Heian Jingu Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Heian Jingu Shrine in Kyoto.

Japan was named Travel + Leisure's top destination at the end of 2018, making 2019 the perfect time for you to hop on a plane and visit.

The Land of the Rising Sun is known for its bustling capital city, Tokyo, with about 10 separate spots that resemble Times Square in New York, the freshest sushi, and the most amazing natural landscapes for both peace and serenity.

Japan is a destination that's growing in popularity at a rapid pace, and Travel and Leisure digital editor Peter Terzien said it shouldn't come as a surprise.

"It has this stunning, natural beauty; there are these ancient traditions of graciousness and hospitality; I think it feels particularly appealing right now," said Terzien. "As a matter of fact, the Japan National Tourism Organization just released some new statistics, and in 2018, the number of international tourists visiting Japan exceeded 30 million for the first time--it's up by almost nine percent from last year."

Most first-timers, like myself, head to Tokyo and Kyoto. Terzien highlighted the architecture there.

"There's been an enormous amount of exciting work coming out of the country over the past 15 years or so. A number of Japanese architects like like Kengo Kuma and Sou Fujimoto are doing buildings all around the world--including here in the U.S.--but some of their most interesting work is in Japan. These beautiful kind of light-filled spaces, made in some cases, primarily of glass, have a real ethereal quality to them."

There's relaxing, all-natural hot baths, and serene tea houses and gardens, and you can even catch a sumo wrestling match--the national sport of Japan.

But Terzien highly encourages you to get out of those popular tourist spots.

"It's getting easier to travel within Japan; you can get quick flights from the major cities to more of the out-of-the-way places for less than $100," he said. "In some ways, you can actually benefit by being a visitor. You can get a Japan rail pass for a week at a time, which gives you unlimited travel on the bullet trains, at a rate that's actually much less than what the residents would pay for it. And, as we mentioned in the story, many of the gardens and attractions are free, if you show them your U.S. Passport--which they're not if you're a resident."

Travel and Leisure sought to explore what some lesser-known destinations in Japan to create the perfectly unique traveling experience:

"Nara: it's about an hour away from Kyoto by train, and it's like this place filled with these beautiful ancient gardens, these traditional inns, old wooden houses that sell handcrafts and ice cream" he said. "My favorite--there's an big urban park in the middle of the city, where deer--which are considered sacred--wander freely; you can feed them, they'll venture out into surrounding streets; they've become so tame that they know how to cross at the crosswalks, and they bow to you...the city, which has these amazing wonders...is thought of as a side-trip, and that's one of the things we wanted to emphasize: there's so much richness there beyond the places that people traditionally visit."

Another must-see if you're looking to get off the beaten path:

"The Setouchi region, which encompasses the Seto Inland sea, which is this large, beautiful body of water; it's surrounded by three of the main islands...it's long been used a a commercial waterway, but for the past 20 years, it's become a Mecca for contemporary art lovers," said Terzien. "The sea is filled with small islands, and this little constellation of islands, based around one of them. Naoshima now houses museums, installations, buildings by these great architects like Tadao Ando, and works by James Turrell...Walter de Maria, all these sort-of-famous contemporary artists. Every three years, there's an art festival there, the Setouchi Triennale, and that's happening this April." 

Japan even has its own version of leaf-peeping:

"One of the interesting phenomena I learned about working on the story is that, I think we're all familiar with the cherry blossoms, which come out in Spring, and which the Japanese love. Many Japanese have a passion for watching the color of the leaves change and fall--much as we do here in America, especially in the Northeast...but there's a whole sort of culture around the maple leaf...maple leaves turn this incredible fiery red in the fall, and the gardens of Kyoto and Tokyo, which are often built around temples, just become these amazing rainbow colors, and people actually, you can chase the leaves from north to south...and there's even a passport that you can get stamped at each garden to say that you've seen it--much like here in the U.S., we have the National Parks Passport system."

While traveling to Japan isn't exactly cheap, Scott's Cheap Flights is hopeful that prices will go down in 2019 in the $500-$600 round-trip range. But if you can afford the cost and the time off, there's some appealing to every kind of traveler.  

"No matter what your interest is you can find something there. So if you like beach vacations, you can travel down to the south to Okinawa, which has these pristine, white sand beaches. If you like winter spots, you can spend some in Hokkaido, which the northern-most main island. It's got great skiing. It also has some national parks with incredible scenery."

Want a one-of-a-kind experience?

"If you're really into luxurious accommodations, you can take a cruise on the Seto Inland Sea on a new boat called Guntû. It's gorgeous. It borrows its aesthetic from the Ryokan, which is the traditional inn, so it's very simple and elegant, but it brings it with a whole other level with private outdoor tubs and guest chefs and the works. So there are as many different things to find in Japan as there are many different types of travelers." 

Amy Cherry is the Assistant News Director and an investigative journalist at WDEL. She joined WDEL's award-winning news team in 2010 from WBZ Newsradio 1030 in Boston and has received national accolades for reporting.