Called ryokans, they are the traditional inns in rural areas, with sparse rooms covered in tatami mats, and nothing but a low table for drinking tea or eating meals. Futons will be spread out on the mats when you are out. Or in the bath, because communal baths are also a feature of ryokans. Check out minshuku which are the more budget versions, with less fancy food.
As well as Japanís four main ones, Japan has over 6000 islands. Combine a spiritual escape on Shikoku, famous for its 88 temples, with a trip to the beach. Or seek out beach bliss when your culture vulture wings tire on the sub-tropical island of Ishigaki, or the Kerama Islands, where they do white sands and clear waters to a T. Turquoise green tea.
Japan is a great country to visit with children as the Japanese make a big fuss over western kids. Japan is also quite childlike as a culture, with cartoons and theme parks everywhere, the traditional ryokans are great value for families, food is brilliant and good value, with bento boxes perfect snacks. And trains are superfast. So no more, Ďare we nearly there yet?í
Japan is made for winter. Already so well versed in prettiness, the snowfall is simply the icing on its already delicious cake. With over 500 ski resorts, try skiing or snowboarding in the Minakami Mountains, head to the Sapporo Snow Festival, or just take in all the temples looking even more stunning in their blanket of white.
Japan is well known for its fine fare, but in most tourist countries you would expect there to be exceptions to the rule. The fact, it is hard to find bad food in Japan. Yes, they eat some weird stuff, and you want to stay clear of whale meat (unesu or onomi) but, in general, from bento to miso, sushi to sashimi, they just get the gourmand thing.
The train network is impeccable and way up there with Switzerland in terms of speed and efficiency. Most tourists travel by train, from the famous Shinkansen bullet trains going between, say, Tokyo and Kyoto, to the sleeper trains into the mountains in Sapporo. Best value is to buy a rail pass in advance of your travels. Tour operators will organise this for you.
Hot springs or onsen baths, sand baths, cold baths and even cedar sawdust baths are all on the mellowing out menu in Japan. Water is almost sacred here, with public sento baths everywhere. The same goes for all Japanese homes, where bathing is a whole ritual. Always soap and rinse before you get in the tub though. They are places for chilling, not cleansing.
Hiking is a must when travelling in Japan, with mountains and forests covering 70% of the country. The Kumano Kodo and Nakasendo Trails are pure rapture for ramblers. The former an ancient pilgrimage route through the richly forested Kii Mountains, and the latter a 17th century historic byway from Kyoto to Edo, now Tokyo. Take a super modern train to Kyoto, and hike back along a parallel path through history.
There was a flurry of interest in Geishas a few years ago, following the film Memoirs of a Geisha. It is a real, albeit fading, tradition, and not aimed at tourists, but youíll spot Ďmaikosí or Ďapprenticesí in the hanamichi (geisha quarters) of Kyoto and Tokyo. Just donít fall for the misnomers that a) they are there purely for tourists and b) even worse, they are prostitutes. They arenít.
Although many places in the world are waking up to the fact that dolphins or whales in captivity are just wrong on so many levels, dolphinariums are still big business in Japan. Just ensure that you watch the excellent film, The Cove, before you go, and you will never enter a dolphinarium again.
This got out of hand as a tourist attraction, because it is a serious working fish market, and the sellers were being disturbed by tourists. They have restricted numbers now, but still people queue up at the crack of dawn to get one of the 100 first- come- first-served tickets to witness the tuna auction. Eat at the sushi markets anytime, but leave the people to earn a living first.