October 27, 2020

Japan Highlights: How to Find The Best Things to do in Japan, an Inside Guide

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From cherry blossom to shochu, explore the highlights of Japan.

Exploring the Highlights of Japan

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.

Get inspired with these highlights of Japan and then use the Japan Trip Planner to build your own itinerary. 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.

Japan - Tokyo - Night scene with red Tokyo tower


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.

Japan - Kyoto - Clifftop temple in 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.

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.

Miyajima Island nearby shrine

The view from Miyajima island near Hiroshima


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. 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.

Mount Fuji Day Trip from Japan


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.

Japan - Osaka Street Scene at Twilight - one of the best things to do in Japan


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.

Best of Japan - Kyoto Market

Kyoto Market

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?

Onsen Culture

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. 

Japan - Tokyo - Folded Paper Prayers

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.

Japan - Tokyo - Noodle Fast Food Shop

More Japan Travel Information

Planning a trip to Japan? Great news! After reading about these highlights of Japan, take yourself to the Japan Trip Planner and map out your adventure with the help of the recommended Japan itineraries.

Almost everyone passes through Tokyo, so check out this article on how to see Tokyo in 5 days (if you don't have five days, you can always skip a few.) 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.

And finally, see how reinvention can occur following tragedy in the vibrant cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In short, once you've seen the highlights of Japan, it's time to learn how to get off the beaten track in Japan.


About the author

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

  • 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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    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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