For Outpost’s 2018 Global Travel Guide, we asked our regular contributors to share which destinations worldwide deserve the spotlight this year. We’re adding more each week, so check back for the rest!
Japan is one of those places everyone assumes they know because of the stereotypes, but there’s much more to this strange country than anime and shockingly small electronics. And it’s one of my top picks for 2018 because it’s never been easier to visit. Flights are cheaper than ever before, and you’ll find English all over the main cities, from the subway stations in Tokyo to menus in the smallest food stalls. When I lived there in my 20s, you had to read kanji to get around!
If it’s your first visit, I’d suggest focusing your time on Tokyo, and on the old capitals of Kyoto and Nara. Tokyo is a neon world of bizarre fashion trends, and entire neighbourhoods where the traditional exists side by side with science fiction. Kyoto is home to some of Japan’s most important temples and shrines. A nice mix of past and present.
If you have more time, venture outside Tokyo to Nikko, Kamakura and Kanazawa. From Kyoto, Himeji castle is an outstanding day trip, as is the temple complex on Mount Hiei. One of your biggest expenses will be transportation. Hopping around Tokyo on the subway really adds up, and rides on the shinkansen (bullet train) will cost you nearly as much as a domestic airline ticket. Buying a Japan Rail Pass before you arrive will cut those costs considerably.
One thing you absolutely must do in Japan is take a bath with naked strangers. Onsen—hot springs—come in all shapes and sizes, from older wooden buildings to modern hotels. The best are traditional ryokan. The point is to soak your cares away in scalding hot water, and then eat a massive multi-course meal with regional sake and plenty of rehydrating beer.
An onsen dinner is the main event because travel in Japan is all about food. Where you or I might plan a trip around historical sites, art collections or adventures, the Japanese dot their map with dishes. All talk is of regional delicacies: a particular sort of tiny river fish here, or a type of buckwheat noodle, fatty beef or local sweet there. While I’m not saying you should use menus to plan your travels, definitely find out what the local specialties are and try them, they’re consistently delicious. And if they aren’t delicious, they’ll at least be interesting.
Finally, Japan is an amazing place for outdoor activities. You can buy topographical maps with hiking trails for every region of the country. High mountain enthusiasts could spend weeks trekking through the Japan Alps around Nagano, and those in search of wilderness should visit the northern island of Hokkaido. My favourite escape from Tokyo life always involved a backpack, a thermos of tea, and a good pair of boots.