Japan is known for its futuristic cities, temples and traditions, but why not pair a visit with one of the country’s islands to create the perfect twin-centre trip?

Best of both worlds

Throughout the various lockdowns I started digging deep into my archive of travel memories as a form of escapism. Whilst I would often find myself daydreaming about dipping my toes in creamy-coloured sand, listening to the imaginary waves crashing, I also imagined standing at the lights of the Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, thought to be the busiest intersection in the world, waiting for the lights to change and the organised chaos to unfold. Pre-lockdown I would have described the neon signs, flashing billboards and darting bodies to be an assault on the senses, but after a long travel slumber it’s exactly what I’ve been craving.

Of course, not everyone is ready to be confronted with the mass of people that a city attracts. The more cautious traveller may still be seeking out rural and remote locations, but the good news is that Japan caters to both. And once borders reopen it’s set to reclaim its rightful place as a top bucket-list destination.

Thanks to last year’s Olympic Games, Japan has managed to stay firmly in the spotlight throughout the pandemic, with plans to highlight both its cities and regional attractions in 2022. “The Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games has helped to rekindle interest in Japan, and the Japan National Tourism Organization’s (JNTO) task is to promote the country’s many attractive travel destinations and its accessibility,” said Kyoji Kuramochi, Executive Director and spokesperson of JNTO.  “We are committed to seizing this opportunity to showcase Japan and its lesser-known regional attractions and encourage people to dream.”

City charm

This spring could be the first time in three years that international visitors are able to see the famous cherry blossom, most commonly found in the country’s cities, and the iconic Mt. Fuji.

For city-lovers, there’s no better buzz than walking the bustling streets of Tokyo, full of shiny high-end stores and food halls selling the famous Wagyu and Kobe beef. Of course, if clients are visiting during spring they should embrace sake-fuelled cherry blossom viewing parties called hanami, held in Tokyo’s green spaces and there’s plenty of neighbourhoods offering an insight into Japanese culture, whether that’s watching performing geisha in Asakusa, or browsing anime merchandise in Akihabar. 

“Interest in Tokyo is high,” said a representative from Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau (TCVB). “We are happy that we were able to carry out the highly anticipated Olympic Games despite the difficulties, and we believe that many people are paying attention to Tokyo because of this. For example, Tokyo was recently voted by readers of Condé Nast Traveller UK as the number one city in The Best Cities in the World: 2021.”

Kyoto is Japan’s spiritual heart. Clients looking to participate in a traditional macha tea ceremony, sleep on a futon bed and spend days browsing temples and Zen gardens will find all of the above in Kyoto. It’s also a foodie haven, offering everything from Michelin-starred restaurants to back ally noodle bars and sushi hotspots. 

For history lovers, Takayama City satisfies any visitor’s need to immerse themselves in Japanese history. Takayama has preserved many of the townscape’s historical features such as its overhanging roofs and projecting lattices, giving visitors a feel for what life was like in Edo period Japan.

Island life

Japan has exceptional accessibility from its bullet trains to wide-spread domestic flights. Clients can easily be transported to some of Japan’s subtropical islands from gateway cities such as Tokyo and Osaka.

One such gem is Okinawa, a chain of islands in the East China Sea southeast of mainland Japan. With a year-round warm climate comparable to Hawaii, it’s Okinawa’s remote beaches that attract visitors, but it also has island-hopping appeal. Comprising of 160 subtropical islands, spots such as jungle-clad  Iriomate offer a nature-rich escape with dense subtropical forests, mangrove-lined waterways, picturesque waterfalls and long curving beaches perfect for adventure seekers.

The capital, Naha, is the busiest island, yet space is still abundant with miles of pink sand beaches and swaying sugar cane fields. A new English-speaking city tour, Machi Mai, launched this year, offering an authentic glimpse into the traditional life of Okinawans past and present. The two-hour walking tour, guided by a local expert, stops at Shurijo Castle, the Makishi public market and the city’s historic alleys packed with independent eateries and stores.

“Okinawa’s popularity is unshakable as the place to experience unique culture and nature,” says Takashi Kinjo, Director General, Sales and Promotion Department, Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau (OCVB). “Compared to big cities, Okinawa’s subtropical climate and relaxed island lifestyle make it an ideal destination for post-COVID inbound visitors as well. In addition, Yanbaru and Iriomote Island’s, newly added UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites offer unspoiled nature that is rare in Japan, making them even more attractive for inbound visitors.”

Kinjo notes that recent consumer research shows a strong interest in longevity, wellness, nature and cultural experiences. “We are convinced that Okinawa is the destination that is in tune with the post-COVID global trend. We are also determined to promote ethical tourism to meet expected increase in demand.”

Another of Japan’s rural islands is Hokkaido, the country’s northernmost island. Famous for its powder snow and long ski season from early December until April, Hokkaido’s mountainous terrain is perfect for winter enthusiasts. Seasoned skiers can ski tour up the iconic Mt Yotei, the tallest of Niseko’s volcanoes – with the chance to ski or board into its crater for clients looking for a really unique experience.

Kyushu is Japan’s third-largest island, internationally famous for its ramen, rejuvenating hot springs, dramatic mountains and peaceful beaches, but also as a place that puts an enormous emphasis on sustainability. Visitors who want to get a glimpse of a truly authentic experience of traditional Japanese living should think about staying at a kominka hotel, a Japanese traditional farmhouse.

Book it with...Inside Japan

InsideJapan offers a 13-day ‘Japan Island-Hopping’ self guided adventure which includes time in Tokyo before and after exploring mainland Okinawa and the smaller islands of Tokashikijima, Ishigaki, Taketomi and Iriomote. Priced from £5280pp (excluding international flights) it includes accommodation, domestic flights between Tokyo and Naha, airport transfers, breakfast, some private guiding in Tokyo, kayaking and trekking guide in Iriomote and more.