What you shouldn’t miss when visiting the Land of the Rising Sun
Springtime is one of the most popular times to visit due to the age-old practice of admiring the cherry blossom, known as o-hanami, which also doubles as a good excuse for a boozy picnic beneath the trees. Popular Tokyo parks that are well worth a visit at this time include Ueno, Asukayama and Sumida, where the blossom can be sighted while cruising down the river.
Soaking aching limbs in a steaming hot Japanese onsen is one of life’s great pleasures. While found all over Japan, key centres include the hot spring resort areas of Oita and Beppu, and on Kyushu and the Izu Peninsula near Tokyo. Many offer cracking views and they’re a highlight of a ryokan stay.
Ride the bullet train
From the great onboard experience to the speed and punctuality, the Shinkansen or ‘bullet train’ is a treat. It’s available to use on the great value JR Rail Pass — easy to book in advance — and free online seat reservations can be made in advance. The new Hokkaidō Shinkansen Line launched last year, connecting Honshu and Hokkaidō.
Geishas in Gion
Kyoto’s historic Gion district, home to two of Japan’s most famous geisha neighbourhoods (hanamachi), is the go-to place for geisha sightings. Head down to Hanami-koji street come early evening to catch a glimpse of a costumed or apprentice geisha (maiko) shuffling between the wooden buildings and teahouses.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market is a popular tour option and a bustling hive of fishy activity. Its public Outer Market, open from 5am, is home to myriad tasty seafood stalls, so bring an appetite. To catch the popular tuna auction in the Inner Market, you’ll need to arrive a few hours earlier than the 5am start and queue for a spot, as entry is first come, first served. It’s closed on Sundays.
Sapporo Snow Festival
The free annual riot of illuminated ice and snow sculptures takes place for a week every February. A must-visit spectacle, Odori Park plays host to the bulk of the action with family-friendly activities, such as ice slides, on offer in Tsudome (the Sapporo Community Dome), while red light district Susukino hosts a popular ice sculpture contest.
Hit a festival
The bean throwing of Setsubun (February), Kawasaki’s Kanamari Matsuri (April) and Tokyo’s firework festivals (over 20 of them from July to October) — Japan’s many festivals, or matsuri, are typically colourful and lively.
Some of the best food can be found on street food stalls in the cities. Savour dishes such as grilled okonomiyaki, yakitori chicken kebabs and takoyaki snacks, while getting to grips with kuidaore, the art of eating until you drop.
Kyoto’s zen temples are the place to experience Japan’s famous karesansui, or zen gardens. Ryoan-ji Temple has the most famous example and Kennin-ji, the oldest. Complete the contemplation with a zen meditation class or a stay at a retreat such as Shōgan-ji, near Beppu, Kyushu.