If Japan has only just come into your sphere of consciousness then, where have you been?! Visitors will be flocking to this spectacular set of islands for the 2020 Olympics, but Japan has much more to offer than muscular swimmers and lithe gymnasts.
To get the most out of your trip to Japan, here are some things you simply must do:
Visit Multiple Cities
Travelling around Japan is remarkably easy. Signage is almost always in English for tourists as well as Japanese so these days using public transport is relatively uncomplicated. However, in the unlikely event that the signage lets you down, the ever polite and considerate Japanese locals will always be willing to point you in the right direction, if not take you there themselves. Tickets for bullet trains, or Shinkansen, will likely be your largest travel expense but the purchase of a JR Pass which covers not only the Shinkansen, but all government run public transport, will save you a lot of money. Travelling on the bullet train is the best way to get across country and should you take the journey anywhere between Nagoya and Yokohama, look out for the resplendent Mt. Fuji (or Fuji-san) from the comfort of your reclining seat. The Shinkansen will be your passport to all of the major sights in Japan...
For narrow streets lined with traditional wooden architecture, Geisha tea houses (and the occasional mysterious and elusive Geisha out for a stroll), cherry tree lined pathways and enormous ancient temples.
Fushimi Inari Shrine Kyoto
A must-visit if only to experience the humbling exhibition on the devastation caused by the atom bomb. Aside from its dark past, Hiroshima is well worth a visit for Shukkeien Japanese gardens, an absolute haven of tranquillity amongst the bustle of the city. If you are craving even more tranquillity, consider a walk around Ujina Island, home of Motoujina Park. Not often visited by tourists it’s a lovely quiet spot to look out over the water towards a multitude of tiny islands and to dip your toes in the ocean on slithers of sandy beaches.
Motoujina Park Hiroshima
Food capital of Japan and (in my opinion) the friendliest major city. Universal Studios Japan, which houses the popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter is another big draw for visitors and well worth the visit.
From the vast choice of uniquely flavoured sweets in the 7/11 on every corner, to the endless selection of regional foods from street vendors, from izakaya to sushi, ramen to soba, there is SO MUCH to choose from. Avoid chain restaurants if you can and seek out smaller, out of the way places to dine that are frequented by locals. Food here will be cheaper and generally more delicious and varied. The menu won’t always come in English (although this is becoming more common than not), but someone can usually help you out. The choices are endless, however the top must-try bites are: Okonimyaki, a type of savoury pancake which comes in different styles depending on the city; Takoyaki - octopus dumplings, best eaten from vendors in Dotonburi in Osaka – a feast for the eyes as much as for your belly; Kobe beef – Found in its namesake town Kobe, home of this now famous beef; Ramen, which is excellent all over Japan, and traditional soba noodles, dipped in soy sauce before eating (check for restaurants that make their own and offer courses in soba noodle making).
One of the mega tourist go-tos for temple visits is Nara. Here you can visit Todai-ji temple which houses Japan’s largest and unarguably impressive, bronze Buddha statue. With its friendly bowing deer, Nara is an instagrammers dream. But for a more off-the-beaten-track/authentic temple experience, try visiting one of the following places:
Wander down back streets and get a little lost to discover tiny, welcoming temples, many of which have beautiful moss gardens.
An early capital city, Asuka is home to many of the country’s oldest shrines, temples, tombs and monuments. A great way to experience all Asuka has to offer is to rent a bicycle near Asuka train station (approx. 2hrs from Osaka) on arrival. Autumn visits will gift you with fields of oranges and persimmons and enormous golden yellow ginko trees, but the beautiful sunsets and vistas are worth the visit all year. For a relaxing end to an active day, soothe your bicycle weary legs in one of the local onsen (Japanese public baths).
Ancient Golden Ginko Asuka
Hop off at Takayama station and head across the river to the old part of town. Here you’ll find street upon street of traditional wooden housing, backed by (walkable) mountains with a treasure trove of temple gems. Take the time to watch the sun set over the city from one of these temples for an unforgettable experience.
Mountains, Mountains, Mountains
Japan is full of them and if you weren’t considering heading up one, then you should. Mt. Fuji probably isn’t going to be your speed but short (beginner friendly) hikes and walks in mountainous regions are an absolute must. For a tourist friendly (read, tourist heavy) experience head to Fushimi Inari for the classic red arches that line this hike to the top of the mountain – take your time, it’s a long way up. For less tourist heavy spots, head to places like Magome for the Magome-Tsumago Trail – a 2-3 hour gentle walk and largely paved
If you want lots of choice, head to Nikko and a take a bus into the mountains for hikes in sparse countryside and bamboo floored forests with idyllic bubbling streams that open out onto mountain top lakes of watery glass. There is much to do in Nikko and a multiple day bus pass will go a long way in helping you see it all. If you want to get into the heart of nature and away from the hustle and bustle, Nikko really is a paradise.