These are heady days for tourism to Japan. With tired perceptions changing and visitor numbers accelerating, the country is the long-haul star of the moment.

Zen time

I am waiting for a short, sharp tap on my shoulder. I have been warned that if my posture starts to slump or it appears like I am dozing off I will receive the hit from a Kyosaku stick, administered by the monk supervising our Zazen (meditation) class.

This will not be punishment as such but a gesture of encouragement on behalf of Manjushri Bodhisattva, one of the most important, iconic figures of Mahayana Buddhist art and literature.

I am sitting on a small royal-blue coloured cushion (called a zafu), legs folded and facing a wooden panel.

Unlike my media colleagues, I am not flexible enough to get into the half-lotus position the monk has shown us, and just 15 minutes or so into what I am told will be an hour-long session my thighs are aching and my right foot has not so much fallen asleep as slipped into a coma.

I am at the Eihei-ji Temple, about an hour or so from Kanazawa in western Japan, at one of the most significant complex of buildings devoted to the Soto Zen school of Buddhism. The monks here welcome individual guests, but this is not a stop for bus loads of tourists.

There is birdsong outside and I am trying to ‘empty’ my mind and embrace the teachings of Zen, but with my hands forming a circle and lightly cradling an imaginary egg, my thoughts keep drifting to whether or not to buy the silk fan I had seen earlier in the gift shop down the road.

I am aware I am a long way from attaining the physical and mental peace that is the ultimate goal of Zazen.

That hit from the Kyosaku never arrives and it is a relief as I hear the clang of the bell – just 20 minutes into our session - that signifies Zazen is over.

Perhaps our monk has taken pity on me – as we bow and make one final cup-handed ‘Shahsu’ gesture to a statue of Manjushri Bodhisattva, he looks directly at me and flashes a smile.

New visitors

Introductory meditation experiences such as these are a speciality at Eihei-ji and sanctioned by the monks in advance. They are also available at Hakujukan Inn, just a short walk away from Eihei-ji Temple.

Whether it is meditation and temple visits or adventure activities like rafting, cycling, hiking or bird watching, Japan has a rich line-up of attractions – as UK travellers are fast discovering.

Whether it is meditation and temple visits or adventure activities like rafting, cycling, hiking or bird watching, Japan has a rich line-up of attractions – as UK travellers are fast discovering.

And with Japan hosting next summer’s Olympic Games there should be no slowing of momentum.

The Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) expects this double dose in the global glare will help change outdated perceptions of the country and attract a new type of visitor.

“The RWC, with up to around 400,000 people from several nations moving around the country between cities and stadiums, has shown what an accessible country Japan is. It has illustrated that things like language, cuisine and even cost no longer have to be impossible barriers to enjoying all that Japan has to offer,” says the JNTO’s Marketing and Communications Manager, Matthew Joslin.

Operators are already seeing the rise in interest. Gold Medal and Travel 2 report bookings are up a combined 70% compared to last year.

“From booking dates between January and September 2019 we’ve seen an increase of 31.7% in sales to Japan,” says Nick Hughes, Sales Director at Gold Medal and Travel 2. “For Gold Medal, Tokyo is the most popular destination, followed by Kyoto and Osaka, with resorts in Kobe and Nagoya also selling well. For Travel 2, sales for Japan tours have grown by 107%.”

Both Gold Medal and Travel 2 have extended their range of accommodation options, particularly properties offering traditional stays, and have expanded their number of touring options and day tours around the time of the Olympics.

Capital attractions

Tokyo will feature on the majority of itineraries, because most visitors picking Japan are going for the first time.

The city has enough attractions to sustain an extended stay. These range from city parks and gardens to shrines and temples, or shopping and street food.

For an orientation of the city, suggest a bike tour that takes in sites such as Central Station, which sees over a million passengers a day; the Imperial Palace; Buddhist temples like Asakusa Kannon; and Shinto shrines such Meiji (look out for the stone red foxes, now the ‘guardians of commerce’, outside Shinto shrines).

For an introduction to the city’s food scene, Intrepid and its partner Urban Adventures takes clients to backstreets, alleyways and local izakaya-style eateries.

Beyond Tokyo

Outside of the capital the touring options are infinite – from the cherry blossoms (March to May) and a historic geisha district in Kyoto, to Hiroshima’s historic sights and thriving food scene, Kanazawa, a city on the west coast known for its centuries-old artisan traditions, and Kenroku Gardens, one of the finest in Japan, is now connected to Tokyo by bullet train – a journey that takes passengers from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Japan in less than three hours.

Says Inside Japan Director, Simon King: “Tokyo, Kyoto and the Mt. Fuji area are must-sees for first-time visitors but I would also add Hiroshima, both for its historic interest and for nearby Miyajima Island. In Kyoto hire a bike to get around – you’ll see so much more and it is a (mainly) flat city.

“For second timers, it really depends on their interests. Art lovers will want to visit Naoshima ‘art island’, in the area west of Kyoto which encompasses the Seto Inland Sea, one of the most prominent multi-island seas in the world.

“Those who like gardens will want to see Kenrokuen in Kanazawa and the Adachi Museum, near Matsue. For hiking in the countryside, suggest the Shinetsu Trail that follows the path of the Sekida Mountains.”

Visitors can learn how to make soba noodles and visit one of Japan’s most beautiful original castles in Matsumoto, discover ancient shrines in Takayam and see the Great Buddha in Nara.

Hakone, famous for its hot springs, is also the gateway to the Mt. Fuji region.

Japan is also ‘quirky’ and very safe. Says King: “Japan is clean, efficient, reliable and with a culture so different from our own. It is also fun and people usually come back having had an experience that exceeded their expectations.”

Those cultural differences are never far away. There’s the onsens (hot springs and public baths) shared by strangers in their birthday suits, toilet seats that are heated and with a variety of vibration and water jet options, Kit-Kats that come in a multitude of favours – such as apple, green tea, grape, banana and even baked potato – and over 5.5 million vending machines dispensing all manner of drinks and snacks.

Ski, adventure & cruise

With its more iconic attractions now becoming better known, the focus of the JNTO’s activities moving forward will turn to niche sectors such as ski, adventure and active travel and wellness.

Japan’s snow season runs from late November to late April, with usually consistent, high-quality snow throughout the season (areas of Hokkaido got up to 20 metres last year). There’s even a term for its powder snow: ‘Ja-Pow’.

Japan Airlines has a winter campaign that allows passengers to check-in their snow equipment – skis or snowboard plus boots – at no extra cost.

The JNTO is planning a wide variety of collaborative campaigns with tour operators, ski operators, airlines, cruise providers and DMCs to capitalise specifically on these markets.

Cruise is also a priority and with Japan being made up of over 6,000 islands and a wondrous coastline, cruising provides a good way to see off-the-beaten-track Japan, says the JNTO’s Joslin.

"Cruise is a relatively new focus for us at the JNTO. On a cruise, authentic Japan is on offer without compromising on comfort,” Matthew Joslin explains.

Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Endeavor, its first expedition yacht, will launch next year and has announced it will sail to Japan. The 200-passenger vessel has a spa and salon and six restaurants, including Nobu Matsuhisa’s Umi Uma.

Trade focus

The JNTO is planning a series of fam trips, individual training sessions and networking opportunities for agents through events in the UK and in Japan.

Next September, the JNTO will take agents and operators to the Visit Japan Travel Mart (VJTM), to meet with suppliers and tourism organisations and to get to know the country first-hand on a series of fam trips. Applications open in June 2020.

New this year is the JNTO 100 Experiences handbook, pinpointing the best in experiential travel from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south, alongside a fresh version of the Time Out Japan guide, available to agents.

An updated version of the JNTO agent training platform will go live next year, off the back of this year’s launch of the new Japan travel hub at japan.travel/en/uk.

What’s new

Airlines: ANA collaborated with Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and British designers Acumen to create new First Class ‘THE Suite’ and Business Class ‘THE Room’, now featuring on its direct daily London–Tokyo route which is served by a B777-300ER. The new cabins come complete with a private door and large 4K monitors. ‘THE Room’ is double the seat width compared to previous Business Class seats. ANA also has a maximum 10,800 yen ‘ANA Experience Japan fare’ for overseas visitors. These apply to single flights anywhere in Japan.

Operators: Titan has a new 19-day cruise-and-stay holiday featuring Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Authentic Japan tour is priced from £3,999pp including the cruise on Fred. Olsen’s MV Boudicca and British Airways’ flights from Heathrow.

Inghams has added two Japan Alps ski packages to its portfolio. Clients can now enjoy 10 ski areas with one life pass in Hakuba, from £1952pp. For those wanting to go off-piste, Nozawa Onsen won’t disappoint, with prices from £2,012pp.

Rail: Railbookers has a new selection of rail holidays to Japan. Among them is the 14-day Best of Japan Tour which takes in Tokyo, Hakone, Takayama, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, Kyoto and back to Tokyo. Prices start from £4,099pp.

Where to book it

Inside Japan offers a 13-night Classic Japan tour takes in Tokyo, Kamikochi, Takayama, Osaka, Kyoto and Hakone. Experiences along the way include bathing in a hot spring bath at the foot of Mount Fuji, drinking sake with an apprentice geisha in Kyoto and seeing Tokyo from the Sumida River. On July and August departures, there’s the option to Climb Mt. Fuji. Prices start from £3,595pp.