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The 25 Things You Absolutely Must Do in Japan
Japan: thousands of incredible things to see and do, so little time to get it right. Intrepid travelers take note: we found the best of Japan’s gems. Ready to become BFFs with baby foxes or get spiritual at a Buddhist temple? Our local Heroes will prepare the trip of your dreams. So, ikimasho! Let’s go!
#1: Cuddle baby foxes at the Zao Fox Village
A wildlife sanctuary in northern Japan, the Zao Fox Village is easily the cutest place in Japan (and quite possibly in the world). Undomesticated foxes (kitsune) sprint in circles around visitors, with some of the more curious foxes waddling up to brush against your legs. For only 1,000 yen ($10 USD), visitors can stroll with fluffy foxes around the park grounds. Best of all, visitors over 12 years old can actually hold and pet baby foxes! Pro tip: make sure to visit in winter to experience prime fox fluffiness.
#2: See a bamboo forest—in the heart of Kyoto!
Home to hundreds of bamboo groves and dozens of temples and shrines (built within the bamboo maze to ward off evil), the serene Sagano Bamboo Forest is a far cry from the bustle of urban Kyoto. Dozens of feet tall, the bamboo stalks make a calming rustling noise—one so well-loved by locals, it’s on the list of “100 Soundscapes of Japan.” Even with the crowds of tourists, it’s easy to let your mind wander with the chanting of nearby monks.
#3: Zoom on a bullet train through the mountains
Japan’s Shinkansen, or “bullet train,” reaches up to 177 miles per hour and shoots past Japan’s snowy peaks and forested hills, with the Tokaido Shinkansen Line bringing you directly within view of Mount Fuji! (Pro tip: For a clear view of Fuji-san, sit on the right-hand side of the train if you’re heading south and on the left-hand side if you’re going to Tokyo.)
#4: Devour wild boar ramen
From road-side ramen shops to the esteemed French-Japanese Le Midi ramen bar, this hearty bowl of noodles and meat is extreme comfort food. Whether you find yourself in a remote village or in the heart of Tokyo, odds are that there will be ramen, and wild boar (inoshishi) ramen will be an option. For the love of your taste buds, do not miss out on this taste-tastic dish!
#5: See the “Mouth of Hell” at Mount Osorezan
Incredibly surreal, the rocky outcroppings of Mount Osorezan (AKA “Dread Mountain”) form a maze of holy volcanic springs that bubble yellow and red from high sulfur levels. Only open from May to October, this day trip is perfect for intrepid adventurers looking to go off-the-beaten-path in Japan. Ask a Hero about visiting during the Osorezan Taisai, a summer festival where blind mediums channel the spirits of the dead.
#6: Experience Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant
Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant features gigantic robots, pumping bass, and laser shows—if this is what the future is like, we’re all in! Women in glitzy bikinis steer four-legged robots while dodging lasers in an epic battle/dinner show. If Robot Restaurant sounds like a sensory overload, you’re absolutely right—even though Japan is very family-friendly, this technicolor robot-dinner-theatre is best for the grown-ups.
#7: Chase the best views of Mount Fuji
If you don’t want to battle the crowds for a photo of Fuji-san without any people in it, why not venture further into the heart of Japan to see less touristy views of the holy mountain? Whether you prefer the crashing waves of Kumomi Kaigan or the serene waters of Lake Tanukiko, there are endless opportunities to gape at Mount Fuji’s ruggedly good looks in person. Best of all, these views are easily accessible from picturesque Shizuoka, one of the best places to visit in Japan.
#8: Soak in an open-air hot spring
Whether you go to an onsen (a public bath) or a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), no Japanese experience is complete without a long, relaxing soak in your birthday suit. To avoid any crowds, your Hero can easily direct you to the off-the-beaten-path hot springs. (Pro tip: Springs like Amagi Yugashima Onsen are known worldwide for their views of the ocean, mountains, and forests, but you should book way in advance for best rates.)
#9: Raid the hyaku yen (100 yen) store for eccentric gifts
The equivalent of American 99-cent stores, hyaku yen stores are hidden gems located in pretty much every city in Japan. Seriously, hyaku yen stores are treasure troves for obscure, eccentric, practical, and kawaii (super cute) must-haves, like Hello Kitty dessert forks, porcelain teacups, bubble stickers—all for 100 yen! Be on your guard though; one does not simply walk into a 100-yen store and only buy one or two things.
#10: Behold legendary sumo wrestlers
With many sumo wrestlers weighing in at over 300 pounds, to say sumos are heavyweights is an understatement. Part of an ancient Shinto ritual to entertain the gods, sumo matches only last seconds at a time but require insane strength and concentration. Japan’s annual sumo tournaments (basho) only happen six times throughout the year, but seeing these incredible athletes in person is 100% worth it! Your Hero knows the very best sumo matches that you just can’t miss.
#11: Sleep in a famous “capsule hotel”
A “room” about the size of the twin bed you slept in as a kid, a Japanese capsule hotel looks like an invention straight out of a sci-fi movie. A great way to save money in big cities like Tokyo, your personal pod has a bed, lights...and yeah, that’s about it. With styles ranging from rustic country bunk beds to compartments with automatic doors, this is a totally unique way to catch some Z’s while traveling Japan on a budget.
#12: Party through Japan’s year-round festivals
Ain’t no party like a Japanese festival, cause those Japanese festivals don’t stop. But seriously, with around 200,000 festivals (matsuri) taking place year-round, you’ll have a jam-packed party schedule anywhere and anytime you visit Japan. For a romantic winter evening under hundreds of fireworks and lanterns, don’t miss the enchanting Chichibu Night Festival; or, if summer nights are more your jam, head over to the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri, where hundreds of mythological creatures parade through the streets.
#13: Become an anime expert at the Studio Ghibli Museum
Japan is a treasure trove of animation, but Studio Ghibli holds a special place in the Japanese (and the world’s) hall of movie fame. With legendary artist Hayao Miyazaki at the helm, Studio Ghibli’s instant classics like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro give a fantastic insight into Japanese culture. Ask your Hero for the best times to visit Tokyo’s Studio Ghibli Museum, one of the cutest places on earth that gives you a unique front-row seat to Miyazaki’s endless imagination.
#14: Haggle in Nishiki Market, aka "Kyoto's Kitchen"
Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, Nishiki Market a hidden gem where local cooks and restaurants get some of Japan’s best catches and produce, from the ubiquitous tuna and salmon to delicacies like tako tamago, a quail egg wrapped in octopus. Although this Kyoto market is only about as long as two city blocks, the jam-packed stalls offer all the ingredients you could possibly need for perfect washoku (Japanese cuisine).
#15: Spend the night in a Buddhist temple
Temple lodgings, or shukubō, are perfect for once-in-a-lifetime overnight trips for pilgrims and curious travelers alike. While visitors always must respect the sacred temple space, monks highly encourage travelers to participate in temple activities like prayer and meditation. Few temples offer such accommodations, but with prices only $50-90 a night, making space in your Japanese itinerary for this overnight is easy and affordable. Our Heroes can easily make reservations in temples close to popular destinations like Kyoto or Mount Koya.
#16: Channel your inner Indiana Jones in the temples of Mount Koya
A sacred pilgrimage spot of Shingon Buddhists, visitors to holy Mount Koya enjoy the quietness and solitude of the forest, eventually wandering to Torodo Temple, where a huge mirrored hallway reflects thousands of lanterns. Hundreds of moss-covered shrines and meditating monks are also the starting point of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage path, one of Japan’s best adventures.
#17: Eat sushi right off a conveyor belt
The sushi in Japan brings a whole new meaning to “take your taste buds on a journey,” and getting that sushi right out of the kitchen on a conveyor belt? Simply magical. Sushi conveyor belts can be found across Japan at kaitenzushi restaurants, and with pay-by-the-plate ordering, you’re bound to leave with a full belly. For you adventurous eaters, try the kani miso sushi, made from crab innards. Once you’re full, ride the sushi conveyor belt into the sunset.
#18: Wander through Kitakyushu’s flower tunnels
Turn your world upside-down in the wisteria tunnels of Kitakyushu, where the brilliant purple-, pink-, and lavender-colored flowers drift lazily from the ceiling. This garden seriously looks like a creation straight from the pages of Alice in Wonderland. Combining Japan’s loves of nature and elegance, the Kawachi Fuji Garden is most vibrant from April to May. Ask a Hero how to purchase tickets beforehand from a 7-11 or FamilyMart (and grab a bento box from 7-11 while you’re at it).
#19: Marvel at the firefly squid in Toyama Bay
Hop on a boat to Toyama Bay and join the cephalopod squad! During the day, the mysterious firefly squid (Hotaru Ika) dive deep into the ocean, only resurfacing at night to mate. Glowing an astounding electric blue, the firefly squid appears during Hotaru Ika season (from March to June). Take in the sight of the otherworldly blue, then pop over to the Hotaru Ika Museum to try some firefly squid sushi or candy.
#20: Become a real-life Mario Kart champ on the streets of Tokyo
You might have been a pro at Koopa Troopa Beach (or even Rainbow Road), but your true Mario Kart skills come to the fore in a MariCar race in Tokyo. While drivers can’t actually throw exploding Koopa shells, racers can push their cars to around 50 miles an hour while wearing the costumes of their favorite characters. Technically more of a tour than a race, it’s still your chance at gaming glory.
#21: Catch ‘em all at Japan’s mega Pokemon Center
At Japan’s mega Pokemon Center in downtown Tokyo, it’s time to relive your childhood fantasies and reenter the world of Pokemon! With super cute Pikachu plushies and rare Pokemon paraphernalia, it’s no small choice to select your Pokemon to carry around your Japanese travels (just in case someone challenges you to a Pokebattle).
#22: Turn up in Sapporo with the world’s best sake
With a reputation of near-mythical proportions, the rice-based sake has been brewed in Japan for almost 3,000 years, getting closer and closer to perfection in the breweries of Sapporo. Go off-the-beaten-path and create your own brewery tour with some local advice. With nearly 1,500 sake breweries in Japan, you’ll have your pick of world-famous tastes.
#23: See professional female free-divers hunt for pearls
On Mikimoto Pearl Island, free diving for pearls is an ancient tradition in Japan, where professional divers (ama uminchu) explore the ocean without scuba or diving gear. Trained from a young age, most ama are women who continue to dive well into their 70s and 80s. On a diving tour in Mikimoto, you can see firsthand the incredible athleticism and determination of the ama, who dive over 80 feet beneath the waves.
#24: Spend a sleepless night on a ghost tour in Tokyo
From small streetside shrines to massive temples, Tokyo is packed to the brim with ancient reminders of its spiritual heritage. Screw your courage to the sticking-point and encounter local paranormal legends in a guided ghost tour like the Haunted Tokyo Tour. For a truly eerie experience, ask your Hero about going to the haunted Aoyama Cemetery during the season of Obon, during which the dead can most easily cross into the realm of the living.
#25: Visit a Shinto shrine and make a wish
A well-known feature of Shinto shrines across Japan, thousands of small wooden blocks (ema) hang from fences and walls. Visitors from all over the world are welcome to make an offering and write a prayer or wish on an ema, which are seen by the spirits, or kami. With so many incredible things to do in Japan, this is a unique opportunity to reflect on your Japanese adventures (and to wish to come back again soon).
This is only the beginning of the adorable, weird, and downright amazing adventures that only happen in Japan! Choose your favorite highlights with the help of a local expert, then send us a shout. Before you hop on the next plane to Japan, check out: