Today (July 18, 2016): things to see & do in Japan.
For a long time, Japan was a blind spot on my travel map, but finally, that’s a thing of the past after I traveled through the country a few weeks ago. Remarkably, Japan is not very popular with tourists, because of the lack of iconic landmarks, language troubles (most Japanese people don’t speak English very well), and expensive lifestyle (transport, food, and accommodations). And that’s a shame, because Japan is a fascinating country that should be on your bucket list, since it represents a unique and inspiring blend of traditional and ultramodern culture. While preparing my travel itinerary, I found the website Japan Guide to be very helpful in particular, and I highly recommend it. Here’s my list of the top 10 things to see and do in Japan.
What is your favorite attraction in Japan? Do you think I missed one? Leave a comment or take my poll below.
With over 19 million inhabitants, Osaka is Japan’s third-most-populated city (after Tokyo and Yokohama), yet one that is often overlooked by overseas tourists. Indeed, it lacks famous landmarks, traditional Japanese architecture and alluring natural scenery that are present other Japanese cities. But Osaka’s reputation as a gourmand’s paradise and Japan’s food kitchen makes up for that. The city is flourishing with a plethora of restaurants, from Michelin starred dining to delicious, cheap eateries. When visiting the city, you cannot leave without enjoying some of Osaka’s most famous street food, which includes Takoyaki (ball-shaped octopus fritters), Okonomiyaki (a cabbage pancake), and Kushikatsu (deep -fried skewered meat and vegetables).
- Japan Guide link: Oasak food guide
The Hakone National Park, known as the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, is one of the most popular destinations among Japanese and international tourists looking for a break only 100 km (60 mi) from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. The area is a nature lover’s paradise, with relaxing hot-springs (onsen), dense forests, and scenic lakes centered around legendary Mt. Fuji, with 3,776 meters (12,388 feet) Japan’s highest mountain. Hakone is the park’s most popular destination since it features the iconic image of the red Hakone shrine on the shore of Lake Ashi, with Mt. Fuji as a backdrop. For the more adventurous, it’s possible to climb Mt. Fuji in one day during summer time, which offers an incredible experience, with spectacular, 360-degree views of Lake Ashi, the Hakone mountains, and the Owakudani Valley.
- Japan Guide link: Hakone National Park
Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost prefecture, consisting of a few dozen, small islands that stretch over 700 km (more than 400 miles) of ocean from Kyūshū to Yonaguni-jima, and are closer to Taiwan than Tokyo. With its subtropical climate, emerald blue seas and snow-white sand beaches, Okinawa has long been a popular destination for Japanese travelers looking for a relaxing beach break, and the islands are gaining international popularity as well. The seas surrounding Okinawa’s islands are considered among the world’s most beautiful with coral reefs and abundant marine wildlife. Consequently, snorkeling and scuba diving are among Okinawa’s top attractions.
- Japan Guide link: Okinawa islands
Tsukiji Market is the world’s largest fish markets and one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist attraction, especially for jet-lagged tourists with predawn hours to fill. Indeed, the unique and chaotic atmosphere of scooters, trucks, sellers and buyers hurrying around to trade over 2,000 tons of fresh fish per day should not be missed. The main reason for visiting the market is to observe the live tuna auctions at 5 am. However, public access to the tuna auction is limited to 120 per day, the maximum number which the market’s infrastructure can accommodate. It’s also very popular to have a sushi breakfast in one of the restaurants in the neighborhood. The Tsukiji Market is scheduled to move to a new site in Toyosu in November 2016.
- Japan Guide link: Tsukiji Fish Market
Nara was the country’s first permanent capital from 710 to 794, lending its name to the Nara period. Although often overlooked by visitors, Nara is second only to Kyoto (cf below) as the richest collection of traditional sites in Japan. Home to the Japan’s most ancient and largest temples, Nara is bursting with mythical shrines, Buddhist monasteries, and lovely Zen garden, which collectively form the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara” or Nanto Shichi Daiji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nara’s top attraction is Todaiji Temple, the world’s largest wooden building and once the most powerful Buddhist temple in Japan, which still houses the country’s largest bronze Buddha.
- Japan Guide link: Nara
Staying overnight at a traditional Japanese inn or ryokan is an unforgettable experience. These rustic accommodations find their origin in the Edo period (1603-1868), when they served travelers along Japan’s highways, and you can still find them in Japan’s more rural areas and mountains. They typically feature tatami matted floors, sliding doors, minimalist interiors, and common bathing areas or ofuro (usually segregated by gender). Ryokans are known for their excellent food, and dinner and breakfast are mostly included in the room rate. Meals consist of traditional Japanese cuisine known as kaiseki, which features seasonal and regional specialties, and are mostly served within the room. While offering a memorable and authentic experience, Ryokans are far from cheap, with room and meals that can reach ¥150,000 per night.
- Japan Guide link: ryokan
Comprising 20% of Japan’s land area but only 5% of its population, Hokkaido – the northernmost and least developed of Japan’s four main islands – feels like a world apart. With its unspoiled wilderness, secluded hot springs (onsen) and mountainous scenery, Hokkaido is a nature lover’s paradise. In summer, the area attracts hikers, cyclist and campers who come to explore the great outdoors in the magnificent national parks and perhaps hope to catch a glimpse of Hokkaido’s most famous inhabitant, the Ussuri brown bear. In winter, Hokkaido transforms into a world-class ski and snowboard destination. The small town Niseko boasts the finest powder in the country and has three major ski resorts to match: Niseko Village, Niseko Annupuri, and the Grand Hirafu/Hanazono.
- Japan Guide link: Hokkaido
Miyajima Island, less than an hour outside the city of Hiroshima, has long been regarded as an Island of Gods on the beautiful Seto Inland Sea. It is a romantic and historical island where Itsukushima Shrine, a World Heritage site, is located, along with the virgin forest of Mt. Misen, and numerous preserved shrines, temples and historical monuments. Miyajima Island is most famous for its giant torii gate, which at high tide seems to float on the water, a sight that is ranked as one of Japan’s three best views. There are numerous hiking trails on the islands, the bests ones leading up Mt. Misen, thereby affording spectacular views of the Seto Inland Sea. There are also wild deer on the island that have become accustomed to people.
- Japan Guide link: Miyajima Island
A Unesco World Heritage Site, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial – commonly knowns as Genbaku Dome or A-Bomb Dome – is a tangible link to one of the darkest pages in human history. The building, which ones served as a location to promote Hiroshima’s industries, was the only structure left standing in the area where the first atomic bomb exploded on 6 August 1945. Through the efforts of many people, including those of the city of Hiroshima, it has been preserved in the same state as immediately after the bombing as a memorial to the more than 70,000 people who were killed instantly, and another 70,000 who suffered fatal injuries from the radiation. Not only is it a stark and powerful symbol of the most destructive force ever created by humankind; it also expresses the hope for world peace and the ultimate elimination of all nuclear weapons.
- Japan Guide link: Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Built in 794 on the model of the capitals of ancient China, Kyoto served as Japan’s imperial capital for more than 1,000 years until 1868. Due to its historic and cultural value, the city was dropped from the list of target cities for the atomic bomb and spared from air raids during World War II, resulting in the survival of countless temples, breathtaking shrines and other historically priceless structures. Kyoto now boasts a stunning collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites that illustrate the development of Japanese wooden architecture and the art of Japanese gardens. Highlights include Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion), Gion (geisha district), the Kiyiomizudera temple, and the Fushimi Inari Shrine (famous for its tore gates). Also make sure to visit Arashiyama’s famous bamboo groves: standing amid these soaring stalks of green bamboo is like being in another world.
- Japan Guide link: Kyoto