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Japan is one of the jewels in a glittering crown of destinations that the East offers. And, while the exploits of the recent Rugby World Cup gave us a fascinating perspective on life in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, there is certainly far more on offer than that which made its way onto our screens. Below, I’ve served up a snack-sized guide of the highlights spread across the diverse archipelago – think: steaming open-air baths and dazzling flower displays – that are just waiting for you to gorge on.
Little-known gems – Shikoku, Hokkaido and Ogasawara islands
Set off to uncover the secrets of the island of Shikoku, one of the few parts of Japan where we recommend self-driving. Mountain roads wind through hillsides covered with dense woodland and traditional villages to take you to your stay in a small onsen (or, hot spring) hotel.
Hokkaido, in particular, is famous for its seafood, hot springs, rugged landscapes, national parks and even powder skiing. Once outside the main city Sapporo, any human presence dissipates from the beautiful and sprawling landscape to offer a deeply-peaceful sense of serenity.
The Ogasawara Islands offer real adventure across a thrilling 25-hour boat journey. Little-visited, due to their remote location – this chain of 30 tropical and volcanic islands has been designated a World Natural Heritage area.
On the move – walk hidden trails and catch lightning-fast trains
Travel in Japan is unlike any other country. Fast or slow, new or old, there is plenty on offer – and, plenty to see along the way.
Follow in the footsteps of samurais as you hike a section of the Nakasendo trail. Once one of the most important highways in Japan, this 530-kilometre route originally linked Nara and Kyoto with the then-capital city of Edo – now known as Tokyo. The walk between Tsumago and Magome is a picturesque trail that passes through countryside and alongside traditional housing.
A journey on board the Shikansen train, otherwise known as ‘the bullet train’, is a fun and speedy zip through some of Japan’s most elegant landscapes, whilst hitting speeds of up to 360 kilometres per hour.
In bloom – flower-filled vistas of cherry blossom, hydrangeas and traditional gardens
Cherry blossom season arrives in Japan with a candyfloss bang. Tokyo and Kyoto are popular spots to witness this beautiful spectacle, with both cities boasting a wealth of parks, gardens and green spaces. It’s equally magical when the blooms fall to create a pink and white carpet. Book early to avoid disappointment, as availability can be tricky during this period.
Gardens are extremely symbolic and have always played an important role in Japanese culture. In Kanazawa, visit one of Japan’s top-three gardens, Kenroku-en. This beautiful garden was created several hundred years ago and combines six important characteristics: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, water courses and panoramas.
Flower fields can be found across Hokkaido between April and October; with Furano being well known for its lavender fields. May showcases the lupines and tulips, and in June, blue salvia and poppies bloom. Late June brings lavender with sunflowers; and cosmos blossom in August. From September, yellow mustard and dahlias decorate the refreshing autumn season.
Cultures of Japan – geishas, sumo, manga drawing and pet cafés
Kyoto is the home of the geisha – or geiko, as they are known in the city. After a walk through the streets of Gion, enter a tea house and dine in the company of an apprentice geisha, known as a maiko. A guide will be on hand to interpret and give guidance on the often-subtle customs of this secretive world.
Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands and is home to most of the country’s volcanoes and, thus, the hot springs which are a key symbol of Japanese culture. Take a dip in the thermal waters at Noboribetsu.
Moving on to the quirky side of Japan – let a local expert introduce the weird and wonderful of Japanese culture in Tokyo. Visit a sumo stable, stop for a drink in a pet café, try your hand at manga cartoon art and drive a Mario cart around the city.
Soak and sleep – places to stay across the country
Hoshinoya Fuji offers luxury glamping on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi with views towards Mt Fuji – so rather than head onto the mountain itself for a sometimes rather touristy experience, admire it from afar.
A night or two in a traditional inn, known as a Ryokan, is an unmissable stop that offers traditional accommodation with rice paper screens, futon beds, Japanese robes and slippers. Relax in your private onsen bath before dinner is served – a traditional affair, with a colourful multi-course kaiseki meal.
Wildlife – snow monkeys and eagles
Japan’s Snow Monkeys, or Japanese Macaques, live in large social groups and can be observed up close. Jigokudani – which translates as ‘hell’s valley’, due to the steam and boiling water bubbling out of small crevices in the frozen ground – is where the resident Japanese Macaques like to soak. Whilst the monkeys are most numerous during the colder months, they can be observed all year round.
Elsewhere, on the island of Hokkaido, wildlife ranges from the red-crowned crane, Stellar’s sea eagle, red fox, sika deer amd brown bear.