High on many a traveller’s wish list, the best things to do in Japan speak to the imagination of many, with sky-high districts full of neon alongside centuries-old buildings and lots of ‘only-in-Japan’ weirdness. Of course, you can stick to those stereotypes, and although they do exist (and are carefully cultivated for tourists’ pleasure), it’s worth your while to dig a little bit deeper. Then, you’ll find rowdy bars, stunning modern art, incredible hotels, surprising natural vistas, and of course, some of the best food in the world, often in the most unexpected places. Zip your way through it all on an uber-punctual bullet train – finding the best things to do in Japan just got a whole lot easier.
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Best things to do in Japan
Mt Fuji may be the most famous, but Japan offers more than just the sacred mountain. Over 70 per cent of Japan’s land is covered in mountains and hills; not climbing one is akin to blasphemy. Mt Takao or Mt Mitake are great day trips from Tokyo, but for a full mountain spirit immersion, do a temple stay at Mt Koya in Kansai, which often come with Buddhist-style meals. Be sure to book ahead, as the lodges are popular.
Sake, known as nihonshu in the local lingo, is Japan’s national drink. A visit to a sake brewery is an unmissable introduction to the beverage. There’s plenty of misconceptions about sake (no, it’s not like vodka), and where better to dispel them than its place of birth? Kobe’s Nada district has 40-odd breweries, multiple of which offer tours; the Hakutsuru Brewery Museum in particular has easy-to-understand exhibits. Plus, free booze samples – it’s a liquid education.
The Tokyo Skytree towers over the city at 634 metres. It’s as touristy as they come, but worth every yen. At 42 million inhabitants, Tokyo is the largest city in the world, but you really can’t quite understand what that means until you’ve seen it from above. The 350-metre and 450-metre viewing decks have views of the entire Kanto plain. Go just before sunset to see the sun setting behind Mt Fuji; for an alternative view of the tower itself, you can also go kayaking in the adjacent canal.
Hidden away on three small islands in the Island Sea is a fascinating collection of art installations, museums and outdoor sculptures. The main island of Naoshima alone has massive Yayoi Kusama pumpkins, a museum with Monet paintings, and lots of Tadao Ando architecture, but the neighbouring islands of Teshima and Inujima have enough other artsy goodies to keep you entertained. For the ultimate art trip, stay in one of the few accommodation options on Naoshima.
Ebisu Yokocho is a covered alleyway rammed with tiny izakaya (restaurant-bars), all specialising in a specific type of food. You’re guaranteed a good night out here – if you manage to nab a table. It’s a microcosm of Japanese going-out culture: groups of friends, coworkers and lovers gather to rowdily eat, drink and chat the night away. Our faves include the Fukuoka-style cuisine at Jun-chan and the mushroom-based dishes at Kinoko, and if you need to let it all out, there’s karaoke at Wakeari too.
The town of Beppu – located on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu – is famous for its eight different hot spring areas, each with its own set of onsen, or hot spring baths. Some have specific health properties, while others are part of ryokan (traditional bed and breakfasts), which are a popular weekend getaway. After you’ve soaked up, have a fancy dinner with a side of shochu – the local tipple which is primarily distilled in Kyushu.
A much quieter alternative to Kyoto, the very photogenic Kanazawa has four main selling points: great food, old geisha and samurai districts, a castle, and a superb contemporary art museum. The region is known for amazing seafood (go for the yellowtail, shrimp, and crab, sometimes topped with another local speciality, edible gold). When you’ve had your fill, be sure to visit Kanazawa Castle (which is remarkably preserved) as well as the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, with Leandro Erlich’s swimming pool being the ultimate Instagrammable spot.
Meaning ‘Blue Pond’, this small, man-made lake in the middle of the Hokkaido wilderness is, well, very blue. If this place looks familiar, then you must be a Mac user: a picture of it was a popular screensaver. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s even prettier in real life than it is on a screen and it's still secluded enough to keep that quiet vibe. It's a place unlike anywhere else in the world.
Tea started being grown in Uji around the 1300s, making it ground zero for quality Japanese tea. It’s also quite impressive to look at: rows and rows of tea fields, partially covered in cloth (to make matcha, the leaves have to be shielded from the light). Your matcha latte will never taste the same again. Most farms used to be off-limits to visitors, but some have opened their doors for tours relatively recently, including the Obubu Tea Plantations.
Let's be honest, if you visit Japan and don't try any sushi, did you really even visit? More importantly, we're not sure how you could avoid it. But with so much sushi popping up all over the place, where do you start? Well, Hakodate’s Asaichi market is one of the best places because not only is it vibrant and brimming with stores, but the produce is all deliciously fresh. You can even catch your squid to take home with you.
Japan’s most southern group of islands, Okinawa is a slice of tropical paradise – white sandy beaches included. Although the main island offers enough to keep your toes sandy, it’s the more outlying Yaeyama island group that have the pristine beaches of brochures. Plus, people in Okinawa have the longest lifespan on the planet, apparently due to a combination of their food, booze and laid-back lifestyle. Can’t hurt to indulge in some of that.
This two-kilometer walking route passes a handful of pretty temples and other serene spots in Kyoto. The path has so many temples and shrines, it’s hard to pick which ones to see – and to find ones without hordes of tourists. Thankfully, you’ll pass some smaller temples and shrines, all set along a calm canal. It’s particularly pleasant at night, and the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji) is around the corner.
Japan has too many regional specialities for you to try in a lifetime, let alone one trip. The best way to sample them is by trying ekiben – train station lunch boxes which are sold across the country, and tend to present the best of a specific region in takeaway form. Whether you’re eating chicken and rice or colourful sushi, they’re the perfect snack while on the shinkansen (bullet train). Itadakimasu!
Originally an exhibition hall, Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome is the only structure that survived the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima in 1945. Today, the gutted-out building makes for an eerie reminder of the past. Hiroshima has been rebuilt completely and is now a bustling city with few marks of the bombings seven decades ago, but the Dome stands there in remembrance. it's overwhelmingly moving, and the Peace Memorial Museum next door is just as impressive; be sure to check out the exhibit which shows all nuclear tests since the bombs dropped. There are a lot more than you’d expect.