Japan is a country full of etiquette, ceremony and tradition. It is also home to innovation, excellence and gastronomic treats. In short, any visit here will amaze and astound but the more you know before you go, the better your trip will be. Take advantage of our specialist insight and make the most of a most magical visit.
Insider guide to Japan
Taste typical Japan on a street food tour
Eat and live like a local at these hidden gems across the country. Take your pick of some of Japan’s best and unique experiences.
A Tokyo street food tour is unmissable. Sample some new and tasty bites at unexpected venues. Try shioyaki - fire-cooked mackerel which come served on a stick and seasoned with salt, a simple but exquisite snack. Or kate pan, a sweet bread filled with Japanese curry. Taste as many as you can from street-side stalls or in tiny pubs known only to the locals.
Osaka is full of mobile street stalls where you can find the best and most bizarre snacks. Meander between bars and stalls, try kushikatsu, a kind of Japanese kabab skewer loaded with grilled and deep-fried meat, as well as Yakiniku, a charcoal barbeque of bite-sized western meats and vegetables.
Or for a more upmarket dining experience, try NARISAWA or DEN, both in Tokyo.
Sing your heart out
Karaoke is synonymous with Japan, and in particular, Tokyo. It is taken very seriously across the country and dedicated venues are popular nightspots where hidden talents can be loudly showcased. The best time to partake in some karaoke is after a night or food tour of the city because the very best guides for these tours, know the very best karaoke bars. But be warned, your guide might know and be able to book the hottest karaoke ticket in town, but typically they won’t sing-along with you or accompany you inside the bar. They will leave you at the door – with their pride and your talent intact. If you fancy some night time songs but don’t to venture out too far, stay at Gora Kadan, a ryokan in Hakone with its own karaoke room for guests.
Experience Tokyo in technicolour
This quite simply is not a restaurant, or just a bar with bar food. Hidden in a basement in an alleyway in Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s red-light district, is one of Japan’s most bizarre attractions, the Robot Restaurant. Here you will witness the show of neon lights, video screens, techno music, colourful and enormous robots, and even glitzy bikini-clad dancers on stage. It is a one-of-a-kind experience and only available in Tokyo. It might not be your thing and maybe don’t plan on going every night (there’s a ¥8,000 entry charge). But it should definitely be on your visit list.
Stay in a ryokan
A ryokan in Japan is a traditional style inn which is found throughout the country and notably in hot spring resorts. This is a way to experience all elements of Japanese hospitality and ways of life – including tatami floors, futon beds, Japanese style baths and local cuisine. There is no one set style of ryokan – there are small, family-run environments or grand hotels so you can choose the style and price that best suits you. Most stays include dinner and breakfast – consisting of local and seasonal dishes.
Ginyu Ryokan Hakone is set amidst the mountain scenery, away from the bustle of Tokyo. Decorated in traditional Japanese style, rooms each have a personal butler and private balcony bath, overlooking the landscape.
At Sumiya, you will experience a very authentic Japanese welcome. Through the fusuma (Japanese sliding door), you step into an old Japanese home, built more than 100 years ago. Enjoy the Japanese garden, tea ceremony rooms, and Japanese antiques as you step back through time and delight in exceptional and unforgettable dining experiences.
Make the most of Japan’s innovation
If one thing is constant in Japan, it is change. 2018 is a shining example of many new hotels, events and sights for an adventuring tourist. Here is just the tip of the iceberg.
If you want to experience more tea ceremony and tea drinking than you dreamed possible, green tea is the hot beverage in Japan right now. Tokyo is home to Hotel Koé, a fashion and lifestyle boutique hotel and bakery, with an emphasis on ‘stay’, ‘fashion’ and ‘music’.
Guest rooms here are inspired by the tea ceremony, with a modern twist on the chashitsu (tea rooms) incorporating features such as an engawa porch.
Speeding along Japan’s rail tracks this year is a new and revolutionary ‘invisible train’, designed by Kazuyo Sejima. This has been carefully constructed to blend into its surroundings by reflecting them.
Tokyo Disney Resort will mark the resort’s 35th birthday, from 15 April 2018 until 25 March 2019, showcasing the best of the attraction in with new day- and night-time parades, special events at Easter, Halloween and Christmas. Its Universal Studios counterpart will host the 4th annual Universal Cool Japan, the biggest ever celebration of cool Japan with an ultra-immersive ride attraction.
Not simply a guide, simply the best
Our best insider tip, perhaps ironically, is to find an expert. The guides in Japan are some of the best in the world. This is not a student summer job, but a highly regarded, highly qualified career. It takes years of studying to become a guide in the country and rightly so, because there is a lot of ground to cover. It is like a taxi driver in London – you only want to take a cab where the driver has passed The Knowledge – because then you really know where you are going. A&K only hires the unforgettable guides who truly have the knowledge we want to pass to you.
How to ride a bullet train
The shinkansen or bullet train in Japan is unlike any train you have ever been on and it is worth being prepared for its different rhythms. They run like clockwork, and if they don’t the apologies will be profuse. They are ultra-modern, sleek and part of Japan’s fascination with innovation and efficiency. You might be hitting speeds close to 200mph but these trains, and their passengers, are quiet and respectful.
You can’t travel everywhere in Japan on the bullet train so make sure you understand the network. This basically links the cities and regions of Honshu.
When it comes to tickets, be sure to invest in a Japan Rail Pass. This gives you the best value as soon as you make more than a couple of journeys and covers you for periods of up to 21 days. Take note though – you will need to purchase this before you arrive in the country.
Baggage requirements are specific – you can take a small overnight bag with you on the train.
The train stations in Japan almost have their own language, despite many signs being in English as well as Japanese. Stations are busy, and trains are hardly ever late so give yourself plenty of time to be in the right place as well as soak up this unique atmosphere. Acclimatising to the organised chaos will actually help you find your way around far more quickly.
- Pack extra layers to keep warm in the efficient air conditioning
- Don’t talk loudly or on your phone
- Take some snacks on with you. The refreshment trolley may be limited
- Relax – this is an opportunity away from the bustle of Japan’s vibrant cities
Find more inspiration to start planning your luxury holiday to Japan.