Your full Wanderlust guide to


Nachi Taisha, Japan (Shutterstock)

From skyscraper-clad cities and golden-hued temples to endless bamboo forests and blossom-carpeted mountains, Japan dazzles at every turn. It is also vast, spanning five main islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa) and 3,000km from tip to tail. Yet cultural ties run through it that bind even neon-drenched Tokyo with the most remote of the sub-tropical Okinawa islands.

Japan bridges ancient and modern culture like no other country. Those in search of traditional life will discover it everywhere from the geisha-led tea ceremonies of Kyoto and the communities of female Ama divers in Shima to the shrine-packed pilgrim trails of Kumano. And then there’s the food. No other country in the world has as many Michelin stars, but even in the humblest of small-town izakaya you can still taste flavours that will blow your mind.  

It’s this variety that makes Japan almost overwhelming, especially to first-timers. Away from the galleries and museums of the big cities, shinkansen bullet trains can whisk you from the far north, where sea eagles hunt among the ice floes and red-crowned cranes dance in the marshes, down past the Japanese Alps and onsen-bathing macaques of Jigokudani, to Edo-period castles, UNESCO-listed villages of thatched gassho houses and small communities only now opening up their homes to visitors. There is nowhere quite like it. 

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When to go to Japan

Japan is spectacular at any time of year, and choosing when to go ultimately comes down to what you want to see and do while you’re there.

High season runs between March and May. This is a great time to catch the picture-perfect pink cherry blossoms in full bloom, though this will also depend on where you are on the islands. You can see them as early as February in the deep south, whereas they can blossom as late as May up in Hokkaido.

It can be hot and humid in the summer months (Jun–Aug), when the slopes of the Japanese Alps and cooler climate of the far north offer a welcome breeze. If you’re looking to go hiking, travel between September and November, when temperatures are mild and the autumn maples paint the hills of Honshu a blushing red.

For a snowy escape, arrive between January and February. It’s also a good time to catch the country’s many fire-based festivals – look out for Wakakusa Yamayaki in January, when the grassy hillsides of Nara are set spectacularly ablaze.

International airports

The biggest international airports on Honshu are Tokyo’s Narita (NRT), 80km east of the capital, and Haneda (HND; 20km); Kansai (KIX), about 40km from the centre of Osaka; and Chubu Centrair (NGO), about 50km from Nagoya. On Hokkaido, New Chitose (CTS) lies 50km from Sapporo; on Kyushu, Fukuoka Airport is the main entry point; and in the far south, Naha (OKA) is the hub for the Okinawa Islands.

Getting around in Japan

Japan has one of the most sophisticated rail networks in the world, and its shinkansen (bullet trains) offer a fast, greener alternative to flying. The cheapest option is to buy a Japan Rail Pass, which come in seven-, 14- and 21-day tickets; these can be bought in advance online or via a travel agent and offer unlimited travel on most JR trains nationwide. There are also a number of regional rail passes that offer unlimited travel in specific areas.

Japan has a wide network of buses (and night buses) that cover more rural destinations than the rail network, though if you’re travelling by road, you might as well drive. Rural areas in Hokkaido, Kyushu, Okinawa and the more remote peninsulas are far easier to explore under your own steam. Hire cars are reasonably priced, though you may require an authorised translation of your driving licence.

Japan stretches for more than 3,000km from tip to tip, so internal flights are often the easiest way to travel between the five main islands. Multiple ferry routes also operate here, with the Kagoshima to Naha (Okinawa) route among the most useful, if time-consuming; it takes around 25 hours to reach the southern islands by boat.

Health & safety

There are no major health concerns when visiting Japan; it is also one of the safest countries in the world when it comes to crime.

Typhoon season is typically between May and October, with August and September being the peak months. Earthquakes and tremors are also common, due to Japan’s location on shifting tectonic plates, though the reality is that most of them are so mild that they simply go unnoticed.

Driving some of the more remote mountain roads in Hokkaido or Tohoku in winter can be hazardous if you’re not used to it, or don’t have winter tyres or snow chains, so bear in mind before setting off.

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