Japan is tailor-made for ‘real’ travel - whether you’re in the cities that never seem to sleep, pottering around rural villages that rarely seem to wake, walking ancient trails or relaxing in hot spring resorts, you’ll find unrivalled levels of customer service, comfort and cleanliness, all of it connected by one of the world’s best railway systems, which can transport you across the four main islands of Japan in a matter of hours.
The largest island is Honshu, and on its eastern shore sits Tokyo, one of the most captivating cities in the world, and the country’s commercial and political capital. Now a vast, energising urban sprawl, Tokyo has seen revolutionary changes over the last few centuries - the shogun’s castle has transformed into the Emperor’s Palace, the samurai dwellings have exploded upwards into gleaming skyscrapers, and millions have poured in from all over the archipelago, animating the capital with their unique culture and character.
Here you’ll find the starting station for the world’s first bullet train - and, as you might expect, Tokyo is the primary hub for Japan’s excellent railway network. Mountain spring resort Hakone, a world away from the capital in terms of landscape and ambience, is just an hour away by train, and Kyoto - 280 miles distant - is two hours and twenty.
Elegant Kyoto was Japan's ancient capital, and here you can glimpse kimono-clad geisha flitting between riverside parties, relax in Zen gardens of astonishing beauty and simplicity, try frothy green tea in a tea ceremony, and explore dozens of ornate temples and palaces - treasure troves that have endured earthquakes and bloody civil wars. All this a short ride from the manic modern metropolis of Osaka, famous for its hedonistic 'kuidaore' dining culture, and playing a feisty counterweight to Tokyo’s dominance.
To the north, the Tohoku region, where rural communities still seem to live their lives to ancient rhythms, has picturesque historic districts, celebrated onsen resorts and sake breweries, and dramatic summer festivals. Near the western tip of Honshu sits Hiroshima, a modern city full of colour and character, and a symbol of Japan’s astonishing post-war development.
The northern island of Hokkaido was the last major region in Japan to be modernised. It’s still defined by wild mountains, distinctive flora and fauna, echoes of the aboriginal Ainu culture, scenic open roads, and mild summers, and its northern latitude ensure the whitest of winters - great for its Olympic-standard ski resorts, ice festivals, and dancing cranes.
Across the Inland Sea from Hiroshima lies the peaceful island of Shikoku, where you can travel through steep valleys that once concealed defeated warrior-clans, saunter around small fishing ports, and play on the waters of the beautiful Shimanto river, or hike a popular pilgrimage trail that takes in 88 temples.
In Japan’s far west, on fertile Kyushu, swim or surf at the beachside resorts, or head inland to explore the island's stunning volcanic vistas and hot spring hideaways, and the Buddhist and Christian relics that lie scattered throughout the landscape - reminder of the island's historic links with China, Korea, and the colonising European powers.