TOP 30 THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN JAPAN
We’ve collated 30 of the best things to do, places to see, and foods to try for an unforgettable experience in Japan.
Whether you’re in Japan for a week or a month, manage a few of these and you’ll have the best possible introduction to the land of Sumo, Sushi, and Sake.
But First; Check out our Pre-Travel Briefing for Japan.
The Bucket-List for Japan; Our guide to your ultimate Japanese experience
1. Visit Kyoto: Temples, Shrines & Gardens
The old capital, Kyoto still retains an old-world imperial feel and is not as developed as Tokyo or Osaka. In the centre is the Imperial Palace and gardens where the emperors ruled from 794 to 1603, and resided during the Edo period under Shogun rule. Vast grounds surround the palace and to the south west is Nijo castle, where the Shogun could keep a close eye on the imperial family. The vast size of the grounds in the centre of the city underlie the area's importance to the Japanese nation.
Head to the north of the city and you'll find two memorable (if crowded) sites; the numerous red torii gates of the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, and the Bamboo Forest.
Hotel recommendation for Kyoto: 'Hotel Material'
2. Soak in an Onsen with a view of Mt. FuJi
Japan is covered in thermal hot springs, caused by the islands volcanic history. Bathing in one of these hot springs, know as an Onsen, is an activity in itself. It's a perfect way to relax after a days sightseeing, hiking or even skiing. They are such a Japanese institution and are actually even mentioned in ancient Japanese mythology. To give fair warning, Onsens are strictly split by gender and bathing in the nude is mandatory. Once you're used to it though, there really is nothing as relaxing as soaking in an outdoor thermal pool in the buff.
The best onsen we went to was in Yamanaka; it was called Benifuji no Yu Onsen, and it's just up the road from this cool little guest house called "Guesthouse Murabito".
3. Sample (plenty OF) Japanese Cuisine
Know for having one of the healthiest diets in the world, Japanese cuisine is not lacking in delicious foods, and if you're willing to take a few risks you'll discover some tasty new favourites (Steph’s caveat, you might find new enemies too). Try your best to sample each of the following at least once:
Bento box: Ready made lunch box with a mix of all the best treats
Tempura: Fish, Shrimp or vegetable in deef-fried in batter.
Sushi: Raw fish on rice or rolled with nori seaweed and rice.
Sashimi: Raw fish sliced thinly, eaten with soy sauce.
Soba: Thin noodles served hot or cold, in soups and salads.
Ramen: Flavoured soup stocks with noodles, meat, eggs or vegetables.
Udon: Thick noodles served with a variety of sauces, find a 'chanko' the sumo’s dish (Nick's fav)
Don: Meaning served on rice, simple dishes with 1 or 2 ingredients served on rice.
Yaki-Niku: Grilled or BBQ'd meat, try and find a restaurant with built in grills at your table.
Gyoza: Meat dumplings usually eaten with Ramen
Onigiri: Rice balls usually with a fish or vegetable filling.
Oden: Fish soup with mystery edible objects
4. Cherry Blossom and Hanami
The bloom is named 'Sakura', and enjoying cherry blossom season is so iconically Japanese they even have a word for it; 'Hanami'; meaning "cherry blossom viewing". Cherry blossom season varies by area as it is affected by rising seasonal temperatures, but the rough dates are from the end of March in the south to start of May in the north. We planned our trip to coincide with Sakura and were rewarded with breathtaking views of blossom laiden trees...bonus points if you get a picture of the cherry blossom and Mt. Fuji.
5. Stay in a Traditional Ryokan
No trip to Japan is complete without a stay in a traditional guesthouse, called a Ryokan, where the strict etiquette is still observed. Shoes are left at the entrance and you are provided with slippers, whilst your bags are left in a luggage area as they can damage the delicate paper walls and wooden floors. Tatami is the name for the straw mats, and futons and blankets are arranged on the floor for sleeping. Shared toilets and bathrooms are the norm and if you are lucky the guesthouse will have it's own onsen. You might also be provided with a Yukata, the robe to be worn around the Ryokan. We stayed in a few Ryokans and were always welcomed by gratious hosts and delicious green teas with mochi rice balls and enjoyed some excellent night's sleeps (once we became accustomed to the futons).
The Ryokan in Odowara was super traditional, and the ancient host introduced himself as King Kong: Hinode Ryokan
For more luxurious options check out Seikoro Ryokan (Kyoto).
6. Admire Tokyo’s modern architecture
Tokyo is Japan’s capital, and a vast metropolis of sprawling suburbs. The city is spotted with centuries old shrines and castles that contrast with the urban city centre towers and skyscrapers. A city of millions but with enough cultural density to create the feel of a network of highly connected towns. To observe the hoards head to Shibuya crossing, then compare with the tightly packed alleyways of pre-war Izakayas near Shinjuku station. To understand Tokyo's vastness, head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Observatory Deck, or the Hotel Keio Skybar at dusk. .
In Tokyo, we stayed at Focus Kuramae for a few nights; very cool bar & reasonably priced double rooms.
7. Visit Koya-san & stay in a monastEry
Nestled high in the mountains south of Osaka is Koya-san, where the first monasteries were founded by the monk Kūkai in 819AD. With 117 Shingon Buddhist temples, the mountain region was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2004. For an authentic visit, hike up the mountain and stay in one of the monasteries for a few nights. Your hosts will be Buddhist monks and you'll be welcome to join morning meditation.
8. Hike an ancient pilgrimage trail
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage on the Kii peninsular to the south of Osaka has paths dating back 2500 years. The ancient paths criss-cross mountain peaks and gullies and lead to the three Kumano shrines, shaded by cedar forests. We hiked a 5day route from west to east culminating at Nachi, our favourite shrine in Japan, but it is possible to do day hikes from the central town of Hongu.
Read our full guide to the 5 day UNESCO Kumano Kodo pilgrimage here.
9. Track down a Giant Buddha
Visit the ancient capital of Nara on a day trip to the outskirts of Osaka, and whilst walking through the local tame deer (see below!) find your way to the Great Buddha hall called Daibutsu-den in Nara Park. This giant is 18m tall and a version of the giant Buddha at Nara has been there since 752 AD (but earthquakes, fires, wars etc. means he's needed reconstruction five times). Another looming statue can be found atop one of the hills in Kyoto at the Ryozen Kannon war memorial.
10. Visit Hiroshima
The sobering peace-park of Hiroshima is the main attraction of this city in the west of Honshu. This is a significant place for world history and at times a difficult place to visit. An enlightening experience that will help your understanding of Japanese psyche and how it has developed over the past 70 years.
A guesthouse recommendation near the peace-park is: Hiroshima Hostel EN
11. Head to the Baseball in Osaka
Tickets to a weeknight Japanese baseball game can be picked up relatively cheaply and will provide a night of fun even for whose who aren't sports fans. Baseball is the major sport in Japan (some Japanese are even unaware that it was introduced by the Americans in the 19th century), and sports are supported in a spectacularly unique Japanese way. Vast flags for each team are waved by a nominated fanatic, and each individual player has his own chant that echos around the stadium. Girls in brightly coloured uniforms serve Asahi and Kirin beer to the crowds from kegs on their backs.
If you can find a game at a pitch you can get to (check here by clicking on a date), it’s best to buy tickets directly from the team’s websites. You can do it through an agent but it will be significantly cheaper if you go direct (Steph booked ours on the Orix Japanese website - total translation nightmare but managed it eventually!).
Tigers: (a guide to getting tickets here)
12. Seek the best views of Mt. Fuji
So Japanese, it's on the Y1000 note, Fuji-san is one of the most pleasingly volcano shaped volcanos in the world. It looms over the surrounding area to the south-west of Tokyo with symmetrical sloping sides and a snowy peak. It creates a picturesque view for miles around. It is possible to climb but be warned, the best views are of Mt. Fuji... Not from it.
The area around the mountain is called Fuji-five-lakes and towns are situated around the circumference of the volcano. Hiking in the hills near Lake Kawaguchi on the north side provided us with our perfect isolated view of the Mt. Fuji away from the crowds ( we started out hikes behind the Chureito Pagodo up towards Arakurayama Summit).
A second town, Hakone, also posts grand-scale views of Mt. Fuji from it’s famous ‘Rope-way’, high above the belching sulphur vents below.
We tried out a comfortable capsule hostel in Hakone called Azito
13. Walk hidden Ancient Footways
If you're in Hakone, you might feel compelled to follow the "Hakone loop" to see the sites- made up of the rope-way over a sulphur field, a spectacularly tacky pirate ship across the lake & a bus journey. This misses off one of the most historically significant attractions of the area: The old Tokaido highway.
This ancient road was the route through the mountains from Hakone to Edo (Tokyo) often used by the Shogun and his men. Much of the original route survives, and many of the trees planted along the route were planted to shade the Shogun's warriors. On the road back to Hakone town centre you can stop at a traditional tea house, only one remains of the hundreds that littered the route, called Amazake Chaya Tea house. Here we tried Konjac balls...unfortunately not one the Japanese snacks we liked...tasty tea though!
14. Visit Naoshima & the art islands
An island between Skikoku and Honshu, Naoshima has become famous for its modern art installations, and the art festival named 'Setouchi Triennale' takes place in April. It is possible to stay on the island but we stayed in Takamatsu on Shikoku and did a day trip, as ferries back and forth are frequent. You'll need to reserve tickets to Chichu Art Museum, but the highlight for us was Benesse House, where we saw works by Warhol, Hockney and Yayoi Kusama. There are some famous "instagram" pumpkins overlooking the bays around the island...and they usually have a queue for a photo.
15. Explore the Japanese Gardens in Kanazawa
Kanazawa is a town on the west coast of central Honshu that has retained much of its pre-war architecture and remains a gem that allows a glimpse of old Japan. The highlight of the city has to be the Kenroku gardens in the centre, located next to the Kanazawa castle park. Regarded as one of the best Japanese gardens in the country, it best seen during the golden week festival when the park is lit up at night (end of April). There are also three tea-house Geisha districts, the largest named 'Higashi-chaya'; wooden panelled tea-houses line the streets of the area, as they did 200 years ago.
16. All of the Castles
The early history of Japan was an age of constant samurai warfare between feudal lords battling for land and power (you can learn more about that here). Castles litter the landscape and originals, curated remains and reconstructions can be found in almost every major city. In all cases they have been repurposed into tourist attractions and are kept in mint condition. Some, such as Odawara castle, have been completely reconstructed using Edo period plans. We found remains at Edo castle in the Tokyo imperial palace gardens, Wakayama castle, and Takamatsu castle; where original buildings have not been rebuilt but vast walls, orchards and moats remain. Lastly at Matsumoto castle and Nijo castle in Kyoto we found the originals - hundreds of years old and painstaking looked after. Of course for geeks like us, the originals were the best.
17. Experience the City Night Lights after dark
Head out after dark in Japan and in any major town you'll encounter the neon lights of local businesses. Apparently, the brighter and more garish the better. A saunter out to find a local ramen shop can feel like you've found yourself in a modern art exhibition. An evening trip to Dotonburi in the heart of Osaka will make you feel trippy, possibly overstimulated and unsure why you feel that a 'Super-Dry' Asahi beer would be incredibly refreshing right now.
18. Geisha Culture in Kyoto
Kyoto is the centre of Japan’s geisha history, and to get a feel for it head to the quiet area of Gion in Kyoto. However consider yourself lucky if you encounter a geiko (fully trained) or a maiko (in training), on the streets. Your best bet is to head to a Geisha district between 5-6pm, where they are most likely to be heading to work. If you’re curious, a 'Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko Evening' is an expensive option, but gives you a taste of Geisha entertainment. There are five Geisha Dances per year (across April, May and November) - learn more here.
19. Visit Miyajima
Just off the coast of Hiroshima lies an island known for its forests, ancient shrines and giant water Torii gate. The Itsukushima Shrine, a World Heritage site, is 800 years old, and has been designed to create the illusion of floating on water (only at hightide, so check your timetables). Quite a memorable image of Japan. Ferries to and from Hiroshima are frequent, alternatively you can stay on the island.
20. Hike in the Japanese Alps
A trip to the alps to the west of Tokyo provides great hiking in the summer, great skiing in the winter, and cute alpine villages all year round. Kamikochi is famous for beautiful day hiking, and a trip to Takayama means after a day-hike you can enjoy a delicious Hida Beef steak and peruse the morning markets the following day. The folk village of Shirakawa-Go, Gokayama and Hida retain houses with the traditional A-frame architecture & thatched roofs, surrounded by thick forests and snowy mountains.
We loved the quiet cafe attached to our guesthouse in Takayama called Tomarotto Hostel.
21. Skiing in Hokkaido
Skiing is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Japan, but the pastime is huge here. There are 500 resorts on the islands. Daytrips from Tokyo are possible to Hakuba and Niseko, but ski passes and rental gear can be expensive. Hokkaido is the other option in the far north where Furano is a popular choice. Whilst we missed ski season, we’ve been told with some conviction that aside from the deep powder, the best thing about skiing in Japan…is the Onsen afterwards.
22. Catch a Sumo Match
Compared to baseball, sumo is a more traditional and formal affair. Wander around the Ryogoku area in Tokyo and you'll probably come face to face with some Sumos in training - they're not exactly hard to spot. If you want to see a match at Tokyo’s Sumo arena, make sure you buy your tickets early as they can be difficult to acquire. You can check tournament dates & times & buy tickets here.
We stayed in the Ryogoku area in a reliable & clean hostel called Anne Hostel Yokozuna.
23. Meet the Deer in Nara
Yes we've already mentioned Nara for it's giant Buddha statue (Daibutsu-den), but in all honestly the real reason people flock to Nara is to meet the thousands of tame deer who have lived in the park for centuries. They are sacred, considered national monuments & messengers from the gods. Hilariously, they have cohabited with people for so long that if bowed to they will formally return the bow... but only once. They're calm and gentle unless you have some food on you, in which case prepare to be barged and head butted until you hand over the goods. Perhaps this point should be called "getting mugged by cute animals".
24. Learn some Japanese
Locals in any country will appreciate a few phrases in the native tongue; picking up a phrase book will help, but we find the best way to learn your basics is to ask, repeat and practice. Everyone we asked for help was keen to give us a few simple phrases and correct our pronunciation. Nothing beats the shocked expression and following broad grin when you greet your host, or thank your waitress in Japanese! "Arigato gozaimashita" (Thank you).
25. Find a tea ceremony
If you think the English like tea...the Japanese LOVE tea. The tea ceremony rituals dates back to the 16th century, when the practice became highly ritualised and incredibly strict etiquette is maintained throughout. Kyoto is the best place to find a tea ceremony. As thoroughly Japanese as you can get.
26. Hunt out the Sake Bars
Sake is fermented rice wine and a favourite traditional tipple. Pop into a Sake bar when you're in Osaka or Kyoto and if you're lucky they'll have a tasting selection. Sip from elegant glasses alongside suited and booted salarymen, top-buttons undone after a tough day at the office. Find yourself in an Izakaya (small bbq eatery) and you'll see the huge 1.5L sake bottles lined up to be used for cooking.
A trip to a Sake bar is always fun, but don't plan an early morning activities for the next day.
Try and find this hidden & very stylish Kyoto sake bar (Japanese only on Saturday nights): SAKE壱
27. Ride the Bullet train
Yes it's expensive, but the Japanese bullet train is an institution going back to the 1960s. Designed to emulate the aerodynamic shape of a bird in flight, the Shinkansen (Japanese name) will fly across the countryside at 200mph allowing easy movement from city to city. If you have a jam-packed plan involving lots of train journeys between tickets, have a look at the JR passes (a bit like Europe’s Interrail pass). If you are in Japan for over 3 weeks however, you might find cheaper ways to travel.
28. Get off the Beaten Track
Shikoku, the smaller island just south of Honshu across the inland sea is famous for it's 88 shrine hike, but little else. Hop on a ferry from Osaka and get off the tourist trail for a few days. In the remoter areas, you'll find English is limited and tourism catering solely for the Japanese. In the heartland of the island is the Iya valley, the Oboke gorge and three vine-bridges (in existance for 900 years but rebuilt every 3). The rural villages of Shikoku also show a stark realisation of the aging rural populations, in one village we passed through there was not a child in sight.
29. Sample the Street food
The food is so good it get's a second paragraph, look out for these street food favourites, usually sold from little wooden stalls, by smiley elderly japanese ladies.
Taiyaki: Fish shaped waffle cake snacks with a custard filling, or sometimes with beanpaste.
Takoyaki: Fried batter balls with octopus.
Korokke: Beef croquettes (outrageously good - especially on a hangover!)
Famichiki: Fried chicken
Kare Pan: Curry donut (surprisingly tasty)
Dorayaki: Sweet bean paste patty (‘expect chocolate as we did...)
Nikuman: Steamed bun with mystery filling
Yakitori: Chicken on a stick
30. Tokyo Karaoke
Book a booth, grab some drinks and croon to your faves. Japan invented Karaoke in the 1990s and it quickly went worldwide. Top fact; Karaoke translates as "Empty Orchestra" - all the awks.
In short, you could spent weeks, even months exploring Japan. There is so much to see and do (and eat!). Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments!
*Yes, we realise we've essentially completely omitted Hokkaido, Kyushu and Okinawa...they will have their own highlights but the islands were just too far away for us to add to our trip this time around - Until next time!