16 reasons why you must visit Japan – like everyone else is, apparently
More people visited Japan last year than ever before: 24.04 million. Combining ancient culture with exquisite natural landscapes and dazzling modernity, the Asian nation is stirring an increasing number of travellers’ souls, and, over the last three years, the number of visitors here has more than doubled. Here’s why that might be. 1. Pod hotels are now both luxurious and cool If you have yet to desire a night in a Japanese capsule hotel, prepare to have your mind changed. Yes, the rooms are tiny, but a newer breed of pod hotels offers spa treatments, luxury toiletries and high-tech amenities such as air humidifiers and tablets. With branches across Japan, try First Cabin (first-cabin.jp.e.jr.hp.transer.com), which models itself on first-class plane cabins, with quality linen in roomy pods and extras like curling tongs for women, or 9h ninehours (ninehours.co.jp/en/), which features ambient controls and a commendably stylish approach to catering for your basic needs for resting and showering, in nine-hour stays. Traditionally, pod hotels are a little on the poky side Credit: This content is subject to copyright./Stefano Politi Markovina The GrandPark Inn Kitasenju in Tokyo (grandpark-ex.jp/en) offers a Suntory whisky-approved bar. 2. The prettiest petals Cherry blossom season is as popular with Japanese people and visitors alike, making the spring one of the most popular times to visit the country, along with autumn, when the leaves of Japan’s forests blaze red and gold. Watch the timelapse video of blossoming trees in Tokyo, Kyoto and around Mt Fuji below to see why. Cherry blossom timelapse 03:05 3. You can choose between Disney or Studio Ghibli Tokyo is home to one of America’s biggest entertainment exports, with a Disneyland theme park located just east of the capital at Urayasu, Chiba. It opened in 1983 and was the first Disney theme park outside of the US. Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy More discerning animation fans however, will want to head to the Studio Ghibli museum (ghibli-museum.jp/en/), an interactive attraction celebrating the films of Japan’s most respected, Oscar-winning filmmakers, responsible for Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neighbour Totoro. The exhibits and, be warned, the well-stocked souvenir shop, are sure to delight young visitors, and there’s plenty of instruction on drawing. The current exhibition looks at eating and how the studio has used animation to bring the slurping and enjoyment of a bowl of noodles, say, to life. 4. Or bathe in a forest The practice of forest bathing, confusingly, does not involve any water or bathing. Instead it is the translation for Shinrin-yoku, which applies to time spent appreciating a forest for health reasons. According to countless Japanese studies, it boosts immune systems, reduces stress hormones, enhances mental wellness, bolsters brain health. One report even claims it lowers blood glucose levels among diabetes sufferers. So get out there and take a stroll to stimulate your senses. Forest therapy involves stretching, meditating, inhaling tree aromas, eating healthily and appreciating pretty flowers 5. There are holy deer If temple sightseeing is not really your thing (and in Japan, you might see a lot of temples), perhaps Nara should still be high on your list. The huge Todaiji temple here is not just impressive for the size of its wooden doors, pillars and halls, as well as the 15m-tall bronze buddha inside, but also for the throngs of white-tailed deer that hang around outside. Most are friendly, and although shy, are practised in sticking a velvet nose in your direction in the hope of some crackers, which are helpfully on sale all over the place. Deer that are partial to rice crackers outside the gate at Nara Credit: © 2014 John S Lander/John S Lander 6. And modern art on a tropical island Scattered across the tiny fishing island of Naoshima is a contemporary art haul that would turn the Tate Modern green with envy. Following investment from a wealthy Japanese publishing magnate, the island’s status as part of a major art hub was confirmed in 2010 with the launch of Setouchi Triennale, a three yearly festival of art that takes place across 12 islands in order to benefit the elderly fishing communities on each. Japan islands 7. Lose yourself in a rockery Most gardens in Japan contain an element of zen, with a dry section set aside for an arrangement of smooth rocks set in raked gravel, meant to symbolise water. The country’s most famous zen garden is housed at Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto. Its 15 stones cannot be viewed all at once. The space between them is just as important as the elements themselves, so be sure to consider that when you sit and contemplate, letting your mind wander over what the shapes might represent. Watching a gardener meticulously rake lines into a garden over and over is sure to lower the blood pressure. Watching this man rake straight lines #zen#Kyotopic.twitter.com/Baj9nAEH76— Natalie Paris (@laParis) November 4, 2014 8. You can stroke something furry over coffee Want a pet but can’t commit to cleaning out its hutch? It’s no secret that Japan is home to numerous animal-themed cafes where you are invited to snuggle up with something cute for the time it takes to drink a cup of tea. In Tokyo, you can take your pick from rabbits, owls, goats, cats and dogs. Dressing the animals up costs extra. 9. And live like a monk Koyasan (Mount Koya) is a sacred hilltop village covered with cedar forests and more than one hundred temples. Tourists can spend a night in some of these, in so-called temple-inns, experiencing what it is like to live a life dedicated to Shingon Buddhism. This involves eating a monk’s dinner and breakfast and waking up at dawn for a communal meditation session, kneeling amid cymbals and flickering candles. Don’t miss the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the sect’s founder, atmospherically lit by hundreds of lamps and found at the end of a trail through a moss-covered forest cemetery. A post shared by Natalie Paris (@laparee) on Nov 1, 2014 at 4:27am PDT 10. You can be enlightened by lunch Koyasan is just one place where you can experience Shojin Ryori, a Buddhist style of cooking by steaming vegetables, soy beans and nuts. You could also visit specialist vegetarian restaurants in Kyoto. Take your place on a tatami mat to sample this cuisine and you will probably be presented with lacquered try holding a feast of numerous tiny dishes of soggy mouthfuls in various forms, that you can steam. The food is hand-prepared using natural materials and the process of doing so is considered to be a step towards enlightment. Shojin Ryori is food like you have never experienced it before Credit: © 2008 John S Lander/John S Lander 11. Japan boasts the best powder on Earth Japanese snow has been called the “lightest and fluffiest known to man”, so there is every reason the give Europe’s Alps a miss next season and visit Japan’s instead. In its snowiest years, resorts in Hokkaido, such as Niseko, Rusutsu and Furano can receive up to 17m of the white stuff, making it the holy grail of powder skiing. On a ridge in backcountry, Niseko Credit: This content is subject to copyright./Ryan Creary Going off-piste has traditionally been banned, but this year some resorts began to allow, if not condone, the practice. Qualified ISIA instructors are now available at Rusutsu, while the resort of Furano has removed fencing around pistes to open up the back country. Both resorts report that European country skiers are beginning to take advantage of the changes. 12. Why not share a same-sex hot bath? Japan has been onsen bathing since at least the eighth century, when belief in the curative powers of a natural hot spring was primary. An onsen is defined as a natural spring with water emerging at 25C or hotter and containing at least one of a defined list of 19 elements. An outdoor hot spring in the Iya Valley Credit: This content is subject to copyright./Antony Giblin Onsen bathing - where you should expect to be surrounded by naked members of the same sex, sitting with neatly folded flannels on their heads - offers, in the same way that many Japanese cultures do, a mix of physical benefits, relaxation, unintrusive companionship, carefully observed etiquette and calm communing with nature. Here is the Telegraph’s guide to the best onsens in Japan 13. Rekindle the romance at a 'love hotel' These short-stay hotels, designed for amorous couples, have proven increasingly popular in Japan, where space, and therefore privacy, are at a premium. Love hotels can usually be identified by the offer of two different room rates: a “rest”, as well as an overnight stay. The name and the presence of heart symbols is also a giveaway. While the cheapest love hotels will be pretty basic, high-end establishments may offer extravagantly decorated rooms, often with bizarre themes and costumes for hire. See here more weird and wonderful things about Japan Love hotel 'Puppy' Credit: This content is subject to copyright./Brent Winebrenner 14. It boasts the world’s best toilets Most people have heard about Japan’s high-tech toilets and it is for good reason. If you do nothing else on your trip, while in the country you will at least, for a few moments, have been privy to an elevated experience that one can only dream about in the UK. Once you’ve experimented with the flashing array of buttons and settled on the ideal combination of sprays, spritzes and blow drys to deliver optimum refreshment, you are guaranteed to spend the plane journey back wondering why, in your next home upgrade, you don’t just buy one. (Tip: Ebay has slimline versions that might just work). Symbols on a Japanese toilet 15. Halloween is surprisingly immense Japanese people love to dress up, from the teenagers wearing the latest bizarre cosplay crazes to the kitsch, girly waitresses that will serve you tea in a “Maid cafe”. There is not time better to do it than at Halloween. The general mentality is: don’t worry about holding up traffic as you cruise along with an assortment of ghouls and gangsters hanging out of the window and, don’t feel that you have to limit yourself at the spooky - really any kind of crazy costume goes. Halloween celebrations in Tokyo Credit: 2015 MASASHI KATO/MASASHI KATO Best seen in Tokyo or Osaka, where locals have a party reputation and bars will welcome you in with Halloween-themed deals. 16. And they have super trains A rail pass (japanrailpass.net) is a must for a longer visit to Japan and one takes you all over the country in a super-fast, clean and comfortable style. It is available from £199 for 7, 14 or 21 days and includes travel on trains owned by six different companies. City stations have dedicated booths serving those with a pass (with staff who can direct you to a platform, which is handy if you don't understand Japanese). There is no additional charge for reserving seats.