THREE TIMES IN the last two weeks I have had friends ask me about visiting Japan.
I’ve been going there for 30 years, for business and pleasure, and I love the place. But now I’m worried too many people are going there, and it will be spoilt.
The numbers are astonishing. I looked up the statistics from tourism Japan and I was amazed. Just a decade ago, in 2008, only eight million people visited Japan. After the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 the numbers dropped to six million.
Then came the boom. Last year more than 30 million overseas visitors entered Japan, most of them from China or Korea. Numbers from the West are also increasing quickly.
The overall number of visitors has quadrupled in just a few years. Japan is the fastest growing tourist destination on earth. That’s great for the local economy, but bad news if you like to go places where there aren’t too many other tourists (and don’t kid yourself that you’re a traveler, not a tourist – we are all tourists).
I have been to Japan more than a dozen times, and I really do think is the best destination on earth. I’ve been telling people for years they should go there, but it seems too many of them have taken my advice.
I’m glad in a way that people are starting to realize what a great place it is, but I’m worried that it will get overrun, like Venice or Barcelona or Amsterdam.
But do not fear! I have some advice that will help you enjoy Japan while you still can.
When should I go?
The tourism statistics I looked at show that numbers are pretty constant all year round. This surprised me, because winter is very cold and summer is very hot and humid. I suppose the winter numbers are boosted by the popularity of skiing in the northern island of Hokkaido (there are also very good resorts not far from Tokyo), and summer is when most Americans and Europeans take their vacations.
The best weather in Japan is in the spring and fall. Spring is great, because you can see the famous cherry blossoms, but you need to avoid Golden Week in late April and early May, when most Japanese take their vacations. There are many public holidays during this ten day period and it is like Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving all rolled into one.Don’t go there then.
Autumn is the best time to visit Japan – September and October. It’s too late for mainstream northern hemisphere travelers, the weather is just right, and you might even catch the end of the baseball season.
What about Tokyo?
Tokyo is a must. You have to be there anyway because most international flights arrive and leave from Narita airport. Fortunately, it is such a big city that even a million tourists wouldn’t make an appreciable difference.
I won’t try to fill you in on all the delights of Tokyo. It is one of the world’s most exciting cities. Its fabulous metro system will get you anywhere in town in 30 minutes with a maximum of one change of trains (avoid it at peak hour).
Tokyo is so big it has four or five different downtowns. Central Tokyo is for finance and government. Shinjuku is the retail hub. Roppongi is the nightclub district. Akihabara is where the electronics are. You can never tire of Tokyo.
Should I go to Kyoto?
All the guidebooks say that Kyoto is a must, that it is the soul of Japan, blah blah blah. I say give it a miss, or don’t spend much time there. The city itself is ordinary, and it is one place that definitely has too many tourists. People go there for the temples, which are fabulous if you like that sort of thing, but there are equally good temples elsewhere in Japan.
If you feel you must go to Kyoto – and a first-time visitor probably should – don’t stay there. Stay in nearby Osaka. Japan’s second biggest city is almost as exciting as Tokyo and hardly has any tourists. It has great food and nightlife, and it’s only half an hour on the train from Kyoto. It’s cheaper, too.
If you like temples I advise going to Nikko, which you can do on a short visit from Tokyo. It has very good temples, and they are closer together than they are in Kyoto. But avoid it on the weekend, when it is overrun by Japanese day trippers.
Is Hiroshima worth visiting?
Even if you only have a week in Japan you should go to Hiroshima. The Atom Dome and the Atom Museum are very sobering. The museum starts off low-key and just gets more and more horrific. It has just been renovated.
The other must see in Hiroshima is Miyajima, which means ‘magic island’. It is home to the Itsukushima Shrine, one of the most famous and recognizable sights in Japan – it’s that red Buddhist gate thing that sticks up out of the sea. And there’s tame deer everywhere. Again, avoid Miyajima on the weekend.
You can also take the cable car (‘ropeway’) to the top of the mountain for one of the world’s most spectacular views. It’s a 30 minute ferry ride from the wharf near the Atom Museum.
How’s the skiing?
I don’t ski. Ask somebody else.
Where else should I go?
Just about everywhere in Japan is worth a visit. The cities are vibrant, the countryside is beautiful, the food is fantastic, and the people are incredibly friendly and polite. It is the cleanest and safest country on earth, and the most efficient. Everything works.
My two favorite places for a short visit are Kanazawa on the west coast and Takayama in the mountains. You can visit them both on one train loop in a couple of days.
Kanazawa has the best garden in Japan, Kenrokuen. Its 25 acres of subtle beauty will make you fully appreciate the meaning of serenity.
Takayama is a small city with one of the best preserved old towns in Japan. It has become a bit touristy, but it’s still a wonderful place. And it is the saké capital of Japan.
Mount Fuji is good, and can be done on a day trip from Tokyo. But it’s the luck of the draw whether you actually see the mountain, because of mist and fog. As always, avoid weekends.
Isn’t it expensive?
No. Japan used to have that reputation, but if it was ever true it isn’t now. It is cheaper than Western Europe. Just don’t go to expensive restaurants. Eat in the tiny bars that abound in Japan, and which are one of the best things about the place. All the big railway stations have plenty of cheap eateries. And don’t leave home without your Japan Rail Pass.
What else do I need to know?
Nothing. Except do not get a cab from Narita airport to Tokyo – it is much too expensive. There are good buses and trains.
Everything else is just details. The main thing is to go now, before too many other people do. It’s still not too late.
Enjoy your trip!