Mount Fuji in autumn (Dreamstime)
List Words : Wanderlust team | 04 June

7 ways to discover a different side of Japan

Venture deep into authentic Japanese culture on these amazing journeys. They'll take you beyond the clichés and into the heart of this fascinating and beguiling country

1: A tropical island adventure – with a Japanese twist

Water buffalo taxi on Taketomi Island (Dreamstime)

Water buffalo taxi on Taketomi Island (Dreamstime)

The Yaeyama island chain is part of Japan, but not the Japan that the world knows. Here, wild jungle cascades down to stunning beaches, and the locals enjoy a way of life that hasn’t changed for centuries. Three and a half hours south of Tokyo by plane, it’s a world away from the bustle of Tokyo and the tradition of Kyoto. 

Each island offers something unique. On Ishigaki island, you can explore the mountainous interior or dive with huge manta rays. On Taketomi, water buffalo-drawn cart is still the best way to get around. And on Iriomote, kayaking up the rivers into the dense jungle and trekking to the top of waterfalls are the best ways to experience the stunning national park.

The Kerama Islands offer some of the best snorkelling in the world, with untouched coral and visibility exceeding 30 metres. This is sun and sand, soaked in Japanese culture.

Trip: Self-Guided Island Hopping

Who: Inside Japan Tours

When: Flexible departures throughout the year

How long: 12 nights

How much: £2,440 (exc. flights)

2: Ice, ice baby-san

Ice cartoon characters, Sapporo Snow Festival (Dreamstime)

Ice cartoon characters, Sapporo Snow Festival (Dreamstime)

Winter casts a magical spell over Japan. The forests and temples are transformed, and the neon city lights twinkle as snow settles across the land. It is also a time of festivals, particularly in Hokkaido, which hosts some of the best and biggest winter festivals in the world.

Once you’ve gazed in awe at the massive ice structures of Sapporo Snow Festival and lost yourself in the fairytale-like landscape at Otaru’s Snow Light Path Festival, it’s time to don the snowshoes for a wintery walk through the vast empty spaces of Hokkaido. You’ll visit a local brewery and learn how to make sake, and watch locals haggle for crab and sea urchins at the Nijo Fish Market. End each day with a long, slow soak in a traditional onsen. This is Japanese winter wonderland, with all the trimmings.

Trip: Japan Winter Festivals

Who: Intrepid

When: Feb

How long: 8 days

How much: £2,405 (exc. flights)

3: Explore Japan’s historic isle

Mount Aso caldera (Dreamstime)

Mount Aso caldera (Dreamstime)

Just south of the main island of Honshu, Kyushu is a little-visited gem: a sub-tropical island of rocky coastlines, active volcanoes, and vibrant modern cities. It is also steeped in history – a place where empires rose and fell, and itinerant Samurai roamed the land. And it has its own distinct cuisine.

This self-drive adventure ensures that you enjoy everything the island has to offer. Explore the beautiful volcanic mountains and dramatic Mount Aso caldera of Aso-Kuju National Park. Take a boat ride down the striking Takachiho Gorge, amid tumbling waterfalls and picturesque mountain cherry trees. Visit Jōmon ruins and Kumamoto’s castle, one of the finest in Japan.

Every step of the way, a traditional inn and a soothing hot spring are never far away.

Trip: Best of Kyushu Self-Drive

Who: Audley

When: Flexible departures throughout the year

How long: 17 days

How much: £5,285 (inc. flights)

4: Get on your bike (and kayak)

Kayaking through the Miyajima Torii Gate (Dreamstime)

Kayaking through the Miyajima Torii Gate (Dreamstime)

Japan Hike, Bike & Kayak does what it says on the tin. You’ll hike along the ancient Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route to visit spectacular temples, cycle across islands as you follow the Shimanami Kaido, and kayak around the famed floating torii gate in the Bay of Miyajima. For the active traveller, it’s the chance to get off the beaten track and discover parts of the country that even the locals don’t know about. 

The tour takes in the major cultural touchstones like Osaka, Hiroshima, and Tokyo too. You’ll explore the historic side of Kyoto, exploring the famous sites of the Golden and Silver pavilions, and visit the Peace Park and Museum in Hiroshima to learn more about the tragic history of this city.

Trip: Japan Hike, Bike & Kayak

Who: G Adventures

When: Departures May-Nov

How long: 13 days

How much: From £2,889 (exc. flights)

5: Where great things come in small packages

Vine bridge, Iya Valley (Dreamstime)

Vine bridge, Iya Valley (Dreamstime)

As the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku is ideal for those looking to slow down and experience authentic Japanese culture at its rural best. It is a land of hidden valleys, pilgrimage towns, and ancient hilltop shrines – and is home to Dogo Onsen, the oldest hot spring in Japan.

A Super Jet Ferry (Japan’s nautical answer to the bullet train) will whisk you to Matsuyama in northwest Shikoku. From here, the Iya Valley awaits with its vine bridges across narrow river gorges and cragged peaks – as does Katsurahama Beach, where golden sands are sandwiched between pine tree forests, and whales swim by from April to October. 

The laid-back prefectural capital, Kochi, is a welcome stop, with its palm-lined streets leading to daily fruit markets and a carefully preserved 18th-century castle. It’s everything you want from Japan, condensed into one tiny isle.

Trip: Best Of Shikoku

Who: Wexas Travel

When: Flexible dates throughout the year

How long: 17 days

How much: £4,380 (inc. flights)

6: Pretty in pink

Photographing the cherry blossom (Dreamstime)

Photographing the cherry blossom (Dreamstime)

Eagerly awaited by both locals and visitors alike, Japan’s cherry blossom season is when the country is at its most beguiling. It's also a chance to flock to parks, gardens and riversides to eat, drink, and be merry underneath the flowers. With the season lasting but a month or two every spring, this tailor-made itinerary ensures that you see the blossoms at their best in Tokyo, Hakone, Mount Fuji and Kyoto. 

Tokyo’s Ueno Park is one of the most popular places for hanami (cherry blossom viewing parties) in the capital. Shinjuku Park also has hundreds of cherry blossom trees, and from Asakusa you can take a boat trip down the Sumida river which is lined with sakura (cherry blossom).

From Tokyo, you’ll venture out to other cherry blossom hotspots. Kamikura, only an hour from Tokyo, offers the chance to see the bronze dai-butsu (Giant Buddha), framed by sakura. The national park in Hakone is criss-crossed with steep mountains and tumbling rivers, all doused in cherry blossom pink. It also offers you best chance to photograph shy Mount Fuji, with a bloom or two in frame. Finally, Kyoto, the ancient capital – already stunningly beautiful – looks extra radiant covered in cherry blossoms.

Trip: Japan Blossom Season

Who: Wexas Travel

When: Mar- Apr

How long: 10 days

How much: £3,160 (inc. flights)

7: All the good bits. On a budget.

Shinjuku, Tokyo (Dreamstime)

Shinjuku, Tokyo (Dreamstime)

Have you always wanted to visit Japan but felt it was beyond your budget? This super-affordable nine-day introduction to the Land of the Rising Sun is the solution. 

The key is travelling by train which, to be honest, is the best way to get around the country anyway. With your rail pass in hand, you're within easy reach of Tokyo's nightlife, the famous geisha district of Kyoto, and the gorgeous mountainous region of Hakone.

Each new destination includes an orientation walk with your guide, and plenty of free time to discover the side of Japan that interests you. Whether it is the country’s fabulous cuisine, manga art or traditional tea ceremonies, you’ll be pointed in the right direction – with hot tips on the most affordable options, of course.

Trip: Japan on a Shoestring

Who: G Adventures

When: Regular departures throughout the year

How long: 9 days

How much: From £1,504 (exc. flights)