A quiet, mountain town most of the year, Takayama descends into raucous revelry twice a year when tens of thousands of visitors flock from all over Japan for its legendary festivals. Large, elaborate yatai (floats) are paraded through the streets by locals in traditional dress each spring and autumn. The rest of the year, visitors can enjoy one of Japan’s most traditional towns - famous for its timber and carpentry.

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This small town’s key attraction is the great 16th century castle. Visitors are welcome to wander the ancient building and see the elaborate architecture designed to protect the occupants from attack.

Until the last century sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall made the region largely inaccessible. Fortunately modern travellers will have no trouble reaching this charming town.

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This national park is a plateau more than 2,000 metres above sea level in the centre of the Japan Alps. It is of truly outstanding natural beauty, home to wild bears and monkeys and many other animals and birds. We recommend a trip up Mount Norikura followed by the rotenburo, an outdoor hot-spring bath.

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The host of the 1998 Winter Olympics developed around the 1400-year-old Zenkoji temple. The ancient holy place holds a statue of Buddha - said to be the first such effigy brought to Japan. Every seven years a replica of the statue is put on public display - the next viewing scheduled for 2010.

The temple also offers “the key to paradise” attached to a wall in an underground tunnel. Any visitor able to locate and touch the key in the pitch black tunnel is reputedly granted enlightenment.

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Set amidst sumptuous mountains, the home of the first Tokugawa shogun offers spectacular beauty all year round. In winter a thick blanket of snow tops the dramatic Toshogu shrine.

In springtime the blossom-covered trees fill the valleys. Come summer and the area is a lush green, while autumn offers colourful foliage of red and gold. Nikko is also considered a heartland of spirituality.

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In another of Japan’s famed hot spring areas, Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen are the two most prominent springs. Yudanaka offers modern spas, while Shibu is more traditional, with wooden bathing houses.

The area also offers the unique sight of the wild “snow monkeys” who appreciate the warm waters as much as the visitors, and can often be seen taking a soak in the colder months.

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