Where ancient and modern co-exist
Explore neon-lit cities, visit tranquil temples, and experience stunning natural landscapes on a Japan vacation.
There can be few countries where past and present co-exist quite so strikingly as they do in Japan. On the one hand, Japan is at the cutting edge of innovation; on the other, it’s a country with a deep reverence for the past, where ancient traditions live on unchanged.
Japan’s futuristic side is showcased unashamedly in the neon lights of Tokyo and Osaka, and in the iconic bullet train that speeds travelers through the Japanese countryside. Yet, as you’ll discover on a Japan vacation, it’s the country’s natural landscape and cultural heritage that its people seem most proud of.
Ancient buildings and traditions sit side by side with colossal skyscrapers in Japan's energetic capital city, which has plenty of culture if you know where to look for it. The grand imperial palace is the seat of the Japanese Emperor, and crossing the moat into its peaceful East Gardens, you'll feel a world away from the busy city beyond. In contrast, the neon lights of the electronics district show the futuristic side to Japan. Don't miss Tokyo Tower, Japan's answer to the Eiffel Tower, offering splendid 360 degree views of the city with Mount Fuji in the distance.
Sleepy Hakone is a short journey from Tokyo, but its peaceful lakeside setting couldn't be more different from the bright neon lights of the city. It's the Japan you'll recognize from the traditional Japanese woodblock prints, with stunning views of snowy Mount Fuji across the picturesque Lake Ashi-no. Whether you're cruising the lake or lying back in a warm geothermal bath, relaxation at Hakone is the ultimate antidote to a busy spell in the city.
Red-faced Japanese snow monkeys warm themselves in geothermal pools at Yudanaka, where the Monkey Park is the primary attraction for travellers. It's best viewed in winter, when a layer of snow blankets the area and the monkeys are particularly appreciative of the hot, bubbling water. The spa towns in this area are also worth exploring, giving you a relaxed insight into historic Japan complete with hot springs for you to soak in.
A breathtaking mountain backdrop earns Nagano its nickname, "The Roof of Japan", and its architecture is just as spectacular. The real highlight is Zenkoji temple, which dates from the 7th century and is one of Japan's last sites of pilgrimage. Sunrise is a great time to see this popular temple, as you'll have the chance to receive a blessing in the evocative morning prayer ceremony. Nagano also hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, so you'll see sporting venues in among the city's more historic landmarks.
Your base for venturing into the majestic Japanese Alps, Matsumoto's charming streets are filled with coffee shops and art galleries. The imposing castle, Matsumoto-jo, is a must, and not just for the city and mountain views you'll enjoy from its upper storeys. It's an original historic castle - not reconstructed, like many castles in Japan - which means that the wood-paneled rooms you walk through are just as the castle's occupants have seen them for centuries.
Wandering the quiet backstreets of charming Takayama, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd strolled into the pages of a history book. Tranquil temples and shrines seem to lie around every corner, with sake breweries and immaculate bonsai gardens adding to the atmosphere. Immerse yourself in the city's culture by paying a visit to some of Takayama's excellent museums. When evening comes round, the city lights up and its many local-style restaurants seem to invite you to sample Honshu's many culinary delights.
You'll receive a warm welcome in Nagoya, an industrial city with a friendly soul. Known for the expansive Toyota HQ - which is worth taking a tour around - Nagoya is a great place to learn about modern-day Japan. Explore the origins of Japan's rail prowess at the Railway Museum, and go further back in the country's history with a look around Nagoya's famous reconstructed castle. In the fall, a trip to nearby Korankei will reward you with the sight of a beautiful river valley filled with trees in every shade of red and orange.
Historic Kyoto is Japan's cultural center, and strolling though its old-world alleyways, it's easy to imagine that you've traveled back in time. Enjoy a moment of serenity in the immaculate gardens of one of Kyoto's numerous tranquil temples - don't miss Kinka-kuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion. You'll also feel the presence of centuries of Japanese history in the traditions kept alive in Kyoto, such as the enigmatic Geisha who frequent the city's renowned tea houses.
It may not have the old-world charm of Kyoto - it was extensively bombed in World War Two - but Osaka has an upbeat atmosphere that makes it a worthy stop on your Japan vacation. At night, the streets of this commercial center are brightly lit with neon lights, giving it a futuristic feel that reflects Japan's forward-looking ethos. Explore cultural highlights such as Osaka Castle during the day, and after dark head to one of the city's renowned restaurants or food stalls. Okonomiyaki - savory pancakes - come particularly highly recommended.
In the decades since World War Two, Hiroshima has recovered beyond recognition from its tragic fate at the hands of the infamous atomic bomb. But reminders of that dark chapter of its history are still present in the chilling shell of the 'A-Bomb Dome', the only remaining bombed out building. A peaceful memorial park commemorates the victims, in the heart of what is otherwise a thriving modern city. From Hiroshima, you can hop on a ferry to Miyajima, a sacred island inhabited by friendly deer.
Sitting amongst the 3000 islands that pepper the Seto Island Sea is fascinating Naoshima. With sandy beaches and a relaxed atmosphere, it is best known for the modern art that is dotted all around the island. It is possible to visit on a day trip, but staying overnight gives you time to enjoy the slower pace of life. The island is small enough to explore by foot, or travel by bike or bus to conserve your energy and allow more time for sightseeing.
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Stay in a tatami mat room in a ryokan
This historic style of Japanese Inn originated in the Edo Period and is an insight into local culture. Many ryokans have an onsen, or hot spring, on site and offer traditional multi-course dining called kaiseki.
See Mount Fuji from Hakone
Perhaps Japan’s most iconic sights, Mount Fuji can be seen from Tokyo on a clear day, but travelling a couple of hours to Hakone allows travellers to enjoy the mountain views surrounded by the beautiful natural scenery and hot springs, as well as a variety of options for viewing the mountain itself, such as a cruise on Lake Ashi-no.
Meet a maiko in Kyoto
An exclusive Maiko dinner and performance in Kyoto gives you a unique opportunity to learn about the life of an apprentice Geisha.
Wander old-world towns in the Kiso Valley
Travel back in time and soak up the old-world atmosphere of the Kiso Valley. Wander the villages of Magome and Tsumago or explore World Heritage-listed Shirakawago, dotted with traditional thatch-roof homes.
Tsukiji fish markets in Tokyo
The fish market in Tokyo is the largest in the world, and it is well worth rising early to explore the markets as they bustle with local trade, before a sushi breakfast as fresh as they come.
Spot a geisha in Kyoto or Kanazawa
Spot a beautiful Geisha steal through Kyoto's atmospheric Gion district in the quiet of dusk or visit the old Geisha Quarters of Hagashi Street and Nomura-ke House in the samurai district of Kanazawa.
Visit the snow monkeys
When the snow begins to fall, the macaques of Yudanaka jump into the natural hot springs to keep warm. Watch them frolic in the pools as the steaming water melts the sprinkling of snow from their winter coats.
Race through the countryside on a bullet train
Rail in Japan is reasonably priced, fast and extremely reliable, and a trip on one of the high-speed bullet trains is not only a convenient form of transport but an exciting experience.
Discover Japanese cuisine
The Japanese passion for food means meticulously-prepared dishes are an art form in themselves. Produce is both seasonal and regional, and culinary tourism is popular with both local and international guests. Get your hands on some of the huge variety of typically Japanese dishes and taste it for yourself.
Take part in a tea ceremony in Kanazawa or Kyoto
A renowned part of Japanese culture, take part in a traditional Tea Ceremony in Kyoto or Kanazawa.
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