JAPAN TRAVEL GUIDE
With a fascinating culture, friendly (and very polite) locals, great food, excellent transport options, lack of crime, and plenty of tourist attractions both outdoors (hot springs, mountains, beaches, forests, lakes) and in the cities (museums, temples and shrines aplenty – along with quirky shops) Japan is one of the world’s top long-haul holiday destinations for UK travellers.
Tokyo is the country’s capital city and a bustling metropolis that seemingly never sleeps; just as well then that there are attractions that can be enjoyed around the clock. Yokohama and Osaka are similarly vibrant, offering modern sights as well as those capturing essences of their respective heritages. For history buffs, stops at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two cities to experience the effects of America’s atomic weapons in WWII, are essential. For nature lovers, the cherry blossoms in Kyoto are a sight to behold in springtime. Or have a go at climbing Mt Fuji or surfing in Japan’s southern tropical islands. You won’t get bored in Japan, that’s for sure.
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JAPAN WEATHER - When to Go
Japan’s climate sees the country experience four distinct seasons, with winter setting in from December to February, spring taking place from March to May, summer from June to August and autumn from September to November. Each season is typified by its own unique weather conditions.
Summer is a good time to visit but only if you can handle the heat. July and August see temperatures climb into the 30s (°C) so things can get pretty steamy to say the least. Late spring and early autumn are perhaps better times for a holiday in Japan, as things are a touch cooler and there’s the beauty of cherry blossoms in the former period and the russet coloured foliage in the latter. Winter is cold with snow in many parts of the country, though on the positive side you’ll have fewer tourists to compete with.
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JAPAN HIGHLIGHTS - Places to Visit
- Tokyo: The country’s fascinating capital presents a vibrant combination of traditional Japanese traits with ultra-modern ones based on technology and contemporary conveniences. Walking along Tokyo’s streets you are as likely to see ancient temples as you are karaoke clubs, giving the city a truly eclectic ambience. With 12 million residents the city can initially seem a touch crowded and chaotic; however, the locals’ attention to organisation ensures that everything flows smoothly and visitors rapidly learn to embrace the constant hum of activity that presides. Aside from great dining, shopping and evening entertainment options, visitors should be sure to check out attractions such as the Imperial Palace, Nogi Shrine and Meiji shrines, Tokyo Tower, Tsukiji Fish Market (early though, around 6am!), Ueno Park where the impressive National Museum is housed (and the zoo), Shinjuku’s bright lights, Roppongi’s nightlife, Shibuya’s shops and plenty more attractions and distractions. Tokyo is a very large city, but luckily the subway system is an excellent way to get around town. [More info on Tokyo: Tokyo Tourist Board or UnmissableTOKYO.com].
- Yokohama: Just 25 minutes from Tokyo, Japan’s second-largest city is located in the Kanagawa Prefecture and is bustling with over three million residents. The city has much to offer, with its extensive Chinatown district being one of its most popular attractions, especially with domestic visitors keen to gorge on oriental delights at its fantastic eateries. Sightseers are catered for with the likes of Landmark Tower (Japan’s tallest building) and views from its observation deck, Marine Tower, the Nippon Maru Sailing Ship, the Maritime Museum, the interesting Hikawa Maru luxury liner (used by Chalie Chaplin amongst others to sail between Japan and USA), Cosmo World (and its 105m high Ferris Wheel), Yokohama Archives of History and, for something a bit different – a Silk Museum. For a spot of sporting action, meanwhile, head to the Nissan Stadium or Bay Stars Stadium for football or baseball respectively. In the evening, Chinatown is the place to eat. While Yokohama is very doable as a day-trip from Tokyo, the number of attractions it has, as well as being a very walkable city mean an overnight stay is definitely worthwhile and enjoyable if you have the time. [More info on Yokohama: Yokohama Tourist Board].
- Mt Fuji: At 3776m, is Japan’s highest and most iconic mountain. The busiest climbing season for Mt Fuji is 1 July to 31 August. For the less active, enjoy Mt Fuji views from the surrounding Hakkone region, which also features some great onsen (hot springs) that Japan is so famous for. From Tokyo, Mount Fuji can be reached by bus in 2 hours, 30 minutes.
- Osaka: The country’s third-biggest city is a concrete jungle that initially seems to offer little beyond its skyscraper-packed skyline. Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that it’s in fact a city with pretty Japanese gardens, historical sights and a vibrant dining and entertainment scene. Family visitors will enjoy attractions such as Festivalgate, the Tennoji Zoo, Osaka Aquarium, and Universal Studios Japan. Sightseeing enthusiasts should not miss out on Osaka Castle, Shitennoji Temple, Tsutenkaku Tower and Osaka Museum of History. And then there’s shops – lots of them. Come evening time, all visitors will appreciate the city’s excellent selection of restaurants. Osaka is 400kms from Tokyo and using the train is the best way to travel between the two. Kyoto is only half an hour away. [More info on Osaka: Osaka Tourist Board].
- Kyoto: Once the imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto is a city teeming with fascinating historical sights, and is also one of the best cities in which to appreciate Japan’s stunningly beautiful cherry blossoms in springtime. Sightseers shouldn’t miss out on popular attractions such as the Kyoto Tower, Kyoto Imperial Palace and Park, temples such as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion and the Temple of the Silver Pavilion (there are over 1,600 temples and shrines to see in Kyoto!), while cultural enthusiasts will certainly find things of interest at the Kyoto National Museum, Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts and the Hosomi Art Museum. Kyoto is much more “traditional” when compared to Tokyo and its flashing neon lights. More people seem to wear traditional costumes here (including the Geishas) for example, making it an enjoyable and probably essential Japanese destination to visit on your trip. Kyoto can be reached in three hours from Tokyo by high-speed Shinkansen train. If you are staying in Kyoto for a few days and are a fan of Japanese temples, also consider a day trip to nearby Nara. [More info on Kyoto: Kyoto Tourist Board].
- Hiroshima: History enthusiasts will no doubt take a great interest in the city that fell to the Americans under the catastrophic effects of the atomic bomb at the close of WWII. Not surprisingly, priority should be given to visiting the city’s informative and very interesting (and upsetting) A-Bomb Museum, the Peace Memorial Park and the A-Bomb Domb (a ruined building now, but somehow still standing despite being directly underneath the exploding atom bomb on 6th August 1945). Away from these reminders of war, there are few signs of these tragic events gone by. Present day Hiroshima is an impressive and enjoyable modern city with attractions such as the Hiroshima Castle, the Shukkei-en garden and the Hiroshima Museum of Art. Nearby Miyajima island with its famous “floating” Shinto shrine gate is only 25km away and can easily be reached by tram and ferry. (If you do an overnight trip to Miyajima, climbing up Misen hill, partly by cable car, will give you a great sense of achievement to match the available views – highly recommended). [More info on Hiroshima: Hiroshima Tourist Board].
- Nagasaki: Suffering a similar fate to Hiroshima in WWII, Nagasaki is a busy port city on the island of Kyushu. Today, the city bears little evidence of the destruction it previously suffered but for visitors wanting to know more about those events, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum tells all. Sightseeing attractions in the city include Glover Garden, the churches of Oura and Urakami, the Peace Memorial Park and a large collection of impressive modern architecture. For family visitors, the Huis Ten Bosch theme park and the Nagasaki Penguin Aquarium are good options. Nagasaki is seven hours by bullet train from Tokyo. [More info on Nagasaki: Nagasaki Tourist Board].
- Fukuoka: Situated on the island of Kyushu, Fukuoka (often written Fukuoka/Hakata, from the two towns that it now covers) is a city renowned for its modern architecture as well as its rich history and cultural heritage. Home to both the country’s biggest hotel and its largest cinema complex, Fukuoka is not a city to do things by halves by any stretch. Sightseeing attractions are plentiful and include Fukuoka Castle and Shofukuji Temple, while for culture buffs the Fukuoka Art Museum and the Fukuoka City Museum are musts. A ride on the 120-metre high Sky Dream Fukuoka Ferris wheel is a thrilling way to get unrivalled views across the city. Fukuoka is 1,100kms from Tokyo (around 6 hours by Shinkansen bullet train). [More info on Fukuoka: Fukuoka/Hakata Tourist Board].
- Okinawa and Islands in Southern Japan: For beach and water-sports enthusiats, the tropical islands off the south coast of Japan offer plenty of swimming, snorkliing, diving, kayaking, wind-surfing and relaxation opportunities. You’ll be removed from the hustle and bustle of Japan’s major cities - something most first-time tourists to Japan actually want to experience - but if you have several weeks to explore Japan or have been before, flying from Tokyo to these islands to experience a different and more laid-back side to Japan makes perfect sense. Naha is the largest city on the busiest island (Okinawa-honto) here, and makes for a good base from which to start exploring the surrounding islands.
- Places in the North of Japan: Most tourists visit Tokyo before heading south towards cities such as Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima. However, Tokyo lies in the middle of Japan, and there are good options for tourists heading towards the less populated northern parts of Japan. Places to visit include the cities of Nagano (featuring the magnificent Zenkoji temple and home of the 1998 Winter Olympics), Niigata and nearby Sado-ga-shima island, Akita (head to the Kanto Festival Centre to see and try for yourself the balancing of a 10m pole plus attached lantern on your palm!), Morioka (go to Azumaya restaurant to try wanko-soba – eating up to 500 bowls of noodles!) and Sendai. Or head truly up north to Hokkaido island (from where it’s possible to make a boat trip to Russian islands). A number of National Parks as well as the home of Sapporo beer (yes, a city called Sapporo) can also be found on Hokkaido.
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JAPAN HOLIDAYS & TOURS
Some good Japan holiday deals and escorted tours are available with:
G Adventures (for independent travellers)
Intrepid Travel (for backpackers)
KUONI (for some luxury)
Travelsphere (escorted holidays)
Expedia.co.uk (hotels and flights)
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JAPAN HOSPITALITY - Eat, Drink, Sleep
- Food and Eating Out: Cooking in Japan is an art and Japanese cuisine is considered among the best in the world. You’ll be eating a lot of rice in Japan. Other popular food includes sushi, sashimi, tofu, noodles, tempura (deep-fried vegetables or seafood – yummy!), Okonomi-yaki (savoury pancakes) and Miso soup. It’s unlikely you’ll get an upset stomach in Japan. The food is excellent and presented with great care. The cities have plenty of fast-food options (Japanese-style as well as McDonalds) or splash the cash for a sumptuous evening meal in a posh restaurant. Also remember, you’ll be using chopsticks a lot here (or bring your own fork!).
- Entertainment and Nightlife: The Japanese know how to party and in the big cities you’ll find an excellent selection of nightlife venues, from karaoke bars (with private booths so you just sing with your friends), Izakayas (Japanese pubs that serve food - normally found in high-rise buildings so you don’t know what to expect till you walk in) and nightclubs featuring big name DJs. For a quieter affair, go for a late dinner and then enjoy a few bottles of warm sake after eating. If you really want to throw yourself into the local culture and are there at the right time, try seeing a sumo match or some traditional Japanese theatre (there are three types to see – Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku).
- Japan Accommodation: Standards of accommodation in Japan are high, though rooms are often smaller when compared to European hotels. Prices for accommodation are actually often cheaper than in the UK for something similar (despite the popular misconception that Japan is much more expensive than the UK). Along with normal hotels, small business hotel rooms can be found near most major train stations. Ryokans – traditional Japanese guesthouses – are worth trying at least once to see if you are a fan of sleeping on a tatami mat. There are plenty of backpacker hostels in all the popular tourist destinations. If you want to save some money and are brave-ish (and a man) you can try a night in a capsule hotel (along with many Japanese businessmen). And if you need to kip somewhere for just a few hours and have little money, try renting a booth in a Japanese internet cafe (each private cubicle normally comes with a comfy chair and enough space to lie down on the floor – lots of people do this!).
[To book Japan accommodation including Tokyo hotels, try HostelBookers.com, Booking.com or Hotels.com]
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JAPAN FLIGHTS - Flying from the UK
Direct flights are available between London Heathrow and Tokyo with British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways (ANA).
Also consider flights to reach Japan from your regional airport via connecting flights in places such as Paris (Air France) or Dubai (Emirates). This may work out more conveniently and/or cheaper, depending on where you live.
Direct flights to Osaka from London are available with Japan Airlines.
Try Expedia.co.uk or ebookers for flight options to Japan, including direct flights from London to Japan as well as flights from regional UK airports with a connecting flight via Europe or elsewhere to reach Japan.