Heading to Japan? Clear your schedule and book a flexible ticket, because we guarantee you'll want to extend your stay. Beyond the excitement of cosmopolitan Tokyo and the gorgeous shrines of Kyoto is a nation criss-crossed with hot springs towns, ancient temples and sunny tropical islands you've probably never heard of. Follow the locals to these unforgettable places.
Take a Dip
For the quintessential hot springs town - or onsen town as it's known in Japan -, look no further than Kinosaki. Easily reached by plane or express train from Japan's major hubs, Kinosaki is popular with wellness-seekers who enjoy the healing properties of the mineral-rich hot springs. Don't be surprised if you're the only foreigner taking a dip at the bathhouse and no need to pack a swimsuit, as all onsens require visitors to get their kit off.
With seven public bathhouses, and many more private hot springs bathing facilities, Kinosaki is a favourite relaxing weekend getaway for locals. Visitors bathhouse-hop, strolling along the town's streets dressed in yukata, traditional cotton kimonos, and wooden clogs.
Energised from a good soak in the hot mineral waters, take time to taste the local specialties - fresh crab and Tajima beef - or ride the cable car up high for a sweeping view of the town below. Beautiful in all seasons, Kinosaki's hot springs are irresistible during the chilly winter months.
Find Your Zen
Central to Japanese culture are the beliefs of Shinto; it's a religion, a culture and a tradition as old as Japan itself. A visit to a Shinto temple reveals much about the beliefs of the people; take a look at the talismans for sale, for example, each one promising to bring good luck in areas such as exam success, traffic safety and finding a good spouse.
The holy grail leads most Japanese followers of Shintoism to Ise Jingu, the most sacred of all Shinto temples in the land. Located in the city of Ise, in the Mie prefecture, a pilgrimage to Jingu is as important to Shinto believers as Mecca is to followers of Islam. In other words, it's on their bucket list.
With 600 priests and 2,000 years of history, Ise Jingu is the most important shrine in Japan. Prime Minister Abe makes an official visit every year, and it was here he brought the G7 leaders in 2016: visitors can recreate the photo opportunity of world leaders, including Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, standing in front of the soaring temple gates.
While you're in the area, explore Ise-Shima National Park, taste some local lobster, and seek out the huts where white-clad Ama woman divers cook up fresh-caught abalone and shellfish. Rest your head at a luxury hotel or charming ryokan in the area.
Islands In The Sun
Rice paddies, lush forests, sparkling seas: Are we talking about Bali? Guess again. On the island of Yakushima in southern Japan, visitors discover a sub-tropical paradise where one can take a hike, hop in a canoe, go snorkelling or chill poolside, surrounded by nature's beauty.
A sprawling cedar forest, where trees have reached for the sun for thousands of years, is a popular destination for nature-lovers; here they can join in the uniquely Japanese practice of forest-bathing, or enjoying walks in the forest for its health benefits. A dip in the sea has similar therapeutic rewards.
Several major cruise lines make port stops at Yakushima, with cruisers keen to spend a day exploring the UNESCO World Heritage-listed island. For longer stays, the island offers some spectacular hotels, including Sankara Hotel & Spa, where a butler will be only too happy to arrange your nature-inspired Zen spa treatment.
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