Rediscover Japan with its Borders Fully Open

The beautiful town of Shuzenji, and its glorious bamboo forest path, is one of Japans best kept secrets
The beautiful town of Shuzenji, and its glorious bamboo forest path, is one of Japan's best kept secrets | © Explore Shizuoka

See Mount Fuji in a new way, stay in an off-the-beaten track ryokan and discover the hidden gem of Ine, now that Japan has finally fully reopened for tourism.

The Japanese Year of the Rabbit is upon us and it happens to be the year tourism in the country is hopping back to life after what has been a torrid time for its industry. Having recently taken advantage of this wonderful news with my own visit to the Land of the Rising Sun, I thought it would be helpful to share some of my highlights, to help you discover some of the best off-the-beaten-track, authentic experiences in Japan.

Not so long ago, in 2019, Japanese tourism was at a record high, with 32 million visitors. Travellers were coming from far and wide to get a taste of the cuisine, find serenity in the mountains and become infatuated with its cities.

Then Covid hit. The Tokyo Olympics briefly saw Japan reopen its borders to the world (a year later than planned) in 2021, amid the onset of the pandemic, but just three months after the closing ceremony Prime Minister Fumio Kishida banned all incoming foreign travellers in a bid to prevent the spread of omicron.

Japan remained largely closed to foreign visitors until June last year, when it cautiously opened up – only allowing in travellers who were part of a package tour. The tight restrictions on tourists deterred many from visiting the country and, in 2021, only two years after seeing record levels of tourism, there were fewer than 250,000 visitors.

However, on 11 October last year, Japan finally flung its doors wide open, much to the delight of keen travellers around the world. It’s been a slow restart since October, but this year, with a weaker yen – meaning you get more for your money in a traditionally expensive country – travel is expected to bounce back bigger and better than ever before.

There is still an air of caution across the country. People still wear masks in public places, even outside, though masks were never made mandatory, so it doesn’t mean travellers have to, although it is respectful to do so in certain close-up environments.

So, what are you waiting for? Here are our top places to visit in order to rediscover, or maybe even discover for the first time, Japan in an authentic, immersive way.

Did you know that here at Culture Trip we have our own trip to Japan that you can book a spot on right now? Japan by Train: The Grand Tour is an immersive 12-day small-group adventure from Osaka to Tokyo, via bamboo forests, volcanic geysers, alpine onsens and much, much more.

Views of Mount Fuji at Izu Panormanic Park

For the best views of Mount Fuji and its surrounding area, take the gondola up to Izu Panoramic Park, where you can meet geishas and gaze out over jaw-dropping landscapes from the comfort of a private terrace, complete with blankets and waiter service – ready to bring you macha soft serve ice cream and tea. Definitely one of the highlights from my trip to Japan. The view is staggering.

Not a bad spot for a little picnic, is it?

Stay in a traditional Ryokan in the beautiful town of Shuzenji

Arai Ryokan, complete with several onsens (hot spring baths), in the picturesque town of Shuzenji is not a well-known tourist destination, making it a special off-the-beaten track place to visit. Bamboo-lined walkways, hot spring foot spas, and a gentle river running through the town makes Shuzenji a truly calming wellness retreat. Authentic Japanese banquets are served at the ryokan and there is a wasabi farm just down the road, so you can try some of the best produce in the world.

There’s no better form of relaxation than a night or two in a traditional ryokan

Discover Koganecho art in Yokohama

For art lovers the trendy Koganecho art hub in downtown Yokohama is an absolute must. The area under the rail tracks used to be gang territory, and the two-storey terraced homes were brothels not so long ago, where women would advertise themselves on the ground floor and take paying customers upstairs. The unusual buildings have now been transformed into art studios, where creatives come from all over the world to apply their trade. Exhibitions are regularly put on by the centre, but if none are on, you can still walk around, go to the shop and even speak to the artists themselves.

These streets are storied, full of character and revitalised with a fresh creative spirit

Find Ine, a real hidden gem

You won’t believe how gorgeous the waterside village of Ine is until you get there. Not even many Japanese people know about this hidden gem. Ask someone in Tokyo where Ine is and they won’t have a clue, despite it being a Unesco heritage site with a world-famous red sake brewery – Mukai Shuzo – which supplies Michelin-starred restaurants around the globe. My recommendation would be to try and find a waterside house to stay in for a couple of nights – they vary from affordable to megabucks. That way you can allow yourself to completely slow down, relax and take in this area of stunning natural beauty. There are several incredible cafes and restaurants in the village and the Tango Peninsula is not far for a day trip either.

Japan’s best kept secret is this endlessly charming waterside village

See Tokyo from new heights at Shibuya Sky

Prepare to have your breath taken away. Seeing 360 degree views of the largest city in the world from the roof of a skyscraper is truly overwhelming. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the views from the top. The city is endless and, on a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji on the horizon. It’s also fun to spot all the famous landmarks, such as the Skytree, Tokyo Tower and Ajinomoto Stadium. Anyone visiting the capital needs to see it for themselves. Even the elevator to the top is exciting, having been designed to feel like you’re travelling up in a space shuttle. Since it opened in 2019, just before the pandemic, most travellers won’t have had the opportunity to reach these heights in the past, so it’s a great way to see Tokyo in a different light.

Sunset at Shibuya, undoubtedly the latest addition to Tokyo’s must-visit list

Ready to burst through the re-opened doors of Japan? Book your flights today with Japan Airlines.

Culture Trips launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes places and communities so special.

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