Japan’s reputation is well-known throughout the world as an incredibly safe, welcoming, and distinct country to visit. While it is high on most travelers bucket lists, it also draws more repeat visitors each year who have fallen for the charm of this fascinating place.
A typical first time visit to Japan is inclusive of Tokyo, Kyoto, and the Hakone National Park region. Collectively, this route is known as the Golden Triangle as it hits so many highlights and provides a diverse view of both urban and rural regions. Even with just a week to explore the country, these locations give you access to myriad sites of interest, temples, shrines, museums, markets, local onsen, historic hiking trails, views of Mount Fuji and much more.
If you have a longer trip, we highly recommend venturing deeper into the 47 prefectures, using the efficient and incredibly punctual rail system with shinkansen (bullet trains) that connect the country. From the rocky coastlines of the island of Kyushu to the stunning mountain views of the Northern Alps and beyond, you’ll never find yourself lacking for new adventures Japan tours have to offer.
Tokyo, the modern capital, has a long history that is woven into the fabric of the city. Many travelers spend several days here to take in the diverse neighborhoods, excellent museums, fish markets, both Michelin-rated and small specialty restaurants, and to get a taste of the nightlife. With reknowned party spots like Roppongi and Shinjuku’s Kabukicho, you can devour yakitori ata standup restaurant, squeeze into a tiny hip cocktail bar, check out the Robot Restaurant, admire night views of the city, or dance the night away at a popular club. Options are endless and there is something for everyone!
In the daytime, Tokyo is dotted with peaceful gardens and parks like Hamarikyu, Shinjuku Gyoen, and the 100 year old Meiji Jingu Forest that surrounds this beautiful shrine of the same name. Harajuku, the youth fashion capital of the city, is merely steps from the zen of Meiji Jingu and provides an incredible juxtaposition to the quiet forest with eye popping colors and kawaii (cute) shops. The city is full of these contrasts between the ancient and the cutting edge. Electronic and technical oases of Odaiba and Akihabara with their gadget stores and giant Gundam statue are just a train ride away from the quiet residential streets of Yanaka where you can enjoy a glass of sake and a stroll through the picturesque cemetery lined with cherry trees that doubles as a green space.
Hakone National Park encompasses several smaller towns, and has excellent tourist infrastructure with trains, buses, ropeways, and even a boat to traverse Lake Ashi. Views of Mt. Fuji are striking in clear weather, and light hikes are accessible in the mountainous region. There is even a portion of the Tokaido Trail you can walk along in the footsteps of history on the path linking the shogunate capital of Edo (modern day Tokyo) to the imperial capital of Kyoto. After a day of wandering, be sure to soak in the famous onsen (hot spring) waters of the region, perhaps while relaxing at your traditional ryokan stay.
Kyoto, considered the cultural heart of Japan, still maintains some well preserved districts with stone paved streets, wooden lattice storefronts, and geisha (known locally as geiko) making their way to work in the evenings. Days can be spent investigating the shrines and temples that are found throughout the city with moss gardens, zen rock gardens, and unique displays to make each special. Cultural experiences abound with tea ceremonies, sake tastings, martial arts, calligraphy, and ikebana (flower arranging) available. Day trip options include the ancient capital of Nara with its friendly deer, UNESCO sites, and Daibutsu (Great Buddha), as well as Himeji where you can visit Himeji-jo, often described as the best example of castle architecture in the country.
Other fascinating cities to consider on the main island of Honshu are Kanazawa, which is home to Kenrokuen, one of the top three landscape gardens in Japan, as well as delicious seafood, local crafts, samurai, and geisha history. Takayama, a smaller town to the north boasts nigori sake production, woodworking prowess, traditional architecture, and proximity to both to mountains and the village of Shirakawago’s gassho houses. On Miyajima, an island just a 40 minutes train journey from Hiroshima, you can get up close and personal to the cheeky macaques on Mt. Misen, taste the freshest oysters in winter, and gaze at Itsukushima Shrine’s picture worthy “floating” torii at high tide. This just scratches the surface of one island, and Japan has many more to explore!
SpiritualityJapan has a unique blend of Buddhism and Shinto that runs through their history. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are found throughout the country and have developed a harmony where many Japanese practice some aspects of both beliefs. While other religions are present, Buddhist and Shinto influences are prevalent throughout the country's culture, government history, architecture, cuisine, and more.
CuisineHaving over 230 Michelin-star rated restaurants has made Japan a top destination for foodies throughout the world. We do recommend checking out some of these restaurants for a palette altering experience, but the country’s food scene has much more to offer. Tokyo alone has over 160,000 restaurants ranging from the humble bowl of ramen or udon to an elaborate kaiseki-ryori feast. Kyoto’s specialty cuisine is Shojin-ryori, based around Buddhist meatless principles. Kansai cuisine, in and around Osaka follows the kuiadore (eat till you’re broke) philosophy that leaves no stomach empty.
While some cities are famous for a specific type of food like beef in Kobe, or ramen in Fukuoka, each prefecture and many cities are fiercely proud of their seasonal offerings. These can be summer fruits like nashi (Asian pear) from Toyama, sea urchin from Hokkaido, or wild boar from Shimane. The variety is endless!
Conbini (convenience stores)Walking into a conbini in Japan is a step into culture, cuisine, and a window into daily life. One can find anything from a spare t-shirt or pair of socks to a bento lunch, cup ramen, or assortment of beverages. The snack aisle offers flavors only found in Japan like kinako (ground roasted soy bean) covered mochi rice cakes or dried squid with caramel, and beyond. These stores offer an excellent way to cheaply graze the flavors of Japan without committing to a full meal. Try an individually packed umeboshi (pickled plum), an exquisite chestnut and matcha mont blanc, or a wasabi kit-kat. An onigiri (rice ball) is a typical snack or even small meal, and most conbini offer a wall of options to choose from.
The snacks and drinks vary regionally and seasonally, so it’s hard to get bored with how much is at your fingertips! In the summer, these stores are a delightful air-conditioned respite from the heat and humidity, and the cooler full of fun flavored drinks (alcoholic and non) are enough to keep you entertained your whole trip. Melon chu-hai (shochu drinks), mugicha (barley tea), and peach coca cola are just a few seasonal flavors to try.
Wa (Harmony)With densely populated urban centers, it’s easy to imagine the cities being mayhem with everyone rushing to and fro. Japanese culture has a strong sense of harmony, however, that helps keep the typical madness of most large cities at bay. There is a proverb that translates to “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” This does not mean that the entirety of the populace conforms in all ways, as there is great diversity and innovation throughout. Rather, the local people have an overwhelming respect for the personal space and peace of one another. This leads to even rush hour packed subway trains being nearly silent with everyone focusing on their devices and keeping to themselves. Not rocking the boat, so that everyone can maintain a level of comfort, is expected. There are exceptions, of course, to every rule, but following suit as a visitor is best, and will allow you to travel with comfort and a sense of calm even in the busiest of places.
Further Reading Lost Japan
Rice Noodle Fish
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet