Japan really is a melting pot of contradictory experiences, from Shinto traditions to robot cafés and soaring skyscrapers to time-honoured temples – the question is where to start? Well, lucky for you, our travel boffins have put together their tip-top experiences for this intriguing country which will take you right to the heart of authentic Japan in no time.
Immerse yourself in nature
A country with a deep connection to nature and very distinctive seasons, it’s no surprise to see locals celebrate Sakura (cherry tree blossoming) which marks the beginning of spring. Alternatively, during the autumn months you can witness ‘the falling of the leaves’ that creates stunning red landscapes.
With 70% of Japan’s landmass covered with mountains, we recommend immersing yourself in nature on a hiking trail in Hakone to marvel at the majesty of Mount Fuji, experiencing the soothing calm of a Zen garden at the Ryoan-ji Zen temple in Kyoto or simply enjoying a picnic at Tokyo’s Ueno Park surrounded by cherry blossom trees – it’s quite picturesque!
Delicious and varied foodie experiences
With a wealth of influences, styles and flavours, Japanese cuisine has something for everyone. Whether you’re a Katsu curry lover, obsessed with Ramen, or fascinated by conveyor belt sushi, Japan is the perfect destination to whet your appetite. Even the unassuming 7-Eleven convenience stores are full of delicious snacks and affordable treats to keep you going. Why not have a read of our Japan Food Guide where we tell you all about our favourite food and drink in Japan?
Recharge and rejuvenate in volcanic hot springs
Despite its buzzing cities, Japan can be a rejuvenating holiday destination in its own unique way too. Visit the quaint town of Takayama and enjoy some peace and tranquility among the striking Japanese Alps, or relax after a day of exploring in a traditional onsen (thermal hot springs). Thanks to Japan’s volcanic grounds and mountainous landscapes, there are over 3,000 onsens to choose from. Whether you visit a modern hot spring in a city or a more traditional one that’s part of the ryokans (traditional guest houses), you’ll recharge your batteries in no time!
Karaoke, sake and Geisha experiences
Japan is intriguing, very unique and also the perfect place to try something different. If you want to do something fun while you’re there we recommend singing your heart out at a local karaoke bar (easily found in towns and cities), watching a show at The Robot Restaurant in Tokyo (packed with tourists but incredibly kitsch) or having a drink (or two!) of sake at a local izakaya – especially the ones in Golden Gai in Tokyo!
We also recommend visiting the Minamiza Theatre in Kyoto if you want to witness the artistry of Japanese Geisha. Their performances are very popular with locals and tourists alike, and combine a mix of singing and dancing. Very sought after, Geisha are quite hard to see outside performing theatres. Highly skilled in the Japanese art of conversing, singing, literature and dancing, for Japanese people, Geisha keep ancient traditions alive. You can recognise a real Geisha by her manicured hair, flawless white make-up and striking, traditional attire.
Marvel at traditional architecture
If you have an appreciation for traditional architecture, you’ll love Japan. It’s likely that during your travels you’ll find majestic castles (we love the one in Osaka) characteristic for their numerous tiers and fortress-like buildings.
In Kyoto you’ll find the popular Kinkaku-Ji or Golden Pavilion and the Buddhist temple of Ryoan-Ji, home to one of the most emblematic, manicured, Zen gardens. You’ll also see the Fushimi Inari-Taisha, a Shinto shrine situated 764 ft above sea level with a maze of hiking trails to other smaller shrines, wildlife-inspired sculptures and lush green gardens.
You’ll probably also spot red Torii, or gates built as part of Shinto shrines which symbolise the transition from the mundane into the sacred world. One of the most impressive Torii is the floating one in Miyajima – the island of the gods – as part of the Itsukushima shrine. This can be easily accessed when staying in Hiroshima.
Shopping and souvenirs with a twist
Whether you’re buying something for yourself or bringing back gifts for your loved ones, shopping in Japan is an experience not to be missed. If you’re in Tokyo, you can visit Tokyu Hands shops where you can buy anything from bento boxes to jewellery as well as cosmetics and materials for arts & crafts.
We recommend exploring the city visiting the main shopping districts: Ginza, the more up-market district, Shibuya and its department, Harajuku the famous hive of teen fashion and pop culture, and the up-and-coming Shimo-Kitazawa, which is full of independent and more underground shops.
In Japan, you’ll find merchandising and plush toys about almost everything, especially at toy shops like Kiddy Land. In the neighbourhoods that surround the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and the Nishiki fish market in Kyoto, you’ll find local artisan shops that offer ceramics, condiments and kitchenware at reasonable prices.
In most Japanese cities you’ll also find the popular shopping chain ‘Don Quijote’ where you can buy all kinds of items, from toiletries to ‘green tea kit-kats’ – if you can bear the crowds and the queues!
Suggested Japan Bite-Sized Trips & Itineraries
On the blog
Meet Frazer and Emily, two British travellers living in Japan with a passion for food. Here are their favourite places serving up food loved by Tokyo's locals!