Japan comprises four major islands—Honshu (where Tokyo hotels can be found and most major cities are located), Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku—as well as more than a thousand smaller islands stretching almost 2,000 miles and surrounded by the Japan Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Though in the past 25 years Japan has gained an increasingly metropolitan face, especially in Tokyo, the world"s fastest growing city, 85 percent of the country is mountainous. And though rural life is increasingly encroached upon, it remains a vital cultural component and offers an authentic look at Japan"s storied past.
In Japan travel means many different things—from exploring mountainous regions on foot, to zipping around the ultra-modern districts of the nation's capital on a specialized Tokyo tour of karaoke bars. Japan travel, like Japan itself, presents the traveler with a juxtaposition of towering skyscrapers and humble mist shrouded mountain top temples where Buddhist monks pray just as they did 700 years ago.
But to try to pin down Japan as either an old country striving towards modernity, or a modern country clinging stubbornly to its old traditions, is to miss the point—and the beauty—that a trip through Japan offers the adventurous traveler. With this in mind, to plan a trip centered just around Tokyo sightseeing, or just around a trip to the Japan Alps or the northern wilderness of Hokkaido, would be to see only half the country and miss out entirely on what it means to live, work and be a part of a country that is at once so rich in history, and so intent on borrowing from, and, in the case of Huis Ten Bosch, openly imitating the West.
Japan is as much the elegant, rural festival that appears unexpectedly as you wander through the countryside, as it is an unfeeling four-story shopping mall crowded into a row of uniform four-story shopping malls in downtown Tokyo; Japan is as much the formal bow and impeccable manners, as it is a rowdy exchange of political views over a few shots of sake.
All these "different Japans" mean that, for the tourist, there is never a shortage of things to do and see. You won"t want to miss a Tokyo tour of the parks, the shopping districts, the neon glitz and post-modern diversions made famous, most recently, in Sofia Coppola"s film Lost in Translation. But Japan travel is so much more than just a Tokyo tour. A great getaway from the capital city is a trip south to Yokohama. Though the term "avid touring" means a gradually increasing cycle tour of the countryside, in Yokohama avid touring is actually a brand of tires the city is famous for. But this, the second largest city in Japan, offers so much more than just rubber. For the intrepid traveler, Yokohama avid touring might include a trip up the Landmark Tower—the tallest building in Japan—or a scrumptious tasting trip to the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum, followed by a jaunt through the city's bustling Chinatown district.
After so much Tokyo sightseeing it may be time to head to the mountains. Japan's climate offers up a true four season year, and while this means that Tokyo sightseeing is hampered by humid summers, a winter in the Japan Alps and a week of skiing at Nagano—the site of the XVIII Winter Olympics--or a trip to the northern island of Hokkaido and a stay in Sapporo, host of the 1972 Winter Games, might be just the refreshing ticket you need.
Just remember as you embark upon this journey of Japan to keep an open mind. You must discover your own Japan. You may find it going 200 miles per hour on a bullet train, or meditating with Buddhist monks at dawn atop Mt Koya. Neither way is right or wrong, neither way is more "Japanese" than the other. Both are journeys, and both are spiritual in their own unique way.