There's a wealth of outdoor activities on offer - from skiing to hiking - in mountainous, volcanic Japan.
No longer skiing’s best-kept secret, Japan is a popular destination for snow lovers with its impressive snowfall, stunning mountain vistas and reasonable costs. The season usually begins in December and peaks in January/February and you’ll find more snow the further north you go. There are some 500 ski areas in Japan but Niseko, Furano, Sapporo Teine, Hakuba and Shiga Kōgen are believed to be the most popular.
If blissful relaxation is more your thing, highly volcanic Japan has thousands of onsen. Onsen are pools of steaming-hot water that bubble out of the ground – the water is at least 25 degrees Celsius when it surfaces, and it contains more than a defined amount of natural mineral components. There are a few different ways to experience an onsen – many traditional Japanese inns are built on top of hot springs and have baths fed with onsen water. Some resort towns have day spas with many baths and saunas or there are natural onsen’s, hidden in the mountains or along undeveloped coasts. Ashi-yu (foot baths) are usually near train stations, Kashikiri-buro (private baths) can be rented at inns and day spas, Konyoku (co-ed bathing) are found at rural inns and bathhouses and Rotemburo (outdoor baths) offer the opportunity to soak while surrounded by mountain, river or ocean vistas.
With more than two-thirds mountain terrain, Japan is the perfect destination for seasoned hikers. Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest and most well-known mountain. It offers a gruelling climb but that doesn’t stop over 300,000 people each summer. A popular day hike, Takao-san is less than an hour west of Shinjuku. Its high point of 599m means its great for families – plus, it can be walked year-round! The Oku-Tama region is one of Tokyo’s most popular hiking getaway spots. With mountains, waterfalls and woodlands, it offers the perfect backdrop for walkers.
Japanese cuisine is worth getting excited about. Tokyo boasts the most Michelin stars of any city in the world and with the care and precision that goes into the preparation of every dish, you are never far away from a world class meal on a cruise to Japan.
Japanese food is highly seasonal and uses fresh local ingredients but can vary tremendously from light and delicate to hearty and robust. Sushi, possibly the most well known Japanese cuisine, is raw fish and rice seasoned with vinegar. Traditionally it was designed to last for days – the vinegar in the rice was a preserving agent – but today sushi is widely associated with fresh fish. Sushi varies in price which is usually determined more by the value of the ingredients than by volume. Head to a sushi-ya (sushi restaurant) for á la carte menus or grab whatever you fancy at a kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi).
Tempura, lightly battered and deep-fried seafood or vegetables is another popular option. Usually seasoned by dipping each piece lightly in salt, tempura can be served as a set (all at once, with rice and soup) or as a course, with freshly cooked pieces delivered one at a time. If you’re unsure what to order, teishoku is a set meal with one dish – such as grilled fish – along with rice, miso soup and pickles.
There are very few rules when it comes to Japanese eating etiquette though it is deemed offensive to stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice or pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another. When serving yourself from a shared dish, it is polite to use the end of your chopsticks that doesn’t go in your mouth to place the food on your own small dish. If eating noodles, it is expected for you to slurp as in Japan, noodles should be eaten before they go soggy (letting them do so would be an affront to the chef). That’s why you’ll often hear fellow diners slurping and sucking in air to cool their mouths.
Tokyo is a bustling wonderland – the capital of Japan and the most populated urban area in the world, it is incredibly large, yet somehow doesn’t feel as crowded as one would imagine. More like a collection of smaller cities, you’ll find the contrasts are characterised here – the bright lights and electronic excitement of Shibuya and Akihabara are balanced with the quiet reverence of the gardens and shrines of Chiyoda.
Overlook the city from excellent viewing platforms such as the Tokyo Tower, a communications structure identical to the Eiffel Tower. On a clear day you can see Mount Fuji in the distance. There are two observatories on the 45th floor of the Metropolitan Government Building which also offer phenomenal views of the city. The building is located a short distance from the west gate of Shinjuku Station and the surrounding area is well known for its impressive skyscrapers.