Letters from Japan – Winter 2023

Hotel Anteroom

After a long but a very long wait – 2.5 years – Japanese government had, in October 2022, finally decided to re-welcome the foreign visitors and lift the visa, tour group and the guide requirement. Visa exemption still applied to those from countries that were included in the visa waiver list prior to COVID-19 Pandemic. Now, as of 8 May 2023, Japan finally joins the countries which have long returned to the entry regime that was in place prior to the pandemic.

Requirements to enter Japan as a tourist as of May 2023

As of 8 May 2023, the foreign visitors and the residents of Japan will no longer required to submit a vaccination certificate or a negative PCR test. While the visa and group tour requirement was already lifted as of 11 October 2022, the visitors were still required to either submit a vaccine certificate showing three doses of COVID-19 vaccination (Pfizer and Moderna are the types of vaccines accepted by the Japanese government) or a negative PCR test.

While Japan has been gradually opening its borders since June 2022, the visitors were initially required to apply for visas and also join a group tour. In early September, the group tour requirement was lifted but the hotel and ticketing arrangements still had to be made via an authorized travel agency. Since 11 October 2022, independent travelers were able to visit Japan without having to involve a travel agency for their travel arrangements or getting a visa if they are from a visa waiver country. As of 8 May 2023, all pandemic related measures and limitations will be left behind.

Japan travel tips for first time visitors

This is a great time to visit Japan, which used to be a discouragingly expensive country to visit. However, with growing weakness of Japanese Yen but also the speedy development of the facilities (thanks to pro-tourism governmental policies of the last decade) that also cater to the needs of solo/independent travelers, there may be a no better time to visit Japan.

As a resident of Japan and a frequent traveler, below are some alternative destinations for you to consider for your next trip to Japan. You can also check out my recent on how to travel Japan on budget for some accommodation, transportation and food tips.

Where to visit in Japan?

While I can relate to anyone who may want to visit Tokyo, where I live, and Kyoto – still one of the finest cities in the world – you may also consider some alternative destinations with lesser crowds but equally rewarding offerings. 

Goto Islands in Nagasaki Prefecture

Goto Islands located off the coast of Nagasaki City is one of the most interesting places to visit in Japan. The islands have been the gracious host of Hidden Christians of Japan since the early 18th century.

There are today many Christian churches on all five islands making up the Goto Islands and some of those churches are listed as UNESCO Heritage. Goto is also where the story behind Martin Scorsese`s movie Silence took place (but the filming was done in Taiwan).

It is a perfect destination that combines picturesque scenery with sites related to a very interesting but somehow lesser known period in the history of Japan.

Bike Shimanami Kaido to explore the Seto Inland Sea

Shimanami Kaido is a scenic cycling route that connects Honshu to Shikoku over five bridges and many small islands that occupy the Seto Inland Sea. The whole route – where you only need to climb to reach the bridges – can be done in a day but it is best to take your time along the route and enjoy various small islands where you really get to witness the rural life of Japan. 

My favorite among the small islands is the truly tiny Sashima Island where you can stay at Shiomi Guesthouse in the company of wonderful hosts and delicious food.

Kanazawa Castle

Kanazawa – one fine city

Kanazawa served by Shinkansen (2.5 hours from Tokyo) is a mid-size city with everything. It has a deep history linked to the Samurai culture that can be explored in a well preserved Samurai district. The city is also home to many museums including one of the finest contemporary art museums in Japan. I also find the range of eateries and accommodation in Kanazawa to be exceptionally rich.

Kanazawa is a wonderful alternative to anyone looking for an urban experience without the crowds of Kyoto.

Mt. Miyanoura Yakushima

Yakushima – the land of ancient forests

Yakushima, which famously inspired some of the scenery in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, may need no introduction. Located off the coast of Kagoshima in southern Japan, the island is a hiking destination like no other. 

The relatively small island (132 km in circumference) is home to numerous hiking trails where everyone will find a good fit for their level of experience. Out of all the hikes and walks that I did in Yakushima during my three visits, Mt. Miyanoura hike still stands out as my absolute favorite.

Hike Down From Temple 20 Shikoku

Shikoku – fishing villages along the pilgrimage route

Shikoku – one of the most secluded islands of Japan (not served by Shinkansen) – is best known for its pilgrimage route that covers 88 buddhist temples. 

The pilgrimage route itself on average requires 1.5-2 months to complete but many people – like myself who are short on time – choose to walk some of the more scenic sections of the route. One of the most beautiful sections of the route goes all the way down to Cape Ashizuri in Kochi Prefecture where you can stay in an ocean side temple.

Walking Kumano Kodo

Walk Kumano Kodo

Kumano Kodo, a network of ancient pilgrimage trails, covering Ise and Wakayama Prefectures, is a lesser known pilgrimage route in Japan. I walked parts of Nakahechi Route and Iseji Route of Kumano Kodo long before I explored the Shikoku Pilgrimage Route.

The experience on Nakahechi and Iseji is very different than Shikoku. Both trails go through forestry areas passing on a delightful sense of isolation and remoteness. 

Nakahechi Route leads to the center of Buddhism in Japan – Koyasan where you can spend the night at a Buddhist temple and join the morning prayer session.

Mountain reflection on pond in Japan

Hike all over Japan

Although Japan is better known with its interesting culture to visitors, the country is also home to some wonderful hiking trails. Even short and undemanding hikes will often reward you with wonderful scenery. The part of the Nakasendo trail that connects the old Edo era post towns of Magome to Tsumago is a short – 2-3 hours – trail that passes through an impossibly atmospheric tea house in a forest. For more hikes in Japan, you can check out my post listing some of my favorite hikes in Japan.

It would be unfair for me to stay that you should skip Tokyo or Kyoto during your visit to Japan. But even if you only have a week, the wonderful train network of the country makes it fairly easy to pick a third and alternative destination for a different taste of Japan.