Creating a categorical list of best things to do in Japan is a challenging task due to the abundance of captivating activities available in the country.
While Japan offer fascinating experiences, newcomers often find the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo to be the prime destinations for a first-time visit.
Japan boasts a wide array of cultural attractions, seamlessly blending old-world charm with modern innovations. Here, you can seamlessly transition from zipping through the city on a futuristic bullet train to immersing yourself in the rich history of an ancient temple or a majestic Samurai castle.
1. Best Cities & things to do in Japan
For a first-time visitor, the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo offer a fantastic starting point. These urban centers are not only culturally rich but also home to some of Japan’s top tourist destinations. Here’s what you can expect:
Known as Japan’s food capital, Osaka comes alive in the evening. Osaka, located in the Kansai region of Japan, is a dynamic metropolis known for its vibrant street food culture, bustling entertainment districts, and historic landmarks. The city is famous for its iconic Osaka Castle, which offers a glimpse into Japan’s feudal past. Visitors can also explore Dotonbori, a lively district renowned for its neon lights, street performers, and delectable local cuisine, making Osaka a must-visit destination for those seeking a blend of tradition and modernity in Japan.
To experience its vibrant street food scene, head to Dotonbori at around 6:00 PM when the stalls begin to open.
You can also explore Osaka Castle during the day;
Tickets can be purchased here.
Kyoto is a timeless treasure trove of Japanese culture and history. Renowned for its beautifully preserved traditional architecture, Kyoto is home to countless historic temples and shrines, including the iconic Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and Fushimi Inari Taisha with its thousands of vermilion torii gates. Visitors can also experience the art of the tea ceremony, explore enchanting bamboo groves, and immerse themselves in the tranquil beauty of Japanese gardens. Kyoto’s unique blend of tradition and elegance makes it a captivating destination for travelers seeking a glimpse into Japan’s rich heritage.
This city is famous for its temples and shrines. Start your day early, around 9:00 AM, to visit iconic spots like Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion) and Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Tickets for Kinkakuji can be bought here, and Fushimi Inari Shrine doesn’t require an entrance fee.
Tokyo, the capital of Japan, is a bustling and vibrant metropolis that seamlessly blends modernity with tradition. This dynamic city offers a myriad of experiences, from exploring the futuristic skyline of Shinjuku and Shibuya Crossing to immersing oneself in historic neighborhoods like Asakusa with its Senso-ji Temple. Tokyo is a food lover’s paradise, boasting a diverse culinary scene that ranges from street-side yakitori stalls to Michelin-starred restaurants. With its world-class shopping districts, cultural attractions, and a rich tapestry of neighborhoods, Tokyo is a city that never ceases to amaze and captivate visitors from around the globe.
Tokyo never sleeps, and its attractions are accessible throughout the day. For a panoramic view of the city, consider a visit to the Tokyo Skytree in the late afternoon or early evening.
Tickets can be purchased here.
2. Discovering Samurai Castles
Japan boasts a rich history of Samurai warriors, and their legacy lives on in the form of awe-inspiring castles. Himeji Castle, the largest and most impressive, is open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM;
Tickets can be purchased here. Matsumoto Castle near Tokyo operates on a similar schedule; tickets can be bought on-site.
3. Embracing Tradition: Wearing a Kimono
Wearing a kimono is a traditional Japanese clothing practice that involves donning a specific type of garment known as a kimono. The kimono is a T-shaped, straight-lined robe with wide sleeves and a wrap-around design. It is characterized by its distinctive, often colorful and intricate patterns and is typically made from silk or other high-quality fabrics. Kimonos are worn by both men and women on various occasions in Japan, and they hold significant cultural and ceremonial importance.
In Tokyo, Kimono Rental Yae is a popular choice; reservations can be made here. In Kyoto, Yumeyakata offers kimono rentals; book in advance here and reach to the iconic Shibuya Crossing for some unforgettable photos. You will immersed yourself in Kyoto’s rich cultural heritage, exploring temples and shrines in through kimonos. The locals are gracious and appreciative of your appreciation for their culture.
4. Strolling Through Japanese Gardens
Japan’s landscape gardens are renowned for their pristine beauty and photogenic charm. A leisurely walk through these gardens offers a serene escape from the hustle and bustle. While they are enchanting year-round, the fall foliage, known as “koyo,” paints a mesmerizing picture, typically peaking in November. Most gardens are open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. In Kyoto, consider visiting the Kyoto Imperial Palace Garden, which doesn’t require an entrance fee.
5. Partaking in a Japanese Tea Ceremony
Japanese tea ceremonies are deeply rooted in tradition, representing purity, tranquility, respect, and harmony. Japanese ceremonies are enriching cultural experience. Some venues even offer kimono rentals, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the tradition. They are typically scheduled in advance, so check with local tea houses or cultural centers for availability and timing.
6. Riding the Bullet Train (Shinkansen)
If we talk about best things to do in Japan, we can’t ignore their futuristic bullet trains, known as “shinkansen,” provide an exhilarating way to explore the country. Their remarkable speed and efficiency make traveling between cities like Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo a breeze. Investing in a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) can be a cost-effective way to enjoy unlimited train rides for a specified period. They’re available throughout the day, with some routes offering stunning scenic views.
Tickets can be purchased through the official Japan Rail Pass.
7. Marveling at Landmarks
Japan is home to a plethora of iconic landmarks, and the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo are treasure troves of them. From the enchanting Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto to the majestic Todaiji Temple in Nara and the colossal Kamakura Buddha in Tokyo, each landmark tells a unique story. Tickets can be purchased on-site.
8. Exploring Temples and Shrines
Ancient temples and shrines are scattered throughout Japan, each exuding its own charm and history. While Kyoto boasts some of the most exquisite ones, you’ll find intriguing temples and shrines on every island. Standouts include Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) in Kyoto, and the enchanting Fushimi Inari Shrine, also in Kyoto.
9. Enjoy Japanese Food
Indulging in Japanese cuisine is an absolute delight and a compelling reason to explore this remarkable country. From street food stalls to upscale dining establishments, Japan offers a culinary experience like no other.
1. Ramen: Japan’s soul-warming ramen is a must-try. Slurping noodles in flavorful broth is a ritual you’ll quickly embrace. Each region has its own unique style, so don’t miss the chance to sample regional variations.
2. Sushi: Sushi lovers rejoice in Japan, where you can savor the freshest and most authentic sushi. Whether it’s a tiny sushi bar in Tokyo or a seaside spot in Hokkaido, the quality is unparalleled.
3. Udon: Udon, thick wheat noodles, are another Japanese specialty. They’re often served in savory broths and paired with a variety of toppings. A visit to a local udon shop is a delightful culinary adventure.
4. Yakitori: Grilled skewers of succulent meats and vegetables, known as yakitori, are a beloved street food. The fragrant aroma of skewers sizzling over open flames is an experience in itself.
5. Convenience Store Cuisine: Don’t underestimate the culinary delights of Japan’s convenience stores, like 7-Eleven. You’ll find a surprising variety of high-quality, ready-to-eat meals, from bento boxes to onigiri (rice balls).
6. Culinary Capitals: While Japan is a food lover’s paradise all over, certain cities stand out. Osaka, often hailed as the top food city in Japan, is renowned for its street food and vibrant dining scene. Tokyo boasts the most Michelin-starred restaurants globally, with over 200 establishments offering unparalleled gourmet experiences. Kobe, famous for its tender Kobe beef, is another food lover’s haven.
10. Admiring Cherry Blossoms (Sakura)
The sakura season in Japan is a sight to behold. Cherry blossoms grace famous locations like Himeji Castle, Mount Fuji, and many others. The exact timing varies by region, but the last week of March is often the best time to witness this natural spectacle.
11. Feeding Deer at Nara Park
Nara Park is renowned for its friendly deer population, and interacting with these semi-wild creatures is a delightful experience. As you stroll through the park, you’ll also encounter centuries-old temples and shrines, providing a glimpse into Japan’s ancient capital. Best of all, Nara is just a short train ride away from Osaka or Kyoto, making it an easily accessible day trip.
Nara Park is open from dawn until dusk. The friendly deer roam freely, and you can purchase deer crackers to feed them on-site.
12. Capturing Mount Fuji’s Beauty
Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest peak and a national symbol, beckons travelers to witness its majesty. The Fuji Five Lakes area, accessible on a day trip from Tokyo, offers picturesque views, including the iconic Chureito Pagoda set against the backdrop of Mount Fuji. For the adventurous, there’s the option to climb the mountain, with trails suitable for beginners and fitness enthusiasts alike.
It’s open year-round, with no entrance fee.
13. Ascending the Tokyo Skytree
The Tokyo Skytree, Japan’s tallest structure and the third tallest in the world, provides unparalleled panoramic views of the city. Elevators transport you to observation decks where you can gaze upon Tokyo’s sprawling landscape. For the daring, there’s even a glass floor section for a vertigo-inducing perspective.
14. Experiencing the Shibuya Crossing
The Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo is a spectacle in itself, often dubbed the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. Witnessing the synchronized chaos of thousands crossing simultaneously is mesmerizing. Surrounding the crossing, you’ll find excellent shopping and dining options, making it an ideal place to explore.
15. Visiting the Samurai Museum
No trip to Japan is complete without a visit to the Samurai Museum in Tokyo. Admire an array of historical artifacts, including swords, armor, helmets, and firearms.
The museum offers guided tours in English and the opportunity to don a Samurai helmet or even a full costume for a memorable photo. Check their official website for opening hours and ticket details.
These best things to do in Japan are remarkable tapestry of experiences for travelers. From its rich cultural heritage to modern marvels, there’s something to captivate every visitor. Whether you’re savoring sushi in Tokyo, wandering through historic Kyoto temples, or embracing the natural beauty of Japanese landscapes, Japan promises unforgettable memories and endless exploration.
Start planning your Japanese adventure and embark on a journey that will leave you with cherished moments and a deep appreciation for this captivating country.