Like a chilled glass of shochu on the rocks, we’ve distilled down the best things to do in Japan. Welcome to one of the most fascinating – and friendly – places on earth.
It can be fun to join a tour but Japan is an easier place to travel around than many realise. It’s entirely possible to travel between each of the places mentioned here on your own and with little fuss.
Alternatively, first time visitors could follow the hybrid option. Book your own flights, accommodation and Japan Rail Pass and join private tours or walking tours to add traditional Japanese experiences to your itinerary.
The Best of the Best Places in Japan
The snowy peak of Mt Fuji. The flashing lights of Shinjuku, Tokyo. Quiet temples, secluded gardens, tea ceremonies, 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. Your Japan bucket list should involve the best cultural things to experience as well as essential places to see.
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.
- Check out this look at first time travel tips for Japan
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.
All told, seventeen different areas comprise the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. You’ll need at least one full day in Kyoto, and it’s even better with two days.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial and 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, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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.
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 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.
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.
Look out for Bento Boxes of parcel-perfect morsels and home-made pickles sold at train stations across the country. And slurp up tasty, sloppy noodles almost everywhere.
Of course, Japan also provides 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?
In Japan, daily bathing involves dipping into steaming, scalding, almost boiling water at an onsen as part of a cleansing ritual. From natural outdoor springs to ramshackle hotels with plastic buckets, everyone strips off, scrubs down and soaks.
A word of warning, though, for gaijin travellers: by strip off, they mean naked. Completely. Naked. In. Public.
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 folded paper prayers.
The Shinkansen Bullet Train
These sleek, fast, reliable trains whisk you across the country in one easy and efficient swoop. Riding on a shinkansen train is one of the best things to do in Japan, for people watching, bento box snacking and incredibly swift transport.
Skiing and Hiking 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. So, no matter what time of year you visit, one of the best things to do in Japan involves escaping the cities and hitting the slopes.
More Japan Travel Information
Planning a trip to Japan? Great news! After reading about these highlights of Japan, you’re nearly ready to go.
Take a look at these day trips from Tokyo if you want to see Fuji, Kyoto and the snow monkeys in short trips. Or, take your time and spend two days in Kyoto and surround yourself with UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
And if you’re seriously thinking about climbing Mt Fuji, then this is the article for you.
But there’s so much more to the country than Tokyo. One of the best things to do in Japan involves heading south to the beaches of Okinawa or north to the snow festivals and igloo carnivals in winter.
In short, once you’ve seen the highlights of Japan, it’s time to learn how to get off the beaten track in Japan.