With the news that Japan is finally relaxing its entry rules, it's time we let ourselves fall back in love with the Land of the Rising Sun
Before 2020, Japan evoked a flood of clear-cut images: Mount Fuji hovering on the horizon, under cartoon blue skies; the white nose of a shinkansen (bullet train) gliding into a station platform; stillness punctuated by the whisk of bamboo on ceramic as forest-green matcha is prepared.
Fast-forward to today, and although all of these iconic elements for which Japan has long been famed are still here, the nation is perhaps now viewed through an additional prism: as one of the least accessible countries in the world, thanks to its strict border closures.  
For more than two years, tightly closed to inbound tourists as part of its rigorous anti-Covid strategy – something of a modern echo of the country’s famous 265-year period of self-isolation which ended in the 19th century.
This week, after tentative opening steps, the government finally scrapped the country’s pre-arrival Covid-19 test requirement, and removed the need for visitors to be part of an organised tour. It may be limited, but it’s a step in the right direction – and makes this magnificent destination once again worthy of the number one spot on any wish list.
Japan’s closure to tourists has not stopped a rush of chic new hotel openings across the country – from sub-tropical island resorts and sparkling city skyscrapers to intimate rural escapes. Plus, visitors will find that Japan’s famed reputation for cleanliness serves them well in a pandemic, with stringent anti-Covid measures still in place at most hotels, restaurants and public facilities (hand washing, temperature testing and mask wearing are still required ahead of entering many spaces).
And for those still in any doubt about whether to jump on a plane to Japan as soon as it’s possible, here are 20 reasons to start planning a dream trip (just don’t forget to pack your mask).
Shibuya, that ever-glaring neon symbol of Tokyo street culture, is constantly shapeshifting – and its constant evolution has stepped up a notch during the pandemic. A flurry of new skyscrapers and years of redevelopment work have been completed, giving the buzzy nocturnal district a shiny new look. One of the tallest new kids on the block is Shibuya Scramble Square (shibuya-scramble-square.com), which stretches 47 stories into the clouds, with sleek retail, food outlets and an observation deck at its apex. 
Another highlight is the refreshingly low-rise Miyashita Park complex (miyashita-park.tokyo), with several floors of cutting-edge boutiques and eateries, which flow directly into Sequence (rooms from £59; sequencehotels.com/miyashita-park) – a hip new hotel with sleek interiors and a flurry of top Japanese design names involved. This 17-storey skyscraper has 240 contemporary guestrooms with different artworks and video game-perfect views across Shibuya, plus a rooftop nightspot with pool and bar.
It’s easy to see why Kamakura is dubbed the Hamptons of Tokyo. Just an hour by train from the capital, the picturesque coastal town is wrapped in green mountains, with wide beaches, a surf community, organic restaurants, temples and winding lanes. And it’s been more appealing than ever in recent times – due to the close proximity to both city and nature.
One place guaranteed to bring a sense of post-Covid calm is Modern Ryokan Kishi-ke (from £1,122 per night; kishi-ke.co.jp). Run by a design-loving young couple with generations-old samurai heritage, the one-bedroom retreat is an exquisite modern riff on traditional tea aesthetics, with minimalist architecture, curated ceramics – plus, perhaps best of all, a deep cultural programme inspired by chisoku, the Buddhist concept of feeling sated with what you have. Visitors can enjoy a tea ceremony, incense making and – more recently launched – a special “mindfulness eating” programme.
Hokkaido – the northernmost island region of Japan – has long moved to its own beat, as reflected in its unique flora and fauna, wild coastline and seasonal cuisine (anyone for squid-ink cheese?). Its legendary powder snow has also garnered a cult winter following among snowboarders and skiers – in Niseko in particular, a town booming with luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. 
One new hotel to join its stellar community is Japan’s first Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Higashiyama Niseko Village (rooms from £261; ritzcarlton.com), which has 50 deluxe guest rooms, a string of restaurants and – the ultimate après-ski attraction – hot spring onsen bathing. It joins the sleekly minimalist Park Hyatt Niseko (rooms from £256; hyatt.com), while Aman is also scheduled to open a wellness retreat in Niseko’s wild landscapes in 2023.
It’s telling that the word kirei means both “clean” and “beautiful” in Japan – reflecting the deep-rooted value the nation places on its long-famed culture of cleanliness. One thing visitors will be reassured about upon arrival is how Japan really is as safe, clean and punctual as its reputation. 
Tokyo in particular may be one of the most densely packed cities on the planet – yet its transport system is easy-to-use, litter-free and rarely delayed (although perhaps worth avoiding in peak rush hour – trains are still heaving with commuters). 
Timeless omotenashi hospitality is another area at which Japan famously excels – from the politely bowed greetings of bullet train staff serving drinks as they enter the carriage to the silent intuition of discreet kimono-clad staff at the most traditional of ryokan inns.
Princess Peach, Mario, Yoshi, Luigi, Toad, Lakitu: if these names mean nothing to you, it’s probably best to skip to the next entry. Those who recognise these as characters from Nintendo’s iconic Super Mario World would do well to book a pilgrimage to Osaka as soon as the pandemic ends – to pay a visit to the gaming giant’s first foray into the world of theme parks. Super Nintendo World (super-nintendo-world.usj.co.jp), offers visitors the chance to experience a new level of immersion in Nintendo’s games, from AR-rides and selfies in Princess Peach’s castle to themed treats at on-site cafes (there’s even a new Nintendo-themed train to carry you there).
While overseas visitors may have missed the opportunity to experience the Tokyo Olympics, one place to explore your very own Olympian dreams in Japan is Zenagi (from £2,015 per night; zen-resorts.com). A beautifully-renovated kominka country house in the lush green Kiso Valley in Nagano Prefecture, a stay here includes not only imaginative contemporary cuisine, impeccable service and expertly-crafted décor (the vast hinoki wood bathtubs are a personal favourite).
Guests (kids included) can also choose from a range of activities helmed by charismatic Olympic athletes – from river rafting to paragliding, in remote nature spots – in between enjoying bamboo forest picnics, forest bathing and local crafts workshops.
It’s a cliché but it’s true: a trip to Japan is incomplete without at least one quick dip into the temples and shrines, gardens and teahouses of former ancient capital Kyoto – now, more than ever. While one of the downsides of a Kyoto visit in recent years has often been the heaving throng of tourist crowds, the city invariably emptied during the pandemic. When the borders reopen, it’s worth visiting before the crowds fully return. 
The city has also undergone something of a modern creative renaissance, largely fuelled by the pandemic – resulting in a renewed spotlight in the timeless appeal of its traditional heritage among modern creatives. 
This can be seen in a flood of new hotel openings. Highlights includes hipster haven Ace Kyoto (whose main restaurant run by Portland chef Naomi Pomeroy is due to open later this year; rooms from £159; acehotel.com/kyoto); The Shinmonzen (rooms from £962; theshinmonzen.com), the chic Tadao Ando-designed little sister hotel of Villa la Coste and one of the city’s hottest creative hideaways since opening in Gion earlier this year (its restaurant by uber chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is also due to launch later this year); and Hotel the Mitsui (rooms from £578; hotelthemitsui.com). The latter is an elegant, contemporary André Fu-designed escape wrapped around a garden, offering a catalogue of atmospheric experiences – from a morning of all things Zen at Taizo-in Temple to a special visit to a century-old traditional wagashi sweetmaker which provides confectionery to the Imperial Family.
Keen for a post-pandemic wellness reboot? A dose of forest bathing – known as shinrin-yoku – will no doubt do the trick. Forest immersion is taken very seriously in Japan, with countless proven benefits, from immune systems to brain health. 
At Kumano Hongu Heritage Centre in Wakayama prefecture, a “forest therapist” can accompany you along the ancient Kumano Kodo pilgrim route – checking blood pressure and supplying a healthy bento box lunch (my multi-talented therapist even played the Japanese flute to me as I lay on a log). 
A more sedate – but no less relaxing – option is to jump on a one-hour train from Tokyo to mountain resort Karuizawa and check into Shishi-Iwa House (rooms from £227; shishiiwahouse.jp) where it’s all about the trees. SSH1, its first beautiful minimalist retreat of light wood and seasonal nature views, was designed by cult architect Shigeru Ban to curve, quite literally, through the surrounding forest trees.
The second, SSH2 – also by Ban and just seconds away on foot – has just opened, with 12 rooms (each with hinoki wood bathtubs), a contemporary restaurant and an expansive photographic art collection.
Turquoise waters, coral reefs, deserted beaches and mangrove forests: Japan is not often associated with subtropical island life. Yet sun-drenched Okinawa happily defies all stereotypes. A scattered trail of small islands in Japan’s southernmost region, Okinawa moves at a refreshingly pulse-slowing pace. 
Main island Okinawa is home to coastal pottery villages such as Yomitan; remote mangrove forests and empty beaches in Yambaru; and a plethora of luxe resorts, including the Ritz-Carlton Okinawa (rooms from £335; ritzcarlton.com) and Halekulani Okinawa (rooms from £227; okinawa.halekulani.com) plus the sleekly designed new Hoshinoya Okinawa (rooms from £880; hoshinoya.com). 
Those keen to get back to nature can now sleep up a tree at Treeful Treehouse Sustainable Resort (from £740 per night; treeful.net). A series of wooden treehouses with 360-degree views are scattered among the canopies, alongside solar-powered electricity to a watermill.
More than a decade has now passed since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster swept swathes of northeastern Japan – the Tohoku region in particular. Fast-forward to the present day and it’s perhaps one of the most rewarding places for adventurous travellers to explore. Among many highlights across its six prefectures are the rugged volcanic Zao mountains with jewel-like crater lakes; scatterings of tiny pine-covered islands in Matsushima Bay; the serene waters of Lake Towada and the world-class art museums of Aomori.
Not to forget Fukushima itself: the prefecture is not just about nuclear power plants, but is also famed for its samurai heritage as embodied by atmospheric Aizu-Wakamatsu, plus its wintertime ski resorts and tasty gyoza dumplings. InsideJapan Tours (0117 244 3380; insidejapantours.com) uses an expansive network of local contacts to create some of the best insider Tohoku trips, including its popular Northern Soul group tour as well as self-guided trips.
Never mind cloud-brushing skyscraper hotels. Those keen to avoid the crowds should check into one of a growing number of small but perfectly formed hotels with just one room. 
Among the chicest is Trunk(House) (from £4,771 per night; trunk-house.com) – a sleekly renovated 70-year-old former training house for geisha, hidden among a warren of lanes in Tokyo’s Kagurazaka district. It’s home to an edgy fusion of old and new – from Japanese gardens, a tatami-mat tearoom and around-the-clock service from butlers and private chefs, to contemporary Tom Sachs art installations, a hinoki bath big enough to swim in and mid-century design classics. Not to forget the World’s Smallest Disco, a small neon-lit space with glitterball popcorn cocktails and state-of-the-art karaoke – all for yourself.
The scattered silhouettes of tiny fishing islands scatter the serene blue waters of the Seto Inland Sea, a body of water that connects three of Japan’s main islands. With its temperate climate, it’s been dubbed the Mediterranean of Japan (one island is famed for its olives). The region is perhaps most well known for its art islands, in particular Naoshima, which is topping creative wish lists this year, having just opened two new galleries – Tadao Ando’s minimalist, angular Valley Gallery, filled with Yayoi Kusama’s countless reflective metal balls (part of her Narcissus Garden artwork); plus the new Hiroshi Sugimoto Gallery: Time Corridors, showcasing 30 artworks by the iconic artist (benesse-artsite.jp). 
A much-needed new hotel addition to the island is newly opened Naoshima Ryokan ROKA (rooms from £640; roka.voyage): chic, boutique, creative, a highlight are its 11 minimalist guestrooms, with private sunken wooden baths and retractable walls of glass. 
Meanwhile, Guntû (three-day voyages from £3,390; guntu.jp), a mini Noah’s ark-style “floating ryokan” boat by architect Yasushi Horibe, remains perhaps the most stylish way to get around the region. And the hottest ticket on the Hiroshima side of the Seto Inland Sea? Azumi Setoda, a chic modern take on a traditional ryokan inn by Aman founder Adrian Zecha on tiny Ikuchijima island (rooms from £452; azumi.co).
The romantic allure of Kyoto is hard to resist – but there’s another perhaps lesser-known city worth adding to the Must Visit list: Kanazawa. The capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, Kanazawa has a thriving crafts scene: the region’s laquerware and gold leaf are particularly prized while the government recently relocated the National Crafts Museum (momat.go.jp) here from its former Tokyo home. It’s a cultural treasure trove, with time capsule pockets of traditional architecture, including the Nagamachi samurai district and Higashi-Chaya geisha area – not to forget Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s most treasured landscape gardens. 
The icing on the creative cake? 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (kana zawa21.jp), whose clean, minimal lines of curved concrete and glass (by architects SANAA) showcase world-class modern art. The Hyatt Centric Kanazawa (rooms from £129; hyatt.com), with its sleekly crafted design touches, is a convenient luxury addition to the city’s hotel scene, having opened mid-pandemic in summer 2020. 
Crafts-lovers should also make a pilgrimage to the region this autumn, with the high quality Go for Kogei crafts festival showcasing the work of 20 contemporary craft artists in locations ranging from temples and shrines to gardens (goforkogei.com – from September 17 to October 23).
It has a habit of popping up on the horizon and taking your breath away when you least expect it – through a bullet train window or from a skyscraper hotel guestroom. Mount Fuji – with its perfect triangular form and snow-capped apex – is perhaps the ultimate symbol of Japan and there are countless ways to enjoy its powerful presence. 
Thrill-seekers in particular are in luck: Fuji-Q Highland (fujiq.jp) – a theme park famously home to Japan’s scariest roller coaster in the Mount Fuji foothills – has opened a new Fujiyama Sky Deck. Visitors can strap on a harness and climb a new open-air observatory that rises 55m high – a fraction lower than the 79m roller coaster – and soak up epic close-up views of Mount Fuji (plus the screaming faces of roller coaster passengers as they rush past).
From centuries-old teahouses to intricate temple pagodas and tiered castles: Japan’s traditional architectural techniques were given a boost last December after being added to Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The move is likely to further fuel a movement to revive Kyoto’s machiya townhouses – narrow, deep wooden structures, thousands of which have been torn down in recent decades – many of which provide an atmospheric alternative to conventional hotels. 
Today, visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to picking a machiya – with favourites including Hanare Kyoto (hanare.kyoto), which has a portfolio of five exquisite architect-designed machiya across the capital that will make you want to move in and stay forever (picture minimalist interiors of tatami, sliding screens, contemporary artworks and elegant seasonal gardens).
Meanwhile, Maana Homes (maanahomes.com), has a machiya collection fusing traditional details with modern design touches, including Maana Kyoto, with its circular clay bathtub, Jasper Morrison kitchen stools and graphic monochrome artwork by local fabric artist Takeshi Nakajima. Insider tip: its third space, Maana Kiyomizu, complete with restaurant and retail space, is opening now.
The eternal appeal of Japan’s sprawling urban megacities, from neon-lit Tokyo to bustling Osaka, will no doubt never fade – but it’s perhaps the perfect time to explore the nation’s deeply peaceful rural landscapes. The slow tempo of its hidden villages, valleys and forests offers countless chances to recharge across its mountainous archipelago. Easy escapes from Tokyo include Mount Takao just west of the capital, with its forested slopes, temples and traditional sweets; Hakone, near Mount Fuji, renowned for its hot spring onsen bathing and atmospheric ryokan inns; and Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula, with its peaceful sweep of white sandy beaches and blue waters.
One other rural gem – perfect for foodies and design lovers alike – is Sower (restaurantsower.com), a newly opened restaurant on the shores of the serene waters of Lake Biwa, around an hour by train from Kyoto. It’s well worth the trip. Contemporary and imaginative terroir-inspired cuisine, masterminded by Californian chef Coleman Griffin, is served in an atmospheric minimalist interior by Osaka-based Teruhiro Yanagihara Studio – with both food and décor inspired by the wild landscape around it.
Forget the stark white walls of a city art gallery. One of the best places to experience art here is, without a doubt, rural Japan – be it a rice field or a fishing island. Testimony to this is Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (echigo-tsumari.jp), a major art festival in Niigata Prefecture – running until November this year – with dozens of high-quality artworks and installations scattered across lush green rice terraces, traditional wooden houses and abandoned schools. Here, in remote countryside, art-lovers can watch a sunrise light show in a house by James Turrell or wander along a mountainside tunnel by MAD Architects.
Another vibrant example of Japan’s many far-flung art projects is the recently opened Shiroiya Hotel (rooms from £238; shiroiya.com) in former silk-making hub Maebashi in Gunma Prefecture. Here, a minimal industrial-edged renovation of a 1970s building by architect Sou Fujimoto anchors a string of top Japanese creatives from Hiroshi Sugimoto and Leandro Erlich to Tatsuo Miyajima, with creative guestrooms and scattered installations.
It’s all about the seasons in Japan – particularly when it comes to the contents of a plate. One of the most timeless joys of any Japan visit is exploring its rich, fresh food scene, which goes far beyond the confines of sushi and ramen (although there’s plenty of those too) – kaiseki banquets, pork tonkatsu, okonomiyaki pancakes, tempura to name just a few.
But most importantly, the food consumed often reflects what’s happening in nature at that precise moment in time, whether it’s a Michelin-starred restaurant or a convenience-store bento box – from a steaming yuzu-scented nabe hot pot (essential winter comfort food) to sweet sticky grilled unagi eel on snow-white rice (traditionally eaten in peak summer as an antidote to the humidity).
A pandemic can’t stop the flowers blooming – luckily for Japan, where seasonal blooms are revered in near spiritual terms, their fleeting peak beauty reflecting the poignant transience of life. It’s impossible to think of springtime Japan without one particular small pink flower coming to mind: the sakura cherry blossom. Sakura fever sweeps the nation every spring, as reflected in parks and riverside festivals and temples (as well as convenience store aisles: everything is pink and cherry flavoured in spring).
But it’s not just cherry blossoms: early June’s rainy season brings ajisai hydrangeas, in shades of blue, pink and purple (thousands steal the show at Bunkyo Ajisai Matsuri festival at Tokyo’s Hakusan Shrine). Meanwhile, it’s all about tsubaki camellias in winter, with Izu Oshima island south of Tokyo celebrating its three million wild Japanese camellias with an annual festival.
Keen to explore Japan’s rich spiritual heritage – minus the crowds? Hop on a 15-minute train from central Kyoto to Otsu, a historic region packed with some of the country’s most important shrines and temples, scattered across remote forest mountain complexes, with haiku-inspiring glimpses of the still waters of nearby Lake Biwa.
Centre stage is Enryakuji Temple (hieizan.gr.jp) on Mount Hiei, widely regarded as the place where Japanese Buddhism sprung to life. The eighth-century temple complex – a Unesco World Heritage Site – is famous for its “marathon monks”, who undertake epic 1,000-day enlightenment challenges. Wander along forested paths, exploring crafted temple architecture and finish with a matcha latte topped with a frothy Sanskrit sign at a temple café.
As of September 7, travellers no longer need to be part of a group tour to visit Japan, though they will still need to book flights and accommodation through an approved travel agency, and be registered on Japan’s Entrants, Returnees Follow-up System (ERFS). 
Visitors should also apply for a tourist visa (which are currently capped at 50,000 per day) before travel, and on arrival will need to show a negative Covid test taken within the last 72 hours, a signed pledge committing to abiding by the quarantine and self-isolation rules, and a QR code confirming completion of an online health questionnaire (arqs-qa.followup.mhlw.go.jp)
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
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