Want to visit Japan, but not sure what to do or where to start? Here’s our list of the top 10 fun things to do in Japan that, when combined, will create the ultimate Japan experience!
1. Visit a Castle
Japan boasts some of the most beautiful, well-preserved, historic castles in all of the world! Following the 15th century, Japan had more than 25,000 castles, as the nation had fallen into the sengoku jidai (戦国時代) era of civil war. Today, there are still around 200 castles that you can visit and enter. Some of them are even Japanese National Treasures and World Hertiage Sites, and are visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year. Some of the most famous castles include Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture, the striking black Matsumoto Castle, and the expansive grounds of Kumamoto Castle. Definitely add these to your list when planning your next trip to Japan!
2. Go Shopping
Japan is a true shopping paradise with a wide variety of stores for any kind of shopper. There are long shotengai (shopping streets) in almost every city, and the larger cities like Tokyo and Osaka have an especially great selection of shops. Both Japanese and global brands are available, as are stores for all budgets, from 100yen shops to high-end fashion boutiques and department stores. Some of the most popular shopping spots are for fashion are Harajuku and Ginza in Tokyo, and Shinsaibashi and America-mura in Osaka. For anime and manga lovers, two giant shopping areas for cosplay culture are Akihabara in Tokyo and Den Den Town in Nipponbashi, Osaka. However, outside of those areas, almost every major city and airport offer great stores to buy Japanese omiyage (souvenirs) for when tourists return to their home countries.
3. Eat Famous Japanese Foods
Japan is a food-lover’s paradise. Believe it or not, many people say their reason for wanting to travel Japan is just to try some of the world-renowned Japanese cuisine (和食 washoku)! From Japanese high-dining like wagyu beef or fugu (puffer fish), to “B-grade” street food such as okonomiyaki (savory dinner pancake) and karaage (fried chicken), Japan offers loads of delicious foods that any traveler would love to try!
For more info on Japanese food, check out our guide to decoding the most popular Japanese foods!
4. Pray at a Temple or Shrine
If you come to Japan, you simply must visit a Japanese temple or shrine. These beautiful installments from the Buddhist and Shinto religions are all over the Japan. Virtually every Japanese municipality has at least one temple, while large cultural centers like Kyoto have several hundred. Some of the top tourist spots in the entire country are world-famous temples and shrines. Some of the most well-known and top-rated are Kiyomizudera in Kyoto, Todaiji in Nara, and Fushimi Inari in Kyoto.
5. Bathe in an Onsen
No matter what time of the year you visit Japan, a trip to a Japanese onsen (natural hot spring) is an absolute must. There are many different kind of onsen, distunished by the different minerals in the water and the health benefits they provide. Hot springs bath come in both indoor and outdoor styles, and the prices to enter them range from cheap (600yen) to expensive (over 10,000 yen). Some of the most famous are Kusatsu Onsen near Tokyo, Noboribetsu Onsen in Hokkaido, and Nyuto Onsen above Lake Tazawako in Akita Prefecture, just to name of few; however, there are onsen in virtually every major city in the country. Onsen are enjoyed by both Japanese people and foreign tourists alike, so they are basically everywhere!
Want to bathe in an onsen, but have a tattoo? Check out our list of tattoo-friendly onsen here.
6. Enjoy Nature
Many people visit Japan to enjoy the breathtaking Japanese nature. Most notably are the cherry blossoms in the spring, and colorful leaves in the fall. Cherry blossoms, called sakura (桜) are Japan’s unofficial national flower. There are many varieties of sakura in Japan, most of which bloom for just a couple of weeks in Spring. Japanese people celebrate the occasion by doing hanami (花見), or cherry blossom viewing parties beneath the blossoms. There are hundreds of places across Japan where the sakura is famous for being particularly beautiful.
For our 2019 cherry blossom viewing guide, click here.
Autumn is the second most popular time to visit Japan. The autumn months in Japan are delightfully cool, crisp, and sunny, and the fall leaves are so beautiful that there is even a word in Japanese for them: kōyō (紅葉). Just like with cherry blossoms in the Spring, Japanese people gather at popular kōyō places to appreciate the colorful leaves in the Fall. There’s just something about the combination of ancient Japanese temples and shrines beneath a spectrum of fall colors that makes for an incredible sight.
7. Attend a Matsuri (Japanese Festival)
Matsuri (祭り) festivals are a significant part of traditional Japanese culture, and there are a wide variety of matsuri found all over Japan. In fact, there are so many festivals, that it is often said that at any given time, you can always find a festival going on somewhere in Japan!
There are several of types of matsuri, including: traditional shinto festivals, seasonal nature-oriented festivals, national holidays, and small local festivals practicing local rituals. Festivals are often based around one main event, with food stalls, entertainment, and carnival games to offer a wide variety of entertainment to visitors. Furthermore, every festival has its own characteristics. While some matsuri are calm and meditative, many are energetic and lively.
Attending matsuri is a great way to experience Japanese culture. If you’re visiting Japan and want to find matsuri in your area, you can use our guide here! (Available as a free mobile app as well.)
8. Take a Hike
Due to the fact that Japan is a country with an ancient culture and also hundreds of mountains, there are some incredible hiking trails and famous pilgrimages. Japan is a paradise for people who love to hike, as more than seventy percent of Japan’s islands are covered by volcanic peaks and mountains. Many of these mountains have held important religious and cultural significance, and today, many old pilgrimage routes, merchant highways, and ancient roads have been well-preserved and converted into popular walking trails.
Whether people are interested in quick, easy half-day walks, or long, multi-day hikes through the mountainous national parks, there are all kinds of hiking opportunities in a variety of lengths and climates. Some common easy hikes are Nikko National Park in Tochigi, and Minoo Park in Osaka, while more extreme hikers flock to tougher courses such as Akan National Park in Hokkaido and Mount Tanigawa in Minakami.
9. Stay at a Ryokan
Japanese ryokan (旅館), or traditional inns, allow foreign tourists to have an authentic Japanese experience. Ryokan can be found anywhere throughout the country, and are also commonly located alongside onsen resorts. Unlike modern hotels, ryokan cater much more to providing the “traditional” Japanese experience, as they typically feature tatami-mat floors, futon beds, Japanese-style public baths and kaiseki cuisine. Ryokan are incredibly popular with both Japanese people and foreign tourists alike, and should therefore be booked online weeks or months before your visit.
10. Have a Night Out
What Japanese experience is complete without a night out? Drinking plays an important role in Japanese society, and as a result, Japan has an excellent night life culture. When you visit Japan, especially in the bigger cities, you can take full advantage of the night life – go bar hopping, enjoy drinks such as Japanese craft beer or sake, and even do karaoke. Karaoke (カラオケ) actually originated in Japan and is now popular around the world! Unlike in Western countries, karaoke in Japan is usually open from around 11:00am during the day until as late as 3 in the morning. Karaoke centers typically have multiple private rooms (called karaoke boxes) that have a karaoke player and microphones. From izakaya restaurants, to bars, to karaoke, it’s easy to find hours of entertainment for a perfect night out in Japan!
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