Anyone who’s ever eaten sushi, read manga, or sipped sake may feel they know something about this slinky archipelago of some 6800 volcanic islands. And yet, from the moment of arrival in Japan, it’s almost as if you’ve touched down on another planet. Prepare to be pleasantly disorientated as you negotiate this fascinating land where ancient gods, customs and craftsmanship are mixed up with cutting edge modern technology, futuristic fashions and up-to-the-second style.
Continue reading to find out more about...
High-speed trains whisk you from one end of the country to another with awe-inspiring punctuality. In the suburbs of a sprawling metropolis, you can catch sight of a farmer tending his paddy field, then turn the corner and find yourself next to a neon-festooned (video) games parlour. One day you could be picking through fashions in a boutique designed by an award-winning architect, the next relaxing in an outdoor hot-spring pool, watching cherry blossom or snowflakes fall, depending on the season.
Few other countries have, in the space of a few generations, experienced so much or made such an impact. Industrialized at lightning speed in the late nineteenth century, Japan shed its feudal trappings to become the most powerful and outwardly aggressive country in Asia in a matter of decades. After defeat in World War II, it transformed itself from atom-bomb victim to economic giant, the envy of the world. Having weathered a decade-long recession from the mid-1990s, Japan is now relishing its “soft power” as the world’s pre-eminent purveyor of pop culture, with the visual mediums of anime and manga leading the way.
In the cities you’ll first be struck by the mass of people. These hyperactive metropolises are the place to catch the latest trend, the hippest fashions and must-have gadgets before they hit the rest of the world. It’s not all about modernity, however: Tokyo, Kyoto, Ōsaka and Kanazawa, for example, also provide the best opportunities to view traditional performance arts, such as kabuki and nō plays, as well as a wealth of Japanese visual arts in major museums. Outside the cities there’s a vast range of travel options, from the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Shiretoko National Park in Hokkaidō to the balmy subtropical islands of Okinawa, and you’ll seldom have to go far to catch sight of a lofty castle, ancient temple or shrine, or locals celebrating at a colourful street festival.
In common with all developed countries, Japan is not a cheap place to travel in or to, but there’s no reason why it should be wildly expensive either. Some of the most atmospheric and traditionally Japanese places to stay and eat are often those that are the best value. There’s been significant price-cutting in some areas in recent years, particularly airline tickets, which now rival the famed bargain rail passes as a means to get to far-flung corners of the country.
It’s not all perfect, however. The Japanese are experts at focusing on detail (the exquisite wrapping of gifts and the tantalizing presentation of food are just two examples) but often miss the broader picture. Rampant development and sometimes appalling pollution are difficult to square with a country also renowned for cleanliness and appreciation of nature. Part of the problem is that natural cataclysms, such as earthquakes and typhoons, regularly hit Japan, so few people expect things to last for long anyway. There’s no denying either the pernicious impact of mass tourism, with ranks of gift shops, ugly hotels and crowds often ruining potentially idyllic spots.
And yet, time and again, Japan redeems itself with unexpectedly beautiful landscapes, charmingly courteous people, and its tangible sense of history and cherished traditions. Few will be able to resist the chance to get to grips with its mysterious yet tantalising culture that blurs the traditional boundaries between East and West – Japan is unique, neither wholly one nor the other.
Where to go in Japan
Two weeks is the minimum needed to skim the surface of what Japan can offer. The capital, Tokyo, and the former imperial city and thriving cultural centre of Kyoto, will be top of most visitors’ lists of where to go, and deservedly so, but you could avoid the cities entirely and head to the mountains or smaller islands to discover an alternative side of the country, away from the most heavily beaten tourist tracks.
It would be easy enough to spend two weeks just in Tokyo. The metropolis is home to some of the world’s most ambitious architecture, stylish shops and internationally celebrated restaurants and bars – as well as glimpses of traditional Japan at scores of temples, shrines and imperial gardens. Consider also taking in a couple of the city’s surrounding attractions, in particular the historic towns of Nikkō, home to the amazing Tōshō-gū shrine complex, and Kamakura, with its giant Buddha statue and tranquil woodland walks.
Northern Honshū sees surprisingly few overseas visitors, but its sleepy villages and relaxed cities deserve to be better known. The Golden Hall of Hiraizumi more than justifies the journey, and can be easily combined with the islet-sprinkled Matsushima Bay or rural Tōno. The region is also known for its vibrant summer festivals, notably those at Sendai, Aomori, Hirosaki and Akita, and for its sacred mountains, including Dewa-sanzan, home to a sect of ascetic mountain priests, and the eerie, remote wastelands of Osore-zan.
Further north, across the Tsugaru Straits, Hokkaidō is Japan’s final frontier, with many national parks including the outstanding Daisetsu-zan National Park, offering excellent hiking trails over mountain peaks and through soaring rock gorges. The lovely far northern islands of Rebun-tō and Rishiri-tō are ideal summer escapes. Hokkaidō’s most historic city is Hakodate, with its late nineteenth-century wooden houses and churches built by expat traders, while its modern capital, Sapporo, is home to the raging nightlife centre of Suskino and the original Sapporo Brewery. Winter is a fantastic time to visit and catch Sapporo’s amazing Snow Festival and go skiing at some of Japan’s top resorts including Niseko.
Skiing, mountaineering and soaking in hot springs are part of the culture of Central Honshū, an area dominated by the magnificent Japan Alps. Both the old castle town of Matsumoto, and Nagano, with its atmospheric temple of pilgrimage, Zenkō-ji, can be used as a starting point for exploring the region. Highlights include the tiny mountain resort of Kamikōchi and the immaculately preserved Edo-era villages of Tsumago and Magome, linked by a short hike along the remains of a 300-year-old stone-paved road. Takayama deservedly draws many visitors to its handsome streets lined with merchant houses and temples, built by generations of skilled carpenters. In the remote neighbouring valleys you’ll find the rare thatched houses of Ogimachi, Suganuma and Ainokura, remnants of a fast-disappearing rural Japan.
On the Sea of Japan coast, the historic city of Kanazawa is home to Kenroku-en, one of Japan’s best gardens, and the stunning 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. Nagoya, on the heavily industrialized southern coast, is a more manageable city than Tokyo or Ōsaka, and has much to recommend it, including the fine Tokugawa Art Museum and many great places to eat. The efficient new airport nearby also makes the city a good alternative entry point. From Nagoya it’s a short hop to the pretty castle towns of Inuyama and Gifu, which holds summer displays of the ancient skill of ukai, or cormorant fishing.
South of the Japan Alps, the Kansai plains are scattered with ancient temples, shrines and the remnants of imperial cities. Kyoto, custodian of Japan’s traditional culture, is home to its most refined cuisine, classy ryokan, glorious gardens, and magnificent temples and palaces. Nearby Nara is a more manageable size but no slouch when it comes to venerable monuments, notably the great bronze Buddha of Tōdai-ji and Hōryū-ji’s unrivalled collection of early Japanese statuary. The surrounding region contains a number of still-thriving religious foundations, such as the highly atmospheric temples of Hiei-zan and Kōya-san, the revered Shinto shrine Ise-jingū, and the beautiful countryside pilgrimage routes of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kumano region.
Not all of Kansai is so rarefied, though. The slightly unconventional metropolis of Ōsaka has an easy-going atmosphere and boisterous nightlife, plus several interesting sights. Further west, the port of Kōbe offers a gentler cosmopolitan atmosphere, while Himeji is home to Japan’s most fabulous castle, as well as some impressive modern gardens and buildings.
For obvious reasons Hiroshima is the most visited location in Western Honshū. On the way there, pause at Okayama to stroll around one of Japan’s top three gardens, Kōraku-en, and the appealingly preserved Edo-era town of Kurashiki. The beauty of the Inland Sea, dotted with thousands of islands, is best appreciated from the idyllic fishing village of Tomonoura, the port of Onomichi and the relaxed islands of Nao-shima, Ikuchi-jima and Miya-jima.
Crossing to the San-in coast, the castle town of Hagi retains some handsome samurai houses and atmospheric temples, only surpassed by even more enchanting Tsuwano, further inland. One of Japan’s most venerable shrines, Izumo Taisha, lies roughly midway along the coast, near the lake- and seaside city of Matsue, home to the region’s only original castle.
Location for Japan’s most famous pilgrimage, a walking tour around 88 Buddhist temples, Shikoku also offers dramatic scenery in the Iya valley and along its rugged coastline. Its largest city, Matsuyama, has an imperious castle and the splendidly ornate Dōgo Onsen Honkan – one of Japan’s best hot springs. There’s also the lovely garden Ritsurin-kōen in Takamatsu and the ancient Shinto shrine at Kotohira.
The southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, Kyūshū is probably best known for Nagasaki, an attractive and cosmopolitan city that has overcome its terrible war-time history. Hikers and onsen enthusiasts should head up into the central highlands, where Aso-san’s smouldering peak dominates the world’s largest volcanic crater, or to the more southerly meadows of Ebino Kōgen. So much hot water gushes out of the ground in Beppu, on the east coast, that it’s known as Japan’s hot-spring capital. Fukuoka, on the other hand, takes pride in its innovative modern architecture and an exceptionally lively entertainment district.
Okinawa comprises more than a hundred islands stretching in a great arc from southern Kyūshū to within sight of Taiwan. An independent kingdom until the early seventeenth century, traces of the island’s distinctive, separate culture still survive. The beautifully reconstructed former royal palace dominates the capital city, Naha, but the best of the region lies on its remoter islands. This is where you’ll find Japan’s most stunning white-sand beaches and its best diving, particularly around the subtropical islands of Ishigaki and Iriomote.
Outdoor activities in Japan
Big believers in team spirit, the Japanese embrace many sports with almost religious fervour. Baseball is actually more popular than the home-grown sumo, and hot on the heels of both sports is soccer. Martial arts, such as aikido, judo and karate, all traditionally associated with Japan, have a much lower profile than you might expect. Tokyo, with its many dōjō (practise halls), is the best place in the country in which to view or learn these ancient sports. Tokyo’s TICs have a full list of dōjō that allow visitors to watch practise sessions for free.
Popular outdoor activities include skiing, hiking and mountain climbing. The Tokyo-based International Adventurers Club (IAC) and Outdoor Club Japan, and the International Outdoor Club (IOC) in the Kansai region provide informal opportunities to explore the countryside in the company of like-minded people. The bilingual bimonthly magazine Outdoor Japan is also a mine of useful information.
Baseball first came to Japan in the 1870s, but it wasn’t until 1934 that the first professional teams were formed. Now Japan is yakyū (baseball) crazy, and if you’re in the country from April to the end of October during the baseball season, think about watching a professional match. Even if you’re not a fan, the buzzing atmosphere and audience enthusiasm can be infectious.
In addition to the two professional leagues, Central and Pacific, each with six teams, there’s the equally (if not more) popular All-Japan High School Baseball Championship. You might be able to catch one of the local play-offs before the main tournament, which is held each summer at Kōshien Stadium near Ōsaka.
In the professional leagues, the teams are sponsored by big businesses, a fact immediately apparent from their names, such as the Yakult (a food company) Swallows and Yomiuri (a newspaper conglomerate) Giants. The victors from the Central and Pacific leagues go on to battle it out for the supreme title in the seven-match Japan Series every autumn. Tickets for all games are available from the stadia or at advance ticket booths. They start at ¥1500 and go on sale on the Friday two weeks prior to a game. For more information on Japan’s pro-baseball leagues, check out the official professional league site, and the fan-site Baseball Guru.
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. The sport’s aura is enhanced by the majestic size of the wrestlers themselves: the average weight is 136kg, but they can be much larger – Konishiki, one of the sumo stars of the 1990s, for example, weighed 272kg.
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.
Despite their formidable girth, top rikishi enjoy the media status of supermodels, their social calendars being documented obsessively by the media. When not fighting in tournaments, groups of rikishi live and train together at their heya (stables), the youngest wrestlers acting pretty much as the menial slaves of their older, more experienced, colleagues. If you make an advance appointment, it’s possible to visit some heya to observe the early-morning practise sessions; contact the Tokyo TICs for details. 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.
A short history of sumo
Accounts of sumo bouts (basho) are related in Japan’s oldest annals of history dating back around 2000 years when it was a Shinto rite connected with praying for a good harvest. By the Edo period, sumo had developed into a spectator sport, and really hit its stride in the post-World War II period when basho started to be televised. The old religious trappings remain, though: the gyōji (referee) wears robes similar to those of a Shinto priest and above the dohyō hangs a thatched roof like those found at shrines.
Sumo players are ranked according to the number of wins they have had, the top-ranking wrestler being called the yokozuna, and the next rank down ōzeki. In a neat reversal of Japan’s appropriation of baseball and export of professional players to the US league, several of sumo’s most revered stars of recent years were born abroad, including Konishiki (aka the “dump truck”) and Akebono, who both hail from Hawaii, Musashimaru from American Samoa and Asashoryu, the first Mongolian-born fighter to reach the rank of yokozuna.
Even though he is one of the most successful yokuzuna ever, Asashoryu battled with sumo’s strict code of conduct throughout his career and was forced into early retirement in 2010 after punching a man outside a Tokyo nightclub. This and other un-sumo-like behaviour, such as wrestlers being found in possession of pot and being involved in illegal gambling, has tarnished the sport, the popularity of which has plummeted over recent years, particularly among young Japanese. The sport‘s saviour may just be its current crop of overseas stars such as the Estonian-born ōzeki Baruto and the Bulgarian Kotooshu who was the first European-born wrestler to win the Emperor’s Cup in 2008. Tall and relatively light for a sumo player, the ōzeki has been dubbed the David Beckham of sumo.
The annual sumo tournaments
The must-see annual sumo tournaments are held at the following locations, always starting on the Sunday closest to the tenth of the month and lasting for two weeks: Kokugikan Hall in Tokyo (Jan, May & Sept); Ōsaka Furitsu Taiiku Kaikan in Ōsaka (March); Aichi-ken Taiiku-kan in Nagoya (July); and the Fukuoka Kokusai Centre, Fukuoka (Nov).
Despite sumo’s declining popularity, it’s still difficult to book the prime ringside seats (around ¥45,000 for four seats in a tatami mat block) but quite feasible to bag reserved seats in the balconies (starting around ¥3200 for a Western-style seat). The cheapest unreserved seats (¥2800) go on sale on the door on the day of the tournament at 9am. To be assured of a ticket you’ll need to line up well before that, especially towards the end of a basho. Matches start at 10am for the lower-ranked wrestlers and at this time of day it’s OK to sneak into any vacant ringside seats to watch the action close up; when the rightful owners turn up, just return to your own seat. The sumo superstars come on around 4pm and tournaments finish at around 6pm.
Full details in English about ticket sales can be found on the sumo association’s website. If you can’t get a ticket, note that NHK televises each basho daily from 3.30pm, and you can tune in to FEN on 810 KHz for a simultaneous English commentary.
Soccer was introduced to Japan in 1873 by an Englishman, Lieutenant Commander Douglas of the Royal Navy, but it wasn’t until Japan’s first professional soccer league, the J-League, was launched in 1993 that the sport captured the public’s imagination. Following on from the success of the 2002 World Cup, hosted jointly by Japan and Korea, the sport is now a huge crowd puller.
Games are played between March and October, with a break in August. Sixteen clubs play in the top J1 league, twelve in the J2, and all participate in the JL Yamazaki Nabisco Cup. There is a host of other cups and contests including the JOMO Cup, in which fans pick their dream teams from among all the J-League players.
Half-sport, half-religion, aikido translates as “the way of harmonious spirit” and blends elements of judo, karate and kendo into a form of non-body-contact self-defence. It’s one of the newer martial arts, having only been created in Japan in the twentieth century, and, as a rule, is performed without weapons. For a painfully enlightening and humorous take on the rigours of aikido training, read Robert Twigger’s Angry White Pyjamas.
To find out more about the sport, head to the International Aikido Federation, 17-18 Wakamatsuchō, Shinjuku-ku (合気会).
Probably the martial art most closely associated with Japan, judo is a self-defence technique that developed out of the Edo-era fighting schools of Jūjutsu. All judo activities in Japan are controlled by the All-Japan Judo Federation, at the Kōdōkan Dōjō, 1-16-30 Kasuga, Bunkyō-ku (講道館), reached from either Kasuga or Kōrakuen subway stations in Tokyo. The dōjō holds classes most evenings (Mon–Fri 5–8pm, Sat 5–7.30pm), and there’s also a hostel here where you can stay if you have an introduction from an authorized judo body or an approved Japanese sponsor. Judo is also taught at the Nippon Budōkan Budō Gakuen, 2-3 Kitanomaru-kōen, Chiyoda-ku (日本武道館), near Kudanshita subway station in Tokyo.
Karate has its roots in China and was only introduced into Japan via the southern islands of Okinawa in 1922. Since then the sport has developed many different styles, several with governing bodies and federations based in Tokyo. The Japan Karate Association, 2-23-15 Koraku, Bunkyō-ku (日本空手協会), is the world’s largest karate association teaching the Shokotan tradition. You can apply to train or watch classes here, but it’s best to call or email first. The closest subway stations are Iidabashi and Kōrakuen.
The umbrella organization, Japan Karatedō Federation, 6F, 2 Nippon Zaidan Building, 1-11-2 Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo, can advise on the main styles of karate and the best place to see practise sessions or take lessons. The closest subway station is Toranomon.
Meaning “the way of the sword”, kendo is Japanese fencing using either a long bamboo weapon, the shinai, or a lethal metal katana blade. This martial art has the longest pedigree in Japan, dating from the Muromachi period (1392–1573). It developed as a sport during the Edo period and is now watched over by the All-Japan Kendo Federation, Nippon Budōkan, 2-3 Kitanomaru-kōen, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo (全日本剣道連盟), near Kudanshita subway station. Practise sessions are not generally open to the public, but you might be fortunate enough to catch the All-Japan Championships held in Tokyo each autumn at the Budōkan.
Skiing and snowboarding
Japan is a ski and snowboard paradise; even on the shortest trip to the country it’s easy to arrange a day-trip to the slopes since many major resorts on Honshū are within a couple of hours’ train ride of Tokyo, Nagoya or Ōsaka. Serious skiers will want to head to the northern island of Hokkaidō, which has some of the country’s best ski resorts.
The cost of a ski trip needn’t be too expensive. Lift passes are typically ¥4000 per day, or less if you ski for several days in a row; equipment rental averages around ¥4000 for the skis, boots and poles per day, while accommodation at a family-run minshuku compares favourably to that of many European and American resorts.
Transport to the slopes is fast and efficient; at one resort (Gala Yuzawa in Niigata) you can step straight off the Shinkansen onto the ski lifts. Ski maps and signs are often in English, and you’re sure to find some English-speakers and, at the major resorts, gaijin staff, if you run into difficulties.
Top resorts can get very crowded, especially at weekends and holidays; if you don’t want to ski in rush-hour conditions, plan your trip for midweek. In addition, the runs are, on the whole, much shorter than in Europe and the US. Compensating factors, however, are fast ski lifts, beautiful scenery – especially in the Japan Alps – and the opportunity to soak in onsen hot springs at night.
Recommended for beginners is either Gala Yuzawa or Naeba, both reached in under two hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen. Nozawa Onsen also has good beginners’ runs, but its off-the-beaten-track location makes it a better bet for more experienced skiers. Appi Kōgen and Zaō in northern Honshū and Hakuba in Nagano are considered the Holy Trinity of Japanese ski resorts. Shiga Kōgen is another mammoth resort in Nagano. If you’re after the best powder-snow skiing without the crowds, head north to Hokkaidō, to the world-class resorts of Furano and Niseko. There are also many slopes easily accessible on a day-trip from Sapporo.
All the major travel agents offer ski packages, which are worth considering. Hakuba-based Ski Japan Holiday and Niseko-based SkiJapan.com both have plenty of experience setting up deals for the expat community. Youth hostels near ski areas also often have excellent-value packages, including accommodation, meals and lift passes, and can arrange competitive equipment rental.
The most current and comprehensive English-language guide to Japan’s ski resorts is Snow-search Japan with details of over seventy resorts.
Mountaineering and hiking
Until the twentieth century, few Japanese would have considered climbing one of their often sacred mountains for anything other than religious reasons. These days, prime highland beauty spots such as Kamikōchi are very popular with day hikers and serious mountaineers, so much so that they risk being overrun. In addition, there are scores of national parks and other protected areas, and exploring these and other picturesque parts of the countryside on foot is one of the great pleasures of a trip to Japan. Nevertheless, bear in mind that those areas close to cities can get very busy at weekends and holidays. If you can, go midweek or out of season when the trails are less crowded.
Hiking trails, especially in the national parks, are well marked. Campsites and mountain huts open during the climbing season, which runs from June to the end of August. The efficient train network means that even from sprawling conurbations like Tokyo you can be in beautiful countryside in just over an hour. Top hiking destinations from the capital include the lakes, mountains and rugged coastline of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park to the southwest and Nikkō to the north. Also west of the capital is the Chichibu-Tama National Park and the sacred mountain Takao-san, particularly lovely when the leaves change colour each autumn. The website outdoorjapan.com has useful ideas and information if you plan to go hiking or camping in Japan.
Rafting, canoeing and kayaking
All the snow that gets dumped on Japan’s mountains in winter eventually melts, swelling the country’s numerous rivers. Although the vast majority of these have been tamed by dams and concrete walls along the riverbanks, there are stretches that provide the ideal conditions for whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking. Prime spots for these activities are Minakami in Gunma-ken, Hakuba in Nagano-ken, the Iya Valley and Shimanto-gawa, both in Shikoku, and Niseko in Hokkaidō. A reputable firm to contact to find out more is Canyons.
One of Japan’s premier pro-golfing events is the Japan Open Golf Championship, held in October with a total prize fund of ¥200 million. If you fancy a round yourself, there are details of 2349 eighteen-hole or more courses at Golf in Japan. Course fees vary widely from ¥3000 at the cheapest places to over ¥40,000 for a round at the most exclusive links.
Beaches, surfing and diving
Given that Japan is an archipelago, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it would be blessed with some pleasant beaches. The truth is that industrialization has blighted much of the coastline and that many of the country’s beaches are covered with litter and/or polluted. The best beaches are those furthest away from the main island of Honshū, which means those on the islands of Okinawa, or the Izu and Ogasawara islands south of Tokyo.
Incredibly, Japan’s market for surf goods is the world’s largest, and when the surfers aren’t hauling their boards off to Hawaii and Australia, they can be found braving the waves at various home locations. Top spots include the southern coasts of Shikoku and Kyūshū. Closer to Tokyo, pros head for the rocky east Kujūkuri coast of the Chiba peninsula, while the beaches around Shōnan, near Kamakura, are fine for perfecting your style and hanging out with the trendiest surfers. A useful website is japansurf.com.
The best places to head for diving are Okinawa, around the island of Sado-ga-shima, near Niigata, and off the Izu Peninsula, close to Tokyo. Walruses may fancy braving ice-diving in the frozen far northern reaches of Hokkaidō. Check out divejapan.com for more information.