From the bizarre and peculiar, to the intriguing, beautiful and mind-blowing, a tailor-made Japan tour is many things but boring is not one of them. A country where ancient traditions meet state-of-the-art technology, where Buddhist temples adorn most cities and where entire districts are dedicated to anime and manga. It’s an attention to detail that allows Japan to excel in everything it touches. From uber-efficient public transport system to the immaculate outdoors and world-renown cuisine, Japan is unique and simply captivating.
Samurai warriors and sumo wrestlers. Geishas and master sushi chefs. Anime and manga and master gamers. Japan captivates the imagination like no other country. Travellers are transfixed by the island nation’s people and places. In the northern reaches, Hokkaido provides powdery slopes for avid skiers and snowboarders, fields of wildflowers in the spring and enough beer and ramen to please anyone with loose inhibitions. The largest island, Honshu, is home to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, but also lesser-known wonders of Kanazawa, Matsomoto, Nagano and Nikko. The two southern islands, Shikoku and Kyushu, are rarely on tourist radars and lightly populated, making them ideal for getting off the beaten track.
As soon as the tyres depart the tarmac, Japan lingers on the mind like a vivid dream, beckoning travellers to return to its charismatic embrace.
Uncover some of Tokyo’s nearby towns complete with pre-modern architecture and giant stone Buddhas, known locally as ‘daibutsu’. Rent a bicycle to explore Kamakura and encounter cultural treasures including Hachimangu Shrine, Hasedera Temple and Kamakura’s symbolic daibutsu. Embark a ferry to lesser-visited Nokogiriyama to admire a giant stone Buddha built into the rockface at a hillside temple where young monks are still trained today.
Coming face-to-face with two of Japan’s giant stone Buddhas is an uncommon, yet worthy experience for visitors to Japan.
Travel by tram, ropeway and cable car – the longest in Japan – and explore the ancient temple complex atop Mount Hiei. There are three main areas to explore and legend has it that the lanterns in the temple’s Central Hall have been burning for 1,200 years. Complete with magnificent views of the mountains and sparkling Lake Biwa, Enryaku-ji Temple is a perfect half-day trip from Kyoto.
Located close to Kyoto, the little-visited temple complex is a stunning alternative to the more famous Mount Koya, without the long journey and crowds.
Discover Tokyo under the surface with two long-term expat residents. By foot or bicycle, travel to Shimokitazawa, a neighbourhood packed with boutiques, cafes and eateries. A world away from Tokyo’s sprawling department stores, it’s a great place to pick up some unique gifts or simply wander the narrow streets. The nearby Kitazawa River Greenway is also a great place to stroll, particularly in cherry blossom season.
Tokyo’s equivalent of Shoreditch – this backstreet walking tour makes for a refreshing change to the big commercial centres like Shibuya and dives into this trendy hipster neighbourhood.
Once an important route connecting Tokyo and Kyoto, the Nakasendo Trail is nowadays a popular hiking spot in the Japanese Alps. Escape the crowds along the Kiso Valley and opt for the upper stretch of the trail to find family-run ‘minshuku’ guesthouses and Japanese hot baths. Intrepid hikers can follow the trail all the way down to Yokokawa town with its beautiful gorge.
A more authentic alternative to the scenic Nakasendo Trail including local inns, private Japanese-style open-air baths and a beautiful gorge at the end of the trail.
Capital City: Tokyo
Population: 127 million
Language: Japanese and regional Ryukyuan languages
Currency: Japan’s official currency is the yen (¥). ATMS are widely available and the easiest way of to obtain cash. Beware not all ATMS accept non-Japanese cards; among the best ones to withdraw with foreign debit and credit cards are the machines in 7-Elevens, at post offices and Citibank ATMs. Banks and post offices exchange most major foreign currencies. Cash is still the preferred way to pay in Japan and whilst cards are increasingly accepted in cities and major establishments, bring enough cash when travelling to the countryside.
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