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Japan Rail Holidays

Ask many people about the one country that they would like to visit most in the world and a great number of them may say Japan. Its tantalising appeal lies in the fact that it's a place that seems both well known to us in the west, but one which holds many mysteries too.

We also imagine a society that is hyper-modern while also being steeped in ancient traditions and practices. And this is indeed what visitors find when they visit the legendary "Land of the Rising Sun".

One of the best ways to explore this intriguing country is by train. Indeed, it's somewhere that is famous for its rail network including the iconic bullet train, so-called for its 200 mph speeds. Also legendary is the efficiency and reliability of the network where trains are considered late if they're more than 30 seconds overdue.

 

 

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We offer two main rail tours of Japan. Each of them gives you plenty of time to explore this fascinating country and experience its many contrasts and differences. The 13-day Discover Japan takes in all of the main cities on the island of Hoshu including Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka as well as many other places of interest including Mount Fuji and Hiroshima. Then there's the 16-day Grand Tour of Japan that also includes visits to Sapporo and Hakodate on the country's northern-most island of Hokkaido before heading south to the main island of Honshu.

Traveller's Guide to Japan

About Japan

Tradition and modernity happily co-exist in this country of around 125 million inhabitants. So while there is still an Emperor in nominal charge, it is similar to the UK in that it is the Prime minister and the government that actually rule the country. And, for all the examples of modernism such as the popularity of video games, manga comics and its technological innovation and expertise, there are just as many ancient ways of living that continue to thrive.

A prime example is the Japanese tea ceremony, a heavily ritualised preparation of the country's national drink that has been performed in the same way for centuries.

Geographically, Japan consists of over 6,800 different islands, the majority of which are uninhabited. The five main ones, running from northern-most to southern-most are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa. The largest of these, Honshu, is some 800 miles long and is home to the main cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.

Your first ever visit to Tokyo is set to be a fairly overwhelming experience. As depicted in movies like Lost In Translation, it's a city illuminated by huge neon advertising signs, filled tall skyscrapers and a sense of constant motion. But there are also oases of peace within the city including ancient places of worship like the Asakusa Temple that dates back to 645 AD and the tranquil Hamarikyu Gardens.

Osaka, on the other hand, is an ultra-futuristic port city famous for its many stalls selling traditional Japanese street food delicacies and its vibrant urban atmosphere. The Dotonbori district is the beating heart of Osaka where many cafés, bars and restaurants line its canals and waterways.

In Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, there is a far greater preponderance of old and ancient buildings than in either Tokyo or Osaka. This is because it was luckily to escape much of the bombing other cities suffered in the Second World War, most notably Hiroshima. As a result it is home to no less than 2,000 temples and shrines as well as 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city's Gion District is also one of the last remaining areas in the country where you may come across the famous Geishas who still parade in their colourful kimonos and distinctive pale make-up.

On the island of Hokkaido, Sapporo is the main city, made famous by the Winter Olympics of 1972, an event that it is hoping to host once more in 2030. It's notably more laid-back and peaceful than cities on Honshu Island with plenty of 19th Century architecture to enjoy as well as numerous parks and other open spaces. It's also where a great deal of Japanese beer is brewed.

Of course, no trip to Japan would be complete without a visit to that most iconic of landmarks, Mount Fuji. With its symmetrical, conical shape rising up from the forest at its base, it's unmistakably a powerful symbol of the country. While it is visible from Tokyo, some 60 miles away, one of the best vantage points from which to appreciate its true splendour is from the nearby Oishi Park.

Another outstanding place to get closer to nature in the area is at Hakone National Park. One particularly popular area of the park is Owakudani which is famous for its hot sulphur springs, a reminder that the area remains to be volcanic - although the last full eruption of Mount Fuji occurred in 1707.

As to which time of year to visit Japan, in many ways its seasons follow those in the west with cold winters and warm summers. Visitors in the spring will also be treated to the stunning sight of the famous cherry blossom, or Sakura season as it's sometime known.

Whatever time of year that you choose to explore this incredible country with Great Rail Journeys you can be assured that you will be fully escorted by a knowledgeable, friendly and professional guide.

They will be able to attend to your every need, and even help you to navigate the menus in restaurants which may not always offer English translations for their dishes.

That's not to say that you won't also have plenty of free time to go off and explore on your own. There will also be plenty of guided excursions to ensure that you really do get to make the most of your holiday in this remarkable country.

Climate

Japan's climate is generally mild and temperate with four seasons - spring, summer, autumn and winter - which more or less equate with Europe's. Spring is warm and largely dry whilst summer can be hot and humid following a four-week period of rain which usually begins in June. Autumn is breezy and cool, whilst winter is mild and dry with temperatures rarely falling below zero, although Japan's central and northern regions may experience snow.

Currency and money

The currency used in Japan is the yen and the exchange is generally around 160 yen to the pound. Notes come in 1000, 2000, 5000 and 10,000 denominations and coins range from 1 yen up to 500 yen, or about £3.

Japan has a reputation for being a cash-based society but this is gradually changing over time with an increasing acceptance of credit and debit cards. The only exception is in rural areas where cash is still very much the preferred method of payment or where you are paying for relatively cheap items.

Because most ATMs will only work with Japanese cards, getting hold of currency is generally a question of going to a bank or another exchange such as in a post office or even in some of the larger hotels.

When eating out, it's good to know that it is not the custom to tip. In fact, you're more likely to create confusion if you do.

Food and eating out

There's a great deal more to eating out in Japan than just sushi and noodles - although these do play a very important part in the country's cuisine. Quite often, visitors don't get to experience many of the most delicious dishes because the menus in restaurants can be quite confusing so the tendency is to stick to the known options. In many smaller restaurants no English is spoken which only goes to make asking about ingredients and cooking methods even more difficult.

But hopefully this brief guide to the sorts of dishes you can expect to find on the menu will whet your appetite to sample some of them for yourself.

Yakisoba Noodles. These egg noodles are steamed and then stir-fried with a selection of mixed vegetables before being served with a sweet Yakisoba sauce - and also with an accompanying serving of pork or beef.

Gyoza Dumplings. These are the equivalent of Chinese dim sum - delicate dumplings filled with savoury combinations of meat and vegetables and served with a variety of dipping sauces.

Nabe. You'll come across many crab dishes in Japan, and one of the most delicious and hearty is Nabe. A speciality of Hokkaido, it's a kind of stew that mixes a number of different kinds of crab with vegetables in a rich fish stock.

Fugu. The notorious puffer fish whose dorsal spines contain one of the most powerful venoms in nature. This is why chefs need to be specially licenced to prepare and cook it.

Waygu beef. The careful way that Waygu cattle are raised and fed leads to a uniquely marbled flesh that makes for incredibly tender steaks. It's expensive, but dedicated carnivores will agree that it's well worth the cost.

Monjayaki. This is a speciality of the Tsukishima area of Tokyo where you'll find many stalls dispensing it along Moniya Street. It consists of a variety of ingredients including squid and other seafood, sweetcorn and cabbage that are griddled before being covered in batter to create a bite-sized pancake.

Matcha Parfaits. The green tea powder is a speciality of Kyoto where it even features in a wide range of sweets and desserts. These include matcha parfaits which are often served alongside wagashi and mochi. The former is a traditional sweet jelly made with bean paste and sugar while mochi is a cake made from short grain rice.

Rail travel in Japan

Bullet Trains

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Worldwide Escorted Holidays by Rail 2022

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Discovering Japan
4.4 stars(15 reviews)
2023MarAprMaySepOct
13 days from
£3,595 pp
View Details
13 days from
£3,595
per person
View Details
tour map
  • DestinationJapan
  • Starts / EndsLondon Heathrow
  • AccommodationHotel
  • TransportFlight, Rail, Coach
Map and accommodation
Grand Tour of Japan
2023AprOct
16 days from
£5,495 pp
View Details
16 days from
£5,495
per person
View Details
tour map
  • DestinationJapan
  • Starts / EndsLondon Heathrow
  • AccommodationHotel
  • TransportFlight, Rail, Coach
Map and accommodation
Our customers love our Japan tours
Discover Japan
27 Oct 2019
Mr P Rao
5 stars
“It was all we could expect. Bill McIntosh is a very good tour manager and Haru's presence was very comforting and useful to speak Japanese and organize things.
Collected by Great Rail Journeys
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