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Cool Japan: A land of brilliant contrasts

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From ancient shrines to modern cityscapes, Japan is a beguiling mix of old and new. Perhaps the world’s most futuristic and technologically advanced country, her Blade Runner architecture will send your senses into hyperdrive, while its bubbling hot springs and quiet rural serenity will soothe them right back down again. Modern, ancient, supersonic and super-relaxing – here are ten reasons for heading to the Land of the Rising Sun. 

1. To get techy in Tokyo
Delve into the bustling streets of Tokyo for the ultimate in retail therapy. You’ll be drawn like a moth to a flame towards the shopping mecca of Ginza, where the flagship Sony Building is located – stocked with all the latest technological gizmos. Stock up on electronic bargains as you soak up the crazy cocktail of anime films, goth-Lolita girls and bleeping video games in the vibrant metropolis of Akihabara. Dixons eat your heart out. 

2. To relax at a hot spring
If the bright lights have left you feeling frazzled, take an early morning ferry to Beppu on Kyushu Island, legendary for its relaxing onsen (hot springs). Here, have a soak and a sake, or steam-up in an open-air sand bath. Leave your stresses – and your clothes – at the door: the Japanese onsen is traditionally enjoyed naked, though a strategic hand towel will usually be provided to spare your modesty.

3. To visit Buddhist shrines
A day-trip from Tokyo will take you to the ancient capital of Kamakura. Centuries ago, this used to be the heart of Japanese culture, which has resulted in a haven of Zen architecture and Buddhist shrines, perfect for exploring and getting a feel for traditional Japan. Don’t miss the awe-inspiring Daibutsu (Giant Buddha) shrine and Hase-dera – a temple of epic proportions, housing a 9m-tall wooden statue gilded in gold.

4. To glimpse a geisha
In the geisha district of Gion in the imperial city of Kyoto you can spy immaculate geisha girls dashing between the teahouses of the tiny back streets. This is the epitome of traditional Japan: Kyoto’s temples, cherry blossom gardens and tranquil courtyards will leave you breathless, while Gion Corner is the perfect spot to get a taste of Japanese performing arts – anything from flower-arranging to lion-dancing.

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5. To take the karaoke mic
Known as the San Francisco of Japan, the steep hills of Nagasaki are home to an array of funky eateries. But it’s after dark that this city starts to buzz – the ironically named Shianbashi (“peaceful contemplation”) entertainment district is bursting with bars, cubs and Pachinko parlours. Load up with noodles, sip a sake then grab that karaoke mic for a truly Japanese knees-up.

6. To hike the pilgrim route
Shikoku’s mountainous ruggedness is known as the Tibet of Japan. Retrace the steps of this country’s foremost pilgrims, who have been visiting these sacred Buddhist temples and shrines for more than 1,000 years. Prepare to fall in love with the spectacular Iya Valley, tucked away in the island’s interior. Meandering through its peaks and caverns, you’ll find some of Japan’s most gorgeous gorges and you can admire the vista from the vine suspension bridge above the Iya-Kei Gorge.

7. To write obscure poetry
Famed for its stunning views of the surrounding sea and mountains, it’s not surprising Matsuyama is home of the haiku, Japan’s quirky 17-syllable poems. Get your creative inspiration flowing – perhaps with a visit to one of the country’s most beautiful and oldest castles, Matsuyamajo – then pop you own literary musings in one of the area’s wooden postboxes. Known as the ‘Haiku post’, you can drop in your poems – the best of which are rewarded with a little gift.

8. To make sushi with a master
Once you’ve tasted the market-fresh sashimi at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market, your love of sushi is guaranteed to escalate, so we suggest you learn to make it at home.  We can arrange for you to sharpen your Japanese cooking skills on a sushi-making master class with a top chef at a Michelin-rated Tokyo restaurant. This course is all about teaching you the traditional techniques needed to tackle this elegant and culturally important cuisine – as much a pleasure to the eyes as it is to the tongue. 

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9. To go island-hopping
Beyond Honshu, Japan has some fantastic islands to discover. Kyushu is the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands – head to the stunning 13th-century Buddha images near Usuki and hike the otherworldly lunar landscape of the Kirishima volcano chain. For sun, sand and steak head to Okinawa for fine sand, spectacular snorkelling and exceptional seafood; the island also raises its own prize beefsteak cows!  For that final frontier feeling head to remote Irimote-Jima, an island brimming with wildlife, lush tropical jungle and warm seas teeming with manta rays.

10. To ski the Japanese Alps
If you feel like a break from Europe’s Alps this year, the Japanese Alps promise deep powder snow, spectacular sushi and wonderfully luxurious ski chalets. The village of Happo One in the Hakuba Valley is still relatively undiscovered and it is the perfect base from which to try snow rafting and trekking, or even hot air ballooning. There are some lovely hot springs in Jigokudani, just a couple of hours away, where you’ll wrestle for the best viewing spot with the resident snow monkeys! 

For more information or to start planning your tailormade holiday to Japan please call Ampersand's Japan specialist, David Wall on +44 (0) 20 7819 9770 or email david@ampersandtravel.com