like the hop-on-hop-off Tokyo sightseeing buses and the city metros whipping you around all the places to visit in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.
For further afield, day trips from Tokyo are easy with the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. On a Japan tour, Osaka travel is made easy by the Osaka to Tokyo bullet train. The Japan Rail Pass (or JR Pass) is the best option if you're planning to visit both Tokyo and Kyoto as in the long run, it will save you money.
Another option for travelling between major cities and destinations are buses. However, whilst cheaper than the bullet train, you'll spend a lot more time travelling. A two-hour journey on the bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo would take ten hours on the bus.
Whatever route you plan to take on your Japan itinerary, there are many package deals offered on transportation that will save you money.
Japan Custom Tours by Car
If public transport is not on your radar and you're looking for something a little more private, then another option is to hire a driver and a car for the duration of your Japan tour.
Whilst this is a more expensive option, it does give you a lot more freedom than public transport does. With a driver, you won't have to worry about catching a train at the right time, finding a seat or making sure you are on the right train! You'll have more flexibility and freedom to stop when you like and get to attractions early to avoid crowds.
This five-day Japan private tour takes you along the famous Shikoku 88 Ohenro pilgrimage, one of the world's oldest and longest.
Like transport, accommodation in Japan is another expense that will be the difference between a budget and a high-end trip. The accommodation choices in Japan tend to be hotels or traditional Japanese inns (ryokans).
Hotels in Japan
Whilst there are many available, Western-style hotels in Japan tend to be either very expensive or not great. Hotels in Japan are often favoured by business travellers who need somewhere to lay their head in between meetings. However, if you're looking for luxury accommodation in Japan, you'll find it here with a huge range of world-class hotels. But be prepared to pay a hefty price.
Traditional Japanese Inns & Guesthouses - Ryokans
Ryokans should be your go-to for accommodation in Japan. These traditional guesthouses and inns are the best places to learn about Japanese culture and traditions as well as experience the local hospitality and try local foods.
Often in Ryokans, you'll be provided with tatami mats (woven mats), and you'll sleep on futons. Staying in a ryokan when visiting an onsen (hot spring) is a wonderful option if you're looking to delve into Japanese culture and enjoy some exceptional food.
Hostels, Capsules & Other Accommodation in Japan
Hostels, as opposed to hotels, in Japan still run at a high price. Usually, a hostel in a city like Tokyo in Japan will cost the same as a night in a high-end hotel in the UK or US. However, they are generally impeccably clean with a vast range of facilities. If you're looking to lower cost and have your own space, Airbnbs are a good option in the cities.
Japan is also home to the quirky capsule hotels where you sleep in an all-purpose, high-tech pod which acts as a room, entertainment centre and your bed.
One of the most popular cuisines in the world, Japanese food is unique, beguiling and delicious. With one foot in the past and one in the present, this country thrives on mixing the old with the new. That certainly applies to Japanese cooking, flavours and recipes. With each new region you travel to, you'll find something different on the menu.
Known as Japan's contribution to fried food, what many people don't realise is that tempura is a classic Portuguese dish that was brought to the country by traders and made famous by the Japanese. Tempura consists of lightly-battered fried seafood and vegetables that are typically served with a dipping sauce or flavoured salt in the Kansai, Kyoto and Osaka regions.
Perhaps the most popular Japanese dish in the world - after sushi, of course - ramen is a steaming bowl of wheat noodles served in a miso soup. Whilst the toppings and ingredients vary from green onion and egg to seaweed and slices of pork, the most important part of the dish is the soup which varies largely depending on the restaurant.
Soba Buckwheat Noodles
Soba is a dish made with buckwheat noodles. When cooked the noodles are usually dipped in a bowl of cold soup, or a hot soup is poured over it. The soup is usually made from dried bonito broth, seasoned with mirin and soy sauce, and is enjoyed year-round.
You may be familiar with this unique dish already through its key characteristic, thick noodles made from flour. Udon is a very popular dish in Japanese cuisine. The noodles are usually enjoyed in a seafood broth or with toppings such as tempura. The broth for udon varies from region to region; in Tokyo, you'll find it is darker than in the northern regions of Japan.
Sushi & Sashimi
Now, it wouldn't be a list of must-try foods in Japan without these two staples! The overwhelming quality of the cuisine in Japan will make you realise that there is a lot more to this country's dishes than sushi. However, as two of the most iconic Japanese dishes, they deserve a place.
There are several ways to eat sushi and sashimi, a raw fish dish without the rice. Sushi is a dish of pressed vinegared rice with raw fish or shellfish placed on top. Sometimes it is wrapped in nori (seaweed). It is then dipped in soy sauce with the optional additions of pickled ginger and wasabi. Sashimi, on the other hand, is almost exactly like sushi but without the rice.
Yakatori is a grilled chicken dish. The chicken is cut into small pieces, speared on bamboo sticks and grilled. You'll find yakitori on the menus of izakaya (an informal Japanese streetside bar selling alcohol and street snacks), and in yakitori-ya, restaurants or small tents that specialise in grilling these skewers over coal whilst you enjoy a drink. Often in Japan, you'll find a large number of yakitori-ya lined up on one street or alley. Eating at a yakitori-ya or izakaya is a must-do on your Japan trip.
Translating to 'grilled as you like it', okonomiyaki is a savoury Japanese pancake made by mixing flour, yam and egg. As the name suggests, you can then add and fill it with anything you like. The most popular ingredients include shrimp, beef, vegetables, squid, cheese and onion.
Unagi is river eel which is commonly found in Japan's rivers. To enjoy this dish, it is grilled over coals and covered in a sweet barbeque sauce. It is believed that unagi is the perfect dish to offset Japan's humidity-ridden, hot summers. Fresh, wild unagi is best enjoyed from May to October.
More of a work of art than a dish, kaiseki is an essential part of Japanese fine dining. Originating many centuries ago alongside the traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto, kaiseki is a tiny tasting course of small seasonally-themed dishes. Each dish is crafted with the utmost attention to detail and precision. The result is dishes that look too perfect to eat but are still delicious!
The list of Japanese must-try dishes and essential dining experiences could go on and on. If you want to make sure you don't miss out on an essential dining experience, then our Local Designers in Japan can craft an itinerary that is packed with unique experiences.
When it comes to Japanese festivals and celebrations, this country does not discriminate based on the time of year. From big country-wide celebrations to local traditional festivals, there's always something happening in this vibrant country.
Here are some of Japan's most notable festivals;
Otherwise known as cherry blossom season, Hanami occurs annually from the end of March through to early April (however, these times can vary). For a full lowdown on the best places to embrace cherry blossom season, check out this Japan travel guide to Hanami.
Sapporo Snow Festival
Held annually in February, this seven-day festival takes place in Hokkaido's capital, Sapporo and is one of the most popular winter events in Japan. The festival celebrates ice and snow in all forms as the Odori Park is transformed into a winter wonderland of ice sculptures.
Japan Golden Week
Golden week is a collection of four Japan national holidays all occurring within seven days at the end of April and start of May. Besides the Japanese New Year, Golden Week is one of Japan's busiest holidays.
The four holidays are Showa Day - the birthday of former Emperor Showa, Constitution Day - when the post-war constitution was put into action, Greenery Day - a day dedicated to the environment and nature of Japan, and Children's Day - a day when families pray for the health and future success of their sons.
Fuji Rock Festival
Every July, the Fuji Rock Festival takes place in the ski resort of Naeba. The dreamy location has attracted acts such as Foo Fighters, Coldplay and Radiohead over the years.
Currency: The currency for Japan is the Japanese Yen. At the time of writing, 1 USD was equal to 104 Japanese Yen.
Language: The most widely spoken language is Japanese. Whilst in tourist hot spots, you’ll be able to interact in English, it is important to have some Japanese phrases prepared and the Google translate app loaded on your phone so that you don’t get caught out.
Etiquette: There are lots of etiquette rules when it comes to Japan so make sure you research these. An important one is your chopsticks, you can either place them on the chopstick rest next to your bowl or flat across your bowl.
Give up your seat: When travelling on public transport, it is very important to give up your seat for the elderly, disabled or for pregnant women.
Shoes off: Always take off your shoes when entering a Japanese home.
Tipping: Tipping is not necessary or expected in Japan. Sometimes restaurants will add a top automatically to the bill.
Visas: If you’re a citizen of one of the lucky 68 countries that don’t need a visa to enter Japan as a tourist then lucky you. It is important to check this before you travel to Japan.
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