Japan Travel Guide 2017-06-26T03:31:53+00:00

Japan Travel Guide

Japan

Japan’s finest castle, Himeji-jo in cherry blossom season around early April. Photo by 663highland

Why Travel to Japan?

This is a superb, confusing, fascinating, crammed and amusing country, full of contradictions – not least of which is the mix of ultra high technology with revered ancient traditions.

There are few ‘big’ sights other than religious structures, but plenty of absorbing little sights, from the ubiquitous white gloves of service personnel to fantasy dining spots in Tokyo, musicians in Yoyogi park, funky old Akachochin restaurants, weird otaku (geek) habits. . .

And as far as crime is concerned Japan is one of the safest destinations in the world.

A Futon bed on a Tatami mat next to a quite zen garden in the guest room of a ryokan in Japan

A futon bed on a tatami mat next to a quite zen garden (yes, there is glass between the room and the garden) in the guest room of a ryokan.

Japanese food is totally awesome (apart from bread and the appalling traditional Japanese breakfast), always beautifully arranged and not necessarily expensive. Shopping is equally impressive with flawless products, huge variety, good value and even gaijin (foreigner) sizes, though eco-mentalists will definitely have an issue with the excessive packaging.

Traditional hotels (Ryokan or Minshuku) are relatively cheap and interesting.

Domestic transport systems are superbly organised, clean, efficient and almost always on time; any tourist wishing to see Tokyo will definitely be using the complex metro system while tourists wishing to get elsewhere than the capital will probably wish to take on the Shinkansen super-train.

And finally, a small but useful asset – clean, modern, public toilets are found in all stations, parks and other public areas.

Downsides

• Japan travel is sometimes expensive and always crowded and hectic.

• Tokyo has no real centre, more like four or five hi-activity zones that will require transport to move between. e. g. Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Roppongi, Asakusa.

• There are plenty of dull, endless suburbs garlanded with overhead power cables and decorated with plasto-wood, mock-Europe architectural horrors and concrete block-houses. Fine vernacular or interesting modern architecture is sadly rare.

• Quaint traditional clothing like kimonos are rarely seen outside ceremonial occasions. Shrines, temples and festivals are the most likely place to see them.

• Japan is not very tourist oriented so English signs can be uncommon in some areas though usage is increasing.

Best weather

Autumn cloros at Tanzan Jinja (shrine), Nara, Japan

Tanzan Jinja (shrine), Nara. Koyo (autumn coulour) season is also a great time to visit Japan. Photo by 663highland

Japan is a mountainous country with varied climates, but since most tourists will be spending most time in Tokyo and Kyoto probably the best times to go there are: Late April, May, October, November, or winter if you’re moderately cold-tolerant as it’s generally dry with blue skies and few other foreigners.

Spring and Autumn skies are like a woman’s heart (to paraphrase a Japanese saying), that is to say changeable, could be superb, could be cold and wet, probably both. Statistically June and September are the wettest months, August the hottest.

The northern island of Hokkaido will definitely have serious snow in winter, with great skiing and a superb snow festival in Sapporo in early February while summer will be pleasantly cool.

Worst weather

June, August (rains, heat, humidity). Beware holiday accommodation problems in the New Year (December 29-January 6), Golden Week (April 27-May 6), O-bon (midsummer)

Length of stay

Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights: Tokyo only – 4 days
Recommended: 2 weeks, Tokyo and Kyoto.

Main Attractions

Tokyo Tower seen from a high point at sunset, Japan

Tokyo Tower, one of the most recognised landmarks of Tokyo, a view from the World Trade Centre in Hamamatsu-cho in dusk. Photo by Kakidai

A monstrous ants nest of a city scattered with neon-rampant action centres, impressive shrines and temples, stunning shopping and eating and quite a lot of oddities. Our top four must-see areas are Harajuku+Shibuya+Meiji-Jingu Shrine; Yasukuni Shrine+ Imperial Palace;  Asakusa; Roppongi.

Shinjuku for wild night lights, bars/restaurants and action. Yakuza are visible but don’t trouble tourists.

Akihabara is the absurd geek zone.

Ginza/Nihonbashi. An old-fashioned upmarket shopping and traditional theatre zone.

Shibuya, within walking distance of Harajuku – which is unusual in Tokes – offers great shopping and is VERY colourful and busy at night.

Imperial Palace is the big sight but doesn’t need much time; you can walk to Yasukuni Shrine and Ginza from there.

Asakusa is the spot for old buildings, a grand temple and traditions.

Tsukiji Fish Market. The world’s biggest wholesale fish and seafood market and one of major and the best sushi dining places, tho’ to do it properly you need to be there really early, like 6am.

Roppongi, newish, upmarket with great bars, nightlife, museums and odd buildings,  but rather too many gaijin (foreigners).

Odaiba, the new entertainment island in Tokyo Bay.

Harajuku/Omotesando, a young, uber-trendy shopping area 2 minutes walk from wacky Yoyogi Park scenes at weekends or magnificent Meiji-Jingu Shrine anytime. Shibuya is just 15 minutes walk down interesting Cat Street.

Worthwhile Places Near Tokyo

Kamakura

Kamakura’s Big Buddha. Photo by Sailko.

About an hour from Tokyo by train and inevitably busy with tourists and their buses but once inside Kamakura’s many temples, shrines and other zen attractions foreigners can’t fail to be impressed by the grace, style and (potential) tranquility.

*Odawara Castle

An hour on the Odakyu line gets you to a typical samurai-era Japanese fortress, containing a small weapons museum.

** Hakone

Another favourite mountain, recreation and hot spring area, especially in the autumn, with great views of Mt Fuji if you’re lucky and a superb futuristic museum. 1. 5hrs train trip from Tokyo.

***Nikko

Toshogu shrine complex in Nikko, Japan

Toshogu shrine complex in Nikko contains more than a dozen of shining buildings in a forest. Photo by Jakub Halun.

Nikko National Park is a popular destination for the weekend excursion from Tokyo area, with the sensational Toshogu shrine complex which is known for its lavish decoration, scenic mountains, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs and some lovely walks. The highlights of Toshogu are the main entrance gate of Yomeimon, a five story pagoda, the mausoleum of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. 2 hrs by train from Tokyo.

Japanese Gardens

The author of our Japan guides in a small part of the Kenroku-en gardens in Kanazawa, Japan

The author of our Japan guides in a small part of the Kenroku-en gardens in Kanazawa.

Nihon Teien are carefully landscaped gardens created to idealize natural scenery in different styles, but they always feature water; even dry rock gardens have raked white sand/gravel as a substitute for water. The designs of the gardens do not just appeal visually but also spiritually and philosophically. Some of the best gardens can be seen in the Kyoto area, such as Ryoan-ji’s zen rock garden and Saiho-ji’s moss garden.

Japan’s three most acclaimed gardens are Kairaku-en in Mito, Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, Koraku-en in Okayama. Rikugi-en and Hamarikyu Garden in Tokyo are also worth visiting.

2. 5 hrs by Shinkansen from Tokyo. Any tourist to Japan must see the Kyoto area after experiencing Tokyo, with dozens of elaborate temples, shrines and zen gardens (including a multitude World Heritage Sites.
Also tourists will find a few charming little old Japanese streets in the centre, lurking around Kyoto’s modern urban sprawl and congestion.

The most interesting places in Kyoto are well dispersed and will take considerable time to reach. e. g. the golden temple of Kinkakuji is about 40 minutes from Kyoto station by ‘express’ bus.

Nara, though, is a tranquil, green and compact day trip less than an hour from Kyoto that hosts more spectacular religious structures.
Visitors may also wish to see a tea ceremony, a Geisha display, Katsura Imperial Villa (and gardens) and Himeji castle not far to the south.

Kyoto is so time consuming, expensive and complex to get around, even confirmed individual travellers may consider taking a comfortable and informative tour worthwhile.

***Takayama and Shirakawago (Hida Region)

Hida-no-Sato, Hida Takayama Folk Village, an open museum of 30 old farmhouses, Japan

Hida-no-Sato, Hida Takayama Folk Village, an open museum of 30 old farmhouses. Photo by Eckhard Pecher

(Hida-no-) Takayama in Gifu prefecture is a small merchant city with an ancient Edo era quarter containing clusters of wooden houses and cobbled streets in the centre and many temples and shrines on the outskirts. The city has scenery and atmosphere similar to Kyoto. Takayama hosts one of Japan’s top three festivals in mid-April, the Takayama Spring Festival, involving the rolling around of a dozen huge, ancient, colourful shrines, along with parades, music and a night procession. Running for two days, the first day starts about midday.
In the Hida region there are also some enchanting little villages to visit such as Shirakawago and Gokayama (Toyama Prefecture), with traditionalthatched roof houses.

Known as ‘Little Kyoto’, due to its scenery and ancient structures it specialises in pottery, lacquer-ware and dyed silks, with one superb garden attraction (photo above) and several more modest assets easily accessible via a hop-on hop-off tourist bus running from the central station.

The Kenroku-en gardens (photo further up the page – one of Japan’s top three gardens, along with those of Mito and Okayama) are opposite Kanazawa Castle and previously the castle’s private park. This is an absolute must for garden-control freaks. A kind of grown-up bonsai arrangement of dramatically shaped and supported trees, moss-cloaked ground latticed with streams and rocks and strategically placed stone lanterns. This is  a magical place, especially if the sun’s shining, the cherry trees are blossoming and there’s a small cup of saké in your hand.

Otherwise, the Castle Park is worth a walk. The Higashi Geisha district is quaint (but don’t expect to see geishas there) with a particularly attractive gold leaf shop/factory; the Nagamachi Samurai district’s mud walls and canals are calm and evocative and make a great stroll; the narrow streets of Teramachi is home to the tour-only Ninja hideout Myoryu-ji.

The town also has a couple of excellent museums, especially the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.

**Hiroshima and Miyajima

A huge orange welcome gate to Miyajima shrine, Japan

A huge welcome gate to Miyajima, one of Japan’s three most celebrated scenic sights. Photo by Bernard Gagnon

**Hiroshima was ground zero for the first atomic bomb. The most important feature of the city is the Peace Memorial Park, one of Japan’s top 10 destinations for foreign visitors today.

Off the coast of Hiroshima in Seto Inland Sea the island of Itsukushima known as Miyajima (Shrine Island) with its iconic watery tori gate, has been one of Japan’s three most celebrated sights for centuries.

*Nagasaki

A museum and park dedicated to the Atomic bomb, a fine recreation of old European homes in the south and a full-scale, lived in Dutch town in the north.

Yokohama, Osaka, Kyushu, Hokkaido, Okinawa. It’s hardly worth going there unless it’s for a festival or some special interest or you have lots of time.

**Okinawa

Pristine Yonaha Maehama beach in Miyakojima, Okinawa. Japan

Pristine Yonaha Maehama beach in Miyakojima, Okinawa, which is considered to be the most beautiful beach in Japan. Photo by 663highland

A series of subtropical islands (49 inhabited and 111 uninhabited) between Kyushu, southern main island of Japan and Taiwan, with splendid beaches and unspoiled coral reefs. This southernmost prefecture is not just a great beach destination but also offers a fascinating native culture of Ryukyu Kingdom from the architecture to the food.

Hakodate fort, south Hokkaido, Japan

Hakodate fort, south Hokkaido.

Hokkaido island in the far north of Japan doesn’t have much in the way of must-see attractions. Hakodate’s old town and  fort in south Hokkaido is arguably the best sight, especially at cherry blossom time in early May.

Sapporo, the capital city, is efficient, clean and safe but uninspiring, likewise the drab  Sapporo Snow Festival and most Hokkaido towns. Akanko is an exception with a huge lake that freezes solid in winter and offers varied unusual activities.

In north Hokkaido, just about as far north as you can go there’s a popular national park called Shiretoko, on a peninsula of the same name, that provides scenic wild walks  on trails and boardwalks, but it’s not easy to get to and has limited access for individuals so is really better done by tour.

Getting around

If you go to Japan on a budget, go outside the peak season, you can save a lot in both international and domestic transport.

Unless you’re with a tour group you’ll need to use local and long-distance trains frequently.

The Tokyo Metro subway system, the best way to get around the city, is complex due to the lack of a single city centre but most signs use English as well as Japanese and some lines even have English announcements.
The system is colour-coded, well-organised and clear if you can get your head around the initial shock of alien data overload. Tokyo Metro info and tips

Train Hints

• The JR Yamanote sen (line) usefully runs a circular route including our top three must-see areas, Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku.

• get an English metro map.

• buy a hassle-free travel card (1 day or several days) at Narita or Haneda Airports as well as more or less any station, and top it up when necessary. This card stores your funds and can be used on not only most trains and buses. It can also function as digital money to purchase goods at participating shops just by brushing it across the illuminated blue sign on entry, even if it’s still inside your wallet or purse. Thus tourists have no more need to endlessly buy tickets – but this is a convenience, not a discount card!

• finally, if seriously confused, station staff will be keen to help and may speak English. Speak slowly and clearly, or just say your destination and you will be OK. Don’t panic!

• Outside Tokyo most visitors will need to use trains for long distances, including the hi-speed Bullet (Shinkansen) trains. A Japan Travel Card is a very cost-effective way to get around on these and indeed all JR (Japanese Railways) lines over several days or weeks including Tokyo’s useful, circular Yamanote line. But it doesn’t work for the inter-city, super-speed Nozomi trains that are a little faster than Shinkansen. Also it  MUST be purchased abroad, via the web or a Japanese tourist office.

Remember in Japan…

• walk on the left on crowded pavements and stand on the left of escalators.
• don’t speak on a mobile phone on a bus or train.
• pay on the way out of a eating place, not at the table. And don’t tip!
• eat or drink ONLY at places that display prices. e. g. avoid the Golden Gai area of Shinjuku which can be very, very pricey even if you are in an ancient and dishevelled bar.

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