THERE ARE a hundred reasons to go to Japan. It is one of the best countries on earth to visit. We have been there over a dozen times, for business and pleasure, and we simply cannot imagine not going back there again – and again.
Japan is 9th on the Top 100 Countries Rating index, easily the highest rating for any Asian country. Just about everybody you meet who has been to Japan loves it. They like the people, they like the food, they like the vibrant cities and the beautiful countryside. It is unlike anywhere else.
Unfortunately, people are starting to realize how good it is. Visitor numbers have quadrupled in the last decade. But it is a big country with lots of people and it is only in the really touristy places where this is a problem. But it is another reason to go as soon as you can, before it gets completely overrun.
Japan is in Asia, but it is totally different to anywhere else on that vast continent, or indeed to anywhere in the world. More than a few people have said that it is like another planet. It is unique.
It is also a very easy place to visit. It is pretty well the ideal destination. It is incredibly clean, everything works with the most remarkable efficiency, it is extremely easy to get around, and it has one of the world’s best records for public safety. And the food is fabulous.
There are a few myths about Japan that we should get out of the way very quickly. The first is that Japan is expensive. It is not. Prices are about the same as they are in western Europe or North America.
Sure, you can pay a lot in an expensive restaurant or a Tokyo geisha bar. The easiest thing is to simply avoid such places. The average Japanese eats out in one of the small restaurants and bars that you find everywhere across the country, which cost no more than in any other first world country.
The second myth is that Japan is difficult. It is not. It is easy. The Japanese language is inscrutable, but that is not a serious handicap. The standard of English is not high, but most people speak a little, and visitors are well catered for. It is simply not an issue. And, uniquely in the world, Japanese would prefer that you didn’t try to speak their language, beyond a simple thank you (domo), hello (konichiwa), and goodbye (sayonara).
Another myth is overcrowded public transport. The images of railway staff pushing people onto crowded trains is simply silly. It is true that the Tokyo Metro is incredibly crowded in peak hours, but simply arrange your affairs so that you do not travel at such times.
Look at all the upsides. The people are incredibly friendly and polite. Japanese cuisine is wonderful and much more varied than you would think if you only experience of it is in a Japanese restaurant in a Western country. It is invariably fresh and well presented. And anyway, Western food is available everywhere.
One of the best things about Japan is the train system. It is quite simply the best in the world. It makes it very easy to get around, within cities and between them. They are clean and comfortable and always on time. But they are expensive. If you are doing any substantial travel in Japan, get a JR rail pass
Hiring and driving a car in Japan is no problem. The roads are meticulously maintained the drivers on family polite. There are some great drives.
Japan looks small on a world map next to China and Russia, but it is actually quite a big place, from its frozen north to its subtropical south. The main island is Honshu, with over 80 percent of the population. It is more than 800 miles long. Tokyo is approximately in the middle, on the east coast. Most visitors to Japan never leave Honshu, which is bigger than Great Britain and the seventh largest island on earth.
Japan is very mountainous, with more than two-thirds of the country virtually uninhabitable. Most of the population live on the coastal plains. The flat area around Tokyo, known as the Kanto region, contains one third of the population of the whole country.
The topography of the country means short and fast-flowing rivers, with lots of waterfalls and small lakes. There is plenty of rainfall, and the countryside is usually very green. It all makes for a beautiful landscape, just about everywhere you go.
Japan is simply wonderful. It has absolutely everything for the visitor. If you have never been there, you are doing yourself a major disservice. If you have been there, you will almost certainly want to go back. Put it on your list NOW.
TOKYO IS ONE OF the most exciting cities on earth. It is so that big major suburban areas like Shinjuku are cities and destinations in their own right. The old downtown area around Tokyo Station is mostly offices, though the famed Ginza shopping street is nearby.
Despite its immense size, you can get from anywhere to anywhere in Tokyo by Metro in well under an hour, with no more than one change of train.
You can’t miss Tokyo. It is where most trips to Japan begin and end, and it is a wonderful destination in its own right. It is a massive city, with heaps to do. There are bars and restaurants everywhere, there are temples, there is fabulous shopping, there is more to do than you could ever wish.
Do not get a cab from Narita airport to downtown Tokyo. It will cost you hundreds of dollars. There are very good trains and buses.
Go to a Sumo wrestling match. Take a cruise on the river. Visit the Imperial Palace. Take in a baseball game at the Tokyo Dome. Go to Tokyo Disneyland. Do some knife shopping in Kappabashi (‘kitchen suburb’), where every shop for blocks is devoted solely to restaurant supplies and cooking accessories. Hang out late at night in the famous Roppongi nightclub district (but don’t stay too late. The Metro closes at 1:00 am, and cabs are expensive).
Visit the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. The variety of seafood is astonishing, and its sheer size will astound you. Get there really early, like before 6:00 am, to catch all the action. There are plenty of small restaurants in the area to grab something to eat afterwards.
Kyoto and Osaka
THEY SAY KYOTO is the soul of Japan. Any first-time visitor who ventures beyond Tokyo should go there. The city itself is nothing special (though still a great place), but it is surrounded by the most wonderful temples. There is also the famous Gion geisha area.
There are all sorts of tours, or you can venture out on your own. There are three major walking trails to visit the major temples and there is some great hiking in the mountains around Kyoto.
But Kyoto is suffering most from Japan’s tourist boom. Everybody wants to go there, and the locals are starting to complain, like they are in Venice and Barcelona. There is a simple solution. Don’t stay in Kyoto. Stay in nearby Osaka. Japan’s second biggest city is almost as exciting as Tokyo and has many fewer tourists. It has great food and nightlife, and it’s only half an hour on the train from Kyoto, a shorter suburban commute than in most western cities. They are essentially one urban area. It’s cheaper in Osaka too, and you can have a great time there. Do Kyoto as an easy day trip.
If you like temples but want to avoid the crowds in Kyoto, then go 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 weekends, when it is overrun by Japanese day trippers.
JAPAN’S MOST famous geographical feature is Mount Fuji. It is the highest mountain in Japan, at over 12,000 feet. Its wonderful symmetry makes it an object of great beauty and reverence, and it occupies a central place in Japanese culture
The sacred mountain can be viewed from central Tokyo on a good day. Problem is, there aren’t many good days. It is a popular day trip from Tokyo – there are all sorts of packages available and you can do it by yourself – but don’t try it on a weekend when the locals are out in force.
Or spend some time there in one of the many hotels in the region. In summer you can walk all the way to the top of Mount Fuji (make sure you are in good condition), and any time of year you can walk around the base.
Hakone is the main Fuji tourist town, because it can easily be reached by train from Tokyo. But it is a little way from the mountain. Best to stay in the small lakeside town of Fujikawaguchiko, which is less crowded and much closer, though you need to get there by train and then bus. We spent three days there once, in a hotel by the lake, and when Fuji finally appeared on the last day it was magnificent.
HIROSHIMA IS FAMOUS as the site of the first atomic bomb, and the Peace Park downtown is one of the world’s truly sacred sites. The Atom Museum (recently renovated) is a very sobering place, as is the nearby Atom Bomb Dome.
It is a wonderful city of about a million people, with a really nice feel to it. Don’t miss the offshore island of Miyajima, one of the prettiest and most popular places in Japan. It has that famous red Buddhist shrine, Itsukushima, that sticks out of the water.
Miyajima is easy to get to, half an hour by ferry or train. A private ferry leaves from just near the Atom Bomb Dome, and there is a JR ferry from Miyamaguchi station, a short train ride south of Hiroshima. Take the cable car (called the ‘ropeway’) to the top of the mountain to get one of the world’s most spectacular views.
We always recommend Hiroshima and nearby Miyajima as places to visit in Japan. The Tokyo-Kyoto-Hiroshima axis is very easy on the Shinkansen bullet train. Hiroshima is also best place in Japan to get Okonomiyaki, the famous Japanese savoury pancake.
The rest of Honshu
THERE IS MUCH else to see on Honshu. Not far from Kyoto is the ancient capital of Nara, with the statue of the Great Buddha (Daibutsu).
Kanazawa on the west coast, a couple of hours by train from Kyoto, has the best garden in Japan, Kenrokuen. Its 25 acres of subtle beauty will make you fully appreciate the meaning of serenity. Kanazawa also has a perfectly preserved samurai suburb.
Takayama in the mountains is a small city with one of the best preserved old towns in Japan. Nearby Ogimachi is famous for its traditional farm houses, with a high peaked roofs so the snow slides off in winter. You can visit Kanazawa, Takayama and Ogamachi on one train loop in a few days. It’s a great trip.
North of Tokyo, on the west coast, is Niigata, a pleasant city next on the list to be atom bombed. It is famous for its very high snowfalls in winter, and the high quality of its rice and sake.
If you’re into skiing you don’t have to go to Hokkaido. There are major winter resorts in the mountains north-west of Tokyo around Nagano, where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held.
The other islands
HOKKAIDO IS THE big island at the very north. It is comparatively sparsely populated, with just over 5 million people. The main reason tourists go there is for the skiing – some of the best in the world. Its biggest city is Sapporo, where they make great beer.
You can go direct from Honshu to Hokkaido on the Shinkansen – they are connected by the Seikan Tunnel, which is longer than the Channel Tunnel that connects England and France.
The southernmost home island is Kyushu, with 13 million people. The main cities are Nagasaki and Fukuoka. Nagasaki also got an atom bomb, dropped three days after the one in Hiroshima, and has its own museum and peace park.
Shikoku is the smallest home island and the least populous, with fewer than 4 million people. It is home to some nice temples, but is not a major destination. Kyushu and Shikoku are connected to Honshu via rail and road tunnels and bridges.
There are a number of other much smaller islands, to the south. The best known is Okinawa, dominated by US military bases and also popular with Japanese vacationers because of its subtropical climate.
Okinawa was the only part of Japan invaded by the USA during World War II, when one third of the population was killed. If the USA hadn’t dropped the atom bombs and instead invaded the home islands, millions more would have been killed.