23 of the Best Things to Do in Japan
If ever there was a use for the word “enigmatic”, it is surely for describing the complex and completely incredible country of Japan. With an equally fascinating history, the nation has somehow managed to merge its traditional elements with its desire to be one of the most forward-thinking places on the planet, and to do so harmoniously. No two days in Japan will be the same, and you’ll find yourself thrown into the heart of a nation unlike any other. You will be out of your comfort zone. You will encounter plenty of people who don’t speak your language. But most of all, you will be completely mesmerised. And if you do any of the following 23 activities, you will have an extremely memorable time.
RIDE ON A BULLET TRAIN
If you’re looking to see an efficient and innovative mode of transport in action, look no further than Japan’s Shinkansen, known as a bullet train to English speakers. The tracks span the long distance from as far north as Hokkaido right down to Kyushu in the South. Since the trains travel at 320 km, they can easily cover a lot of distance. Countries around the world look to the Japanese design for inspiration, and it’s easy to see why. The bullet trains are fast, safe and a brilliant way to see Japan’s countryside at high speed.
CLIMB MOUNT FUJI
The snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji is recognised globally and as such, it’s come to be recognised as a symbol of Japan. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has real significance, not only in the hearts of the Japanese people but to anyone from around the world who has the fortune of seeing it (or even better still, climbing it).
Flowers in Japan are so beautiful that the Japanese even have their own word for the art of simply appreciating them. “Hanami” is the term that’s customarily reserved for looking at the beautiful cherry blossoms which are out in full bloom at certain times of the year. Want to know more? We have a complete guide to the cherry blossom season.
STROLL THROUGH HARAJUKU
As the embodiment of everything that is cool and youthful about Japan, but especially Tokyo, Harajuku is a district of the aforementioned city that’ll make you say “wow”. Famed for street art, quirky clothing and even upmarket boutiques, it’s among the most trendy places in the entire world. Be sure to check out everything “kawaii” (cute) along Takeshita Street before meandering along the leafy Omotesando Avenue. You’ll find bars, cafés and restaurants dotted amongst cultural fixtures like museums and exhibitions all around the suburb. Gwen Stefani may well have brought its colourful, fashionable residents to the Western world’s attention, but make no mistake - Harajuku didn’t need an American woman to put it on the map.
TRY KOBE BEEF
It’s hard not to roll your eyes when a writer uses clichés like “it melted in my mouth”, but when referring to Kobe beef, we mean it literally. The beef is prized as it comes directly from the Tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle, which are raised in Japan's Hyōgo Prefecture according to specific rules to ensure they meet the world’s highest standards. As such, the meat is a delicacy, and there’s nothing that beats it in terms of both flavour and texture. If you can get to Kobe for the privilege of trying it, do so. If not, try somewhere unassuming like Hakushu in Tokyo. It runs like a family business and doesn’t look like much from the outside - but it’s worth every single penny you spend.
GO TO A THEMED CAFÉ
My Little Pony. Cats. Vampires. No, these aren’t the trends du jour to today’s preteens, they’re special themes of Japanese cafés. Whether you’re nine or 79, there are an abundance of places to eat and drink throughout the country, in almost every kind of style imaginable, from character cafés to maid cafés and everything in between. Cuddle a kitten while you sip your coffee or have your sushi brought to you by a ghost - the choice is really up to you. Many aren’t even really cafés at all. Instead, like the Robot Restaurant or Kawaii Monster Café, they’re full-blown restaurants; kitschy, surreal places where you’ll even be treated to a show.
SING AT KARAOKE
Karaoke may well be a classic way to pass the time around the world these days, but the concept originated in Japan long before it was popular in the West. Going to karaoke these days is an exciting affair; there are rooms which can be rented for a particular duration, and songs are typically available in a few different languages, including English. Rooms come in all different sizes, and you can choose one to suit your group, although some places do have the option to perform to a crowd of strangers (which you might be more familiar with). The private rooms are a brilliant option, and many have themes, such as gothic or princess. Drinks and food are served, so karaoke is most definitely a marvellous night out.
PAY RESPECTS AT HIROSHIMA PEACE MEMORIAL PARK
No matter where you’re from in the world, the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a stark reminder of some of the darkest moments of humanity, which ought never to be repeated. While a visit to either of these locations is bound to be somewhat troubling, we all have a duty to learn from our mistakes in this life, and facing up to such atrocities may help you to find inner peace. The city of Hiroshima today is largely forgiving, but it has not forgotten. Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park is a place of beauty an is a focal point in the 21st Century. You ought to visit, pay your respects and partake in reflection.
SLEEP IN A CAPSULE HOTEL
While climbing into what looks like a giant washing machine to rest your weary head isn’t exactly the height of luxury, staying in a capsule hotel even just for one night is part of the quintessential Japanese tourist experience. Capsules are often compact and stacked in close proximity, so while you’re completely enclosed and have privacy, your bed will technically be in the same room as everyone else. It’s certainly surreal, but worth doing just the once to tick a box.
CROSS SHIBUYA INTERSECTION
The world’s most famous crossing is otherwise known as the “scramble intersection”, and for good reason. Up to one million people per day cross this Tokyo street, which is probably why it’s so instantly recognisable wherever you’re from. Its fast pace is synonymous with the district it sits in, Shibuya. The sheer number of people who cross each and every time it’s safe to do so is symbolic of the hustle and bustle that comes with urban living in Japan.
STAY AT A RYOKAN
Hospitality in Japan is unrivalled throughout much of the rest of the modern world, but many of the traditions were forged centuries ago. Ryokans are a special type of inn which have had a hand in cultivating customs in welcoming visitors from far and wide for many years. A stay in a ryokan is quintessentially Japanese, and the experience ought not to be skipped. Whether simple or elegant, at one of these typically secluded locations you’ll get exactly the welcome that you hope for. We’ve shortlisted some of the best ryokans.
Akihabara is yet another way for Tokyo to display its ingenuity to the world. Renowned as a modern metropolis, this is THE place to go if you want to check out all of the latest gadgets. This district is forward-thinking, and as such, it’s reflective of the futuristic side of Japan that’s been emerging more and more in recent years. From electronics to anime, you can find it all to satisfy your inner geek!
EAT AS MUCH AS YOU CAN
It doesn’t matter where you are throughout the country, authentic Japanese cuisine is something you won’t forget in a hurry. The food is varied; but obviously, you should give “the real deal” when it comes to sushi and ramen a go. Japan is as experimental as it is traditional, which leads to some really fascinating flavour combinations. From baked sweet potatoes with caramel ice cream to wasabi flavoured Kit Kats, you’re in for some real treats!
VISIT TOKYO IMPERIAL PALACE
History aficionados will have an endless stream of places to visit during a visit to Japan, but Tokyo Imperial Palace ought to feature on the list sheerly for its national significance. The original palace was destroyed during the bloodshed of the Second World War, but it has been replicated and today, it is home to the reigning (albeit ceremonial) Japanese Emperor. For the majority of the year, you can observe from a distance, but if you visit on the Emperor’s Birthday on December 23rd or on January 2nd, you’ll be lucky enough to be granted access into the grounds of the inner palace.
MONKEY AROUND AT JIGOKUDANI MONKEY PARK
The experience of seeing wild Macaque snow monkeys bathing in natural hot springs is entirely unique and incredibly memorable. Found in the forests of Jigokudani valley in Yamanouchi, the monkeys are more than capable of entertaining themselves, which in turn is highly entertaining to guests. You cannot interact directly with the monkeys, in order to ensure their safety, but they are amazing creatures to simply observe.
WATCH KABUKI THEATRE
This centuries-old form of entertainment combines dance and drama and it’s stylised in such a way that it’s absolutely astounding. Characterised by elaborate makeup and costumes, Kabuki is performed up and down the country. UNESCO has declared that it possesses “outstanding universal value”; and we believe that anything with that level of cultural heritage and significance ought to be viewed in person.
PHOTOGRAPH FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA
The Fushimi Inari Shrine is a Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto of great significance to the local people, the most important of thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of rice. You might recognise the thousands of deep red torii gates from photos, straddling a network of trails behind the main buildings. Wandering these trails will lead you to a wooded forest, home to the sacred Mount Inari in the shrine grounds. The shrine itself is ancient, dating back all the way to the year 794.
BATHE IN AN ONSEN
Onsen, otherwise known as natural hot springs, are a fixture of Japan and bathing in them is a highly popular pastime throughout the nation. There are plenty to be found all over the place, but particularly in resort towns. The minerals within are said to provide health benefits, and they will certainly keep you relaxed. Hot springs exist for everyone, but they vary greatly. Some are separated by gender whole others are mixed, some are indoors, while many others are in stunning natural surrounds. Please note that you may be required to remove your clothing, and those with tattoos may not be permitted entry, depending on the place.
PLAY AT A GAMES CENTRE
Games Centres are absolutely everywhere throughout Japan, and fans of animation won’t be disappointed. Whether you’re playing arcade style games or anything else, there are plenty of options in the cities, filled with smoke and lights to create a true gaming paradise.
CHECK OUT DISNEY SEA
Disney fans all over the world will be familiar with the typical Disneyland and Disneyworld premise, but Disneysea is something else. With a nautical theme and the same Disney characters you know and love, this theme park has something for everyone, from little children to children at heart. It’s one of the busiest in the world, so be prepared to line up for rides!
GO TO UNIVERSAL STUDIOS JAPAN
One of only four Universal Studios theme parks in the world, Osaka’s Universal Studios Japan isn’t to be missed. Harry Potter fans will be in their element at the spectacular Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a place where magic unfolds and butterbeer flows!
HEAD TO THE SAPPORO SNOW FESTIVAL
Many people tend to forget that Japan sees a lot of snow, so the Sapporo Snow Festival serves as a reminder in the form of a winter wonderland. Enjoy the illuminations and activities offered over three main sites for this breathtaking event.
PARTAKE IN A TEA CEREMONY
Matcha, a fine powder of Japanese green tea, takes pride of place in a traditional tea ceremony here, otherwise known as chanoyu or sado in Japanese. The experience is very symbolic and culturally significant, replicating experiences that have been taking place for over one thousand years. While visitors can partake in these ceremonies, you should note that they are becoming more commercialised for this reason. You are advised to seek ceremonies in more remote areas, which are perhaps more likely to have stood the test of time. Remember, when being invited to partake in the customs of another culture, you must always show due respect.