February 10

The Indisputable Highlights of Japan – What First Time Visitors Can’t Miss

Japan, North Asia

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Soak in the cherry blossom and the shadow of Mt Fuji with these highlights of Japan.

Exploring the Highlights of Japan

After years of travelling to the country, I've distilled down the highlights of Japan like a chilled glass of shochu on the rocks. Welcome to one of the most fascinating places on earth. And enjoy the best places in Japan.

These Japan highlights fit well into a one week itinerary but check out the Japan Trip Planner to fill in the details and try out different things. Take a small group tour or plan a trip yourself. Japan is an easy place to travel around. Enjoy! 

The Best of the Best Places in Japan

The snowy peak of Mt Fuji. The flashing lights of Shinjuku, Tokyo. Quiet temples, secluded gardens, green tea, geisha and blaring pachinko arcade games and anime. Japan's highlights include her traditions and customs as much as her places to visit and things to do. 

TOKYO

More than just a government capital, Tokyo is one of the greatest cities in the world. At first glance, she simply storms around in chrome and glass but in her secluded corners, you can learn about the Japan of the past and understand a little more about the present. From the Imperial Palace to the Shibuya crossing, the city keeps you busy, with Nara and Hakone providing great day trips from Tokyo.

Then take a bullet train to see the other highlights and attractions of Japan.

KYOTO

As Japan's former capital, Kyoto has more temples than you'll eat grains of rice. This is the city where geisha still roam and cherry blossom falls softly over sloping rooftops that lead to the past. 

Kyoto itself is a curious mix of the old and the new. Skyscrapers hustle at you the moment you leave the station, whereas the taxis have heart shaped lights. But it’s the old part of Kyoto where you’re most likely to see that elusive Japanese legend, the geisha. Ripe with glowing lanterns and bamboo-walled bars that ooze with atmosphere, Kyoto’s Old Town deserves pride of place on your itinerary, especially the Fushimi Inari Shrine and the Golden Pavilion.

Miyajima Island nearby shrine

The view from Miyajima island near Hiroshima

HIROSHIMA PEACE MEMORIAL &MiyaJIma Island

The world may associate Hiroshima with hell on earth, hot metal and twisted lives and limbs but Hiroshima today is a sunny, vibrant city. One with a memory, of course, but also a vast memorial dedicated to peace. For me, though, there was something incredibly refreshing and healing about visiting this city. 

Hop across to Itsukushima island (also known as Miyajima Island) for great views across the harbour, best seen through the Itsukushima Shrine. The shrine is currently being refurbished and is covered. It's unclear when it will be visible again, but it will remain this way for at least the rest of 2019.

MT FUJI

If you have the stamina, you can climb Mount Fuji yourself without any mountain climbing skills. Up and back within a single, if exhausting, day from Tokyo. Otherwise, visit the national park and enjoy views from afar.

OSAKA

Osaka is the second largest area after Tokyo, with many travellers feeling it's an essential highlight and crucial part of an itinerary. Personally, I'd suggest venturing further afield to see different sides of Japan. Perhaps Nagasaki, Okinawa and her beaches in the south or heading into the north. Find out more about those places on the Japan trip planner.

Cultural Highlights of Japan

Japanese Food Markets

White blobs, eyeballs and wriggling squelch that may or may not be seaweed…Kyoto’s markets will refresh even the most travel-hardened eyes. 

Bento Boxes of parcel-perfect morsels and home-made pickles sold at train stations across the country…

Tasty, sloppy noodles almost everywhere…

And, of course, the finest sushi the world has to offer. Try the down-to-earth cafes opposite the Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market (they're still in operation, even though the main market has now moved.)

The food in Okinawa claims to be the secret to a long and healthy life. The island inhabitants have the longest life expectancy in the world, so perhaps they're on to something?

Skiing in Japan

In a land of volcanoes, it seems obvious to turn mountain slopes into ski slopes. By the summer, the blossom provides lush green hiking grounds.

Onsen Culture

In Japan, daily cleansing involves steaming, scalding, almost boiling water at an onsen as part of a ritual.

From natural outdoor springs to ramshackle hotels with plastic buckets, everyone strips off, scrubs down and soaks.

A word of warning, though, gaijin travellers: by strip off, they mean naked.

Completely. Naked. In. Public. Shudder…

Folded Paper Prayers

Japan overflows with temples, where fine carvings and clouds of incense surround fortune tellers and fortune sellers. Look out for the origami-like prayers tied to wire fences…

The Shinkansen Bullet Train

Sleek, fast, reliable trains that whisk you across the country in one easy and efficient swoop. 

The Monkeys Who Bathe in Hot Springs

Those volcanic onsen aren't just for people, you know. The Jigokudani Yaenkoen have their very own monkey bathers as well.

You can visit the monkeys as one of several fascinating day trips from Tokyo.

More Highlights of Japan

So what did you think? Any other highlights of Japan you'd like to suggest?


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  • Larson Poole says:

    Japanese food always been tasty and colorful. Once tried wasabi that was insane strong herb…

    • Yep, you need to take it very, very easy with wasabi!

  • retrotraveller says:

    Japan is indeed an awesome place and for so many reasons – you did well to summarise so neatly…

    • Thanks. I’m heading back there this week so hopefully I cam find even more!

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    About the author

    Abi King

    Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Find out more.

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