The Land of the Rising Sun pushes boundaries and embraces history, depending on where you look, writes Jane Jurgens
Japan is … sushi and sumo. Bullet trains and bowing. Origami and anime. Heated toilet seats and a vending machine for every 22 people. Hotels staffed by robots; helpful and hospitable locals. And no pickpockets.
A trip to the Land of the Rising Sun is an adventure into the future and the past, to the one place on the planet where exceedingly modern crashes up against extremely ancient.
One piece of advice: if you're thinking of visiting Japan next year, time your trip. After its globally applauded hosting of the Rugby World Cup last month, Tokyo is lifting its game and hosting the 2020 Olympics. Unless you have your itinerary and accommodation booked already, it'd be best to avoid July-August.
What about going earlier for the cherry blossom in spring (April-May) or the magnificent displays of autumn foliage (October-November)?
Tokyo, the frenetic metropolis of 37.5 million people – said to be the world's large urban population – is a city forever reaching into the future, pushing the boundaries of what's possible in art and architecture, pop culture, shopping, drinking and entertainment. As is Osaka, tops for street food: its unofficial slogan is kuidaore (eat until you drop), which you can do against its dramatic nightscape of new-millennial LED lights.
Contrast those with historic Kyoto, capital for a past millennium, home to more than 1000 temples - like Kinkaku-ji, sheathed in gold leaf, and the meditative Ryōan-ji, with its stark Zen rock garden. Here you'll find the culture of tea ceremonies, the art of the geisha, and – again - a rich food culture.
Tragic past and optimistic present meet in Hiroshima, a forward-thinking city with attractive, leafy boulevards. Though there's no shying from its history, the city's lively spirit (and food) will leave happier memories.
Japan's cuisine is a favourite around the world. You may arrive expecting sushi but be prepared to savour much more - the care and thought put into ingredients and presentation mean it's impossible not to eat well.
Restaurants often specialise in just one dish – having prepared it for generations – and insist on finding the freshest, local ingredients.
Food is intensely seasonal and regional, meaning you can visit at a different time of year or go to a different city and experience new tastes. Head to the mountains, for example, and you'll discover a hearty cuisine that draws from the produce of the land, far removed from coastal seafood dishes.
Japanese hospitality is legendary, best expressed in ryokan or inns with a traditional aesthetic and attitude towards service. Usually low-slung buildings with winding corridors of highly polished wood, ryokan have tatami (woven reed mat) floors and guests sleep on futons (quilt mattresses) rather than beds.
The country has turned bathing into a folk religion; visitors should take the time to experience one of its thousands of onsen (bubbling, mineral-rich hot springs).
Leave the bustling cities behind to find historic Japan in places such as Kanazawa, an old city on the coast that once rivalled Kyoto as an arts centre; appreciate that artisan tradition in its shops and galleries.
In Kōya-san, ride the funicular up to sacred Buddhist monasteries, with more than 100 temples. Most famous is Oku-no-in, its paths weaving through towering trees and ancient stone stupas covered in moss and lichen.
Japan is easy to get around. Many sights – such as the famous symmetrical cone of Mt Fuji – are easily accessed by immaculate, efficient public transport. The shinkansen (bullet train) network runs from the southern tip of Kyūshū to Hokkaidō.
But if getting off the beaten track and outside your comfort zone is what you're after, you can have that experience, too.
The long and slender country's four main islands are, rather like New Zealand, over two-thirds mountains. There's excellent tramping in warmer months, through cedar groves and fields of wildflowers, up to soaring peaks and ancient shrines. In the winter, all this is covered with snow and the skiing is world-class, particularly when paired with soaking in onsen. Meanwhile, in the southern reaches, there are tropical beaches for sunning, snorkelling and diving.
Hokkaidō is a largely volcanic landscape of massive mountains with crystal-blue lakes and sulphur-rich hot springs. Trampers, cyclists and casual road-trippers are drawn to the big skies, open spaces and dramatic landscapes.
Okinawa and the southwest Islands offer a different experience. Cultural differences are obvious from the architecture to the food. On Japan's best beaches, sunbathe, snorkel and scuba dive.
Shikoku is the smallest, least populated and least visited of Japan's four main islands, the place for a deep dive into rural life and scenery.
Strange as it may seem, given the Pokemon image of modern Japan, walking tours combine the best cultural destinations with off-the-beaten-track opportunities, and the chance to see this absorbing country and its people from a perspective bypassed by most foreigners.
Two-wheel tours are another treat. You can bike just about anywhere: on the road, the many cycle lanes and paths, and even on footpaths. In keeping with the national character, the Japanese are polite towards cyclists – even on the frenzied streets of Tokyo.