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Whether you’re new to Japan or you’ve traveled here many times, this country of 430 inhabited islands will unveil a new facet at every turn. You can take in the lakes and shrines surrounding Mount Fuji, the brilliant building-high signs of Osaka, the ancient temples of Kyoto, and the avant-garde architecture on remote Naoshima Island. Tokyo is a feast for urban aesthetes, with globally chic design stores, fashion boutiques, and cocktail bars, while the dramatic gorges and vapor-wrapped volcanos of Hokkaido’s national parks will thrill lovers of the outdoors.
It’s hard not to make Japanese cuisine a cornerstone of your visit, whether you’re sampling your way through regional styles of ramen or honoring the season’s most evocative ingredients with an elegant kaiseki meal. The twin assets of Japanese hospitality and the country’s well-designed infrastructure make it easy to experience Japan’s many delights, traveling between megacities and remote coastal villages.
Most people flying into Japan will arrive in Tokyo at Narita International Airport (NRT) or Haneda Airport (HND), though hundreds of flights every day also land in Osaka (KIX), Fukuoka (FUK), and Sapporo (CTS). If you’re traveling from one island to another, domestic flights are easy to find, and ferries offer a leisurely, scenic way to navigate the country. But Japan’s rail system is one of the best in the world. If you’ll be moving around frequently during your visit, consider purchasing a Japan Rail Pass for 7, 14, or 21 days, which covers Japan’s six major rail companies and many of the shinkansen (bullet train) routes.
If you’re comfortable driving on the left side of the road, you might consider renting a car for travel in more rural areas, but Japan’s most-visited cities all have comprehensive subway, train, and bus networks. (Mapping apps on your phone can help you determine the best routes and find your station.) Rideshares aren’t common, even in Tokyo, but taxis are. If you don’t speak Japanese and want to avoid confusion, show your taxi driver your destination translated into Japanese on a smartphone or hand-written note.
Though it’s hard to make generalizations about an archipelago that stretches 1,900 miles, Japan is generally considered to have a temperate subtropical climate, with hot, humid summers, cool but mild winters, and a distinct spring and fall. The farther from Tokyo you travel, of course, the more you’ll want to consult local conditions. The climate in the snowy northern island of Hokkaido — where winter temperatures dip below freezing for a month or two — can be quite different from that of semi-tropical Okinawa in the south, where humid 90-degree summer days are the norm. On the main island of Honshu, spring (March-May) and autumn (September-November) are the most comfortable, not to mention the most popular times to visit. The landscape is at its most expressive then, especially during Japan’s famed cherry-blossom season in late March and early April. If you are traveling to Japan in late summer, monitor the weather reports for tropical cyclones blowing in from the Pacific Ocean, and keep in mind, September and October are the height of the country’s rain season, so bring waterproof outerwear as well as indoor plans.
As the imperial seat for more than a millennium, Kyoto has preserved hundreds of stunning temples, palaces, gardens, and of course, the legendary geisha districts. The historic Higashiyama District is one of the most atmospheric corners in this tradition-minded city, and you can spend hours wandering down narrow streets lined with wood-frame houses and centuries-old artisan shops, darting into side streets to peek in small shrines, before visiting the 1,200-year-old Kiyomizudera temple, with its terrace overlooking downtown. Higashiyama shines brightest during the 10-day Hanatoro festival in March, when thousands of paper lanterns appear.
Seventy percent of Japan’s landmass is covered in mountain ranges, which curve along the entire sweep of the archipelago. One of the most glorious spots in the northern Japanese Alps is the 673-square-mile Chūbu-Sangaku National Park, located between Toyama and Nagano, 150 miles northwest of Tokyo. In the summer, you can hike along the Azusa river at Kamikochi, seek out the hot springs around Okuhida, or if you’re an experienced mountaineer, trek from mountain hut to mountain hut (make reservations beforehand). In winter, skiers and snowboarders make pilgrimages to the resorts at Hakuba.
If you don’t think of traveling to Japan for sublime beach time, you’ve never visited the Okinawan archipelago at the southern end of Japan. Using Okinawa City as your base, you can take ferries or short flights to reach some of its 160 far-flung islands. Go snorkeling in the clear turquoise waters surrounding Tokashiki Island, where clownfish and butterfly fish dart among the coral reefs. Loll on the powdery white-sand beaches of Hateruma Island. Wander around historic houses with tiled roofs and sculptures on Taketomi Island. Everywhere you go, you can sample Okinawa’s distinctive Ryukyuan cuisine, which incorporates influences from China and southeast Asia.