Beyond sushi and karaoke, Japan is a land of paradox and surprise — intriguing the traveller with its mix of modernity and tradition, big city mania, and natural beauty.
Dig beneath the well-worn cliches that have defined modern perceptions of Japanese culture and you’ll discover some of the most exquisite travel experiences to be had anywhere on the planet.
Here are ten top things to do in Japan on a first visit.
1. Experience the changing seasons
Mountains and forest cover three-quarters of this island nation and four very distinct seasons impart their unique flavour to the landscape. The annual cherry blossom festivals in spring are the icing on the seasonal cake. Snow brings winter charm to the mountains, and in autumn the sight of thousands of maples (they’re native to Japan) cloaked in red and orange hues is unforgettable.
2. Enjoy the tranquility of temples and gardens
In Japan, temples and gardens generally go together like love and marriage. Crafted like great works of art, gardens flow naturally from Shinto, Buddhist and Taoist temples and shrines. Carp glitter in the lotus-filled ponds and streams. Curved ornamental bridges, rock and moss gardens, torii gates, pagodas, bells and bamboo add to the beauty and tranquility. Garden and temple fiends should definitely head to Kyoto, where over 2,000 temples and shrines await.
3. Stroll the lantern-lit laneways of Pontocho in Kyoto
Shining in the darkness, the paper lanterns of the orient are fun and traditional. For some lantern magic, stroll through Pontocho Alley in Kyoto at night. It’s the city’s most atmospheric street. Here you’re also likely to spot a geisha flitting by like some mystical creature of the night. It feels like a step back into a magical orient of the past.
4. Soak away your cares in a thermal spring
There are few things in this world as sublime as soaking stark naked in a natural hot spring in the mountains of Japan. Volcanically active, the country boasts some of the best natural thermal springs in the world. Incorporating the Japanese appreciation of nature with zen philosophy, onsen bathing is the ultimate chillaxing experience.
5. Spot a snow monkey
Found on Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu (three of the four largest of Japan’s islands) and on some of the smaller islands, the Japanese macaque — also known as the snow monkey — lives further north than any other primate. The sight of one bathing in a hot spring or ambling along beside a river in the wild is heart-stopping. While the macaques can sometimes be spotted in the wild, for guaranteed monkey thrills check out the Jigokudani Yaen-koen (Wild Monkey Park) or the Arashiyama Monkey Park in Iwatayama.
6. Explore historic castles, villages and towns
Traditional mountain villages, Edo-period towns and samurai castles offer a direct route into Japan’s past. Visit historic enclaves like Takayama’s old town, Tsumago, the gassho-zukuri thatched roof farmhouses of Shirakawa-go (a UNESCO World Heritage-listed village), Kumamoto Castle, and the heritage boathouses of Ine-cho fishing village.
7. Stay in a traditional ryokan
Popular with tourists and honeymooning Japanese, ryokans offer a chance to experience Japanese accommodation much as it was in the Edo period. Originating in the 17th century as inns for travellers, today most ryokans offer traditional matted rooms, communal onsens and a meal of kaiseki (around 25 small dishes of food served over four courses).
8. Marvel at big city life in Tokyo
Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station is the world’s busiest railway station and a ramble through its multi-levels, escalators and platforms is an experience you won’t forget. Weave your way through the mania of Shinjuku (a ward of Tokyo), marvelling at the machine-like efficiency and cleanliness of an area of less than 19 square kilometres with a population of more than 350,000 people. There’s neon, skyscrapers and shopping galore, but also charming alleys and laneways packed with eateries serving tasty ramen, soba, sushi, yakitori and more.
9. Escape to the mountains
In stark contrast to big city life, Japan’s mountain regions offer quiet solace. Seventy per cent of the country is covered in mountains and forest — making it one of the most heavily forested industrialised countries in the world. Enjoy scenic vistas garnished with maples and conifers; bathe in hot onsens; admire stunning shrines set in gardens rich in seasonal beauty; and if you’re lucky, meet those wild snow monkeys.
10. Revel in quirky Japan
From futuristic bathrooms to cafes where you can play with kittens, Japan’s quirkiness delights most visitors. While it’s sometimes the butt of foreign amusement, in reality, Japanese creativity and sense of the aesthetic is nothing short of extraordinary, and there are few places in the world that pay such tribute to the inner-child in us all.
Top Oz Tours offers a great range of Japan day tours, guided experiences, and attraction tickets and passes. There are no booking or credit card fees when you book through us, and you’ll have access to the widest choice of activities and most competitive prices.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Japan on a first visit? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Linda Moon is a freelance travel, health, and lifestyle writer. Her work has appeared in Voyeur, the Sun-Herald, the Sydney Morning Herald, the NZ Journal of Natural Medicine, Nature and Health magazine, the New Daily, Essential Kids, Australian Family magazine, Weekend Notes, Well Being magazine, and Retirement Living Today. Based in Katoomba in the beautiful Blue Mountains, Linda has explored the wonderful cultures and magical lands of Vietnam, Cambodia, Switzerland, Tahiti, Japan, India, Thailand, Vanuatu, Lifou Island, and New Zealand.