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The borders are open again and 2023 is the year of travel. But Japan is not just about jumping on a plane and ticking off tourist sights, it is more than that. It is an experience. There are certain places and things you should try to make the most out of this country and culture we love. If you have been before or if this is your first time, here are a few that we think you should try to make the most out of your Japan trip and the Year of the Rabbit.
Sometimes you need that quiet thinking time and that chance to reflect. A stay at a traditional shukubo temple lodging is a great place to do this and a fascinating Japan experience. There are shukubo all over Japan, but we love taking a trip to sacred Mt. Koya. The shukubo are quite simple but beautifully atmospheric with the chance to eat good Shyojin style food and take part in early morning ceremony performed by monks. It’s a very special experience in a very special place. Take a look at this video from our VirtuallyInside Japan tour of Koya san and a stay in a shukubo.
A stay in Koya-san features on the Pilgrims Paths Self-Guided cultural adventure.
Hit the north
It has been four years since international visitors could witness the pretty pink Hanami season for themselves, so this year the likes of Kyoto and certain parks and gardens in Tokyo are going to be very busy indeed…beautiful…but busy. So, whilst most crowds head south from Tokyo, why not head north on the shinkansen to rural Tohoku?
This is Japan at its most Japanese with sacred mountains, lakes, lots of good traditional food and traditional hot spring towns. The samurai town of Kakunodate, with its traditional streets and buildings, looks particularly pretty in pink and the Sakura blooms several weeks later than it does further south.
Kakunodate features in Northern Highlights Self-guided cultural adventure.
A toe back in Tokyo
It is not often you see the word ‘megalopolis’ written, but it fits quite well with Tokyo. A lot of people will want to get to the capital city when they head to Japan and they will probably go to the usual (but incredible) districts of Shibuya, Shinjuku and Asakusa. We recommend broadening your Tokyo horizon and trying some of its other delights. The Yanesen area of the city – the collective name for Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi districts – offer a low-rise Tokyo full of traditional vendors, centuries old temples and small gardens with modern Tokyo just peering in from the edge. A good place to start and a very worthy alternative to the likes of Asakusa. Of course, we have a lot more advice where that came from.
Here are some of the teams favourite districts in Tokyo.
A long walk
There’s nothing quite like a long walk to absorb Japan’s rural life and landscapes. Though the country is renowned for both ancient and ultra-modern cities, this is also a county of big mountains, forests, traditional towns and villages and Japanese every-day, rural life. This makes for pretty amazing walking but like everything in Japan, walking comes with a big slice of culture. A walk along the ancient pilgrimage trails of the Kumano Kodo, on the Kii Peninsula, takes you through Cedar forests, rice terraces, villages, temples and shrines. You will pass walkers in pilgrim dress and stay at traditional ryokan and minshuku guest houses enroute. Perfect. Senior Travel Consultant, Ali Muskett shared her experience walking the Kumano Kodo.
The Kumano Kodo features in the Honshu Hiking Self-Guided cultural adventure together with the more famous Nakasendo samurai trail in central Japan.
Deep in hot water
If there is one thing everyone should do in Japan, it’s stay in a traditional ryokan guest house. A stay in a traditional ryokan in a traditional hot spring town is an even bigger Japan-only experience. You’ll sleep in a tatami mat floored room with sliding doors, be served local food by your kimono-wearing host, and dress in your yukata robes to sample the hot spring onsen baths. Kinosaki Onsen or Kaga Onsen are just two favourites of the InsideJapan team whilst Hakone national park, sitting between Tokyo and Kyoto, is renowned for its historic hot springs. However, not that far from Tokyo or Hakone, but off the beaten track sits the Izu peninsula and a (one of many) favourite little ryokan, the Hanafubuki. A great place to appreciate both the famous Japanese ‘omotenashi’ hospitality and the soothing hot spring waters…with rabbits…pretend ones – apt for the Year of the Rabbit.
There are ryokan stays in hot spring towns all over Japan, but the Izu Peninsula is included in the Japanese Ikigai and the Paths to Happiness trip.
The other cultural capital
Kyoto is a culturally special place, but as desire to travel to Japan builds up, so do the crowds. With a direct Shinkansen from Tokyo and similar travelling time, the castle city of Kanazawa is a great option for 2023 and an enduring favourite of our team. The city is culturally rich like Kyoto with its well-preserved samurai and teahouse district, and it has one of the most famous landscape gardens in Japan, Kenrokuen. Add an incredible modern art museum, a working fish market packed full of restaurants, one of the few working Geisha in the country outside of Kyoto and some of the best nightlife in Japan and it’s clear why Kanazawa steals hearts.
A stay in Kanazawa is included in the Traditional Japan Self-Guided adventure.
That special place
We mentioned it in our ‘hot for 2023’ blog piece, but Ine Bay and the surrounding area of Kyoto prefecture is really very special. The famous Funaya boathouses lining the water’s edge, offer a unique style of accommodation with incredible views, nearby Amanohashidate offers one of the official ‘most beautiful views in Japan’ and the region is packed full of cultural crafts and masters of their arts, including swordsmiths, mother-of-pearl silk weavers and sake brewers. This is an exclusive little offering from InsideJapan and one that supports the local community and culture – sustainable, responsible and very exciting in every way.
A two night stay in Ine and Kyoto prefecture can be tailored into a Self-Guided adventure.
Nothing to hide
Miyajima island sits close to Hiroshima and is home to the UNESCO world heritage temple of Itsukushima and its giant red torii gate which appears to float just off the island. The torii gate has been covered in scaffolding for restoration work since June 2019, but the scaffolding has now come down with the vermilion gate back on display and looking as impressive as ever.
An overnight stay on Miyajima will allow you to enjoy another of Japan’s ‘official’ top three views (of course Japan has an official list of top views) well after the day-trippers from Hiroshima have left.
Miyajima features in the Best of Japan Self-guided cultural adventure.
Note: Due to the G7 summit taking place in Hiroshima (May 19-21 2023), it will not be possible to stay in the city and will be difficult to visit Miyajima.
Wherever you end up in Japan during the Year of the Rabbit, just look up at the moon in the sky at night. According to Japanese folktales, if you look at the full moon, you will see a rabbit standing over a pot making mochi…apparently. The Tsuki no Usagi (moon rabbit) and full moon are celebrated at Tsukimi (moon viewing) festivals all over Japan, especially during the Autumn Harvest Moon. Whether you can see the rabbit or not, the Autumn months and the colours that come with it are beautiful – A great time of year to experience Japan.
Of course, this is just the start of it. There is so much to look forward when it comes to travel in Japan and so many reasons why you should take a giant rabbit hop into 2023.
We know about Japan travel better than anyone and will ensure that your trip to Japan is as incredible (if not more so) as you think it might be. Download the brochure here or contact the InsideJapan team to plan a cultural adventure to suit you, your time frame and interests.