On your bucket list? It's a country of superlatives.
Best One-Day Walk
Powerfully evocative of Japan in its cloistered Edo period (1603-1867), the Nakasendo Trail strings together the 60 historic "post towns" between Kyoto and Edo, modern-day Tokyo. The Nakasendo is at its best between the towns of Magome and Tsumago in the mountainous Kiso region, where the trail threads through mossy forests of cypress trees, past Shinto shrines, rice farms and tea houses, and over galloping streams. It's an easy nine-kilometre walk, playing hide-and-seek with white-bladed streams that add their music to the journey. About midway is a traditional tea house where an elderly gent with parchment skin dispenses tea from a big kettle over an irori, a hearth set into the floor.
Bathing is a ritualised art form in Japan, and a dip in an onsen, one of the country's hot springs, is a quintessential Japanese experience. Hoshi Onsen Chojukan is regarded as Japan's most beautiful, built around a ryokan, or traditional inn. Set on the Hoshi River, a couple of hours by train from Tokyo, the ryokan is exquisite and scrupulously maintained by the sixth-generation descendants of the original builders. At its heart is the indoor mixed-gender bath that fulfils the three esoteric categories the Japanese require for onsen perfection: that no water is added to the natural spring; that the water source be visible; and that the water has curative powers. In the evenings the bath is reserved for women.
It was in Kyoto that the Zen garden took shape, evolving into a stylised representation of forests, rivers and mountains, arranged precisely to evoke the spontaneity of the natural world. One of the best places to witness this miracle of Japanese style is at Kyoto's Daitoku-ji Temple. Surrounding the main temple is a sprawling complex of 23 sub-temples enclosed by walled gardens, each one a miniature delight. The most illustrious of these is Daisen-in, where a 16th century Zen Buddhist monk sculpted a garden using rocks, gravel and sand, creating a model that would become the benchmark for the so-called "dry" garden. Visit in cherry blossom time, late March and early April, when the gardens are at their heart-melting best.
Best Art Experience
Naoshima Island, in the Seto Inland Sea, is Japan's art island, a star performer on the international contemporary art scene. It's a serendipitous delight with galleries, sculpture parks and art installations in surprising places, including the I Love Yu bathhouse, which boasts a pop-art makeover. The island's centrepiece is the iconic Benesse House, a hotel/museum designed by the renowned self-taught architect Tadao Ando, judiciously arranged with works of contemporary art, including light sculptures that invite contemplation. Ando's virtuosity is on full display at the island's Chichu Art Museum, a subterranean bunker where skylights spotlight the works inside, which include five paintings from Claude Monet's Water Lilies series.
Best City Walking Tour
A resident of Kyoto since 1993, Canadian-born Peter MacIntosh operates Kyoto Sights and Nights, offering non-Japanese an insider's look at the world of the geisha. His 90-minute tour of Kyoto's Gion district is fascinating and insightful, mixing historical facts with personal experience. MacIntosh can also organise a light dinner with entertainment provided by a geisha or maiko, an apprentice geisha.
What to read: A Beginner's Guide to Japan by Pico Iyer is not really a guide at all, but a series of anecdotes and reflections that sum up the baffling and beguiling nature of Japan, penned by one of the masters of the travel-writing genre.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale August 16.