February 25, 2024

Japan is a land of mythical legend, stoic beauty and discerning authenticity, and now that holidays there are fully back on track, it’s no wonder everyone’s talking about it. If you’ve ever dreamed about exploring Japan, let this be the year you finally stop picking at the pages of your passport, and book that unforgettable, unique holiday.

Not only is Japan steeped in mystery, but from the vibrant, neon-dazzled cities and the snowy peaks of the Alps, to the exotic Pacific Islands, it’s a country full of adventure. For first-timers – or even returning visitors – the idea of booking a Japan holiday can seem a little daunting: with so much to see, where do you start? To tackle this conundrum, many people opt for escorted tours of Japan, or cruises.

If you’re considering a holiday to Japan there are a few must-visits to include on your agenda, and we’ve answered some of the big questions to get you going.

mt fuji and tokyo skyline

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Where to go in Japan

Tokyo might be an obvious place to start with, but with its neck-bending skyscrapers, Japanese gardens, world-famous restaurants (the city currently has 263 Michelin stars) and ancient temples, it’s little wonder people put it high up on their holiday hotlists. Every area has its own distinct character with something for everyone, whether that’s the shopping streets of Harajuku and Shibuya, or the backstreet foodie scene of Shinjuku business district.

Osaka is also a pin to drop on your holiday map: third to Tokyo in size but just as dazzling, this very charming city is modern and fun. It’s particularly famous for its tasty takoyaki and okonomiyaki street food and textile industry heritage, and only a short bullet train ride from Tokyo. Yokohama is an equally cosmopolitan city with beautiful waterfront, shopping and microbreweries, while Kyoto – the former capital of Japan – is the traditional and spiritual heart of the country, with some 2,000 temples and shrines.

You might also want to explore some of the country’s cultural and historic sides, like the war memorials of Hiroshima; the Daibutsu, the second largest bronze Buddha in Japan; and the Mazda Museum. Make time, too, to get out onto the islands: visit Kochi and its castle on Shikoku, enjoy the spectacular natural beauty of Hokkaido, and seek wildlife on Sado Island.

What to do in Japan

While you won’t be able to see or do everything in one holiday, you can get a good snapshot by ensuring you get to experience parts of what makes this country so brilliant. Start with the scenery (parks bursting with cherry blossom, futuristic city skylines, smouldering volcanoes, steamy hot springs, undulating rice paddies, majestic mountains, beautiful beaches) and you’ll return home with some incredible stories and a full reel of fantastic photos.

Then there’s the culinary culture. As mentioned, a city like Tokyo is famous for its fancy fine-dining scene, but a well-rounded Japan tour should involve authentic foodie experiences like tucking into sushi at Hirome Market, exploring the microbreweries of Yokohama, ordering catch of the day specialties at Kagoshima, tasting high-quality sake at Niigata, and/or partaking in excursions like chopstick-making lessons.

A well-crafted trip to Japan will also include a mix of modern and ancient historical attractions, whether that’s the world-famous Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and associated museum marking the site of where the world’s first atomic bomb went off in August 1945, or the beautiful temples, shrines of Kyoto and Nara. There are a fair few castles to add here, too, such as the 17th-century Kochi Castle (which still retains its original wooden structure), and the reconstructed Toyama Castle, which originally dated from 1543.

Finally, a good look at some of the islands is a must. This makes cruises around Japan a popular option; as you’ll be whisked from island to island with the option to hop off and explore a designated destination. Some cruises to Japan, like this springtime voyage, might include a trip around Toyama, famous for its countryside and ancient villages.

Sado Island is another special place to visit. Formerly a place where the politically exiled were sent, the island is now a haven for the last wild Japanese Crested Ibis (Toki), and wellness activities like forest-bathing and shinrinyoku (hot spring-dipping). Cruises are a great way to get a sense of a destination.

tricolor autumn

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When’s the best time to go?

Spring and autumn are the best times to visit Japan. From March to May, the cherry blossom paints the country a beautiful shade of sakura-pink, while September to November imbues the scenery with fiery reds and burnt oranges. Good Housekeeping’s 13-day tour packages depart in October 2024 and March 2025, while our 17-day cruise tours depart in March 2025.

If you aren’t too concerned about catching these natural spectacles, holidays to Japan from late December to the middle of March are generally considered to be less expensive, with fewer crowds in January and February. The rainy season is usually early June to mid-July for most of Japan, but typhoon season can last longer, from May to October (most of the activity has stopped by September). Skiers are best to book between the middle of January to the middle of March.

hirosaki castle

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Why you should experience Japan with a cruise or escorted tour

With an incredibly impressive array of things to see and do, a trip to Japan can feel overwhelming. With cruises and tours of Japan, your itinerary is all planned out and the arrangements made for you. All you have to do is book on and enjoy being shown around by knowledgeable guides and experts.

With Japan cruises, such as Good Housekeeping’s cherry blossom voyage in March 2025, not only do you get to enjoy exploring several cities, each with its own distinctive character, but you also get to experience many land-based activities like bathing in hot springs, taking the train up to Mount Tateyama, and visiting the country’s renowned museums, galleries and historical attractions – but you get the adventure associated with sailing the seas and rivers.

For instance, the spring cruise includes a trip through the cherry blossom arch along the Matsukawa River. It will also take you around some of the country’s beautiful islands, where optional excursions ensure guests get the real, authentic scope of Japan’s offerings, corner to corner.

Not only this, but the ship is a feature in its own right. You’ll be staying on the Holland America Line’s elegant MS Westerdam, a luxury liner with a range of accommodation, entertainment venues, seven restaurants offering excellent dining experiences, a spa and even a Pickleball court.

Or, if you’d rather be fully land-based, Good Housekeeping’s Tokyo to Osaka tour offers up plenty of opportunities to immerse yourself in Japanese culture – from riding a bullet train and boat trip on tranquil Lake Ashi, to learning traditional crafts such as origami, washi paper making, gold leaf making and even a miso-making workshop in a Miso House.

As well as spending time in its bustling and popular cities, there is time to explore lesser-known destinations, such as Takayama, Shirakawago and Kanazawa – giving you a feel for this side of Japan that tourists don’t often see.

Choose from two departure dates – October 2024 to see the colourful autumn leaves, or March 2025 in time for the iconic cherry blossom.

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