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. Here are ten experiences not to miss in Japan.
1. Visit Japan’s bustling capital
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 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. Visitors are required to leave bags in a secure locker at the entrance whilst exploring the museum.
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. Shopping in Tokyo
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 the early nineties 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 music still on vinyl.
3. Alpine rides in Hakone
If you’re looking for a serene escape from the capital, Hakone has everything you could ask for in regional Japan: stunning views of Mt Fuji, lake-style activities such as sightseeing cruises, hot-spring towns, historic sites, galleries and museums.
Perhaps the most notable is the Hakone Open Air Museum, situated on a green hilltop where you can wander through the gardens and admire more than 100 sculptures by the likes of Joan Miró, Henry Moore and Rodin.
Getting around Hakone is not an adventure for the faint-of-heart. You’ll need to take the Hakone Tozan Railway, Japan’s only mountain railway. This jaw-dropping ride takes passengers from the main Hakone-Yumoto Station (about 108 metres above sea level) up into the mountainside of Hakone (the final stop is 553 metres above sea level), with a few stomach-turning switchbacks along the way.
Due to its close proximity, Hakone is one of Japan’s most popular destinations and therefore attracts residents and tourists alike. Beat the crowds and plan a mid-week visit instead – you may even be able to get cheaper hotel rates. Before you set off, pick up a leaflet from the tourist centre in Tokyo which covers transportation options in the Hakone area, as well as a sightseeing map.
4. Geisha’s in Kyoto
The city of Kyoto epitomises the old-new cultural paradox of modern Japan. On the one hand, Kyoto is the corporate headquarters of Nintendo; on the other, it’s the thriving mecca of traditional Japanese crafts.
Kyoto is the heart of Japan’s geisha world. These highly skilled entertainers can usually be found at special events and private dinners, often demonstrating the art of traditional Japanese dance. There are several companies that offer private tours with the geisha, where you dine and interact freely with them at a restaurant. However, these can often be at the higher end of a travellers budget.
If you happen to be in the district of Gion of an evening, you might even be lucky enough to catch sight of a geisha or two passing by, dressed in their striking kimonos. Look out for the geisha’s hair ornaments, which are chosen depending on the season, in celebration of nature.
Don’t leave Kyoto without catching some Instagram-worthy snaps of the old-style houses (machiya), or sampling an exquisite treat or two from one of the many sweet shops, including the French-inspired, traditional meets modern patisserie, Gion Sakai.
5. Bullet trains in Osaka
For a chance to marvel at Japan’s triumph of technology, it’s worth catching one of their famous bullet trains (Shinkansen) from Kyoto 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 cost, time and efficiency.
The trip to Shin-Osaka Station on the Tokaido Shinkansen line takes about 12 minutes, barely enough time to get comfortable in your seat. You’ll be astounded by how quiet and smooth the ride is – especially when you consider that it’s travelling at up to 285km an hour. In other encouraging news, Shinkansen operators proudly state that no passengers have suffered fatalities or injuries on board since the network launched in 1964.
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.
6. Himeji castle
Travelling further west towards Hiroshima along the southern coast of Honshu, it’s worth finding time to explore 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.
Travel 30 miles west of Himeji to the cosmopolitan city of Kobe, conveniently accessible by foot from the main train stations. Wander the streets of Kitano-cho in the old colonial quarter, home to vintage boutiques, tea shops and clapboard houses. Another highlight is the Shin-Kobe Ropeway, which offers spectacular views of the city as it lifts passengers up the slopes of Mount Rokko.
Hiroshima will be forever remembered for the nuclear attack it suffered in 1945. Of course, there is much more to the city, but unquestionably the two most moving and unmissable symbols of Hiroshima are the World Heritages sites of Genbaku Dome and Miyajima Island’s Itsukushima Shrine, with its famous Great Torii Gate jutting dramatically out to sea.
To brush up on your history, pay a visit to the Peace Memorial Museum, which exhibits a collection of salvaged items from the bomb site, including photographs and personal items such as clothing.
Beyond the sad part of history associated with Hiroshima, lies a vibrant laid back city surrounded by natural beauty from the inland sea to the Chugoku Mountain’s. Lift your spirits by spending an hour wandering the grounds of the Shukkei-en Garden, an immaculate haven of peace and beauty.
8. Skiing in Hokkaido
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.
9. 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.
Once your skin is suitably soft and silky, head to the northern coastal city of Fukuoka for its famous ramen, its man-made beach parks and its futuristic architecture.
10. Pilgrimage to Shikoku
The smallest and least populated of the 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.