Two weeks is the minimum needed to skim the surface of what Japan can offer. The capital, Tokyo, and the former imperial city and thriving cultural centre of Kyoto, will be top of most visitors’ lists of where to go, and deservedly so, but you could avoid the cities entirely and head to the mountains or smaller islands to discover an alternative side of the country, away from the most heavily beaten tourist tracks.
It would be easy enough to spend two weeks just in Tokyo. The metropolis is home to some of the world’s most ambitious architecture, stylish shops and internationally celebrated restaurants and bars – as well as glimpses of traditional Japan at scores of temples, shrines and imperial gardens. Consider also taking in a couple of the city’s surrounding attractions, in particular the historic towns of Nikkō, home to the amazing Tōshō-gū shrine complex, and Kamakura, with its giant Buddha statue and tranquil woodland walks.
Northern Honshū sees surprisingly few overseas visitors, but its sleepy villages and relaxed cities deserve to be better known. The Golden Hall of Hiraizumi more than justifies the journey, and can be easily combined with the islet-sprinkled Matsushima Bay or rural Tōno. The region is also known for its vibrant summer festivals, notably those at Sendai, Aomori, Hirosaki and Akita, and for its sacred mountains, including Dewa-sanzan, home to a sect of ascetic mountain priests, and the eerie, remote wastelands of Osore-zan.
Further north, across the Tsugaru Straits, Hokkaidō is Japan’s final frontier, with many national parks including the outstanding Daisetsu-zan National Park, offering excellent hiking trails over mountain peaks and through soaring rock gorges. The lovely far northern islands of Rebun-tō and Rishiri-tō are ideal summer escapes. Hokkaidō’s most historic city is Hakodate, with its late nineteenth-century wooden houses and churches built by expat traders, while its modern capital, Sapporo, is home to the raging nightlife centre of Suskino and the original Sapporo Brewery. Winter is a fantastic time to visit and catch Sapporo’s amazing Snow Festival and go skiing at some of Japan’s top resorts including Niseko.
Skiing, mountaineering and soaking in hot springs are part of the culture of Central Honshū, an area dominated by the magnificent Japan Alps. Both the old castle town of Matsumoto, and Nagano, with its atmospheric temple of pilgrimage, Zenkō-ji, can be used as a starting point for exploring the region. Highlights include the tiny mountain resort of Kamikōchi and the immaculately preserved Edo-era villages of Tsumago and Magome, linked by a short hike along the remains of a 300-year-old stone-paved road. Takayama deservedly draws many visitors to its handsome streets lined with merchant houses and temples, built by generations of skilled carpenters. In the remote neighbouring valleys you’ll find the rare thatched houses of Ogimachi, Suganuma and Ainokura, remnants of a fast-disappearing rural Japan.
On the Sea of Japan coast, the historic city of Kanazawa is home to Kenroku-en, one of Japan’s best gardens, and the stunning 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. Nagoya, on the heavily industrialized southern coast, is a more manageable city than Tokyo or Ōsaka, and has much to recommend it, including the fine Tokugawa Art Museum and many great places to eat. The efficient new airport nearby also makes the city a good alternative entry point. From Nagoya it’s a short hop to the pretty castle towns of Inuyama and Gifu, which holds summer displays of the ancient skill of ukai, or cormorant fishing.
South of the Japan Alps, the Kansai plains are scattered with ancient temples, shrines and the remnants of imperial cities. Kyoto, custodian of Japan’s traditional culture, is home to its most refined cuisine, classy ryokan, glorious gardens, and magnificent temples and palaces. Nearby Nara is a more manageable size but no slouch when it comes to venerable monuments, notably the great bronze Buddha of Tōdai-ji and Hōryū-ji’s unrivalled collection of early Japanese statuary. The surrounding region contains a number of still-thriving religious foundations, such as the highly atmospheric temples of Hiei-zan and Kōya-san, the revered Shinto shrine Ise-jingū, and the beautiful countryside pilgrimage routes of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kumano region.
Not all of Kansai is so rarefied, though. The slightly unconventional metropolis of Ōsaka has an easy-going atmosphere and boisterous nightlife, plus several interesting sights. Further west, the port of Kōbe offers a gentler cosmopolitan atmosphere, while Himeji is home to Japan’s most fabulous castle, as well as some impressive modern gardens and buildings.
For obvious reasons Hiroshima is the most visited location in Western Honshū. On the way there, pause at Okayama to stroll around one of Japan’s top three gardens, Kōraku-en, and the appealingly preserved Edo-era town of Kurashiki. The beauty of the Inland Sea, dotted with thousands of islands, is best appreciated from the idyllic fishing village of Tomonoura, the port of Onomichi and the relaxed islands of Nao-shima, Ikuchi-jima and Miya-jima.
Crossing to the San-in coast, the castle town of Hagi retains some handsome samurai houses and atmospheric temples, only surpassed by even more enchanting Tsuwano, further inland. One of Japan’s most venerable shrines, Izumo Taisha, lies roughly midway along the coast, near the lake- and seaside city of Matsue, home to the region’s only original castle.
Location for Japan’s most famous pilgrimage, a walking tour around 88 Buddhist temples, Shikoku also offers dramatic scenery in the Iya valley and along its rugged coastline. Its largest city, Matsuyama, has an imperious castle and the splendidly ornate Dōgo Onsen Honkan – one of Japan’s best hot springs. There’s also the lovely garden Ritsurin-kōen in Takamatsu and the ancient Shinto shrine at Kotohira.
The southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, Kyūshū is probably best known for Nagasaki, an attractive and cosmopolitan city that has overcome its terrible war-time history. Hikers and onsen enthusiasts should head up into the central highlands, where Aso-san’s smouldering peak dominates the world’s largest volcanic crater, or to the more southerly meadows of Ebino Kōgen. So much hot water gushes out of the ground in Beppu, on the east coast, that it’s known as Japan’s hot-spring capital. Fukuoka, on the other hand, takes pride in its innovative modern architecture and an exceptionally lively entertainment district.
Okinawa comprises more than a hundred islands stretching in a great arc from southern Kyūshū to within sight of Taiwan. An independent kingdom until the early seventeenth century, traces of the island’s distinctive, separate culture still survive. The beautifully reconstructed former royal palace dominates the capital city, Naha, but the best of the region lies on its remoter islands. This is where you’ll find Japan’s most stunning white-sand beaches and its best diving, particularly around the subtropical islands of Ishigaki and Iriomote.