With a rich cultural heritage that eloquently integrates tradition and innovation, Japan is full of juxtapositions. After a two-year entry restriction that was lifted earlier this year, international travelers are flocking back to explore the splendors the country has to offer.
The diverse landscape unveils its ever-changing tapestry of colors, from the delicate pink sakura cherry blossoms in the spring to the vibrant fiery gradation of koyo autumn foliage. The seasonal transitions are beautifully mirrored in its remarkable dining scene, featuring shun-no-shokuzai (seasonal ingredients).
From the vivacious festivals in cities to serene onsen hot springs in the countryside, there are boundless possibilities for discovery.
1. The thriving restaurant scene
First and foremost, Tokyo has some of the best restaurants in the world, from casual rustic walk-ins to globally acclaimed omakase spots. Chefs dedicate their lives to mastering techniques with their shokunin spirit—the virtue of seeking perfection in their craft. Intricately prepared dishes are served with impeccable service, stemming from the tradition of omotenashi—a deep-rooted psyche of taking care of guests.
2. The vast spectrum of cuisines
The country offers various cuisines, ranging from traditional genres (sushi, tempura, and kaiseki) to progressive and experimental fusions. The appreciation for the change in seasons is often ingrained in any genre, featuring domestically sourced fresh produce Japan’s diverse landscape offers a wide variety of local vegetables, seafood and meat throughout the year. Each region will have their local speciality, whether it be seasonal ingredients or kyodo ryori (literally translating to ‘regional cuisine’).
3. The finely brewed sake
Sake literally translates to ‘alcohol’ in Japanese—rice wine is technically referred to as nihonshu. The beverage was initially brewed in Shinto shrines, and has held a sacred place in the country’s culture. Its production process encapsulates centuries of craftsmanship, carefully blending premium rice, pure water, yeast, and koji fungus. The mountainous terrains provide mineral-rich natural waters, with each water source greatly influencing the character and flavour notes of the final product.
4. Stunning spring blossoms
With flowers emerging after a cold winter, spring represents “new beginnings” in Japan (including the school year, which starts in April). The first sakura, or cherry blossom, appears in the southern islands, and the phenomenon moves its way northwards. There are over 600 types of sakura trees across the country with varying shades of pink. Petals gradually unfold outwards until reaching their peak mankai (full bloom) for a mere few days.
5. Festive summer activities
Summer marks the matsuri festival season, with each region hosting their annual bon-odori (traditional communal dance) or hanabi-taikai (fireworks convention). Many will attend wearing a yukata, a lighter and more casual version of a kimono. Generally, yatai vendors can be found at these celebrations, serving a variety of street food including yakisoba (stir-fried noodles with soy and oyster sauces) and ringo-ame (candy apples).
6. Glorious autumn foliage
As temperatures gradually decline following the scorching summer, the renowned koyo or autumn foliage begins in mid-September in Hokkaido. Leaves transition from shades of green to a breathtaking gradation of red, orange and yellow. The peak season in Kyoto is generally around mid to late November when many visit the stunning zen gardens at Buddhist temples and their colouring momiji (Japanese maple) trees.
7. Refreshing winter weather
Contrary to the grey British winters, the Kanto region (including Tokyo) is usually dry and crisp this time of year, with higher chances of blue skies. Snow can be enjoyed in the mountains, hosting world-renowned ski resorts such as Niseko and Hakuba. It is also the best season to enjoy the onsen (hot springs) at serene Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns)—even snow monkeys can be found bathing in the wild at Jigokudani Monkey Park.
8. Juxtapositions in Tokyo
The Japanese capital is the epitome of paradoxes—the organized chaos of the Scramble Crossing in Shibuya is just one of many examples, with thousands of pedestrians crossing simultaneously. The tranquil Meiji-Jingu Shrine is located next to the pop-culture epicenter Harajuku; the Imperial Palace and pristinely trimmed trees are within walking distance from the bustling business district in Marunouchi. From the early-morning fish market in Toyosu to late-night cocktails in Roppongi, Tokyo is a city that never sleeps.
9. Astonishing history in Kyoto
This historic city was once the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years, from the 8th to 19th centuries. It is home to over 3,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, 16 of which are registered as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites. From the magnificent Kinkakuji Temple (also known as the “Golden Pavilion”) to the incredible Kiyomizu-dera Temple, there is an abundance of extraordinary monuments. The Arashiyama bamboo forest and the red gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine also top many bucket lists.
10. Natural treasures in Hokkaido
The largest prefecture in Japan is also the northernmost island, renowned for its natural wonders. The diverse landscapes and surrounding oceans provide an affluent range of fresh ingredients, including seasonal seafood and vegetables. From blissful spring walks in colorful flower fields to powder-skiing in the winter mountains or slurping miso ramen at the local hole-in-the-wall to tasting delicacies, the region offers myriad activities.
11. Craftsmanship in Hokuriku
Hokuriku is located along the Sea of Japan on the northwestern side of the country’s main island Honshu. The local delicacy Kobako-gani (female snow crab) can only be eaten between November and December, the most popular months to visit Ishikawa and its capital Kanazawa. For those seeking an artisanal experience, Fukui prefecture is rich in craftsmanship, including handmade knives, Echizen washi paper and pottery.
12. Casual bites in Kyushu
In the south of Japan, eight prefectures make up the Kyushu region. The Hakata district in Fukuoka is famous for its casual bites, which are referred to as B-kyu gurume (literally translating to “B-grade” gourmet). The regional ramen here is prepared with a tonkotsu pork-based broth, and served with thin noodles. Other local favorites include mizutaki (chicken hotpot), gyoza (dumplings) and mentaiko (spiced pollock roe).
13. The art island Naoshima
Once nearly-abandoned fishing islands in the Seto Inland Sea, Naoshima, along with Teshima and Inujima, were transformed into ‘art islands’ over the last few decades. Museums and art displays can be found all around the islands, including the iconic yellow pumpkin sculpture by the legendary Yayoi Kusama. The Art House Project renovated seven kominka old houses into interactive exhibitions; the Chichu Art Museum by celebrated architect Tadao Ando and the Lee Ufan Museum are also not to be missed.
14. The rainforest in Yakushima
A temperate rainforest stretches across the sub-tropical island, which is another UNESCO World Heritage. Many travelers trek through the moss-covered forest to appreciate the 83-feet-high Jomon-Sugi, the oldest Cryptomeria tree that is believed to be a few thousand years old. The enchanted national park is also said to be the inspiration for the acclaimed animation film Princess Mononoke by Studio Ghibli, which is also known for creating My Neighbor Totoro.
15. The tropical Okinawa
Beautiful white sand beaches can be found on the tropical islands of Okinawa. Some of the most-visited include the Honto main island, as well as Ishigaki and Miyako islands. Snorkelling and scuba diving with tropical fish in the clear water are popular activities in the summer – those with luck may even encounter turtles, manta rays, or even sharks. In more urban areas, Ryukyu architecture including castles and fortresses are scattered throughout.
16. Magnificent Mount Fuji
The majestic and symmetrical form of Mount Fuji captures the essence of nature’s grandeur and is even visible from Tokyo on a clear day. Its spiritual presence can be enjoyed throughout the seasons, with cherry blossom trees adorning its surrounding forests in the spring to the snow-capped peak in the winter. The tranquil Ashinoko Lake in Hakone is a favored destination to enjoy picturesque views of the symbolic mountain.
17. Relaxing hot springs
With over 100 active volcanoes, Japan has thousands of onsen hot spring locations. Whether it be at a rustic town bath or a luxurious traditional ryokan, visitors can soak in mineral-rich waters to relax and rejuvenate. There are several unwritten rules when bathing—the most important etiquette is to shower before entering fully unclothed (swimsuits are generally prohibited) for sanitary reasons.
18. The abundance of architecture
The architecture in Japan blends history and modernization, with ancient landmarks coexisting alongside futuristic skyscrapers. Many temples and shrines date back over a thousand years, whilst high-rises continuously emerge with innovative designs (including Azabudai Hills, a multi-year project still in progress as of autumn 2023). Tadao Ando is one of the country’s most notable architects, often featuring concrete in his minimalistic and spacious structures.
19. World class contemporary art
Japan has a flourishing contemporary art scene, led by internationally celebrated artists including Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara. Their avant-garde works can be discovered at galleries and museums around the country. Polka dots and infinity rooms by Kusama redefine perception, while Murakami blends pop culture and traditional Japanese motifs with vibrant flower-like characters. Nara’s wide-eyed characters evoke both innocence and rebellion with timeless charm.
20. Seasonal festivals
The Japanese calendar is rife with festivals, celebrating each season with traditional rituals. In the spring, friends and family gather at ohanami picnics to admire the fleeting beauty of cherry blossoms; bamboo branches are covered with colorful tanzaku paper during the Tanabata star festival in the summer. Mochi offerings are made during the tsukimi autumn moon festival, and snow festivals in the winter showcase ice sculptures.
21. The efficient public transport
The nation takes great pride in its incredible public transport system, which is widely known for its reliability and punctuality. The Shinkansen bullet trains operate frequently, swiftly transferring passengers across the country at speeds of up to 300 km/h. Subways and trains, which are most pleasant outside commuting hours, arrive on time by the minute. Those traveling from abroad are able to apply for the Japan Rail Pass, which offers unlimited travel on specified rail lines for a set period of time.
22. The outstanding cleanliness
The country’s reputation for exceptional cleanliness extends far beyond its tidy streets, reflecting a culture deeply rooted in respect. There is a sense of communal responsibility to keep public areas clean for others, stemming from early years in the classroom where students partake in cleaning routines. Furthermore, it is customary in Japanese homes to remove shoes before entering. Travelers may find limited access to rubbish bins outdoors—the norm is for one to take home their own trash.
23. The trustworthy safety
Japan consistently ranks as one of the safest countries globally, with impressively low crime rates. Cash found on the street is typically handed to the police (totaling a few billion yen every year, or several tens of millions of pounds), simply out of goodwill—a testament to a society that profoundly honors integrity. It is also not uncommon for children to commute to school unsupervised. The trust in the community is demonstrated in the heartwarming show Old Enough!, which follows kindergarteners adventuring on errands alone for their first time.
24. Thoughtful customer service
The commitment to customer service is second to none, attributed by politeness and attention to detail. The omotenashi culture wholeheartedly embodies hospitality, proactively anticipating the needs of guests. From hotel concierge to staff at shopping malls, visitors are regularly welcomed and attended to with pristine care. Bowing is an example of the inherently embedded mindset of humility, a respectful gesture that is ingrained in society.
How to Do Tokyo Like a Local
As one of Hoshinoya Tokyo's Edo Meisters—a concierge specializing in the history of the Kanda, Nihonbashi, and Ningyocho neighborhoods—Ryota Onaka knows his hometown. His ideal day exploring our readers' Number 1 Large International City involves craft, tempura, and sweet treats.
“Stepping inside Tenmo feels like you're traveling back in time. It has a beautiful atmosphere and a long history: It started as a food stall in 1885. Ask the chef to prepare butterbur-sprout tempura or the sweetfish if you visit in the spring.”
”This confectionery is famous for its traditional Japanese treats, but its most popular item is kintsuba: red bean paste wrapped in wheat-flour dough. Most kintsuba in Tokyo is square because it's easier to make, but Eitaro Sohonpo still does the classic round version—the shape it's supposed to be. Order a hot coffee or tea, and watch the cooks bake them in front of you.”
“The store, Ubukeya, is originally from Osaka but opened an outpost in Tokyo in the 1800s and still sells daily essentials like scissors, tweezers, and knives. All the items are made by hand, and each product is really special. Part of the name means ‘baby hair’ because their blades are so thin and sharp.”