Japan is a country with many top attractions to amaze you, but there are 20 experiences that you can’t miss when in Japan, independently of the season you will be visiting
The top things to do in Japan is not only about the place itself or the exterior beauty, its about exploring what Japans means. Here is my recommended list of the top 15 things to do in Japan
VISIT THE TEMPLES IN KYOTO
Visiting the temples in Kyoto might be top of your list already as there is no better place to see temples then Kyoto. With more than 1600 temples spread out over the hills surrounding the city of Kyoto. There are two main periods, in the time of the «sakura» cherry trees or in the autumn that the landscape turns even more magical but you can see the temples all year round . The highlight is the golden Kinkaku-Ji temple that is probably the most beautiful temple of Japan, but also the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine red gates or the imposing Kiyomizudera will certainly make you love Kyoto.
STAY A NIGHT AT A BUDDHIST TEMPLE
To sleep at one Buddhist temple is much more than a must do experience, its really feeling Spiritual Japan, even if you are not a buddhist. There are nowadays more and more offers of temples offering accomodation across Japan, still Mount Koya (Koyasan) is the most wonderful place to stay a night in one of these temples as one of the holiest mountains in Japan. You will not be able to sleep-in but you also have dinner, breaḱfast all done traditionally and completely vegetarian plus you can “participate” as an observer in the morning prayers from 6am. Simply stunning
DIVE INTO A JAPANESE THERMAL BATH ONSEN
A japanese thermal bath is one of the most nice experiences in Japan. It’s called an onsen in japanese, being usually found on the Japanese Alps in Central Japan or more up north in Hokkaido island, there also plenty of these geothermal features in around Mount Fuji. I can recommend Hakone or lake Kawaguchi as a top spot because of the great views of Mount Fuji when sipping in. For obvious reasons you can’t take pictures of the hotel onsen so I took this picture from the hotel where I stayed in called Sunnide Resort in Hakone, really amazing reasons. I also loved my private onsen in a hotel in Takayama, really amazing experience. Note that if you have a tattoo you won’t be allowed in common or public onsen as they associate tattoos to criminal organizations such as the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia) and culturally see it as “dirty”, so in that case you should look for a private onsen in your room.
WALK THROUGH A BAMBOO FOREST (ILUMINATED)
To walk in a bamboo forest is already something special, but do at night with ilumnations in different colors and styles is even more unique. There is no better place to do it than in Arashiyama forest near Kyoto, a wonderful path iluminated at night and even with some sounds to give it more real feeling of a typical bamboo forest. It’s a good 45 minutes and totally worth it, entrance is free.
LEARN SAMURAI HISTORY AT THE JAPANESE CASTLES
There are no better places than the Japanese castles of the Daymio (Japanese warlords) to learn about the history of Japan. The White Castle of Himeji, the huge castle of Osaka or Matsumoto, the black castle were immortalized by the heroic sagas of the samurai, who, following their code of honor (Bushido), fought until the last warrior in the battle of Shiroyama (1877), which even impacted Hollywood, with the excellent Oscar-winning actor Ken Watanabe, alongside Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai as you might remember, Interesting enough is that most of the castles were made of wood and almost all were destroyed by fires, earthquakes or World War II and had to be rebuilt. Still the echoes of the samurai and the Daimyo voices can be heard on these castles…
SEE THE BIG CITY LIGHTS OF TOKYO AND OSAKA
Japan is not only about temples, castles and nature grounds. Japan represents the modernity through its big metropolis of Tokyo and Osaka, among other big cities, with its big buildings architecture and neon lights , even brighter than Las Vegas some would say. These are sleepless cities, always on the move with millions of people transiting all the time. It’s a kind of an adrenaline rush to be in these cities, so you feel energized to keep seeing it day & night. For sure you must try to see the most important neighborhoods but ultimately enjoy the frenzy as a tourist. I will have post only on Tokyo
HONOR PEACE IN HIROSHIMA
The tragic Hiroshima offers you the grim image of humanity that used the atomic bomb to stop a war apparently but left its marks on the city of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) forever as well as on makind. If all is sad to see, it’s also true that you can see how Hiroshima was reborn from the ashes now stands for peace paying tribute to world peace for the marks it still carries, for the nuclear bombings, where the destroyed cathedral exposes these scars that can never be forgotten.
SEE THE SHINTO SHRINE OF ITSUKUSHIMA
Or the temples of Itsushima, Nara or Nikko that transport us to the spiritual heart of Japan, with tunnels of endless red gates (torii) and incredibly worked imperial temples , buddhist temples where you can also overnight and be with the monk as well as contemplate peaceful zen places…
RIDE THE JAPANESE BULLET TRAIN
The Japanese high speed train is the most reliable transportation mean to connect between cities. In fact its the fastest train in the world, called as shinkansen by the Japanese, that reaches . speeds of almost 400 km per hour. The shinkansen is a guarantee that you will cover distances 4x faster then by car and almost as fast as a plane, as you avoid the hassle of airports and travel much more comfortable.
They never run late and can be ridden across most Japanese biggest cities, then connecting to regional lines. Just entering the shinkansen seems that its a future reality but most importantly you don’t even feel the high speed when you ride the bullet train. Very important is that you buy the Japan Railways Pass, I have a travel guide dedicated to it as its essential to make you travel in Japan and save money. Moreover note that you can only buy it outside of Japan and before you arrive!
DISCOVER A SACRED JAPANESE CEMETERY
There is something about the sacred Japanese cemeteries that can’t be fully explained in words and not even images make it justice. Is just an incredible place as its full of features usually not known elsewhere but Japan. The fact that they are usually located in sacred forests, connected by bridges, ponds and the famous torii gates in red colored wood or stone just adds to the beauty of the place. The most interesting for me to visit was in Mount Koya, also where you can stay in a Buddhist temple . Indeed if there is a spiritual place in Japan, you will find its place here.
MEET THE DEERS AT NARA TEMPLE
Nara temple has many reasons to feature as a great thing to do in Japan such as having the biggest wooden temple in Japan (without a single nail!). However what makes it peculiar is also that you will see dozens of deers roaming around the temple grounds. It doesnt much closer than this, as you can feed them and touch them, they are used to humans. The reason why you can find them pretty much all over Nara park is that the Shinto religion believes that a deity named Takemikazuchi arrived in the old capital of Nara on a white deer to act as the city’s protector, and as a result, the deer of Nara were considered sacred, messengers of the gods being since long time ago raised here!
HAVE FRESH SUSHI NEAR TOKYO FISH MARKET
To simply eat the most delicious sushi next to the largest fish market in the world, where tuna weighing over 200kg sell for thousands of dollars.
PEOPLE WATCHING AT LARGEST CROSSWALK IN THE WORLD
You have surely seen busy streets, crowded in your biggest cities, but its impossible to find a crosswalk With hundreds of people crossing it every 2 minutes like in Shibuya, the most frequented pedestrian crossing in the world by far.
Its a frenzy and you just see a sea of people going in all directions, hurrying up to get across as there will be traffic. And you can see it all from a local coffee shop located a couple of floors above whilst enjoying a nice beverage!
DISCOVER A TRUE HISTORICAL JAPANESE VILLAGE
And of course the Japanese Alps, with their imposing snow-capped mountains, hiding valleys with villages and waterfalls in villages that seem to be taken from a postcard from Switzerland, but which are very Japanese, plus the thermal baths (onsen) with panoramic views of dreams in Takayama or in the surrounding mountains.
VISIT THE PALACE OF THE EMPEROR OF JAPAN
Might not every day that you see the emperor of Japan delivering a speech in front of his devoted Japanese subjects, but visiting the residence of one of the most important monarchs in the World is still a great privilege. The fact that I had the luck to be there on a national holiday was just the cherry on top of the cake – the emperor was still Akihito, that renounced the throne for his on Hirohito in 2016.
VISIT A REAL JAPANESE OLD TOWN IN TAKAYAMA
Takayama is one of the very few Japanese cities that still preserves its in its beautiful old town still completely made out of wood, something you won’t see in any other big city except in a couple of narrow streets. It also holds one of the most important festivals in medieval Japan, with a in incredible parade unrivaled in all Japan in Spring and Autumn. If you are not here when the festival oocurs , the wonderful local museum has all you need to see about it plus a great mini Japan replica of all the top monuments in Japan. Moreover the local beef of Takayama has the same quality as the hyped Kobe beef but is substantially
It was often away from the beaten path but for travellers wishing to go away from cities and discover a more real and rural Japan. It now ranks as one of the preferred areas to visit North of Osaka and Tokyo, accessible by train or for more adventurous by car. It can be combined with the beautiful traditional UNESCO village of Shirakawa-Go for the taste of real Japan. And it has amazing onsen areas here too. It was one of my favorite places in Japan by far, despite the huge snow I got there.
CLIMB THE TOKYO TOWER
It might look a different colorful version of the Eiffel Tower, but this red and white tower is really worth visiting also for the 360 views at almost 333 meters at its observation deck , being the 2nd tallest building in Japan. Taking the lift here will be good fun or you can climb the 600-step staircase. It will be great fun to see the red layers below you making a great effect that not even Paris can match. It’s also used as a communications tower. Its open until after sunset in case you want a view of the Tokyo city lights.
EXPLORE THE SACRED CAPITAL OF NIKKO
If there is a competitor to the beauty of the temples in Kyoto, Nikko’s Toshogu takes the prize. Toshogu shrine in Nikko is Japan’s most incredibly decorated shrine in all Japan and the mausoleum of the famous japanese shogun (ruler) Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. Since 1600 it started to attract more and more pilgrims as a center of Shinto and Buddhist worship for many centuries before Toshogu was built in the 1600s.
Nikko National Park also offers many scenic and hiking trails besides the shrine and many temples. Being one hour North of Tokyo also helped to increase its popularity as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a must see for me. Finally, Nikko is located along Japan’s Romantic Road, an equivalent to Germany’s original Romantic Road. I really enjoyed the beautiful shrine but also the nature around here, simply stunning.
HAVE A TASTE OF KOBE CITY CHARM
The city of Kobe suffered a devastating earthquake in the early 90’s but like many cities in Japan it has recovered brighter than ever an now offers for me one of the most beautiful harbor areas in Japan. It also has the famous local Kobe beef, the real original one if you are into meat, you don’t want to miss it. Also the Chinatown in Kobe (Nankin-machi) is simply beautiful to walk by and get a nice taste of China in the middle. And if you are lucky enough, you might get to see the incredibly wonderful lights festival in Kobe during December (Luminarie), running in memory of the thousands of the earthquake victims of 1995. The fact that is less than 30 minutes from Osaka also makes it a great day trip.
SEE MOUNT FUJI AT SUNRISE
The best sight of Japan is Mount Fuji , a 3,776 meter high mountain, that symbolize the grandeur of Japan. An iconic site that can be seen from Tokyo more than 100km away, belongs to the imaginary of all travelers visiting Japan and is also one of the most endeared symbols for Japanese people. And what better experience, than watching the sunrise at the banks of the lakes near Mount Fuji.
For all these reasons you should visit Japan now! I will share some more posts about the top attractions in Japan.
For suggestions on itineraries please see my travel guides session, please contact me if you have any specific questions.
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CategoriesAmerica, City Escapes
My name is Renato Azambujo. I live currently in Hamburg, but was born and raised in sunny capital of Portugal, Lisbon. I also lived in Switzerland for some years, before settling in Germany for the last years.
I am huge passionate about travel, photographer and a global explorer, always looking to the next destination.
I have so far visited over 70 countries across the 5 continents, because I really love knowing about new places, interact with different cultures and get to know myself better after each journey.