What's new in Japan in 2022: from Studio Ghibli's theme park to Onsen-bound bullet train

The country is open to international visitors again. And, there is a slew of fresh attractions, hotels and museums waiting to be explored

An elevator tower at Ghibli Park, Nagakute, which will open next month. AFP
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Although Japan has been closed to tourists for the last 30 months, there’s been plenty going on to prepare for their return.

Having imposed some of the strictest Covid-19 rules, the nation had plenty of time to prepare for its reopening.

“Japan, including the various regions, industry partners and the Japan National Tourism Organisation has been preparing for the opening of the border during the last two and half years,” Daisuke Kobayashi, executive director at Japan National Tourism Organisation Dubai, told The National.

“We are pleased to finally welcome back tourists from all over the world.”

Vaccinated travellers can visit Japan and visa-free travel is open to visitors from 68 countries. Even better, the country has opened just in time for its beautiful koyo season, when it turns all shades of red, gold and orange and people take part in the ritual of Momijigari — or maple leaf hunting.

If you're thinking of taking a trip to the land of the rising sun, here are 10 new attractions worth keeping on your radar.

1. Studio Ghibli theme park — opening November 1

The Grand Warehouse at Ghibli Park. Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi / Getty Images / Studio Ghibli

Possibly the most anticipated Japanese attraction to open in recent years, Ghibli Park is the official theme park of Studio Ghibli — the world-famous creators of hit anime Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. It’s opening its doors on November 1 on the grounds of the Aichi Earth Expo Memorial Park in the Aichi prefecture and promises to offer a different kind of theme park, with no big attractions or fairground rides in sight. Instead, visitors are encouraged to explore the forest-laden area and attractions that blend seamlessly with their surroundings.

The Hill of Youth and Dondoko Forest will be the first attractions to open alongside Ghibli’s Grand Warehouse — a cavern of studio artefacts and memorabilia — that will allow visitors to delve deeper into the mystical world of Studio Ghibli.

Tourists keen to visit in the opening months need to plan ahead, the demand for the park has been so intense that they've introduced a lottery-based ticket booking system that requires early planning and a bit of luck.

2. Shinhotaka Ropeway in Japan's Northern Alps — reopening October 19

The Shinhotaka Ropeway reopens later this month. Photo: JNTO

The Shinhotaka Ropeway in the Gifu prefecture in Central Honshu is one of Japan's most unique attractions. Scheduled to reopen next Wednesday following renovation work, it climbs 1,000 metres up the side of the Hotaka Mountain Range and is the country’s only cableway with double-decker gondola cars, meaning everyone riding can enjoy the views.

The gondola leads to the observation deck at the top where a new viewing platform set more than 2,000 metres above sea level awaits. Here, visitors can enjoy an unforgettable panoramic view of Japan’s Northern Alps. If the weather is nice, visitors can head out on the surrounding walking trail for a chance to connect with the region's vivid autumn foliage.

3. A new bullet train taking travellers from hot springs to Nagasaki

The new Shinkansen line passes by Omura Bay on Japan's Kyushu island. AFP

Japan is famed for its sleek, shiny, superfast Shinkansen trains and Brad Pitt's latest film Bullet Train only further fuelled the world's obsession with the ultra-efficient vehicles. The latest addition to the high-speed network is one that will resonate with tourists. The Nishi-Kyushu line opened in September and spans 65 kilometres from Fukuoka — the birthplace of Hakata ramen — to the capital of Nagasaki, a Unesco heritage-filled port city filled with history.

Travelling at speeds of up to 320 kilometres per hour, travellers can whizz between the destinations in less than 20 minutes, meaning the quaint hot spring town of Takeo Onsen and the new Goto Retreat Ray hotel on the Goto Islands in Nagasaki are within easy reach.

4. Ento Hotel on Unesco Geopark Oki Island

The wilds of the Oki Islands offer amazing natural scenery with cedar-populated mountains, Japan’s highest sea cliffs and impressive jagged rock formations. Travellers visiting the archipelago now have the option to stay overnight at the Unesco Geopark — one of only eight in Japan — thanks to the launch of Ento Hotel last year.

Offering a digital detox for guests, the eco-friendly property has floor-to-ceiling windows that make the most of the surrounding natural scenery and there’s an on-site education centre where travellers can find out more about these rugged outcrops. A stunning indoor onsen is a perfect spot to unwind while the hotel's restaurant serves a variety of local dishes with ingredients harvested from across the Oki Islands.

5. Tokyo’s revamped Shibuya

The famed Shibuya crossing in Tokyo. AP

Tokyo’s Shibuya is easily recognisable thanks to its huge and much-photographed pedestrian crossing and its bronze statue of Hachiko, an akita dog that used to wait at Shibuya train station each day for his owner to return from work. With a reputation as a fashion and pop-culture hub, Shibuya has undergone many changes over the last two years and visitors heading to the ward this year will find plenty of updates.

There are several new skyscrapers, including Stream, which houses shops, art events and a boutique hotel, and The Scramble Square. The latter opened in late 2019 in what used to be a bus station and has been waiting for its influx of international visitors. It has a 46th-floor observatory where travellers can find some of the best views of western Tokyo. There's also Miyashita Park, which underwent a large renovation in 2020 and is now home to a skateboard park, beach volleyball courts, a bouldering wall and manicured lawns where the grass is cut by robots.

6. Super Nintendo World inside Universal Studios Japan

Mario and Luigi characters greet visitors inside Super Nintendo World at the Universal Studios Japan theme park in Osaka, Japan. Reuters

Having opened last year, most international visitors have not yet had the chance to go to the world’s first theme park based on Nintendo’s hugely popular video game franchise. Located inside Universal Studios Japan, the experiential park gives Mario fans the chance to race on the first interactive Mario Kart-themed "roads" alongside Luigi, Princess Peach and friends. There’s also a Yoshi Adventure ride that whisks people around the park on an action-packed treasure hunt. Stop to refuel at Kinopio’s cafe, led by Chef Toad, and then go explore Mushroom Kingdom and Peach’s castle.

7. Hot new hot spring hotels — opening November

Kai Izumo will open next month with hot springs and first-rate hospitality. Photo: Hoshino Resorts

This November, Hoshino Resorts is launching two new hot spring ryokan — Kai Izumo in the Shimane prefecture and Kai Unzen in Nagasaki prefecture. Both regions are already well-known for their hot springs and the hotel group will add its unique cultural programmes to the offerings, including tea tastings, Japanese kenjutsu (swordplay), and traditional arts.

Travellers staying at Kai properties can look forward to a contemporary take on a traditional Japanese inn, blended with Western-style comforts. Kai Izumo guests can enjoy a coastal escape in an area that’s steeped in Japanese mythology and where rooms come with perfect ocean views. Meanwhile, at Kai Unzen, designers have blended touches of Japanese, Chinese and Dutch design in an area that’s as known for its rich history as it is for its hot vapour-laden pools.

8. Hokkaido’s ever-changing winter offerings

Famed for snow and skiing, Hokkaido is Japan’s largest and northernmost prefecture and has been missing tourists for the last two ski seasons. During this time, authorities have been busy upgrading it. In the Hanazono area, the popular Niseko ski resort has an entirely new set of runs, restaurants and a pet-friendly community space called The Yard Niseko. There’s also the Hanazono Symphony Gondola, a brand-new high-tech gondola with cabins for 10.

Visitors also have plenty of new places to stay in the region including the tiny Nipponia Hotel Hakodate Porrttown in the heart of Hakodate's historic bay area and Onsen Ryokan Yuen Sapporo for those seeking the ultimate in snow-surrounded luxury.

9. Marufukuro hotel in Nintendo’s old Kyoto headquarters

Set in what was the first head office of Nintendo in Kyoto, Marufukuro is a boutique-style 18-room hotel that opened its doors in April. After sitting empty for more than half a century, the art deco building found a new lease of life by way of this all-inclusive property.

Designers retained many of the building’s original 1930 elements, including decorative tiling, Art Deco light fixtures and entrance plaques. The hotel’s window grilles are patterned with details from old Nintendo playing cards, a nod to the company’s origins. There’s also a newly built annexe, designed by Tadao Ando — famed for his minimalist aesthetic and love of natural materials. Guests can dine in the hotel’s signature restaurant, visit its newly installed sleek bar, or unwind at the spa and gym in this timeless property set between the Kamo and Takase rivers in heart of Kyoto.

10. Nakanoshima Museum of Art in Osaka

Looking like a shiny black box that's been set down in the heart of Osaka, the Nakanoshima Museum of Art opened in February. The long-awaited museum (the project was first conceived more than 40 years ago) of modern art and design is home to Japan’s largest collection of contemporary art, which is spread across five storeys in this playful cube-like building set along a river on the Nakanoshima sandbar.

Visitors can wander its vast halls and explore more than 8,000 works by Japanese and international artists including work by Yuzo Saeki, Amedeo Modigliani, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha.

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Updated: October 13, 2022, 7:00 AM