Tokyo & Kanto region
Best For: Big city vibes; traditional culture; nature; an all-round experience of Japan
Route: Central Tokyo • Side trips to Kamakura, Takao, Nikko and Hakone • Izu Islands
Why do it? To experience the capital’s sometimes-chaotic mix of modern and traditional culture, then visit Mount Fuji, the Izu Islands (and more) for a calmer side of Japan.
Home to 14 million people, who at rush hour seem to all be on the same subway, Tokyo delivers all the crowds and colour you might expect – outrageous youth fashions and neon-drenched districts included – but with old-fashioned neighbourhoods, mountain ranges out west and even an island chain, there are many other sides of Tokyo to discover.
To start, give yourself a few days to explore youthful Shibuya, chic Omotesando, perpetually hectic Shinjuku, and other iconic areas, but also make time for less-visited districts like Yanaka, a slightly bohemian part of the eastside, where narrow alleys are home to retro stores, contemporary galleries and small cafés.
Then branch out. While based in central Tokyo, the rail network gives access to a bunch of day trips: for UNESCO-listed temples and shrines, as well as the famous Great Buddha statue, spend a day in the 13th-century capital Kamakura; for hiking head to Mount Takao or the quieter trails of Tanzawa-Oyama Quasi-National Park. If you wanted an overnight trip from the city, Nikko to the north is home to the UNESCO-listed Toshogu Shrine and Lake Chuzenji, while west of Tokyo you can get up-close views of Mt. Fuji from the traditional inns and soothing hot-spring baths of Hakone.
All of those will be well covered in your guidebook, but Tokyo’s Izu Islands don’t tend to get as much press. There are seven to choose from: one fun trip is to take the overnight ferry to Miyakejima, 180km south of Tokyo, where you can hike volcanic landscapes and see birdlife like the indigenous Izu thrush.
Kyushu & Okinawa
Best For: Laidback regional cities, volcanoes and hot springs, and sub-tropical islands
Route: Kumamoto • Kagoshima • Yakushima • Okinawa Honto • Yaeyama Islands
Why do it? The island of Kyushu, the most westerly of Japan’s central islands, is another of the country’s less-visited regions – one where Japan’s geothermal activity is frequently on display – while Okinawa is Japan’s version of an island paradise.
Begin your time in Kyushu with Kumamoto, which in Japan is arguably most known nowadays for its unbelievably popular local mascot, a black bear known as Kumamon.
You’ll see the rosy red-cheeked character on posters and products everywhere – Kumamon’s a billion-yen industry – whether that’s visiting the reconstructed Kumamoto Castle, strolling the traditional landscaped garden of Suizenji Jojuen or heading out of the city to hike the active volcano that is Mount Aso.
You might even see Kumamon in some souvenir shops when you move on to neighbouring prefecture Kagoshima, where one of the major attractions is another hike-able volcano – Sakurajima, which frequently puffs out smoke.
One benefit of Japan’s high levels of geothermal activities, besides photogenic volcanoes, are the hot springs (onsen) that dot the country. On the coast south of Kagoshima city, Ibusuki has plenty of those onsen baths, as well as ryokan inns for a night’s traditional accommodation and sand baths, if you fancy being buried up to your neck in steaming hot sand to improve your skin and circulation.
Like sand baths, the next stop won’t be for everybody. Sub-tropical Yakushima Island is so humid and wet that locals say it rains 35 days a month. However, the ancient cedar forest that covers the mountainous interior is a primeval place to hike – somewhere that could have come straight from Tolkien.
What comes after is much less strenuous: Okinawa. On the main island, check out Cape Manzamo for winning sunsets and the network of Second World War tunnels at Tomigusuku. Also try Okinawan food, which as well as great seafood includes stewed pig trotters, sliced pig’s ear and a bitter melon-tofu-pork stir fry called goya champuru.
Finish this trip with a few days hopping around Okinawa’s idyllic Yaeyama Islands, Japan’s most south-westerly point; situated closer to Taiwan than they are Tokyo. The islands are diverse –Ishigaki has cobalt bays and white beaches; Iriomote is covered in jungle; sleepy Taketomi has villages where the traditional stone bungalows are capped with red-tile roofs and shisa statues sit outside to fend off evil; meanwhile Yonaguni has wild ponies and scuba spots where, during the winter, divers can swim with hammerhead sharks.
The Chubu region
Best For: Traditional culture and crafts, castles, historic streetscapes, hot spring baths, nature
Route: Nagoya • Inuyama • Magome and Tsumago • Gero Onsen • Takayama • the Japanese Alps • Kanazawa
Why do it? For well-preserved towns and castles, impressive landscapes in the Japan Alps, and Kyoto-like traditions – but without the Kyoto-like crowds.
The city of Nagoya doesn’t sit high on most people’s ‘must-visit’ lists, but the Chubu region’s largest city is more than worth a day of exploring – there’s a reconstructed castle, Toyota’s slick science museum, and the venerable Atsuta Shrine – said to house an imperial relic called the ‘grass-mowing sword’ that only the emperor and a select few priests may ever see.
But Chubu, a group of prefectures situated between Tokyo and Kyoto, really comes into its own when you go beyond Nagoya and explore the region’s past. First stop to do that is the town of Inuyama just north of Nagoya – home to a 500-year-old castle (pictured below). From here, head to the Nakasendo, the ancient highway connecting Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo), and stay the night at a rustic inn in Magome or Tsumago, two well-preserved Nakasendo staging post towns. The several-hour walk between the two towns is a lovely countryside stroll.
Next, actually soak up some culture in the hot-spring town of Gero Onsen, which is home to open-air public baths surrounded by mountains and traditional ryokan inns – there you’ll stay in tatami-mat-floored rooms and be served kaiseki ryori dinners that feature a procession of small, in-season dishes.
A couple of hours north of Gero by express train, have a night or two in Takayama, a city that, pre-COVID-19, felt on the verge of being swamped by tourists but nonetheless has intriguing old quarters and morning markets. It’s also a good base for day trips into the Japanese Alps, where you can take the Shinhotaka Ropeway into the jagged peaks for summer hikes or snowshoeing in winter.
The final stop is the city of Kanazawa, on the Sea of Japan coast, a less-crowded alternative to Kyoto for anyone wanting to delve into Japan’s traditional arts, crafts and sensibilities. The Kenrokuen garden here, with its large central pond, landscaped features and teahouses, is considered one of the finest in Japan, while the old wooden buildings of the Higashi Chaya geisha district are a charming throwback that now house cafes, sweet shops, and stores specializing in Kanazawa’s gold-leaf crafts.