On the surface Japan appears exceedingly modern, but travelling around this magnificent destination offers numerous opportunities to connect with the country’s traditional culture. Spend the night in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), sleeping on futons and tatami mats, and padding through well-worn wooden halls to the bathhouse (or go one step further and sleep in an old farmhouse). Meditate with monks or learn how to whisk bitter matcha (powdered green tea) into a froth. From the splendor of a Kyoto geisha dance to the spare beauty of a Zen rock garden, Japan has the power to enthrall even the most jaded traveler.
Wherever you are in Japan, it seems, you’re never far from a memorable meal. Restaurants often specialize in just one dish – perhaps having spent generations perfecting it – and pay close attention to every stage, from sourcing the freshest, local ingredients to assembling the dish attractively. And as you’ll quickly discover, Japanese cuisine has great regional variations. The hearty hotpots of the mountains are, for example, dramatically different from the delicate sushi for which the coast is famous. It’s also intensely seasonal, meaning you can visit at a different time of year and experience totally new tastes.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Japan is a long and slender, highly volcanic archipelago. It’s over two-thirds mountains, with bubbling hot springs at every turn. In the warmer months there is excellent hiking, through cedar groves and fields of wildflowers, up to soaring peaks and ancient shrines (the latter founded by wandering ascetics). In the winter, all this is covered with snow and the skiing is world class. (And if you’ve never paired hiking or skiing with soaking in on-sen, you don’t know what you’ve been missing.) Meanwhile in the southern reaches, there are tropical beaches for sunning, snorkeling and diving.
Japan is incredibly easy to get around with immaculate, efficient public transport. The shinkansen (bullet train) network now runs all the way from the southern tip of Kyushu (the southernmost of Japan’s major islands) up to Hokkaido (its northernmost), and reasonably priced rail passes make it affordable. Major cities have subway networks that are signposted in English and these days we’re seeing and hearing more English all over. But if getting off the beaten track and outside your comfort zone is what you’re after, you can have that experience, too.
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