If you’re looking for the best things to do in Japan, don’t tell me because I am about to pretty jealous of you. After 80+ countries I have come to the conclusion that Japan is my absolute favorite country to travel through.
The politeness, the sushi, the cleanliness, the temples and shrines, and just about everything in Japanese culture makes it such a wonderful place for outsiders to experience.
I’ve spent a total of two months traveling in Japan, and it’s a place I could live in and never get bored. There are just so many unique things to do in Japan it was hard to narrow this list down to just 30!
I’ve tried to mix it up the items listed across all different prefectures so there is something that everyone can enjoy in the Land of the Rising Sun. If you want to get the most out of what Japan has to offer I would recommend spending at least two weeks in the country, although you could spend ten years checking off your Japan bucket list!
Things you can ONLY do in Japan
Walk the Kumano Kodo
Kumano is an isolated, sacred site of healing and salvation. It is the Spiritual Heart of Japan and all around you can feel at peace with nature.
This spiritual origin of Japan has been a pilgrimage destination for over 1000 years. People from all levels of society would make the pilgrimage using a network of routes across the Kii Peninsula. Emperors, artisans, aristocrats, and even peasants would travel for over 30 days hubs like Osaka and Kyoto.
Those network of paths is the Kumano Kodo, which many still walk to this day. Since it was a network of trails, there is no one set trail. The Kumano Koodo is a maze of trails that travel up and down ridges, along the coast, and through old Japanese forests full of cypress and cedar trees. Scattered across the ancient network are around 3000 shrines and plenty of amazing sites.
As of 2004 three sacred sites (Kumano Sanzan, Yoshino, and Koyasan) and the routes that lead and connect to them are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Along with the Camino De Santiago in Spain, the Kumano Kodo is one of TWO UNESCO pilgrimage routes in the world.
Now pilgrims and travelers come around the world to enjoy the spirituality and tranquility of these old mountains, trails, forests, and shrines. The trail is not a camping experience, although there are a few campsites, the majority of pilgrims stay in guesthouses and ryokans along the way. It is in many ways similar to the Camino De Santiago and accommodation often comes with dinner and breakfast with the option of a packed lunch.
The Kumano Kodo trail network is in the Kii Mountain range of Japan. They are easily accessible from the towns of Kii-Katsura, Tanabe, and Shingu. The majority of the trail network lies in Wakayama Prefecture but extends into parts of the Mie and Nara Prefectures. Read all about our time on the Kumano Kodo here!
Ride a Bullet Train
With thousands of miles of track, and traveling at speeds nearing 200 miles-per-hour, riding the bullet train – or Shinkansen – is one of those things to do in Japan that you really should take advantage of. Be warned though, after a ride on one of these technological masterpieces, you’ll never be content with Amtrak again.
Since its beginning four decades ago, the trains have carried many billions of passengers; until recently, it held the world title for most passengers on a non-traditional train, until they were surpassed by the Chinese high-speed train network. To make things easy, 7, 14, and 21-day passes are available; you may choose a national pass or one of the many regional passes that are available, depending on where you plan to go. If you are planning to travel to Japan extensively you’ll save a lot of money by investing in a JR Pass before you arrive.
Attend a Sumo Tournament
Sumo is a form of competitive wrestling that originated in Japan. You may have seen sumo suits before at parties, but let me assure you that Sumo is a real sport in Japan with professional Sumo wrestlers.
One of the best things to do in Japan for a bit of excitement and culture is to attend a professional sumo wrestling tournament. I went in Tokyo at the sumo hall of Ryōgoku and had a great time watching the games.
You can also find sumo halls in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. Check the Japan Sumo Association to see if there’s a tournament going on while you’re visiting Japan.
Soak in an Onsen
Visiting a Japanese Onsen while in Japan should be at the top of your things to do in Japan list! An onsen is essentially a Japanese hot spring where visitors are separated by sex and can soak naked in the warm water, usually outside.
It’s incredibly relaxing especially during the winter months. It is also a unique cultural experience to be had. As Japan is a volcanically active country, there are thousands of onsens scattered throughout.
Don’t be shy! Everyone in an onsen is naked and no one cares. You may not wear a bathing suit in an onsen and some traditional onsens even ban tattoos so check accordingly if you have tattoos. Onsens are separated by sex and you are required to wash your body before entering and many times you will also wash afterward to remove the minerals. Watch some YouTube videos before visiting if you are concerned.
Cat Cafe it Up
Cat cafes are very popular in Japan as many Japanese cannot have animals in their home. So instead the Japanese can visit a clean cafe as being around pets can stimulate positivity and relaxation.
There are plenty of cat cafes in Tokyo to venture into, although the Japanese cat cafe is popular in any major Japanese city. Cat cafes typically cost ¥500-1000 to enter.
Once in you can enjoy the presence of the cats, but I’ve never been in any in which you can hold a cat or that sells coffees and treats like the name “cafe” implies. If you are traveling as a family try heading to a cat cafe! It’s one of the best things to do in Japan with kids.
Enjoy the Amazing Food
Japan is a land of amazing cuisine and any visitors should make it a point to try as many dishes as they can. My favorite place to grab a bite to eat is at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, which is the place to have cheap but good quality sushi.
Other great dishes are ramen, okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake), Genghis Khan, yakitori, soba, and udon. Yum! It’s all so good it needs its own blog post later down the road.
The best part about eating in Japan is it’s a pretty affordable affair. The two of us could easily go out to a decent restaurant and leave full for under ¥2000. Note that it is not customary to tip in Japan and doing so might be seen as disrespectful. See all our favorite Japanese foods here.
The cherry blossom or Sakura in Japanese is perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Japan. Every spring, the blossoming of sakura draws in thousands of people from around the world.
Kyoto is one of the top destinations tourists and Japanese alike go to view cherry blossoms. Just walking around the city, you will be filled with pink emotions everywhere.
Hit Up an Arcade
Arcades are everything in Japan, and there are plenty to stay entertained at in the Japanese cities. If you’re in the mood for loud noises, bright lights, and lots of virtual fun then heading to the arcade is one of the top things to do in Japan at night.
Here you can play all sort of games with your friends, play dress up, or use “the claw” to score a stuffed animal. The options are endless.
Enjoy a Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Japanese tea ceremony is a traditional Japanese cultural activity that involves the preparation and beautiful presentation of matcha tea. It’s a unique thing to do in Japan and will teach visitors a lot about Japanese culture.
The tea ceremony represents respect, harmony, purity, and tranquility, and as visitors, you can learn the basic concepts and ideas of a tea ceremony. The providers will demonstrate “the way of tea” in a quiet atmosphere and give you the chance to make your own matcha tea with Japanese cake!
Had enough of city sightseeing? One of my favorite things to do when I get to Japan is hit up a sake bar. Sake is a Japanese rice wine that can be served chilled, room temperature, or warm.
I love warm sake in the winter and love chilled sake in the summer. There are plenty of sake bars around Japan to pop into for a few glasses of Japanese sake. Two of my favorites are JAM +SAKE bar and Sake Bar Yoramu in Kyoto!
Things to do in Kyoto
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
The Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is easily one of the best places in Japan to visit. Lying between two temples that look like they’ve leaped from the pages of a Japanese fairy tale, the bamboo forest in Arashiyama is a mythical place that’ll make you feel like you’ve been transported to another world. Watching the towering bamboo sway and creak in the breeze as you gaze down the corridor into the forest is an awe-inspiring experience.
Bamboo has a long tradition in Japanese culture and has been used as a building material, dining implements, tools, and even clothing and hats. The area is also known for its spring cherry blossoms and the brilliant maple leaves that change in the fall. There are plenty of trails to take you through the forest and to the adjacent temples, or if you’d like to ride, bike rentals are available.
Spot a Geisha
There’s a preconceived notion that Geisha are prostitutes, and this cannot be farther from the truth. A geisha is a highly skilled and trained professional artist. She is a female entertainer performing different forms of Japanese art. To hire out a geisha for a private event is a not cheap affair and is typically done at an ochaya (tea house) or at a ryōte (Japanese restaurant). Prices typically start at 100,000 ¥ for upper geisha or maiko (apprentice).
If hiring out a geisha is not in your budget see if you can spot them around the city. Gion, in Kyoto, is the traditional geisha district in Japan and it is here that you stand the best chance of seeing one going to or from an appointment. This was our strategy in Kyoto and we ended up spotting maybe 40 or so on a Saturday night.
Rent a Kimono
One of the top things to do in Kyoto is to rent a kimono. Renting a kimono is a very popular activity for both men and women to do. Once you walk around the Gion district for the first time you will see what I mean. There are tons of tourists dressed in Kimono, don’t be fooled and mistake them for Maiko.
Kimono rental shops are very prevalent throughout Kyoto, and it’s quite trendy to rent them and grab photos in scenic spots. Most kimono rentals will rent out kimonos for the entire day, so make sure to hit all the photo spots you want on that day.
Be forewarned, wearing a kimono is not a super comfortable experience (especially the shoes), so try not to venture too far between the kimono rental shop and where you want to grab photos.
From the 8th to the 19th century, Kyoto was Japan’s capital. Though it no longer holds that distinction, it’s rich in history and home to the Kinkaku-ju Temple, or ‘Golden Temple.’ Perhaps the quintessential Zen temple, it got its name due to the two top floors which are covered in gold leaf. The temple was originally home to an aged shogun warrior who was too old for that brutal lifestyle and wanted to spend his golden years surrounded by beauty and serenity.
You’ll understand why he chose this location and style of architecture when you see it. The present building was reconstructed in the ’50s after an insane monk purportedly set fire to it. Thankfully, the damage was repaired shortly thereafter, restoring the building to its original splendor.
Visit the Tea Farms in Uji
The heart of Japanese green tea production, Uji is best visited from nearby Kyoto, which makes it a convenient day trip; you can use your rail pass if you have one. Green tea cultivation is said to have begun in Japan in the 13th century when the first seeds were brought from China and planted in Uji. It has long been known that green tea has strong antioxidants and other beneficial components found in its leaves.
Many of Uji’s green tea farms remain closed to visitors, but a few have recently lifted the veil and now offer tours. You’ll be amazed at how much care and modern science goes into cultivating this finicky plant that is becoming more and more popular the world over.
Perhaps the most famous shrine on Instagram and in Japan is Fushimi Inari-Taisha in Kyoto. This shrine is at the base of the mountain Inari and has many trails up from the bottom to the mountain. It’s definitely one of the best places to visit in Kyoto, but only at the right time.
Along the 4 kilometers walk up you’ll pass numerous smaller shrines to enjoy. Get here before 7 am to avoid the tourist buses, seriously if you get here after 9 am you’ll be with swarms of crowds. Also, don’t take all your photos at the entrance of the shine. Walk a bit until you find yourself alone to grab the best photo (that’s what we did below).
Higashiyama Jisho Ji
Higashiyama Jisho Ji, or Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), is a stunning temple in the heart of Kyoto. It’s not Silver, but it is well worthy of some exploration. The grounds surrounding the temple are stunning and everything you think of when you think about Japan. Perfectly zen and set alongside the mountains.
It costs ¥500 to enter the grounds and takes about a half hour to explore. Get here early or late as this site gets crowded come midday. You can reach Ginkakuji by foot along the Philosopher’s Path from Nanzenji in about 30-45 minutes, or ride a bike for 10 minutes along the path.
Catch Sunset at Yasaka-no-Tou
A favorite thing to do for photographers (and Instastars) is catch sunset at Yasaka no Tour. Yasaka-no-Tou is one of the most iconic sights in the Higashiyama sightseeing district.
This pagoda tours over the streets of Higashiyama and is truly a site to take in. During the day the area is busy with tourists, but show up around sunset and you might get lucky with fewer people around.
We had to wait until one hour after sunset for everyone to altogether leave and get a people free photo, but it was more than worth it. The whole area surrounding the pagoda brings you back in time.
Learn the Art of Kendo
One of the best non touristy things to do in Kyoto is try Kendo! Kendo is a traditional Japanese martial art, which descended from swordsmanship (kenjutsu) and uses bamboo swords (shinai) and protective armour (bōgu). However unlike Jujutsu or Judo, Kendo is actually not well known outside of Japan.
Despite being well known, Kendo is actually widely practiced within Japan. As a visitor it’s possible to learn the basics of Kendo in a short amount of time. We found this activity on Airbnb experiences and were so excited to try it in the oldest Dojo in Japan. (A Dojo is a typical Japanese hall where martial arts is usually practiced).
Over two hours, we learned the basics of Kendo, and even got to fight each other and our teacher. It was a unique thing to do in Kyoto, but definitely worthwhile!
Still wondering what to see in Kyoto? How about some Kabuki! Kabuki is a traditional Japanese dance-drama. It’s highly stylized, often comical, and known for the elaborate makeup worn by the performers.
I went to my first Kabuki theatre in 2013 and laughed so hard even though I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. It’s a perfect time for visitors and Japanese. .
Minami-za is the main kabuki theatre in Kyoto, Japan. Founded in 1610 it is historic and beautiful seating 1086 people.
Things to do in Nara
Located in Nara, Todai-ji – or Great Eastern Temple – is not only famous for its architecture and tranquil setting but because it houses the world’s largest bronze statue which is in the form of a Buddha. Weighing nearly 400 tons, the Buddha is adorned with over 4,000 ounces of gold. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was constructed in the 8th century and includes the largest wooden structure in the world, which is the ‘Daibutsu’ in which the great Buddha rests.
Behind the Buddha, there’s a large wooden support structure with a hole near its base. Rumor has it if you can squeeze through it you’ll find enlightenment. Though it’s relatively small, children and flexible adults have been known to get through, but no official confirmation if they’ve achieved enlightenment. It’s free to enter the grounds, but there’s a fee to enter the building where the Buddha rests.
Kiss a Deer
Only an hour away from Kyoto is the capital city of Nara Prefecture, Nara. It is well known for its temples and shrines and is a popular stop on the Japan tourist trail. It’s well worth traveling to Nara for a day or two for the temples. In addition, Japanese Deer roam through town and are seen as heavenly animals protecting the country.
There are more than 1500 deer in Nara and you’ll find vendors around selling deer crackers so that you can feed them, take a selfie, or maybe give them a kiss. Don’t worry these deer are CHILL! Nara is best seen during the fall, in my opinion, making it the best thing to do in Japan in September and October!
Climb Through Buddha’s Nostril
Tōdai-ji may be famous for the Great Buddha and, you know, for being a hugely impressive wooden building, but there’s a cool and quirky part of this temple that you need to know about.
One of the soaring wooden columns that holds the temple up has a square hole through the bottom of it. You might see a small crowd of people gathered around it. Nothing special, right?
Wrong. At just 30 x 37, the hole is said to be the same size as the Great Buddha’s nostril. Called hashirakuguri – literally “pillar passage” – the idea is to see if you can fit through the hole to the other side.
If you can make it, you get at least some enlightenment points. That’s because you’ve humbled yourself enough to try and squeeze through a tiny hole while a crowd of onlookers giggle.
Walk Amidst the Mossy Lanterns at Kasuga-Taisha
Another famous Nara attraction is Kasuga-taisha. Kasuga-taisha, or Kasuga Grand Shrine, is the principal Shinto shrine in Nara and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in the 8th century, it’s a special place to wander around, especially in the early morning or early evening.
The hundreds and hundreds of moss-covered stone lanterns here – more than 3,000 of them, actually – and the serene, ancient forest setting make for a tranquil stroll, especially at the above times (when there are fewer tourists).
In the mornings, you can also go experience the chouhai chanting ceremony, whereby the Shinto priests pray for the safety of Japanese nature and people. Interestingly, this practice started up after the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake.
Discover Traditional Nara-machi
You may be thinking Kyoto when you think “traditional wooden Japanese houses” – which isn’t necessarily un-true – but Nara has its very own machi, or ‘town’ area, that makes for a charming wander around.
Machi conjures up more of a traditional part of town than anything else, and Nara-machi is that old, charming, wooden heart of the city. You’ll find old townhouses, old storehouses (kura), as well as many that have been converted into shops, cafes, and guesthouses.
The Nara-machi Koshi no Ie is an old merchant’s house that you can actually enter and explore. It’s literally like going back in time, complete with original kitchen. There’s a gallery that you can check out too: Nara-machi Monogatari-kan.
Things to do in Kobe
Meet Tetsujin 28 Robot
The towering 59-feet-tall figure of Tetsujin 28 Robot is a symbol of strength and resilience of the city of Kōbe. The effects of the 1996 Hanshin Earthquake hit Kōbe badly, but the disaster was never going to stop the people of Kōbe.
After much rebuilding and coming together of the community, Tetsujin 28 was erected in one of the city’s parks to protect the city from further destruction. The original manga was created in 1960 by Mitsuteru Yokohama, a Kōbe local, and is the tale of a robot who helps stop baddies. The robots’ location in Wakamatsu Park was also intended to bring more tourists to an area torn apart by the earthquake.
Eat some world-famous Kōbe beef
Kōbe beef is a delicacy around the world. Fatty, well-marbled, Kōbe beef comes in various forms: teppanyaki, shabu-shabu, even as sashimi (yep, that’s raw). Kōbe beef, a registered trademark, is just one of many Japanese types of wagyu (Japanese beef).
If it’s to be called Kōbe beef, the marbling ratio has to be just so, the cattle themselves have to have been raised in Hyōgo Prefecture, plus a number of other strict guidelines for this foodie favorite.
Of course, the best place to try Kōbe beef is… in Kōbe! There are numerous places to try. Hit up Wakkoqu for various cuts cooked directly in front of you, or Wanto Burger has a diner vibe featuring Kōbe beef hamburgers. Make sure to do your research before you sit down at a restaurant, there are lots of scammers tricking you into thinking you’re getting Kobe beef when you really aren’t
Sip sake at Nada-Gogō
Still wondering what to do in Kobe? Nada-Gogō (meaning “Five Villages of Nada”) is an area that’s super famous in Japan for its sake – Japanese alcohol made from fermented rice.
Not only is this area fun to walk around, complete with wooden brewery buildings, museums, and traditional houses, but the sake tasting? Yeah, you’ve got to come here. If alcohol is your thing, then this is going to be one of the best things to do in Kōbe for you.
Three of the five villages are located within the boundaries of Kōbe City itself. These are Uozaki-gō, Mikage-gō, and Nishi-gō. This is where you’ll find the most sake breweries, where tours and tastings can be arranged. (The other villages are called Nishinomiya-gō and Imazu-gō).
Nada-Gogō is famous because it’s vast, accounting for a quarter of all sake made in Japan. Dating back around 700 years to 1330, the breweries here use famous sake-making rice called yamada nishiki. The water that flows from Mount Rokkō and mountain winds act to cool and slow the fermentation process.
Things to do in Tokyo
Koishikawa Korakuen Natural Garden
Located in the Bunkyo area of Tokyo, Koishikawa Korakuen is a traditional Japanese
Garden that was built in the early 17th century. Sporting elements of both Japanese and Chinese design, like most natural spaces in Japan, the designers did an amazing job combining components of the manmade and natural worlds into a tranquil setting that will immediately lower your blood pressure on entering the grounds.
The garden’s trees are particularly popular, especially in November and December for fall maple leaves, and the cherry blossoms which bloom in March and April.
Located in the Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, Tokyo Disneyland is one of those things to do in Japan that you won’t want to miss, especially if you’ve got little ones. The second-largest theme park in the world, it is the first Disney park built outside of the United States and was completed in 1983. Since then, it has hosted nearly 700 million guests from all over the world, who couldn’t resist this fun and popular icon of American culture.
With more rides, activities and recognizable characters than you can possibly cover in a day, your time here will fly by. During peak times, the park can be unpleasantly crowded, which means long waits for rides and activities that may make everyone edgy. If possible, plan to visit during the week or in the off-season.
At over 10,000 feet, Mount Fuji is the largest mountain in Japan and one of the most recognizable in the world. It’s no wonder that it has been revered as sacred for centuries. Though it’s still an active volcano, Mount Fuji luckily hasn’t erupted since the early 18th century. Despite the distance, on crisp, clear days, it can be seen from Tokyo.
Despite its height, it’s a relatively easy hike to the topmost vista point; the climbing season is from July to August. But it’s not an easy hike and best left to the fit. The mountain is also visible from the train from Tokyo heading toward Osaka and Kyoto, but only if there isn’t cloud cover. There are scenic lake resorts and a natural hot spring nearby, which are great starting points for you Mount Fuji adventure, and will be welcome places to return to after a day on the mountain.
Visit the World’s Tallest Tower
Officially standing just a tick over 2,000 feet, Tokyo Skytree is the tallest tower in the world, and just happens to be standing in the most populated city in the world. With different viewing areas at intervals on the tower, Mount Fuji – which is more than 80 kilometers away – can be viewed from the highpoint, if the clouds and weather cooperate.
Though its primary job is that of a communications tower, it’s also host to swanky shops, restaurants, and cafés. The observation areas are at 350 and 450 meters give panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside which are unparalleled, especially as the sun goes down. Though it was supposedly built to represent a pagoda, you may not see the similarity – but you’ll be impressed nonetheless.
Be Amazed in Akiharaba
The Akihabara district in Japan is one of great cultural interest. It’s been nicknamed Akihabara Electric Town for being a huge shopping area for electronic goods and post WW II black market goods.
Visit now and you will be blown away by the sights, noises, and shopping experience. Be prepared for plenty of video games, anime, manga, and maid cafes. I loved wandering around this district and roaming into the stores that seem to go on for 7 to 8 stories.
For a real treat head here after dark, it’s one of the best places in Japan at night.
Things to do in Hiroshima
Visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
If you only have one day in Hiroshima you should pay a visit to the Peace Memorial. For better or worse, Hiroshima is famous as being the first-ever place where an atomic weapon was used against people. It happened on the morning of August 6, 1945. In an instant, much of the city was obliterated, and 70,000 people were killed. A further 70,000 suffered fatal injuries as a result of the blast. Radiation sickness affected countless more.
There’s a Peace Memorial Museum that should definitely be at the top of your list of things to do in Hiroshima. Rather than play the blame game, the museum presents facts in harrowing detail, making sure you leave thinking, “Wow, this really should never, ever happen again.” (Though it did – in Nagasaki, three days later).
The Peace Memorial Park, in which the museum is located, is a pretty chilled place to contemplate things after a trip around the hard-hitting exhibits.
Go to the Atomic Bomb Dome
Inextricably linked to the atomic bomb blast itself is the seriously must-see Atomic Bomb Dome, or Genbaku Dome. What is it? It’s the ruins of what was Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, a western-style building designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel and built in 1915. It was used for art and educational exhibitions.
Today, ravaged by the 1945 blast, it has been left as it was to serve as a reminder of the destruction – a slice of crumbling, post-apocalyptic potential in the middle of a city working hard to forge a peaceful future.
See the Floating Torii of Itsukushima Shrine
Another of the most famous landmarks of Hiroshima has got to be this icon – the floating torii at Itsukushima. An aspect of Japanese Shinto shrines are their tori – or gates – often painted vivid vermillion, signifying a sacred place.
What’s special about the one on the island of Itsukushima (or Miyajima, as it’s more commonly known), is that it is embedded just offshore, so it appears to be floating.
The shrine itself is on a site first said to have been graced by a shrine back in 593 AD, but the current design is 16th-century. Also on stilts, at high tide, this has the pretty awesome effect of looking like a sea palace.
At low tide (the least Instagrammed side of the torii) you can see all the five-yen coins that people have wedged into every crack they can find. Locals pick through shellfish in the wet sand too. It’s a pretty cool time of day to be there.
Visit Hiroshima Castle
Hiroshima Castle is one of the great things to see in Hiroshima. Originally built in the late 16th century, Hiroshima Castle (or Carp Castle, as it’s sometimes affectionately known) may be a 1950s reconstruction, but visiting it is nevertheless one of the top things to do in Hiroshima. You can guess what destroyed the primarily wooden castle in 1945, right?
While the castle itself can be explored in museum-like fashion (which further tells the story not only of the castle’s history, but the A-bomb, too), it’s also the grounds within the castle walls that make for an interesting stroll. Cherry blossom is pretty stunning here against the castle backdrop.
Another of the city’s nature spots, it’s even home to three trees that somehow survived the blast of the atomic bomb – a eucalyptus, a willow, and a holly.
Things to do in Hokkaido
Go Shredding in Niseko
This part of Japan receives epic snow dumps making it a powder paradise. Although the slopes at Niseko are mellower than those in the Swiss Alps or North America, the snow is some kind of dry white magical fluff that between the months of December and March doesn’t seem to stop falling on the ground.
If you are a ski or snowboard enthusiast you better add Japan to your list of destinations to get to. Winters here are absolutely epic. Plus what’s better after a day of riding than hanging out in a Japanese Onsen? Read all about our time at Niseko here.
See the Lavender Fields of Furano
Furano is another fantastic little town in Hokkaido that is well known for their lavender fields that appear in the spring and summertime. The best time to see the lavender fields is in July when they are in full bloom.
Also in the area are the town of Biei and a beautiful blue pond nearby, as well as the Furano Winery and Cheese Factory.
The whole area is surrounded by the mountains and if you have your own car you can easily get out into nature and discover something new. In the winter the Furano Ski Resort is a popular place to head as they also receive epic amounts of snowfall. See the photo below which we snapped on a mid December pow day.
Have a beer at the Sapporo Beer Museum
You’ve likely heard of, or even drank Japan’s delicious Sapporo Beer. The beer Sapporo Breweries Ltd. first brew came right out of Hokkaido’s capital city and if you’re visiting Hokkaido it is obligatory to have a Sapporo beer while there. We couldn’t miss the chance to have one at the Sapporo Beer Museum, which is also one of the top things to do in Sapporo.
The museum is located just a few subway stops away from Sapporo city center and is well worth a few hours visit. Museum tours are free to the public, or if you speak Japanese you can go on a guided tour for 500 ¥ which includes a beer tasting at the end.
As foreigners, this wasn’t an option for us, but we were able to read all the signage with English translations and enjoy a tasting flight for 600 ¥ at the end!
Visit the Sapporo Snow Festival
Possibly the most famous thing about Sapporo (okay, maybe after its beer) is the Sapporo Snow Festival. Once more of a domestic affair, this huge winter festival is now truly international, attracting well over two million visitors each year.
One of the most iconic aspects of the festival are the snow sculptures in Ōdōri Park. Using around 30,000 tons of snow, the sculptures – also carved from ice – are made over the course of a month and range from fantasy castles to popular characters like Doraemon.
How did it start? Middle school students in 1950 began making sculptures out of all the snow that everyone dumped at Ōdōri Park from snow clearance. The rest is history, and today, each festival boasts over 200 sculptures from all over the world. The Sapporo Snow Fest usually runs the first two weeks of February and is one of the top things to do in Sapporo in the winter.
Take a day trip to Otaru
Just outside Sapporo itself but close enough that it makes a super convenient day trip, Otaru is a cool place to visit. With its romantic, Western-style buildings, old warehouses, and canal, it’s steeped in history.
Otaru was actually the original terminus for Hokkaido’s first railway system, so – back in the day at least – it was big news. That was also thanks to the herring industry here, which is no more. Today the Victorian-style gas lamps and the grand Western buildings of Nichigin-dori provide remnants of its glory days.
For Instagram fiends, there’s the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival; every year in mid-February, tiny snow lanterns hide candles along the canal and other areas to beautiful effect.
Things to do in Osaka
One of the greatest places of interest in Osaka is the Osaka Castle. Though Japan isn’t a country most people associate with castles, you’ll be surprised at just how many there are.
Osaka Castle is one of the country’s largest and has seen its fair share of important historical events since it was built in the 16th Century. Built by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was an integral figure in the country’s unification, the current castle is a reproduction that was completed in the 90’s because the original was totally destroyed by Allied bombers in 1945.
During World War II, the castle played a central role in Japan’s munitions industry, so became a high-priority target for aerial bombardment, but don’t worry, you’ll never know it’s not the original. You’ll still be impressed by the stalwart stone walls, moats, turrets, and architecture. There’s a fascinating and educational museum inside that will fill in all those important details too.
Japanese for “American Village,” America-Mura is a chic pocket of hipster-ridden coffee bars, shops, tattoo parlors, clubs and hotels that cater to trysts between young lovers. Though you may not think it has much in common with any town in America you’ve ever visited, it got its name after World War II, when the devastated country began the slow process of rebuilding; this area was the place to go to get American goods like t-shirts, razors, and cigarettes.
Sitting starkly in the middle of the village is a park constructed of concrete called Triangle Park, which is known as a rallying point preceding a night on the town (it’s also the dirtiest spot we’ve found in Japan – tons of litter).
There are also many bold murals – some of which have been painted by famous, contemporary Japanese artists – and there’s even a pint-size Statue of Liberty if you’re feeling homesick or just want a quirky photo to show your jealous friends back home. Though the area is fun and lively, it’s not a great place for families after the sun goes down.
Also called Nipponbashi, Den-Den Town is a shopping district in Osaka that’s famous for electronics and otaku – which is an often-derogatory term used to describe people whose interests in anime and other fetishes are borderline neurotic. The name became mainstream after one of Japan’s most infamous psychopaths and serial killers was dubbed the otaku murderer.
The term is becoming less negative though, and the district has a reputation for an eclectic nerdiness which most find endearing. Due to the competition between electronics vendors, it’s okay and even expected that you’ll haggle over the price if you decide to buy something to take back with you.
Walk Around Dotonbori
Dotonbori is one of the most popular places to visit in Osaka. It’s a lively area that is as crazy as it looks. If you want bright lights, crowds, restaurants, food stalls, and plenty of shopping then travel to Dotombori.
Dozens of restaurants line the Dotomborigawa River, and while you’re enjoying dinner you can admire the numerous billboards. Afterwards, a popular thing to do in Osaka is take an evening cruise on the river. It’s always busy, but at night is when it really comes alive.
Other Things to do All Around Japan
Nikko National Park
Located a little more than 100 kilometers north of Tokyo, Nikko National Park is the perfect destination for a one or two-day trip from Japan’s capital city. Chockfull of natural wonders like lakes, rivers, mountains and waterfalls, the park is also famous for the Toshogu Shrine, which is considered to be one of the most ornately adorned shrines in the country.
Though stunning at all times of the year, the park is exquisite in autumn, when the tree’s leaves turn stunning shades of orange, red and yellow. There is an ancient Shogun’s mausoleum, the famous statue of Three Wise Monkeys, and more picturesque bridges and shrines than you’ll know what to do with. If you’d like to get in a little exercise, there are plenty of hiking trails too.
Located in the Port of Yokohama, the Nippon Maru is a 1930’s wooden sailing ship that’s purportedly got enough miles on her to circumnavigate the globe dozens of times.
Though she’s getting a little long in the tooth, the old ship has been lovingly restored to near original condition. Over its lifespan, the ship has been a transport and training vessel and was still in use in the ’80s, when it was converted to a full-time museum.
At over 300 feet long, with 30 sails and an impressive array of masts, the ship serves to exhibit its own history and that of the Japanese Navy, whose officers were trained on the ship for generations. The ship and Yokohama Port Museum are located on the waterfront just across from the Landmark Tower and are an easy stroll from the Metro station.
Known as ‘The Crow’s Castle’ because of its ominous black façade, Matsumoto Castle is Japan’s oldest castle. It’s rich in history too and considered to be among Japan’s elite castles due to its dramatic architecture. Construction on the castle was completed in the mid-1500s. Among its formidable defenses are a moat, sheer stone walls, and various gatehouses from which defenders had easy shots at those brave enough – or foolish enough – to lay siege to the castle.
Most of its life was spent as a home and fortress to the warlords who reigned in Japan’s feudal period. The castle nearly collapsed in the 19th century but was refurbished three times in the last 100 years.
It’s an easy walk from the Matsumoto metro station and there’s plenty of lodging in the area if you decide to spend a night or two. The cost of the tickets to the castle includes entry to the Matsumoto City Museum as well. Heading to Matsumoto Castle is one of the best things to do in Japan in April as you might get the chance to see it among the cherry blossoms.
In contrast to the dar Matsumoto Castle, Himeji castle – located in the Hyogo Prefecture – is bright-white, giving it the name ‘White Egret’ or ‘White Heron Castle.’ Considered the finest example of purely Japanese architecture, the castle complex includes 83 buildings, perpendicular stone walls, as well as a moat and defensive guard posts. These structures served it well through the tumultuous centuries of Japan’s feudal period, which was characterized by constant warring between the various warlords who exerted control over areas of Japan’s countryside.
In a nutshell, the castle’s prominence over the surrounding ground, gleaming white façade, and elegantly terraced roofs will leave you speechless. Peak season is March through May – largely for the cherry blossoms – so if you’re planning a trip then, bring your camera and expect crowds.
Beach Time at Okinawa
The southernmost islands in the Japanese archipelago, the Yaeyama Islands – of which Okinawa is part – are home to white sand beaches, impossibly blue skies, and palm trees swaying in the stiff Pacific breeze like few other places on earth. If you’d been blindfolded, teleported, and plopped down here and weren’t sure where you were, you might think Hawaii, especially due to the American influence which comes with the large US Navy and Air Force bases nearby.
Peppered with hotels in every price range and with lots of scenic views and places to relax, eat and drink, this may be the most satisfying time you’ll spend in Japan.
Enjoy Happo One
One of the best things to do in Japan in the winter is ski or snowboard. If you can’t make the trip all the way to Hokkaido to go skiing, the island of Honshu has some great ski resorts.
Happo One is located on Mount Karamatsu in Hakuba, Japan and is very easily accessible if you have the JR Pass. Happo One is a good family friendly resort with lots of skiable intermediate terrain.
Surround yourself with Bunnies
Rabbit Island, Japan. Yes, you read that right. On the small Japanese Island of Okunoshima lies a land filled with enough Peter Cottontails to fulfill all your childhood dreams. During WWII, the isolated island served as a top-secret location for a poison gas factory. Rabbits were used as test subjects for chemical weapons such as tear and mustard gas.
Now more than 1000 bunnies on this island living wild and free and you can go there and cover yourself with them all (as long as you have some food).
There is no proof that the bunnies now days are direct ancestors from their wartime friends, so no one can say exactly for sure why the island is inhabited by over 1000 bunnies now – some say that school children brought them to the uninhabited island in the ’70s. Besides the bunnies, around the island are information points about the war, a Poison Gas Museum, and ruins from the gas plants used.
The only way to get to Rabbit Island is via the Okunoshima ferry. From Hiroshima take a train or a bus to get to JR Tadanoumi Station. Once you step out of the station turn right and the ferry terminal is less than a 5-minute walk.
You will get to a booth with a giant bunny billboard. From the mainland to Okunoshima takes less than 20 minutes and takes about 12 mins costing 620 ¥. Make sure to bring some change with you so you can purchase rabbit food. Don’t bring your own food and feed it to the rabbits, it’s not good for their digestion.
Get Inspired on Naoshima
Naoshima is an island town in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. I like to call it “art installation island” as it’s well known for its numerous art museums and projects around the island.
A lot of the museums, installations, and sculptures was installed by the Benesse Corporation. The Benesse House is an interesting art museum/art hotel to visit. Besides that I recommend walking around and seeing the interesting sculptures, there’s also a bus to take you around the island.
Things to Eat in Japan
Take a Sushi Making Class
If you are a sushi connoisseur like us, then it’s only fitting to take a sushi making class (and then eat your creation) while in Japan. For one hour, we were given an in-depth sushi making class by a top Kyoto sushi chef. Afterward, we got to put our Japanese food to the test and taste it all ourselves.
You may have taken sushi classes elsewhere before, but in my opinion, there is no better place than Japan. You can often find sushi making classes in any Japanese city.
Have Conveyor Belt Sushi
While sushi is probably a special and expensive meal out where you live, you can find it for an affordable price in Japan. Of course, there are expensive world-class options, but Japan is full of affordable conveyor belt sushi options.
Conveyor belt sushi is a quick and cheap meal in Japan. Sushi is made and sent out onto a train like a conveyor belt which will rotate around the restaurant. Guests can grab what they please and then at the end of the meal the waitress will come to tally up the plates to give a total for the meal.
The plates are different colored and the higher grade sushi goes on more expensive plates, which is all color coded. Typically you can get two pieces of nigiri for ¥100 to ¥200 and then the prices go up from there depending on the cut of fish.
You can easily walk out of a sushi conveyor belt meal feeling stuffed off high-quality fish for under ¥1500. That’s the price of mediocre sushi in the United States!
Try Real Matcha
Kyoto is known for having the best matcha in all of Japan. The cities specialty is called “Uji matcha” and is regarded as the highest quality green tea.
There are plenty of high-end Matcha cafes around Kyoto to enjoy real matcha at. A few notable ones are Charyo Tsujiri, Nakamura Tokichi, and Umezono.
You can expect to try things like Matcha pancakes, Matcha sundaes, or traditional matcha tea. There are many matcha cafes in different Japanese cities, but Kyoto is well known for them!
Try Genghis Khan
Sapporo has so many great places to eat. We were wondering what to eat in Sapporo one night while there and figured we would give the famous Genghis Khan a try. Genghis Khan (Mongolian barbecue) is a Hokkaido local dish that consists of grilling mutton and vegetables on a unique grill that has a raised mound in the center. The most popular place to try Genghis Khan is in Sapporo and regarded as a soul food by locals.
Genghis Khan is more of a dinnertime meal and usually involves several rounds of beer to wash down all the flavors.
Genghis Khan is served tapas style where you can order as much as you like on an ongoing basis. You will also receive a side of delicious sauce to dip your meat and vegetables in. At the end of the meal, it is very common to drink that side of sauce signifying you are done and satisfied.
Enjoy a Yakitate Cheese Tart
If there is one dessert in the world I would fly half way around the world for it’s the Yakitate cheese tart only found on Hokkaido. Hokkaido is famous in Japan for their high-quality milk, and that means Cheesecakes in Hokkaido are renowned. They are all delicious, but I found the Yakitate Cheese tart to be the best.
This is a cheesecake baked in the oven after pouring cheese mousse in cookie dough. Then the outside shell is a crispy cookie, with the cheesecake in the center. There’s a Kinotoya Bake shop at Sapporo Station where you can get one (or six) and one at New Chitose Airport as well.
Okonomiyaki is a type of Japanese savory pancake filled with cabbage and many other toppings. It is a staple food to try while in Japan and can be found around the country. Okonomi means “as you like it” and yaki means “grilled,” so it’s a meal catering to your own personal preferences.
Okonomiyaki is said to originate from Osaka, so to have it in the city is a must do. We scoured Dotonbori for the best Okonomiyaki in Osaka and landed on Creo-Ru Takoyaki & Okonomiyaki. Depending on the type of Okonomiyaki you order you can expect to pay between ¥700-¥1300 for one pancake. However, we found one was more than enough for two!
Takoyaki is a ball-shaped Japanese snack that is made out of wheat flour based batter. It is typically topped with tempura scraps, pickled ginger, and green onion and then brushed with takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise.
It’s a sweet and savory snack that is sure to fill you up at least a little bit. It became popular in Osaka in the mid-1930s and nowadays you will see street vendors selling Takoyaki down Dotonbori street. The most famous place to try Takoyaki is Aizuya, recommend in the Michelin guidebooks.
Try Jiggly Cheesecake
Another famous food to try in Osaka is a Japanese Jiggly Cheesecake. Rikuro Ojisan no Mise is a small shop that sells hot and fresh cheesecakes all day! You can only buy a whole cheesecake, not by the slice here, so come with friends.
You’ll likely have to wait in a line to buy a cheesecake fresh out of the oven, but if you prefer not to wait you can also go into the shop and buy one that was made earlier in the day.
We got lucky and only had to wait five minutes or so in the line, but we were told it gets much busier depending on the day. A Jiggly cheesecake will set you back all of ¥700 and it is more than worth it! Plus they keep well if you have a refrigerator in your hotel room.
When is the Best Time to Visit Japan?
There is no best time to visit Japan! I honestly think any time is a good time. Many people flock to the country for cherry blossom season which spans late March to May. It’s not that you’ll find the country more popular and accommodation prices will be higher – but it is a stunning time to visit.
Fall is equally as good as Japan as all the leaves turn vivid red, orange, and yellow colors.
The summertime sees temperatures between 65-80°F, but the humidity can affect your comfort. If you are visiting in the winter and want a white Christmas or be guaranteed snow coverage your best bet is to head to Hokkaido!
Best Places to Stay in Japan
- Kyoto – Check Prices Here
- Tokyo – Check Prices Here
- Osaka – Check Prices Here
- Niseko – Check Prices Here
- Furano – Check Prices Here
- Sapporo – Check Prices Here
Getting Around Japan
Transportation in Japan could be your number one expense, depending on how much you plan to bop around the country.
Rail travel in Japan is simply expensive. The faster the train, the higher the ticket price, especially if you’re traveling on the famous Shinkansen (bullet train).
You can lower your cost significantly by buying a Japan Rail Pass – only offered to visitors of Japan. The JR Pass is something you will typically want to think about purchasing before your trip, and you can pick it up once you arrive at a JR station. From there (depending on your type of pass) you can travel Japan freely on JR trains. They have different types of passes according to where you’ll be and length of your trip.
The first time I visited Japan I wanted to see as much as I could so I bought a 14 day JR Pass for less than $400 and traveled every two-three days around Japan.
The second time I visited I was only in Hokkaido doing minimal travel as it was a ski trip so I decided to just pay for my train travel outright.
The third time I visited, I also declined a JR Pass as I was doing minimal travel, but after spending ¥12000 on one round trip train journey from Osaka-Shingu, I think I would have been better off with a designated rail pass.
When planning your trip to Japan you should consider where you are visiting and the distances you’ll cover. Long distances may require high-speed trains and will generally cost more than a short one hour journey.
If you are traveling to one region of Japan, it may or may not be worth it for you to purchase a rail pass before. If you want some spontaneity in your Japan travels a rail pass is the way to go.
We’ve also found that MOST (but not all) buses and subway rides in Japan charge you by distance covered. It is not a flat fare.
Most importantly, always, ALWAYS keep your bus, train, or subway ticket on your throughout your entire journey. You will need it to exit the station.
A few examples of our costs:
- Furano to Niseko Ski Resort Resort Liner Bus: ¥5500
- Kyoto city bus: ¥210
- Kyoto-Nara train: ¥490
- Osaka city subway ticket: ¥200-350
- Osaka-Singu Rapid Rail Service: ¥7000
- 14 day JR Pass: ¥46,432
- Shingu-Yinomine Onsen Bus: ¥1500
Car Rental in Japan
If you want to explore Japan on your own terms sometimes a car rental can be a good option. Car rentals can be had for as little as $40 a day.
Keep in mind that to rent a car in Japan you need an International Drivers Permit. Unlike many other countries who let you rent a car off just your license (as long as it uses the Latin language), in Japan, you need to go the extra mile.
An IDP is different than your regular license and must be certified in your home country beforehand. For Americans, this can easily be done at AAA for $20.
No car rental company will rent to you in Japan unless you have one, so make sure it’s done before you attempt to pick up your rental.
Money Saving Tips for Japan
Take public transport
You may think that the trains in Japan are expensive, but they are nothing compared to the price of taxis in Japan. If you step into a taxi, you should be prepared for a costly fare.
No – the Japanese are not trying to rip you off, that’s just the fare for traveling via taxi in Japan. It’s also important to note that in most cities public transport stops around midnight even in Tokyo, so if your flight lands late have a plan for how you are getting to your accommodation.
Stay in Guesthouses
If you don’t want to stay in hostel the next best thing is a Japanese run guesthouse. I found them to be extremely better value than hotels in Japan and almost always busy. Yes, most hotels in Japan have crazy small rooms. We book a lot of our accommodation on Airbnb. You can see our top Airbnb tips if it’s your first time booking.
Cook Your Own Food
If your accommodation has a kitchen then it’s best to make use of it. We saved a ton of money this way in the expensive resort town of Niseko and made our own meals every night.
The grocery store provides great value especially on Japanese food like noodles, rice, and vegetables. You can even find food to cook with at the convenience stores.
Check out the ¥100 shops
A ¥100 shop is equivalent to an American dollar store. You can find almost anything at them so it’s always worth it to scope some out!
Eat your fresh fruits and vegetable before you get to Japan
Fresh fruits like strawberries, blueberries, and even oranges are pretty expensive in Japan, so try to avoid them if you’re on a budget. I found a lot of vegetables besides mushrooms and a few leafy greens to be higher than average as well.
Frequent Convenience Stores
You can get almost anything you want at Lawsons, 7-11, and Family Mart. They are open around the clock and have things like pastries, coffee, pre-made meals, toiletries, and sake.
How Much Does it Cost to Travel in Japan?
So how much Japan spending money per day should you have? Besides the pre-trip expenses like airfare, luggage, and any Japan packing list items you’ll want to buy I believe you can get by in Japan for ¥7000-10,000 a day.
Actually, to prove this I tracked all our expenses for one day out in Osaka. We were not frugal, but not lavish in our spending either. We ate what we wanted to eat and did what we wanted to do and had a fantastic time!
- Breakfast Pastry: ¥230
- Train to city: ¥210
- Coffee: ¥420
- Okonomiyaki lunch: ¥1030
- Pinball: ¥200
- New Clothes: ¥2600
- Soft Ice cream: ¥440
- Coffee: ¥550
- Train to Osaka Castle: ¥230
- Osaka Castle: Free
- Train to dinner: ¥180
- Ramen with beer: ¥1235
- Accommodation: ¥4000/pppn
- TOTAL: ¥11,325
Now you definitely could do it a lot cheaper than this or for much more. Many things on the above list are superfluous, but I like coffee, ice cream, a beer with my meal, and the occasional shopping spree.
When I first traveled to Japan for the first time, I was on a backpacker budget. I visited there in February (off season), spent my nights in hostels, ate basic meals from 7-11, and only indulged in a few cheap excursions – but for the most part, stuck to the free temples and just walked around and enjoyed the view. I had a fantastic time on less than the ¥6000 a day.
You can travel cheaply through Japan if you are determined. At the same time, if it’s your one big trip to Japan, I don’t think you should be afraid to spend money on food and experiences you can’t get back home.
What to Pack for Japan
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun in Japan. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses, but they do make a huge difference from the crappy $10 ones.
Skin cancer is for real, even in Japan! Don’t forget your SPF when traveling around Japan. We recommend ordering some online before leaving the house as you will need it underneath the sun in the summer.
We highly recommend getting an eco friendly sun cream that does not contain harmful chemicals.
If you’re wondering what travel necessities to bring to Japan then good walking shoes should be your top concern.
I ALWAYS have a down jacket with me when I’m traveling in the winter, fall, or even spring. They aren’t just good for hikes, but doing anything outside.
Down jackets pack up light and small so there is no reason NOT to have one in your bag. Seriously it could save your life in a bad situation. We wrote a whole post on our favorites (hint –Feathered Friends, Arc’Teryx Cerium LT Hooded Jacket, Patagonia Down Sweater, REI Coop Down Jacket)
Goretex Rain Jacket
We’re building up a collection of shell jackets. We always carry one in our pack and they’ve come in handy a number of times. They are lightweight, durable, packable, waterproof, and windproof and really a great travel rain jacket. We have a bunch of different shell jackets after several years, but my favorite right now is from Arc’teryx.
Any jacket can do the job, but the top dollar ones will hold up and really help in inclement weather.
Chances are you’ll want a camera for your trip to Japan. Our favorite pocket-sized point and shoot camera for quick trips are the Sony RX100V. It takes fantastic photos and video and is the size of your palm.
To up your photography game, a bit consider the Fuji X-T3. We just bought that camera and found the images to look amazing. Check out our other travel cameras here.
I love real books, but for traveling it can be easier to carry a lighter and more compact item like a Kindle. Plus, then you can download new books on the go!
Please consider purchasing a travel water bottle before your trip! We hate to see one time use plastic bottles ending up in the ocean. The tap water is so good here – seriously please don’t be one of those tourist that buys plastic water bottles in Japan. It’s a waste of money and plastic!
It is considered rude to wear your shoes inside in Japan so most places will give you slippers to walk around with once you take your shoes off at the door. However, I never found these slippers comfortable and would rather have my own from home.
I love my buff. I usually wear it for keeping my hair back, but it’s also served its purpose as a scarf and wet rag too. Buffs last for years and aren’t only helpful in the mountains. I actually wear mine every day when I’m snowboarding even traveling in the desert. It’s been one of my top travel accessory investments ever!
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