Japan is the third largest economy in the world having been overtaken by it's noisy neighbour China. Despite a strong American influence (baseball is the second sport here) it still feels very distant culturally from the West. Although famous for Anime and sushi, there is a lot more to Japan - we love the older side streets and gritty underground restaurants, full of chain-smoking salarymen eating yakitori before going home. From Tokyo south past Kyoto, the urban connurbation is unbroken along the coast, yet inland snow-topped mountains (such as the famous Fuji) and forested hillsides remain unpopulated. The feeling in Tokyo is very foreign for Europeans and it is easy for feel a little lost. However, it is worth persevering to understand a little more about this fascinating culture. For foodies, Japan offers a wealth of excellent restaurants, from multi-Michelin star establishments to stalls under the railways. However, if you are a fresh fruit and vegetable lover like us, you may struggle a little after the first few days - the food tends to be quite rich and rice and protein heavy. First time visitors should visit Tokyo, Kyoto and at least one other destination. Hakone is beautiful if touristy, but close enough to Tokyo for a 1-night trip. Staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, is also recommended - this is a unique experience where you can wear a yukata, enjoy onsen (hot springs) and try delicious Kaiseki meals (see here for a review of our stay in a ryokan near Hakone). Japan may be very different to what you are used to, but it remains one of our favourite luxury destinations in Asia.
As a temperate country, Japan has four seasons, but weather varies considerably from North to South. In Winter (December to February) temperates are cool but rarely drop below 0 along the Pacific coast (including Tokyo). Inland, snow is common and allows for excellent winter sports. Spring (March to May) sees the arrival of cherry blossom as temperatures begin to rise. Summer starts in June with frequent rains for 3-4 weeks, providing ideal conditions for farmers to plant rice. Whilst hot and humid through the summer, it is a pleasant time to enjoy bathing in the sea or visiting mountain resorts, such as Hakone. After the heat of summer, Autumn brings welcome breezes and cooler temperatures. The countryside turns shades of deep brown and red and chrysanthemums bloom. Naha in the South tends to have the hottest temperatures, ranging from 17 C in Winter to close to 30 C in Summer. In contrast, temperatures in Sapporo in the North range from a chilly -4 C in Winter to 20.5 in Summer.
Things in Japan tend to be priced in thousands, so to continue the trend, 1000 JPY or yen is currently worth around $8.50, £5.75 or just under €8. A night in a 5* hotel in Tokyo starts at around 25,000 JPY ($210), rising to 75,000+ JPY ($625) for a standard room at the Mandarin Oriental, Ritz Carlton or Peninsula. Note that prices are much higher at busy times of year, such as during the cherry blossom season, when rates may reach 150,000 JPY ($1250). Note also that quoted rates in Japan tend to exclude service charge (often 15%), 8% tax and other small accommodation charges.
Visa-free travel is available to citizens of 67 countries, including most of Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia and many countries in Latin America and Asia. In general, travel is permitted for 90 days from entry.