Living in Japan, I learned that the country is an intriguing place that’s full of rich contrasts.
Ancient buildings coexist alongside emerging technologies. There’s delicious traditional cuisine and more modern, adventurous snacks. You can explore rural lands where things are done as they always have been, and cities that are rife with change, urban sophistication, and a passion for kawaii (cute).
With all the contrasts of this complex culture, what should you see and do on your travels to and around the country? Here are my picks for the Top 24 things to do in Japan, including cultural and historical attractions, food, nature and wildlife, and epic sights.
EPIC SIGHTS IN JAPAN
Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO Heritage Site, is an isolated mountain village located in central Japan’s Sho River Valley, where nature reigns supreme. The area offers gorgeous wintry scenes, an abundant hanami (cherry blossom) season, green summers, and beautiful fall colors that illuminate the importance of the change of seasons to locals.
Ogi-machi Gassho Style Village showcases historic buildings dating from the 1800s. They have steeply sloped thatched roofs, which resemble two hands meeting in prayer or an open book propped up by the covers. These roofs were designed to withstand the weight of winter's heavy snow (some of Japan’s heaviest!). Within the houses, the attics are utilized as workspaces, most often as a space for breeding silkworms.
While there, wander the Gasshozukuri Minkaen Outdoor Museum, which is comprised of 26 buildings, including a watermill, shrine, and temple. Also, visit the Tajima House Museum of Silk Culture, which is located in a gassho-style building dedicated to silk farming.
2. Tōdai-ji Temple
This temple complex, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains the world’s largest wooden structure (which was built in 743). It’s located in Nara, Japan's historic capital.
Within the temple complex, the Great Buddha Hall houses the world's largest bronze Buddha. It’s known as Daibutsu, and was originally cast in 749. Visitors can also explore the Todai-ji Museum, the Bell Tower, smaller temples, a cultural center, and more.
Note that small deer roam the grounds at will, and are believed within the Shinto religion to be messengers of the gods. After WWII, the deer were designated as national treasures.
I learned the hard way that you should be sure all bags are tightly closed and nothing is sticking out of your pockets or hands. The deer are quite adventurous and boldly seek out food. What you think might be a barrier (such as a zipper) may not be a deterrent to them!
Located in Hiroshima Bay, the island of Miyajima is known for its beautiful forests, historic temples, and the floating torii gate. This island, which is called an Island of the Gods, is one of the most beautiful places in Japan. It is part of Setonaikai National Park.
The Shinto Itsukushima Shrine, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, was established in the 6th century. The shrine is most famous for its floating red torii, or gate. The area in which the gate is located is accessible during low tide to foot traffic (toss a coin in for good luck!).
The tide here is quite powerful. During high tide, the torii appears to be floating in the water. Of course, the gate (which is made of wood) is not meant to last forever. The first gate was built in 1168, but the current gate dates back to 1875.
On the island, you'll find other shrines and temples as well as beautiful maple trees. If you visit in the fall, be sure to plan a trip here to see the autumnal colors. Whenever you visit, partake in delicious pastries stamped with (or in the shape of) a maple leaf. As in Nara, watch for the deer, which are sacred and cherished.
Wildlife might not be the first thing on your mind when planning a trip to Japan, but there are many incredible species to see. Besides the sacred deer, here’s a look at other wildlife you might encounter.
In Asia, the crane has long been considered a symbol of good fortune and longevity. The most famous species is the red-crowned or Japanese crane (tanchozuru), the second-rarest crane species in the world. Japanese cranes are black and white, with a bare red patch of skin atop their head.
There are an estimated 2,750 Japanese cranes left in the wild, with 1,000 of those in Japan (mostly in Hokkaido).
Head to the Arasaki Crane Reserve in winter to see the annual gathering of 14,000 cranes, including the common crane, hooded crane, white-naped crane, and sandhill crane. If you're lucky, you could also spot the rare Demoiselle crane or Siberian Crane, which appear infrequently. The Izumi Crane Visitor Centre provides excellent viewing (and photographing) areas. Arrive early for the best sightings, as the birds are most active around sunrise.
The snow monkey, which is also known as the Japanese macaque, is native to Japan and lives in snowy areas. Snow monkeys are most famous for their penchant for swimming and relaxing in an onsen (Japanese hot spring).
The most popular portrayal of snow monkeys (aside from National Geographic onsen photos) is the three wise monkeys. You will find this “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” depiction in fairy tales, stories, art, and, most famously, at Nikko's Tosho-gu Shrine as a carving.
SEE SNOW MONKEYS ON ZEGRAHMS SNOW MONKEYS AND CRANES OF JAPAN EXPEDITION
From bonsai to stones, ponds, and lush greenery, Japanese gardens are known for their elegant beauty and form. Exploring these harmonious places, where the Japanese aesthetic marries a natural philosophy of design, is an important part of visiting the country. Here are a few you shouldn’t miss.
Located just outside the gates of Kanazawa Castle, this ancient garden is considered one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan (the other two are Koraku-en in Okayama and Kairaku-en in Mito).
The garden was initially developed in the mid-1600s and features a pond, waterways, teahouse, pagoda, the oldest fountain in Japan, and a flower viewing bridge. It is also known as the Garden of the Six Sublimities.
Most people travel to Kinkakuji, a Buddhist temple in northern Kyoto, for the beautiful Golden Pavilion. But nature-lovers in the know visit for its Japanese strolling garden (kaiyu-shiki-teien).
This garden showcases natural and man-made design via a pond that reflects the golden pavilion, as well as structuring the landscape to represent famous places in Japanese literature. It is based on the minimalist Muromachi period of garden design.
At just over 100 years old, the Heian-jingu Shinto shrine is relatively new. But the gardener, Ogawa Jihei (1860-1933), really knew what he was doing.
The Shin’en Garden is quite beautiful and, if you visit in spring, has the best cherry blossom viewing spots in Kyoto. The shrine was built to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto. The strolling garden features a pond, dragon stepping stones, and a covered wooden bridge adorned with a phoenix.
9. Flower Island
Located at the northernmost part of Japan, Rebun Island is home to extraordinary flowers, including many endemic species. Surprisingly, all are alpine plants, which really should not be growing at such a low altitude!
The island has six walking paths, for hikes ranging from short to up to 8 hours (17km). Along the way, you can see a waterfall, take a forest road, hit a high observation point, and climb a mountain, always surrounded by beautiful scenery. Rebun Island is part of Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park.
EXPLORE TRADITIONAL CULTURE
10. Spot a Geisha
The most significant marker of living tradition in Japan is geisha. These professional women study and train for years in dance, singing, music, and conversation. They wear a traditional kimono with obi (a wig) and full white face makeup.
Apprentice geisha are called maiko: There are around 100 geisha and 100 maiko in Kyoto today, located in 5 geisha districts. Hospitality and high culture are the hallmarks of a successful geisha. Geisha entertain at special teahouses and restaurants and also perform at concerts and theaters.
Spend three full days in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, and enjoy an exclusive geisha experience with a local expert on Zegrahms Imperial Japan Expedition.
11. Attend a Musical Performance
From the ubiquitous karaoke in every bar to performances on traditional Japanese instruments, music plays a huge part in Japanese culture. Attend a performance of Taiko drums (which date to the 7th century), bamboo flute, or the shamisen (a lute-like stringed instrument).
Not all music played on these instruments is traditional: Modern music is often incorporated into the repertoire. Of course, there are also a variety of other musical genres in Japan, from J-pop to jazz, heavy metal, and classical.
12. Relive your Childhood
Studio Ghibli is a world-renowned, groundbreaking animation studio with many beloved films, including Spirited Away (which won the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2003), My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Howl's Moving Castle.
The Ghibli Museum is located near Tokyo and is a place of pilgrimage for Studio Ghibli fans. The museum has a cat bus replica (one of my favorite parts of Totoro) , a theatre, cafe, bookstore, rooftop garden, and plenty of interactive options for kids.
GET A TASTE OF LOCAL FLAVORS
13. Attend a Traditional Tea Ceremony
One of my favorite parts of living in Japan was participating in the traditional tea ceremony. Called “the Way of Tea,” this is a deeply cultural activity that showcases the preparation of powdered green tea, called matcha.
Influenced by Zen Buddhism and dating back to the 9th century, the traditional tea ceremony takes place in a tea house with a tatami room and specific hanging scrolls and flower arrangements. Utensils used include a teapot, bamboo whisk, tea bowl, and tea scoop. It’s an aesthetic experience like no other.
14. Try Street Food
Wherever you go in Japan, you'll find delicious street food. Try takoyaki (fried balls of octopus topped with bonito flakes), shioyaki (salty fish on a stick), ikayaki (grilled squid on a stick), and, of course, sushi.
One of my favorite Japanese street foods is dango– chewy rice dumplings on a wooden skewer, grilled over a fire and basted in a sweet soy sauce.
Desserts to sample include kakigori (shaved ice), crepes, wataame (cotton candy), candied fruit, taiyaki (fish shaped waffle cakes, filled with custard or ice cream), and sweet filled buns.
15. Eat Life-Extending Eggs
Want to extend your life by seven years? Eat black eggs boiled in the Owakudani Valley (an active volcanic valley locally known as the Valley of Hell).
Located in Hakone, the valley features a crater filled by a hot spring. The scene is almost apocalyptic, with barren landscapes interspersed with forest and sulphuric steam escaping from earthen vents at odd angles and locations.
Visitors often take an aerial tram or bus up to reach the hot springs. Once there, you can purchase chicken eggs (kuro tamago) that have been cooked in the sulphuric hot springs, which turns them black.
EXPLORE JAPANESE HISTORY
16. Peace Memorial Park
Located in what was once central Hiroshima, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum is an important part of Japanese history. After an atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945, the area was burned, flattened, damaged, and vaporized.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site seeks to educate visitors about this horrific event, as well as the damaging after-effects suffered by victims. The Museum also places great emphasis on peace and understanding of the past through its exhibits, park, and the Peace Database.
The park also features the Children's Peace Monument (also called the Tower of a Thousand Cranes), which is a beautiful area that includes millions of origami paper cranes.
17. Meiji Shrine
Located in Shibuya, Tokyo, the Meiji Shrine honors the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji (Japan’s 122nd emperor, who opened Japan to the west after a long isolation) and Empress Shoken. Formally dedicated in 1920, the original Shinto shrine buildings were burned during the war, then rebuilt in 1958.
The shrine complex is composed of two parts: Naien, which houses a treasure museum of articles from the Emperor and Empress, and Gaien, which includes a gallery and sports facilities. The entrance's torii gate is made from 1,500-year-old cypress, and the area is planted with over 100,000 trees.
Learn more about the Emperor and Empress before you go: They were well-known for their progressive views, as well as their life-long dedication to writing Waka poetry.
18. The Samurai Museum
Located in Shinjuku, the Samurai Museum showcases over 700 years of samurai history. Permanent exhibits include clothing and weapons, all in a small but beautiful space.
Visitors can explore the museum on their own: The museum is laid out in chronological order, with captions in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean. There are also guided tours available approximately every 20 minutes.
Visitors can try on samurai clothing (battle coats, helmets) and take photos while wielding a sword. There are also live performances every day, samurai calligraphy lessons, and a daily sword lecture.
Another place to learn about samurai history is Kanazawa. There are several important places to visit in the Utatsuyama neighborhood and the Nagamachi Samurai District.
The Ashigaru Museum explores the life of the lowest-ranked samurai. The Nomura Family Samurai House dates back to 1583, while the Maeda Tosanokami-ke Shiryokan is dedicated to the Maeda family, who once ruled this area. You can also explore the remains of the Takeda Family Residence, with its lovely gardens and stables.
Join Zegrahm on an itinerary designed specifically for those with an appreciation of Japanese arts, cuisine, customs, and culture: Sacred Traditions: Japan Revealed
OTHER CULTURAL EXPERIENCES
20. Attend the Theatre
There are three types of traditional Japanese theatre– Kabuki (which arose from the geisha in the early 1600s), Noh, and Bunraku (a puppet theatre).
Kabuki theatre is a ritualized performance that combines music, dance, and drama. There are often sword battles included, and over 400 Kabuki works are still regularly performed today.
Noh theatre is characterized by elaborate costuming, masks, and ritualized performances. If you are in the Kanazawa area, be sure to visit the Kanazawa Noh Museum to learn more.
Bunraku is a medieval tradition that utilizes puppets to tell a story. The puppeteers are dressed all in black in order to make the puppets stand out more.
21. Sing Karaoke
One of the most popular things to do in Japan is karaoke. Ever-present at bars and restaurants, this is a fun group activity.
For those who’ve never done it before, karaoke involves people getting up, grabbing the microphone, and singing along to recorded music (without a vocal track). The lyrics are printed on a screen, and audiences love to see singers with passion and enthusiasm.
These days karaoke has become a global phenomenon, with popular songs available in various different languages. Before you go, pick a song (or two) to practice, so you can really shine during your turn at taking the mic. This trick is called juhachiban, as a nod to the 18 best Kabuki plays, which are called Kabuki juhachiban.
22. Relax in an Onsen
There are over 3,000 onsen (natural hot springs, usually segregated by gender) scattered all throughout Japan. Entire towns are built around onsen, and there are even onsen-focused hotels, which are called onsen ryokan.
While onsen differ from each other in color (depending on what minerals are present), smell (depending on how much sulfur is in the water), and temperature (hot, hotter, hottest), the experience essentially will be the same.
First, you head into the washing room and scrub yourself completely. Once you’re clean, cover yourself with a small towel (don’t let it touch the water!), then slip into the hot spring and relax. If you're lucky, it’ll be snowing, and your eyelashes will capture snowflakes that will quickly steam away.
23. Shop Local Markets
Excellent markets abound throughout Japan. Here are a few of my favorites:
In Takayama, visit the Miyagawa Morning Market, one of the country's largest and oldest markets (300 years ). Look for delicious local foods, fruits, artisanal crafts, and souvenirs. Of particular note are the calligraphy artists, who will create personalized art for you.
In Kanazawa, explore the Omicho Market, which was founded in 1721 and nicknamed "Kanazawa's kitchen" for the excellence of its culinary options. You might not wish to purchase fresh fish, seaweed, or vegetables, but you WILL want to try the deliciousness available at the restaurants. Looking for a gift? The area is well known for its sweet rice and sake breweries.
In Tokyo, the most interesting market is the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest fish market in the world. Arrive early: Tuna auctions start at 5 am, and only 120 visitors are allowed in. Afterwards, a delicious sushi breakfast at one of the nearby eateries. Then continue shopping at the outer market, which has fresh seafood as well as specialty items.
As of October 2018, the Tsukiji Market will move 2km away and reopen as Toyosu Market, with more space, elevated viewing decks for tourists, warmer temperatures outside the auction floors, an eco-friendly location, and more shops and restaurants. Tsukiji's outer market will still be open.
24. Ride the Shinkansen
No trip to Japan is complete without riding the Shinkansen, or bullet train. This high-speed train achieves up to 200 mph, and connects the rural areas with larger cities. The original Shinkansen began service in 1964: Its journey from Tokyo to Osaka took four hours (instead of 6 hours, 40 minutes). It’s now used as a commuter rail network. These trains are very fast, safe, and smooth. They’re an excellent and stress-free way to explore the country with easy. –Jessie Voigts
BIO: Jessie Voigts has a PhD in International Education, has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled all around the world. She’s published 8 books about travel and intercultural learning (including guides to Cambodia and Vietnam), with more on the way. Jessie is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding and is passionate about sharing the world through her site, Wandering Educators.
Learn more about traveling Japan here: Japan Travel Guide
Zegrahm Expeditions offers a Japan tour like no other, thanks to our connections to Japan experts Mark Brazil and Chieko Sakihana. We take guests off the beaten path and into food shops, local homes, and traditional businesses for a true immersion in Japanese culture. Of course, our Japan tour hits all the highlights, too, from Tokyo and Kyoto to Hiroshima and even a foray into South Korea to Gyeongju. Visit Hokkaido and stroll through endless fields of wildflowers on Rebun Island, also known as the “Floating Island of Flowers,” and visit a bustling morning market in Abashiri. Choose an overland adventure or a Japan cruise—all options boast an insider feel that make your journey even more special as guests search for the elusive Japanese crested ibis, visit a wasabi farm, learn about traditional arts and crafts, and wander the famous gardens of Kenroku-en and Myoryuji Temple. View our upcoming Japan Expeditions here: https://www.zegrahm.com/destinations/japan