It’s easy to get hooked on Japan. The rituals, the quirkiness, the history and the innate welcoming nature of the people. Japan’s well-preserved culture with traditions in tea ceremonies, gift-giving, temple-going and bathing is still strong today, set against backdrops of snow-covered mountains, futuristic cities, ancient temples, islands and forests scattered along a 3,000km archipelago. And everything is so accessible by public transport. In fact it’s very unusual for tourists to drive. Why would you, when you have bullet trains to smoothly and quickly get you just about everywhere? Discover more about these extraordinary islands in our Japan travel guide.
Our top Japan vacations
From US $1005 to US $18205 days ex flights
Self-guided walking along Japanís ancient Nakasendo trail
Best time to go to Japan
Itís a four season place to vacation, with nothing too extreme to deal with and so there isnít necessarily a best time to visit Japan. It is worth nothing however that the climate varies significantly from the mountainous north to the subtropical islands of the south. The gorgeous cherry blossoms dramatically take center stage in spring, but less well-known, the autumn leaf turning season is glorious in November. And, of course, winter snows bring visitors galore to play in the powder. Read more about the best time to go to Japan.
Map & highlightsAs an introduction to Japan, Tokyo is a sensory experience like no other, a neon-lit blend of the ancient and the hyper-modern. Kyoto was the imperial capital until the 19th century, renowned shrines and temples bearing witness to a storied past, but donít overlook Nara just to the south, with a UNESCO-rated heritage of its own. And despite Hiroshimaís tragic recent history, its present is both hopeful and thought-provoking. Take the shinkansen to the mountainous Hakone region for ryokan stays and Mount Fuji views, while the hiking is equally good around Nara, especially in the autumn when the foliage is kaleidoscopically beautiful.
Hakone is the mountainous region west of Tokyo, accessible by bullet train to Odawara. A trip into the mountains is so easy in Japan, with a cable car up soaring over the blue waters of Lake Ashi, to the volcanic crater of Owakudani and, on a clear day, views to Mount Fuji. Hakone is the place to take an onsen hot spring bath too.
A city with a tragic past but vibrant present. Totally obliterated by the 1945 atomic bomb, and 70,000 of its residents killed, its reconstruction into the merry metropolis that it is today became a symbol of Japan's post-war pacifism. Indeed, it is still central to the campaign to ban nuclear arms. There is a lot to take in here, but visits to the A-Bomb dome, Peace Park and Museum are extremely thought provoking.
Because itís the ancient capital, you expect to walk into a world of samurais and sentos. But Kyoto is a contemporary metropolis, grown organically out of a world of imperial palaces, fourteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the Golden Temple of Kinkakuji and the historic district of Gion, with old wooden buildings squeezed into narrow streets, many now teahouses and restaurants. Kyoto is pure cultural chic.
A cultural gem often upstaged by Kyoto, despite having the highest number of buildings designated National Treasures in Japan. The ancient capital of the Kensai region, its beautiful central park is a suitable home for Daibutsu, the largest Buddha statue in Japan, located in one of the largest wooden buildings in the world too. The Nara Museum of Buddhist art is also a transcendental treat.
Gateway to Nikko National Park and home to three historic temples of Toshogu, Rinnoji, and Futarasan. Toshogu is most famous for its carving of the Three Wise Monkeys, so merchandising abounds. As one of Japanís most sacred sites, Nikko can get very crowded, also drawn to its somewhat contrasting theme parks. But get away from it all on the hiking trails of the Nikko National Park.
Needs little introduction, as Japanís capital, with one of the largest urban populations in the world. Take it all in from above, with fab views from the landmark Skytree, or watch life go by in Hamarikyu Gardens city park. Culture vultures will fly straight to the imperial gardens of Chiyoda, or the boutique shops and markets of Asakusa. Suckers for a shopping spree head to Ginza and Ikebukuro.
Must-see: Japanese culture
Our Japan cultural vacations travel guide lifts the lid on everything from the ancient art of the Japanese tea ceremony to sushi etiquette, and from Gion, Kyoto’s geisha district, to enlightening walks along the Golden Route, following in the footsteps of samurai warriors. Other highlights of Japan’s ever-intriguing culture include meditation, solitude and vegetarian cuisine at a mountain monastic retreat, and the pleasures of staying in a ryokan. These traditional country inns often have an onsen (hot spring bath) attached, and the intricate rituals involved in taking a dip could almost fill a guidebook on their own.
Must-see: Cherry blossom
Japan’s iconic sakura (cherry blossom) bloom from south to north as the climate warms, draping parks and gardens the length of the archipelago in delightful shades of pink and white, and prompting hanami (cherry blossom-viewing parties) throughout the spring. The cherry blossoms have been revered in Japan for centuries, and have inspired the works of countless poets, artists and philosophers. Since different regions all-too-briefly come into bloom at different times, it pays to learn the best time to see the cherry blossom in Japan and how to avoid the crowds.
Walking in Japan
Walking in Japan is a unique combination of history, spirituality, and remote mountain landscapes. Long distance routes vein the islands, including the Nakasendo Trail along which samurai once escorted their masters between Kyoto and Tokyo. The Kumano Kodo Trail is a legendary pilgrimage route lined with ancient shrines, while walkers ticking off Buddhist temples on the Shikoku Pilgrimage are easily identifiable in their white robes. Both take you through spectacular alpine scenery. For those with less time, there are also many shorter Japan walking vacations across Honshu, the romantic Nikko National Park a sublime place to escape the Tokyo crowds.
More vacation ideas
From US $995 to US $30606 days ex flights
Self guided trekking on the Kumano Kodo Trail
From US $2700 to US $37007 days ex flights
- The Culture of Rural Japan, including Osaka and Kyoto
From £573514 days inc UK flights
A visually striking railway journey through Japan
More about Japan
Not quite as fast as a speeding bullet but fast enough to acquire the nickname, Japan’s famous shinkansen network spans the country, enabling you to get between cities comfortably, rapidly and cost-effectively too. Almost all Japan vacations will feature travel by rail, with some getting around entirely on the train, and tour operators should be able to assist you in organising a Japanese Rail Pass (unlimited travel for seven days). Watching as the scenery zips past the windows of these sleek, modern and accessible trains is as essential to vacations here as sushi and shopping.
Types of vacations
Exploring Japan as part of sociable small group vacations is a fun way to embrace the unique culture and traditions here, but there are also tailor made tours for those wanting more flexibility in their itinerary. And don’t fall for the misconception that traveling in Japan is always expensive – it’s never cheap but there are plenty of budget Japan vacations that are more forgiving on the bank account. A perfect example is walking vacations that tend to avoid cities, keeping to inns and restaurants in rural areas and offering fewer opportunities to blow your cash on gourmet sushi or high-spec gadgets.
Our Japan walking vacations guide goes into greater detail on some of the classic long distance routes and pilgrimage trails that thread the archipelago. Japan is an unforgettable destination for family vacations, with Studio Ghibli a charming introduction to anime for the kids, ancient castles and samurai lore to uncover, and endless bowls of ramen to slurp through. Delicious Japanese cuisine is just one aspect of our Japan cultural vacations guide which also covers sumo stables, cherry blossoms and geishas. And for an introduction to getting around by bullet trains, our Japan railway vacations travel guide is an essential resource.