There is an abundance of things to do in Japan, to the point that it can be overwhelming. Some of these activities and attractions are unique to the Land of the Rising Sun, so unless you’re a local, you’ll be pressed for time if you’re on vacation. While it’s impossible to explore this incredible country in just one visit, there are certain attractions that you should go to immediately. These activities and attractions will give you an idea of what else you’ll be missing out on in Japan.
Things to do in Japan when you’re staying in the city
1. Go izakaya hopping
An izakaya is a tiny bar that serves drinks and snacks on a small scale. Typically, these bars sit near and across each other, so you can easily barhop to sample various dishes. Some of these bars can be distinct from each other; so take your pick between ramen or sushi, or karaoke or live bands.
Meals in izakayas usually start out with snacks; food like edamame (boiled soybeans) or hiyayakko (chilled tofu with toppings) opens the night. Eventually, you can move on to more robust dishes like karaage (fried meat) or yakitori (chicken skewers). These meals are the best pairs for beer, sake (rice wine), or shochu (distilled liquor) which izakayas serve generously. If a particular bottle of liquor catches your eye, you can ask the bartender to keep the bottle for you for your next visit. For a price, of course.
Izakayas are popular in Shinsekai in Osaka or Kabuki-cho in Tokyo. If you happen to stay near these places, you can try out what they have to offer!
2. Visit temples and shrines
If you’re looking for the best things to do in Japan, this is one of them. While tourists can visit shrines and temples in rural areas of Japan, there are also a number of holy spaces in Japanese cities. Being some of the most important structures in Japanese history and culture, visitors can expect crowds made up of locals and tourists walking and praying in these landmarks. Some of these temples have stood for over a hundred years and have become an important part of many Japanese lives.
It’s also important to note distinctions between Japanese places of worship. Shinto is usually practised in shrines while temples are for Buddhism. Keep these in mind so you won’t get confused when you do decide to pray.
If you choose to visit the Sensō-ji Temple and Asakusa Shrine, you’re in luck! The Buddhist and Shinto holy spaces sit only a few metres away from each other.
3. Try your hand at gashapon figures
While these machines have become famous all throughout the world, there’s nothing like getting gashapon figures in Japan. These miniature capsule toys originated in Japan; unlike their Western versions, they are highly detailed and made from durable PVC materials. Most series of these toys are a part of a set and can be considered as collector’s items, with rare variants costing more in second hand markets. Due to random acquisitions from every purchase, collecting can be frustrating. But if you’re not looking to collect, getting a cool-looking toy isn’t that bad!
The toy and electronics district of Akihabara has lines of these machines throughout its streets. If you’re staying in Osaka, the shopping district of Nipponbashi should have these easily available.
4. Stay in a ryokan
Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns, mostly characterised by tatami or bamboo mats. Most of these inns are designed for communal interaction. Baths and dining areas are communal spaces in most ryokans and guests are welcome to mingle with fellow guests and even the hosts. Most beddings provided by ryokans are futons and provided yukata can be worn for comfort.
Ryokans provide an intimate experience of Japanese hospitality, but spending a night in these inns can be expensive. The demand for these inns are so high that their prices can exceed most modern hotels today. Fortunately, accommodations often come with kaiseki meals for breakfast or dinner. So if you’re interested in staying in a ryokan, you will need to save more funds than you would expect.
Ryokan can be rare in Tokyo, so you might want to visit the old city of Kyoto instead. Being Japan’s cultural capital, you can count on any ryokan in Kyoto to experience traditional Japanese hospitality.
5. Watch cherry blossoms bloom
If you time your trip right, you might get to see cherry blossoms in Japan. They are seen during the spring, with trees blooming and colouring Japan with breathtaking hues of pink. Cherry blossoms are a popular attraction during the spring and would usually flower during Japan’s Golden Week holiday.
Ueno Park in Tokyo is a great place to watch cherry blossoms bloom.
6. Ride a bullet train
Have you ever ridden in a super express transportation system? Riding a bullet train is one of the best things to do in Japan. These trains cross the beautiful greeneries of the country, from its dense forests to its mighty mountains. Some even pass along coastlines! If you’re looking for something quirkier, you can board themed trains, such as the Hello Kitty shinkansen.
Things to do in Japan when you’re staying in the countryside
7. Hike mountain trails
For nature lovers, hiking is a great option for things to do in Japan. The country’s dense forests and cool climate will keep you energised and refreshed throughout your hike. Most trails in Japan are well-maintained, with picturesque stops and tranquil spaces away from the city.
Not sure which trail to take? The historic Nakasendō Trail makes a worthwhile hike. It served as a connection to Kyoto and Tokyo during the Edo Period.
8. Explore the country’s heritage villages
Experience the ingenuity of traditional Japanese architecture in their heritage villages. Usually found in farmlands that experience harsh winters, most houses have steep roofs so that snow slips off easily. Some homes found in these villages have stood for at least a hundred years or more with the proper care and materials.
Visit the villages of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go should you want to see these outstanding houses for yourself!
9. Ski down snow-white mountains
Japan experiences a lot of snowfall every year; when this happens, skiing becomes a popular activity for locals and tourists alike. Hokkaido attracts visitors during this time because of an abundance of beginner-friendly alps. The fine powder snow found in its mountains definitely helps with its popularity and beauty!
Things to do in Japan when you’re on the beach
10. Go scuba diving
Since Japan is also an archipelago, the country attracts a lot of divers from around the world. Okinawa is a popular spot for diving because of its inherent marine wildlife. Apart from its temperate waters, colour from its coral reefs and marine vegetation just flourishes under its waters. And if you prefer diving at a very low temperature, the seas of Hokkaido will also welcome you!
Beyond this list, you can find many more things to do in Japan. You can attend cultural events, visit theme parks, attend many sporting events, and tour museums. It’s safe to say that regardless of what you pick, Japan has a lot of exciting attractions and activities to offer the adventurous tourist.
Featured image credit: Stephane Bidouze via Canva Pro