Why everyone wants to travel to Japan in 2024

Osaka, Tokyo, Niseko and Kobe are just some of the cities travellers have on their bucket lists

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A little under 1,000 days. That’s how long Japan was closed to tourists during the Covid-19 pandemic, reopening in October last year. It wasn’t the longest lockdown, nor the strictest, but it was certainly enough to have hordes of travellers dreaming of the days when they could return to the Land of the Rising Sun.

While many ventured gradually back to the big cities this year, Japan has topped almost every recent 2024 travel trends list. It is the fastest-growing destination for Gen Z and millennial travellers, according to a recent survey by American Express.

It found bookings had increased by more than 1,300 per cent from 2019 to 2023. Japan has also been voted the number one country in the world to visit in Conde Nast Traveller’s Readers’ Choice Awards.

No particular city stands out. American Express found Niseko is trending, while Conde Nast added Kobe to its list of top destinations for 2024. The Unforgettable Travel Company, meanwhile, ranked lesser-known, up-and-coming destinations such as Ine, a Unesco World Heritage Site often described as the country’s most beautiful village.

In the UAE, travellers are searching for flights to Osaka, according to Skyscanner’s latest report, which found year-on-year searches for the city skyrocketed by 305 per cent, making it number one on their list of top 10 trending destinations for 2024. Etihad Airways has also recently added the city to its route network.

Often referred to as the Kitchen of Japan, Osaka is known as a foodie’s paradise, with an unparalleled dining scene that spans street food stalls to Michelin-starred restaurants. It is also the birthplace of some of the nation’s most beloved dishes. This includes takoyaki, balls of batter and octopus, which chefs in the city’s Dotonbori district make using a decades-old recipes. Or there’s okonomiyaki, also known as Japanese pizza, and mitarashi komochi, sweet and chewy rice cakes that make for the perfect souvenir.

“Japan’s second city is attracting a lot of attention as it is ramping up to hosting the World Expo in 2025,” says freelance travel journalist Julian Ryall, who lives in Tokyo. “But there are plenty of reasons to go before then.

“Osaka is Tokyo’s brash little brother and constantly looking to out-do the capital, which means it has lots of things to see and do, but it’s more down to earth.”

Ryall says nights out in Osaka are memorable, the people are more friendly and, naturally, the food is great.

Tokyo, as ever, will also remain popular in 2024. Skyscanner placed it third on its list for UAE travellers, with searches up 250 per cent.

The capital has plenty going for it, with major hotel openings this year creating a buzz, such as the Bulgari Hotel Tokyo, which overlooks the Imperial Palace, and the Bellustar, on the upper floors of a high-rise in Shinjuku entertainment district.

There are more exciting properties coming next year, too, including The Tokyo Edition, Ginza, which is accepting bookings from December 19 for stays early next year. And there’s Janu Tokyo, the inaugural hotel from Aman Resorts’ new sister brand.

Janu, which launches in March, will be part of the Azabudai Hills project, designed as a modern village filled with lush greenery and home to the tallest tower in Japan.

The city is a fitting flagship for the brand, says chairman and chief executive Vlad Doronin, who describes Janu as “energetic”, whereas Aman focuses on seclusion. “There is great appetite in the market for experiences and destinations which encourage connection, adventure and memorable interactions,” he says.

“Janu has been designed to cater to this increasing demand, seeking pioneering destinations which have an energy and vibrancy reflecting the values of the brand for our first outpost.”

Also in Azabudai Hills will be the much-awaited reopening of teamLab Borderless, the Guinness World Record-breaking digital art museum, in January.

Another big opening in Tokyo is the country's – and touted as the world's – first immersive theme park, taking over the massive space that used to be VenusFort shopping mall. Immersive Fort Tokyo will span 30,000 square metres and feature attractions, such as a theatre and dinner show, stores and restaurants.

But Ryall says it’s worth also getting out of the big cities while in Japan. “Tokyo can be overwhelming and Kyoto tends to disappoint me,” he says, adding that cities on the “well-worn Golden Route – Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka – are getting seriously over-crowded”.

Even if you explore the "Big Three" first, it is easy to get around Japan, thanks to the Shinkansen, or bullet train, the country's high-speed rail network. In March, a new extension will also make travel between Tokyo and the seaside prefecture of Fukui or the central port city of Tsuruga much quicker.

Around the country, there are plenty of other new openings on the horizon. In terms of hospitality, there's Kai Okuhida resort, opening in Takayama amid the Northern Alps mountain range, or Six Senses Kyoto, the luxury brand's first hotel in Japan.

For adventure travel, a new 370-kilometre hiking trail is planned for Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture. This area is usually popular during winter, but the so-called Hokkaido East Trail will bring hikers in during spring and summer, leading them through several stunning national parks.

Elsewhere, the Kurobe-Unazuki Canyon Route is expected to open in May or November and will operate between June and October, taking travellers through the heart of the Toyama prefecture via various modes of transportation, from elevator to funicular.

The second phase of the wildly popular Ghibli Park is opening in spring in Nagakute city, a three-hour train ride from Tokyo, while the world's first Nintendo museum will be finished by March in Kyoto.

Art enthusiasts should also love the Sapporo International Art Festival, held every four years but running in 2024 from January 20 to February 25.

While the language barrier might be daunting, Ryall guarantees getting off the beaten track is worth the effort. “Explore the countryside and leave the hordes behind. For hikers, look into exploring communities on the Nakasendo Way, the ancient paved track that is still recognisable to this day.”

Fukuoka constantly earns “rave reviews” from visitors, he adds, and advises no one should miss the city’s yatai, or open-air street food stalls. Morioka, which is on Honshu island and known for its spring cherry blossoms and autumn colours, should also be on everyone’s must-see list, he says.

“Yokohama and Kobe are both vibrant port cities with interesting histories. And for day trips from Tokyo, try the ancient capital of Kamakura or the historic castle town of Odawara.

“For anyone who enjoys winter sports, Niseko in Hokkaido cannot be beaten. And I’ve always thought that hiring a car is the best way to explore Okinawa, which is still part of Japan but has its own distinct vibe.”

Updated: December 15, 2023, 5:08 AM