Japan is a fascinating country that is both ancient and modern, heavily populated yet home to seriously spectacular mountains, lakes, and oceans. Hiking, scuba diving, and skiing are among the outdoor adventures you can enjoy, and there are plenty of places to choose to do these activities, from the rugged Japan Alps to the wilds of Hokkaido to the tropical seas of Okinawa.
But Japan isn’t only great for its beautiful nature. The culture and history is rich and unlike anywhere else in the world. While much of the cultural heritage was destroyed in WWII, there are still gems like the cities of Kyoto and Nara, as well as pockets of history elsewhere. Plus, it’s interesting to see how Japan arose out of the destruction of the war to becoming one of the richest nations in the world by the late 20th century. Whatever you’re into -- nature, culture, or a combination -- you’ll find it in Japan in abundance.
Hiking & Trekking
Japan is a hiker’s dream. The country is home to an enormous mountain chain (the Japan Alps) that runs through its central island, Honshu, as well as numerous volcanos, hilly areas, woodlands, and national parks. Whether you’re just after a day hike as respite from the bustle of Tokyo, or an epic multi-day trek, Japan has something for you.
Despite being one of the largest cities in the world, it is surprisingly easy to get out into nature from Tokyo and go on a vigorous (or more gentle) hike. Nikko, Fuji-go-ko, and Chichibu are perfect places for a day or weekend excursion from Tokyo.
The southern island of Shikoku is home to the ancient Pilgrim’s Trail, a circular Buddhist route of 750 miles. There are 88 temples on the trail, and you can either complete the whole thing, or just dip into it, depending on the amount of time you have.
Skiing & Snowboarding
As a mountainous country, it should be no surprise that there are fantastic skiing opportunities in Japan. Although the activity is not cheap in this country, the quality of services and ski fields is high.
The northern island of Hokkaido is a particularly good place to go skiing. The island sees large snowfall in the winter due to its proximity to Siberia. Other snow and ice activities are also possible here. For a truly memorable experience, time your Hokkaido skiing trip with a visit to the Sapporo Snow Festival, held annually in February. Master craftspeople carve amazing sculptures into the ice.
You may not think of Japan as a prime sea vacation destination, but the string of Okinawan Islands to the south, on the way to Taiwan, are prime scuba diving territory. With 160 islands to choose from, there is plenty of variety -- as well as peace and quiet -- in Okinawa.
Divers love the clear waters, caves, tunnels, drops, and World War II-era wrecks of Okinawa. In terms of sealife, the schools of hammerhead sharks off Kume Island are a particular attraction, although perhaps not for the feint of heart!
Culture & History Tours
Japan is an ancient country with futuristic aspirations. You can appreciate quiet temples that are hundreds of years old in the morning, and go shopping for high-tech gadgets in the afternoon. Whatever kind of culture and history (or modernity!) you’re interested in, Japan is sure to be of interest to you.
Japan sustained a great deal of damage in World War II, and a lot of old buildings, temples, and neighborhoods were destroyed. However, parts of Kyoto remain very well preserved, so a visit to this city in western Honshu is a must for Japanese culture and history enthusiasts.
Onsen (Spa) Tours
Although similar to the Turkish bath or Middle Eastern hammam, the Japanese onsen is a tradition that is also quite specific to this country. Nobody should visit Japan without trying an onsen at least once! You may even find yourself becoming addicted!
Onsen are hot spring baths, often located in beautiful natural settings, such as in caves or by the side of a stream. There are rules and etiquette as long as your arm that you should be sure to follow before indulging in an onsen, but once you’ve figured these out, you should just lie back, relax, and enjoy the blend of bodily rejuvenation and culture.
Planning Your Trip
Best Time to Visit Japan
In general, Japan has hot, humid summers and cold, snowy winters, as well as distinct spring and fall seasons. Hokkaido in the north gets particularly cold in winter, and Okinawa in the south is warm year-round. The best times to visit Japan are the spring and fall for most activities, unless you’re wanting to go skiing.
The Japanese people are particularly fanatical about flower and fall-leaves viewing. If you visit in spring or fall, seek out flower and leaf-viewing activities in your area.
What to Look for in a Tour
Japan can be an expensive country to travel in, even as an independent traveler, so joining a well-selected organized tour could help you maximize your dollar and your time.
There’s a lot of diversity within Japan, from the mega-cities of Tokyo and Osaka, the cultural centres of Kyoto and Nara, the ski fields of Hokkaido, the tropical islands of Okinawa, the remote and often overlooked Shikoku, the Japan Alps… choosing the right tour for you will depend on what you want to see and do. Choosing a cultural or activity-based tour is the best way of narrowing down your options.
Language barriers can be an issue in Japan, so joining an English-language tour can help you navigate this problem and ensure you don’t miss out on anything.
Average Tour Cost
Japan is not a cheap country to travel in, and accommodation, transport, and food can all cost as much -- if not more -- than they would at home. Tours are likewise not cheap, but given language barriers, you may find that traveling with a tour will help you maximize your time in Japan so you don’t waste time figuring out how to get from A to B.
A nine-day culturally oriented tour with a well-reputed tour organizer will cost around $2000. A more in-depth two-week tour that includes onsen and winter activities in Hokkaido will cost around $4500.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
As Japan is very hot and humid in the summer, and cold in the winter, it’s important to pack appropriately for the conditions. If you’re into shopping, you’ll likely want to leave some space in your bags for some Japanese fashions and souvenirs. However, prices aren’t cheap, so don’t leave home without your winter coat or bikini if you know you’ll be needing these items!
If you need any specialist equipment (such as skis or dive equipment) on a tour, your tour provider will usually provide these; be sure to check that the prices are included in the cost of the tour. Items like hiking boots or wet-weather clothing should usually be brought from home, as these will cost a lot in Japan, and you’ll want to make sure that boots are broken in before you go for any hikes.
English is not widely spoken or understood in Japan, and outside of cities, signs will not be transliterated into Roman script either. While almost all people nowadays learn English at school, the national character makes them quite reticent to speak English, on the whole. It’s important not to expect to rely on English at all once you leave Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto -- even in those cities, you’ll need a bit of Japanese if you want to eat where the locals eat, or experience non-touristy activities.
It’s recommended that you learn a few Japanese phrases before arriving in Japan, and learn to read some of the most common Japanese words. Joining an organized tour with an English-speaking guide may be particularly attractive to some travellers for this reason.
Health & Safety
No particular vaccinations are required before traveling to Japan, as it is a developed first-world country with a generally healthy population.
It is important to have proper travel insurance, however. Japanese health care is very expensive, and most Japanese citizens are covered through workplace schemes (much like in the USA). If anything should happen to you while you’re traveling in Japan that requires hospitalization, you’d end up with a very hefty bill.
Japan is a very safe country -- more so, in fact, that almost anywhere in the world. Random violent crime is extremely rare, as is petty crime and theft.
Women, however, should beware if traveling on crowded public transport. Japan has a serious problem with men with probing hands on crowded trains. If you feel that someone is touching you inappropriately, they probably are. Although Japanese people are usually reticent to make a fuss in public, sexual harassment on trains is an exception, and you should speak up.