Overview

The island nation of Japan lies on the eastern edge of Asia, nosing out into the Pacific and is actually made up of a staggering 6852 islands although only 430 are inhabited. The four biggest islands are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, which make up 97% of the total land mass and house the majority of the 130 million population. Honshu is sometimes called the Japanese mainland and is home to the country’s major cities and sites including vibrant Tokyo, snow-capped Mount Fuji, and the cultural centre of Kyoto with its geishas and ancient temples.

The super-efficient rail network is a fabulous way to travel with lines linking major islands and the shinkansen bullet train offering a journey time from Tokyo to Kyoto of just over 2 hours at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. Wherever you venture, you’ll meet with wonderfully courteous people. Just remember to show respect with a slight bow of the head rather than a shake of the hand and you may be invited for tea or sake or delicious Japanese dishes such as mouth-watering sushi, sashimi or tempura.

Highlights

A country of vast contrasts, the Land of the Rising Sun is an increasingly popular destination to explore.

City Life in Tokyo

In one of the world’s biggest cities, it’s not surprising that Tokyo’s rush hour feels like all of its 14 million inhabitants are right there with you. Enjoy the bright lights, the buzz, and the novelty of the ubiquitous vending machines in possibly the most modern city on the planet. Tokyo Skytree, at 634 metres, is the world’s tallest tower and was designed to represent the harmony of technology with nature. Eiffel Tower inspired Tokyo Tower remains the second tallest structure and a symbol of the country’s post-war rebirth as a major economic power. Both have accessible observation decks with magnificent views. For a different side to the city, head to Asakusa’s traditional craft shops, street-food stalls, and incense filled Senso-ji Buddhist temple. Yoyogi Park is a popular hangout where street performers, martial artists, cyclists and picnickers come together while peaceful Shinjuku Gyoen has three large gardens in 143 acres: the Japanese, English and French gardens.

Temples and Shrines

Believe it or not, Japan has more temples and shrines than convenience stores! Although some are large structures with many worshippers, each small village is littered with numerous small shrines. Technically a temple is a place of Buddhism, and a shrine is a site for Shinto, Japan’s indigenous animistic religious practice in which kami or gods are prayed to. In practice however, the two have harmonised after years of conflict and co-exist along with other indigenous forms of worship. At each you should show respect and humility, enjoy the reverent and peaceful atmosphere and revel in their unique characters. If you’re in Nara Prefecture, don’t miss the country’s oldest temple, 1300 year old Horyuji Temple, a wooden building shrouded in mystery, and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Kyoto, there are some of the most memorable examples to explore at Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkakuji, and Sanjusangendo Temples and the Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine.

Natural Beauty

Get out of the cities and into the stunning Japanese countryside. Highly recommended is the Fuji Five Lakes area, Fujigoko, a region at the northern base of the volcanic Mt Fuji and about 1000 metres above sea level. It’s a great place for hiking, exploring the hot springs and small villages and admiring the iconic views of Mt Fuji reflected in the still waters of the lakes. One of the best vistas is from the Kachikachiyama Aerial Ropeway, a cable car which climbs Mt Tenjō from the shores of Lake Kawaguchi. Cross the Japanese Alps to the remote Shogawa river valley and explore the historic UNESCO protected villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, renowned for their scenic and secluded mountain position as well as their traditional architecture. Throughout Japan you’ll find gardens and parks and if you visit in spring, enjoy the beautiful sakura, or cherry blossom, which fills open spaces and streets alike and is regarded as a symbol of renewal and vitality.