Earthquake? Burning passenger plane? No matter the catastrophe, tourists will always have an appetite to travel to Japan, and since it reopened borders in late 2022, demand is on the up and up.
Part of why Japan thrills both newcomers and returnees is because its cities never seem to stand still. Over the next 12 months capital Tokyo is promising such diverse delights as the launch of the world’s first immersive theme park; an Edo era-inspired hot spring complex; and a new art, light and sound installation at Azabudai Hills from the renowned teamLab Borderless group. This year Tokyo also sees the opening of the very first branch of Janu (janu.com), little sister hotel brand to luxe Aman Resorts. With lower prices and a more social buzz than the original – but no compromise on style – it will be the chicest of bases for your city adventure before you strike out further afield.
Beyond the capital, historic Kyoto is touted as the other first-timer essential for its gilded temples and shrines, geisha-dotted backstreets and serene tearooms. But all the old-world atmosphere comes with proper crowds, too, so if you want to get a real picture of what Japanese life is like, you’d better head off the beaten track instead.
Take northerly isle Hokkaido, a snow-dusted wonderland in winter with world-class skiing at Niseko, steaming onsen (hot springs) and wildlife such as the dancing cranes of Kushiro. You can sip beer at the Sapporo distillery in the capital or in spring and summer spot the Instagrammable fields of flowers that blanket Oka-no-machi Biei.
At Japan’s other extreme, 1,500km south of Tokyo, the tropical Okinawa Islands appeal with Hawaii-like swathes of white beach and turquoise waters. Sunseekers love the plush resorts of main island Okinawa, and adventurers the dense, mangrove-tangled greenery of Unesco-listed Iriomote. The latter has kayaking, hiking and the chance to spot an indigenous breed of wildcat; you really couldn’t feel further from Tokyo’s crush.
And of course, there are plenty of other lesser-trampled corners in central Japan, easy to tie into your other major stops. Undiscovered Toyama has the Kurobe Alpine Route – a sightseeing trail through soaring mountains and snow walls – plus tranquil rice paddy fields dotted with traditional wooden homes and bountiful handmade crafts (wellness geeks, take note: you’ll find the ultimate handmade singing bowls at Shimatani Syouryu Studio). Want an abundance of temples to explore? Try pilgrimage hotspot Koyasan, outside Osaka, where you can sleep on tatami mats in Buddhist accommodation and tour dozens in a single day.
You might be tempted to book for spring cherry blossom but the combination of inflated prices, crushing crowds and unreliable timing (peak blossom week varies year by year) hardly makes it worth it. Instead aim for autumn leaf turn in November, when maples and ginkgos up and down the country blaze red and gold in no less spectacular a natural display. Or if it has to be flowers, try underrated plum blossom, around mid-February. While it’ll be chillier, the trees are just as pretty, and cheaper flights and room rates means you’ll have more cash to burn on gourmet sushi dinners, shopping or on Japan’s favourite national pastime: karaoke.