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With a team who have each lived in Japan, narrowing down this list wasn’t easy. We’ve got whole posts dedicated to incredible seasons and off the beaten track destinations, so I’m taking it back to basics. Where to start?
Frankly, there are countless things to do in Japan, but if it’s your first visit, there are a few indisputable musts; the following can be incorporated into most itineraries and the most modest of budgets.
Top 10 things to do in Japan
1. Marvel at the neon lights
Tokyo’s neon lights are famous for a reason. Walk around the Kabukicho, Shibuya and Akihabara districts to see beams streaming upwards, advertising everything from comic book shops to tiny restaurants on the top floors of office buildings.
Glowing skylines aren’t confined to Tokyo though; Japan’s top foodie spot, Osaka has neon bright enough to compete with the capital – head to the Dotonbori area to see the iconic illuminated ‘Glico Running Man’ reflecting on the river below.
2. Take a dip in an onsen
With a unique volcanic landscape, Japan has countless hot spring baths (onsen), and flocking to spa towns in search of a relaxing dip is a national past-time. Onsen range in size, style and etiquette – for something traditional, head to Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama (pictured above), the oldest bath house in the country, and inspiration for the Ghibli film Spirited Away. For a gaudy extravaganza, take your pick of themed onsen across the many floors at Osaka Spa World; and if you’d like to see snow monkeys congregate in their very own onsen, visit the Jigokudani National Park in Yudanaka.
To experience one of the most blissful ways to pass the time, read our guide to onsen etiquette, there’s more to it than you might think!
3. Spot or meet a geisha
Save for the occasional clump of tourists, the Gion area of Kyoto is just as it always has been; a district with a warren of narrow alleys lined with traditional wooden houses and okiya – geisha training houses. If you’re lucky, you may spot a maiko (apprentice geisha), resplendent in kimono and kanzashi (hair ornaments), shuffling between appointments.
For something really special, it is possible to meet a maiko, learn a bit about her life, watch a traditional dance, and play a drinking game or two.
4. Rub shoulders with the locals at an izakaya
To see the locals let their hair down, spend an evening at an izakaya. These informal inns are laidback and lively, drawing hardworking salarymen after a chilled beer and a bite to eat at the end of a long working day – you can’t go wrong with the food, so try a bit of everything! Izakayas are often tucked away and can be difficult to find, team up with a local guide to find somewhere special.
5. Visit temples and shrines
Ancient temples are somewhat synonymous with Japan, but many first-time visitors are still surprised by the prevalence of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines; it’s not unusual to stumble across a traditional wedding or chanting monks in parts of Tokyo, where skyscrapers blot every part of the landscape. Old and new stand side by side just about everywhere; whether you’re in the heart of the city or 1,000ft up a mountain, chances are you won’t be far from a place of worship.
6. Stay at a ryokan or temple lodgings
For something truly special, spend a night at a ryokan or temple lodgings. With tatami mat rooms, super soft futon beds and sliding fusuma doors, they both offer a chance to experience a slice of Old Japan.
While staying at a Buddhist temple, you’ll channel your spiritual side at morning meditation with the monks, and tuck into tasty vegetarian meals – leaving refreshed in both body and soul.
Expect to feel at home as soon as you arrive at a ryokan, with kindly hosts offering a soft cotton yukata and slippers for to wear around the inn. I don’t know of anywhere else you’re expected to wear a gown and slippers for dinner! The kaiseki meals, with picture perfect little dishes that look almost too good to eat (almost!), will be a highlight of your culinary Japanese journey. If you have dietary requirements, be sure to let your ryokan know in advance; ingredients are planned with the number of guests in mind, ensuring the freshest food and little waste.
7. Visit the Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum
The Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum ensures the devastation of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II are never forgotten. The museum has been curated thoughtfully and the displays are sobering, but these days, Hiroshima is also a modern hub with a tasty food scene to boot. Spend half a day here before taking the short journey across Hiroshima Bay to beautiful nearby Miyajima Island.
8. Ride the shinkansen (bullet train)
Japan’s public transport is quick, efficient and always, always, on time. Gleaming bullet trains have been revolutionising cross-country travel since 1964, snaking from city to city at speeds of up to 320km/h. Despite this, carriages are peaceful, so you can pick up a bento box from the station and catch your thoughts as you watch the scenery swish by.
9. Find your Zen in a Japanese garden
Japanese gardens, like Ritsurin above, are labours of love. Teams of trusty gardeners make everything tip top around tranquil tea houses, wooden bridges, streams of koi carp, waterfalls and the occasional Zen rock garden. In spring the trees bloom with pale pink cherry blossom, and autumn sees the leaves burst in shades of orange.
10. Try okonomiyaki
It goes without saying that you’ll eat the best sushi and ramen of your life in Japan, but few first-time visitors are familiar with okonomiyaki. Prepare for your new favourite food.
These savoury pancakes can be found just about everywhere, but they originate in Osaka. In the Kansai region, a batter containing a combination of meat, fish and vegetables is fried, then topped with a sticky sweet sauce and Japanese mayonnaise. Best of all? You choose your own ingredients (it’s great for vegetarians).
Hiroshima also has its own layered version with noodles. Which one’s best? It’s a much-contested honour – you’ll just have to try them both and see!
This list barely scratches the surface of Japan, but hopefully it gives you a place to get started! For more tips and ideas, get in touch with our friendly team of Japan experts.
Read more: First-timer’s Japan: Top tips