Japan is a country of vast contradictions, tradition and modernity; juxtapositions are everywhere to be seen. On a corner stands a skyscraper, with the latest technology screaming out on electronic billboards, with an old wooden traditional building, falling apart, right next door. The Japanese have struggled with being wanting to be westernized, yet still holding firm to their own identity and traditions.
Best Time To Go
Tokyo enjoys a moderate climate all year round. The best time for sightseeing in Tokyo is March to May and September to November. Cherry Blossom season in Japan is around late March to mid April, and is a spectacular sight enjoyed by many local and international tourists each year.
If going to Japan to ski, the best time is from mid January to late February, although the snow is reasonable in December and March also.
Generally, March to May is a good time to visit most regions of Japan, with October and November also being pleasant in the south.
Tokyo has a mind-boggling array of shopping, entertainment and dining. However, this huge metropolis also boasts beautiful gardens, historic temples and excellent museums. The sheer number of people can be a little overwhelming for some, but there are unexpected respites peppered throughout the city in the form of Zen-like parks and Shinto shrines. The Japanese culture is unlike any other country on Earth, and the sub-cultures that are on display in Tokyo, such as Manga and Harajuku, make this a colourful and unforgettable city. You will find below just a few of the delights of Tokyo – there are so many we’ve just focussed on the highlights.
Public bath houses are very popular in Japan. Neighbourhood bath houses called ‘Sento’ can be found all around Tokyo. Hot springs called ‘Onsen’ are often visited as weekend retreats. Bathing is not for getting clean – it is important you wash before entering the bath or hot spring. It is about soaking in warm water and relaxing. Ninety-nine percent of onsens and sentos are gender specific, and do not be surprised if you are the star attraction when naked.
Asakusa & Sensoji Temple
Sensoji Temple, also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple, is one of Tokyo’s oldest and most popular Buddhist temples. An outdoor shopping mall called Nakamise, leads from the outer gate to the front of the temples, and offers tourists the opportunity to purchase colourful souvenirs, and to try some of Japan’s traditional festive treats.
Meiji Jingu – Shibuya
Meiji Jingu is a Shinto Shrine. This shrine was dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. It was established on 1 November 1920. The shrine and grounds cover over 700,000m2 in the heart of Tokyo city. It is a beautiful place for a wander especially in Cherry Blossom season. You may even stumble across a traditional Japanese wedding while there.
Yoyogi Park & Harujuku
For some light-hearted entertainment, head to Yoyogi Park in Shibuya, and nearby Harujuku for some people watching. All types of weird and wonderful people hang out in these two places. Punks, Elvis look-alikes, Rockabillys, hip hop dancers, and don’t forget the pampered pooches dressed up in tutus and sequins.
Head to Starbucks on the second floor of the Tsutaya Building near Shibuya Station, and wait for the lights to go red. At that moment you will see thousands of people crossing the road in all different directions in organized chaos. It is a real spectacle not to be missed.
Tsukiji Fish Market
This is the world’s largest and busiest fish market, and has become extremely popular with tourists in the past few years, therefore the number of visitors allowed inside the market has been limited to 120 per day. Visitors are selected on a first come first serve basis and registrations start at 5am at the fish information centre. Our tip would be to pre-book a tour with an English speaking local guide, to guarantee your spot, and for you to get an insight into what all the screaming and banter is about.
When in Japan, Sumo is a must if you happen to be there when a tournament is being held. These operate alternate months, and tickets and a tour of the Ryogoku Kokugikan – Tokyo’s National Sumo Hall – is an ideal way to experience this national sport.
You cannot leave Tokyo before having a night out in a Karaoke bar with friends or strangers, or both. The Japanese love karaoke, and most nights out with friends in Japan generally end up here, in a private room, with waiters serving drinks until closing time.
Take a day trip to Nikko. Nikko is one of Japan’s most beautiful regions, with spectacular “Edo Period” architecture displayed in the temples and shrines of the area, surrounded by breathtaking scenery. The Japanese try to visit here at least once in their lifetime. If you plan to stay in Tokyo for most of your stay, ask a Cherry consultant about organizing a day trip to Nikko, which will be a perfect way to escape the bustle of Tokyo.
Tokyo for Kids
Tokyo Disneyland & Tokyo Disney Sea Life – Be warned these theme parks are extremely busy, but if you’re visiting Tokyo with the kids, these are a must visit. Some say Disney Sea Life is better than Disneyland. In either case it pays to plan your visit carefully to reduce queue waiting times.
National Museum of Nature & Science – Great fun for kids young and old, and they might just learn something too.
Fire Museum – Kids get to dress up and play in helicopters and fire trucks. Free admission, good for an hour or two of entertainment.
Legoland Discovery Centre – Don’t miss the laser hallway right at end of the museum.
Tokyo Dome City – This amusement park has a rollercoaster going through an office building.
The nation’s capital for over 1000 years, Kyoto has over 1600 shrines and temples, plenty of palaces and museums and serene gardens peppered throughout the city. Not to be missed.
The residence of the Tokugawa era shoguns. The gold-leaf covered Golden Pavilion which houses sacred relics of Buddha is surrounded by an exquisite garden.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Former residence of the Emperor of Japan. Located in a beautiful park.
Overhanging a cliff on the mountainside east of Kyoto. It was constructed without a single nail. The view from here is amazing in the evening. from Kyoto Station. Adults JPY300, kids JPY200.
Eastern Kyoto old town. Architectural style has been preserved since feudal Japan. Geisha can be spotted late at night.
Sagano Bamboo Grove
North-west of Kyoto, this incredible site has been used in many old samurai movies. You can access it directly from the main street of Arashiyama, a little to the north of the entrance to Tenryu-ji Temple, but it’s best paired with a visit to that temple (exit the north gate, take a left and you’ll be in the grove in no time). There’s just one main path through the grove, which leads slowly uphill. Once you get to the top of the hill, the entrance to the sublime Okochi-Sanso Villa is right in front of you (go in, you won’t regret it).
This port city has plenty of interesting attractions, most notably Universal Studios, which attracts huge crowds, particularly on weekends.
There is plenty to see in and around the castle. The castle itself is a five layer donjon with 60,000m2 of parkland surrounding it.
This temple is beautiful at night as it is lit by hundreds of lanterns.
Namba Parks is part-park, part-shopping complex, and you will be amazed at how seamlessly these concepts fit together here, where ascending parkland rises eight storeys high, comprising of fields and forest, waterfalls and streams.
The 40 storeys of the Umeda Sky Building make it one of the tallest buildings in Japan, and one of Osaka’s most memorable landmarks. Its unique design features escalators encased in glass tubing, suspended between its two towers, which lead all the way up to its greatest height: an upper atrium that contains the luminous ‘floating sky garden’. This rooftop observatory offers a delightful view of the city (especially at sunset or nightfall), with a glowing floor that mimics the lights and colors of the galaxy on an inky black backdrop.
HEP (Hankyu Entertainment Park)
HEP Five is perfect for a night filled with entertainment and retail therapy. Along with 100-plus shops and eateries catering to the hippest of the hip, there is also a ferris wheel with a great city view, and a gigantic piece of installation art (in the form of two red whales suspended from the ceiling) to enjoy here. Hankyu Lines and Subway Midosuji Line.
This famous shopping street is covered by a glass dome, making it a good spot to visit whatever the weather. Close to the interesting streets of Dōtonbori and Amerika-mura, it is a well-located launch point for a day’s exploration, but worth checking out in its own right too.
Universal Studios theme park and the immensely popular Harry Potter World are located in Osaka. Try to visit on a weekday to avoid the huge crowds on the weekends.
Take a day trip to Nara. Walk up Nobori-oji Street where you’ll encounter Nara’s famous sacred deer. Head to Isui-en Garden and Todai-ji Temple. Before entering the Daibutsu-den Hall to see the Great Buddha (Daibutsu), walk a little south to check out the Nandai-mon Gate, with its two huge guardian figures. Follow the narrow pathways through the forest to Kasuga-Taisha Shrine. Follow the main path from Kasuga-Taisha all the way west until you reach Kofuku-ji Temple. Make a loop south through Naramachi, checking out Sarusawa-no-ike Pond, Koshi-no-Ie and the shops and galleries of the area.
Visit the 21st century Contemporary Art Museum, Kenrokuen garden, geisha and samurai streets. It’s known for its well-preserved Edo Period districts, art museums and regional handicrafts.
This beautifully preserved town gives an insight into traditional Japan like no other. It is most famous for the Sanno-machi Historic District and the biannual Takayama Festival, which has been designated as one of Japan’s most beautiful festivals. The Festival is held in Spring and Autumn annually.
Less than 100kms from Tokyo, this town provides a welcome respite for many from the hustle and bustle of Japan. There are plenty of hot springs, and beautiful vistas of Mt Fuji and lakes.
This island is located just 20kms from the heart of Hiroshima. It is recognized as one of the 3 most scenic places in Japan. The island includes many cultural heritage sites and historic alleys, a national park, and a five-story pagoda for viewing the cherry blossoms.
According to Japanese folklore, Awaji Island is the birthplace of Japan. There is much to see and do in and around Awaji Island. The Monkey Center is worth a visit, as is the Sennenichi Sake Brewery, Izanagi Shrine, Sumoto Castle, Yumebutai Gardens, Naruto Whirlpools and the hot springs.
Niseko has become an extremely popular ski destination due to the amount of dry powder it receives each year – around 15 metres. The ski fields are suitable for beginners to advanced skiers and boarders. The ski lift tickets are valid across 4 mountains and night skiing is available.
The area is home to many Aussies and you’ll find a large number of the local business either staffed or owned by Australians. The accommodation on offer is of a high standard, from apartments and hotels to luxury houses, perfect for family groups. There is a buzzing bar scene with plenty of hip hole in the wall establishments.
Hanazono Adventure Park, Kids Land Annupuri, Mate Kids Park, Rusutsu Resort – Snow play for the kids with various activities at each different park.
Niseko Babysitters – Niseko has a great dining and bar scene, so leave the kids at home with a babysitter and have a night out! These babysitters are mainly from Australia and the team offer a very professional service.
Lake Toya is a volcanic caldera lake, and the associated Mount Usu is a very active volcano, which last erupted in 2000. There is a museum that outlines lots of fascinating information about this geothermal region, and not surprisingly, the area also features various hot springs (onsens). 60 Minute drive from Niseko.
It’s novel to see snow at sea level, but it’s also nice to look at the historic canals, the seafood market, the glass crafts, the wacky Japanese shops, and indulge in some Japanese culture. The information centre at Otaru station can provide English maps that outline the various tourist attractions.
Hakuba boasts the steepest runs of Japan’s 600 ski resorts. Hakuba is home to seven resorts, which encircle the massive Olympic Ski Jump Stadium. Many events of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, including the downhill skiing, were held on the slopes here. The small village atmosphere of this resort town is another major drawcard.
Staying in Hakuba you have access to eight different ski resorts. The most popular being Happo-One, Hakuba 47 and Hakuba Goryu. Happo One is the flagship ski area of Hakuba, and rated the best by many. Happo-One has 23 lifts, 13 courses, the longest run is 8km, night skiing, a freestyle park, and a wide variety of mountain restaurants.
Should you get bored of Happo try Hakuba 47, a favourite for the young snowboarders, which also links to Hakuba Goryu. Goryu, has wide intermediate slopes and plenty of choice for beginners.
Hakuba is home to some wonderful restaurants and bars. Ensure you try a delicious bowl of Ramen at Emu restaurant in town. (Bookings required most nights – nothing flash but the ramen is to die for). There is also a shuttle bus that will transport you around the local areas to the restaurants and bars for a small fee.
Snow Monkeys & Zenkoji Temple
Our tip is to book a tour before departing for Japan and avoid the huge crowds by going on a weekday. Be aware that quite a lot of walking on slippery uneven surfaces is required.
Tips & Tricks
All foreign nationals, including permanent residents of Japan, are required to have their fingerprints electronically scanned and are photographed upon arrival in Japan. Visas are not normally required for Australians entering Japan for tourism for less than 90 days. For up-to-date visa information, Australians should contact the nearest Embassy or Consulate of Japan.
The currency is the Japanese Yen. You can pre-purchase Japanese Yen on a multi currency cash passport, and then withdraw Yen at the ATM in Narita airport, so you have some on arrival. There are many ATMs in and around Tokyo, which have English instructions. Most 7-11 stores have ATMs that take many Australian cards, and most stores and restaurants will accept credit cards. Outside of Tokyo, particularly in the ski regions, it’s a good idea to stock up on cash before you arrive. Most establishments are cash only and there will usually only be one or two ATMs in the region.
Tipping is not required, and can be considered offensive to the Japanese. Some restaurants may add a service charge to the bill.
Japan uses a different mobile phone system to the rest of the world. Until recently, no mobile phones from other countries would work in Japan. With the advent of 3G phones this is now changing. You need to check with your mobile phone carrier before you leave if your particular phone will work. Having said that the charges can be extraordinarily high when using your phone in Japan, so it is often better to use a Travelsim or hire a phone in Japan.
Japan can be extremely overwhelming for the first time visitor if you do not speak Japanese. Japanese people are mostly shy, and find it difficult to converse in English unless they have had plenty of practice. Learning a few phrases before you go is a good idea. A little Japanese goes a long way in Japan – if you are obviously foreign the effort is greatly appreciated. Areas like Niseko you will find just about everyone speaks excellent English. A city like Osaka, you will find there is very little English.
Shoes On Shoes Off
When entering a Japanese house and some restaurants, outdoor shoes are always replaced by slippers at the doorway. When entering a room with a tatami floor, slippers are removed as well. Tatami should only be stepped on with socks or in bare feet. Some restaurants will also supply you with special toilet slippers as well.
Practice sitting cross-legged before you go, as many restaurants will have traditional seating.
Most Japanese restaurants will give you a small wet cloth. Use this to wash your hands before eating, then carefully fold it and set it aside on the table. Do not use it as a napkin, or to touch any part of your face.
When eating noodles in a Japanese restaurant, you may hear the locals sipping their noodles and soup very loudly. This is considered normal and a sign that the meal is delicious. Try it out for a bit of fun!
It is polite to bow your head when greeting another person, whether it is to say hello, goodbye or thank you. The degree of which you bow shows your respect and how sincere you are – a mere tilt of the head may be towards a stranger, and bowing whilst bending from the waist shows a deeper mark of respect.
Most western style hotel rooms will provide normal western style bedding. If you choose to stay in more traditional inn-style accommodation, commonly known as a ryokan – expect to sleep on futons laid out on tatami mats, and remember no shoes inside on the tatami.
Most hotels will have bathrooms the size of your toilet back home, and most are plastic cubicles, which sometime feel you are on a cruise boat. Toilets can be Japanese style (basically a hole in the ground), or Western. The Western style toilets are like flying an aeroplane there are so many buttons. Follow the pictures to figure out which one is flush!
Water in Japan is safe to drink. Just be aware of the small risk associated with parasites in raw seafood.
Narita Airport is located approximately 58kms east of Tokyo station. The most convenient way of getting from the airport to downtown Tokyo is by rail or bus. The Tokyo rail system can be daunting when first arriving into Tokyo, so sometimes it is easier on arrival to catch the airport limousine bus or shared shuttle bus service, and this can take you from the airport to your hotel door. The only downside of this is the traffic, particularly at peak hour.
If you are willing to brave the rail system on arrival there are two main options, the Narita Express run by JR East, (which means you can use your JR Rail pass on this service), and the Keisei Electric Railway, which has the Skyliner and operates direct from Narita to Nippori and Ueno stations.
CHERRY TIP: If you decide to take the Narita Express into Tokyo, stop by the JR East Travel Centre, and get yourself a Suica Card and Narita Express ticket package. These are not available to purchase from outside of Japan, and are only available to foreign passport holders. These give you access to a discounted ticket on the Narita Express, and also come loaded with 1500 Yen to use in shops and to purchase Tokyo metro and bus tickets.
The JR Yamanote line, and the Tokyo metro system are the best ways to get around Tokyo to see the sights. The system is similar to the tube in London, just much more crowded at peak hour, but just as fast and efficient. The stops are written in English as well as Japanese, and the station announcements are also repeated in English. Try to avoid peak hour train travel, which is generally from 7am–9am in the morning, and 4–7pm in the evenings. If planning to travel greater distances around Japan, such as a trip to Kyoto or Hiroshima, Cherry recommends a Japan JR Rail Pass. These have to be purchased in Australia prior to departure, and are only valid for foreigners. Ask your Cherry consultant for more details.