Best things to do in Japan
Are you planning to visit Japan? If so, we’ve got all the must-dos for you to get the most from your adventure with these exciting activities.
Must do in Japan: From cities to skiing and everything in between
Whether you seek adventure, cultural experiences, shopping or enlightenment, Japan has something to offer every type of traveller. This fascinating archipelago of volcanic islands is like no other place you’ve visited, where ancient temples sit side by side with neon lit streets. The trick is to sample all Japan has to offer – from the weird and wacky to the humble and serene. We’ve compiled some of the best experiences of them all. Below are the top 10 experiences not to miss in Japan.
Fun things to do in Japan
1. Visit Japan’s bustling capital
When it comes to searching for things to do in Tokyo, the options are endless! Every imaginable urban adventure is found in Tokyo, from luxury shopping and Michelin-starred restaurants (the city has more three-star restaurants than anywhere else in the world) to capsule hotels and vending machines serving up hot noodles.
If you’re wondering what to do in Tokyo, you’ll be overjoyed with the great number of options. If it’s culture and education that you’re after, then it’s time to head north to Ueno. If you happen to be around in early April then you won’t want to miss Ueno Park’s cherry blossoms, which line the street leading towards the Tokyo National Museum in spectacular fashion. The museum is well worth a visit with its collection of artefacts from Japan’s rich history, including samurai swords and beautifully embroidered kimonos.
Not far east of Ueno, just across the Sumida River, is the Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium, the ultimate place to catch a legendary sumo tournament. There’s only one catch: it has to be sumo season! Tournaments run for two weeks at a time in January, May and September. For the full schedule, and plenty more sumo-related information, visit the sumo website.
2. Explore world class shopping in Tokyo.
When it comes to shopping in Japan, Tokyo really has it all. Even if shopping at Hugo Boss isn’t on the cards, an hour spent meandering the boulevard of Omotesando in the affluent Aoyama shopping district of Tokyo will reveal a street-long showcase of luxury merchandising, contemporary architectural marvels and fantastic people-watching.
Directly adjacent to the high-end glamour of Aoyama is the younger, cooler Harajuku district, a name that shot to international acclaim in early 2000 with the release of pop singer Gwen Stefani’s song “Harajuku Girls”. Here, experimental street fashion rules, and colour-clashes, quirky vintage and cosplay (costume play) are the order of the day.
Speaking of all things cool, hipsters in the know congregate at fashionable Shimokitazawa, a small neighbourhood just west of Shibuya, comprising of undersized laneways littered with vintage clothing shops, artisan wares, stylish cafés, bars, theatres, live music venues and art house cinemas – such as the creatively named Tollywood Short Film Theater. In Shimokitazawa, known colloquially as Shimokita, you’ll find cutesy doughnuts with iced cartoon faces, vintage couture and vinyl records.
3. Ride the Japan bullet train to Osaka
For a chance to marvel at Japan’s triumph of technology, it’s worth catching one of their famous bullet trains (Shinkansen) to Japan’s third largest city, Osaka. The Shinkansen network of high-speed rail beats most other modes of transport across Japan in terms of comfort, time and efficiency.
You’ll be astounded by how quiet and smooth a ride on the bullet train can feel – especially when you consider that it’s travelling at up to 285km an hour.
Once in Osaka, there’s plenty to keep you busy. Highlights include shopping in the Umeda area, a trip to Universal Studios Japan, or a visit to the remarkable Osaka Aquarium – one of the largest and most impressive in the world.
Don’t leave the city without immersing yourself into the food culture in Dotonbori, where you’re likely to hear the common local phrase ‘Kuidarore’, meaning ‘eat till you drop’. The neon-laden area has a futuristic feel with its masses of lights and illuminated mechanical signs – look out for the famous running man! It is packed with tempting culinary choices to suit every budget.
Delve into Japanese culture
4. Visit the Japan Onsen pools in Kyushu
The third-largest island by size, Kyushu is at the most south-western end of Japan. Here you’ll find some spectacular hikes across volcanic craters, tropical green coastlines, and some of Japan’s finest surf spots.
Travelling south towards the centre of the island, you’ll discover one of those textbook Japanese experiences, the hot-spring resort. Kurokawa Onsen is a town laden with hot-spring baths, or ‘onsen’.
There’s a handy website listing which onsen includes inn accommodation and offers English-speaking staff.
Popular choices on the island include the Ureshino Onsen in Saga, a serene setting surrounded by tea plantations; and the Unzen Onsen in Nagasaki, which is located at the foot of a mountain and also goes by the nickname ‘jigoku’, meaning ‘hell’, due to the billowing smoke flowing out of the rocks.
5. Head over to Himeji castle
If you’re travelling between Osaka and Hiroshima, it’s well worth a stop over at Himeji’s beautiful hilltop castle. Apart from its awe-inspiring size and sparkling white appearance, Himeji Castle is remarkable in that it’s one of only 12 original castles in Japan, a 17th-century masterpiece and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The building has miraculously been standing for over 400 years, surviving both earthquakes and bomb raids. Unsurprisingly, the locals have immense pride for the castle, which has become somewhat of a national treasure.
You can stop off in Himeji on the Shinkansen route and take a short walk to the castle from the train station. Plan an early trip to avoid the long ticket queues when you arrive. For even more spectacular views, visit in spring when the soft pink cherry blossoms cascade over the castle walls.
6. Take part in a Shikoku pilgrimage
The smallest and least populated of Japan's big four islands is Shikoku. Its claim to fame, apart from some fantastic udon, is Shikoku Henro, the 1,200km circular pilgrimage route covering 88 temples, designed to give pilgrims ample opportunity for spiritual reflection.
If you don’t have time to visit all 88 temples yourself, pick and choose some of the more noteworthy ones, such as Zentsu-ji (no. 75), where Kōbō Daishi was born (founder of the Shingon or "True Word" school of Buddhism); or Konpira-san which requires visitors to climb 1,368 steps up Mount Zozu to reach the shrine.
If spiritual enlightenment isn’t your thing, you won’t be short of things to do on the island, which boasts rugged coastline and majestic mountain ranges enticing you to explore. Canoe along the Shimanto river which slowly meanders its way between white sand banks and lush green trees – you might even come across a local fisherman angling for river shrimp and eels.
Experience the great food in Japan
7. Lose yourself in the Tsukiji seafood market
There are few places more tantalising to seafood lovers than Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market,- a must visit during your Japan trip!. Turning over billions of dollars worth of fresh seafood each year, Tsukiji is a chaotic maze of vendors, restauranteurs and every variety of sea life imaginable.
Tsukiji isn’t all hustle and bustle, with a host of restaurants offering a quieter corner to indulge in a seafood lunch (or breakfast!).
8. Snack ‘til you drop on an izakaya tour
Japan’s answer to a casual pub or bar, izakaya roughly translates to “dine-in sake shop”. These informal eateries serve small plates like grilled meat skewers (yakitori), grilled mackerel (hokke) and soy beans (edamame) alongside a host of alcoholic drinks like sake.
You’ll see izakaya dotting the streets of Tokyo, Osaka and beyond, with office workers letting off steam at the end of the day. Enjoying at least one drink is an unwritten rule when visiting an izakaya, but you’ll find most serve non-alcoholic options too.
Take in the scenic Japan
9. Admire cherry blossoms in ancient Kyoto
The once capital of Japan, Kyoto is undoubtedly one of the prettiest places in the country to enjoy ornate temples, serene bamboo forests and sprawling gardens. Come April, Kyoto also becomes one of Japan’s most popular cherry blossom viewing spots, an ancient practice known as hanami.
Maruyama Park, Kyoto Botanical Garden and the Philosopher’s Path are some of Kyoto’s most enthralling hanami vantage points, where vibrant petals burst from bending branches to bathe the paths in pink.
10. Ski in Hokkaido
If you’re still wondering what to do in Japan, then get your ski boots on! Second only to Honshu for land mass, Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan, and is perhaps best known (in tourism terms at least) for two things: skiing and beer.
One of the most famous ski resorts in all of Japan is Niseko, and peak skiing season is from the end of December to early February. This is a number one choice for powder lovers as it seems to constantly snow in the resort, and is suited to skiers and boarders of all levels. With wide open runs and a lift system that covers 64 courses, you might not want to ski anywhere else again!
After an exhilarating day of skiing, wind down in one of the local hot spring pools to sooth and invigorate your tired muscles, whilst surrounded by a snow covered landscape.
Beer lovers, meanwhile, might savour a trip to the Sapporo Beer Museum, housed in a beautiful heritage building that was once a sugar factory.
Before you jet off to Japan, don't forget to look into some travel insurance options. Take time to check out different options, find one that covers your needs so you can explore the beauty of Japan with peace of mind. Safe travels!
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