With so many things to do in Japan, we might even be forgiven for returning to visit the country on a yearly basis. Every single time we decide to go on a long trip around the world, we end up buying tickets to Japan, eager to explore yet another off the beaten path location. We first spent 2 weeks in Japan about 4 years ago and we've been back ever since. We even lived in Japan for a bit trying to discover the best things to do in Tokyo but realised that eventually, we will just have to move to this incredible country to be able to discover it all. Although, with such an ever-changing landscape, and the continuous evolution of its cities, it's difficult to imagine that one could truly know Japan. And that's what makes it special, mysterious, alluring. Our favourite things to do in Japan are mainly related to the natural landscape and the curious culture of the country. We love everything Japanese, from its delicious food, through the tea ceremony, to the kawaii culture of Harajuku. Here is what to do in Japan.
Best things to do in Japan - Contents
Bathe in an Onsen
An onsen is a natural hot spring in Japan and they are usually located in natural, quiet sounding for relaxation purposes. Some luxury ryokans offer private onsen facilities with incredible views of the nearby mountains. There are certain rules on how to experience an onsen so make sure you familiarise with them before checking in. One important rule is that unless you reserve a private time at the onsen, you will very likely be refused entry if you have any tattoos. Don't take it personally.
Remember that in order to bathe in an onsen you must be entirely naked. If you wish to bathe with your partner, you can go to a mixed onsen. Have a look at our Kyoto onsen article and make sure to pick the most suitable for your individual requirements.
Go bear watching
In the wilderness of Hokkaido, Japan Northern-most island, you can go bear watching with a local operator. Make sure you don't disturb the bears and you don't get too close as they are wild, potentially dangerous creatures. Visit Shiretoko, a peninsula on the eastern tip of Hokkaido and fall in love with the UNESCO World Heritage rugger terrain which is home to a wealth of eco-systems. Here you can spot the Asian black bears, as well as whales and dolphins.
Here is a fun fact: did you know Shiretoko means "the end of the earth" in local Ainu language?
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Follow God Inari on the Fushimi Mountain
Probably one of the most popular things to do in Japan is to visit the famed Fushimi Inari Shrine. Located in Kyoto, on Mount Inari, it offers free entry to all its visitors throughout the year. We recommend visiting Fushimi Inari either first thing in the morning or during the night. We loved it at night because it was a truly spiritual experience. There was nobody around us, not much light and we could immerse ourselves in the silence of the forest. Throughout the hike, there are small stop points where you can relax or pay your respects to the smaller shrines.
Fushimi Inari has its torii gates donated by various wealthy families or businesses in the hope to get good luck from the God Inari. Inari Ōkami is the Japanese kami (God) of foxes, fertility, rice, tea and sake. Inari is also the principal kami of Shinto.
Enjoy a trip to Miyajima
Many go to Miyajima Island to see the glorious floating Shinto gate, but there is so much more to the island than meets the eye. Located just off the shores of Hiroshima, Miyajima is easily accessible via JR Ferry. If you have the Japan Rail Pass, this trip is included and it is free of charge.
Miyajima Island is home to various accommodation options, including ryokans, where you can enjoy a peaceful night with a view. Miyajima features various forested trails, as well as tamed deer and several restaurants with local food. One of the main things to try in Miyajima is the local oysters and the Hiroshima Momiji Manju, an authentic Japanese soft cake which is maple leaf shaped.
Chill with tamed deer in Nara
Miyajima Island is not the only place where you can find tamed deer. Perhaps the most famous place for Japanese deer is Nara. In front of the Tōdai-ji Temple, you can meander around Nara Park and feed the local deer. Simply purchase some biscuits from local vendors and you will have several deer coming your way. What's even cuter is that most deer learned to bow so they can get food.
Make sure to keep calm around the deer and treat them with respect. Don't get too close as they are still wild animals. Don't panic if the deer follow you for more food and ensure you keep leaflets and magazines away from reach as sometimes they can try to eat it. They are incredibly cute and lovely animals and we believe them to be the perfect example of humans and animals beautifully cohabitating together. You can read more about things to do in Nara.
Have a Karaoke night
Did you know, Karaoke means empty orchestra in Japanese? You might have been to a work Karaoke night and saw your colleagues singing out loud on Britney Spears. Well, in Japan Karaoke is a taken very seriously. There are special soundproofed rooms you can rent with all the special equipment already there so you can have an amazing night with your friends and family.
You can go to a Karaoke bar pretty much in any city, and you will find many located close to the train station. Some well-known chains are Shidax, Big Echo, Cote D'Azur or Karaokekan. Make sure you have a passport with you as usually, you will need to register for your first-time visit.
Charges vary from establishment to establishment. You can purchase food and drinks at a separate cost but you can also go for an all you can drink plans for alcoholic beverages.
Go on a sake tour
During our time in Nikko, Japan, we went to a local sake brewery to see how sake is made. The owner spoke good English and showed us around his establishment, explained about the quality of the products and how the rice is fermented. It was very interesting and mesmerising actually.
Furthermore, you can taste the local sake at the end and purchase a bottle or two as a souvenir. There are all sort of sake tours available all around Japan. For example, inside Echigo-Yuzawa station’s Ponshu-kan, you can try different varieties of sake. In the showroom, there are more than 100 varieties of sake available on display. And if you decide you really love sake, why not take a dip in a bath of sake next-door?
Fall in love with Mount Fuji
Seeing Mount Fuji is one of the best things to do in Japan. We took a day trip from Tokyo to Mount Fuji and were lucky enough to see the Mountain in all its splendour. It can be a little tricky, as Mount Fuji-san is tall and mostly covered in cloud. The first two times we visited Japan we didn't see the top of the mountain.
You can see it from so many spots, but the Five Lake area is perhaps our personal favourite. We loved our walks around the lake, the views and of course, the towns. We recommend staying there for one night to relax and get to hike a little more than we did.
Quick tip: Did you know that on a clear day you can see the top of Mount Fuji all the way from Tokyo? It makes it such an incredible experience, especially if you get to see it during sunset.
Enjoy matcha ice cream
While visiting Japan, you will inevitably see matcha in pretty every dessert making it essential for a lot of popular Japanese food. Matcha is powdered green tea which tastes a little bittersweet. Combined with the sugar from confectionary items, the matcha brings out the flavour of the item, making it a million times better. We know matcha isn't for everyone, but we find it delicious and refreshing. During summer, we recommend matcha ice cream and delicious biscuits with matcha dust on them.
Japan might be famous for its matcha ice cream, but if matcha isn't quite your thing, you can try different unusual flavours such as yuzu (Japanese lemon), charcoal (it tastes way better than it sounds) or bean ice cream. If you can't quite decide which one to try, you can always go to an ice cream parlour and get a giant ice cream with 7 or more different flavours.
Photograph a Japanese fairytale village
One of the most picturesque places in Japan is the Shirakawa-go village located in Gifu Prefecture. It features beautiful farmlands and thatched-roof houses, making this ancient village a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, 114 of these houses are still standing, some of which are hotels, restaurants or houses for locals.
This beautiful fairytale village attracts over 1.8 million visitors a year. Shirakawa-go is covered in snow during winter so make sure you plan your trip accordingly depending on the type of photography that interests you the most.
Wander through fields of flowers
With so many fields of flowers scattered all around Japan, you can create a flowery itinerary just based on these incredible locations. One of our favourite places full of natural beauty can be found in Higashimokoto Phlox Park, three times the size of the Tokyo Dome. Between mid-May until early June the park is covered in a spectacular pink carpet of moss phlox. During your Hokkaido itinerary, do have a look at the beautiful Flower fields in Nayoro, Furano and Biei.
Hitsujiyama is another wonderful location for fields of flowers located in Chichibu known for its spring carpet of a different kind of moss. Over 400,000 flowers bloom across these fields.
Stroll around Gion
Gion was once the entertainment district in Kyoto and nowadays is one of the most popular places in Japan's old capital. It's the place where people go to see the famed Geishas. Some try to photograph them as they walk towards their performances whilst others book a tea ceremony with a Maiko.
We always recommend booking a show in advance, to be able to truly immerse in the culture and observe them and their incredible skills. Geishas go through a lot of training to become performers. A Geisha has many skills, including dance, arts and music.
Gion looks beautiful during the night as well, with its narrow alleys lined with traditional wooden houses.
Eat in a Michelin star restaurant
This might not be on the best things to do in Japan for budget travellers, but it sure is something we recommend saving for. Japan is renowned for its culinary affairs and there is a good reason why you'll find more Michelin Star restaurants in Japan than in any other country.
Japan is known for its delicious food and its precision to deliver beautiful looking dishes which truly look like art. Masters of colours and flavours, nothing in this world can beat a dining experience in a Michelin Star restaurant in Japan.
However, for those on a budget, not all it's lost. We have you covered, at the Tsuta. There is a ramen place which got a one Michelin Star but kept its incredible $10 prices per dish. You need to queue first thing in the morning to get a ticket for a day and come back to claim your dish. It may be a long queue, but who wouldn't want to try the cheapest Michelin Star ramen?
Calligraphy is a visual art related to writing. Traditionally, calligraphy has to be expressive and harmonious. For example, you can see it on various graphic design posters, wedding invited and font design and typography. Japanese calligraphy has been greatly influenced by Chinese calligraphy. You can observe beautiful moves and curves and the use of Japanese paper, washi and Japanese ink.
You can learn about the ancient art of shado and take home your own creation. You can book your experience here.
Did you know Steve Jobs was passionate by calligraphy and took classes before creating the brand behind Apple?
Go on a pub crawl in Tokyo
Want to experience the coolest bars in Tokyo but not sure how to find them? We recommend a Tokyo pub crawl with a local who can take you around the most obscure places you wouldn't otherwise find. We loved our night out and had such an adventure. We made new friends and learned a little more about how the Japanese have a good time after work.
It's also not always about sake, but the Japanese have some pretty decent beers and whiskeys. You can customise your experience as well and go for classy cocktails if you prefer. Whatever you decide, you are guaranteed to have to have a great time.
You can, of course, go for a pub crawl on your own, but we think a local can take you off the beaten path, far from any tourist traps so you can have a truly authentic experience.
Dress like an oiran
One of the best things to do in Japan was to dress up like an oiran and samurai. My husband and I had such incredible time during the whole experience. We learned about the history of the oiran and samurai, we had lunch with the ladies at the tea house and had an array of professional pictures taken of us.
The experience lasted for about 5 hours in total. The preparation took the longest as each part of the makeup was very precipe. The hair took the longest, with so much decoration and colourful pins. The kimono itself was so beautiful, so you could clearly see the incredible effort that went into creating such perfect silky art.
This was the highlight of our Tokyo trip and we really think you should try it. The pictures we got at the end were the best souvenirs from Japan.
Purchase delicate chopsticks
Are you a shopping lover? Then you are going to feel right at home in Japan. Ginza is known to be the perfect place for high-class shoppers, and also the best place to find all the best world brands. Having your own set of chopsticks is not considered weird in Japan, and some people invest a lot in the perfect pair of chopsticks, sometimes personalised and made specifically for them.
In Ginza, you will find a shop called Natsuno, where you can purchase some of the finest chopsticks, which are lightweight and made from fresh wood with no chemical treatment.
Sample Japanese whiskey
Did you know Japan has a world reputation for being incredible at making whiskey? In fact, in recent years, there has been an increase in whiskey demand in Japan and you can now find quite a few Japanese whiskeys sold in various fine spirit shops.
We wanted to test this, so we asked one of our guides to take us to a local bar where they serve local whiskey. It didn't disappoint. In fact, the taste was unusually smooth and even my husband loved it, who is not normally a whiskey drinker.
We tried three different types: Suntory, Hibiki and Yoichi.
Meander around local markets
Are you a foodie? Then one of the best things to do in Japan is to hit all the local markets and sample fresh produce. A well-known market is Nishiki in Kyoto, sometimes being called Kyoto's kitchen. You'll find an array of products there, including fresh fish or freshly made desserts so you can try them on the go.
Tsukiji Market was the go-to place for many foreigners, however, it has now moved to Toyosu from October 2018.
Markets are also great for those who want to taste street food or wish to purchase local souvenirs.
Get high in Tokyo
Tokyo is a mega metropolis and our favourite place in the entire world. To fully understand the vastness of the city, you need to take to the skies and get to the top of the observatories decks of some of Tokyo's highest skyscrapers. We really love the Observatory Deck in the Roppongi Hills, but if you are on a budget, you can also try the Government Building which offers free entry.
See Noh in Kyoto
Noh is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama performed exclusively by men. It is a truly unique performance known for the slow grace and the truly elaborate masks. Noh originates from various dramatic performances at religious rituals around the 14th century. Noh flourished during the Edo Period, becoming the preferred entertainment of the samurai.
Following the Meiji restoration, Noh gradually lost its popularity although nowadays it is regaining its popularity and a growing number of locals and foreigners alike are showing interest in this incredible cultural performance.
View the sakura season in Himeji
Himeji is a city located in the Kansai area. It is mainly famed for the Himeji Castle, one of the few original castles from Japan's feudal period. Beyond the castle, there are narrow alleyways lined with vendors awaiting to be explored. Himeji is a gorgeous place to see the cherry blossom festival.
Pro tip: Time your arrival during a slightly rainier day and you can enjoy a crowd less city full of Sakura. The pictures will look just as lovely and full of colour.
Eat your way around Dōtonbori
Dōtonbori is definitely aimed at tourists, but you can find such an array of street food, it feels almost silly not to visit. There are all sort of shops and shopping malls scattered all around the area, bars, and restaurants. We found fantastic ramen restaurants and some of the most interesting street food we tried in Japan.
Dōtonbori is also known for the entertainment it offers, so just walk around and explore, admire the crazy lights and the massive mascots in front of all restaurants. Dōtonbori can get pretty crowded, so remember to start queueing for a place to eat just as you start getting hungry. For photographers and videographers, this is also an amazing place for electric colours.
Go skiing in Japan
Whether you decide to go all the way to Hokkaido for your skiing holiday or stay in Honshu, the main island of Japan, you will have a lot of fun. Winter in Japan is one of the most incredible seasons which is often overlooked by tourists.
Japan has a lot of snow in the mountains, and they know how to take advantage of their powder. You can find very good slopes all around the country. Most people tend to go to Niseko or Hakuba. We recommend staying in a traditional ryokan so, after a full day of skiing, you can go chill in an onsen.
Take picture of the Snow Monkeys in Nagano
Visiting the Snow Monkey Park in Japan was such an incredible experience for us as this has been on our bucket list for a very long time. Not going to lie, it's best to allocate a couple of days for this and stay in a ryokan in Yudanaka.
To get to the Snow Monkey Park, you have to take a train from Tokyo to Nagano, then change for another local train towards Yudanaka. From there, take a local bus which will drop you off in front of the trail to the park. The trail itself will take you through an ancient forest and will definitely impress you, especially if you happen to visit during the Autumn.
Once you get to the park, you can take beautiful pictures of the Snow Monkeys bathing in the onsen.
Get lost in a shopping mall
This is one of the best things to do in Tokyo if you love a bit of a shopping adventure. We love shopping with a purpose, but Japan has these incredible multi-story malls where you can get truly lost in a new world of products.
Shops in Japan are incredibly clean and welcoming, with products perfectly aligned and arranged. Even buying something as banal as bananas it's a truly exciting shopping experience. We entered Loft, a shopping store in Osaka, and left several hours later. We discovered all sort of cute notebooks, face masks, stationery items and gifts. You might think you are going in for one small item, but it's so easy to come out with bags full of goodies.
Visit the kawaii land in Harajuku
Since we are talking about cute products, this is the best time to mention Harajuku. Harajuku is known to be the mecca for kawaii items, but beyond clothes and accessories, you can now purchase colourful cotton candy and rainbow shakes.
Harajuku is all about cute and colourful. We initially thought it will be a tacky place, but ten minutes later we fell in love with the place. It's not your conventional Japan, where everyone dresses in neutral colours, ready for work. Harajuku is a youthful place, where people celebrate their emotions through an array of colours, sounds and crazy tastes.
Stay in a capsule hotel
Tokyo has a huge space problem and to address this issue, creative businesses came up with the idea of a capsule hotel. Their main target audience is businessmen who need a quick and easy place to sleep. They are cheaper than other traditional hotels and they are more comfortable than a hostel due to the fact that you still have your privacy and don't have to share a room with other people. The capsules are small but comfortable and are well equipped with an alarm clock and wifi.
Some capsule hotels offer public baths with hot springs and very clean bathrooms. It may not be for everyone, but it's definitely an experience while you visit Japan.
Go hiking in nature
One of the most mesmerising things about Japan is that everything has a bit of nature around. Even Tokyo, a mega-metropolis which many consider a true concrete jungle, has so many gardens and green spaces. Less than an hour away from any major city, you can find yourself in the most serene natural spaces you can possibly imagine. Think landscape gardens, beautiful mountains or even endless fields of flowers. Japan truly has it all.
We wanted to experience hiking in Japan, so we took a day trip from Kyoto and hiked Mount Hiei. To those of you who have followed our adventures for a while, you may recall that Mount Hiei is very special to us, as that's where we got engaged.
Visit Nikko's secret waterfalls
Visiting Nikko has long been on our wishlist and we wanted to experience the area beyond the main attractions. We got a guide and we travelled all the top to the top of the mountains, hiked and experienced a beautiful onsen right in the middle of the forest.
Nikko is famed for its myriad waterfalls, all easily accessible by bus or short walks. We didn't think we will fall in love with the area but we did and it remains one of the best places in Japan, where we enjoyed the true beauty of Japan's secret landscapes.
Order Tonkatsu for lunch
There is no secret that one of the best things to do in Japan is to eat your way around the country. Every single area has its own cuisine, which means you can never get bored with the various food you'll eat. During our time in Japan, we found many restaurants we loved and became loyal customers, but there is one which still comes up in conversation when we talk about Japan with friends and family.
In the main Tokyo Train Station, head to the Tonkatsu Maisen Tokyo Daimaru but make sure to avoid the busy lunch hours. You will be rewarded with the best Tonkatsu set ever. Things to know about Tonkatsu: the miso, tea, rice and cabbage are all refillable so you are guaranteed to eat enough and leave the place satisfied.
Taste milky ramen
A bit strange? Perhaps, but it's also one of the most interesting Japanese ramens we tried during our time in Japan. There is a special ramen shop in Himeji called Koba&more which sells this very interesting broth. Koba&more has a very friendly and fun Japanese owner who is super happy to talk to tourists and explain a few things about his ramen bar.
We had fun learning about his ideas behind the milky ramen and how he came up with it. You will find a lot of interesting trinkets in his bar, and awesome pictures from various people. It's a unique experience, so if you find yourself in Himeji, don't forget to try this unusual ramen as well.
Explore Asia's largest red district
More of the Tokyo adult guide series, Kabukicho is located in Shinjuku and it is Asia's largest red district. Because we care about your safety, we strongly recommend that you walk around and admire the locations but stay away from these establishments. One quick search and you'll realise that a lot of foreigners are being taken advantage of around here as some of these bars are run by the local mafia.
So in order to still enjoy your holiday, it's best to just meander around. Kabukicho is a fascinating place with hostess bars and adult-only entertainment. You will also find some restaurants in the area, but most of them are not authentic so we also recommend just watching but not touching. Overall, Kabukicho is an experience, but always be cautious and avoid going pub crawling in this area without a trustworthy guide.
Chill in paradise
Did you know Japan has tropical islands in the East China Sea? Fly to the Okinawa Islands and the Ryukyu (Nansei) Islands of Japan and immerse yourself in some of the most amazing relaxing activities. Dive and see the beautiful coral reefs, hike in the lush subtropical jungles or simply lie on the beach and enjoy paradise.
Few know that these pristine islands have their own climate and special fauna. Okinawa also has its own cuisine which is different than the rest of Japan. In general, Okinawa is known for its longevity, which is deeply connected with the local's social life, happiness, stress-free atmosphere and delicious food available on the islands.
Go electric in Akihabara
Akihabara, also known as the Electric Town, it's an excellent place for manga and anime lovers. Akihabara was once the place where people went to buy electronic items, but it eventually evolved into a geeky hub.
Akihabara is also known for its sex shops and maid cafes. M's is the most well known one sex shop in Tokyo where many foreigners also visit. There are several girls dressed as lolitas waiting to sell you on the idea of a maid cafe experience.
Another fun thing we recommend in Akihabara is to go around Don Quijote, a super cool store which sells everything you can imagine from skin care, through cosmetics to budget household items.
Go on a shrine hike
There are several treks in Japan which pilgrims have been walking for centuries. Expect shrines, mists, forest and waterfalls which will make an enchanting spiritual journey around Japan.
Kumano Kodō is a series of ancient pilgrimage routes which are perfect for couples as well as solo travellers looking to commit to Japan's sacred trails. These routes are now UNESCO World Heritage and are part of the "Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range".
When embarking on a spiritual hike, ensure you familiarise yourself to the Japanese manners and etiquette.
Part-take in Japan's Narnia
A quick Hokkaido itinerary will show you that the Northern Island of Japan can be easily mistaken for Narnia. Full of snow and home to various ski slopes, the capital city, Sapporo is also home to the winter festival. The winter festival is a famed matsuri where various artists come together to create incredible sculptures from ice. Some of them are huge and incredible and they all have various lights shows on them to further capture your imagination.
The winter festival is officially known as the Sapporo Snow Festival usually starts at the very end of January and lasts for just under 2 weeks, until mid-February.
Get lost in a world of sushi
Sushi is associated with Japan so naturally, you should expect to sample the world's best sushi in a dedicated sushi bar. The first time we tasted sushi in Japan, we realised how fresh and delicious it really was. The right amount of rice and the combination with the fish is simply incredible.
The fish should touch your tongue first, and in combination with the rice, the whole sushi should melt in your mouth. You can eat sushi with your hands, but you can only eat sashimi with chopsticks. You should never dip the rice in soy sauce, but the fish only to give it a better taste. If you wish to add wasabi, simply put a little bit between the fish and sushi rice.
You can take your sushi with tea or sake, whichever you prefer. Sushi was one of the best food to try in Kyoto for us but it was also an amazing experience in one of the fancier restaurants in Ginza.
Be there for the matsuri
Since we are talking about festivals in Japan, you will be excited to know that there are lots of matsuri year-round top keep you occupied. Festivals in Japan bring local vendors together which all sell delicious street food.
There are various festivals during the Springtime, especially around the Golden Week. If you decide to visit Japan during Golden Week, remember that ti can get really busy as many people have the week off from work. Summer has an array of amazing festivals as well, some of which are of Buddhist origin as well.
Visit Lake Biei
One of the most beautiful places in Hokkaido is Lake Biei, with its absolutely beautiful blue waters. You might know the location based on your Apple desktop image which made it even more famous. It really is an incredible place for photography irrespective of the weather.
Lake Biei is a man-made pond also known as the Blue Pond. It's known for its beautiful reflection. Winter is our favourite time to visit the Blue Pond because of the way the water freezes in parts. It looks even more stunning if you manage to capture it during a snowy day. Although the Blue Pond looks stunning in pictures, note that it is quite a busy attractions. You can get a bus tour and get to the Blue Pond in a group, or renting a car and driving from Sapporo.
Sample King Crap in Hokkaido
Hokkaido is not just about ski slopes, beautiful ponds and snow festivals, but it's known for its unique cuisine as well. The Kegani or horsehair crab is the most common in Hokkaido. The best season for having it is from April-August and November-December. Tarabagani or King Crab is the most expensive Hokkaido crab and its season is between September - January.
There are various food festivals held around Hokkaido, some of which are about celebrating crab-based dishes.
Go crazy on the pancakes
Do you remember we told you about those crazy Harajuku pancakes? Well, there are myriad stands which sell cone-shaped thin pancakes filled with cream and all sort of delicious goodies. They are amazing and you can pick your filling as you want. Beyond crazy pancakes, you can also sit down in one of the many restaurants in Harajuku and order cute pancakes with cute drawings on them.
If you don't want to wait in Harajuku for the crazy pancakes, you can always grab yours from Akihabara train station. They have less variety on offer, but the queues are much smaller. Good to know that you can also grab crazy pancakes filled with savoury ingredients.
Create your own delicate sweet
Wagashi are traditional Japanese confections, usually served with tea. They are made from mochi, anko and fruits. They look stunning and taste absolutely delicious. You can learn how to create them if you go to a wagashi class in Japan.
A box of wagashi is usually quite expensive and it makes a beautiful present for when you visit someone's home in Japan. To best savour wagashi, you should have them with Japanese green tea.
When you go to the Japanese tea ceremony, you will be served wagashi. Major cities all offer wagashi making experiences.
Take the shinkansen
We are sure you heard of the mighty high-speed Japanese train called shinkansen. Travelling with the shinkansen is one of the coolest things to do in Japan. These high-speed trains take you from Tokyo to Kyoto in less than 3 hours. You can cross the whole of Honshu by using Shinkansen trains. For example, from Hakodate, you can reach Kagoshima in less than 13 hours (2000 km). They are silent, extremely clean and very fast. Not just that, they are also reliable and on time.
We travelled extensively around Japan and bought a JR Pass to be able to travel hassle-free around the country. We first travelled from Tokyo to Nagano, then Tokyo to Kyoto, Kyoto to Osaka, Himeji Castle, Nara and beyond. These trips would have cost us thousands of pounds but we only paid for the JR Pass before our arrival in the country.
Explore Japan at night
Japan at night is a completely different experience than anything you can imagine. What seems calm and zen during the day, becomes an electric movement of noise and colours. In Tokyo, everything lures you in, from jumbo ads to moving posters. For photography lovers, Japan at night is perhaps the most appealing.
You don't have to be in the capital to experience everything crazy, every single city has its own unique street full of entertainment. You won't even want to blink, it will be so exciting to look at.
Buy your hot tea from a vending machine
The beauty of Japan is that you can find vending machines everywhere. Even on top of the Fushimi Inari Shrine you can stop at the vending machine and buy a refreshing tea. Vending machines are so widely spread in Japan, you can buy pretty much everywhere nowadays, including baby formula, bananas, soups, ice creams, hot and cold beverages. They are easy, convenient and well priced.
When getting something at a vending machine, make sure you remember not to eat or drink in the street in Japan. It is considered dirty to do so, hence why everyone consumes their purchases on the spot. You will notice there are no bins in Japan because everyone is expected to take their own waste at home. The only place where you can find bins is next to a vending machine. That's because you should purchase your drink, enjoy it then and there and discard of the bottle in the bins provided.
View the perfect spot for cherry blossom
Did you know the government of Japan named Yoshino as the best cherry blossom spot in the country? We went to Yoshino to check it out and we can now understand why it became so famous amongst locals. Yoshino is a little town in the Yoshino Mountains in the Nara Prefecture.
We recommend spending at least one day exploring the area. During the cherry blossom, it gets quite busy, but if you decide to spend the night, you will see that after dark, most tourists leave and the whole place becomes calm and inviting. During April time there is quite a lot of fog forming from the mountains, so can take a lot of really beautiful pictures. During full sakura bloom, the mountains look as if they float.
The streets of Yoshino are lined with all sort of vendors selling street food and local souvenirs. We recommend trying the sakura delicacies.
See the million dollar view at night
Japan has a million dollar view. Well, in our opinion, all views in Japan are worth a million dollar, but this particular spot in Kobe is a well known romantic dating spot. It is also one of the top three-night view spots in Japan located on top of Mount Rokko. You can see the beautiful cities of Kobe and Osaka from there.
Most people go and visit Kobe because of the famed Kobe beef. Now you have yet another reason to visit this lesser-known city, which offers wonderful hiking opportunities and one of the coolest views in the country.
This name "Million Dollar View" was given when the number of lights in Kobe visible from the platform numbered just under 5 million, and the monthly cost to keep them lit was roughly equivalent to one million dollars at the time the rate was calculated.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Arashiyama Bamboo forest is definitely one of the top things to do in Japan. It attracts countless visitors a year and rightfully so, as the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is one of the most surreal locations close to Kyoto. Located just a few train stops away from Kyoto City Centre, the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is a winding path lined with tall bamboo trees.
During winter, the path gets illuminated after 5 pm so you can experience a new and interesting world at night. There is a lot more to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest than meets the eye as most people go to the see the forested path itself. But beyond it, there are various shrines and temples awaiting to be discovered. About one hour walk away from the main path, there is one of the best Kyoto temples called Otagi Nenbutsu-ji.
Grab a bento box
Bento is a single portion meal common in Japan. A bento holds rice or noddles, fish or meat and pickled vegetables. They are held in a box, hence the reason why it's called a bento box.
Bentos can be elaborately arranged in a style called "kyaraben" ("character bento"). It is popular for kids who go to school to have a bento box and most train stations will have shops where you can buy a bento box for the journey.
Some restaurants sell bento boxes as their main dish and they are usually beautifully arranged. In Japan is not unusual to see bento contests where bento arrangers compete with one another on the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements.
See a game of Sumo
Japan's national sport is Sumo and it a form of competitive full-contact wrestling. Japan is the only country where sumo is practised professionally and it is a type of Japanese martial art. You will find that many ancient traditions have been preserved in sumo and even today, the sport includes a lot of ritual elements present in Shinto.
You can either purchase tickets to see a game of Sumo in advance, or you can get tickets to see a Sumo practice in the morning. You can find various Sumo stabled in Tokyo willing to accept foreigners with a guide to just sit quietly and observe the game.
Tickets usually run out quickly so if you wish to see Sumo wrestlers during their practice in the morning, you can click here to book your tour.
Stay in a Ryokan
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. They are usually made of wood and have tatami floors. Most ryokans include breakfast and dinner in the price of the stay and some come with beautiful onsen facilities where you can enjoy a perfect wellness weekend.
Ryokans tend to be expensive so we recommend booking yours in advance. Ryokan existed since the 8th century AD during the Keiun period. Ryokan are difficult to find in Tokyo or other large cities because they are quite expensive in comparison to other modern hotels. Outside in the country, you can find various ryokan suitable for all budget. One night can be as little as £30.
Choose an omikuji
When you visit a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple in Japan in exchange for a small offering (normally a 5 yen coin which is considered lucky) you can pick a random fortune written on a white strip of paper. The fortune you picked can be good or bad. At larger shrines, the fortunes are also translated to English or you can find the English translations separately.
The fortunes vary from great blessing through small blessing to curse and great curse and also contain references to specific aspects of one’s life in many combinations. (See Wikipedia for the complete list of Omikuji fortunes). If you had a bad prediction, you should fold up the paper and attach it to a pine tree or wall - there is normally one right next to the shrine alongside other bad fortunes. Make sure to not take the bad fortune with you. This way, the bad fortune will be forced to wait by the tree or wall and won’t attach itself to the bearer. If the prediction is good, you can also tie ot the tree or wall so the blessing has a greater effect or you can just simply keep it and take it with you for luck.
Take a night train
Did you know the night trains are a special part of Japan's train services? The only night trains in operation are the Sunrise Seto/Izumo, the Seven Stars, the JR East luxury cruise train and JR West Twilight Express Mizukaze.
To take a night train you need to book in advance and usually in person or on the phone. There is no way to reserve night seats online. Usually, these seats can be reserved 30 days in advance so it is relatively difficult to do so for foreigners. The night trains have different types of seats depending on the train as well. Usually, you will find a carpeted area where you can just lie down and sleep. There are some shared and private compartments and some even offer luxury options for their guests. If you wish to use the showers on board, make sure you book it as soon as you get on the train as they usually get full pretty fast.
You can take the overnight train from Tokyo to Takamatsu or Izumo for a special and unique experience in Japan.
Street food in Japan
Japan is one of the best Asian countries to visit if you are after good and cheap street food. Each area has its own specialities and the available options are limitless. If you are new to Japan, start with the basics. At market streets, you will find hundreds of sellers offering all sorts of delicacies on a stick. These delicious street foods range from octopus (takotamago) which is a small octopus served on a stick, with a cooked egg in its head, to sweets like dango - sweet rice dumpling usually served with a sticky sauce.
Leaving behind the market street you might come across the crazy fashion of Harajuku. You are in the right place for some crazy pancakes or colourful cotton candy. Don’t be shy! You won’t find these made to perfection sweets anywhere else.
Need a drink? Head to the nearest vending machine and pick from a large selection of hot or cold drinks, beers, teas, coffees and juices. Please drink your beverage next to the machine and dispose of the can or bottle in the bin provided. No walking with food or drink in Japan.
Find the message in the stars
Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival, is a Japanese festival originating from the Chinese Qixi Festival. The festival celebrates the meeting of two deities: Orihime and Hikoboshi. Story has it that the Milky Way separated these lovers and they are only allowed to meet once every year, on the 7th day, of the 7th lunar month of the lunisolar calendar.
People in Japan celebrate this day by writing their own wishes on small pieces of paper and hanging them on bamboo like a Wish Tree. The bamboo is then set afloat on the river or burnt after the festival. It's a similar practice at the Obon. In 2018, the Tanabata was on the 17th of August. Here are the upcoming dates so you can mark it on your calendar.
2019: August 7th
2020: August 25th
2021: August 14th
2022: August 4th
Boat around the city
One of the most romantic things to do in Japan is to get on a boat and explore the city via its canals. This is very common during the sakura season when you can have a romantic date. Hozugawa River Cruises are popular rides from Kameoka to Arashiyama. They tend to get quite busy during the Spring, hence we recommend them during the Autumn when the leaves change colours and the valleys look colourful and stunning.
If you feel adventurous, you can also get a cruise around Japan. It's not the cheapest way around the country, but boat rides in Japan are pretty fun. Ferries can have communal bathhouses, dining halls and even karaoke rooms for entertainment.
In Tokyo, you can enjoy private dinners on a boat on the Sumida River. Some of the shops are water buses and continue to gain popularity among locals and tourists alike.
Order a Kaiseki Kyoto meal
Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course dinner. The word Kaiseki refers to the collection of skills to allow of preparation of such meals. It's similar to the idea of a multi-course dinner in a Michelin Restaurant.
Kaiseki is the perfect balance of taste, texture, appearances and colours. It's meant to contain only the finest and freshest ingredients, hence the menu changes depending on the season. Kaiseki has a Sakizuke or an appetizer, a second course which usually sets the seasonal theme and a sliced dish of seasonal sashimi. Then you will get vegetables served with meat, fish or tofu, a type of soup and a flamed grilled food. The chef will provide you with a small dish to cleanse the palate followed by a substantial dish with rice and seasonal pickled vegetables. You will finish off with a miso served with rice and of course the seasonal dessert.
Most ryokan offer the option to get a kaiseki dinner. Some fine restaurants can be booked in advance for a traditional kaiseki experience, especially around the Kansai area.
Enjoy outdoors art
Everything in Japan looks like art, but Hakone was the first to introduce the idea of an open-air museum. It has collected arts from Picasso, Henry Moore, Taro Okamoto, Yasuo Mizui, Churyo Sato, and many others, featuring over a thousand sculptures and works of art.
Another way to enjoy art in Japan is to meander around traditional streets in places as such as Kyoto and admire the Japanese landscapes. The Japanese know how to build their spaces as extensions of their cultures and values.
What is more, is that in Japan a building cannot be in a place, without the place being part of the building. One quick stroll around Tokyo and you will notice even the smallest details belong somehow. The whole of Japan is an outdoor museum waiting to be discovered.
Buy souvenirs around Asakusa
Asakusa is one of our favourite places for buying souvenirs in Japan. We spent a whole day going from shop to shop in search of various Japanese items to buy for our friends and families.
Asakusa is known for its street dotted with shops which sell items for the food industry. You can purchase very well priced ramen bowls, small kitchen tools and unique Japanse items which make a really beautiful present.
We found an array of interesting items including chopsticks and chopsticks holders, teapots and special sake cups as well as traditional norens.
Visit Toyama for firefly squid
Starting in March a spectacular light show welcomes tourists and fishermen in the bay of Toyama. If you are staying in Tokyo, take the shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Toyama Station (in the city centre) and make your way to the bay on the Toyama Light-Rail towards Iwasehama Station. The trip to Toyama is around 3 and a half hours and costs 13000yen ($115) or free with your JR Pass. Check online for boat tours which can take you out to the bay so you can marvel at this spectacle right where it happens. It is important to go at night (early morning) so it’s dark enough for you to see the lights. The excursions normally leave at around 3 am in the morning. Be sure to reserve your seat early.
So what is this all about? In Toyama Bay, every year between March and June, tens of thousands of bioluminescent firefly squid appear from the deep ocean putting up a marvellous blue light show, one of the rare and beautiful spectacles of this planet.
You can learn about this magical event in the Hotaru Ika Museum (Namerikawa city, right next door to Toyama) via interactive exhibits. The museum also has a firefly squid themed gift-shop so you don’t have to leave empty-handed.
See a traditional wedding
Traditional Shinto wedding ceremonies are still performed although Christians weddings become more popular in post-war Japan. The wedding ceremony is held in the main building of a shrine where the bride wears a pure white kimono or a colourful or black and patterned outer robe and the groom a black crested haori jacket with loose, skirt-like hakama with vertical stripes. The couple take three sips each from three cups of sake during the ritual after the priest announces their marriage to the spirits or gods and asks for their blessing.
Occasionally, you can witness a traditional Japanese wedding in the larger shrines around Japan most notably in Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. If you see a wedding, please be respectful and do not disturb the ceremony.
Sample a white strawberry
White strawberries have been invented in Japan and quickly become part of the ever-growing luxury fruit market. If you haven’t heard about this before here is a quick intro: Japan is obsessed by expensive, carefully cultivated fruits. You can find anything ranging from square melons to beautifully wrapped mangoes each costing a small fortune to purchase.
As fruit considered to be a luxury item and it plays an integral part in many Japanese rituals and traditional practices. Fruit is also given as a gift to family, friends, work colleagues for special occasions and it shows respect. The more important the person who receives the gift, the more special and expensive the fruit.
To give you an idea on how much these fruits cost, a bunch of grapes were sold for $9700, bringing the value of each grape to $320, or the Bijin-hime (beautiful princess) tennis ball sized strawberries were sold for $4395 each - but the grower only made 500 of them.
If you are in Tokyo, look for the bottom floor of large department stores. This is normally where the food section is and that’s where you will also find the luxury food items. The prices will be lower than the above record holders but still, you will have to dig deep into your pockets to be able to sample these special delicacies.
Photograph all four seasons in Japan
Japan is beautiful all year round and each season has its own charm. Photographers from all around the world come to Japan during all seasons to capture its beauty. We visited Japan during all four seasons and we can assure you there is no bad time to visit this gorgeous country. Winter is enchanting with its fluffy snow covering traditional villages. Snow it's also incredible for skiing enthusiasts who love a little bit of adventure. Spring is a time of celebration where every single Japapense looks forward to the sakura season, the Golden Week and the beginning of the festivals.
Summer is humid in Japan with short showers. It's the perfect time to visit Japan's beaches and escape towards the subtropical islands of Okinawa. Fall is gorgeous everywhere with its ruby leaves and misty mornings. No matter when you decide to photograph Japan, we can assure you that you will want to come back over and over, to discover what the rest of the seasons truly look like in this enchanting land of the rising sun.
See how samurai swords are made
If you ever watched samurai movies, you probably wondered, how those beautifully crafted swords are made. Japanese swords were forged as early as 900 CE in ancient Japan and were treated as a symbol of authority. They are still made today although the techniques improved throughout the decades. The most known type of Japanese swords are called katana, these are the long, around 60cm (24in) or longer swords. The technique used to make the swords is unique to Japan and is also used to make other types of blades.
There are many tours where you can witness the ancient process of making the katana swords. The shortest ones give you a general overview on how the blade is forged and last for a few hours while the longer ones can take up to 9 hours and the tour takes you to a journey through time and history while visiting important temples, gardens and of course the swordsmith.