Japan’s ultra-modern capital at the head of Tokyo Bay is home to Sky Tree, the world’s tallest tower (not structure, that’s still the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). But that’s just one of the attractions in a city that caters to all, from the full-on culture vulture to the hard-core clubber.

Things to do:

Opened in 2012 at 634m high, Sky Tree gives amazing views, not just of the city, but its surroundings: to the east, the Pacific, to the north and south, the great Kanto plain with its eponymous mountain range beyond; and to the southwest, unmistakable Fuji – on a clear day. If you’re into history, the Imperial Palace is a must. Home to the Japanese Emperor since 1868, you can circle its giant stone walls and enjoy its East Garden anytime. To explore further, book a tour on the Imperial Household Agency’s website. Nearby stands Yasakuni-jinja, the main shrine to Japan’s war dead. Despite the controversy over its annual attendance by the country’s political leaders, it still serves as a poignant reminder of war’s horror. For all things artistic, do not miss the National Museum in Ueno Park. Known as the Louvre of Japan, its many exhibits range from paintings, pottery and calligraphy to sculpture, arms and armour. Manga fans and tech toy geeks should check out Akihabara. In the city centre, its gaudy streets are full of girls in kinky ‘maid’ outfits, handing out fliers for their ‘meido’ cafes.

This city boasts more restaurants than any other in the world. And if you’re wondering where the fish in your sushi came from, head for Tsukiji, the world’s largest seafood market. Get there early and you can watch the frantic tuna auction. But don’t delay: it’s going to be relocated as part of the city’s face-lift for the 2020 Olympics.

Tokyo’s performing arts scene is as rich as any capital’s. What you won’t get elsewhere, though, are Kabuki, Bunraku and Noh. These traditional dramatic arts of song, puppets and masks play at the National Theatre. But if big men grappling in loincloths is your thing, head for Kokugikan, home to Sumo wrestling in January, May and September.

Going out:

Shopaholics, get your credit cards ready for the neon delights of Ginza, while those who party hard should check out Shibuya, the latest hub of the city’s club scene. Big kids can head to the Tokyo Disney Resort in nearby Chiba.


Try a Japanese capsule hotel. Great for location and budget too. From £19pn.

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Exit the ultra-modern train station and the first thing you see is a futuristic tower, but don’t be deceived: tradition still lives here, from ladies in kimonos to the beautiful geisha girls.

Things to do:

Kyoto has a wealth of World Heritage Sites, many of them Zen temples. Must-sees are Kinkakuji, its gold-foil walls mirrored in a pond; Ginkakuji,all soft trails winding through hills of bonsai and moss; and Ryoanji, its raked rock garden a haven for meditation. Our tip: if you want to find nirvana by contemplating rocks, get there on an early morning weekday. Ditto for all these sites to avoid the crowds.

Before Buddhism there was Shinto, Japan’s religion of nature and ancestor worship. Check out one of its premiere sites, Fushimi Inari-taisha. Inari is the God of Rice, and Japanese come in their millions to make offerings and pray for good luck on the temple’s five hillsides.

For more than a thousand years Kyoto was the country’s capital, Gosho the imperial palace. Once the Emperor’s home until his move to Tokyo in 1868, today you can wander through its grounds yourself. But it’s Nijo that holds World Heritage status among imperial sites. A walled castle in the heart of the city, cross its moat and enter the exquisite Ninomaru Garden and eponymous palace. Inside this magnificent wooden structure you’ll find delicate paintings on sliding doors, and walk on floors that cry like nightingales – a medieval alarm system.

For an excellent day trip, take a 45-minute train ride to Himeji Castle, another World Heritage Site. It was here they filmed the ‘ninja school’ in You Only Live Twice. While its main keep is undergoing renovation until March 2015, you can still access the rest of the grounds.

Going out:

Kyoto has plenty of bars and clubs, but there’s one kind of nightlife you may not have tried. In Gion you can spend an evening with a geisha. With their supreme hostess and dance skills, not to mention their ability to drink you under the table, the company of these exquisite young women doesn’t come cheap. Another option is to watch their public dances in spring or autumn.


Close to the station, K’s House is the best deal in town with rooms from £15pn.

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Izu Peninsula

With its dazzling turquoise coast, this is Japan’s self-styled ‘Cote d’Azur’. Add to that its forest trails over hills and volcanoes, it’s a wonder this is still a secret to many backpackers.

Things to do:

East Izu is great for surfing. Head down the coast by road or train and you’ll spot figures on boards catching waves. Usami beach is one of the best, but outside the summer a wetsuit is a must, and check for jellyfish in the autumn.

Ito is Izu’s most popular resort. Its sandy beach, Sagami Bay, is excellent for swimming in or just a simple stroll, while the chief attraction is its hot spring spas. Known as ‘onsen’, and found all over Japan, Izu is famous for them.Here at Ito you’ll find indoor and out, public and private, humble and luxury. But one thing’s the same: while there’s no mixed bathing, skinny-dipping is obligatory.

Shimoda is where Japan ended its 200 years of isolation. In Ryosenji Temple in 1854 the country signed a ‘Friendship Treaty’ with America’s Commander Perry, but only after he’d sailed a fleet of warships into Tokyo Bay. The locals called them ‘black ships’, but gunboat diplomacy has gone commercial, and today you can board a replica for a cruise along the turquoise coast.

Irozaki is Izu’s windswept tip. Follow the trail upwards and you’ll pass gorgeous inlets until a white lighthouse and Shinto shrine bring you to a cliff: here the last rocky outcrops drop away like dominoes until vanishing into the Pacific. There are no trains to West Izu, no surf or sandy beaches either. This is wild; its rugged coastline offering super views of Fuji looming over Suruga Bay. Check out Dogashima too for a cruise through amazing rock formations. If you want to hike, head up into the central highland. There are numerous trails, like the one to Amagi, a range of dead volcanoes marking Izu’s highest point. It takes half a day to do, and the saddle offers a spectacular panorama of Fuji, Izu and the Pacific.

Going out:

All the resorts in Izu have bars, but one sticks out: Soul Bar Tosaya in Shimoda. An old residence from the Black Ship period, it serves up soul music and tasty food.


It’s K’s House again. From £18pn with an onsen thrown in, you just can’t beat it.

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It’s a byword for the Bomb, yet today Hiroshima is a centre for the peace movement that aims to ban it. Nearby Miyajima island offers a scenic side trip to this leafy, laid-back city on the Inland Sea.

Things to do:

Take a tram into the town centre and get off at Genbaku Dome – that’s ‘Atomic Bomb Dome’. Standing on the east bank of the river Kyuohotagawa, it’s now a Peace Memorial and World Heritage Site, one of the few commemorating horror. On August 6, 1945, it was just metres from the Enola Gay’s target: the Aioi Bridge. While the bridge has been rebuilt, the dome remains exactly as it was after the blast. Its smashed, concrete body and skeletal dome serve as a reminder of that day, yet at night the floodlit ruins possess a ghostly beauty. A short walk away in a backstreet you’ll find a silver plaquemarking Ground Zero. It was directly above this point that Little Boy exploded, almost impossible to believe when you look up into a bright blue sky – just as it was at 10 past eight that morning.

Other Genbaku sites include the musty basement of a kimono shop that made one man the closest survivor to the hypocentre. Today it’s known as the Rest House, and if you ask at the desk, they’ll let you go downstairs. It also serves as an information centre for visitors to the Peace Memorial Park.

Situated just downstream from the dome, this park now holds an annual ceremony on August 6 to honour the bomb’s victims. Attended by the Prime Minister, he lays a wreath at the cenotaph, itself aligned with the dome and Flame of Peace. There are many monuments and memorials here, its centrepiece being the museum. Here you will find an all-too gruesome display of items that withstood the blast: from body hair and bones to purses, glasses and clothes – most unforgettable: concrete steps from the entrance to a bank, the shadow of a man still there.

Going out:

Hiroshima’s leafy boulevards have good restaurants, bars and clubs. Our tip: take the ferry to Miyajima. This beautiful island boasts one of Japan’s most famous views: the great red gates of Itsukushima Shrine that seem to float in the sea. The island’s quiet streets are lamplit by night, its tame deer providing company as you find a place to eat.


The Hiroshima Peace Hotel is 10 minutes by bus to the park. From £9pn.


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Nagano Prefecture

It may not be the Roof of the World, but with its spectacular spine of Alps, this central prefecture is definitely the Roof of Japan. Yet it’s not just snow and rock: plenty of castles and spas are up here too, not to mention one very special onsen.

Things to do:

Nagano City serves as capital and gateway to the prefecture. It hosted the Winter Olympics in 1988, but to the Japanese it is better known for Zenkoji, one of the country’s most important and popular temples, where the first statue of Buddha to enter the country is held. Opportunities for hikers abound in these mountains, and a good base is the prefecture’s second city, Matsumoto.

But before you put on your boots, don’t miss the city’s castle. It’s the oldest wooden one in Japan, and unlike others, still in its original state. A challenging hike from Matsumoto is to Mount Jonendake.Towering over the Alumina Valley, rising to 2857m, it takes about five hours. But it’s worth every breath, the summit providing one of the grandest views of the Japanese Alps.With its gentle walks along the Azusa River, and the peaks’ reflection in romantic Taisho Pond, Kamikochi must be seen. But it can get very crowded in the summer.

Start climbing up from this 15km plateau, though, and you’ll soon find two great trails leading to Yari-ga-take (3180m) and Hotaka-dake (3190m), Japan’s third highest mountain. As with lots of these walks, overnight huts can be found along the way – no need to book or cook. Nagano has plenty of ski resorts to choose from, so many, in fact, that it’s also called ‘the White Triangle’.

Some of the best are Nozawa, Hakuba and Hippo-One. This last staged the Olympic downhill in ‘88, but don’t worry: its slopes cater to all nine levels. Almost every resort has an onsen, but don’t miss Jigokudani’s. Not that you’ll be taking a dip. This outdoor spa is strictly for macaques. Known as ‘snow monkeys’, watch them soak in their own hot tub before finding one yourself in nearby Shibu and Yudanaka Onsen. Our tip: Jigokudani Monkey Park is best visited in winter, when its residents relish the heat.

Going out:

Every resort has its share of bars and restaurants, but for all you ‘gaijin’ (what the Japanese call foreigners, it literally translates as ‘outside person’), Nagano City’s Bistro Liberty takes some beating: Guinness and good pub food.


1166 backpackers, near Nagano City’s centre, offers rooms from £15pn.


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Japan’s first capital, second only to Kyoto in World Heritage Sites, Nara boasts some of the finest Buddhist monuments in the country, not to mention a nearby ninja castle and two amazing fire festivals.

Things to do:

The first on anyone’s list has to be Daibutsu, Big Buddha. It lies within Todaiji, the Great Eastern Temple complex with its Big Buddha Hall called Daibutsuden: the world’s largest wooden building, its seven bays and sloping roofs seeming to fill the sky. Big Buddha is one of the world’s largest bronze figures, no surprise when it was cast from 1000 kilos of the stuff and another 130 from gold. As this 16-metre Buddha sits in lotus position, it’s hard not to feel awe. But this is Vairocana, the supreme Buddha, and if you go round the back and squeeze through the hole in a wooden column, he’ll even grant you enlightenment, which is nice.

There are several more sites to be explored, such as Nara Palace, Kasuga-Taisha – Nara’s most celebrated Shinto shrine – and Kofukuji temple, whose five-storey, 50m pagoda forms the city’s landmark and symbol. But don’t miss Asuka.

Just 25km south of Nara, its ancient burial tombs once housed powerful clan leaders. You can enter some and stand under massive 75-tonne stones. A side trip from Nara takes you to Iga Ueno, a feudal castle with the tallest stone walls in Japan. Once a leading ninja school, its students learnt the art of stealth, but there’s no creeping around today. You can explore the castle as well asthe excellent museum nearby. In addition to the exhibits, youcan catch some real-life ninja fighting.

If you’re in Nara in January, do not miss Yamayaki on the 25th. This is the Grass Burning Festival, when a whole mountain side is set alight, followed by pyrotechnics. If you can’t make that, there’s more torching in the first half of March. This is Otaimatsu, part of a Buddhist repentance ritual held in Todaiji’s halls. As priests hold flambeaux over crowds, embers rain down. These are said to grant you safety for the rest of the year (starting after you get burnt, perhaps?).

Going out:

After a hard day’s touring, sample the local sake at Saka-gura Sasaya, near Kofukuji. Just look for the barrels in the window.


Takama Guest House is close to Nara Park. From £13pn.


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Fuji and around

You’ve seen it in the movies, you can even watch it on livestreaming, but however familiar the image, Japan’s highest and most sacred mountain still presents a range of wonders above and below her pagoda slopes.

Things to do:

At Fuji’s northern foot lie five lakes. Know nas ‘Fujigoko’, the most popular is Kawaguchi. With a direct connection from Tokyo, and doubling up as a hot spring resort, this offers breathtaking views of Fuji and its unrippled form in water.

Yamanakako, the largest, offers equally stunning vistas, as well as boating, fishing, wind surfing and camping. Saiko’s western end presents full Fuji views, while just beyond lies Aokigahara, the Sea of Trees. This forest is notorious as Japan’s top suicide spot, and for having demons, yet its mossy trails and sylvan silence are enchanting. Our tip: the best Fuji viewing times are early morning and late afternoon, especially in autumn and winter.

Hakone is one of Honshu’s most popular resorts. Part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, its main draw is its onsen. Hot springs bubble all over, and hotels have built around them. You could spend days just soaking, enjoying forest vistas from the tub, even Fuji from a few.

Lake Ashinoko lies in the centre of Hakone, giving one of the most fantastic sights of Fuji. Framed by lake and hills, you can view it from the shore or two boats doing cruises. A ropeway from ‘Ashi’ takes you to Owakudani. The hillsides teem with hot springs of volcanic sulphur, while you can eat freshly boiled eggs blackened by it. From here you can also climb Kamiyama (1438m), one of Hakone’s many peaks.

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While it’s never officially closed, July and August are the safest months to climb Fuji. They’re also the busiest, but for once that’s part of the appeal. For many Japanese, climbing Fuji is almost a ritual, so join them in the early evening as they start from one of the five designated routes. A night climb is magical, as bobbing head torches illuminate the hard slopes of lava. It’s also tiring, and each route has stations where you can eat, sleep or just take a breather.

At any time of year, the 3776m summit is cold in the early morning, so make sure you have proper mountain gear. Then check out the crater. It’s 500m wide, 50m deep, and while you can’t go down, the sheer size tells of the enormous force this still active volcano must once – and may yet! – have produced. You can circle its rim and climb to the highest point in Japan, right beside the weather station. But once you sense that rising sun, it and the crater can wait.

To the east, the deep blue sky and Pacific begin to brighten, to the west the Japanese Alps light up, while to the south, Fuji’s huge shadow spreads over Shizuoka – and if you look to the northeast, right across the Kanto plain, you might even spot Sky Tree.

Going out:

It has to be Naraya Café, Hakone, near Miyanoshita station. Sip an espresso and enjoy the mountain view as you dip your tootsies in a foot bath.


Fuji Royal Hotel, Kawaguchi, is beside an onsen, and near a starting point for Fuji. From £15pn..