Japan is a truly unique country. The product of a dramatic and convoluted history and remarkable growth in the second half of the 20th century, it’s the perfect amalgamation of rich culture and tradition, with all the modernisms of a thriving first-world nation. Japan is an incredible holiday destination, with something for everyone, from ancient temples, gorgeous cherry blossoms (if your timing is perfect), beautiful beaches, modern marvels, and unsurpassed shopping opportunities.
Its dramatic history has shaped it into a unique combination of old and new. During the 16th century, traders from Portugal, the Netherlands, England, and Spain, as well as Christian missionaries, all arrived in Japan. Feeling threatened by the effect of Western influence, in 1639 the Tokugawa Shoguns adopted a policy of isolation, known as Sakoku, banning all international trade and travel, removing all missionaries from the country, and killing all locals who practiced Christianity. In 1853, Commodore Perry of the U.S. Navy sailed his fleet to the port of Uraga, near Tokyo, and forced the shogun to enter into trade agreements with the United States, ending the period of Sakoku. Japan was suddenly exposed to the vast development and growth that had been made during its 214 years of isolation, inspiring accelerated growth in order to catch up. Today it is the third biggest economy in the world – an impressive comeback story.
The Japanese archipelago is composed of four large islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu), the islands of Okinawa, and thousands of other smaller islands, with a total land area of around 364,000 square kilometres - a size comparable to California or Germany. Japan has a population of around 127 million people, making it the 10th most populous nation in the world. Three quarters of the population live in urban areas, resulting in a high urban population density.
There is so much to experience in Japan that even a full month here would not be enough to enjoy everything this incredible country has to offer, so we’ve selected our favourite places that are a must to experience for yourself.
No visit to Japan would be complete without time in Tokyo, which is both the capital and most populous city in Japan. In fact, it’s the largest metropolitan area in the world and, quite uniquely, due to its creation through the amalgamation of a multitude of smaller towns, there is no true city centre of Tokyo. It’s a vibrant hub of modern civilisation, constantly buzzing with activity. Highlights in Tokyo are the Imperial Palace Plaza, which is the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan, Asakusa Kannon Temple, one of Tokyo’s most colourful temples, Tokyo Tower, the 332.9 meter tall communications and observation tower, which offers the perfect vista of the city, Shibuya Crossing, which is rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world, and Shinjuku Metropolitan Government Observatory, the headquarters of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. For unparalleled shopping opportunities, don’t miss Nakamise Shopping Arcade, Ginza, Akihabara and Omotesando.
If you’re exceptionally lucky to be in Japan during the flowering of the cherry blossoms (usually Late March or early April), you’ll be treated to a spectacular sight. Mitaka, near Tokyo, is an ideal place to view the cherry blossoms. Lasting only one week, the beauty of the cherry blossoms is partially in their fleetingness and it is said in Japan that cherry blossoms are most beautiful when scattered, creating a carpet of petals on the ground. Hanami, the practice of “looking at flowers”, generally involves picnicking under the gorgeous blooms and locals and tourists alike flock to experience it for themselves.
Next travel by train (about 35 minutes) from Tokyo to Hakone, a mountainous town famous for its hot springs and spectacular views of Mount Fuji. Located in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, this is a haven of relaxation. Spend a night or two here before continuing your trip to Kyoto (about 3 hours on the train).
Kyoto has a population of almost 1.5 million and was formerly the Imperial Capital of Japan for more than a thousand years. It is famous for its large number gorgeous of temples, gardens and imperial palaces. Don’t miss Kinkakuji Temple and Ryoanji, which are both gorgeous Zen temples, the Gion District, a hub of the traditional arts, and experience a tea ceremony, which involves the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha, a powdered green tea. Don’t skip the Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for its thousands of vermillion Torii Gates, which straddle the peaceful pathways in the gardens of the shrine. Visit the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, adorned with over 4,000 brass and stone lanterns, which are only lit twice a year during the Lantern Festivals in early February and mid August.
Don’t miss Todaiji Temple (Great Eastern Temple), which is one of Japan's most famous and historically significant temples. It was built in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples, and its main hall, Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall), is the largest wooden structure in the world, housing Japan's largest bronze statues of Buddha, which are over 15m tall. Escape to Nara Park, located at the foot of Mount Wakakusa. It is one of Japan’s oldest parks and home to 1200 sika deers, considered to be sacred in Japan. Stay at Hiiragiya Ryokan, one of Kyoto’s best Ryokans (a type of Japanese Inn that originated in the 1600s), which has been run by the same family for six generations. It’s a glimpse into the past of Japanese hospitality and is truly something to experience.
Next, take an hour and a half train journey to Hiroshima. It has become synonymous with the atomic bomb attack that ended WWII, and millions of visitors flock to the city every year to pay their respects, but Hiroshima is also a thriving modern city with a very international atmosphere, quite different to a lot of other cities in Japan.
While in Hiroshima, visit Miyajima (Shrine Island), a small island in Hiroshima Bay known for its forests, ancient temples and its giant orange “floating” Grand Torii Gate that is partially submerged in the ocean at high tide. Also worth a visit is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum. The area on which it is built was once the city’s busiest commercial and residential district but was left a bare field by the explosion. It is a tribute to those affected by the world’s first nuclear attack and features a number of memorials, monuments, museums, and lecture halls, which draw over a million visitors annually.
Travel by train (about an hour and a half) to Osaka, Japan’s second largest industrial area at the heart of the Kansai region. It’s well known for its exceptional shopping, bars and restaurants, as well as landmarks such as Osaka Castle. Experience Osaka Castle, one of Japan’s most famous landmarks, which was built on platforms of sheer rock using a traditional Japanese technique called Burdock piling, and features elaborate gold decorations due to Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s obsession with gold. It is a must to explore the castle’s grounds that span over 60 000 square meters.
Another gem is the Umeda Sky Building Observatory, a pair of towers standing 173m tall and connected by a large platform the 39th floor on which a "Floating Garden Observatory" is located. The views over Osaka are spectacular. Also not to be missed in Osaka is Universal Studios, with something to thrill every member of the family.
When the time comes to depart this extraordinary country, we guarantee it’ll be reluctant, wishing you had more time to experience its culture and beauty.
For a completely bespoke itinerary, perfectly crafted to your family’s needs, call our Travel Consultants on 020 8246 5300 or read more about out Air & Space holidays to Japan