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In a country where landscapes range from high-tech, sci-fi-inspired megacities to majestic mountains surrounded by natural hot springs and verdant forests, you have endless options for how to spend your holidays. Want to eat fresh sushi surrounded by the neon lights of Tokyo? Or walk one of only two UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage trails in the world? You’ve come to the right place! It was hard to narrow it down, but in this article, we’ve picked the top 20 things to do in Japan.
Offering stunning views of Japan and lifelong bragging rights for having reached the summit, climbing Mount Fuji is one of the most memorable things to do in Japan. You can choose between four trails up the mountain, each trail taking a unique route to the top. Then, stop for a rest in one of the mountain huts to time your arrival at the summit with the sunrise for views you’ll never forget.
- Best time to visit: The mountain is free of snow and easiest to climb between July and September. Avoid climbing during the Obon Festival in August, as it’s when the mountain is the most crowded.
- Entrance fee: USD 10 per person
- Good to know: Most routes down Mount Fuji include exhilarating stretches of running down fine volcanic sand called sunibashiri. If your route includes one, save yourself the pain of picking sand out of your eyes and shoes and rent a pair of gaiters and goggles.
Japan’s capital city, where modern architecture and neon lights meet temple oases, is unlike anywhere else in the world. You can experience the whole of Japanese culture in this one place, from springtime cherry blossoms to Kabuki theatre and, incidentally, the most Michelin-starred restaurants in a single city anywhere in the world. There are plenty of things to do in Tokyo so get ready for the experience of a lifetime!
- Best time to visit: Tokyo is best visited between September and November to catch the gorgeous foliage of autumn leaves changing or time your trip for March and April to catch the cherry blossoms!
- Good to know: Keep in mind that Japan doesn’t have a tipping culture and you’ll want to avoid leaving tips, which could be perceived as suggesting the staff is underpaid.
Insider tip: When visiting the robot restaurant in Tokyo, it is best to come around 45 minutes early as stated in the ticket. This is not simply a ploy by the establishment to get people to come on time but there is actually a mildly interesting pre-show that happens before the actual show starts. It serves as a sort of teaser, with performers decked in flashy costumes dancing to wild and energetic music. Another thing is that despite the name, the robot restaurant can’t really be thought of as a serious restaurant even though you can buy tickets that come with meals. You are better off eating in the many restaurants in the vicinity of Kabuki-cho. — Bino from I Wander
A visit to the Arashiyama Monkey Park combines a brisk hike with gorgeous views of the whole of Kyoto and, of course, a plethora of adorable snow monkeys lounging around so close you can share your (park-approved) snacks with them! This is one of the most unique Japanese attractions. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be so close to so many of these little critters.
- Best time to visit: The park is open year-round but a visit during January can snag you a photo of monkeys bathing in the hot springs. Plan your trip for the morning or late afternoon to skip the crowds and avoid hiking at midday.
- Good to know: When interacting with the monkeys you can only give them approved food that you buy there and try to avoid making eye contact or you could find yourself on the bad side of one of these little primates.
If the monkeys of Arashiyama don’t satisfy your animal itch, head to Nara to meet the park’s famously friendly deer. Locals believe the deer are sacred, so they’re given free rein to wander the grounds. They’ll come right up to you and you can even buy special crackers to feed them. When you’ve finished playing with the deer, you can check out the many unique temples that are also in Nara Park!
- Best time to visit: Nara park is open to the public year-round and makes a great addition to your trip no matter when you come. However, visit between March and May or September and November for the best temperatures and foliage.
- Good to know: Remember that as tame as they may seem, these deer are still wild animals and should be approached cautiously.
Only two trails in the world can claim a UNESCO title for historic roles as pilgrimage sites and the Kumano Kodo trail is one of them. Less touristy than some of the other multi-day treks, the Kumano Kodo trail will have you walking through gorgeous forests and staying in rustic villages along the way, which means that instead of having to carry your food with you, you can treat yourself to some delicious local cuisine at the guesthouses. Hit the trail to experience a calmer, more spiritual side of Japan.
- Best time to visit: While you can walk the trail all year, the weather will vary dramatically by season. Hike in March to June or September to November for the most temperate weather.
- Good to know: Accommodation along this 75-kilometer trail is limited, and although it’s not as popular a trek as Mount Fuji, you’ll want to book as far in advance as possible to make sure you have a roof over your head.
Dotonbori and its brightly lit neon nightlife is Osaka’s most famous attraction. This thriving canal district is lined with iconic glowing signs that will make you forget it isn’t daytime and streetside restaurants that will blow your mind no matter what you’re in the mood for. After you’ve finished dining, you can head to one of the theatres or comedy clubs to enjoy a show before hitting the town and checking out the district’s unique bar scene.
- Best time to visit: Whatever time of year you’re here, venture out in the evening to see this glowing Osaka district in full swing.
- Good to know: Binge on some of Osaka’s famous street foods. Dishes like takoyaki and okonomiyaki are both local to Osaka. Visit the Dotonbori Konamon Museum and you can even try cooking some for yourself!
Naoshima is a remote island that will easily end up on your list of favorite places if you’re an art enthusiast. If you’re looking for unique things to do in Japan, this gorgeous little island is home to a number of art museums, exhibitions, and installations. Everywhere you turn you’ll find something new. Most of the structures on Naoshima were built by architect Tadao Ando and appear to blend harmoniously into the landscape. Not only will your Instagram love it, but it’s also one of the best art and architecture destinations in the world!
- Best time to visit: You can visit art island any time of year, but you’ll have nicer weather between March and May or September and November. Keep in mind that all the art museums are closed on Mondays!
- Entrance fee: Each museum has its own costs, but to see the Art House Project and its six installations will cost you around USD 10 for a combo ticket.
- Good to know: Bikes are the best way to get around the island, but you can also take buses. If you’re heading to the art museums, a free shuttle bus will take you from the Tsutsuji-so bus stop to the museum area!
If you asked someone to draw a picture of things they associate with Japan, somewhere between Mount Fuji and sumo wrestlers you’re likely to see a geisha. They’re an iconic part of Japanese history and the best place to catch a glimpse of these stylish entertainers is in Kyoto. You can see them perform or walking around the charming cobblestone streets in their traditional costumes. It will feel like you’ve gone back in time!
- Best time to visit: For the optimal trip, visit Kyoto between September and November or from March to May. The weather will be better and there are interesting big events in those times of the year as well.
- Good to know: For the most exciting geisha experience, try to plan your trip to coincide with one of the five annual geisha dances put on annually. If you’re looking for a more low-budget geisha sighting, you can usually spot them on the streets of the Gion district in their full costumes.
The name Hiroshima has gone down in history as the site of the world’s first atomic bombing. To commemorate the event that changed the city’s landscape forever, Hiroshima has built a sprawling memorial park where you can see the ruins of one of the only buildings miraculously left standing, memorials to different groups of those who died, and a torch that will burn until all nuclear weapons in the world are disposed of. Born out of a devastating event, the Peace Memorial Park is a declaration of hope for the future.
- Best time to visit: Plan your visit between mid-March and mid-April to experience the park’s beauty enhanced by the over 300 cherry trees that line the Motoyasu River and beat the summer heat!
- Entrance fee: While the entrance to the park is free, if you want to visit the museum it will cost you around USD 2.
- Good to know: If you want to learn more about the park and museum, volunteers offer free tours. They’ll take you around the museum and the park’s monuments.
While you might not associate Japan with surfing, there’s actually a thriving surfing community in Okinawa. Because of the shallow nature of the area, you have to plan your days just right. In most places, you can only surf within a couple of hours on either side of high tide or risk wiping out into the reef but if you time your trip right, you just might catch some world class waves.
- Best time to visit: To catch the best waves you’ll want to plan your trip between mid-June and April, but winter and typhoon season tends to be the prime surfing time in Okinawa.
- Good to know: If you like outdoor sports and aren’t sure what to do in Japan, give surfing a try! Just be sure to pack or pick up some marine shoes, since most of the surf spots are reef breaks and you don’t want to hurt your feet.
If there’s a mecca for anime fans, it’s Akihabara. From retro video games to anime and manga paraphernalia to all kinds of high-tech electronics, you can find it here. Among the many specialized stores are maid cafes with staff dressed as maids or anime characters, department stores with daily performances by the in-house pop band, and a literally endless supply of anime and manga stores. It's an otaku paradise!
- Best time to visit: While you can experience the cartoon thrills of Akihabara any day, going on Sundays will give you an extra special experience, with flea markets and the main thoroughfare turned into a pedestrian street.
- Good to know: If you’re hunting for the perfect anime collectibles to add to your shelves, save a bundle by shopping in the shops further away from the train station or at the Sunday markets.
Relax on the island of Itsukushima with tranquil views of one of Japan’s most iconic Shinto shrines and popular tourist attractions. Listen to the sound of the water flowing underneath the floorboards of the shrine and look out at the bay and the famous "floating" torii, a gateway of the shrine. Though you can’t enter the shrine itself after sunset, both the shrine and the torii are illuminated until 11 pm. After dark, you can hop on a boat around the bay and snag some gorgeous views of the whole temple from the water.
- Best time to visit: Visit the shrine any time of year but come at high or low tide for the best views. At high tide, the torii appears to be floating in the sea, but at low tide, you can walk up and take a closer look. Since the exact timing of high and low tide changes seasonally, be sure to check out a tidal schedule when you’re planning your trip!
- Good to know: The traditional custom for passing beneath this gorgeous Shinto shrine is to bow twice, clap twice, then bow once more. During certain festivals throughout the year, you can also see traditional Bugaku dances performed in this idyllic setting.
Kabuki theatre is a staple of traditional Japanese culture and a piece of UNESCO Intangible World Heritage. The remarkable shows are performed in Japanese with very ornate sets and costumes. Kabuki is a unique form of Japanese theatre and can’t be missed if you’re interested in experiencing the whole of Japanese culture. If you stumble across one of these theatres, be sure to add this experience to your itinerary!
- Entrance fee: Depending on where you are and what kind of show you’re trying to see, tickets for a Kabuki theatre can typically cost between USD 10 – USD 30, assuming you’re not splurging for the perfect seats in one of the fancier theatres. Although if you are opting for better seats, the price points are between USD 36 – 180.
- Good to know: Try to read a bit about the show you’ll be seeing ahead of time so it’s easier to follow along. Even if you speak Japanese, kabuki theatre tends to use an old-fashioned form of the language (think Shakespearean English versus the way we speak today).
Many people plan their trip just to experience the magic of the hanami, or cherry blossom festival, because it’s one of the best things to see in Japan. During the spring the whole of the country is covered in lush pink flowers, drawing both tourists and locals out for strolls through floral lined streets. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience. While the cherry blossom blooms all over Japan, it blossoms at different times across the country, so research about the places to view the cherry blossoms and plan your trip carefully to see them in full bloom, but it will be absolutely worth it.
- Best time to visit: Japan’s famous cherry blossom blooms at different times, moving northwards. So the best time to see them in Tokyo (late March) is different than in Hokkaido (mid-April). Your safest bet for seeing the flowers tends to be late April.
- Good to know: Keep an eye on the blossom forecasts to make sure your trip coincides with their blooms, which shift around a bit annually based on weather patterns.
If you dine at traditional Japanese restaurants during your time in the country (you should), you will likely get to try Japan's national dish, curry rice. Traditionally served with meat, potatoes, carrots and onions, many restaurants now serve modern variations of this humble cuisine. Along with fish and rice, seasonal ingredients are staples of Japanese cuisine while spices are only used sparingly.
Some of the other popular dishes you will encounter during your stay in the country are sushi, tempura, soba, onigiri, udon, yakitori, miso soup, sashimi and unagi. Street food vendors are not as common in Japan as they are in other parts of Asia, but you may find them at events such as fairs and concerts.
Good to know: Japan surpassed France in the last decade to become the country with the highest number of three-starred Michelin restaurants in the world. Its capital city, Tokyo, is home to most these restaurants, including Kadowaki, Makimura and Sazenka. However, if you are yearning for the most authentic, traditional meals, small, family-run eateries around the country are the best option.
While Japan has no shortage of hotels offering modern accommodation, the best way to get an authentic Japanese experience is to stay in a traditional ryokan. These Japanese inns have been around for over a thousand years and are found all over the country. While a typical ryokan offers luxury accommodation, you can find properties that cater to all budgets. What is common about them is the old tradition that is still alive within the walls. You can expect to find tatami floors, Japanese baths, and traditional cuisine during your stay in a ryokan. Hoshinoya and Sadachivo are popular ryokans in Tokyo, while Kyoto has Seikoro and Hakone is home to the beautiful Gora Kadan.
Onsens are natural hot springs found all over Japan. In fact, you can choose from 2,300 onsens while in the country. These hot springs offer a spa-like atmosphere. Loud noises are frowned upon and the sound of relaxing music is common inside them, thereby offering weary travelers a relaxing experience as they soak in the healing waters.
Onsens are also rich in minerals, and if their mineral-infused waters do not cure all that ails you, they will certainly help your aching muscles. These baths are communal, so there will be other people enjoying them with you. Gero Onsen, Okuhida Onsen, Yunomine Onsen, Zap Onsen, and Dogo Onsen are among the top facilities in Japan.
Good to know: More than half of Japan's onsen facilities do not allow patrons with tattoos for cultural reasons. However, the towns of Hyogo and Oita are home to tattoo-friendly facilities. Before entering an onsen, you need to rinse off yourself to ensure cleanliness. Bathing stations are available. Most traditional onsens do not allow bathing suits to be worn and enforce gender separation. But there are some that allow mixed bathing.
There are two ways to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto — the fast but boring way and the slower-paced route that takes you through some of the most scenic areas of the country. The latter route, known as the Golden Route, is the preferred route for travelers wanting to see more of Japan's attractions.
For those starting their journey from Tokyo, the first stop along the Golden Route is Mount Fuji, where you can hike the trails before continuing along the Pacific Coast. You might want to enjoy sailing on Lake Ashi once you have reached Hakone. Nara offers the opportunity to spend time with friendly deer in its park while Osaka, another destination along the route, is home to the famous Osaka Castle. Finally, on reaching Kyoto, do not forget to check out the Golden Pavilion.
Best time to visit: The Golden Route offers an amazing experience for travelers any time of the year. However, the best time to explore it is in April and May when it gets warmer and cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
Good to know: At a minimum, it takes about a week to explore the Golden Route. But it is recommended to take your time and spend two weeks taking in all the sights. If you are not traveling on your own in a rented vehicle, the route can be explored via the extensive public transportation system that is in place along the way.
Japan’s public transportation system puts all others to shame and nowhere is that quite as apparent as when you’re riding one of the high-speed Shinkansen bullet trains, racing around the country at 200 mph. It’s the best way to travel from city to city and a unique experience that should definitely be added to your Japan bucket list!
- Entrance fee: Around USD 265 for a seven-day pass.
- Good to know: Plan if you want to travel using the railways. You can pick up a Japan Rail Pass at the price listed above, but only if you purchase it before arriving in Japan.
In Japan, you will find many quirky and even downright bizarre museums. Tokyo has TeamLab Borderless, which showcases vibrant digital art, and the Meguro Parasitological Museum, dedicated to parasites. The Trick Art Museum, yet another Tokyo highlight, houses a collection of 3D paintings that you can pose with, and at the city’s Tobacco and Salt Museum you can learn more about these coveted items that were once protected by the government.
In Kyoto, there is the Samurai Museum. Bonsai art is the centerpiece at the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Saitama and giant sand sculptures beckon travelers at the Sand Museum in Tottori. And let us not forget the museum dedicated to toilets like the one in Kitakyushu, without which our list of quirky museums is incomplete.
Good to know: An easier and cheaper way to enjoy many of Tokyo's museums and attractions is to purchase a Grotto Pass that allows you convenient access to 99 highlights around the city. This pass can be purchased at any one of the participating attractions.
Whether you want to get down and dirty outdoors or explore the neon nightlife of the country’s glistening metropolises, you won’t run out of exciting things to do in Japan! This list is just the beginning. Even if your trip to Japan lasted a lifetime, you’d still be finding new restaurants, theatres, and gorgeous natural vistas. It’s a country with so much to offer and tourism is picking up as more and more people realize what an incredible place it is. There’s a whole unique culinary history to discover, Shinto shrines to stumble upon on city blocks, and a vibrant culture that you’ll be yearning to return to. Get in touch with our travel experts in Japan if you're looking to plan a trip of a lifetime!
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