Our top 15 favourite ryokan inns

Ryokan experience

Last week I explained why you haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed in a ryokan inn. For those who can’t quite be bothered to go back and read it, it’s quite simple: the food, the baths, and a little something the Japanese call omotenashi (which is kind of like hospitality, but BETTER).

Now, to celebrate fifteen years of InsideJapan, we would like to introduce you to our fifteen favourite ryokan inns in all of Japan (and let me tell you, we’ve visited a few in our time). These are the places we’ve revisited time and time again over the past fifteen years – whether it’s for the divine baked oysters at dinner, stunning onsen overlooking the sea, the beautifully decorated guest rooms or just for the wonderful welcome we always receive.

Although some of the ryokan on this list are super-deluxe, super-exclusive, and super-out-of-the-price-range-of-your-average-Joe; many of them are not, and here you’ll find establishments to cater for every price range.

To demystify a bit of travel jargon before we begin – Japan’s hotels and inns do not operate using a “star” rating system, so we have sorted these ryokan into four categories: Budget, Moderate, Superior and Deluxe – Budget being (obviously) the least pricey, and Deluxe being the most.

And so, without further ado, here are the pick of the bunch – in no particular order:

Yamaichi Bekkan, Miyajima Island (Moderate)

InsideJapan's Harry and James with Yamaichi Bekkan's perennially lovely proprietress

InsideJapan’s Harry and James with Yamaichi Bekkan’s perennially lovely proprietress

Where better to begin than with one of our best and longest-loved establishments, the Yamaichi Bekkan on Miyajima Island? Located in an unassuming building looking out over the port, the Yamaichi is a small, family-run establishment with simple, comfortable rooms. You may not be paying top dollar for a swanky suite and private onsen, but you will be treated like royalty by the ryokan’s eternally lovely proprietress (pictured). Not to mention you’ll get to try some of the most delicious food imaginable. You know those oysters I keep mentioning? The ones I still dream about sometimes? You’ll find those here.

 Ichinoyu Honkan, Hakone (Moderate)

Exterior of the Ichinoyu Honkan

Exterior of the Ichinoyu Honkan

Another great value ryokan, the Ichinoyu Honkan is located in the beautiful Hakone National Park – AKA Mount Fuji’s back yard – and has been welcoming guests for nearly 400 years. The original inn was opened in 1630 and essentially pioneered the hot spring industry of Hakone – now one of the most popular onsen getaways in Japan. It even appears in ukiyo-e prints by the famous artist Ando Hiroshige! We recommend the Ichinoyu for its bar facilities (unusual for a ryokan) and excellent hot spring baths, which can be reserved for private use if you’re feeling a bit shy.

Koemon, Shirakawago (Budget)

Exterior of the Koemon

Exterior of the Koemon

The Koemon in Shirakawago may be a low-cost accommodation option, but that certainly doesn’t mean that you’re losing out. In fact, staying at the Koemon is such a great experience that we recommend it to many of our top-level customers too. Here you have the chance to experience life in one of the traditional farmhouses – known as gassho-zukuri (“praying hands”) for the steep pitch of their thatched roofs – that have made the alpine village of Shirakawago famous, and earned the area its World Heritage status.

Do not expect: creature comforts, a place to charge your iPhone, or en suite bathrooms. Do expect: a memorable and authentic experience, a warm welcome and great home-cooked food.

Iwaso, Miyajima Island (Superior)

onsen hot spring bath at the Iwaso ryokan

Onsen hot spring bath at the Iwaso ryokan

Giving the Yamaichi Bekkan a run for its money, the Iwaso is another excellent ryokan in one of our favourite Japan destinations – Miyajima Island. Located in a lovely part of the Momijidani Park – well off the beaten track for most visitors to Miyajima – the Iwaso was the first establishment to open its doors on the island back in 1893. When previous guests have included famous authors, artists, and members of the Imperial family – you know you can expect something pretty special! We especially recommend visiting during autumn, when the surrounding maple trees become a blaze of reds and oranges.

Yumoto Kansuiro, Hakone (Superior)

InsideJapan's Enfys and Matt enjoying tea at the Yumoto Kansuiro on a recent visit

InsideJapan’s Enfys and Matt enjoying tea on a recent visit to the Yumoto Kansuiro

The second of three Hakone ryokan to feature on this list, the Yumoto Kansuiro ryokan is located in the Motoyu district and is one of the region’s most historic establishments – dating all the way back to 1614. Like the Iwaso, the Kansuiro has seen many illustrious guests pass its threshold – from artists and politicians to samurai and sumo wrestlers – and manages to convey a sense of history and authenticity through its carefully maintained antiques, beautiful painted screens and old, wooden buildings.

We especially love the hot spring baths and the delicious seasonal meals, which are served privately in your guest room by kimono-clad attendants.

Ryokan Kurashiki, Kurashiki (Deluxe)

Breakfast at the Ryokan Kurashiki

Breakfast at the Ryokan Kurashiki

In our opinion, the Ryokan Kurashiki is one of the very best accommodations in Japan. Pay a visit here and you really are in for a treat! Nakamura-san, the ryokan’s proprietress, is the most elegant and lovely of hosts (and speaks impeccable English to boot); the ryokan itself is full of character, with each maisonette filled with beautiful antiques; and there is a private indoor hot spring bath that can be booked for private use. In the spring and autumn, there’s nothing better than sitting at dinner with the restaurant’s sliding doors thrown open, looking out over the ryokan’s tastefully lit, beautifully landscaped garden.

What’s more, the ryokan is located right in the centre of Kurashiki’s lovely Bikan canal district; one of my personal favourite places in Japan. We particularly recommend this ryokan to those who prefer not to sleep on the floor, as each maisonette contains comfortable Western-style double beds instead of futon bedding.

Yoshimizu Ryokan, Kyoto (Budget)

A tatami room at the Yoshimizu Ryokan

A tatami room at the Yoshimizu Ryokan

This ryokan is an oasis in the heart of the city of Kyoto, and the perfect place for any traveller on a restricted budget who would like a taste of authentic Japanese accommodation. Located in Maruyama Park, surrounded by maple trees and bamboo groves, it’s just a short walk from this idyllic little inn to the hustle and bustle of the city – making it the perfect combination of peace, quiet and convenience. To keep costs down, dinner is not served at this ryokan - but you will enjoy a delicious, home-cooked breakfast with real handmade bread (a rarity in Japan!) prepared by the establishment’s incredibly lovely proprietor.

Gora Kadan, Hakone (Deluxe)

Covered corridor overlooked by mountains at the Gora Kadan

Covered corridor overlooked by mountains at the Gora Kadan

The third of our three Hakone ryokan favourites, the Gora Kadan is one of the finest deluxe ryokan in Japan – and perhaps one of the most exclusive accommodations in the world. The main building was once the summer residence of the Kaninnomiya Imperial Family (which says it all, really), while the newer wing boasts beautiful tatami rooms with cypress baths, a heated indoor swimming pool, a luxury spa, a Jacuzzi and a restaurant serving food prepared by one of Japan’s top chefs.

No mere words can do it justice really – you just have to go there and experience it for yourself!

Minshuku Daikichi, Tsumago (Moderate)

Minshuku Daikichi

Minshuku Daikichi

A minshuku is a small, family-run, traditional-style bed and breakfast – and they don’t come much better than the Daikichi. Located in the small, former post town of Tsumago in the Kiso Valley – where the streets are packed with preserved wooden buildings and there’s not a concrete slab or electricity pylon in sight – here you can be sure of a warm welcome, a comfortable room and a delicious meal of local cuisine. Keep an eye out for the friend grasshoppers!

Hanafubuki, Izu Peninsula (Superior)

Ornate hot spring baths at the Hanafubuki

Ornate hot spring baths at the Hanafubuki

Set among the trees of a woodland grove on the Izu Peninsula, the Hanafubuki is a luxurious ryokan that is especially noted for its impressive selection of seven different hot spring baths (of varying shapes and sizes) and its lovely location in the Japanese countryside. Here you’ll feel light years away from the manic buzz of Tokyo, even though it’s really just a short journey away! Dinner is served in your choice of three different dining rooms, each beautifully decorated and looking out over the lantern-lit trees and pathways surrounding the ryokan. We highly recommend joining the ryokan manager in the morning for a complimentary guided walk along the lovely nearby coastal path!

Lamp no Yado, Noto Peninsula (Superior)

A hot spring bath overlooking the ocean at Lamp no Yado

A hot spring bath overlooking the ocean at Lamp no Yado

Lamp no Yado is a very special, luxury ryokan located on the isolated Noto Peninsula, about 150km by car from the city of Kanazawa. The ryokan is located right on the coast, with an amazing infinity pool looking out across the ocean and private open-air onsen baths attached to each luxurious guest room. As you’d expect, you’ll also find delicious kaiseki cuisine, polished-wood hallways and lovely tatami rooms – with friendly, helpful service. This is the perfect place to relax and get away from it all in a beautiful, traditional setting.

 Jiji no Ie, Boso Peninsula (Superior)

A beautiful sunlit room at Jiji no Ie

A beautiful sunlit room at Jiji no Ie

Jiji no Ie is a very unusual ryokan. Run by the well-known essayist and macrobiotic cooking teacher Deco Nakajima and her husband, writer and photographer Everett Kennedy Brown (with whom InsideJapan has the pleasure of working on specialist photography tours); Jiji no Ie gives both domestic and international guests the chance to unplug, slow down and reconnect with the simple life.

Along with a team of craftsmen, architects and gardeners, Deco and Everett built this ryokan from scratch using local timber, earth, bamboo and straw, with a beautiful onsen bath made from Aomori hiba wood and a garden designed by award-winning classical gardener Yosuke Yamaguchi. Breakfast and dinner are also a real treat, featuring Deco’s fantastic macrobiotic cooking – using only seasonal ingredients and local seafood.

We recommend staying at Jiji no Ie as an alternative to Tokyo at the beginning or the end of your trip, as a beautiful and peaceful introduction (or farewell) to Japan.

Nishimuraya Ryokan, Kinosaki Onsen (Deluxe)

Traditional room at the Nishimuraya Ryokan

Traditional room at the Nishimuraya Ryokan

This stunning, deluxe ryokan located at the heart of the Kinosaki Onsen hot spring area first opened its doors to visitors more than 100 years ago and is guaranteed to be a real treat. The wooden buildings here were partially designed by the famous architect Masaya Hirata, each room with its own personal flourish, set in the middle of a beautiful landscape garden. There are (of course) a range of wonderful onsen hot spring baths in which to relax and enjoy your peaceful surroundings, and a delicious kaiseki meal promises to provide the piece de resistance to a wonderful experience.

Kifu no Sato, Yunogo Onsen (Superior)

Ikebana flower arrangement at the Kifu no Sato

Ikebana flower arrangement at the Kifu no Sato

Located in a modern building in the small town of Yunogo in rural Okayama Prefecture, Kifu no Sato is a lovely Japanese-style ryokan, boasting a wonderful landscaped garden at its centre and tatami matting throughout. Kifu no Sato is particularly noted for its ikebana flower arrangements (of which there are a staggering 65 throughout the hotel) and its onsen baths, which are truly superb and comprise several different types of bath (including some private rotenburo outdoor baths) and a “hot stone” sauna. The ryokan also has an exceptional commitment to reinvigorating the local environment and businesses, to which end almost all its furniture and decorative displays represent the work of local craftspeople. Finally, to complete this list of accomplishments, the elaborate seasonal kaiseki menus served in the restaurants are nothing short of outstanding – as I can personally attest!

Jinpyokaku, Yudanaka Onsen (Superior)

Guest suite at the Jinpyokaku

Guest suite at the Jinpyokaku

The final ryokan on our list is the wonderful Jinpyokaku, located in the small hot spring town of Yudanaka in Nagano Prefecture (best-known for its simian residents, the onsen-bathing snow monkeys). With luxurious, spacious rooms; heated kotatsu tables to keep your feet warm as you sip your green tea; and (very unusually) a large open-air hot spring bath that is not segregated by sex (don’t worry, there are separate baths for men and women for those who want them!) – this ryokan is so nice that you’ll never want to leave.

This is merely a selection of our favourite traditional ryokan covering various grades. The one thing that links these ryokan together is great food and wonderful service. If you are thinking of heading to Japan, we would certainly recommend staying at any of the above to experience a slice of Japanese culture and hospitality at its best….and if there isn’t any room for you at the inn, we know many other fantastic places (better than Trip Advisor!).

Why you haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed in a ryokan

Traditional Japan

You only need to spend a few minutes reading through our website or talking to one of our staff members before you’ll begin to hear the word ryokan being bandied about. But what does it mean?

Essentially, a ryokan is a traditional-style Japanese inn – and you haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed in one. Trust us.

Ryokan gardens

What should you expect?

Ryokan come in many different shapes and sizes, from the very low-budget to the super-exclusive, but they all share a set of similar features. Guest rooms are always be carpeted with tatami: a traditional Japanese flooring made with rice straw and woven soft rush straw, and will usually also have sliding shoji screens made from translucent rice paper and a lattice of wood or bamboo. During the day there may be a low table and some floor cushions laid out with tea-making equipment, until the evening when (usually while you are at dinner) an attendant will come to lay out your futon bedding on the mats.

ryokan room

A feature of ryokan that visitors are sometimes surprised – and even disappointed -about is the spareness of the rooms, even in very high-end establishments. Decoration very often consists of little more than an ikebana flower arrangement or one or two judiciously chosen ornaments, and there will be precious little furniture besides a table and perhaps a couple of floor cushions. Though this may seem bare to Western tastes, this style reflects the traditional Japanese aesthetic principles of subtlety and simplicity – and a lack of opulence should certainly not be taken as a sign that the ryokan you are staying in is somehow sub-par.

Japanese room, Kifu no Sato

There’s nothing in my room?! What on earth am I paying for?

For Japanese visitors, the quality of a ryokan is not judged by what can be packed into the guest rooms, but by the quality of the included meals; the communal onsen baths; and the hospitality of their hosts.

Meals

For most Westerners, the idea of “included meals” conjures toe-curling images of all-inclusive, Butlins-style buffet dinners and forcing down oxtail soup while the woman next to you stuffs bread rolls into her handbag (or maybe that’s just me). But in Japan this couldn’t be further from the case.

Dinner at a Japanese ryokan is a real treat, and if you’re anything like me you may find that they’ll be one of the highlights of your holiday. Meals are typically served in kaiseki style, which means lots of courses consisting of lots of small dishes, each beautifully presented and carefully prepared using local, seasonal produce. Even a year after my family’s holiday to Japan last February, my parents’ eyes still glaze over slightly when they think about the delicious oysters we were served at the Yamaichi ryokan in Miyajima!

Ryokan feast

Baths

Communal bathing is another phrase that tends to send unpleasant shudders down the spine of most Western travellers. Naked? With strangers? No thank you very much.

Kinosaki Onsen baths

Everyone at InsideJapan felt the same way the first time we tried an onsen (a communal bath supplied by natural hot spring water), but there isn’t a single one among us who wouldn’t strongly advise you to take the plunge! Onsen-bathing is an integral part of Japanese culture, and there is even a term for the bond of friendship formed in an onsen: hadaka no tsukiai, or “naked communion”. You will undoubtedly feel awkward at first, but it’s such an ordinary part of life in Japan that you’ll find that you soon relax.

Suite Leopard Lily, Kifu no Sato

Every ryokan will have communal baths (one for men and one for women – mixed bathing is rare), and there will usually be both indoor and outdoor (rotenburo) baths. The better the ryokan, the larger and more lovely the baths – and you may even find that there are a variety of different styles of bath, as well as saunas, sand baths and even spa treatments in the very high-grade ryokans.

And if you can’t pluck up the courage to bare all in an onsen, you don’t have to miss out! Many ryokan guest rooms boast private onsen baths, or have a public bath that may be booked for private use.

Hot spring baths

Your hosts

The final (and perhaps most important) arbiters of ryokan quality are your hosts. Nobody takes hospitality and good service (called omotenashi) as seriously as the Japanese. At a good ryokan you will be received in flawless courtesy and be treated like royalty for the duration of your stay, as your hosts pull out all the stops to ensure that your needs are met.

And that’s why you haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed at a ryokan!

Ryokan staff

Here’s TwoToTokyo and their MTV Cribs style, introduction to a ryokan stay when they stayed at the Tanabe in Takayama.

 

 

Some tips to remember during your ryokan stay:

– Always remove footwear of any kind before walking on tatami – on pain of death. (not really, but your hosts will not be pleased if you forget this one!).

– You will notice that there is usually a raised floor in the ‘genkan’ entrance to a ryokan. You should slip out of your shoes and straight onto the raised floor. Leave your shoes neatly side-by-side and step into some slippers to walk through the ryokan.

– Japanese breakfast food is often what might be thought of as “dinner food” in the West, so if the idea of being served fish and rice in the morning isn’t your cup of tea – don’t forget to ask for the Western-style optionif they have one or they might be able to do something for you if you tell them in advance. It is polite to at least turn up for your breakfast.

– You may also hear the word minshuku in reference to traditional Japanese accommodation. A minshuku is similar to a ryokan in that the rooms will be traditional in style, but it will generally be smaller and simpler than a ryokan, probably family-run, with just a handful of rooms. In other words, it could be called a sort of Japanese-style B&B.

– There are lots of rules to remember when using an onsen, but the most important is that you are expected to wash yourself thoroughly before bathing, to keep the water clean. For this purpose there are shower heads positioned next to the baths, with a stool to sit on while you wash. Be sure to get rid of all the soap before you get in!

Washing area

Enjoy the ambience of your traditional ryokan. This is a truly Japanese experience that you will not be able to have anywhere else in the world and why we recommend staying in a ryokan for at least one night on your Japanese adventure.

Our top 10 tips for travel in Japan

Between them, our staff have well over a century’s experience living and working in Japan, and have travelled every inch of this wonderful country – from the snowswept plains of northern Hokkaido to remote Yonaguni Island in the far southwest.

As you might expect, our band of intrepid explorers have picked up all kinds of invaluable hints, tips and advice along the way. From getting hopelessly lost in the backstreets of Tokyo to making all kinds of cultural faux pas – we’ve made all the mistakes there are to make in Japan and lived to tell the tale. It’d be a shame not to pass on our insider knowledge so that you don’t have to do the same!

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After surveying all 64 current members of the InsideJapan staff and plumbing the depths of their Japan knowledge, I came up with this list of top tips and recommendations to help you get the most out of your Japan holiday:

  1. Keep an open mind and an open schedule

When speaking to the InsideJapan team, this piece of advice came up more than any other tip.

Whilst it’s definitely useful to do your research and have an itinerary planned before you travel (see point eight), don’t get so caught up in your plans that you don’t have a chance to enjoy the unexpected things that make travelling in Japan so exciting. Japan is a country where even the most mundane tasks (going to the loo, getting a drink from a vending machine) can be exciting to the uninitiated – and everyone on our team will agree that the most fascinating and memorable moments from their time in Japan could never have been planned.

With this in mind, don’t be afraid of having ‘gaps’ or ‘empty spaces’ in your holiday plans. Take it slowly and throw yourself into every new situation and you’ll find that this is when you have the chance encounters and experiences that you’ll always remember.

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  1. Forget about the ‘language barrier’ 

Learn a few words in Japanese. Now, we’re not suggesting that you become an expert in the language – in fact, you don’t even need to learn a complete sentence. Simply learning the words for ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ will really go a long way. The Japanese are generally so impressed and pleased that you have made any effort at all to master their language that you don’t need any more!

On a similar note, don’t be put off travelling to Japan because of the perceived ‘language barrier’. Though you may well find that not that many Japanese people can speak English – that doesn’t mean that people won’t go a thousand miles out of their way to help you, even if it is through gestures and pointing.

Good advice when trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak much English is to speak in short sentences (or even one-word sentences). “Ginza”, for example, is much more likely to get you to where you want to be than “excuse me kind sir, but could I trouble you to direct me to Ginza subway station, if you’d be so very kind?” – not that you’d say that, but you know what I mean.

Oh – and talk to people, even if they don’t speak good English. Don’t be shy. Anyone on the InsideJapan team will tell you that you don’t need a common language to make a friend!

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  1. Don’t worry about ‘doing the wrong thing’

Japan has become famous as a place of obscure cultural rules and impenetrable social codes – so much so that some travellers are put off visiting for fear that they will accidentally make a boob of themselves by trampling insensitively over the cherished customs of their hosts.

It’s true that Japan’s etiquette can be somewhat confusing – and you are almost inevitably going to ‘do the wrong thing’ at some point – but the key thing to remember is this: no-one cares. Nobody is going to be offended if you forget to take off your shoes in the right place, or if you’re not aware of the intricacies of chopstick etiquette. As a foreigner, you’re not expected to know everything (and actually, some Japanese people will be surprised that you know anything). As long as you’re not being deliberately culturally insensitive, you’ll be fine.

As a rule, the Japanese take great pleasure in teaching others about their culture, so in making a faux pas you could even be making a new friend.

 

  1. Have an onsen experience 

We asked all our staff what they loved most about living in Japan, and we got some interesting answers. Possibly the most popular response (after the delicious cuisine, which took the top spot without a fight) was onsen culture.

Onsen are Japanese hot spring baths, and thanks to the high level of volcanic activity in Japan they can be found up and down the country. From steamy baths in the snow in Hokkaido and the Japanese Alps to rustic onsen villages deep in the forest; from onsen on the beach to time-honoured bathhouses like Matsuyama’s Dogo Onsen – hot spring bathing is an integral (and extremely enjoyable) aspect of Japanese culture that should not be missed.

What’s not to love about a hot bath? Well, there is one catch: you have to do it in your birthday suit. In front of complete strangers. This is the part that puts most people off – and quite understandably. But if there’s anything InsideJapan staff could say to prospective onsen-goers it’s this: just do it! It’s only strange to start with – before long you’ll have forgotten your reservations and will wonder why you ever hesitated.

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  1. Stay at a ryokan inn

Like bathing in an onsen, staying at a traditional ryokan inn is one of those intrinsically Japanese experiences that no visitor to the country should miss out on. Japan is famous for its hospitality, and at a ryokan you really experience this at its best.

Sleep on comfortable futon laid out by a kimono-wearing attendant on a tatami mat floor, look out over exquisite Japanese gardens, tiptoe through shoji sliding paper doors on geta sandals, wrap yourself in a traditional yukata bathrobe to visit the in-house onsen baths, and sample delicious regional food at breakfast and dinner.

You simply haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed at a ryokan – trust us. You won’t regret it.

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  1. Get off the beaten track

It’s one of those hackneyed travel phrases that you’ll find lurking in every Lonely Planet guide and travel blog, used to describe every broken-down shack and one-horse town across the globe. And yet – loath as we are to peddle clichés – it is only by ‘getting off the beaten track’ that you can really get a rounded impression of Japan.

The big cities and famous sights are ‘on the beaten track’ for a reason. They’re the iconic views, the celebrated historical monuments and the locations that you’ve always dreamed of visiting. But it is by heading away from these destinations – into the countryside, the mountains, and the remote islands – that you’ll discover a side of Japan you never expected.

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Here’s a nice little video from one of our customers who spent a couple of weeks in Japan seeing some incredible places and meeting wonderful people in some of the more famous places and the lesser known places….a good taste of Japan.

  1. Visit an izakaya

One of the pieces of advice that cropped up time and time again in conversation with the InsideJapan team was to visit an izakaya. It’s hard to explain just what an izakaya is if you’ve never been to one, but they are most often described as the Japanese version of a British pub – a description that doesn’t quite do them justice.

Izakaya are where the Japanese go to eat, drink and be merry. They range from the cheap and cheerful (every dish 240 yen/£1.30) to the super-duper top-end cuisine, but what they all have in common is that they serve a wide range of small, tapas-style dishes to be shared amongst your group, and plenty of beer and sake.

It can be daunting to walk into an izakaya straight off the street – especially if it’s a tiny local establishment with no English menu or English-speaking staff – but if you’re brave enough, this is the best way to get chatting to the locals and try some delicious regional foods.

But don’t worry – if you’re too chicken to go it alone, InsideJapan can arrange an izakaya experience where one of our tour leaders can show you the ropes.

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  1. Do your research 

In our experience, the more you know about Japan the more it will intrigue you. Before you travel, have a look into the history of the areas you’re planning to visit and find out a bit about the culture – both contemporary and traditional. Doing things like watching a sumo match, meeting a geisha, visiting a Zen temple or exploring a shogun’s mausoleum will be that much more fascinating if you know a little about the background.

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  1. Hire a bike. Or a car. Or a motorbike.

We have nothing but excellent things to say about the clean, efficient, convenient and downright wonderful public transport system in Japan. There’s nothing quite like taking a ride on the bullet train, or navigating by the Tokyo subway.

But if you want to see a bit more and really get out of the main tourist traps, sometimes it’s best to go under your own steam. Hiring a bicycle will really allow you to explore bits of Japanese cities and countryside that you’d never have discovered otherwise, whilst renting a car or a motorbike will allow you to be even more adventurous and really get out into the unknown.

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10.  Bring plenty of cash (but not because Japan is expensive!)

Surprising as it may seem for a country that is world-famous for being technologically advanced, Japan is still very much a cash-based society and many places will still not accept plastic. It can even be difficult to withdraw cash from an ATM at the weekend or after 5pm – so instead of wasting time exchanging travellers’ cheques or hunting for a cash machine that accepts foreign cards, be sure to bring plenty of yen! Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, so there’s no need to fret about having pockets bulging with cash either.

And while we’re on the subject of money, don’t be put off visiting Japan because of its reputation for being expensive. It’s not the cheapest country in the world, but Japan is certainly not as a dear as most people think. Food, for example, is very cheap and extremely good quality – you can easily have an excellent meal for no more than 1,000 yen (about £5.50). Subway travel is also reasonable (the most you’ll pay for any journey on the Tokyo underground is a couple of quid), and capsule hotels offer a night’s sleep for less than 4,000 yen (about £20). Whatever anyone else tells you, it is possible to do Japan on a shoestring.

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These are only our top ten tips – between them the InsideJapan staff came up with many more – enough to flesh out a follow-up post, in fact! Watch this space…

Nikko is Nippon

Nikko grandeur
I remember a particular and inescapable JR promotional travel poster from years back. Unlike other advertisements, the deceptively simple message was actually more striking than the beautiful image. Three simple words: Nikko is Nippon. Beating like a drum as you marched through any and every train station in the country. Nikko is Nippon. Okay, what does that mean?

In the mountains
The country we call Japan today has had a lot of identities over the years…err, millennia. Actually, many important people and places throughout Japanese history have had multiple names, which makes memorizing them about as difficult as remembering the many different ways to read kanji (the adopted Chinese characters used in the written language). Speaking of which, there are two ways to read the kanji for the name of the country: Nihon and Nippon. The latter of which is more formal, and often used patriotically to evoke everything strong and good about the nation’s legacy that will continue to shine through the ages. It is the yang to Nihon’s yin. So then, what about Nikkō embodies this intangible idea, this identity?

Nikko Tori
In a word: everything. The archipelago we call Japan today would look very different if it weren’t for a series of unification attempts (battles) set in place by a succession of three men, the latter of which is posthumously referred to as Ieyasu Tokugawa (again, many names). Okay, naturally the archipelago would still exist, but what would come to be known as Japan would consist of much less than the 6,000+ islands it does today. A similar unification attempt had a different outcome when the Silla Kingdom enlisted in the assistance of the Tang Dynasty and gave away half of it’s northern neighbor’s land to China as recompense, severely shrinking the size of Korea and sparked the flame that would later be fanned into the north-south divide seen today.

Kegon falls
In Japan’s case, the unification led to an increase, rather than a decrease in its size, which would subsequently make it easier to add the tropical islands of Okinawa and the northern island of Hokkaido to this amalgamation (kind of like Hawaii and Alaska respective to the U.S. in a strange coincidence), but I digress. Japan’s history is repeatedly marked by sudden, drastic, sweeping changes, and the emergence of the Edo Period was no exception. Perhaps most welcome, was the long-awaited peace this era ushered in. The isolation policies implemented and enforced, allowed Japanese culture to flourish largely unfettered by the rapid geopolitical tides affecting its neighbors at the time. This of course would largely come to an abrupt end with the Meiji Restoration, and be subjected to a further, external mutation in the Shōwa period, but provided a well-delineated backdrop against which to refocus a sense of modern cultural identity in the turbulent aftermath of the eras that succeeded it.

Nikko snow
The primary shōgun in the ultimate shogunate is laid to rest at Tōshō-gū. In accordance to his wishes, he was enshrined like a deity. In stark contrast to the reserved aesthetic of other shrines, the palatial structures are ornately gilded in gold and enveloped with intricate woodcarvings and paintings. A short, but rigorous climb up many stone steps through the forest beyond and above the mausoleum will lead you to a bronze urn that actually contains the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The man who moved the capital from Kyoto to what would become modern day Tokyo, who strategically capitalized on the legacies of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Oda Nobunaga before him, who became more powerful than the Emperor, and forged a nation that would enchant the world for centuries after his parting. It’s a humbling privilege to circumambulate his final resting place and, like stargazing, makes one feel mighty small.

Sacred bridge
Shinkyō, or sacred bridge, marks the entrance to the UNESCO World Heritage designated temples and shrines of Nikkō. It is considered to be one of Japan’s most beautiful bridges, and belongs to Futarasan jinja, a Shintō shrine adjacent to Tōshō-gū and dedicated to the gods of the three holiest mountains in Nikkō. The most prominent of these is Mount Nantai, also referred to as Futarasan, to which the shrine owes its namesake, and gorgeous Lake Chūzenji its existence. A violent eruption formed the lake approximately 20,000 years ago, and now the only outlet for its waters is Kegon Falls, one of Japan’s most impressive waterfalls. The lake is the source of the Daiya River, over which Shinkyō spans. And so, it goes around in a circle, like a snake eating its own tail (the Ouroboros). Speaking of snakes, legend has it that Shinkyō was created when the founder of Futarasan jinja, Shōdō Shōnin, led an expedition to climb Mt. Nantai. He and his followers couldn’t cross the roaring rapids of the Daiya River, so they prayed. A giant god released two snakes and they formed a bridge that would allow the party to continue. Hence, the bridge’s alternative name: Yamasuga-no-Jabashi, or Snake Bridge of Sedge. Now, that really is cyclical.

Chuzenji
Nikkō means sunlight, and just as sunshine is intrinsic to sunrises, so too is Nikkō essential to the Land of the Rising Sun. The natural beauty, cultural and historic significance make it a must-see for tourists and residents alike, as outlined in the Japanese proverb: “Nikkō wo minai naka wa kekkō to iu na”, which loosely translates to, “Don’t say beautiful until you’ve seen Nikkō.”

light
Nikkō is located in Tochigi Prefecture, roughly two hours north of Tokyo. The two fastest ways to get there from here are on Tobu’s Spacia train or JR’s shinkansen (bullet train). The latter option is free with the Japan Rail Pass. If you take the shinkansen, you’ll have to transfer to the Nikkō line in Utsunomiya, which breaks up the trip nicely and is famous for its gyōza (meat and vegetable dumplings). Nikkō makes for a great daytrip from Tokyo, but if you’d like to really take it in, and especially if you’d like to visit Kegon Falls and Lake Chūzenji, an overnight stay is recommended. Nikkō is a destination on two of InsideJapan’s small group tours: Japan Enchantment and Spirit of Honshu, and can be incorporated into any tailor-made trip.

Frozen fall

What’s hot in Japan for 2015

There are plenty of reasons to make it to Japan in 2015, but here are a few really good ones.

KANAZAWA

Journeys to the garden city of Kanazawa will be quicker than ever when the new Shinkansen line opens in March 2015 cutting journey time from Tokyo to 2.5hrs (was 4hrs). A beautiful laid back and historical city with samurai houses and traditional tea districts, Kanazawa is well worth a visit.

Kanazawa_OldTownxxx

 

HIMEJI CASTLE

After five years of renovation work, the scaffolding is off and we can’t wait to get back to Himeji. Just in time for the cherry blossom and ‘hanami’, the castle will be back to its full glory on March 27th.

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FUKUOKA

“Ramen city” has always been a favourite with the InsideJapan team. Now KLM offer daily flights from Amsterdam to Fukuoka, so it’s easier than ever to get there.

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HIROSHIMA

Visit Hiroshima on 6th August 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing. Today, it’s a great little city full of good food!

Japan

 

NAGASAKI

Similarly Nagasaki will be commerating the anniversary of the second atomic bombing which happened on 9th August 1945. Nagasaki is arguably one of the most attractive and historically-rich cities in the whole country.

Nagasaki Peace Gdn

ONOMICHI

With cycling getting seemingly more and more popular, head to Onomichi and the home of the first purpose built cycle hotel. The small town has lots of little temples and is the gateway to the Shimanamikaido cycle route.

Onomichi_Viewpoint (4)

 

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS JAPAN, OSAKA

It has been around for a while, but Harry Potter world opened in the summer of 2014 – a must visit for any Potter fan. If you are not a Potter fan, just stick to Osaka…

Potter pad

OSAKA CASTLE

Another reason for heading to Osaka (apart from the food and it being a great place) is to celebrate the castles important role in Japanese history. 2015 is the 400th anniversary of some important battles and the castle is celebrating with a massive 3-D display from 13th December – 1st March. Very impressive.

Osaka CastleHere’s a preview –

 

 

ECHIGO, NIIGATA

The peaks and rural villages of the Japanese Alps provide inspiration and back drop for the triennial arts festival held in the region (Jul 26-Sep 13). Contemporary art installations combine with the heart of tradtional Japan for some beautiful sites in a beautiful part of Japan.

View from summit of a moutain in Yuzawa

 

YONAGUNI

The ‘Iseki’ stones have got to be one of the most intriguing and unique dive spots in the world. Is it the oldest man-made structure in the world, is it geological phenomenon..or was it built by aliens!? Either way, it is an incredible dive off a remote island.

Yonaguni

 

7 Stars: Cruising in Kyushu

The 7 Stars or Nanatsuboshi (ななつ星) cruise train started operating in October 2013 and has proved a huge hit, both with the domestic market and international travellers alike. The concept, design and course have been very carefully thought out to provide a wonderful and relaxing experience of travelling Japan’s third largest island, Kyushu.

All aboard!

The significance of the name is three fold: Firstly, the train travels around Kyushu which has seven prefectures- though ironically, both the courses which are offered only visit five prefectures.You can either take a shorter course of 1 night and 2 days, or a longer version which is 3 nights and 4 days. I won’t go into detail but you can see a full description of the courses here.

Seven Stars

However, if we look to the second point, the ommision of two prefectures doesn’t seem such a big deal afterall. The 7 Stars aims to take in the seven elements of Kyushu which can be done within the confines of five prefectures. These seven elements are nature, cuisine, hot springs, history and culture, power spots, local hospitality and sightseeing trains. And finally, to really enforce the name, the train has seven carriages.

Entertainment
There are two communal carriages: One dining room and one lounge (occupied by a live pianaist and violinist), followed by a variety of private suites for sleeping in, each as beautifully designed as the next!
Inside7stars
Kyushu has quite a few sightseeing trains but the 7 Stars is by far the most magestic. The train is polished maroon on the outside, decorated with a classic golden logo which often reappears inside- look closely and you’ll find it on your coffee cup, even on the screws in the walls.

Wooden insides
There are large windows, particularly at the back, giving passengers a great view out to the beautiful landscapes, but also an opportunity to wave to the crowds that ineveitably gather to see off the train from each station it pulls out of. Inside, the train is mostly wooden with tasteful fabrics used throughout.

The style is a real mix of Japanese and western fashions. The designer, Mr Eiji Mitooka paid a huge amount of attention to detail and has tied in elements of the course to the design- for example, each room has a beautiful, individually designed ceramic sink, made in Arita. As part of the course, guests get a very exclusive chance to visit the studio in Arita where these are made.

Ceramics

Before boarding the train, I was wondering how the time would pass on the journey. After checking in at the upmarket 7 Stars lounge and being escorted down to the platform through crowds of amateur photographers and train fanatics, the regular stop offs at stations and towns along the way provided a great chance for some sightseeing.

Scenery

On the train, there was a never ending supply of drinks- alcoholic or soft drinks, even some latte art was being presented!

coffee

We ate fantastically well on the train, enjoying Japanese and French cuisine, this mixture of styles mirroring the fusion present in the design of the train itself.

Food
The 7 Stars was really special and unique- though, it is in high demand! I can’t describe everything in this short post so please do look to the official website for some more information. Even if you are not able to ride the 7 Stars, make sure your visit to Japan involves some time in Kyushu, enjoying their seven elements!

The backend

Tokyo – Next Door and a World Away

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Don’t let the fact that few have heard of Nokogiriyama, and even fewer visited, fool you into thinking “Saw Mountain” isn’t an excellent option for a day trip from the Tokyo area.

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Located across Tokyo Bay on the Bōsō Peninsula (Chiba Prefecture), a little over an hour from Yokohama and closer to two from Tokyo, this mountain derives its name from its resemblance to a Japanese woodworking saw, or nokogiri. It used to be a stone quarry during the Edo period, and the excavation of rock is partly responsible for giving the mountain its unique appearance.

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The main attraction is Nihon-ji, a Buddhist temple that traces its history back to the Nara period, about 1,300 years ago. This is where you’ll find Japan’s largest stone Buddha, which used to be the largest figure of Buddha anywhere in Japan until the completion of Aomori’s bronze statue in 1984. Entrance is ¥600, and you’ll also receive an English map and description of the sprawling temple grounds.

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The Hyakushaku Kannon is an impressive relief of Kannon, a bodhisattva and goddess of mercy, carved directly into a quarry wall. Hyaku means one-hundred, and shaku is a traditional unit of measure in Japan (and East Asia, although not uniform), the average length between nodes on bamboo, or approximately one foot.

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The 1,500 Arhats are smaller statues of spirits or beings that have attained nirvana. They were chiseled from special stones sent by sea from Izu. The enormous task took master artisan Jingorō Eirei Ōno and his 27 apprentices 19 years to complete. Unfortunately, many of the masterpieces were destroyed in the anti-Buddhist movement of the Meiji period, but there are current efforts to restore them to their former glory. Still, among Buddhists, Mt. Nokogiri is widely regarded as one of the holiest mountains in the Kantō area; some even say the world, though I suspect they have a Bōsō bias.

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The views from the cliff faces out over the bay are breathtaking, and you could easily spend a couple of hours visiting the different sights of Nihon-ji.

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Standard footwear is adequate, but do be aware that there are many steps and you may be a little short of breath if you’re not used to hiking or climbing many stairs.

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You might be surprised to learn that the stone statue of Buddha in Nihon-ji is nearly twice the size of the bronze statue in Tōdai-ji, Nara.

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If you’ve made an early start and have a few extra hours after your visit to Nokogiriyama, you might want to take a trip a little further down the peninsula to the beach town of Tateyama, which has a claim to fame as the primary filming location of a popular TV show called “Beach Boys”. From Hamakanaya Station, take the JR Uchibo Line 25 minutes south to Tateyama Station (¥410 each way, departures roughly every half hour).

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From Tokyo, there are two ways to Nokogiriyama. One is by train, with a transfer at either Chiba or Soga stations to the JR Uchibo line, disembark at Hamakanaya Station (2 hours, ¥1,940 each way). The other is by a train and ferry combo. Take the Keikyu line to Keikyu Kurihama station (72 min, ¥960 each way), board a bus at stop number 2 for the Tokyo Wan Ferry port (10 minutes, ¥200), and board the ferry to Kanaya (40 minutes, 720 one-way, ¥1,320 return).

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If you like variety, you might like to do the trip to Nokogiriyama in a big circle, taking the ferry one-way and train the other. If you’re planning a visit from Yokohama or Kamakura, it takes even less time, but the ferry is really the best option. The ferry leaves roughly once an hour, and the schedule can be found here (departures from Kurihama port are on the left, and from Kanaya port on the right):

Kurihama Ferry 2
For those arriving at JR Kurihama Station (instead of Keikyu Kurihama station mentioned above), take the bus from stop number 5 (12 minutes, ¥200). For groups of 4, a taxi is the same fare as a bus and leaves on your schedule.

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From either Kanaya ferry port or JR Hamakanaya station, it is about a ten-minute walk to the ropeway (¥500 one-way, ¥930 return), which will take you to the entrance of Nihon-ji and departs every ten minutes. There are toilets and refreshments available at both ends of the ropeway, as well as at the big Buddha.

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Again, for those who appreciate history or nature, this makes for a great day trip from the main conurbation of Tokyo. With its unique atmosphere and spectacle, and a remoteness that belies its proximity to the city, it will likely leave you feeling as if you’ve just had a dream, as it did me.

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