Why a trip to Japan should be your next holiday

blooming cherry blossom trees over a river with a temple in the background. a man is poling a boat with passengers down the river.

Zoe Macfarlane

Posted July 19, 2022


With Japan’s borders finally opening after two long years, travellers can once again experience Japan’s unique culture, landscape, and attractions. The condition of re-entry? Travellers must come on a group tour.

Thankfully, RACV Members receive discounts on a range of Japanese tours, and as only limited countries are permitted to travel to Japan, it’s the perfect time to go. Japan is a country of contrasts, where ultra-modern and uber-traditional often sit side-by-side. Ancient temples neighbour hip shopping districts. Traditional restaurants vie for your trade next to quirky arcades. High-speed bullet trains whizz you past centuries-old monuments. It makes for a fascinating visit.

 


Ancient history

Japan is 15 million years old with evidence of early inhabitancy since 30,000 BC, and officially founded by Emperor Jimmu in 660 BC. While many believe Japan is its four main islands – Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku - there are actually close to 7,000, with 430 of those inhabited, making Japan the second-largest island nation in the world.

Whereas once Japan was under the rule of samurai warriors and has gone through the rise and fall of several emperors, today the Land of the Rising Sun is one of peace and neutrality. Japan is a homogenous nation of 130 million people, and its low crime rates increase the appeal of travelling here.

Japan’s culture is wholly unique, largely in thanks to the country’s closure for 217 years after influence from foreign countries was deemed problematic. It puts the past two year’s Japan closure into perspective; we’re lucky for such a warm welcome back already!

 

women in kimonos walking through a temple

Visiting a temple or shrine is a must on any Japanese itinerary. Image: Intrepid Travel


Rich culture

To experience the best of Japan, commit to include a diverse range of activities on tour. Visiting a temple or shrine is a must on any itinerary, not only to see its distinct architecture but for insights into Japanese two main religions, Shinto and Buddhism. The most popular temples include the stunning Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, Hokokuji Temple nestled amid a lush bamboo forest, and the iconic Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. To truly get to grips with Japanese religion, opt to stay overnight in a temple tatami room.

Tea ceremonies is so much more than about the sipping of cup of tea, it’s an insight into Japanese culture. Sadō – or the Way of the Tea – is a ceremonial approach to drinking green tea. It’s laden with rituals and formality that are fun to learn about, as well as improving one's mindfulness.

 

a Japanese woman wearing a kimono performing a tea ceremony

Witnessing a traditional tea ceremony is an unmissable event when touring Japan. Image: Shutterstock


Beautiful scenery

Japan’s four seasons are distinct, with each offering a standalone reason to visit. In spring, the cherry blossom transforms the landscape into a fairy-tale-like scene. Autumn transforms the national parks with expansive hues of orange and red as far as the eye can see. And the chilly climes and mountainous landscape make winter a drawcard for ski and snowboard lovers. Japan is considered the best ski destination in Asia, in fact.

Japan’s predominantly mountainous landscape (over 80% of the landmass) offers ample opportunities to get outdoors and hike, bike, camp, kayak, canyon, fish and more. As 67% of Japan is forested, there are some outstanding regions to explore. The Sagano bamboo forest of Arashiyama is one of the most breathtaking. Aokigahara Forest wows with its eerie vibes, and hiking the iconic symmetrical Mt Fuji draws visitors globally.

As you may expect from an island nation, Japan has plenty of gorgeous coastlines, including stunning white-sand beaches and marine-rich aquamarine waters to explore by snorkel or scuba. The beautiful islands of Okinawa wow, especially Mikayo-jima and Sunset Beach. The rock formations of Jōdogahama instantly drop your stress levels, and for surfers, Shirahama Beach is a drawcard.

 

pristine coastline in okinawa

Japan has plenty of gorgeous coastlines, including Okinawa. Image: Shutterstock


Delectable food

While Japan is the 11th most populous country, it ranks second for its seafood consumption. Unsurprising when you consider how delectable the Japanese staple of sushi is. Sushi dates 2,000 years, and, across Japan, you can find it everywhere, from convenience stores to train stations to top restaurants. Dine at some of the country’s top sushi restaurants, like Sugita Nihonbashi-Kaigaracho and Sawada in Tokyo, and, if possible, find a tour that includes a sushi cooking class.

A lesser-known popular Japanese dish is okonomiyaki. This savoury pancake meal is cooked fresh on a teppan and topped with the thick okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, and pickled ginger. There are two types of okonomiyaki – the thick doughy version from Osaka, and the thinner Hiroshima version with yakisoba (fried noodles). Visit both cities to taste-test each and choose your winner.

It would be remiss to talk about Japanese food and omit nattō. This very healthy fermented soybean dish is often compared to Vegemite as it is a polarising breakfast dish with extreme fans and even more extreme critics. Be brave and give it a try while touring Japan.

snow monkeys bathing in hot springs

Watching snow monkeys bathing in hot springs is an image that will stay with you forever. Image: Shutterstock


Only in Japan

A trip to the Land of the Rising Sun is not complete until you’ve experienced one of the country’s only-in-Japan activities, such as sumo wrestling, one of Japan’s oldest sports! Rife with rituals (often based in Shintoism), this is more than just a martial art. It feels part sport, part ceremony, part performance.

If you typically enjoy including a show on your travels, consider attending a Noh drama, a slow and poetic performance. Noh is the oldest surviving form of Japanese theatre, involving dance, music and acting, and it’s typically performed about Japanese legend or literature.

While a good soak is part of many cultures, the Japanese onsen stands apart thanks to the communal nature of the baths (often split by gender), the healing properties of the water, and that many onsens are deep in the forest to connect you to nature. If you want to experience a truly Japanese onsen phenomenon, consider visiting Jigokudani to see snow monkeys (macaques) bathing in hot springs.

 


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