Japan is a country with a perfect mix of quirky chaos and tranquil bliss. With epic adventures in nature as well as crazy experiences you can’t have anywhere else in the world, there are so many things to do in Japan that it will likely take a few visits to check them all off your bucket list.
From dancing robots to monkeys in hot springs to bamboo forests, we made a list of all the things you won’t want to miss on your trip to Japan.
Whether this is your first time visiting, or you are a frequent traveler to the “land of the rising sun,” we’ve got a collection of fun and exciting things to do in Japan for all travelers.
1. Hike the Kumano Kodo Trail
Yes, much of Japan is crowded. But there is also a huge portion of the country where you can find peace, tranquility, and yes, solitude. If you love nature, hiking, and out-of-the-ordinary experiences, this is JUST the thing to put on your radar.
Many people have heard of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but few know of the sister trail, which is located in Japan. The Kumano Kodo is an ancient pilgrimage trail that weaves through remote mountains and tiny villages, in which you can stay at traditional guesthouses.
During our time on the trail, we saw a whopping total of 18 other people! How is that even possible in Japan?! This region has started gaining more attention in recent years, and that’s great. It is such a unique way to see Japan, and a great way to support locals living outside of major cities. But we have a feeling this trail won’t be under the radar for long.
Another great thing about this trail is that you can adjust the hiking days to fit your travel plans (it’s possible to do just 2 days or as many as 6 days).
2. Soak in an Onsen
You should try one (or a few!) on your trip to Japan. Let’s start by defining what is an onsen, exactly…
Onsen: a Japanese hot spring with a bathing facility
Japan has a lot of volcanic activity, meaning there are onsens all around the country. Traditionally, onsens are separated by gender, and they are a staple in Japanese culture.
The most magical onsens are the outdoor ones with a view. But you’ll find all varieties. Similarly, sento are indoor bathing facilities that use ordinary heated water (not from geothermal activity).
If you visit Japan during the winter, taking a dip in an onsen, or natural not spring, is a must.
While onsens are nice in other seasons as well, there’s nothing quite like immersing in steaming water while chilly winter air kisses your shoulders. Pure magic!
Both onsens and sento are meant for communal bathing. I know what you’re thinking: I have to get naked… with strangers?!
My thoughts were the same. But after experiencing a jjimjilbang (which is essentially the Korean equivalent to an onsen or sento), I realized that nobody cares what you look like. Yes, seriously. It still may feel strange at first, but it is something you’ll get used to.
3. Go Izakaya Hopping
One of our favorite ways to feel like you’re experiencing local life is to pop into an izakaya (tiny, casual bar with food) and order a drink and some small plates.
Often times, izakayas only fit around 15 people, so it becomes as much about the atmosphere as it is about trying small dishes and drinks. We had some really cool izakaya experiences where we mingled with locals, tried dishes we wouldn’t have otherwise, and had an overall great evening.
You can find izakayas all around the country, but here are some famous areas to hop from one izakaya to another:
- Tokyo: Yakitori Alley, Memory Lane a.k.a. “Piss Alley”
- Osaka: streets just outside of Dotonbori
- Osaka: Shinsekai
Good to know: some izakayas charge a “cover fee”, which varies based on the place (we paid on average around 300 yen per person). They might bring a small (aka tiny!) little dish that is supposedly what you’re paying for (as well as your seat).
4. Explore teamLab Borderless Museum
Lasers, crystal “rain”, floating lanterns, and flowers that move when you touch them… anyone else reminded of Willy Wonka?! This was probably – no definitely! – the craziest museum we’ve ever visited, and it’s hard to sum up in words.
5. Japanese Photo Booth
Hopping inside a Japanese photo booth, or purikura, is a quick, yet memorable experience.
You can find photo booths in many arcades, and sometimes simply typing “purikura” into Google Maps will show you any nearby. The best part is this experience takes less than 10 minutes and costs around 400 yen, meaning any traveler can squeeze it into their Japan itinerary, no matter how tight!
And at the end, you’re left with an inexpensive and ridiculously “Japanese” souvenir that’ll make you smile (or cry laughing!) each time you see it.
6. Go on a Food Tour
Calling all foodies! If you want to try as much Japanese food as possible and learn about the cuisine on a deeper level, a food tour is where it’s at!
We discovered food tours a couple of years ago, and are kind of obsessed now. Not only do you get to eat at the hidden gems around the city, but you’ll learn things most other tourists are oblivious to. Oh, and you’ll get more than one freakin’ incredible meal. Need we say more?!
We went on two food tours with Arigato, one in Osaka and one in Tokyo. While they were both good, we really, really loved the tour in the Shinsekai district of Osaka.
7. Take a Japanese Cooking Class
Take your knowledge of Japanese cuisine a bit deeper and learn what goes into some of your favorite dishes…
We think taking cooking classes on our travels is one of the best ways to learn about a country’s cuisine and culture.
On our first trip to Japan, we took a sushi-making class, and on our second visit we learned how to make ramen from scratch.
8. Take a Ride on a Bullet Train
There’s something wonderful about train journeys, don’t you think? Pop on headphones, sit back and look out the windows at the towns and life passing by. Any route through the mountains or along the coastline is especially beautiful!
Japanese trains are famously efficient and clean, so your journey is sure to be a comfortable one.
9. Visit Shrines and Temples
Before we delve into this one, let’s have a quick chat about some basic differences between shrines and temples…
Shrines: Shinto religion
- You know it’s a shrine when there is a large torii gate at the entrance; you know, those orange 3-sided structures that are an icon of Japan?
- Temples often have a statue of Buddha, incense burners, and some have a cemetery attached to them. Monks live and train in temples, and you may even see some walking around at the larger temples.
There are countless shrines and temples around Japan, from the ultra-famous to the small neighborhood shrines and temples for locals to visit regularly. Seeing a few of each during your trip to Japan is one of the best ways to get a feel for the country’s culture and religion.
10. See Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani Park
Seeing the monkeys at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park was one of our favorite things we did during our week in Japan. We escaped the chaos of Tokyo for a little day trip to Nagano (yes, the host city of the 1998 Winter Olympics).
The path leading to the monkey park is lined with towering pines, and when we visited in February they were frosted with snow. We finally made it to a river valley and we knew we were close when we spotted a monkey in the middle of the path.
As we ventured further, they were everywhere. The monkeys brushed past us as if we weren’t there at all.
Getting to the Monkey Park is a bit of a logistical headache, and it takes a full 3 hours from Tokyo, but it was completely worth it for us. Although we made it a day trip, we’d recommend staying the night nearby if time allows.