With one foot in the future and a firm grip on its past, beneath Japan’s dazzling skyscrapers and snow-capped mountains are Shinto shrines and red-lipped Geishas. Come for the hot sake and fiery mustard, the neon streets of Tokyo and the cobbled alleys of Kyoto. Visit during winter’s powdery snow or spring’s pink blossoms, experience the lush green of summer or the rich red of autumn.
Japan’s capital runs like clockwork – trains are on time, food is refined and the streets are clean and crime free. A city that’s always one step ahead, skyscrapers sparkle, neon signs flash and trend-setting locals flaunt the latest fashions. Yet beneath the sparkle, Tokyo is rooted in tradition and populated by people who celebrate with everything from lantern festivals and bean-scattering ceremonies to cherry-blossom parties.
While many districts are hi-tech and high-rise, nip down an alley and you’ll discover wooden houses and bonsai gardens, crumbling temples and gilded shrines. To get to grips with this city of extremes, join the locals in their cat cafes and karaoke bars, chow down on freshly grilled yakitori or slurp steaming bowls of soba noodles and raise a glass of sake in an ultra-chic bar.
Two hours from Tokyo, Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park is home to hot springs, clear lakes and the iconic peak of Mount Fuji. Visit for a day to stroll around Fuji’s base, soak in a public bath and gulp down the fresh air, or stay longer to sleep in a traditional ryokan, cruise across Lake Ashi and smell sulphuric steam curling from the craters at Owakudani Boiling Valley.
Ride a cable-car through the reserve for panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and snow-dusted slopes of Mount Fuji. While many visitors are content with photos, it’s possible to hike to Fuji’s peak, staying overnight in a hut. Often shrouded in mist, clear views can’t be guaranteed but the achievement of reaching the country’s apex is reward enough.
The country’s cultural and historic heartland of Kansai is home to the contrasting cities of Osaka and Kyoto – two settlements which tell different stories of Japan. Fast-paced yet easygoing, fun-loving Osaka gives a glimpse of everyday Japan, with its neon signs and octopus dumplings, live music and long office hours.
A 30-minute bullet train away, the Zen gardens and wooden townhouses of Kyoto couldn’t be more different. Japan’s imperial capital for more than 1,000 years, this compact city is home to kimono-wearing Geisha’s and ornate Shinto shrines. Stay a few days to experience the Buddhist temples and the famous Golden Pavilion, and for the fullest experience, book into a traditional ryokan inn, complete with tatami mat floors and sliding paper screens.
A city that’s synonymous with the 1945 atomic bomb, Hiroshima is crisscrossed with waterways and dotted with parks. Rumble through the reconstructed streets on a tram or cycle to the castle, stopping off at the art museums to browse works by Renoir and Andy Warhol. Before you go, pay your respects at the Peace Park and A-Bomb Dome, where you can’t help but reflect on the horrors of nuclear attack.
Hop on a ferry and sail across Hiroshima Bay to Miyajima – a small island of mountains, maple trees and wild deer. Get ready to photograph the floating shrine gate of Itsukushima-jinja and the world’s largest rice scoop, or hike to the top of Mount Misen for panoramic views across the Seto Inland Sea.
A two-hour train ride from Tokyo, the Japanese Alps promise fresh mountain air and a slower pace of life. Ancient Matsumoto is a good place to start, with its unusual castle, cafes and craft shops, while Tsumago is home to traditional Edo-era houses. Take a trip to a wasabi farm, visit a vineyard, or experience the mineral springs of Yudanaka Onsen, where you can soak in a thermal pool or watch the wild monkeys.
Come in spring or summer for mountain biking and white-water rafting, or you could hike into the mountains, stroll through pine forests and take a cable-car to the glacial lakes. Alternatively, come in winter and click on your skis or crank up your bindings to float through feather-light powder in the former Olympic resorts.