In a country where electric car charge points now outnumber petrol stations, Japan wears its conflict on its kimono sleeve. One moment you could be following in the graceful wake of a geisha past feudal era castles, and the next taking a Shinkansen bullet to the heart of Tokyo’s skyscraper jumble.
And, it’s not difficult to read between the lines of Kyoto’s grid system to discover golden lakeside pavilions and moss covered temples. Japan’s ancient capital is home to no fewer than 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But remember, when it comes to exploring cities, don’t forget to look up. Many a dinner date has been missed despite neon signs covering the entire fifth floor restaurant. And, from Michelin-starred subway station sushi counters to holes in the wall serving steaming gyoza dumplings, Japan is a gastronomic delight. However, step outside the bustle to discover the country’s best kept secret – its natural world. Southern islands feature palm tree fringed sands while northern Hokkaido’s lakes, mountains and coasts are home to sea eagles and iconic Japanese cranes. And, after a day spent on the trails and in the teahouses of the Japanese Alps, return to a ryokan inn where onsen (hot spring) baths, tatami mats and traditional gardens are as welcoming as when they first hosted travelling shoguns. Throughout, you’ll be greeted by that quintessentially Japanese architecture style that favours bold reds and graceful arcs. It’s one that’s lasted from 7th century Nara temples to 18th century Edo period residences.
Main island Honshu forms the insular and cultural backbone of the Japanese archipelago. In Tokyo, Osaka and Hiroshima, it’s home to city superpowers but don’t be blinded by the lights. Kyoto and Nara’s ancient capital heritage, Miyajima’s floating island iconography and its idyllic alpine retreats prove that there’s much more to Japan than skyscraping glamour.
A chance to head off the tourist trail, Shikoku – the smallest of Japan’s four main islands – rewards with hidden valley hot springs, artist island retreats and grand Edo period castle towns. Don’t miss out on its most sacred shrine whose hilltop perch offers views out over pristine farmland to gently sloping mountains beyond.
Japan’s southernmost main island has endured an explosive past. However, volcanoes that once formed its imposing ridges now fuel bubbling onsen baths and timber castles that fought off mercenary samurai today welcome visitors with cherry blossom blushes. Nagasaki has similarly shrugged off its difficult history with picturesque memorial gardens and a thriving food scene.
Swap southern subtropical islands for Japan’s northern borderlands where well-heeled Tokyoites come to get away from it all in vast national park wildernesses. In winter, warm up in lakeside resorts after witnessing crashing ice floes off the coast and, come summer, enjoy walks that take you through patchwork lavender fields and up forested mountains. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a Japanese crane or perhaps a sea eagle, perched on a freshly calved iceberg.