The Japanese characters that make up Japan's name mean "source of the sun" and it is often called the "Land of the Rising Sun". Why? If you look at Japan from China, it appears that the sun rises from there. Japan is a land of rich culture and history and also well-known for their technology and modernism. It is a great dichotomy to see ancient temples in the middle of modern cities.
Japan is relatively homogeneous and close to 99% of its population is of Japanese descent. The main language is Japanese but many people can speak English and some are quite eager to practice with a tourist. It isn't necessary but learning just a few words and phrases will take you far with the Japanese people. The Japanese are generally polite and it isn't customary to tip in Japan, so don't be surprised if your waiter chases you down the street to return the money you left on the table.
Some of the most popular attractions are Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms, fall foliage, beautiful gardens, sumo wrestling, bullet trains, shrines, Japanese cuisine, and more. If you really want to experience the Japanese culture, consider taking a dip in a hot spring known as an Onsan or stay at a traditional Japanese Inn called a Ryokan. These will really heighten your experience in Japan.
Japan is a fascinating destination but do yourself a favor and give yourself a moderate to generous budget to experience it as much as possible. There are some times of the year it is best to avoid like the first week of January (New Year), last week of April and first week of May (Golden Week), and in mid-July to early August (Obon Festival and summer vacation). Many of these periods are during major holidays so most public transportation is fully booked and accommodations are more expensive.
Japan is an island nation in East Asia and it is an archipelago consisting of almost 7,000 islands in total. Japan consists of four main islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu plus the Ryukyu Islands and thousands of smaller islands. It also has 47 regional divisions called prefectures and each has its own capital and is comparable to a state in the U.S.
Mountains and forests cover approximately 70% of the total land mass so that doesn't leave much room for their 127 million inhabitants. It is probably why the Japanese are masters of making use of small spaces.
Honshu is the biggest island and where most of the population and tourists travel to. There are also many long, sandy beaches in Japan which surprises many people.
How to distinguish a Shinto shrine from a Buddhist temple? Shrines almost always have gates known as torii (or "bird perch")—two pillars topped by two horizontal beams. In contrast, Buddhist temples often have gateways with tiled roofs that look like miniature versions of the temple itself.
You'll see "samurai castles" perched on hilltops around the country, but only 12 are original. Others, including the famous Osaka Castle, are modern concrete replicas. Himeji Castle, west of Kobe, is by far the most imposing and is well worth a day trip—as is the black Crow's Castle in Matsumoto, to the north of Nagoya in central Japan.
The Hello Kitty phenomenon celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2019. The omnipresent cat, which was dreamed up (and is still owned) by Sanrio Corp., even appears on telephones, a brand of water, and underwear.
Raised floors help indicate when to take off slippers or shoes. At the entrance to a home in Japan, the floor will usually be raised about 6 inches (15cm) indicating you should take off your shoes and put on slippers. If the house has a tatami mat room, its floor may be raised only 1-2 inches (2.5-5cm) indicating you should take off your shoes.
The so-called "eternal flame" that burns in Hiroshima is not actually intended to be eternal. It will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon is destroyed.
Buildings are numbered according to when they were built, not their location on a street. To find a business or home, you may need to do as the locals do: Take the address to the neighborhood police box (or koban)—they're everywhere. You may find maps posted around, but they're of little help unless you read Japanese.
Pachinko parlors are everywhere (the game resembles vertical pinball and can pay off like a slot machine). The parlors are incredibly noisy, brightly lit, smoky and invariably full of people, night and day. Although skilled players can make money, for most it's just an enjoyable pastime.
One survey in 2018, estimated that 27% of foreign travelers arrived in the country uninsured and that 5% of inbound tourists fell ill or were injured during their stay in Japan. Make sure you have medical coverage when you travel to Japan as they are making stricter rules and you may be turned away from receiving life-saving care!
From the gorgeous textures of Kyoto's temples to the sobering beauty of Hiroshima and Miyajima Island, and from the refreshing mountain air of the Japanese Alps to the exciting megalopolis of Tokyo, this standout among Japan tours will captivate you with the country's incredible culture, people and natural beauty. This trip starts in Kyoto and ends in Tokyo, and could be easily extended to include more time in the capital if desired. This special trip made with an intimate group of a maximum of 16 travellers is the ideal “once-in-a-lifetime” trip to Japan, covering everything you would wish to see yet also allowing for unscripted, non-touristic experiences that will linger long after you return home.
The following itinerary is courtesy of Goway Travel.
Day 1—Arrive Kyoto: Konnichiwa! Welcome to Japan. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting tonight in Kyoto with your tour leader, and the remainder of the evening is at leisure to settle in and explore the neighbourhood.
Day 2—Kyoto: Begin the day with an orientation walk around some of Kyoto's more important places like Fushimi Inari shrine complex, Tenryuji temple, and the Arashiyama (the famous bamboo grove). End the day with a tea ceremony with a "maiko" (an apprentice geisha), followed by a walk around Gion and its old wooden teahouses and exclusive restaurants.
Day 3—Kyoto: A day at your leisure. You might choose a gentle stroll through the eastern hills along the 'Path of Philosophy' which links Ginkaku-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) with Nanzen-ji Temple. This walk can be extended south through well-preserved 'old town' areas to Kiyamizu-dera (Temple of Clear Water) from where there is a justifiably famous view across a wooded gorge toward Kyoto. We also recommend a visit to the extravagantly decorated Kinkakuji temple, immortalised in Yukio Mishima's novel "The Golden Pavilion". Close to your hotel is the architecturally impressive Higashi Honganji temple and the almost surreal Sanjusangendo, home to 1,001 statues of Kannon. Another recommendation is to take a walk in the wooded hills of Inari Mountain, famous for its Shinto 'fox temple' and atmospheric tunnels of red torii gates.
Day 4—Kyoto: Today you will take a day trip to the city of Nara, approximately 1 hour from Kyoto. With eight World Heritage sites, Nara is second only to Kyoto as a fountain of Japan's cultural legacy. While here you'll visit Todaiji Temple, with friendly wild deer roaming freely in the park around it. You'll also visit the Kasuga Taisha (Kasuga Grand Shrine), Nara's most celebrated shrine. Kasuga Taisha is famous for its lanterns, which have been donated by worshipers. Return to Kyoto for the evening, which is free for your own rest or exploration.
Day 5—Kyoto to Hiroshima: Today you'll wave goodbye to Kyoto as you ride the rails on a bullet train to Hiroshima. Travelling by Shinkansen is an absolute buzz, as you'll reach speeds of up to 270 kilometres per hour. Stop en route and pay a visit to Japan's most impressive samurai castle at Himeji. Continue on to Hiroshima, the city indelibly connected with World War II and the atomic bomb. You'll stay in a local hotel attached to the train station, just 20 minutes by tram from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
Day 6—Hiroshima: This morning you'll visit the Genbaku (A-Bomb) Dome and the Peace Memorial Park and Museum, both of which stand testament to the day in August 1945 when Hiroshima was chosen as target for the first ever wartime use of the atomic bomb. In the afternoon you will head for the serene, enchanting island of Miyajima, reached after a short ferry ride across the Inland Sea. The island is home to the venerable Shinto shrine of Itsukushima, famous for its huge bright orange gate (tori) that rises majestically out of the sea. At high tide it is considered to be one of the most beautiful sights in Japan. The size and physical landscape of Miyajima makes it an ideal place for walking. There is the lovely Momaji Park (known as Maple Valley), from where it is possible to walk or take a cable car up to the top of Mt. Misen. Return to Hiroshima for the night.
Day 7—Hiroshima to Takayama: Your group leader will try and arrange a meeting with a Hiroshima atomic bomb survivor on day 5, 6 or the morning of day 7. Due to the sensitivity of these meetings, this is not guaranteed. Later this morning, travel to Takayama, a charming Edo-period town located in the Japanese alps. Renowned for its traditional inns, sake breweries and tranquil atmosphere, this riverside jewel of central Honshu may well be one of the most enjoyable stops on your trip. Later, enjoy free time to make your own discoveries.
Day 8—Takayama: Today you will visit the local Takayama farmers market, try some Japanese treats and peruse the stalls. Afterwards, visit Hida Folk Village, an open-air museum of traditional architecture. Cross your fingers for clear skies, as the alps are stunning from this vantage point on a clear day. This afternoon, visit a sake brewery - the alpine climate and crystal clear mountain waters are perfect for creating this signature drop. Enjoy a walk around the brewery, followed by a sake tasting.
Day 9—Takayama to Tokyo:
In the morning you will make your way by train to Japan's amazing capital, Tokyo, and your centrally-located hotel where you'll be based for the next three nights. Bursting with contemporary urban culture, there are many sides of Tokyo to explore: fascinating museums, world-class shopping, bustling energy and futuristic architecture. There are many vestiges of the past, with historic temples and shrines still to be found in some of the most unexpected places, as well as an abundance of parks and gardens. After you arrive, you have free time to explore. Perhaps walk the short distance to see the Imperial Palace and its gardens, then enjoy the myriad food options for dinner.
Day 10—Tokyo: Today you'll undertake a varied, full-day tour of the city, beginning in the historic Asakusa area. This is one of the older and more traditional parts of Tokyo, and is often called the temple district. After lunch you'll enjoy an alternative view of Tokyo as you relax on a short cruise down the Sumida River. Later you'll make your way to the luxurious shopping district of Ginza where, depending on the theatre schedule, you'll have the chance to see a short performance of Kabuki, one of Japan's more spectacular performing arts.
Day 11—Tokyo: Today is a free day to explore this pulsating city, where there's almost an endless amount of things to see and do. In Shinjuku the city's highest skyscrapers offer panoramic views, and on clear days you can see Mount Fuji. Districts in the east are magnets for the city's breathtakingly trendy youth, the crowds at Shibuya Crossing, the costumes in Harajuku, as well as the important Meiji Jingu Shrine. Take in history at the Imperial Palace in Chiyoda, or see ancient treasures at the National Museum in Ueno. Another great museum is the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku. You might want to spend some time in the city's green spaces like Yoyogu and Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, and browse high-end shops in Ginza. This evening, join your group for a farewell dinner.
Day 12—Tokyo: The trip ends in Tokyo this morning after breakfast and you are free to depart at any time.
As a Japan Specialist, I have found that more people are interested in a custom itinerary to Japan instead of the escorted tour sample I posted above. It is a much more involved and detailed itinerary so I posted a sample Japan quote on my Example Documents page.