Why there is no better time to start planning a trip to Japan

With the Rugby World Cup beginning in a fortnight — and the Olympics next summer — it’s a busy time for sport in Japan.

The eyes of the sporting world will be on the Far East country, which is now easier to reach, with new British Airways flights to Osaka.

One great way to see Japan is to fly into Osaka and out of Tokyo, or vice versa, and travel by bullet trains to make the most of your time — perhaps stopping off at the ancient city of Kyoto and the hot springs of mountainous Hakone along the way.

Japan is more popular with British visitors than ever; 334,000 went last year — almost 40 per cent more than a decade ago. Pictured is a pagoda near Mount Fuji

Japan is more popular with British visitors than ever; 334,000 went last year — almost 40 per cent more than a decade ago. Here are our top tips on what to see and do…

TOKYO TIME

Tokyo is the world’s biggest metropolitan area. But there’s no need to feel intimidated, as getting around is easy.

Begin with a wander around the marvellous Imperial Palace Gardens, beside the home of the Emperor.

Then head to the Jimbocho district, which boasts hundreds of bookshops and plenty of tasty places to eat. We loved the fresh, zesty pork dumplings at Suito Pozu, a spot popular with locals.

Afterwards, stop off at the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa and check out the intriguing Asakura Museum of Sculpture, designed by the sculptor Fumio Asakura, who was known as the ‘Rodin of Japan’.

Aman Tokyo, near the Imperial Palace Gardens, has vast rooms, a lovely spa and a top-end sushi restaurant, Musashi (stock image of a sushi dish)

Aman Tokyo, near the Imperial Palace Gardens, has vast rooms, a lovely spa and a top-end sushi restaurant, Musashi (stock image of a sushi dish)

The Tokyo you’ve seen on film can be found in the Harajuku, Ginza and Shibuya districts. Make sure you step inside a Pachinko arcade full of games and gambling machines, if only for a moment. Jangling noise, smoke, flashing lights — it’s giddying.

The Shinjuku neighbourhood sells seedy wares with brash unconcern. Go on from there to Golden Gai, a neighbourhood packed with tiny bars. Bar Lonely, where we settled for a drink, has been run by Kazuko Arai for just over 50 years. Rock band The Killers have been in, director Guy Ritchie had a gin and tonic, and Franz Ferdinand has even written a song about it.

Where to stay

Luxury: Aman Tokyo, near the Imperial Palace Gardens, has vast rooms, a lovely spa and a top-end sushi restaurant, Musashi. Doubles from £760 (aman.com).

Budget: OMO5 in the Otsuka district is a slick hotel with clever compact rooms and foodie tours for guests. Doubles from £97 (omo-hotels.com/otsuka/en).

HAKONE HEAT

Hakone is in Japan’s Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. It’s about a two-hour journey by train from Tokyo.

The mountain town is a popular spot to view Mount Fuji, and is home to many onsens (hot springs) as well as ryokans (hot spring hotels).

A great way to see the area is to take the narrow-gauge train from Hakone to Gora, a hillside hot springs resort.

Rail enthusiasts will marvel at the many switchbacks into the mountains from Odawara. It’s known as the ‘hydrangea line’ thanks to the frou-frou flowers that bloom alongside the tracks.

From the top of the Hakone Ropeway cable car, you can glimpse Tokyo looking tiny on the horizon.

With the Rugby World Cup beginning in a fortnight — and the Olympics next summer — it’s a busy time for sport in Japan

With the Rugby World Cup beginning in a fortnight — and the Olympics next summer — it’s a busy time for sport in Japan

And there’s also a fascinating geological museum, which is a bit Blue Peter in its presentation, with volcanoes puffing steams of cotton wool and timelines of past explosions and earthquakes.

We stayed at a hot spring hotel and had a boiling bath adjoining our room, which had surprisingly comfortable tatami mats to sleep on.

Where to stay

Luxury: Hakone Gora Onsen has views of Mount Fuji, comfortable rooms with hot tubs, and public hot baths. Doubles from about £300 half board (gorahanaougi.com).

Budget: Fuji-Hakone Guest House in Sengokuhara village is a long-time favourite with British visitors. Doubles from £76 (fujihakone.com).

KYOTO CALM

Kyoto offers another change of pace. Wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off, as you’ll be removing them all day to visit temple after temple.

The Nison-in temple has terrific views across Kyoto, and the Gio-ji temple has a lovely garden where we were lucky enough to spot a geisha.

It’s worth doing the hike from the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine at the base of the Inari mountain, with its brilliant orange tori (traditional Japanese gates).

Pictured is a maiko (apprentice geisha) in Kyoto, which was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years

 Pictured is a maiko (apprentice geisha) in Kyoto, which was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years 

The shrines along the way are filled with stone foxes — messengers for the gods of prosperity.

For another day, north of here is The Philosopher’s Walk, which follows the canal and ends at the Silver Pavilion. It’s perfect for a contemplative stroll, and lovely in spring and autumn, when the cherry trees are showing off.

Across the Kamo River from Gion is the Nishiki Market, where you can sample all sorts of street food, from little octopuses on sticks to cheesy dough balls or black sesame ice cream.

Where to stay

Luxury: Hoshinoya Kyoto is a treat, with breakfast served in rooms, tea ceremonies, and yoga-inspired morning stretch sessions — doubles cost from £745 (hoshinoya.com/kyoto/en). Shimaya Stays also has great apartments from £400 (shimayastays.com).

Budget: Apartment-hotel Mimaru has smart rooms by Kyoto station. Doubles from £150 (mimaruhotels.com).

OFF TO OSAKA

Enjoy a couple of days in this busy port city, which is home to a Universal Studios, the avant-garde National Art Museum, the Osaka Aquarium (one of the world’s largest), as well as temples and shrines.

Sumiyoshi Taisha temple is one of Japan’s oldest, dating from the third century, while Shittenoji Temple was founded in AD 593. It’s a short walk from the latter to the beautiful Gokuraku-jodo Garden.

The highlight for many, though, is the neon-lit Shinsekai district with its 103-metre Tsutenkaku Tower. Go to the observation deck for spectacular views, then explore the neighbourhood’s bright labyrinthine streets, stopping at a cheap fast food joint, some of which are open 24 hours.

Where to stay

Luxury: The glitzy, five-star Ritz-Carlton has doubles from about £300 (ritzcarlton.com).

Budget: For simple, clean rooms in the convenient Chuo ward, try the Best Western Plus Hotel Fino Osaka Kitahama. Doubles from about £50 (bestwestern.com).

HOW TO AVOID AN AWFUL FAUX PAS 

Learn Japan's chopstick etiquette before you travel

Learn Japan’s chopstick etiquette before you travel

  • Do not tip — staff will feel embarrassed.
  • Blowing your nose in public is considered rude.
  • Never wear outdoor shoes in a ryokan (traditional hotel) or temples — slippers are usually provided.
  • Talking on mobile phones on trains is a big no-no.
  • Always wait for the ‘green man’ at road crossings — even if there are no cars in sight.
  • When staying at a ryokan, where you will be given a yukata (a sort of cotton kimono), wrap the right side over the left and not the other way round, as this is linked to a funeral ritual.
  • It is polite to hold chopsticks towards their ends rather than in the middle or front third.
  • When meeting people, bow slightly to be casual and informal — a deep, long bow indicates great respect.
  • Slurping is standard practice but chopsticks should not be licked, sucked, nor left standing upright in a bowl as this is associated with funerals.
  • Tattoos should be covered where possible as they are associated with gangs.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Japan Airlines has London-Tokyo returns from about £600 (jal.co.jp); British Airways has London-Osaka returns from £566 (ba.com). For more information, visit: japan.travel/uk. Ampersand Travel offers Japan packages (ampersandtravel.com).


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