Where to eat, play and stay in the land of the rising sun.
Bright neon lights entice you at each and every turn, temples and shrines appear in the most unassuming spaces and kimono-clad geishas walk casually alongside Harajuku girls, genderless kei boys and business suits in the streets. This is Japan.
Venture away from the cities and you’ll be graced with the country’s natural beauty: there are mountains destined to be climbed during summer and skied during winter, cherry blossoms bathe nearby waterways in glorious colour, forests of bamboo kiss the skies and natural hot springs steam invitingly.
Fascinated? You should be. Read on to see how to do and see Japan without regrets.
- Main airports: Tokyo Narita Airport (NRT), Tokyo Haneda Airport (HND), Osaka International Airport (ITM).
- On-ground transport: Metro, train, bus and trams (smaller cities).
- Weather: Japan experiences four seasons. Summers are rainy and humid with highs around 30℃. Winters in the cities can dip to 0℃ with the north generally experiencing colder temperatures than the south. Expect snow in mountainous areas.
- Visas: Not required for Australians on holidays for less than 90 days.
- Top 10 must see: Mount Fuji, Golden Pavilion, Tokyo Imperial Palace, Meiji Shrine, Todaiji, Harajuku, Fushimi Inari-Taisha, Jigokudani Monkey Park, Ghibli Museum and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
- Plugs: Type A (two pins).
- Currency: Japanese Yen (JPY).
Best places to stay in Japan
Tokyo: Japan’s bustling capital is a must-visit. Staying in the thick of it is not difficult as each of its 47 neighbourhoods is as action-packed, colourful and accessible as the next thanks to the city’s extraordinary metro system. Popular neighbourhoods include entertainment district Shibuya, expat and party mecca Shinjuku, fashionable Ginza, quirky Harajuku, artificial island Odaiba, traditional Asakusa, tech-heavy Akihabara and hipster Shimokitazawa. From Tokyo you can reach Mount Fuji, Fuji-Q, Jigokudani Monkey Park and Yuzawa ski resorts.
Osaka: Japan’s second largest city is a gateway to Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima. The city itself is well-worth visiting for its nightlife and food. The main Dotonbori Street is a sensory overload with restaurants serving traditional cuisines and iconic interactive signs to light the way.
Kyoto: The former capital of Japan is a flashback to a bygone era. It served as the seat of the emperor's residence from 794-1868 and maintains many traditions and cultures from those times. Kyoto’s Gion district is particularly famous for its kaiseki dining options, geisha shows and Buddhist temples.
Hiroshima: Steeped in history, the city of Hiroshima has grown from strength to strength since being destroyed by an atomic bomb in World War II. Much of that era has been captured in museums and memorials.
Kobe: While traditional food experiences can be had all throughout Japan, religious carnivores should make the pilgrimage to Kobe to sup on the delectable marbled Kobe beef in its city of origin. Kobe also offers a beautiful harbour setting, mountainous landscapes and some of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines.
Sapporo: This city on the island of Hokkaido is a popular destination during winter as it’s the gateway to popular ski resorts Niseko and Furano. During winter it hosts the Sapporo Snow Festival where gigantic ice sculptures overrun the town in a magical winter wonderland.
Okinawa: Seeking a beachside holiday? Japan actually has some incredible subtropical beaches. Okinawa Prefecture in Japan’s south is the resort town that locals hightail it to in the peak of summer. Comprised of over 150 islands, it boasts an enviable tropical landscape of sand, surf and reef as well as World War II sites.
Check out what accommodation is like in these cities:
Top things to do in Japan
- Set eyes on Mount Fuji: See it from afar, climb it, drive it or helicopter ride over it. It’s practically the symbol of Japan, so don’t leave the country without setting eyes or feet on it.
- Marvel at cherry blossoms in bloom: Visit Japan during April to see cherry blossoms in bloom.
- Learn a traditional craft: From origami and calligraphy to how to roll sushi like a pro, there’s nothing more rewarding than an immersive experience in Japan. Plus, you’ll come back home knowing a new craft – bonus!
- Relax in an onsen: A popular pastime in Japan is to relax in an onsen. These hot spring baths are separated by gender as traditionally you can only enter in the buff. Touristic onsens are available where you may enter in swimwear.
- See snow monkeys: A short distance from Tokyo you’ll find the cutest snow monkeys warming up inside natural hot springs. It’s the perfect photo opp.
- Experience a Japanese tea ceremony: Learn about the history of green tea in Japan followed by a Japanese lunch.
- Drink sake: Sake is a traditional rice wine in Japan and can be drunk hot or cold. You can find it at practically every restaurant.
- See Nara and Kyoto in a day: This is one of the most popular day trips from Osaka and combines Nara’s deer park and its giant Buddha statues with the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto.
- Climb Osaka Castle: This impressive fortress towers over Osaka and was fundamental during the unification of Japan in the 16th century.
- Stay in a ryokan: Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns and are a luxurious and fun experience. They feature sliding doors, tatami matted rooms and communal baths.
- Watch a sumo wrestling tournament: Sumo wrestling is considered to be Japan’s national sport and should be on your bucket list to witness in real life.
- Go to samurai school: Yes, you can learn how to be a samarai in Japan.
- Be a ninja: You can also learn how to be a ninja.
- Attend a robot show: There’s no end to novelties in Japan and for those who want to get their geek on, a robot show hits the spot.
- Walk through Gion in a kimono: Have some fun and kit yourself up in a kimono and wander through Kyoto’s Gion district like a true geisha.
- Be a kid at the Studio Ghibli Museum: Japan is arguably the home of anime and one of the biggest names in the field is Ghibli. This museum has everything from exclusive footage and storyboards to giant statues of the studio’s popular characters.
Best events to attend in the year
- Japanese New Year: While Japan still recognises the Lunar New Year, its official new year celebration follows the Gregorian calendar. On 31 December the country’s Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times, mochis are made and locals send New Year's postcards to one another. 31 December-1 January.
- Gion Matsuri: The most impressive feature of this festival is its 20-metre tall floats. During the day, these are parading through the Gion district. At night, they’re put to bed to give way to food stalls and street entertainment. Kyoto, 1-31 July.
- Sapporo Snow Festival: This sculpture festival features ice and snow sculptures throughout the city. Sapporo, annually over one week in February.
- Cherry blossom season: By far the most picturesque event on the calendar is cherry blossom season. Majestic rows of trees flank river banks and dress the land in a soft bed of fallen pink petals. Annually around April.
How much will a trip to Japan cost?
- Budget: Hostels and sleeping capsules: From AUD$15 per person, per night.
- Moderate: Moderate hotels: From AUD$71 per person, per night.
- Luxury: 5-star hotels and ryokans: From AUD$209 per person, per night.
- Main: A bowl of ramen in a restaurant is ¥700-¥1,000 while a bowl of soba can go down to ¥200-¥700.
- Beer: A Kirin or Sapporo beer from the supermarket is ¥100-200. In a bar small beers start from ¥300.
- Sake: Starts from ¥600 in an izakaya (Japanese drinking den).
- Uber: An Uber from Tokyo Narita International Airport to the city is approximately ¥27,000. Only uberBLACK and vans are available for this route.
- Taxis from the airport: Taxis run on fixed fares and cost ¥22,000-¥22,500 from Narita Airport to the city.
- Local transport from the airport: Buses, trains and shuttles service Narita International Airport. Buses and shuttles start from ¥900 while trains start from ¥1,200.
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