After three years of facelifts, one of Japan’s most treasured temples — Kyoto’s vast Unesco-listed Kiyomizudera — is now free of scaffolding. Founded in AD778 and rebuilt in 1633, it’s looking pretty good, especially with fresh hinoki cypress floorboards lining its viewing platform (£2; kiyomizudera.or.jp). Meanwhile, Kinkakuji, the famous golden temple, has had a touch up to boost its shimmer (£2; shokoku-ji.jp).
Can a volcano have star appeal? If so, Fuji’s got it. Sloping, snow-capped and every bit as spectacular in real life as on postcards, on a clear day you can spot its peaks from Tokyo — most cinematically through the observatory windows of the 450m Tokyo Skytree (£16; tokyo-skytree.jp). Meanwhile, rollercoaster-packed amusement park Fuji-Q Highland has launched a Sky Deck with an open-air view (from £6; fujiq.jp). And the new glampsite Tocoro lets you bed down in igloo-style domes with forest-fringed glimpses of Japan’s national icon (half-board doubles from £250; tocoro.camp).
The Don Quijote superstore
KAZUKI OISHI/SIPA USA
3. The world’s weirdest shopping
From caviar-infused facemasks to musical toilets, in Japan you’ll find every quirky gadget, beauty product or homeware ever conceived — probably at the ubiquitous superstore Don Quijote (donki.com). Of course, there’s trendy shopping too, and world-class department stores. Refurbed Shibuya Parco in Tokyo is a powerhouse of Japanese fashion (shibuya.parco.jp). Historic Mitsukoshi in Nihombashi sells luxe kimonos (cp.mistore.jp). And Shinjuku Isetan houses a gourmet depachika grocery so extensive it makes Harrods food hall look like a Little Waitrose (cp.mistore.jp).
4. A sexy new ryokan
Futon bed, tatami mat floors, sliding paper doors — with their trad aesthetic, ryokan inns are the quintessential Japanese stay. And now the experience has had a sleek upgrade with the opening of Azumi Setoda, near Hiroshima. Aman founder Adrian Zecha is the brains behind the Ikuchi Island spot, which explains the lean towards high-spec meditative design. Expect hyper-local meals, plus soaks in a sento communal bath nearby (the hotel itself occupies a 140-year-old bathhouse). Biking too — you’re bang on the 37-mile Shimanami Kaido cycling route (half-board doubles from £660; azumi.co/setoda).
The shinkansen bullet train
5. Really fast trains
You don’t have to be a trainspotter to get excited about riding the shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train that links stations at speeds of up to 200mph. A slick and eco-friendly way to get around, it’s easy to navigate too, whether you’re doing the classic Tokyo-Kyoto corridor or heading out on this year’s hottest new route. From autumn an extension on the southerly isle of Kyushu will link the port city Nagasaki with wee Takeo Onsen, a pretty town with a millennium of hot-springs history (global.jr-central.co.jp).
6. Anime heaven at Ghibli Park
Adding to a roster that already includes Disneyland, Hello Kitty Land and Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios, Ghibli Park is the big news in Japanese theme parks this year (ghibli-park.jp). If you don’t recognise the name, you might know its work: Ghibli is the anime studio that gave us My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke. Opening on November 1 near Nagoya, the park will recreate scenes from its films, and if it’s anything like the cult Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, tickets will go quickly (ghibli-museum.jp).
Kanazawa Castle’s Kenrokuen Garden
7. Tranquil ancient gardens
While British gardeners zap moss from their lawns, in Japan the green fuzz is celebrated — with particularly spectacular results at Kyoto’s Kokedera (“moss temple”), where 120 varieties blanket boulders, skirt ponds and encircle trees (£18; saihoji-kokedera.com). Meanwhile at Kanazawa Castle’s Kenrokuen Garden, mirror-like lakes and blooming cherry trees reach Chelsea levels of perfection (£2; pref.ishikawa.jp). For a green escape in Tokyo, try Hamarikyu, a verdant blot with a teahouse, ringed by soaring skyscrapers and Tokyo Bay (£2; tokyo-park.or.jp).
8. Arty island
It’s only a speck in the Seto Inland Sea but Naoshima comes with a big reputation. This humble fishing isle is also a cutting-edge art hub, with installations in old village houses and a clutch of contemporary galleries. The Setouchi Triennale festival runs until autumn, while a new Tadao Ando-designed Valley Gallery and Hiroshi Sugimoto glass teahouse give fresh appeal to the permanent Benesse Art Site grounds (benesse-artsite.jp). There is a much-needed new place to stay on this accommodation-scarce isle too: chic Ryokan Roka (half-board doubles from £523; ryokancollection.com).
● 19 epic tours of Japan
● Where and when to see Japan’s cherry blossom
9. Ninja life
Teenage turtles made ninjas world-famous, but in Japan the real stealth warriors came from feudal-era clans living in Iga, near Osaka. Get back to the roots of the movement at the Ninja Museum of Igaryu, touring a typical booby-trapped home to find fake corridors and hidden stashes of weaponry. You can catch a ninja demonstration too; complete with backflips and Leonardo’s favoured katana swords (£5; iganinja.jp).
10. Shimokitazawa cool
Tokyo has no shortage of cool neighbourhoods: Aoyama with its upmarket shopping, Nakameguro with its trendy restaurants. But after the better part of a decade under construction, vintage-boutique-cluttered Shimokitazawa is back in the spotlight. Craft shops, slick co-working spaces and artisan cafés add to the reasons to visit. And with efficient rail connections that get you into central Tokyo in minutes, plus a raft of new affordable hotels, there’s even more reason to stay. Try loft-like illi Shimokitazawa (room-only for six people from £171; illi-group.com) or, from this autumn, Mustard Hotel (mustardhotel.com).
11. Epic walking trails
Strap on your boots because Japan has first-class walking. Sleepy Shikoku is home to the 88 Temple Pilgrimage, where 745 miles of trails connect dozens of incense-scented holy spots in forest-cloaked valleys. Or be among the first to traverse the new Michinoku Coastal Trail, skirting 620 miles of seaside in the northeastern Tohoku region. After something more low-key? A scenic snippet of the Nakasendo Way, the historic route connecting Tokyo and Kyoto, can be sampled in just a few hours. Walk Japan has tours to them all (walkjapan.com).
12. Private onsen soaks
Japan’s hot springs are famous, but onsen bathing customs can make visitors bashful — it’s done strictly in the buff, for starters. If you fear for your modesty or come bearing tattoos (a no-no in onsen culture), a growing number of spots can cater. Set among the mountains and beaches of the Izu peninsula, Soki Atami’s greatest draw isn’t its Zen interiors or sea-view terraces, but your bedroom’s private alfresco onsen (B&B doubles from £261; uds-hotels.com).
Pick up some Michelin-starred ramen for lunch
13. Michelin-starred ramen
From ultra-fresh sashimi to tender wagyu beef, Japan’s food scene is epic and diverse. In Tokyo you can drop serious cash on intricate omakase (chef’s choice) sushi dinners — or bag a Michelin-approved lunch for the price of a Pret. The one-starred Shinjuku ramen bar Konjiki Hototogisu opens at 11am; join the queue early for a bowl of sea bream and clam shio ramen, pinch-me cheap at just £6. The no-frills space seats only ten diners at a time, but chef Yamamoto’s noodles still sell out most days (sobahouse konjikihototogisu.com).
14. The museum 40 years in the making
It’s only taken four decades, but Osaka’s much-delayed Nakanoshima Museum of Art finally opened its doors in February. Pieces by late, great internationals such as Dalí and Basquiat line the walls alongside celebrated locals including Yuzo Saeki (entry varies; nakka-art.jp). It’s another boost to the scene in Japan’s second city, where the National Museum of Art already gave good reason to visit (£3; nmao.go.jp).
15. Mountain scenery lost in time
Want a slice of proper Japanese countryside? Landscapes don’t get much more picturesque than the Japanese Alps, where cute mountain villages are cloaked with green in summer and blanketed by snowdrifts in winter. Wander the Edo-era streets in Takayama’s old town, sampling saké from local breweries, then snap selfies at the soaring gassho-zukuri farmhouses in Shirakawa-go and Gokayama — they are more Swiss than typically Japanese in design.
Kabira bay in Okinawa
16. A new Unesco archipelago
You might not think of Japan as a tropical paradise, but the sun-warmed islands of Kagoshima and Okinawa are exactly the archetype, with swathes of golden sand and inviting turquoise waters. A clutch of them also form Japan’s newest Unesco world heritage site, inscribed in 2021 for their outstanding biodiversity. Amami-Oshima comes with clear-water reefs for divers; jungly Iriomote has mangrove kayak trips and the elusive, endangered yamaneko wild cat.
Izakayas offer varied menus and cheap drinks
17. Bustling izakayas
Whether your preferred poison is nama biru (draught beer), shochu (rice spirit) or saké, an izakaya is the place to come for a relaxed drink and a bite to eat. Menus feature a bit of everything, from sashimi to croquettes, skewers and rice dishes, and are made for sharing; drinks are cheap and downed with great enthusiasm. Popular chain Watami has outlets all over Japan (watami-global.jp). On Hokkaido, one branch of Tsubohachi occupies an entire floor above a shopping mall (tsubohachi.co.jp).
18. A soothing cuppa
From bitter powdered matcha to nutty roasted hojicha, Japan is powered by tea — and some of the very best comes from Uji, a short train ride from Kyoto. Strolling the main thoroughfare from the station to Byodoin temple, shops spill out into the street selling matcha-flavoured noodles, ice creams and gyoza dumplings. Tea ceremonies abound too; settle onto a tatami floor and let a kimono-clad master guide you through the ritual at Taihoan (from £6; city.uji.kyoto.jp).
19. Nintendo chic
Theme hotels are big business here, with stays styled after everything from Godzilla to sleeper trains (plus quirky “capsule hotels”, where your room is a teeny pod). It would be tempting to descend into full-on Mario kitsch, but new Marufukuro — set inside the first-ever Nintendo HQ in Kyoto — has opted for subtlety instead. The glam vibe hints back to 1889, when the business was founded to make hanafuda playing cards, while a light-flooded annexe by Tadao Ando gives it fresh life (full-board doubles from £455; marufukuro.com).
20. Belt it like Beyoncé
In the world capital of karaoke, you don’t need musical prowess. Private booths, auto-tuning and lubricative nomihodai (all- you-can-drink) packages transform the most reluctant vocalists into Beyoncé or Bowie. Even small towns in Japan often have a karaoke bar, but for the ultimate experience you want a neon-splashed spot in Tokyo’s Kabukicho or Osaka’s Dotonbori nightlife districts. Both the Uta Hiroba chain (utahiro.com) and the ubiquitous Karaokekan have all the English-language hits (karaokekan.jp).
Five of the best tours to Japan
Try forest bathing and meditation
1. Mindfulness and meditation
Inside Japan offers a comprehensive range of small group and self-guided tours. The Japanese Ikigai and the Path to Happiness, a 14-day itinerary, puts wellness to the fore, with meditation, onsen visits and forest bathing among the activities on a route that takes in Tokyo, Kyoto and the Izu peninsula. Accommodation is in a mix of hotels and farmhouses.
Details Thirteen nights’ B&B from £3,100pp (insidejapantours.com). Fly to Tokyo
Try a sushi-making class
2. Sushi and saké for foodies
The Asia specialist Bamboo Travel’s A Tale of Gyoza: A Foodie Tour of Japan is a comprehensive overview of the country’s culinary heritage, starting and finishing in Tokyo. A sushi-making class, saké brewery tour and tea with a maiko are included, as is a visit to Mount Koya, south of Osaka, by train and cable car.
Details Fourteen nights’ B&B from £4,335pp, including flights via Helsinki and some meals (bambootravel.co.uk)
See snow monkeys in Nagano
LUCIA TERUI/GETTY IMAGES
3. Classics and culture
A trip up Mount Fuji, snow monkeys in Nagano and Kyoto by bullet train: the 18-day Best of Japan group tour — starting in Osaka and finishing in Tokyo — ticks off the mainland’s well-known attractions. You’ll also understand more about the Japanese way of life by visiting the daily Miyagawa market, bathing at a hot spring and learning the traditional art of washi papermaking.
Details Seventeen nights’ full board from £6,940pp, including flights (thetimes.co.uk/travel/offers)
Visit the Golden Temple of Kinkakuji
4. Temple trail
You’ll need moderate fitness levels, plus a decent pair of walking shoes, to make the most of the hillside excursions to the temples and shrines on Exodus’s Ancient & Modern group tour of Honshu’s south and west. Beginning in Kyoto with a visit to the 14th-century Golden Temple of Kinkakuji, by day seven the route reaches Takayama, a town in the Japanese Alps, for a stay in a traditional guesthouse. The trip ends on a modern note, with an optional karaoke night in Tokyo.
Details Fifteen nights’ room-only from £5,599pp, including flights and some meals (exodus.co.uk)
Explore the city of Kyoto
5. City slickers
Japan’s Cities: Tokyo & Kyoto, from Audley Travel is a classic tour of the country’s urban spots, split between bases in Kyoto and Tokyo. Day trips include travel by bullet train to Hiroshima, and there’s an option to add an architecture tour in Tokyo and a garden visit in Kyoto.
Details Seven nights’ B&B from £3,865pp, including flights (audleytravel.com)
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