Japan is one of the most popular holiday destinations on the planet – especially among younger travellers. Japan may not be as geographically big as some of its rivals, but it packs a real wealth of scenes between its shores. From beautifully preserved tradition to visions of the future, this is a country which repays the time you spend there with a lifetime of memories unlike anywhere else.
For those who want to engage with the historic spirit of the country, its stunning former capital is the best place to start. Home to the Emperor’s residence for over a thousand years, the city contains some of Japan’s most magnificent palaces, temples and housing districts.
The Imperial Palace sits in a graceful park with gravel paths winding between cherry trees and island shrines. While it’s not possible to enter most of the buildings in the complex, external tours are available to give visitors insights into their history and architecture.
But every bit as arresting is the Higashiyama District, which allows tourists to immerse themselves in the daily life of the city as it played out in the streets and commercial establishments. These shops still serve customers today, and offer a wonderfully atmospheric location to pick up souvenirs such as local pottery, crafts and sweets.
It may seem obvious, but talking about Japan without mentioning its current capital – one of the biggest and most advanced cities in the world – would be a real oversight. Tokyo is an essential part of any Japanese tour – for a number of varied reasons.
Perhaps its most famous area – celebrated in pop songs and photo-books – is Harajuku, the bustling shopping district. Many of its boutiques have themselves been designed by famous architects while, moving inside, you’ll find their spaces bursting with the unimaginable variety of Japan’s pop culture product lines. And, perhaps best of all, such is the popularity of the area that the locals who frequent it will provide a real-time fashion show – from the elegant to the outrageous.
Another essential district to visit is Shinjuku, often used as the location for shots of Tokyo by night – not surprising since it’s precisely the place to go for the capital’s wild, neon-lit nightlife.
Among the traditional highlights to catch while you’re in town are sumo battles at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan stadium, or a theatrical performance at the Kabukiza (remember to rent a headset for a live translation – unless you speak the language).
For a very different experience – and one that owes more to nature than the many undoubted achievements of Japanese society – head to the southern islands collectively known as Okinawa (a name also shared by the largest of them).
It’s one of the most popular places for the Japanese themselves to holiday, and you’ll soon see why – reliably subtropical weather, countless beaches and an unspoilt ocean. If such relaxing beauty is still not enough, there are jungles and coral reefs to explore – and wildlife from turtles to eagles you won’t see elsewhere in Japan.
Meanwhile, journeying to the islands further out will bring you into contact with the Ryukyu, a people whose long-standing links to the Chinese and Taiwanese has led to a unique hybrid culture.
And for a bonus…
The Secret Traveller over at 1Cover has highlighted Appi as a lesser-known destination that’s well worth a visit. If you’re looking for an authentic Japanese experience, you’ll certainly find it here – this ski resort is almost exclusively visited by locals, making for a peaceful skiing experience and a perfect opportunity to practise your Japanese.