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Visit Japan in 2023: A fascinating blend between ancient tradition and modern innovation

Blooming cherry blossom tree in front of Japanese temples

Move through time at this one-of-a-kind destination

Japan is a country of contradictions. On the one hand, it's a high-tech, futuristic society, with gleaming skyscrapers, advanced transportation systems, and cutting-edge technology. On the other hand, it's also home to many ancient temples, shrines, and traditional gardens, which offer a glimpse into the country's long and storied past. This contrast between the old and the new can be seen in everyday life in Japan, where traditional customs and practices coexist alongside the latest innovations. In other words, Japan is the perfect destination for anyone who wants to experience the best of both worlds.

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What about the language barrier?
While many people in Japan, especially those working in the service industry, have some basic English language skills, it is not uncommon for there to be misunderstandings or difficulty communicating due to the major differences between English and Japanese. That being said, Japan is a very welcoming and hospitable country, and many people will go out of their way to try and help visitors, even if they do not speak the same language. Many signs and menus in Japan are also written in both Japanese and English. If you're concerned about the language barrier there are a few things you can do to make things easier like learning some basic Japanese phrases, carrying a translation device or app on your phone and possibly the best one: finding a local guide or booking a tour. One of our group tours can help you navigate the country and communicate with locals while also ensuring you learn much more about Japanese culture.

On the crossroad between history and modernism - literally

Possibly Tokyo's biggest hotspot is Shibuya Crossing, the busiest intersection in the entire world! Forget about Place Charles de Gaulle or Times Square: Shibuya Crossing is on another level entirely. Standing here underneath the brightly coloured digital billboards and soaring office buildings it couldn't feel more modern even if it tried. Looking at the displays of the shops around you totally supports this vibe. One of the most impressive feats of Japan is its focus on innovative technology. Everywhere you go, you will see the latest and greatest gadgets and gizmos on display. From high-speed trains to state-of-the-art robots, Japan is a haven for tech lovers. Few countries are as well-known and loved for their contributions to digital media as Japan, with the likes of the famous animators from Studio Ghibli and the masters of game design at Nintendo as shining examples.

But technology isn't the only thing making Japan stand out. All this modern tech highlights a stark contrast to the rich and fascinating history that is also tied to the country. With a historical background that spans thousands of years, Japan is home to countless ancient temples, shrines, and castles, which offer a glimpse into the country's past. From the towering gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto to the impressive Himeji Castle, there are countless historical sites to explore that have been around for hundreds of years. And in Tokyo, you can see the blend of old and new with traditional temples sitting alongside modern skyscrapers, big screen billboards and robot-themed restaurants.

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Ever tried sake?
If not, now is your chance! Sake has a long history in Japan and is deeply rooted in the country's culture and traditions. Trying sake is a great way to experience this aspect of Japanese culture. There are many different types of sake, each with its own unique flavour and characteristics. This means that there is likely to be a sake that suits your tastes, whether you prefer a dry or sweet, light or full-bodied sake. The best thing is that sake pairs well with most Japanese dishes, from sushi and sashimi to grilled meats and vegetables. It is an excellent choice for a drink to enjoy with your meal for a full foodgasm!

Foodies, get ready for your next culinary adventure

A BIG reason to travel to Japan is the food. Japanese cuisine is world-renowned for its freshness, flavour, and presentation, and it's a must-try for anyone visiting the country. From the delicate flavours of sashimi to the more unusual delicacies like natto (fermented soybeans), there's something for every taste palate in Japan. And don't even get us started on the delicious desserts, candy and snacks you can find at the many street food stalls, corner shops and markets scattered throughout the country.

One of the first things you'll notice about Japanese food is the emphasis on freshness and seasonality. Japanese chefs take pride in using the freshest ingredients, and many dishes are designed to showcase the flavours of the season. This means that no matter when you visit Japan, you'll be able to enjoy a wide variety of dishes that are at their peak flavour. Perhaps the most famous Japanese dish is sushi, and for good reason. Made with vinegared rice and a variety of toppings, including raw fish, sushi is both tasty and beautiful to look at. Whether you're a sushi aficionado or a newcomer to the world of raw fish, you'll be sure to find a sushi restaurant to suit your tastes in Japan.

If raw fish isn't your thing, don't worry – there are plenty of other amazing foods to try in Japan. Ramen, for example, is a hearty noodle soup that comes in a variety of flavours, from rich and savoury to spicy and tangy. And if you're a fan of grilled food, be sure to try yakitori, which is grilled chicken skewers that are often served with a soy-based dipping sauce. Another dish you won't want to miss is tempura, which is seafood or vegetables that are lightly battered and fried to crispy perfection. And if you're looking for something a little more substantial, don't miss the chance to try tonkatsu, which is breaded and fried pork cutlets served with a savoury sauce.

And of course, no trip to the land of the rising sun is complete without trying some of the country's delicious green tea. While on the topic of tea, you should consider joining in on a tea ceremony. The Japanese tea ceremony is a revered cultural tradition that involves the preparation and presentation of matcha, a finely ground green tea powder. This ritual, known as the "way of tea," emphasizes harmony, respect, purity, and tranquillity. Participants follow a strict set of rules and protocols in a small, intimate setting, often a tea room or garden. The tea ceremony is an opportunity to slow down and appreciate the present moment, connect with others, and find peace. It is a unique cultural experience not to be missed.

Exciting city life: from bustling streets to peaceful parks and temples

Since it is most likely you'll enter Japan via one of its biggest cities, let's get those out of the way next. They are all worth a visit, so consider this list order as random. Kyoto, located in the central part of the country, is known for its rich history and traditional culture. The city was the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years, and as a result, it is home to many historical temples, shrines, and other cultural sites. Some of the most popular attractions in Kyoto include the Kinkakuji Temple, the Gion District, and the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Tokyo, the capital of Japan, is a bustling metropolis that is known for its modernity and technology. In addition to being a centre of business and finance, The city is also home to many cultural attractions, including the Tokyo Skytree, the Meiji Shrine with its peaceful atmosphere, and the Tsukiji Fish Market. Tokyo has many different neighbourhoods, each one with its own unique character and charm, and wandering through them is a great way to get a feel for the city. From buzzing and people-filled Shibuya (famous for Shibuya crossing, the busiest intersection in the world) to the magic of the Imperial Palace in the city centre. Funky Harajuku with its colourful cafes, cosplay shops and vintage clothing stores deserves a special mention. No trip to Tokyo would be complete without a visit to one of the city's many parks and gardens. The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, the Rikugien Garden, and the Hama-rikyu Garden are just a few of the city's many beautiful green spaces which are popular amongst locals and visitors, especially during the cherry blossom season in April, and in September, when the leaves turn bright orange and almost seem to glow in the autumn sunshine.

Osaka, located in the western part of Japan, is known for its food and entertainment. The city is famous for its lively atmosphere and its many restaurants, bars, and clubs. Some of the most popular attractions in Osaka include the Universal Studios Japan theme park, the Osaka Castle, and the Dotonbori area, which is the city's entertainment district. By day, it might not look like much, but when darkness falls it comes to life with an amazing display of bright lights and colour. There's plenty to see and do here,  like going on a river cruise by neon lights, visiting the ROR comedy club and emptying your wallet on the Shinsaibashi-suji shopping street. End with some great food from one of the many vendors or restaurants OR visit the Konamon museum for some authentic takoyaki. It's a great place to spend an evening or two while in Osaka.

Last but not least we'll introduce you to Hiroshima, a city loaded with history and a tragic past. As you might know, Hiroshima was the site of the first atomic bombing in history which destroyed the entire city centre. To make sure its tragic past will never be forgotten, Hiroshima is home to the Peace Memorial Park and the Peace Memorial Museum which are both popular attractions to learn about Japan in World War 2 and the fate of Hiroshima. It's not all doom and gloom though! Despite this dark history, the city has since rebuilt and is now a thriving metropolis with many attractions, including the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Shukkei-en Garden, and the Itsukushima Shrine on the serene and beautiful Miyajima island. Also, try to hop on one of the iconic streetcars rolling around the streets of Hiroshima. It's not the quickest way to get from place to place, but the streetcars are really part of Hiroshima's public transport and have been for a long time. Fun fact: after the bombing in 1945, it only took three days for the first streetcars to start running again. There are a few ones from this time period in service, even all these years later!

Japan's Natural Wonders - Experience the Beauty of Nature in Japan

Japan isn't just about cities and food – its natural beauty is also a major draw for travellers. From the snow-capped peaks of the Japanese Alps to the tranquil forests and gardens of Kyoto, there are countless stunning landscapes to explore in Japan. And if you're a fan of outdoor activities, you'll be pleased to know that Japan offers some of the best hiking, skiing, and snowboarding in the world.

For all that winter sports action, you need to visit Japan between late December and early April and head to the Japanese Alps, also called Nihon Arupusu. There's a wide array of ski resorts around, with the town of Hakuba alone already having seven of them. This town was the site of the 1998 Winter Olympic downhill skiing competition, so you'll be in good hands here. If you want to hit the slopes elsewhere we suggest Myoko Kogen or Minakami, two great spots for outdoor adventure in both summer and winter. 

Japan is a country full of natural wonders, many of which are still relatively unknown to the rest of the world. One of the most striking is Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan and an iconic symbol of the country. Located about 100 kilometres southwest of Tokyo, Mount Fuji is an active stratovolcano that last erupted in 1707. It stands tall at 3,776 meters (12,389 feet), making it one of the tallest mountains in the world. The mountain is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is considered one of the three holy mountains of Japan.

Another natural wonder of Japan is the Jigokudani Monkey Park, located in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture. This park is home to a large population of Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys. These monkeys are famous for their love of hot springs, and they can often be seen soaking in the park's natural hot springs during the cold winter months.

Japan is also home to some stunning waterfalls, including the Nachi Waterfall in Wakayama Prefecture. This waterfall is the tallest in Japan, standing at 133 meters (436 feet) tall. It is located near the Nachi-jinja Shrine, which is one of the oldest shrines in Japan.

Want to go the KILROY way and really get off the beaten path? Sure you do! Two of our favourite locations aren't really close to any of the big Japan highlights but boy are they stunning. First up is Akan Mashu National Park, which is home to some of the most beautiful lakes in the world. We've seen few places more serene than this. The downside is that Akan Mashu isn't on Honshu, but on the northern island of Hokkaido. You can get there by public transport, but it will involve some planning and extra time. If you don't feel like leaving Honshu, maybe the Shirakami-Sanchi mountain range is better suited to your tastes. Located up north on Japan's main island you can really get lost in the stunning greenery here. Its lush, bright green foliage and diverse plant and animal life are a sight to behold.

Fancy something unexpected a little bit closer to the big cities, then the Tottori sand dunes are for you. Not a part of the most popular Japan routes, but definitely worth your time for a bit of a detour. These 50-meter-high dunes are a part of Sanin Kaigan National Park and have taken shape over thousands of years. The sand was deposited into the ocean by the nearby Sendaigawa river and swept onto the shore by the ocean's currents. Avoid the tourist-trap camel rides, but climb the highest dunes for some stunning views to photograph, especially during golden hour. 

Four fun ways to get a look into the heart of Japanese culture

The Japanese are proud people and take their traditions very seriously. It's why you will still be able to see geisha in the streets of Kyoto, visit a sumo wrestling tournament or buy traditional kimonos (not just for tourists!). If you want to get in on some traditions yourself, there are plenty of ways to get involved. Here are a few:

  1. Go kimono shopping! In many Japanese cities, you'll find tailors creating a bespoke kimono just for your body and suited to your tastes. It's not only a great souvenir, but you can also wear it if you want to try #2 on our list.
  2. Practice the art of sword fighting: The samurai were skilled in the art of sword fighting, and many schools in Japan offer classes on the traditional sword fighting styles of the samurai. These classes can be a great way to learn about the history of the samurai and get some exercise at the same time.
  3. Visit a sumo stable: Sumo wrestlers, or rikishi, live and train in communal stables, known as heya. Some of these stables offer tours, where you can learn about the daily lives of the wrestlers and see the training facilities up close. Some stables even offer the opportunity to try it out yourself!
  4. Try on a sumo wrestler's mawashi: Many museums and cultural centres in Japan offer the opportunity to try on a sumo wrestler's traditional garment, known as a mawashi. This can be a fun and unique way to learn about sumo culture and get a sense of what it feels like to be a wrestler.

 

Bullet trains: the ultimate way to blast across the country

Okay, let's zip back to the modern day here. If you're planning a trip to Japan, one of the best ways to see the country is by train. With its world-class rail network, Japan offers some of the most scenic and enjoyable train rides on the planet. Here are just a few of the best rail journeys in Japan, and why you should consider travelling by train during your visit.

First of all, there's the Shinkansen, also known as the bullet train. This iconic high-speed train travels at speeds of up to 320 km/h (200 mph), making it one of the fastest trains in the world. With its comfortable seats, panoramic windows, and onboard dining options, the Shinkansen is a great way to travel between Japan's major cities, including Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.

In case you want to experience something a little bit slower, we recommend the scenic train ride through the Japanese Alps. This route takes you through the stunning mountain landscape of the Hida region, with sweeping views of snow-capped peaks, forests, and valleys. This journey includes several stops along the way, allowing you to disembark and explore the area on foot, or visit some of the region's traditional onsen (hot springs) resorts.

If you're a fan of Japanese culture, you should consider taking the Aso Boy! train, which travels through the picturesque countryside of Kumamoto prefecture. The train is decorated in the style of a traditional Japanese home, with sliding paper doors, tatami mats, and other traditional features. Along the way, the train stops at several cultural and historical attractions, including Aso Shrine and the ruins of Kumamoto Castle.

All of these are pretty special, but the most exclusive train journey in Japan is the one-of-a-kind Kyushu Seven Stars train. This luxurious train offers a truly unique way to explore the island of Kyushu, with its spacious cabins, gourmet dining, and panoramic windows. The train travels through some of the most beautiful scenery in Japan, including the picturesque Kirishima mountains and the historic city of Nagasaki. It's unaffordable for us regular people, but one can dream right?!

Ready to go?

This was a brief glimpse into what Japan has to offer, but there is so much more to discover. Too much for one blog really, so if you want to know more about creating your own adventure in the land of the rising sun we're here for you! Share your excitement with our Japan experts and they will make sure to help you with an unforgettable journey. 

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