There is no country in the world quite like it.
Japan is a remarkable, incredibly varied and diverse country stretching over 3,000km from the quasi-Siberian snowscapes of Hokkaido to the subtropical beaches and mangrove forests of Okinawa.
Over 70% of its terrain is mountainous and contains one-tenth of the world’s active volcanoes.
Each region is totally unique and will provide a never-ending list of things to see, experiences to be had and tastes to savour.
Having sent several clients over the years and it always being a source of great fascination to me, it remained a frustrating gap on my travel CV, which I was finally about to address with my exciting trip this autumn, only to be temporarily thwarted by the ongoing pandemic.
My trip is rescheduled for 2021 and I will undoubtedly join many others in visiting one of the most in-demand post-covid destinations in the year that they will hopefully and belatedly host the summer Olympic Games.
Depending on your personal interests and time, there are lots of ways to construct an exciting schedule for the first-time visitor.
I have chosen a sample itinerary below to illustrate the type of trip I would recommend and here are some of the most requested activities and experiences you would be wise to seek out:
From the finest Michelin starred restaurants to the most informal of izakaya (Japanese pubs), you won’t go hungry.
An overview of the foodie scene with a local expert is a must-do; whether it's a street food tour or an izakaya night, they’ll introduce you to the very best places and help to navigate the menu.
Be prepared to return home with an insatiable taste for Japanese food!
Meet a maiko (apprentice geisha)
Few Japanese experiences are as special as meeting a maiko. While elusive, these trainee geishas are recognisable for their elaborate kanzashi (hair ornaments) and striking patterned kimonos.
Becoming a geisha requires years of intense training in traditional performing arts.
Many Japanese people will never get the opportunity to meet one of these performers, but with the right connections to an okiya (geisha houses), meetings can be organised with live music, dancing and drinking games too.
Hot spring baths
If you thought Japan's lush green paddies and rolling mountains were beautiful, wait until you relax in an onsen (hot spring bath).
Forget wild swimming, nature’s own hot tubs with steaming turquoise waters, are for wild soaking and there are thousands across the country.
Lazy afternoons in the onsen aren’t just for humans. In Yudanaka Onsen, groups of Japanese macaques, or snow monkeys, take respite from harsh winters in their very own hot spring baths.
Nothing deters them from taking a dip, so visitors are welcome to walk to the clearing and snap them in action - or inaction!
There’s no shortage of western-style accommodation in Japan, but for something different, a night or two at an authentic ryokan (inn) is a must.
They feature traditional interiors, including sliding paper doors and tatami mat floors, along with delicate multi-course dinners and private onsen.
Those interested in getting in touch with their spiritual side can swap the frenetic city life with serene temple lodgings. Mount Koya is a calm and secluded monastic retreat where you can stay in a shukubo, with tatami mat floors, beautifully presented vegetarian meals and an opportunity to join monks in meditation.
Gardens are serious business and the perfect antidote to the modern skyscraper strewn Japanese cities. They are curated and cultivated to exceptional standards.
Expect pretty pagodas, lily ponds, vibrant flowers, wooden bridges, tea houses, Zen rock gardens, waterfalls and streams of koi carp.
The image of two large loincloth-clad wrestlers battling it out is unmistakably Japanese. Becoming a sumo wrestler takes several years of tough training at a heya, or stable, where they eat, sleep and train. Tournaments take place regularly, but for a unique experience, get up early and watch the wrestlers’ gruelling schedule at a Tokyo stable.
Japan has magnificent national parks containing everything from snow-capped peaks to colourful fields of flowers, so whether you’re an active hiker or you prefer an easy-going bike ride, there’s plenty of reasons to venture out and explore.
Take the train
In Japan, public transport is a revered way to travel and huge importance is given to making journeys as efficient and pleasant as possible; and there's none more revered than the train.
There's no need to struggle with large suitcases with a reliable luggage forwarding service at your disposal to ensure belongings are waiting at your destination.
The Shinkansen bullet train stylishly glides between stations, reaching speeds of up to 200mph and is a fantastic way to get across the country.
Grab a bento box (the perfect bullet train snack), sit back and watch the scenery go by.
Experience the different seasons
Each season in Japan has its own unique charm and personality:
Winter: December to February
Although equally beautiful as at any other time of year, winter isn’t peak travelling season, and with tourist hotspots far less busy, it’s a great time to visit for keen photographers.
Crisp clear skies undoubtedly make it the best time to see Japan’s tallest mountain, Mt Fuji, which tends to stay hidden behind clouds for much of the rest of the year.
Winter sports enthusiasts will also find Japan home to some of the world’s best powder conditions.
Spring: March to May
Spring, of course, brings the famous cherry blossoms that turn the trees into canopies of pink, where you can join the locals at sake-fuelled picnic parties.
Coinciding a trip with peak blooming is always a gamble but a two-week adventure at the end of March or start of April covering the main island of Honshu shouldn’t disappoint.
The cherry blossoms are a big draw, so accommodation tends to be more expensive during this period, and be prepared that many tourist landmarks can get crowded.
Summer: June to September
Japanese summer is hot and humid with a little rain at times in the early months, but don’t let that deter you.
Summer sees a packed programme of colourful and animated festivals which involve traditional dances, parades, floats, food stalls and fireworks with everyone dressed in yukata (summer kimonos).
July and August are the only months of the year when Mt Fuji is open to hikers.
Autumn: October & November
Colourful leaves are to the Japanese autumn what the cherry blossoms are to its spring. The landscape bursts into shades of russet reds and browns as the “koyo front” sweeps down the entire length of the country.
Rows of yellow ginko and crimson maple trees line the city streets and the magnificent hues of autumn provide a perfect backdrop for temples, shrines, country hikes and hundreds of photo opportunities.
I can build any of these into a tailor-made or escorted tour itinerary with the brilliant Japanese specialists, InsideJapan Tours.
Their 'Best of Japan' trip over 14 nights is perfect for first-time visitors to Japan and extremely good value at just over £2,000 per person (excluding international flights), based on twin sharing and includes authentic experiences in:
Japan's historic capital, Kyoto - the “City of Ten Thousand Shrines”, reached by bullet train
The modern metropolis of Tokyo
Fuji-Hakone National Park (and if you're lucky) spectacular views of Mount Fuji
Hakone’s hot spring baths
Osaka – food heaven
Takayama in the Japanese Alps staying in a minshuku inn
Hiroshima & Miyajima Island
14 nights' accommodation (three nights Japanese-style)
Breakfast every day and one evening meal
All transport between destinations and airport transfers
14-day Japan Rail Pass
Hakone Free Pass for local transport in the Hakone region
Manaca transport card with 2,500yen credit for city transport
Tea ceremony experience in the historic Gion district of Kyoto
Visit the floating torii gate on Miyajima
I have it on good authority that once you have visited Japan, you will question why we can’t manage to do things similarly in the UK. Plus the unanimous conclusion from all my clients and associates is that the Japanese themselves are some of the most charming, gracious, hospitable people you’ll ever meet.
I can’t wait to go and I hope to inspire others to follow me in an adventure to the land of the rising sun.