Japan is arguably my favorite country in Asia, culturally very protected and awash in tradition. Each site, each meal, each landscape seems perfectly curated in a globalized world that at times can feel very chaotic and overdeveloped. At the same time the youth culture behind Japan's fashion- forward and highly innovative technology keeps the country from feeling staid, or like a living museum. The relatively small country is also packed with incredible natural beauty.
Shiretoko National Park, on the island of Hokkaidō, provides the uItimate example of Japan's natural beauty. I had the opportunity to visit Hokkaidō a few years back and it was a highlight of my Japan trip for its combination of spectacular landscapes, amazing food, small country villages, and intact island culture. But Shiretoko National Park, on Hokkaidō's northeastern tip, is the pearl and true wonder. Known as "the end of the earth," this is one Japan's most remote regions and only accessible by foot or by ship. Brown bears roam the fir and oak forests, flocks of sea birds congregate on the isolated beaches, and the green-clad coastline looks primordial. Thankfully, with its UNESCO designation, this national wonder will remain protected for future generations of visitors.
Tokyo embodies this sense of the traditional meeting the futuristic, with its sleek skyscrapers and red-light karaoke bars on one side, quaint tucked-away temples and tiny traditional restaurants on the other. I always recommend watching Lost in Translation before a visit to Japan's capital. In addition to being one of my favorite movies ever, its depiction of the city seems spot on: As a visitor, one can feel almost voyeuristic because the culture remains so intact and otherworldly. I love the Meiji Shrine, for example, particularly during a traditional ceremony of some sort, as an icon of old Tokyo. For the cutting-edge aspects, try getting lost in neighborhoods like Harajuku, where teenagers and hipsters are living billboards for the latest trends from makeup to clothes.
Outside the city, iconic Mount Fuji sits in the distance, a national symbol for the country with its perfect conical shape and snow-topped cap that you can see from almost a hundred miles away. The still active volcano was only just recently designated a UNESCO Heritage Site and has been the object of pilgrimages for centuries. Just 60 miles from Tokyo, the mountain exerts a powerful aesthetic force on visitors with its picturesque lakes, flower-rich meadows, and, for the athletic, rugged trails rising toward the pinnacle.
You might not have heard of Toyohashi before this itinerary but the city's annual fireworks festival is a must for those avid to witness ceremonial rites that define Japan's deeply entrenched regional differences. Groups from all over the country come to show off their creative pyrotechnics while indigenous folk music and dancing provide constant entertainment. The city is also a living example of how certain metropolises in the country are actually recent arrivals: Toyohashi, established in 1909, has recently become the largest importer and exporter of automobiles—a visit to the Mitsubishi shipyard, where two Princess Cruises ships were also built, is a must to understand the country's maritime role in the global market.
Also along the cruise route are the port cities of Hakodate, Otaru, and Aomori. Hakodate, a wonder in and of itself, survived a Great Fire of 1934 to become not only a bustling city, but the finest Japanese producer of high-quality sushi. And while Hakodate's four-block-long Morning Market may not compare to Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market, it offers a stunning array of native dishes that are to die for.
Visit Aomori during the summer and you'll witness a fantastical Japanese tradition, the Aomori Nebuta Festival. A large float depicting a brave warrior-figure is carried through the center of the city, while dancers in traditional costumes parade through town to celebrate a culture that is rich, colorful, and full of wonder.