Plan Your Trip, Avoid the Crowds, and Experience the Real Japan
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- Flexible itineraries including a two week 'Best of Japan' and a week in and around Tokyo
- The top sights and unique experiences: Wander the shrines and temples of Ueno-koen park and stop in Tokyo National Museum for world-renowned Japanese art. Learn about samurai heritage in Sanmachi Suji or zazen meditation at the Buddhist temples of Kyoto, and get an unforgettable lesson in 20th century history at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
- Outdoor adventures: Hike the trails of Mt. Fuji or the river-filled valley of Kamikochi and relax in a communal onsen hot spring. Ski or snowboard at a world-class resort, surf in the Pacific off the coast of Shikoku, or dive along the coral reefs of Okinawa
- The best local flavors: Feast on ramen or an elaborate spread of sushi, sample fresh seafood at the world's largest fish market in Tokyo, and drink your way through the famed beer scene in Sapporo
- Honest insight from American expat and longtime Tokyo local Jonathan DeHart
- Full-color, vibrant photos throughout
- Detailed maps and useful tips for navigating public transportation
- Focused coverage of Tokyo, Mt. Fuji, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Kansai, Hiroshima and Miyajima, Okinawa, Tohoku and Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu, and more
- Helpful resources on Covid-19 and traveling to Japan
- Thorough background information on the landscape, wildlife, history, government, and culture
- Handy tools including health and safety tips, customs and conduct, and information for LGBTQ, female, and senior travelers, as well as families and travelers with disabilities
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14 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Time
The Best of Japan
ONSEN: THE ART OF SKINNY DIPPING
Japan’s Wild North: Hokkaido
TOP TEMPLES AND SHRINES
From Beaches to Volcanoes: Kyūshū and Okinawa
Dusk falls on Shibuya, where trendy Tokyoites amass at the world’s busiest crossing. The walk signal turns green and a scramble ensues, resembling a human pinball machine. Meanwhile, in the ancient capital of Kyoto, a geisha’s wooden clogs make a distinct clicking sound as she whisks along the cobblestones of Pontochō alley.
Tradition and modernity have a unique way of mingling in Japan. Kyoto, and on a slightly smaller scale Kanazawa, on the western coast of Central Honshu, are treasure troves of traditional culture, from temples to tea ceremonies, though the rush of tourists reminds you that the present is never far away. Hypermodern Tokyo and Osaka are urban dreamworlds of pop culture, cutting-edge technology, quirky fashion, and contemporary art, but traditional theater performances of kabuki and Noh, and serene parks, temples, and gardens allow you to find pockets of Zen even in the heart of the urban metropolis.
The food is another study in contrasts. Whether it’s a sidewalk ramen stall in Fukuoka, a countryside izakaya (Japanese pub) in a hamlet in the Japan Alps, or a sushi spread in Hokkaido, Japanese cuisine deserves all the praise that it gets. A deep sense of craftsmanship, as well as connoisseurship, informs Japan’s fastidious attention to detail in everything from sword-making techniques to DJ bar sound systems tuned to pin-drop perfection.
Japan’s natural wonders exert as much pull as its culture. For a country of its size, the range of terrain is striking—from the sweeping vistas of Hokkaido and the Japan Alps of Central Honshu, to the mist-shrouded peaks of Shikoku and the volcanoes of Kyūshū in the south. This landscape means access to hiking and hot springs year-round, and skiing in winter. The string of islands southwest of Kyūshū, the largest being Okinawa, add a dash of subtropical spice, including world-class beaches and scuba diving. And when cherry blossoms blanket the entire country in soft pink petals every spring, friends throw hanami (flower viewing) parties under the colorful branches.
Above all else, the hospitality of the people—from dark-suited office workers striving to power Japan Inc., to robotics whizzes, renegade chefs, purple-haired punk rockers, and teens seeking transcendence by dressing like their favorite anime characters—is what makes a trip to Japan special. The Japanese have a history of dusting themselves off and rebuilding after setbacks, from the ashes of World War II to the aftermath of the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Most recently fueled by Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics, there is a buzz of optimism in the air, and people are eager to share their good cheer and their country’s subtle spell.
14 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Taking a deep dive into Tokyo nightlife, from watching epic robot battles and singing karaoke to bar-crawling through warrens of drinking dens and sipping award-winning cocktails.
2 Staying in a ryokan (traditional inn), one of the best ways experience Japan’s singular art of hospitality, or omotenashi.
3 Walking in the footsteps of monks on a pilgrimage to Dewa Sanzan, Kumano Kodō, or the 88-Temple Pilgrimage Route.
4 Sipping Japanese whisky—the best in the world—at a cocktail bar in Tokyo or at the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery in Osaka Prefecture.
5 Strolling through the sculpted beauty and serenity of Kenroku-en and Ritsurin-kōen, just two of Japan’s famous gardens.
6 Getting up close and personal with geothermal Kyūshū, from the massive volcano Aso-San to the hot springs at resorts like Kurokawa Onsen.
7 Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with locals in Tokyo’s boisterous culinary alleyways (yokochō), drinking beer, eating grilled or stewed nibbles, and making new friends.
8 Island hopping in the Inland Sea, from artistic Naoshima to other quaint, welcoming nearby islands, and connecting with a quieter, slower side of Japan.
9 Indulging in kaiseki ryōri (traditional haute cuisine), a feast of seasonal dishes that represents the upper end of Japan’s culinary spectrum.
10 Hiking, skiing, and snowboarding through Japan’s wild side in Hokkaido’s remote national parks, such as Daisetsuzan or Shiretoko.
11 Relaxing on the remote beaches of the Kerama Islands, snorkeling or scuba diving in the cyan waters of Japan’s tropical far-south.
12 People-watching and popping into the boutiques and department stores of Tokyo’s Harajuku and Akihabara to get a taste of Japan’s unique youth culture.
13 Donning a yukata (lightweight kimono) at a traditional festival, such as Awa Odori in Shikoku or Nebuta Matsuri in Tohoku.
14 Finding Kyoto’s quiet side, veering away from the crowds to discover the calmer temples and shrines of Japan’s refined ancient capital.
Planning Your Time
Where to Go
The high-octane capital should be top priority for any first visit to the country. Tokyo is quintessential modern Japan, a pop-cultural and economic juggernaut, and base of the national government. The dynamic city is a feast for the senses, with world-class food, nightlife, and shopping. It’s also the most networked transport hub in Japan, with two international airports and extensive rail links to the rest of the country.
The region surrounding Tokyo offers a number of enticing side trips that are perfect if you have limited time. South of Tokyo is Japan’s second largest city, cosmopolitan Yokohama, with a buzzing nightlife scene, and the ancient seaside feudal capital of Kamakura, with its rich Buddhist heritage. West of there, Hakone and Izu are good picks for an onsen (hot spring) experience, with Japan’s most famous peak, Mount Fuji, looming nearby. Northeast of Tokyo is the alpine town of Nikkō, an ancient center of mountain worship with flamboyant temples, shrines, and mausoleums.
With the lion’s share of the country’s highest peaks, the Japan Alps offer excellent hiking in warmer months and abundant powder for skiing and snowboarding in winter. Tucked into valleys, rural hamlets oozing rustic charm and historic centers like Matsumoto and Takayama welcome visitors to their charming townscapes. To the west, beside the Sea of Japan, the city of Kanazawa offers a low-key alternative to Kyoto, with its samurai and geisha quarters and dreamy old garden of Kenroku-en.
Alongside the modern capital of Tokyo, the ancient capital of Kyoto should be top priority for any first journey to Japan. This is the best place to explore traditional culture, to see geisha, to try a tea ceremony, to shrine- and temple-hop, to eat kaiseki ryori (haute Japanese cuisine), to stay in a high-end ryokan, and to gaze at various styles of gardens, from landscape to raked gravel. Step away from the top sights to discover a slower, more local side of the city, beyond the tourist throngs.
A great complement to Kyoto, the Kansai region is home to Osaka, a fun place to eat, drink, and carouse with legendarily friendly locals. Nearby, the small town of Nara, home to the famed Great Buddha of Todai-ji, is a great place to see traditional Japan, minus Kyoto’s crowds. The attractive port city of Kobe is known for its high-end beef and jazz, while Himeji has Japan’s best castle. Farther afield, you’ll discover spiritual hot spots like Kōya-san and the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage route.
The urbanized, sun-drenched southern coast along the gorgeous Inland Sea is home to the vibrant, modern incarnation of Hiroshima, as well as the famed “floating” torii shrine gate of Miyajima’s Itsukushima-jinja. This is juxtaposed against a mellow northern shore on the Sea of Japan side where the heart of “old Japan” still beats strong. Picturesque historic towns like Matsue and the Izumo Taisha grand shrine offer the chance to see a slower, simpler, more local side of Japan free of tourist hype.
Located on the northern end of Honshu, Tohoku is a mountainous region steeped in legend. Here you’ll find spiritual pilgrimage routes, mountaintop temples, stunning natural vistas, hidden hot springs, and some of the best summer festivals in Japan. It’s also the home of the pine-covered islands of Matsushima. This is a wonderful region to explore if your goal is to go where the vast majority of tourists don’t.
Japan’s final frontier’s main hub is the bustling city of Sapporo, known for its hearty cuisine. The remainder of the island’s inhabitants live in laid-back fishing towns, which serve superb seafood. Beyond the towns, the northernmost main island is awash with unspoiled nature. Come here to experience the wild side of Japan, from world-class skiing and snowboarding in winter to hiking, wildflowers, and wildlife-spotting in summer. Not to mention, it’s culturally the homeland of Japan’s indigenous people, the Ainu.
Rustic and remote, with a gorgeous coastline, and the sparkling Inland Sea, one of the world’s most beautiful seascapes, to its north, Shikoku is best known for its arduous 88-temple pilgrimage circuit that runs clockwise around the island and can be done in part or in full. The rugged interior is best explored in the Iya Valley region, where vine bridges and hillside hamlets of thatched-roof houses beckon. And in August, Awa Odori, Japan’s most exciting traditional summer festival, takes place in Tokushima.
Volcanic, subtropical, and spiritual, Kyūshū has deep ties to Shinto myth. It’s also where Japan first encountered the West when Portuguese sailors made landfall in 1543. Today you can eat street food in Fukuoka; stroll through dynamically reborn Nagasaki; sip shochu in Kagoshima; peer into the caldera of an active volcano or relax in an onsen, of which there are more than on any other island in Japan. A trip to Kyūshū works well when combined with the emerald isles of Yakushima and Okinawa, Japan’s subtropical side.
Okinawa and the Southwest Islands
The long bow of subtropical islands extending southwest from Kyūshū toward Taiwan have a culture, diet, and laid-back pace distinct from the rest of Japan. The main transport hub, Naha, is located on the main island, Okinawa-Hontō, where the region’s ties to World War II are still visible. Remote beaches and scuba diving meccas cover the islands to the south. The ancient green forests of Yakushima, to the north, boast some of the best hiking in Japan.
Know Before You Go
When to Go
Most of Japan has four distinct seasons, interspersed by a few rainy periods, though the country’s diverse geography means the climate varies. Spring (roughly late-March through mid-June) and autumn (October through early December) are the most pleasant times of year to visit the country on the whole. That said, it’s a year-round destination, with each season offering its own draw.
Spring begins to creep northward from Kyūshū around early to mid-March and hits most of Honshu soon after. Spring tends to be cool (8-24°C/46-75°F in Tokyo)—gradually warming through April and May—with patches of rain. Cherry blossoms start to bloom from around early to mid-March in Kyūshū, late March in Tokyo, and around early May in Hokkaido, where spring temperatures range -1-17°C (30-63°F). Overall, it’s a great time to visit.
Except for Hokkaido, most of Japan is wet throughout June, when the hit-and-miss tsuyu (rainy season) takes hold. Overcast skies with patches of rain and the occasional all-day shower are the norm during this period, though there are plenty of sunny days in between, too.
From July through September things can be downright stifling, with furnace-like temperatures (23-31°C/73-88°F in Tokyo) and high humidity throughout much of the country, save for Hokkaido, which is slightly cooler (14-26°C/57-79°F). While less amenable than spring, the months of July and August can be a fun time to visit the country due to a plethora of vibrant festivals held throughout this sweltering period. Among the best are Fukuoka’s Hakata Gion Matsuri (first half of July), Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri (most of July, culminating on July 17), Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri (July 25), Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri (Aug. 2-7), Akita’s Kanto Matsuri (Aug. 3-6) and Tokushima’s Awa Odori (Aug. 12-15). If you’re visiting the country during any of these bashes, book accommodations well in advance (three months or more, to be safe).
In September and early October, massive typhoons whip through Okinawa, then move northward through Kyūshū, Shikoku and Honshu, but normally stop short of Hokkaido. These turbulent storms have been known to wreak havoc on parts of Japan, with torrential rain and even devastating floods on occasion. These extreme cases aside, it’s perfectly safe to travel during this time of year. Just be sure to keep an eye on the weather forecast if you’ll be in the country then.
Autumn proper starts from around early October and lasts through November in Tohoku and Hokkaido (fall temperatures range 1-6°C/34-62°F in Sapporo), extending into the first half of December for much of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyūshū (10-22°C/50-72°F in Tokyo). This is one of the most pleasant times to visit Japan. As temperatures drop, blazing foliage ripples through the country, with November being the highpoint. Rates for accommodations do spike around this time in scenic places, so book ahead if you plan to head into nature around this time.
Winter sets in from mid-December through mid-March, with temperatures varying significantly across the country (2-12°C/36-54°F in Tokyo, -8-2°C/18-36°F in Sapporo). Okinawa never really has winter proper—temperatures range 14-19°C (57-66°F) even in January.
The Sea of Japan side of Honshu is frigid, windy, and snowy, while the Pacific side is cold, dry, and crisp, with clear skies and little snow. Meanwhile, Hokkaido and the western half of Tohoku have some of the heaviest average snowfalls on Earth. Legendary powder also accumulates in the Japan Alps. This means great skiing and snowboarding. There are also excellent winter festivals, with the huge Sapporo Snow Festival, the intimate Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, and the dramatic, fiery Nozawa Onsen Dosojin Matsuri atop the list.
HANAMI AND OTHER BUSY TIMES
High season in Japan includes hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season (roughly late March through early April), the Golden Week holidays (April 29-May 5), Ōbon (roughly August 10-17), and the height of the kōyō (autumn foliage) craze in November. To avoid crowds, it’s best not to visit the country during these periods, as trains, highways, and hotels will overflow with domestic travelers from around the time the cherry blossoms start to bloom, around early to mid-March in Kyūshū, late March in Tokyo, and early May in Hokkaido.
Less hectic months include June, the dead of summer (July, August besides Ōbon, and September), October, and December. Aside from ski resorts, which do brisk business, the period of January through March is low season for the rest of the country. Deals can be had during any of these off months, especially if you plan several months ahead.
Things generally remain in operation throughout the year, the one exception being the New Year holidays (December 29-January 3), when everything but convenience stores, some chain restaurants, and most accommodations (at elevated rates) remain open. While experiencing Japan’s New Year traditions is one point in favor of visiting over the New Year holidays, it’s probably best to come at another time.
Passports and Visas
To enter Japan, you’ll need a passport valid for the duration of your trip from the date of your arrival in the country. Although you may not be asked to show it, you’re legally obligated to have an onward ticket for either a flight or ferry out of Japan, for a return trip or a future leg of the journey elsewhere. So have something in hand just in case.
If you’re coming from the US, Canada, the UK, most European countries, Australia, or New Zealand, you’ll be granted a 90-day single-entry visa on arrival. South African citizens will need to apply for a 90-day tourist visa at their closest embassy or consulate. For passport holders from the UK, Ireland, and a number of other European countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Lichtenstein), it’s possible to extend your visa for another 90 days. This requires a trip to the closest immigration bureau and paying a ¥4,000 fee. For a list of the 68 nations that are not required to apply for a visa before arriving in Japan, visit www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/visa/short/novisa.html.
What to Take
One of the beautiful things about Japan is its well-stocked convenience stores. These one-stop shops, selling anything from toiletries and undershirts to bento-box meals and portable phone chargers, umbrellas, cosmetics, and more, are ubiquitous throughout urbanized Japan, making it easy to pick up anything you’ve forgotten to pack.
Nonetheless, there are a few items you’d be wise to bring. For one: shoes that are easy to take on and off (slip-ons work best). You’ll find yourself likely taking off your shoes much more than you’re used to—in someone’s home, in a temple, etc. Also pack any medications and accompanying prescriptions you may need. Be sure to check Japan’s strict laws on medication before traveling with medicine. The US Embassy provides helpful information on their website about this matter: https://jp.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/doctors/importing-medication.
The electrical outlets in Japan are the same shape as those in the United States, so travelers with devices from the UK or Europe may need a plug adapter. The voltage is 100V; many modern electronics are dual voltage, so a converter may not be necessary, but check your devices to be sure.
It also pays to be aware of Japan’s love of gift-giving. This is especially important if you plan to meet anyone who may invite you to their home. It need not be expensive. Some kind of a sweet snack or beverage that can be shared, a recording of interesting music, or some kind of decorative item would all do. A little gift goes a long way in Japan.
There are a few things that need to be in order before you leave for Japan. First things first, if you plan to get a Japan Rail Pass (www.japanrailpass.net), a great value if you plan on making full use of the country’s extensive train network, you must purchase it before traveling to Japan. You cannot buy a JR Pass once you are in Japan.
If you’re planning to travel to some of the more remote parts of Japan and want to rent a car, make sure you’ve already gotten your international driver’s license
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- On Sale
- Oct 4, 2022
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- 816 pages
- Moon Travel