The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Japan, your essential guide for visiting Japan.
The capital of Japan for a thousand years, endowed with an almost overwhelming legacy of temples, palaces and gardens, and also home to the country’s richest traditional culture and most refined cuisine.
For many people the very name Kyoto conjures up the classic image of Japan: streets of traditional wooden houses, the click-clack of geta (wooden sandals), geisha passing in a flourish of brightly coloured silks, and temple pagodas surrounded by cherry blossom trees.
The vast amount of culture and history in Kyoto is mind-boggling, yet it’s possible to get a good feel for the city within a couple of days. Top priority should go to the eastern, Higashiyama, district, where the walk north from famous Kiyomizu-dera to Ginkaku-ji takes in a whole raft of fascinating temples, gardens and museums.
Immerse yourself in the breathtaking natural beauty, history, enchanting culture and warmhearted people of Japan, with our self-guided 10-day tailor-made tour in Japan
Newly opened in February 2013, Kyoto Itoya Hotel is a designer’s hotel with modern accommodations. Free Wi-Fi is available at the entire property. Shijo Subway Station and Karasuma Train Station are both a 5-minute walk away.
Just a 12-minute walk from Kyoto Station, Hotel Kanra Kyoto is an entirely non-smoking hotel, offering spacious rooms and a mix of traditional Japanese, modern and Western decor. All guest rooms feature free WiFi access and Japanese tatami (woven-straw) flooring.
Hit the slopes and enjoy the perfect powder snow at Niseko in Hokkaido or the great runs and charming atmosphere of Nagano’s Nozawa Onsen.
Around 70km south of Otaru is Niseko, Japan’s premier winter sports destination, with impressive amounts of perfect powder snow and top-class, interlinked ski fields. The resort hugs Mount Niseko-Annupuri and faces the dormant volcano Mount Yōtei-san (also known as the Ezo Fuji for its resemblance to its more famous southern cousin).
Niseko United is the umbrella name for four separate ski resorts: Niseko Annupuri, Niseko Village, Niseko Grand Hirafu and Niseko Hanazono. You can buy individual lift tickets from each of the resorts, but the smartest deal is to go for one of the All Mountain Passes. It is issued as an electronic tag – you’ll need to wave it at the barrier by each of the lifts – with a refundable deposit. Pass holders can ride the shuttle bus for free between all the resorts.
A 300 m walk from Niseko Village Ski Resort lifts, Black Diamond Lodge features a free WiFi, pool-billiards and free shuttles to the Hilton Gondola at the fixed time every morning. A free pick up service from Niseko Train Station and Niseko Village bus stop is provided with an advance reservation.
Hotel Kanronomori offers free Wi-Fi at the entire property and relaxing indoor/outdoor hot-spring baths. Guests can play billiards or tennis and work out at the free-use fitness centre, which provides free yoga and boxercise lessons. Transfers to ski lifts are also provided for free.
The bayside area of Tsukiji dates back to 1657, when Tokugawa Ieyasu had the debris from the Fire of the Long Sleeves shovelled into the marshes at the edge of Ginza, thus creating “reclaimed land”, or “tsukiji”. The area was long famed for its huge, almost otherworldly fish market, which was finally shifted east to Toyosu, after years of delays.
Most of the area’s prime sushi shops have also relocated, but Tsukiji still boasts a distinctive atmosphere, and a lovely temple. Visiting this Tokyo fish and produce market is one of the best things to do in Japan if you are looking for an early breakfast and the freshest sashimi and sushi in the country.
Grand Nikko Tokyo Daiba is the first Grand Nikko hotel in Japan, open from 1 July 2016. Situated in the Tokyo Bay area in Odaiba, this property is the closest city resort hotel to central Tokyo, a 20-minute monorail and train ride away from JR Tokyo Station. Free WiFi is available throughout the property.
Explore more accommodation options in the Japanese capital with our guide to the best places to stay in Tokyo.
Gawp at mammoth snow and ice sculptures in Sapporo, Hokkaido, every February.
Sapporo’s famous snow festival, the Yuki Matsuri, has its origins in the winter of 1950, when six small snow statues were created by high-school children in Ōdōri-kōen, the city’s main park. The idea caught on, and by 1955 the Self Defence Force (the Japanese military) was pitching in to help build gigantic snow sculptures, which included intricately detailed copies of world landmarks such as the Taj Mahal.
Running from early to mid-February and spread across three sites, the festival now includes an international snow sculpture competition and many other events, such as snowboard jumping and nightly music performances in the park. Arrive one week in advance and you’ll be able to see the statues being made, as well as take part in the construction, since at least one giant statue in Ōdōri-kōen is a community effort.
Situated a 12-minute walk from JR Sapporo Station, Hotel Clubby Sapporo offers spacious rooms with a private bathroom and free WiFi. Guests can enjoy shopping at Sapporo Factory, which is directly connected to the property.
ituated a 5-minute walk from the lively Susukino area in Sapporo, the SappoLodge offers cosy rooms with free WiFi access. The property is decorated in warm wood tones and has a shared lounge great for socialising. A convenience store is a minutes' walk away, while Hosui-Susukino subway station is a 2-minute walk from the property.
The ancient former capital is home to the monumental bronze Buddha of Todai-ji and fine collections of religious art.
Before Kyoto became the capital of Japan in 794 AD, this honour was held by Nara, a town some 35km further south in an area that is regarded as the birthplace of Japanese civilization. Nara’s grid-street system is well signposted in English, and the main sights, which include some UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The main sights are all gathered on the city’s eastern edge in the green expanse of Nara-kōen. Its greatest draws are undoubtedly the monumental bronze Buddha of Tōdai-ji, and Nara’s holiest shrine, Kasuga Taisha, with its rows of lanterns and attractive new museum, while Kōfuku-ji, Sangatsu-dō and ShinYakushi-ji all boast outstanding collections of Buddhist statuary.
Just 200 m from Nara Park, Nara Backpackers offers affordable accommodation with free Wi-Fi. The traditional, 100 year-old house includes a modern free-use kitchen with microwave. Bicycle rental is offered.
A 2-minute walk from Kintetsu-Nara Station, a 5-minute taxi ride from JR Nara Train Station and a 5-minute walk from Kofuku-ji Temple, Kasuga Hotel features Japanese cuisine and beautiful hot public baths. The spacious Japanese and Western rooms have free WiFi.
One of the best places to experience the beauty of the Inland Sea is this tranquil island, with its amazing contemporary art museums, public sculptures and installations.
The islands of the Seto Inland Sea, between Shikoku and the main island of Honshū, are some of the most scenic and friendly places in Japan. For centuries, they were at the crossroads of maritime transportation, including piracy, which enabled them to develop their own unique culture and ecological lifestyle.
The dynamic hub for Benesse’s ongoing “community revitalization through art” project, idyllic Naoshima is now home to six stunning Andō Tadao-designed galleries as well as several large-scale installations and outdoor sculptures from major international and Japanese talent.
A property with a garden, is set in Naoshima, 1.5 km from Ando Museum, 1.5 km from Gokuraku-ji Temple, as well as 1.8 km from Goâo Shrine Art House Project. It is located 1.2 km from Hachiman Shrine and provides a shared kitchen.
Just a 3-minute walk from Miyanoura Port, Yado Seven Beach offers non-smoking Japanese rooms with free Wi-Fi and an LCD TV. It has a free-use internet station, free coffee/tea and a shared-use microwave. Naoshima’s Art House Project area is 2 km away. Naoshima Bath, designed by Shinro Ohtake, is right next door. On-site parking is free.
Pay your respects to the A-bomb’s victims at the Peace Memorial Park and Museum in the city of Hiroshima, impressively reborn from the ashes of World War II.
Since August 6, 1945, Hiroshima, western Honshū’s largest city, has been a living monument to the devastating effects of the atomic bomb. Millions of visitors each year come to pay their respects at the Peace Memorial Park and museum, while the reconstructed city serves in its entirety as an eloquent testimony to the power of life over destruction.
Where once there was nothing but ashes, there now stands a dynamic modern city which with its trundling trams and bustling alleyways retains an old-world feel.
The hotel is 5 to 10-minute walk from the Atomic Bomb Dome and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Hiroshima Museum of Art is a 2-minute walk from Rihga Royal Hotel Hiroshima, while Hiroshima Castle is approximately 6 minutes away on foot. Miyajimaguchi Station can be reached via a 50-minute train ride.
Located within a 7-minute taxi ride from the JR Hiroshima Train Station, Hiroshima Tokyu REI Hotel provides free Wi-Fi throughout the property and also wired internet in all guest rooms.
Mingle with monks and pilgrims on one of Japan’s holiest mountains, home to over a hundred monasteries.
Ever since the Buddhist monk Kōbō Daishi founded a temple here in the early ninth century, Koya-san has been one of Japan’s holiest mountains. The town itself is in a high, cedar-filled valley near the top of the mountain, more than one hundred monasteries cluster round the head temple of the Shingon school of Buddhism, Kongōbu-ji.
This isolated community is protected by two concentric mountain chains of peaks, which are said to resemble an eight-petalled lotus blossom.
Whatever your religious persuasion, there’s a highly charged, slightly surreal atmosphere about this group of temples suspended among the clouds. The journey alone, a dramatic ride by train and ropeway (cable-car), is spectacular, and Kōya-san is also a good place to step out of Japan’s hectic city life for a day or two.
A 1000 year-old Buddhist temple, Shukubo Koya-san Eko-in offers Japanese-style accommodation, a beautiful garden and free WiFi. Guests are free to attend Buddhist morning services, the Goma fire ritual and meditation.
Located at the heart of Mount Koya, Koyasan Onsen Fukuchiin Shukubo offers Japanese-style accommodations in a historical Buddhist temple. Guests can refresh in the public hot-spring baths, experience Shakyo Sutra transcriptions or attend Buddhist morning services.
Kabuki theatre is a famous form of classical Japanese dance drama. It is widely known for its highly stylised performances, the sumptuous costumes worn by the performers and the skilful make-up of the kumadori.
Tokyo’s National Theatre or Shimbashi Embujo are among the places where you can enjoy this most dramatic of traditional Japanese performing arts. In its two auditoria, Tokyo’s National Theatre puts on a varied programme of traditional theatre and music, including kabuki, bunraku, court music and dance. English-language earphones and programmes are available. Tickets start at around ¥1500 for kabuki and ¥4500 for bunraku.
Located in the heart of Tokyo, just a few steps away from Ginza, the world-famous shopping and entertainment district. Conrad Tokyo boasts rooms furnished with modern decor, award winning restaurants and a 29th-floor spa with beautiful city views. It ranked 1st as the most popular Japanese hotel for international travellers by TripAdvisor 2015.
The three-hour hike from Tsumago to Magome in Nagano takes you through gorgeous countryside between two lovingly preserved Edo-era “post towns”. If you are into hiking - visiting Kiso Valley is sure a thing to do in Japan for you.
The densely forested river valley of Kiso, southwest of Matsumoto between the Central and Northern Alps, provides a glimpse of how Japan looked before concrete and neon became the norm. Part of the route for the 550km Nakasendō, one of the five main highways that spanned out from Edo (present-day Tokyo), ran through this valley.
Connecting Edo with Kyoto, it reached its heyday between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Three of the eleven post towns (juku) that lined the Kiso-ji (Kiso road) section of the Nakasendō – Narai, Tsumago and Magome – have been preserved as virtual museums of the feudal past. The latter two are linked by an easy two-hour hiking trail along the Nakasendō route which has deservedly become one of the most popular day-hikes in all Japan.
Situated in Shimotono in the Nagano Region, 41 km from Takayama, Tsutaya Tokinoyado Kazari features a hot spring bath and ski-to-door access. Free private parking is available on site.
Indulge yourself with a meal of kaiseki-ryori, Japan’s haute cuisine, comprising a selection of beautifully prepared morsels made from the finest seasonal ingredients.
Japan’s finest style of cooking, kaiseki-ryōri, comprises a series of small, carefully balanced and expertly presented dishes. Described by renowned Kyoto chef Murata Yoshihiro as “eating the seasons”, this style of cooking began as an accompaniment to the tea ceremony and still retains the meticulous design of that elegant ritual.
At the best kaiseki-ryōri restaurants, the atmosphere of the room in which the meal is served is just as important as the food, which will invariably reflect the best of the season’s produce. You’ll sit on tatami, a scroll decorated with calligraphy will hang in the tokonoma (alcove) and a waitress in kimono will serve each course on beautiful china and lacquerware.
Our 10-day tailor-made culinary tour across Japan takes you from Tokyo to Kyoto, where you will experience authentic Japanese foods.
Commune with thousand-year-old cedar trees in Kirishima-Yaku National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Craggy mountain peaks; wave after wave of dripping rainforest; towering cedar trees which predate the Roman Empire; and the all-pervasive scent of moss and flowers. If this all sounds a little like the setting for an anime, rather than real-life Japan, you’d be half-right: Miyazaki Hayao was said to have taken his inspiration from Yakushima’s lush forests when creating Princess Mononoke.
Climbing steeply from the sea some 60km off Cape Sata, Yakushima encompasses the eight highest mountains in Kyūshū, centred on 1935m-high Miyanouradake. There are no dry months here, but the best time to visit is May, when the rhododendrons are at their best, or during the autumn months of October and November. June sees by far the highest rainfall, followed by a steamy July and August.
Located on the beautiful Yakushima Island, Sankara Hotel & Spa Yakushima offers luxurious accommodations with modern warm-coloured interior and free WiFi. Guests can also relax with massages at the Spa.
Situated 10 km from Shiratani Unsuikyo, Cottage Yakusugi features Yakusugi Japanese cedar in its architecture and decor, including its walls, ceiling, pillars and furniture. The property staff offers tours of Shiratani Unsuikyou, Yakusugi Land and Yakushima upon request. Guests will have the entire cottage to themselves during their stay. Free parking is available for guests.
Make the tough but rewarding hike up Japan’s tallest peak, a long-dormant volcano of classic symmetrical beauty.
“A wise man climbs Fuji once. A fool climbs it twice”, says the Japanese proverb. Don’t let the sight of children and grannies trudging up lull you into a false sense of security: at 3776m in height – more than enough for altitude sickness to take hold – this is a tough climb.
There are several routes up the volcano, with the ascent on each divided into sections known as stations; the summit is the tenth station. Most people take a bus to the fifth station (go-gōme) on the Kawaguchi-ko route, about halfway up the volcano, where a Swiss-chalet-style gift shop marks the end of the road. For most people, it’s four or five hours from here to the summit.
Many climbers choose to ascend the mountain at night in order to reach the summit by dawn; during the season, the lights of climbers’ torches resemble a line of fireflies trailing up the volcanic scree.
Located right in front of Lake Kawaguchi in the Mount Fuji area, Fuji Lake Hotel offers spacious accommodations with mountain or lake views. Free Wi-Fi is available at the lobby and guests can enjoy the public hot-spring baths. A free shuttle is available from Kawaguchiko Train Station, which is a 12-minute walk away.
Fuji Viewest Villa RAKUWA, a property with free bikes and a terrace, is set in Fujikawaguchiko, 7.1 km from Fuji-Q Highland, 28 km from Mount Fuji, as well as less than 1 km from Kawaguchi Asama Shrine. The air-conditioned accommodation is 4.4 km from Lake Kawaguchi, and guests benefit from private parking available on site and free WiFi.
Treat yourself to a night of luxury in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, where you enter a world of understated elegance and meticulous service.
A night in a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, is one of the best things while visiting Japan. The best charge five-star hotel rates, but there are plenty where you can enjoy the full experience at affordable prices. Cheaper are minshuku, family-run guesthouses, and the larger government-owned kokuminshukusha (people’s lodges) located in national parks and resort areas.
In addition, some temples and shrines offer simple accommodation, or you can arrange to stay with a Japanese family through the homestay programme. It’s advisable to reserve at least a day ahead and essential if you want to eat in. Though a few places don’t take foreigners, mainly through fear of language problems and cultural faux pas, you’ll find plenty that do.
Check Japan Ryokan Association or The Ryokan Collection to find some ryokan options that might suit your taste.
Also, read our first-timer's guide to staying in a Japanese ryokan to find more tips.
Dance the night away at the country’s biggest Obon bash, held in Tokushima, Shikoku.
Every year in mid-August, many Japanese return to their family homes for Obon (Festival of the Dead), which is as much a celebration as a remembrance of the deceased.
Awa Odori – the “Great Dance of Awa” – a four-day festival that runs every year from August 12 to 15. Over a million spectators come to watch the eighty-thousand participants, dressed in colourful yukata (summer kimono) and half-moon-shaped straw hats. Participants parade through the city, waving their hands and tapping their feet to an incessant two-beat rhythm, played on taiko drums, flutes and shamisen (traditional stringed instruments).
With plenty of street parties and sideshows, this is as close as Japan gets to Rio’s Carnival. There’s plenty of fun to be had mingling with the dancers, who famously chant, “The dancing fool and the watching fool are equally foolish. So why not dance?”
JR Hotel Clement Tokushima in Tokushima has 4-star accommodation with a bar. Among the facilities of this property are a restaurant, a 24-hour front desk and a business centre, along with free WiFi throughout the property. The hotel features family rooms.
Right across from JR Tokushima Train Station, Hotel Sunroute offers modern rooms with free WiFi and a flat-screen TV. The hotel features 3 restaurants, an 11th-floor hot-spring bath and a sauna.
Visit a major sumo tournament and see the titanic, ritualized clashes of Japan’s sporting giants.
There’s something fascinating about Japan’s national sport, sumo, even though the titanic clashes between the enormous, near-naked wrestlers can be blindingly brief. The age-old pomp and ceremony that surrounds sumo – from the design of the dohyō (the ring in which bouts take place) to the wrestler’s slicked-back topknot – give the sport a gravitas completely absent from Western wrestling.
At the start of a bout, the two rikishi (wrestlers) wade into the ring, wearing only mawashi aprons, which are essentially giant jockstraps. Salt is tossed to purify the ring, and then the rikishi hunker down and indulge in the time-honoured ritual of psyching each other out with menacing stares. When ready, each rikishi attempts to throw his opponent to the ground or out of the ring using one or more of 82 legitimate techniques.
The first to touch the ground with any part of his body other than his feet, or to step out of the dohyō, loses.
For all you could want to know and more on the current scene, plus how to buy tickets, check out the official website of sumo’s governing body, Nihon Sumo Kyōkai.
Set amid splendid mountains north of Tokyo, this pilgrim town is home to the fabulously over-the-top Tosho-gu shrine, one of Japan’s most sumptuous buildings.
Most visit Nikkō to see the World Heritage-listed Tōshō-gū shrine complex, which sits at the base of mountains crisscrossed by the outstanding hiking trails of Nikkō National Park.
It’s also worth investigating the far less crowded Tōshō-gū Museum of Art, and the Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park, before crossing the Daiya-gawa to explore the dramatically named Ganman-ga-fuchi abyss – in fact a modest gorge flanked by a tranquil walking path.
The most beautiful parts of the aforementioned national park are around Chūzenji-ko lake, some 17km west of Nikkō, and the quieter resort of Yumoto, higher up in the mountains.
Offering rooms with free internet access, Nikko Kanaya Hotel houses 4 dining options and a seasonal outdoor pool. A free shuttle service is provided between the hotel and Tobu Nikko Station. Nikko Kanaya is a 6-minute drive from the Nikko Toshogu Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kegon Waterfall is a 30-minute drive away.
Guests can enjoy soaking in the indoor and outdoor public hot-spring baths at Nikko Senhime Monogatari. Massages can be requested and a sauna room is available for an extra relaxation. A free shuttle is available from JR Nikko Train Station and Tobu Nikko Train Station, which is a 5-minute drive away. Free Wi-Fi is available in the public areas.
Wander the ancient pilgrimage route of the “Land of the Gods”, discover sacred mountain sites, and soak in the healing waters of isolated hot springs.
Set among the isolated mountain ranges of the Kii Peninsula, in southern Wakayama prefecture, southeast of Osaka, is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes known as the Kumano Kodō. An area of stunning natural beauty – old-growth forests, mountain tea fields, magnificent waterfalls and healing hot springs. It is also the spiritual heartland of Japanese mythology and religion.
It's unique for its synthesis of Shintōism and Buddhism, in which indigenous Japanese deities were accepted as manifestations of Buddhist deities. This is where the mountainworshipping Buddhist-Shintō practice of Shugendō evolved and is still active today.
The Kumano Kodō is a special place to visit, both for its serene natural beauty and its ancient spiritual atmosphere. Despite its remoteness from modern, hi-tech Japan, it is an incredibly friendly place, with good transport and accommodation that caters well to international visitors.
Conveniently set in the Kawayu Onsen district of Tanabe, Minshuku Sumiya is located 12 km from Hosshinmon Oji Shrine, 20 km from Kumanokodo Nakahechi Museum of Art and 23 km from Kumanoshi Kiwakozan Museum. Featuring a bar, the 2-star ryokan has air-conditioned rooms with free WiFi, each with a shared bathroom. Shingu Castle Ruins Park is 34 km from the ryokan and Fudarakusanji Temple is 44 km away.
Kumano Backpackers is located in Tanabe and features a shared lounge and a communal kitchen. The property is set 50 m from Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine and just a minute's walk away from Hongu Taisha Mae bus stop. Free WiFi is available throughout the property.
Take a dip at a top onsen resort town, such as Dogo, with its magnificent bathhouse, or experience the exquisite warmth of a rotemburo (outdoor bath) as the snow falls.
The ultimate relaxation for Japanese people is to soak in hot spring waters, but if you can’t make it to an onsen resort then it’s worth seeking out a neighbourhood sentō (bathhouse). Watch out for the denkiburo – a bath with mild electric shocks believed to reduce muscle pain.
Taking a traditional Japanese bath, whether in an onsen or a sentō (a bathhouse with regular, rather than hot-spring, water), is a ritual that’s definitely worth mastering. Everyone uses the same water, and the golden rule is to wash and rinse the soap off thoroughly before stepping into the bath. Showers and bowls are provided, as well as soap and shampoo in most cases.
Upmarket public bathhouses provide small towels (bring your own or buy one on the door if using a cheaper sentō), though no one minds full nudity. Baths are typically segregated, so memorize the kanji for female (女), which looks a little like a woman; and male (男), which looks sort of like a chap with a box on his head.
Drop by venerable sake breweries in Obuse or Takayama to discover the amazing varieties of this ancient Japanese alcoholic beverage made from rice.
Legend has it that the ancient deities brewed Japan’s most famous alcoholic beverage – sake, also known as nihonshu – from the first rice of the new year. Although often referred to as rice wine, the drink, which comes in thousands of different brands, is actually brewed, and as such more closely related to beer (which long ago surpassed sake as Japan’s most popular alcoholic drink).
In restaurants and izakaya you’ll be served sake in a small flask (tokkuri) so you can pour your own serving or share it with someone else. You will also be given the choice of drinking your sake warm (atsukan) or cold (reishu). The latter is usually the preferred way to enable you to taste the wine’s complex flavours properly; never drink premium sake warm.
When served cold, sake is sometimes presented and drunk out of a small wooden box (masu) with a smidgen of salt on the rim to counter the slightly sweet taste.
Relive the days of the samurai at Himeji-jo, the premier example of a feudal-era fortress.
Of Japan’s twelve surviving feudal-era fortresses, by far the most impressive is the one in Himeji, 55km west of Kōbe. The fortress, Himeji-jō, made the memorable backdrop to the James Bond adventure You Only Live Twice, as well as countless feudal-era dramas and the Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai, part of which was filmed here and around the city.
The splendid gabled donjons of Himeji-jō – also known as Shirasagi-jō, or “white egret castle”, since the complex is supposed to resemble the shape of the bird in flight. It miraculously survived the World War II bombings that laid waste to much of the city, and in 1993 the castle was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Located on a lively traditional shopping arcade, Himeji 588 Guest House features affordable Japanese-style accommodations. Guest House Himeji 588 is a 5-minute walk from Himeji Castle and Koko-en Garden. Shoshazan Engyo-ji Temple is a 15-minute drive away.
Right next to JR Himeji Train Station, Hotel Nikko Himeji features a fitness centre with indoor pool, massage services and a 15th-floor bar. Rooms have free wired internet, a minibar and a flat-screen satellite TV.
Stroll through Tokyo’s Kabukicho, the neon-soaked district of love hotels, host clubs and fuzoku (sex industry) businesses, to this atmospheric warren of tiny, atmospheric bars.
Golden Gai is one of Tokyo’s most atmospheric (and seedy) bar quarters. Since just after World War II, intellectuals and artists have rubbed shoulders with Kabukichō’s demimonde in the tiny bars here. For decades this hugely atmospheric warren of around 150 drinking dens was teetering on the brink of oblivion, the cinderblock buildings under threat from both property developers and from their own shoddy construction.
However, Golden Gai has since undergone a mini-renaissance, with a younger generation of bar masters and mistresses taking over – or at least presiding over – some of the shoebox establishments. Many bars continue to welcome regulars only (and charge exorbitant prices to newcomers), but gaijin visitors no longer risk being fleeced rotten, since most places now post their table and drink charges outside the door.
To find more information about bars in this area read our guide about the bars of Golden Gai.
Situated in Tokyo's largest nightlife district in Japan, HOTEL & SPA J-MEX Shinjuku Kabukicho is a love hotel designed for adults only. This love hotel stands out from the crowd in Kabukichō. The racy rooms all have big TVs and karaoke machines, as well as – drum roll, please – builtin sauna units, and glowing spa tubs.
Occupying the upper section of Tange Kenzō’s Shinjuku Park Tower, this is the epitome of sophistication, and holding up very well to newer rivals. All the huge rooms have breathtaking views, as do the restaurants and spa, pool and fitness centre at the pinnacle of the tower.
Nature has been tamed and primped to its most beautiful at Kanazawa’s star attraction, one of the country’s top traditional gardens.
Originally the outer grounds of Kanazawa castle, the magnificent Kenroku-en officially ranks in the top three gardens in Japan (the others are Kairaku-en in Mito and Kōrakuen in Okayama). Laid out over two centuries from the 1670s onwards, it opened to the public in 1871. The name, “combined six garden”, refers to the six horticultural graces it embraces: spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, water and panoramic views.
It’s a delightful place to stroll around, with an ingenious pumping system that keeps the hillside pools full of water and the fountains working. Carefully pruned and sculpted pine trees adorn the crafted landscape, and sweeping vistas overlook Kanazawa’s geisha district, Higashi Chaya. To spare yourself the likelihood of being disturbed by megaphone-toting guides and coach parties, come in the early morning or late afternoon.
Pleasant, good-value and very welcoming minshuku, tucked away in the lovely Higashi Chaya district. The neat tatami rooms share a communal bathroom with shower, and guests are also given free tickets for the local sentō (bathhouse).
Conveniently located in a calm side street a 5min walk from the station, this well-priced option offers impeccably clean tatami male and female dorms, two Western-style twin rooms, and a tatami family suite, plus a communal bathroom, kitchen and lounge.
Quaint village filled with distinctive gassho-zukuri houses, whose steep-sided thatched roofs are said to recall two hands joined in prayer.
Gasshō-zukuri means “praying hands”, because the sixty-degree slope of the thatched gable roofs is said to recall two hands joined in prayer. The sharp angle is designed to cope with the heavy snowfall hereabouts, while the size of the houses is the result of multi-generational family living.
In the shadow of the sacred mountain Hakusan, Ogimachi is home to 114 gasshō-zukuri houses, the largest collection within the Shirakawa-gō area of the Shō-kawa valley. Many of the thatched houses were moved here when threatened by the damming of the river, creating a landscape that looks somewhat contrived.
Matters aren’t helped by the fact that the main road slices right through the village centre. It is closed to traffic between 9am and 6pm each day, but remains responsible for a massive daily influx of tourists.
Guest House Ant Hut is located in Shirakawa-go village, a 20-minute walk from the bus terminal Ogimachi at Shirakawa-go World Heritage Village. Free private parking is available on site. Guests can make use of the free shuttle service offered by the property or take a local bus to access the guest house.
Located in Shirakawa, 45 km from Hida Minzoku Mura Folk Village, Onyado Yuinosho provides accommodation with a restaurant, free private parking, a bar and a shared lounge. Each accommodation at the 4-star ryokan has mountain views, and guests can enjoy access to a sauna. The ryokan features a hot spring bath and a 24-hour front desk.
There are hundreds of places in Japan where you can enjoy cherry blossom trees (sakuras).
Yoshino is the most famous place in Japan to see cherry blossoms. More than 100,000 trees bloom on the sacred mountain of Yoshino-yama, usually from early April – attracting enormous crowds and traffic jams for a month. The small town at the top of Yoshino-yama, accessed via ropeway, is essentially one long street and is easily explored on foot.
Home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it is also the headquarters of the Shugendō Buddhist sect of mountain aestheticism, and is renowned for its kuzu (arrowroot) sweets, making a visit at any time of the year worthwhile.
Cherry blossom season is one of the reasons Japan is considered one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Find other countries of breathtaking beauty on our list of the 20 most beautiful countries in the world.
Set in Yoshino, 39 km from Subaru Hall, Hounkan features views of the mountain. The 2-star ryokan has air-conditioned rooms with a private bathroom and free WiFi. The accommodation offers room service and luggage storage space for guests.
Nestled in tranquil mountains, Miyoshino Sakuraann offers traditional Japanese-style accommodation that went through a renovation in 2014. It is conveniently located a 5-minute walk from Yoshino Train Station and a 2-minute walk to Senbonguchi Ropeway Station.
Western Kyoto ends in the pleasant, leafy suburb of Arashiyama. Set beside the Hozu-gawa, Arashiyama, literally ‘‘storm mountain’’, was originally a place for imperial relaxation, away from the main court in central Kyoto, where aristocrats indulged in pursuits such as poetry-writing and hunting.
One of Arashiyama’s most popular and photogenic sights, the beautifully maintained bamboo grove is spectacular in any season. The path through the grove begins to the north of Tenryū-ji, and runs west all the way to the entrance of Ōkōchi Sansō. It’s usually best visited in daylight hours, but is lit up in the evening at certain times of the year; check the website for exact dates.
That said, it's often overwhelmingly crowded, which really detracts from the experience; cyclists and jinrikisha use a separate lane to pedestrians, and it's generally much quieter.
Kingyoya Guest House is a 15-minute walk from the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, and a 20-minute walk from the Kinkakuji Temple. The Kyoto Gosho is a 10-minute drive away. A 35-minute bus ride from the Kyoto Station, guests can take the 206 Bus from the A3 Bus Terminal.
Boasting a tennis court, BBQ facilities, garden and free WiFi, Kyoto Utano Youth Hostel is located in Kyoto, 3.5 km from Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and 4 km from Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. Built in 2008, the property is within 4.1 km of Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple and 5 km of Kinkaku-ji Temple. The restaurant serves Japanese cuisine.
It’s hard to beat Shibuya, birthplace of a million-and-one consumer crazes, as a mindblowing introduction to contemporary Tokyo. Teens and twenty-somethings throng Centre Gai, the shopping precinct that runs between the district’s massive department stores.
Centre Gai is bookended to the south by Shibuya Station, visible across the hordes of people navigating the famously busy Shibuya crossing – one of the most famous pedestrian crossings in the world. One perch from which to view the crowds of people swarming across is the bridge corridor linking the JR station with Shibuya Mark City complex.
It’s also amazing to see just how many people can cross a road at the same time from over a coffee at L’Occitane. This café above the eponymous cosmetics store has one huge draw – it’s a prime viewing spot for the Shibuya crossing. Thankfully, the coffee’s fine; better, at least, than at the crammed Starbucks on the other side of the crossing.
Shibuya’s ritziest accommodation, with a range of intriguingly designed rooms, some featuring bathrooms with glittering views of the city. Also on site are a pool and gym (free to guests on the executive floor), several restaurants, a jazz club and even a nō theatre in the basement.
This boutique hotel has a hip feel, courtesy of curtains with Lichtenstein-style prints, kettles and TVs from the trendy local electronics range Plus Minus Zero, and a neutral palette of greys, crisp whites and natural colours.
Tea was introduced to Japan from China in the ninth century and was popularized by Zen Buddhist monks, who appreciated its caffeine kick during their long meditation sessions. Gradually, tea drinking developed into a formal ritual known as cha-no-yu, the tea ceremony, whose purpose is to heighten the senses within a contemplative atmosphere.
In its simplest form the ceremony takes place in a tatami room, undecorated save for a hanging scroll or display of ikebana (traditional flower arrangement). Using beautifully crafted utensils of bamboo, iron and rustic pottery, your host will whisk matcha – the strong powdered form of green tea – into a thick, frothy brew and present it to each guest in turn.
First, eat the accompanying sweet (wagashi), then take the bowl in both hands, turn it clockwise a couple of inches and drink it down in three slow sips.
To find out more about this Japanese tradition, check out our guide about Japanese tea ceremony.
For many visitors, riding the Shinkansen is an eagerly anticipated part of a trip to Japan. Often referred to as the “Bullet Train” because of the smooth, rounded design of the earliest locomotives, you’ll barely notice the speed of these smooth-running beasts, which purr along some lines at a whopping 320kph. Some lines are planning to upgrade to 360kph in due course.
They are also frighteningly punctual (two seconds late on the platform and you’ll be waving goodbye to the back end of the train), not to mention reliable (only the severest weather conditions or earthquakes stop the Shinkansen).
On the train, there are announcements and electronic signs in English telling you which stations are coming up. Get to the door in good time before the train arrives, as you’ll generally only have a few seconds in which to disembark before the train shoots off again.
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Ready for a trip to Japan? Check out the snapshot The Pocket Rough Guide Tokyo or The Rough Guide to Japan. If you travel further in Japan, read more about the best time to go, the best places to visit and best things to do in Japan. For inspiration use the Japanese itineraries from The Rough Guide to Japan and our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.
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