Japan is on the up. The national tourism organisation recorded its highest-ever number of international travellers during January this year, with close to 2.7 million visitors – and that number is only set to increase as the country comes into focus in 2019 and 2020, thanks to a series of one-time only events and the growing popularity of some of the classic attractions. Here’s just a taste of what’s on.
It’s about to be the sport centre of the world
Two of the world’s biggest sporting events will be held in Japan over the next two years: Rugby World Cup matches are on in 12 cities in September 2019 and the Tokyo Olympics will be held from July 2020. Even if you’re not a sports enthusiast, there’s nothing quite like getting swept up in the energy that only a stadium full of die-hard sports fans can deliver. And in response to these globally recognised moments, the host cities are seriously upping their game in order to entertain the throngs of people that will descend with a slew of new restaurant, hotel and bar openings on the cards.
You can attend a rare contemporary art festival
The Setouchi Triennale is only held every three years across a dozen or so islands within the Seto Inland Sea. The 2019 event is its fourth iteration, featuring around 100 artworks from Japanese and international artists that touch on themes including local identity, traditional lifestyles and sustainability. It’s held over three sessions, from 26 April to 26 May, 19 July to 25 August and 28 September to 4 November.
Its little islands are having a moment
Yes, Japan is all islands but its outlying archipelagos are drawing the attention. The beaches of Okinawa, in the country’s southernmost reaches, are renowned for their white sand, crystal-clear water and all-round paradisiacal feel. Meanwhile, the surreal haven of Naoshima, in the Seto Inland Sea, is an art-lover’s dream. Dotted throughout the town are a series of bizarre outdoor sculptures (you may have seen the enormous, saffron-yellow pumpkin on Instagram), a series of unusual museums and a collection of galleries housing unique wares.
There’s no better place to see cherry blossoms
The fairy floss-pink petals have been blooming for eons but in the age of Instagram the chance to experience the fleeting cherry blossom season first-hand is enough to drive people to book a flight. There are several bloom centres across the length of the country – and on some of the outlying islands – and the peak dates can be elusive, though that doesn’t stop predictions being made. Your best chance of seeing as trees in full colour is to go in the last few weeks of March and first few weeks of April, when more places are foretold to be in flower.
The world’s most popular fish markets has had a makeover
Soaking up the hawker atmosphere – and indulging in the finest, freshest, seafood – is what makes a visit to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market one of the most popular attractions in the country. But make sure you go to the right place. The original inner market, where the daily fish auctions and markets are held, was closed and moved to a new purpose-built site in October 2018. Tourists can watch all the action from dedicated walkways and observation windows. But the outer market, where you’ll find a plethora of restaurants, remains at the old location. Both experiences are worthwhile; it all depends on whether you want to watch or eat.
A new emperor is set to be installed
Emperor Akihito has held the position for close to three decades but last year announced his decision to abdicate the throne for his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, last year. The imperial transition is set for 30 April, with a number of extravagant ceremonies scheduled across the country, including a national holiday on 1 May and procession and banquets in October.
It’s where video games come to life
A trip to Japan wouldn’t be complete without taking part in a truly zany activity – and a real-life video game racing track through the frenetic streets of Tokyo certainly fits the bill. Slip into a onesie to transform into your favourite animated characters (including Winnie the Pooh, Spider Man or a Despicable Me Minion), slide into your tomato-red go-kart and zip along the track with the thrum of the city – and some theme music – urging you on.