How I wish I had come here sooner. After one trip I am completely smitten with this incredible country. It is totally unique in its mixture of tradition and invention.
It feels very Western – yet Eastern – and the fast pace and hubbub of the big cities easily work alongside the country’s culture, good manners and Shinto philosophy. Respect is everything here. Young boys automatically give up their seats to old people on the bus – there is no hesitation.
Even at the Shibuya Scramble, Tokyo’s busiest crossing, hundreds of people pass at the intersection but it is all done so politely and efficiently. I travelled to Japan with Finnair.
It is a really excellent way to fly to the East, with a short stopover at Helsinki and an easy transfer onwards. The staff were so friendly onboard and the nine hours from Helsinki to Tokyo whizzed by.
The capital is just how I imagined it – and more. Vibrant, lively, friendly – and at night it really comes into its own. I travelled with Inside Japan, a company that offers all sorts of individual and group trips. We were on the HyperJapan J-Pop & Go! tour.
This 10-day adventure starts in Tokyo and visits Hakone, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Osaka before returning to the capital. It gives you a brilliant overview of the country and its history. We started in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, which is a great place to get your bearings and get a feel for the place.
Japan’s rich history combines well with its modern trend of invention
I loved the Tsukiji market. It is fantastic for foodies, with all sorts of weird-looking fish, gadgets and Japanese knives. We also visited the Sky Circus Observatory in Sunshine City, a vast and sprawling mall, which sells just about everything you could imagine.
It includes one of the biggest Pokémon shops in Japan. The tower has amazing views over the city and beyond – on a clear day you can see Mount Fuji. If pop culture is your thing, you really should visit Harajuku and in particular Takeshita Street.
It is brilliant for people-watching and outlandish outfits. Next stop was Hakone – on the bullet train, known locally as the Shinkansen. It is a model of efficiency and style and whizzes through the countryside. In Hakone we stayed in a traditional guesthouse and enjoyed a beautiful onsen, or hot-spring bath, outside.
The natural springs, for which this area is known, work wonders on your skin and I slept like a baby that night on my futon. It was back on the bullet train the next day for the journey to Kyoto. The colours here are an Instagrammer’s dream.
We visited the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine with its thousands of gates in a beautiful vermilion colour. You will also see groups of girls on days out dressed up in kimonos – Kyoto is home to the genuine geishas. We took a walking tour and it was fascinating to hear about their lives.
Their training takes about five years, with them learning traditional Japanese music, dancing and the tea ceremony. A tea with a performance from a geisha can cost upwards of $1,000 and the girls are modern-day celebrities. They work in the evenings and come out at about 6pm.
It felt a bit like being on a geisha safari as we tried to spot them, but when they appear they are captivating. Kyoto is the former capital of Japan. It was considered as a possible target for an atomic bomb but US wartime President Franklin D Roosevelt’s adviser Henry L Stimson decided it was too culturally important and Nagasaki was chosen instead.
We visited Hiroshima, which was obliterated when the first atomic bomb was dropped in August 1945. The museum here is very sobering and the reconstruction of what happened is chilling, as are the accounts of the survivors. The effects were felt months, if not years, later.
Yet despite its past, it is a very optimistic and positive city. Next stop was Osaka and an altogether different vibe. It is much grittier and edgier than Tokyo. Here we stayed in a capsule hotel. These are clean, comfortable and perfect for anyone on a budget.
Men and women are kept apart and the pods are much roomier than I expected. But then the Japanese are masters of minimalism. Each place we stayed in was functional, practical and had so much attention to detail, even in a small space.
Geishas are modern day celebrities in Japan
From Osaka we visited Miyajima island, whose floating torii gate is one of the most photographed attractions in Japan. Then it was back to the lively Shinjuku district of Tokyo.
It is home to the totally bonkers Robot Restaurant as well as Golden Gai. Narrow lanes and little bars give an insight into what Tokyo was like before its economic miracle. Even though this was a group tour, it was very much for people with an independent mind.
We had an incredible guide, Mark Fujishige, who was knowledgeable on every possible Japanese topic. And you can dip in and out of activities, breaking off for your own meanderings if you want to do your own thing. Getting around is easy, as transport is so efficient and people will always help if you get or look lost.
I felt incredibly safe here, too. Crime is low and you rarely see anyone begging on the street. People wait for the green man at crossings, you can buy anything from beer to sake-flavoured KitKats in vending machines and cash is king.
I had always thought it was an expensive country, but a meal at a noodle place costs about £7 and there is a lot of good street food. But then there are a lot of good things about Japan. With the Rugby World Cup next year and the Olympics in 2020, I am already booking my ticket.
Inside Japan’s HyperJapan J-Pop & Go! small group tour has eight departures throughout the year, costs from £2,350pp (excluding international flights) and includes 10 nights’ accommodation, all transport between destinations in Japan, full-time tour leader, daily breakfast and a range of experiences. To book, visit insidejapantours.com or call 0117 370 9730. Finnair flies from London to Tokyo Narita, through Helsinki, with return economy-class fares starting from £650, including taxes and charges. To book, visit finnair.com or call 020 8001 0101.