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 that have defined modern perceptions of Japanese culture and you’ll discover some of the most exquisite travel experiences to be had anywhere on the planet.
Here are ten top things to do in Japan.
There are few things in this world as sublime as soaking stark naked in a natural hot spring in the mountains of Japan. 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.
Mountains and forest cover three-quarters of this island nation and four very distinct seasons impart their unique flavour to the landscape. The annual cherry blossom festivals in spring are the icing on the seasonal cake. Snow brings winter charm to the mountains, and in autumn the sight of thousands of maples (they’re native to Japan) cloaked in red and orange hues is unforgettable.
In Japan, temples and gardens 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.
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.
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.
Traditional mountain villages, Edo-period towns and samurai castles offer a direct route into Japan’s past. Visit historic enclaves like 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 Ine-cho fishing village.
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 matted rooms, communal onsens and a meal of kaiseki (around 25 small dishes of food served over four courses).
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 of 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 laneways packed with eateries serving tasty ramen, soba, sushi, yakitori and more.
In stark contrast to big city life, Japan’s mountain regions offer quiet solace. Seventy per cent of the country is covered in mountains and forest — making it one of the most heavily forested industrialised countries in the world. 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.
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.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Japan? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover: Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto. Additional images: Bigstock
Linda Moon is a freelance travel, health and lifestyle writer. Her work has appeared in Voyeur, the Sun-Herald, the Sydney Morning Herald, the NZ Journal of Natural Medicine, Nature & Health magazine, the New Daily, Essential Kids, Australian Family magazine, Weekend Notes, WellBeing magazine, and Retirement Living Today. 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.