A heady mix of the cutting edge and deeply traditional, Japan remains a major drawcard for travellers from all over the globe and is a country that leaves its mark on all who visit.
Whether you’re hunting down top eats or basking in the country’s stunning landscapes, it’s impossible to take it all in during one visit to Japan. But you’ll certainly have a fun time trying. We’ve built the ultimate cheat sheet of all the top (and most unique) Japan experiences to help you plan your next visit.
The Great Outdoors
Though Japan might be most famous for its dazzlingly modern cities, you’ll want to spend at least a few days exploring its stunning natural offerings. With its bubbling hot springs, towering volcanoes and snow-capped mountains, Japan’s varied topography is the perfect setting for an adventure in the great outdoors.
- Unique outdoor accommodation
Only in Japan can you bunk in a Buddhist temple one night and rent your own city-based sleeping pod the next. High-tech Japan lovingly reveres its cultural traditions, making for the best kind of culture shock.
For those seeking a unique outdoors escape, glamping sites have also popped up around Japan in recent years. Our pick is Fujino Kirameki, which sits on a gently sloping site with stunning views of Japan’s most famous mountain. https://www.fu-ji-no.jp/kirameki/en
- Winter sport adventures
If you’re a winter sports aficionado, you’ve probably heard of Niseko. The rural Hokkaido retreat offers skiing, sleigh rides, snowshoeing and more. But you may not have heard of smelt ice fishing in Mt. Akagi. As you admire the sweeping, snow-kissed mountains, you’ll cut a hole in the ice to dangle your fishing rod. And it’ll be worth the effort – your catch goes straight to a nearby restaurant to be turned into delicious golden tempura. https://nisekotourism.com; https://www.visit-gunma.jp/en/spots/akagi-onuma-wakasagi-ice-fishing/
- Surprising summertime festivals
After the cherry blossoms fall, many unique and exciting outdoor activities take place during the summer in Japan. Summer is also one of the main seasons for festivals in Japan. Akin to Mexico’s ‘Day Of The Dead’, Obon (also known as The Bon Festival) is one of the largest and sees Japanese people pay tribute to lost ancestors.
In Nagasaki, the Shoro-Nagashi ‘Spirit Boat Procession’ is held where boats are painstakingly decorated by the grieving family members of the people of Nagasaki who died that year. https://www.discover-nagasaki.com/en/sightseeing/51798
Japan excels at striking the right balance between tradition and modernity, leading the way in technological advances while also embracing its history, whether it’s architecture, art, fashion, food or sports. Here are a few experiences that will give you a taste of Japan’s traditional side.
- Stay in a ryokan
Ryokan – Japanese inns – provide a taste of the authentic with rice paper shoji doors, tatami flooring, futon beds and natural hot spring baths. Catering to all budgets, they can be found throughout Japan but most commonly in the countryside outside of urban centres.
Wakayama prefecture’s Ryokan Musashi is consistently rated as one of the top onsen ryokans in all of Japan. Some rooms even boast a private hot spring tub with ocean views. http://www.yado-musashi.co.jp/en
- Relax and recharge at a traditional tea ceremony
Running deep within Japan’s rich culture, the tea ceremony tradition has remained a cherished ritual for centuries, serving to bring people together in an environment of tranquillity to enjoy freshly whisked matcha tea.
Shizuoka is home to some of Japan’s best tea growing and you can experience them right from the source. Set in beautiful surroundings just below Kakegawa Castle, Ninomaru Teahouse is the best place to experience this meticulous tradition. https://exploreshizuoka.com/
- Explore ancient temples, shrines and castles
At ancient shrines and in the heart of historic cities, Japan’s rich cultural heritage lives on as something not just to be admired from afar, but actively appreciated. What’s more, some unique accommodation in Japan offers experiences too.
Home to the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, Hakujukan is a ryokan-cum-temple lodge in Fukui prefecture where guests get a taste of traditional Japanese hospitality and can join monks at the monastery for a Zen meditation session. https://www.hakujukan-eiheiji.jp/en
Can’t Miss Culinary Creations
Those who love food know that there’s no culinary destination like Japan, and your experience will probably always start with enjoying the freshest sushi in its native home. From delicate multi-course meals to hearty dishes served at an outdoor food cart, explore the many flavours found in diverse regional cuisines.
- Devour world-class sushi
Sushi is probably the most recognisable Japanese food and has exploded in popularity around the world. For under 600 yen ($7 AUD), you can walk into any supermarket in Japan and pick up fresh sushi. You can also spend upwards of 60,000 yen for a three Michelin star omakase (chosen by the chef) course.
An unassuming lantern on the street outside is all that marks the entrance to Ginza SUSHI AOKI, an internationally acclaimed sushi bar in Tokyo’s ritzy Ginza district. Score a seat at the counter and you’ll soon realize that there’s nothing modest about the food on offer. More info: https://www.sushiaoki.jp/en
- Slurp oodles of noodles
Noodles are a staple of Japanese cuisine. Whether it’s ramen, udon or soba, noodles have been served for hundreds of years in a variety of different ways. Longing for ramen? Why not head to the Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum and savour a wide selection of this favourite soul-food dish. If Soba is more your thing, the ultimate farm-to-table foray into soba noodles can be found in Chino, Nagano prefecture, where you can join a master noodle maker as he shares deep insight into the fundamentals of making delicious soba. https://www.raumen.co.jp/english/; https://chinotabi.jp/en
- Izakaya hopping and sake bar crawling
No trip to Japan is complete without trying beloved Japanese sake and experiencing local nightlife in an izakaya (Japanese pub). Izakaya are typically crowded, but that’s all part of the fun. The dishes served each afternoon will vary, but you can expect a selection of food ranging from niche regional specialities to all-time Japanese classics.
In Sendai (90 minutes from Tokyo), narrow streets are lined with alluring red lanterns, enticing you into the cosiest of watering holes. Tohoku Local Secret Tours offer English-speaking tours of this city that will take you to places normally only locals know. https://www.tohoku-local-secret-tours.jp/
Japan’s cities are crossroads of culture in continuous transformation. Here, age-old traditions coexist harmoniously alongside state-of-the-art technology. Japan may look small on a map, but it’s home to countless world-class cities. Here’s a rundown of the top Japanese cities you need to see.
Is there a city that conjures up visions of fast-paced Japan more than Tokyo? Tokyo’s vast, bustling cityscape is home to some of Japan’s most iconic landmarks including Tokyo Skytree, the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Tower.
Japan’s “underground tunnel” is a must-visit for a truly unique experience and for those urban architecture fans. This subterranean attraction (known rather factually as the Metropolitan Area Outer Floodway) is the world’s largest underground flood diversion facility. The tunnel system runs 50 metres deep and 6.5 kilometres long and prevents disasters in low-lying Tokyo which is vulnerable to flooding during the rainy and typhoon seasons. https://gaikaku.jp/
This ancient capital of Japan is home to three World Heritage sites and filled with natural beauty, charming townscapes, and national treasures, all less than an hour by train from Kyoto and Osaka, and easily accessible from Tokyo.
Nara is also home to almost 1400 ‘celebrity’ deer that roam free among the park’s famous heritage temples and shrines. The deer are considered sacred and have coexisted with the people of Nara for more than 1000 years. Pick up “shika senbei” (deer crackers) to feed them, which the deer will happily take from human hands. https://www.visitnara.jp/
Set amidst beautiful nature, Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido, northern Japan. Sapporo is well known for its magnificent seasonal beauty. Long winters bring perfect snowfall for winter sports, and summers are comfortable, with lower humidity and cooler temperatures compared to its southern neighbours.
In summer, waterfalls, mountains, and dramatic valleys all form a part of the nearby untouched wilderness, of which many tourists are unaware. Sapporo also has a lesser-known but growing ‘cool’ factor including a bourgeoning art, culture and foodie scene that shows off Hokkaido’s unique regional differences. https://visitsapporo.jp/
Japan’s art and design scene offers everything from the ancient to the avant-garde thanks to its rich traditional culture, and a swathe of cutting-edge contemporary local artists and architecture.
- Gallery and museum mania
Museums and galleries in Japan can be dedicated to just about anything you can think of, from the weird and wonderful to the film and animation of Studio Ghibli and gorgeous, traditional art.
After a three-year renovation by architects Jun Aoki and Tezzo Nishizawa – who also designed the flagship Louis Vuitton store in Tokyo’s Ginza district – Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art reopened in March 2020. Blending Japanese, Western, contemporary and modern architecture, this photogenic museum is a must-visit spot for permanent exhibits and modern art exhibitions. https://kyotocity-kyocera.museum/en/
- Visit eccentric art islands
The scattering of small islands of the Seto Inland Sea, or Setouchi for short, is littered with incredible modern art and sculptures, and form one of Japan’s most artistic regions. Japan’s art island of Naoshima is on the bucket list of just about every art lover inside and outside Japan.
The Setouchi Modern Art Triennale is returning in 2022. The artistic, architectural, and cultural festival takes place every three years and takes the art world by storm. https://benesse-artsite.jp/en/; https://setouchi-artfest.jp/en/
- Experience Japan’s love for all things Manga and Anime
Anime and Manga are big parts of modern Japanese culture today. From Pokemon to Studio Ghibli, the distinct look of Japanese comics, animations and games attract fans from all around the world. Even if you’re not a lover of this unique art, manga and anime are a powerful vehicle of influence in subculture and is worth experiencing.
Kyoto International Manga Museum has a collection of some 300,000 comics and manga-related exhibits. Visitors can read any piece of manga they fancy from the towering wooden bookcases that line every wall and hallway https://www.kyotomm.jp/en/
Back To Nature
Japan’s backdrop changes from the delicate pinks of cherry blossom season in spring, lush greens of summer, golden hues of autumn and mountains covered in powder snow in winter. A country made up of mountains, forests, and stretches of coastline, Japan offers you plenty of opportunities to spend time among nature.
- Hike the Japanese Alps
Kamikochi in the Northern Japanese Alps offers some of Japan’s most spectacular mountain scenery. A fifteen-kilometre-long plateau in the Azusa River Valley and about 1500 metres above sea level, Kamikochi is encompassed by soaring mountains as well as the active volcano ‘Yakedake’.
An outstanding hiking experience, trails lead through the valley and towards the summits of the neighbouring mountains. Hike along the river, a mostly flat terrain requiring only a few hours and is easy for inexperienced trekkers. https://www.kamikochi.org/
- Beach hop the country’s vast coastlines
Japan is a country made of islands, and that means there are plenty of beaches with golden sands and crystal-blue seas for you to explore. Okinawa is arguably home to Japan’s best beaches, like those in Ishigaki and Kerama, with sugar-white sand fringed with palms and turquoise waters. This semi-tropical archipelago forms an arch between Kyūshū and Taiwan and the differences are apparent in everything down to the architecture and food.
Amami-Okinawa, a chain of islands that stretch across Kagoshima to Okinawa prefectures, were even recently added to the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List. https://www.visitokinawa.jp/; https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1574
- Be wowed by the changing colours of autumn in Japan
As the summer heat wanes and a winter chill begins to set in, Japan’s dense forests begin turning hues of vivid orange, yellow, and red. Gardens and parks attract crowds of visitors eager to see the changing leaves and the temperate weather make for an ideal time to experience traditional festivals and events.
Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri autumn festival takes place every September in Kishiwada City, Osaka. It features danjiri – large intricately-carved wooden festival floats – that speed through the streets pulled by up to 500 eager locals. https://osaka-info.jp/en/discover-kansai/kishiwada-danjiri-festival/
Japan is about disconnecting as much as it is high stimulation exploring. Be sure to schedule in some me-time during your trip to Japan – whether it is heading into the mountains of central Japan for hiking, relaxing in rocky hot spring baths overlooking the ocean or meditating in a luxury mountain retreat.
- Flock to the forest for relaxation
Forest bathing or ‘Shinrin-yoku’ is a centuries-old tradition that involves immersing yourself in nature. It took off in the 1980s when busy, over-stressed city workers needed help to wind down and re-calibrate. The purpose was twofold: to offer an eco-antidote to tech-boom burnout and to inspire residents to reconnect with and protect the country’s forests. No hiking, running, or mountain-climbing is necessary.
Japan has stunning national parks that make perfect Shinrin-yoku locations. And if you want to combine a spiritual pilgrimage, the Kii Peninsula south of Osaka is home to the sacred forests of the Yoshino-Kumano National Park. https://www.japan.travel/national-parks/parks/yoshino-kumano/
- Hop on a scenic train ride
Japan has an enviable network of trains. From efficient high-speed Shinkansen to traditional steam trains, you can be transported to a dream destination in whichever style suits you.
For the luxury traveller, the brand-new Shiki-shima, JR East’s most luxurious train offering, travels across Eastern Japan and stops off at some seriously hidden gems and local hotspots, with guests enjoying the sheer beauty of the landscapes on board in-between excursions. https://www.jreast.co.jp/e/; https://www.jreast.co.jp/shiki-shima/en/
- Stay in a local village
Steeped in history and culture and often set amongst breathtaking natural scenery, Japan’s villages are a haven for those desiring a break from city life. In between the mountains and deep woodlands in central Japan lies UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakawa-go village, a sprawl of gassho-zukuri houses — unique Japanese-style homes with steep-pitched, thatch-gabled roofs.
Owners have worked to preserve the integrity of the local traditions and landscape by limiting visitors to those who respect the town’s heritage and embrace the spirit of mutual assistance that drives the local culture. http://ml.shirakawa-go.org/en/