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!
Unique Things to do in Japan
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 50,000 ¥ and 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. I was lucky enough to be in Kyoto during the Setsubun Festival (day before the beginning of Spring) and was able to see a few geisha and maiko, which is how I snapped the photo below.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Visit Historic Hiroshima
Without a doubt, the most important events in modern Japanese history were the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that forced Japan to surrender in WWII, thereby ending the war in the Pacific. If you visit Hiroshima, you’ll see what’s referred to as the Atomic Bomb Dome, which is the frame of the only building left standing after the blast in 1945.
There’s also the Peace Memorial Museum, which houses fascinating exhibits, photographs and collections, all relating to the Second World War and the historic obliteration of Hiroshima. You’ll be amazed at the rebuilding effort and the spirit of the Japanese people who’ve restored Hiroshima into a bustling commercial center. I’m not a huge museum person, but I spent all day here while visiting Hiroshima. It’s a very humbling experience that shows full frame the consequences of war, and makes you thankful you are living in a peaceful time.
Grab Some 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 1o00 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.
Kiss a Deer in Nara
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!
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.
Visit Miyajima Island
One of my favorite small islands in all of Japan is Miyajima. Known as the “Island of Gods” it is full of quiet romantic streets, preserved shrines, historical monuments, temples.
The symbol of the island is the Great Torri (seen below), which is best seen at high tide. If you want to step back in time and see what old Japan looked like a visit here is a must.
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.
Perhaps the most famous shrine on Instagram and in Japan is Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto. The shrine is at the base of the mountain Inari and has many trails up from the base to the mountain.
Along the 4 kilometers walk up you’ll pass numerous smaller shrines to enjoy. Get here at sunrise to avoid the tourist buses. 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 I did below).
At the entrance to the shrine, you will have the opportunity to dress in a traditional kimono and walk through!
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!
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
What to pack for Japan
Travel Water Bottle
The tap water in Japan is very clean so there is no need to buy plastic water bottles and contribute to our world’s plastic problem. We’ve shifted to using an insulated aluminum water bottle as it handles the hot sun well and also keeps drinks warm when need be. See all of our favorite water bottles here.
Smith Lowdown 2
If you’re visiting during the summer you will definitely want sunglasses in Japan. My favorites are made by Smith. The Chromapop lens technologyis like seeing the world with a fresh set of our eyes. They enhance contrast, reduce glare, and reflection for superb vision while driving, walking around town, or out on the water. We also love the style of the glasses for anyone who likes to live an active lifestyle.
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.
You’ll be doing a lot of walking in Japan especially if you are hanging out in cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Sapporo, or Osaka. Make sure your feet don’t want to kill you and get a pair of good men’s walking shoes or women’s walking shoes.
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 find the images out of unbelievable. Check out our other travel cameras here.
Check out some of the best sellers right now and pick up a copy. There’s nothing better than enjoying a good book under the comfort of a Japanese katsu table. I’ve recently upgraded to the Kindle Paperwhite and absolutely love it. It’s small, has touchscreen functions, and a backlight so that I can read at night without a harsh glare.
We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. Natasha is a bit of a worry wart and would rather stay safe than sorry. World Nomads offers incredible flexible and great plans!
Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your nds when traveling. We recommend the Lonely Planet Japan guidebook.
Japan mainly uses the Type A plug like North America, but there is generally no socket for the grounded portion. Make sure you find a good universal adapter like the one I have to keep you charged. Otherwise, you may struggle to find one once you land.
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