Japan is an incredible country. Bursting with culture, beautiful landscape, and extraordinary cuisine, one should plan to spend at least a month exploring this island, despite its size. Japan has something to offer in every season, so be sure to prioritize your activities and choose the time of year that fits into your vision. For example, an avid skier should consider a winter shred-trip in the Japanese Alps (hello, pow!) while those with thinner blood should soak in the warmer weather, viewing the famous cherry blossoms. Whatever your preference, plan ahead and coordinate with the seasons. For me, I found myself in Japan in January and February when winter was in full force.
Other than choosing the appropriate time of year, the best thing you can do to prepare for your trip to Japan is research the options for purchasing a JR Pass, or a Japan Rail Pass. With the pass, you can hop aboard most of Japan’s trains, including bullet trains, making travel around the island fast, easy, comfortable, and fun. Trains go directly to Narita, the major airport in Tokyo, so you can go straight to the terminal, activate your pass, and start exploring. Don’t procrastinate; you must apply for a JR Pass and have it mailed to you, so it is something you need to do in advance.
Tokyo is an incredible city, but since I was visiting during winter, I wanted to head north towards the Sea of Japan to experience the moodiness of the coast. Before heading to Toyama, I spent some time in Nagano, which is a ski-town. If you’re not into skiing, or if your budget doesn’t allow, don’t fret! You can go see the snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs in the mountains! That is not a joke – there are actually monkeys in the Japanese Alps that bathe in hot springs and it’s incredible to watch.
From Nagano, I took local trains all the way to Toyama, an industrial, coastal city along the northern shoreline of the island. No exaggeration, this train ride was absolutely magical. I felt like we drove right through the wardrobe straight to Narnia. The track twisted and turned through the mountains, along rivers, and beside conifers heavy with dollops of snow. Take some snacks – these trains are definitely not high speed, but that makes the ride even more enjoyable since you have a chance to take in the scenery. In Toyama, I took a trolley to a beach and stood as I watched the waves angrily beat against coast. It was one of the most beautiful sights, and I felt like I could understand the inspiration behind “The Wave Off Toyama”.
The train ride back to Kyoto was equally fantastic. I had a stopover in Takayama and, thanks to a large blizzard, my train was delayed for a few hours. Luckily, the Hirase Sake Brewery came to the rescue! Locally made, this sake is delicious and reasonably priced when purchased from the source. Of course, you must sample the sake before buying. Beware, when you take the taste-before-purchase approach, you will end up buying multiple bottles. This is top notch sake for basically free. I looked up the bottles that I bought (3 of them); they retailed on a U.S. website for $70 and up per bottle, but were $14 – $20 each straight from the brewery. They do not speak English very much at this brewery, but that really isn’t necessary since they display the bottles so you can point to the type you’d like to try. The staff is quite friendly and will let you stay a while to taste, but it is extremely disrespectful to taste and not buy. I highly recommend taking some time to explore Takayama, grab lunch, and finish at the brewery.
Finally, you cannot visit Japan and skip out on a sumo wrestling match. There is nothing more impressive than gigantic men literally throwing their weight around. It’s truly something you have to see to appreciate. There are often multi-day matches in Tokyo where you can buy tickets day-of, if you are a procrastinator. Be aware, if you delay, you will still pay about $70 for a nose-bleed seat. Purchase tickets online in advance to secure the best seat for the best price.
As you can see, we barely scratched the surface of what Japan has to offer, and we already covered a number of diverse experiences. I could go on for hours about the wild deer in Nara, zen garden after zen garden, and exploring Hakone via cable car, but there isn’t enough time in a day. While it’s a bit more expensive to visit here, it is absolutely worth every penny. I can’t wait to go again for myself!