Ten top things to do in Japan
Beyond sushi and karaoke, Japan is a land of paradox and surprise – intriguing the traveler with its mix of modernity and tradition, big city mania and natural beauty.
Dig beneath the well worn cliches in this incredible country and you’ll discover some of the most exquisite travel experiences to be had anywhere on the planet.
Take your pick from this bucket list of ten top things to do in Japan.
Soak away your cares at an onsen
There are few things to do in Japan that are as sublime as soaking naked outdoors in a natural hot spring in the mountains. Volcanically active, the country boasts some of the best natural thermal springs in the world. Incorporating the Japanese appreciation of nature with zen philosophy, onsen bathing is the ultimate chillaxing experience. It’s absolutely one of the ten top things to do in Japan.
Experience the changing seasons
Mountains and forest cover three-quarters of the island nation and four distinct seasons impart their own flavour to the landscape. The annual cherry blossom festivals are the icing on the seasonal calendar. Snow brings winter charm to the mountains, and in autumn the sight of thousands of maples (they’re native to Japan) in autumn hues is unforgettable.
Enjoy the tranquility of temples and gardens
In Japan these two generally go together like love and marriage. Crafted like great works of art, gardens flow naturally from Shinto, Buddhist and Taoist temples and shrines. Carp glitter in the lotus-filled ponds and streams. Curved ornamental bridges, rock and moss gardens, torii gates, pagodas, bells and bamboo add to the beauty and tranquility.
Garden and temple fiends should head to Kyoto, where over 2,000 temples and shrines await. It’s another of the ten top things to do in Japan. Unmissable!
Stroll the lantern-lit laneways of Pontocho in Kyoto
Shining in the darkness, the paper lanterns of the orient are fun and traditional. For some lantern magic, stroll through Pontocho Alley in Kyoto at night. It’s the city’s most atmospheric street. Here you’re also likely to spot a geisha flitting by like some mystical creature of the night. It feels like a step back into a magical orient of the past.
Spot a snow monkey
Found on Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu (three of the four largest of Japan’s islands) and on some of the smaller islands, the Japanese macaque lives further north than any other primate. The sight of one bathing in a hot spring or ambling along beside a river in the wild is heart-stopping.
Explore historic villages, castles and towns
Traditional mountain villages, Edo-period towns and samurai castles offer a direct route into Japan’s historic past, and exploring them is one of the most charming of our ten top things to do in Japan. Here are a few options: Takayama’s old town, Tsumago, the gassho-zukuri thatched roof farmhouses of Shirakawa-go (a UNESCO World Heritage-listed village), Kumamoto Castle, and the heritage boathouses of fishing village Ine-cho.
Stay in a traditional ryokan
Popular with tourists and honeymooning Japanese, ryokans offer a chance to experience Japanese accommodation much as it was in the Edo period. Originating in the 17th century as inns for travellers, today most ryokans offer traditional tatami-matted rooms, communal onsens and kaiseki – about 25 small dishes of food served over four courses.
Wearing a yukata (traditional Japanese garment), which is often provided by a ryokan, will enhance the experience.
Marvel at big city life in Tokyo
Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station is the world’s busiest railway station and a ramble through its multi-levels, escalators and platforms is an experience you won’t forget. Weave your way through the mania of Shinjuku (a ward of Tokyo), marvelling at the machine-like efficiency and cleanliness of an area totaling less than 19 square kilometres with a population of more than 350,000 people.
There’s neon, skyscrapers and shopping galore, but also charming alleys and lanes packed with eateries serving tasty ramen, soba, sushi, yakitori and more.
Escape to the mountains
In deep contrast to Japan’s big city life, the mountains offer quiet solace and spiritual peace. 70 per cent of Japan is covered in mountains and forest, making it one of the most heavily forested industrialised countries in the world.
The mountains are the setting for several of our ten top things to do in Japan. Enjoy scenic vistas garnished with maples and conifers; bathe in hot onsens; admire stunning shrines set in gardens rich in seasonal beauty; and if you’re lucky, meet those wild snow monkeys.
Revel in quirky Japan
From futuristic bathrooms to cafes where you can play with kittens, Japan’s quirkiness delights most visitors. While it’s sometimes the butt of foreign amusement, in reality, Japanese creativity and sense of the aesthetic is nothing short of extraordinary, and there are few places in the world that pay such tribute to the inner-child in us all.
At Arashiyama station, sparkling columns chime with music-box melodies on the Harry Potter style platform. Shiny and cute as toys, the pink and lime green trains transport passengers away.
Do you have anything to add to our list of ten top things to do in Japan? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
Cover: Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Linda Moon is a freelance travel, health and lifestyle writer with work appearing in Voyeur, the Sun-Herald, Traveller Sydney Morning Herald, NZ Journal of Natural Medicine, Nature & Health Magazine, the New Daily, SBS Comment & Analysis, the Sydney Morning Herald Good Pub Food Guide, Essential Kids, Australian Family magazine, Weekend Notes, WellBeing magazine, Retirement Living Today and more. In other lives she’s been a social work student, waitress, music DJ, personal assistant, massage and spa therapist and naturopath. Based in Katoomba in the beautiful Blue Mountains, Linda has been blessed to explore the wonderful cultures and magical lands of Vietnam, Cambodia, Switzerland, Tahiti and Moorea, Japan, India, Koh Samui, Vanuatu, Lifou and New Zealand. When time permits – perhaps when she’s ninety-nine, but hopefully before – she hopes to complete a fantasy novel and see the world become a fairer, kinder place for all.