No other country does a mixture of modern technology and antiquity quite the same way as Japan. In one train ride, a trip to Japan can go from chrome skyscrapers and neon lights, Harajuku fashion, and realistic robots to hot spring onsen, Shinto shrines, and tiny hamlets surrounded in rural beauty of mountains, lakes, and rivers.
While both are worthwhile, a trip to the big city will be vastly different than one to the inaka (countryside) and will require vastly different planning, so plan accordingly.
The Ultimate Japan Travel Guide
Japan is made up of five distinct islands and eight regions. The islands are all connected by tunnel and rail and, though the largest airports are all on Honshu, the smaller islands all have at least one smaller airport to which you can catch a connecting flight.
The islands of Hokkaido in the north and Shikoku in the south make up their own regions, and the islands of Kyushu and Okinawa make up the Kyushu region. The remainder of the eight regions (Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kinki, and Chugoku) are all on the large island of Honshu.
Transportation in Japan is extremely expensive, so you should focus your trip on experiencing a few destinations deeply instead of trying to see the whole country at once. Luckily, Japan has the fastest, most comprehensive public transportation in the world, so there’s really no need to rent a car—just use the trains and bike or walk locally.
To cut down on ticket expenses, investigate a Japanese Rail Pass or a Sheishun 18 ticket. Do NOT travel during Golden Week, a collection of national holidays taking place at the beginning of May and tail end of April.
Food & Culture
Japanese food has become popular the world over, so if you travel to Japan you are likely to find something you recognize from sushi or hibachi-style restaurants in your own country. White rice, soy products, and seafood create the base of many meals which can be fried, stewed, steamed, or, in the case of sushi and sashimi, eaten raw.
However, you’ll also find a large amount of Western-inspired foods and creative snack foods—from traditional dango to over 200 flavors of Kit Kat bars. Sake, beer, and green tea are classics, but their soft drink flavors can be equally eclectic.
Having had a millennia to develop, Japanese culture can be very complex for outsiders to understand and can take years of study and immersion to catch onto; luckily, if you’re a tourist, most natives will be forgiving of any accidental faux pas.
Politeness and presentation are very important to the Japanese, so being grateful and doing your best to avoid outright confrontations (especially in public) will get you far. Showing respect or assistance to your elders and group members will also give a good impression, as they also hold the elderly and group harmony in high regard.
Sights & Activities
What to see and where to go will depend heavily on the area of Japan you choose to visit; as previously mentioned, travel can be very expensive and the rural and urban environments can be quite different.
Hokkaido— The north most region of Japan, Hokkaido and its capital city of Sapporo are excellent destinations for those who love outdoor activities, especially skiing and other snowsports in the winter. From skiing resorts like Tomamu to national parks like Lake Toya, home to active volcano Mt. Usu, Hokkaido offers many camping, hiking, and hot spring opportunities.
Tohoku— If the idea of Japan brings to mind images of samurai clashing amidst showers of cherry blossoms, this is the region for you. Aomori and Aikita are renowed for their festivals, Kakunodate and Kitakami for their cherry blossoms, and Hirosaki, Aizu, and Sendai for its samurai and folktale history.
Kanto— Home to Tokyo and Yokohama, Kanto is densely urban. In those two cities alone you can find traditional architecture like the Sensoji Temple and Sankeien Gardens, tea houses, onsen, food and active night life, fun attractions like the Ghibli Museum and Hakkeijima Sea Paradise, and amazing shopping. Kanto is a great place to go if you want to try a little bit of everything Japan has to offer.
Chubu— Hosting Mt. Fuji and a number of historic fortresses, Chubu is the place to go for history and hot springs. Matsumoto Castle, Takayama, and Inuyama are of particular interest.
Kinki— For a mix of modernity and Imperial history, check out both Kyoto and Osaka. Kyoto was the original capital of Japan, and Koka, Iga Ueno, and Ise Shima are known for its Shinto shrines and ninja history.
Chugoku— The Chugoku region is separated in two parts, the industrialized Sanyo Region with its many modern fishing villages and the rural Sanin Region. Here you’ll find Hiroshima and Aikiyoshidai Cave, Japan’s largest and longest.
Shikoku— This small southern island is a great place to see traditional architecture and a number of Shinto shrines. Many small towns have beautiful Edo-era castles, like Uwajima, Matsuyama, and Ozu, and there’s a popular shrine and kabuki theater in Kotohira.
Kyushu & Okinawa— The southern most region of Japan, these islands have quasi-tropical climate and are hotspots for both local and foreign vacationers looking to enjoy a day at the beach. Okinawa in particular boasts some great surfing, snorkeling, and swimming weather, especially the Yaeyama Islands.
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