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Most visitors will start their trip to Japan with Tokyo. Home to the biggest international airport, it is the premier gateway into Japan and is also its capital. Tokyo has the best mix of old and modern. The glittering Ginza shopping district and Shinjuku district with its mega high-rise buildings, coupled with quaint little shops in Kappabashi in Asakusa district or major temples like Meijijingu. A walk around the Imperial Palace should also not be missed. Just like Buckingham Palace, visitors cannot enter the palace itself. A visit to Tokyo would be incomplete without spending an afternoon shopping in Akihabara, the neon electronics district.
Kyoto is probably the premier tourist city in Japan. The old capital of Japan is considered the cultural heart of the country. It boasts some of the most beautiful temples in the whole country. Must visit are Kiyomizudera and Kinkakuji temples, both are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Not to be missed are the geisha and the best way to see them is around 16:00 or 17:00 in the Gion district, when they walk from their ‘okiya’ to one of the expensive restaurants or ‘ryokan’ (inns) to perform. The younger, Geiko (apprentice Geisha), will wear so-called ‘okobo’, platform sandals. Attending a traditional tea ceremony should also not be missed.
Japan has lots of naturally beautiful areas, but Hokkaido, the northern-most island of the Japanese archipelago is probably the best known. Known for its rolling hills and plains, Hokkaido is the dairy and agricultural capital of the country. Some of the best ice cream and cheese can be had here, but also some of the best crab and sushi. The most famous natural wonder is the Shiretoko National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Osaka is Japan’s third largest city and probably best known the Osaka castle, featured in many travel brochures. But Osaka is more than that. It is vibrant, but different from Tokyo. People are more direct and succinct, less conformist that their cousins in Tokyo. Shopping and eating are big attractions and local fares, such as ‘takoyaki’ (pancake balls with octopus) and ‘udon’ (thick rice noodles) should not be missed.
For some sun and surf and a totally different type of Japanese culture, head to the southern islands of Okinawa. Okinawa cuisine is very different from the mainland cuisine and well worth trying out. There is good scuba diving, especially the underwater ruins are spectacular and puzzling. No one knows what they are!
Probably known as one of the most expensive travel destinations in the world, Japan can in fact be explored on the cheap. This intriguing Eastern culture seems so familiar to consumers around the world yet quite bizarre to the traveller. From the neon and modernity of Tokyo to the ancient and traditional of Kyoto, Japan is a destination that is both memorable, beautiful, pacey and strange.
Visitors should first buy the Japan Rail Pass prior to arriving in the country. This pass allows unlimited travel on Japan Rail (JR) trains, which includes the famous bullet train and the subway in Tokyo, for a fixed period of time. With the Rail Pass in hand, it is easy to explore all the amazing sights of Japan!
From ultra-modern to historic, Japan has it all. From the southern-most point, the islands of Okinawa, a tropical haven, to the northern-most part of Hokkaido, known for its natural beauty. In between are great mountains and coastal areas. No visit to Japan would be complete without going to an ‘onsen’, a hot spring. Few visitors realise that there is more than just temples and high-rise buildings in Japan.
Eating out can be expensive, but it can be cheap too. A steaming bowl of ‘ramen’ noodles in the winter time is wonderfully warming and reasonable. Young Japanese people love the inexpensive ‘all you can eat’ restaurants, these range from ‘yakiniku’ (BBQ) to ‘shabu shabu’ (hot pot). The numerous ‘kaiten sushi’ restaurants - where plates of sushi go round-and-round on a conveyor belt - are a cheap way to sample the real deal in Japan!
Japan is safe and its people are friendly. It may take a couple of tries, but people are willing to help – learning a few Japanese words will help break the ice though. Public transportation is efficient and clean and most everything is sign-posted in English. In fact, avoid using taxis, as these tend to be expensive, even for short distances. Buses and trains are the way to go in Japan.
Accommodation options are available from budget to five-star. Most of the cheaper hotels and inns in Japan only take reservations via the internet, so it is well worth surfing the web to find reasonable accommodations. To keep to costs down, youth hostels are a good way to go. Most are centrally located, clean and very affordable.
When to go
Weather in Japan is very predictable. Generally, the country has four clear seasons: spring (dry/sunny), summer (hot/humid), autumn (rainy) and winter (cold/snow). Spring is a popular season for visiting Japan, as the cherry blossoms peak around April and weather is pleasant, with little rain. The summer months, July and August, can be oppressively hot and humid. It does get cold in the winter and it does snow in Japan, which many people do not realize. In fact, there is great skiing in Nagano or Hokkaido during the winter months.
Why to go
1. The cherry blossoms in April are incredibly beautiful – a stroll down the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto during the peak cherry blossom season is a must.
2. There’s nothing like seeing the real Geisha walking down the street in the Gion district in Kyoto.
3. Eat sushi where it originated from. Head to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market for the freshest and cheapest sushi in Tokyo!
4. Watch a sumo tournament live at Kokugikan Stadium in Tokyo. It’s a whole day affair, so buy a bento lunch box and have a grand time.
5. Enjoy skiing in one of the world’s best powder snow at Niseko in Hokkaido. There are many other ski resorts in Hokkaido. After a day of skiing, head to the hot spring to relax.
6. Sit in a Japanese tea house, take in the zen garden and enjoy a cup of bitter macha tea – there are plenty of tea houses in Kyoto offering visitors a chance to experience a real Japanese tea ceremony.
7. Go to Harajuku district on a Sunday and rock and roll until you drop! On Sundays young people dress up on real rock and roll garb and dance the day away. Nowadays there are lots of cosplay characters as well.
8. How about becoming a geisha yourself? There are plenty of photo studios that will dress you up in a real kimono and geisha make-up. A great photo opportunity!
9. For train enthusiasts there is nothing like taking the super-exclusive Cassiopeia overnight train from Tokyo to Sapporo. The 18 hour train journey goes through some of the most beautiful parts of Japan and includes a Japanese or French dinner in the exclusive dining car.
10. A favourite past-time of the Japanese is to spend the weekend at a hot spring. The ‘onsen’ (hot spring) is a must, but beware, if you do not have a private bath in your room, you will be naked with other guests! Make sure you wash yourself before entering the big bath.