The Top 25 Things to Do in Japan

Tokyo Cityscape with Tokyo Sky Tree visible in Tokyo city, Japan on sunrise.
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In a country as diverse as Japan, there's no end to the fascinating things to do but it's often difficult to know where to start. With over 20 UNESCO world heritage sites to visit and outstanding natural beauty right across its five main islands, visiting Japan is a treat for any kind of traveler. Luckily, being so well connected by high-speed rail, it's also one of the most easily traversable countries for travelers so get ready to enjoy the best of Japanese food, history, wellness, and culture with these experiences you can only have in Japan.

01 of 25

Hike the Kumano Kudo Trail

stone staircase going through a misty forest on the Kumano Kodo trail
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One of only two UNESCO World Heritage trails in the world, the Kumano Kodo Trail in Japan has been a key pilgrimage route since 800 A.D. The trail follows the Kumano River as you traverse ancient cedar and bamboo forest with mountain views and a spectacular waterfall making this hike a must for nature lovers.

Key Shinto shrines along the route include the giant torii gate Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha which sits as part of a large complex. Regain your energy at the small hot spring towns on the way such as Yunomine Onsen which offers beautiful scenes, comfortable ryokan, and delicious local food. You’ll need at least three days to fully enjoy the Kumano Kudo Pilgrimage Trail.

02 of 25

Take Part in a Tea Ceremony

kneeling woman in a kimono doing a traditional japanese tea ceremony

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An integral part of traditional Japanese culture, taking part in a tea ceremony will be an unforgettable experience during your trip to Japan. Typically taking place in a tea room with a tatami mat floor and surrounded by a landscaped Japanese garden, this event, which can last several hours, is a transformative experience.

Depending on whether you’re doing a full formal tea ceremony or a more typical shorter ceremony you will either indulge in a full multi-course kaiseki meal followed by a bowl of thick matcha tea and then thin matcha tea with wagashi desserts or simply enjoy the latter. You’ll also be shown how to mix matcha tea and learn proper etiquette for drinking tea.

03 of 25

Hike in Nikko

View from observatory area of Nikko shown the overall panoramic perspective of Nikko National Park with famous falls and lake Chuzenji during autumn season
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An easy trip from Tokyo, Nikko is a dreamy escape from the bustle of the city immersing you in nature, sacred Shinto and Buddhist spaces, hot springs, and sake.  Though beautiful at any time of year, if it’s possible to visit during fall then you’re in for a treat with the fiery reds and oranges taking over the National Park and encircling some key sightseeing spots like Shinkyo Bridge and the Keyon and Ryuzu waterfalls in color.

Take some time to hike around Lake Chuzenjiko, enjoy the tranquillity of Rinnoji Temple, Toshogu Shrine, and the Edo architecture of Tamozawa Villa. Once you’ve finished your trail, enjoy some Buddhist temple food, relax in an onsen, and visit the Katayama Sake Brewery which has been in operation since 1880.

04 of 25

Visit a Theme Park

halloween parade in Disneyland Tokyo

 

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Japan has some world-class theme parks to visit including Disneyland, DisneySea, Universal Studios, and the newly opened Super Nintendo World. Each of these is uniquely Japanese and easy to reach on public transport making for a fun and easy day trip from Tokyo, especially around holidays like Halloween and New Year when themed events are put on.

The Disney Resort is situated within Tokyo itself with both parks accessible by subway. Universal Studios, which features The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the newly added Super Nintendo World, is based in Osaka which is just two and a half hours on the bullet train from Tokyo.

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05 of 25

Hike Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji with Cherry Blossoms in the foreground

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Japan’s most famous and tallest mountain is situated close enough to Tokyo to be seen from its streets on a clear day. With its distinctive cone shape and snow-capped peak, it’s perhaps one of the most iconic mountains and should be on everyone’s bucket list when planning to visit Japan.

There are four trails to approach the peak depending on your experience with hiking and those who would rather not hike will also find the mountain accessible by car with a short walk left to the very top.

Mountain huts are available for overnight stays which allow you to wake up and hike in the early hours to catch the sunrise. Fuji can only safely be hiked during the peak season which lands between early July to September though arrangements can be made to hike outside of this if you’re experienced and determined. 

For more information, read our complete guide to climbing Mount Fuji.

06 of 25

Rent a Kimono and Wander Around Gion

Geisha walking through Kyoto

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Gion is a historic district of Kyoto strongly associated with geisha culture and you'll often see geisha (also known as geiko) and maiko wandering the narrow streets, leaving tea houses, or crossing the wooden Tatsumi Bridge. A well-preserved district of wooden Edo period buildings, it comes to life at night with bars, restaurants, and traditional entertainment. If you’re interested in renting a kimono to take those special pictures then this is among one of the best areas with no shortage of rental stores or photo opportunities. 

07 of 25

Visit the Studio Ghibli Museum

entrance to the Ghibli museum with a statue of Totoro peering out a window

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It can be difficult to get tickets to the Studio Ghibli Museum as they are limited and sell out quickly so it’s worth planning ahead if you want to see the museum celebrating Hiyao Miyazaki’s beloved animation. Studio Ghibli changed the culture of animation both in Japan and later internationally when films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro were received with huge acclaim.

The museum itself will transport you into this animated world with lifesize statues, art and film cells, interactive exhibits, showings of never-before-seen clips, and the gift shop with exclusive Ghibli items. A must-visit for fans of the studio and animation in general. Tickets can be booked online and are sold three months in advance.

08 of 25

Try the Local Ramen Dishes

Sapporo Ramen in a bowl

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Ramen is one of Japan's most famous foods and it is a definite must-try when visiting. One of the exciting aspects of ramen is how many varieties there are with the broth, noodle type, and toppings differing dramatically between cities and prefectures. Many people have taken trips around Japan with the sole intent of trying each region's signature ramen.

Vegans are also in luck with many chains, including Menya Muzashi and Ippudo, catering to plant-based diets. Some of the ramen dishes that you shouldn’t miss out on include the Sapporo miso ramen with seafood broth and pork, Fukuoka’s Hakata tonkotsu ramen, and Tokyo shoyu ramen blending soy with chicken or seafood broth. The main train station in any city is a great start for finding amazing ramen joints.

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09 of 25

Watch a Kabuki Performance

two kabuki performers performing on stage

 

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Kabuki translates to "the art of song and dance," and it is used to tell traditional Japanese stories (often moral tales with high emotions and tragic ends) with emphasis on colorful costumes, traditional instrumentation for the impressive score, and elaborate set and lighting design. With a history dating back to the 1600s and gaining popularity in the 1800s, kabuki is a cornerstone of Japanese theatre culture and a truly special thing to do while visiting Japan. While you will be able to catch kabuki in major cities, the Minamiza Kabuki Theatre in Kyoto was the birthplace of kabuki founded in 1610 and rebuilt in 1929.

10 of 25

Walk the Ancient Nakasendo Way

wide street with traditional two-level japanese buildings photgraphed at dusk

 

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One of Japan’s most famous hiking spots, Nakasendo Way is the old road that connected Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period is an amazing way to see some countryside and small towns. Well-equipped for people hiking the route, you will rarely be far from your next stopping point with plenty of facilities along the way. Many people hike only part of the route, with the most popular section being the 4.8-mile (7.7-kilometer) walk which links the well-preserved towns of Magome and Tsumago taking you on a scenic and winding walk through the Kiso Valley. This is possible to do on a long day trip from Kyoto or Nagoya, though stopping overnight along the way is recommended. 

11 of 25

Go for Conveyor Belt Sushi

japanese people eating sushi at a small restaurant

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The total opposite of an omakase sushi meal where the chef chooses what to serve, conveyor belt sushi is a fun way to observe your food as it slides by before committing to your sushi. The first conveyor belt sushi restaurant was founded in Osaka in 1958 after the owner of Mawaru Genrokuzushi was inspired by the conveyor belts at the Ashai beer factory. Now an international staple of sushi dining, trying it in Japan where there are over 2,500 conveyor belt restaurants won’t be difficult if you can’t make it to the original.

12 of 25

Catch a Sumo Wrestling Match

sumo wrestling match where the wrestlers are standing in a circle around the ring

 

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One of Japan’s most famous ancient sports, sumo is fascinating to watch whether you consider yourself a sports fan or not. If your travel dates are flexible then seeing an actual basho (tournament) is worth planning around but as tournaments are only held six times a year this could prove difficult. Alternatively, it’s possible to see the wrestlers training for matches at a sumo stable which is easily accessible and still very impressive to watch. There are also sumo exhibitions which are typically held between tournaments so there are other options if you can’t catch a tournament.

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13 of 25

Wander the Streets of Kamakura

aged buddha statue in Kamakura

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Easily reached on the Tokyo subway, Kamakura is often described as Little Kyoto and is an ideal destination if you don’t have time to reach places like Kanazawa and Kyoto. Kamakura is most famous for The Great Buddha statue (the second tallest in Japan) found in Kotoku-in Temple. Other notable temples in Kamura include Hasedera Temple, Megetsuin Temple, Engakuji Temple, and Hokokuji Temple.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine should also be on your itinerary while visiting as well as Komachi Street which is a bustling shopping street with hundreds of restaurants and izakaya pubs to enjoy. If you love small independent cafes and boutique shopping, Kamakura truly is a dream.

14 of 25

Go Shopping in Akihabara

View of colorful signs and people walking down a street in Akihabara, Tokyo

 

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If you love anime, manga, plushies, arcades, and videogames then lively Akihabara, also known as Electric Town, should be top of your list when you’re in Tokyo. Blend non-stop shopping with a visit to one of the area's many small restaurants offering comfort food like Japanese curry or take a trip to a themed cafe, like the Gundam Cafe, for coffee and desserts. This is also one of the best places to shop for cameras or a new lens, or anything electronic you were hoping to pick up in Japan. For anyone into retro games or memorabilia, there’s no end to the treasures you will find. If you can, try and visit on a Sunday when the streets are pedestrianized. 

15 of 25

Visit a Sake Brewery

person pouring sake with two hands into a small cup

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A drink with a long history in Japan, made over a long process involving fermenting rice using koji. Known as nihonshu in Japan, one of the best ways to learn more about sake and try multiple samples is by visiting a brewery. Often hundreds of years old, each brewery has its own methods and stories to tell making it a fascinating visit for heritage and spirit lovers alike. Some key breweries to visit include Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum in Kyoto and Ozawa Sake Brewery, the oldest in Tokyo. Local breweries in smaller towns are often some of the oldest and most fascinating to visit so keep your eye out for the sugidama or cedar ball which traditionally hangs outside.

16 of 25

Walk in a Japanese Garden

red Japanese footbridge going over a river in a Japanese Garden in autumn

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Japanese gardens have become a prominent feature the world over but there’s nothing quite like experiencing one in Japan itself. The first Japanese gardens are recorded to have appeared as far back 600 A.D. and are an integral feature of Japanese art, classic literature, and poetry. These landscaped gardens combine aspects of Shinto, Daoist, and Buddhist tradition, blend subtle design and nature to create living art. Some of the great gardens in Japan include Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo, and Ryoan-ji Temple which features the world’s most notable Japanese zen gardens.

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17 of 25

Indulge in a Kaiseki Meal

close up of one bowl filled with various foods in a japanese Kaiseki meal

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Food lovers should absolutely seek out a traditional kaiseki multi-course Japanese meal of traditional dishes prepared exclusively with high-quality, local, and seasonal ingredients. Served in traditional Japanese inns with and often culminating with a tea ceremony, the atmosphere is an incredibly important part of the meal. Typically you will be served appetizers and sake, a simmered dish, a sashimi dish, a seasonal specialty, a grilled course, and a rice dish. Hospitality and the quality of the food is an integral part of a kaiseki meal making this a memorable experience that everyone should try once.

18 of 25

Go Skiing in the Japanese Alps

lone skiier with a view of snow-covered trees in japan

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Japan is highly regarded as a major international skiing destination so whether you’re a seasoned skier or want to try hitting the slopes for the first time, there are few better places to go especially if you love deep powder snow. The Japanese Alps, just 130 miles west of Tokyo, is the major skiing destination in Japan. The northern island of Hokkaido is also incredibly popular but it does take longer to reach. Hakuba Valley is a popular area to stay with 11 resorts to choose from and also serves as a good base for anyone interested in seeing the Snow Monkey Park. Make sure to enjoy a soak in a hot spring apres-ski and indulge in a glass of warm sake. 

19 of 25

Explore the Historic City of Kanazawa

Dark-colored buildings on a Side street in Kanazawa

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A small city with so many unique things to do, Kanazawa makes for a great day trip or overnight stay from Tokyo or Osaka. Kanazawa was one of Japan’s most important cities during the Edo period and much of the traditional architecture still exists including the residences of samurai in Nagamachi Samurai District and of geisha in Higashi Chaya District. History of the Maeda Clan can be found across the city such as at Myoryuji (Ninja) Temple, which long used as a disguised military outpost by the clan, featuring disguised rooms and secret tunnels. This history is also evident at Kanazawa Castle which was home to the clan. A popular cherry blossom viewing and foodie destination, there’s plenty to get up to in Kanazawa.

20 of 25

Visit an Onsen Town

Yumoto Onsen Nikko

If you’re looking for the ultimate relaxation experience while in Japan, then visiting an onsen town should be on top of your list. With over 3,000 hot springs in Japan, finding a steaming onsen shouldn’t be difficult but visiting an onsen town offers the complete package of picturesque scenes, local food, traditional ryokans, and bathing. Some of the most interesting onsen towns to visit include Beppu in the far south of Japan, Noboribetsu in the north, and Hakone Hot Spring Village near Tokyo.

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21 of 25

Visit the Art Island of Naoshima

Trees and Shoreline on Naoshima Island

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An ideal day trip, this island off the coast of Okayama (also home to the famous Korakuen Garden) is a must for fans of Yayoi Kusama's work as many of her installations, including the iconic pumpkin sculptures, can be found there. Notable galleries and museums include the Art House Project, a collection of abandoned houses converted into art venues, and Chichu Art Museum which is partially underground and includes works by Monet and Turrell. Aside from pursuing art, you can enjoy refreshing coastal walks and cozy independent cafes to relax in before going home. If you’d like to visit all of the museums on the island then staying overnight is recommended but keep in mind, most museums are closed on Monday.

22 of 25

Eat at Fukuoka’s Outdoor Food Stands (Yatai)

people sitting at various food stalls in fukuoka

 

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One of the most well-known aspects of life in Fukuoka is the street food scene. The city is a great place to gather as the sun goes down and enjoy some quality food at one of the many yatai (street food stands). Grab a table with friends and pick your selection from foods such as yakitori (chicken skewers), hakata ramen, hot pot, and desserts. Alcoholic drinks, bubble tea, and soft drinks can also typically be found. One of the most popular areas for yatai is on the southern point of Nakasu Island but you will find them all over Fukuoka. 

23 of 25

Enjoy Tropical Island Life on Okinawa

aerial view of curving shore on

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Life on the subtropical islands of Okinawa is so different from life on the mainland, it’s a relaxed region with its own culture, food, and dialect that also boasts some of the best beaches, diving opportunities, and coastal scenery in Asia. This is also the original home of karate. As one of the earliest places in Japan to get cherry blossoms, the streets are lined with pink when the season hits making it a great spring destination. Island hopping is highly recommended and the ferry system makes it easy to get around.

Five days or more would be ideal if you’d like to see Okinawa properly but it’s also possible for a long weekend as flights from Tokyo are frequent and take just two hours.

24 of 25

Visit Yokohama Chinatown

Illuminated gate to yokohama chinatown at night

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A port city that is accessible on the Tokyo subway, Yokohama has a lot to offer from harbor views, quirky museums, and refreshing cycle paths to enjoy. One of the biggest draws is Chinatown, the largest in Japan, which has existed for one hundred and sixty years after Yokohama opened to foreign trade. It’s one of the best places to enjoy Chinese food in Japan with more than 600 stores and restaurants to visit as well as unmissable street food stalls. Other sights include the four gates marking the entrances and the Taoist Kanteibyo Temple which is lit up at night with lanterns. Make sure to enjoy some dumplings, bubble tea, egg tarts, and mapo tofu while exploring this fascinating area.

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25 of 25

Visit Fushimi Inari Shrine

series of orange gates on a curving path at fushimi inari shrine

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Perhaps Japan’s most recognizable shrine thanks to its appearance in films such as "Memoirs of a Geisha," a trip to Kyoto to visit Fushimi Inari is on most people’s bucket list. Famous for its thousands of red torii gates, the shrine is the most important of the thousands of shrines that honor the god Inari who is associated with rice and messenger foxes; you’ll see many fox statues on the trails and within the shrine grounds for this reason. The hike to the peak of Mount Inari takes two to three hours through wooded forest and you’ll find some restaurants on the way which serve dishes associated with Inari such as inarizushi (fried tofu pockets filled with rice) and kitsune udon which is topped with fried tofu. 

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