Japan Travel: What Not to Miss on Your Next Trip!
A trip to Japan provides memories that last a lifetime. Check out this list of 12 must-sees for the next time you visit this exciting country.
Visiting Japan can be a fun and rewarding experience. In fact, Japan is one of the most unique vacation destinations you could imagine, with a perfect combination of traditional, ancient history and modern day style. Anything you could possibly want to do, you can find in Japan. From the unique food that hails from this country to the wondrous sights and sounds of the cities and shrines, there is enough to see and do in Japan to fill up weeks of travel time! But what should you do if you don’t have that much time to spend on your vacation? And what if you have plenty of time, but no idea what you want to try to accomplish while you’re there? Read on to discover 12 things you absolutely should not miss on your next trip to the vibrant country of Japan!
Sleep in a temple
The first item on this list of must-do activities in Japan is perhaps a unique one: sleep in a temple. This is not a suggestion to break in to just any temple you find with your sleeping bag and set up camp for the night! However, there are dozens of Buddhist temples throughout Japan that welcome visitors to stay overnight within their hallowed walls. One of the most prominent sites for this type of lodging is Mount Koya (Koyasan) in the Wakayama Prefecture, not too far from Nara and Osaka. Mount Koya is a very holy place, filled with over one hundred Buddhist monasteries and centering around a main temple called Kongobuji.
You can choose from tons of Buddhist temple lodging options on Mount Koya, and they are all cozy, comfortable, and sure to treat you like family. However, I recommend booking your stay with Shojoshin-in, which is perhaps the best known of the lodging-friendly temples on the mountain. This temple is incredibly old, and actually predates the main temple on Mount Koya. You can stay in a traditional shared Japanese-style guest room here, or you can book your stay in the private guest quarters that include their own rest room. Take note that, if you do stay at any of these temples, you will be required to follow the temple rules and schedule. This means waking up at about 6:00am to join the morning services, and eating only the vegetarian meals that are served. If you don’t mind these guidelines, then you are already well on your way to one of the most unique experiences you can have on your visit to Japan.
A night stay at Shojoshin-in can cost between 7000 and 15000 yen, depending on the time of year.
Visit a shrine
Buddhist temples are an excellent start to your trip to Japan, but be sure to continue the trend by stopping by at least one Shinto shrine as well. These shrines are considered to be the places where the gods, or kami, reside, and they are often visited by Shinto practitioners to say prayers for good fortune or good health. Shinto shrines are usually built around a main hall, and include large red gates called torii, purification water near the front of the shrine for cleaning your mouth and hands, statues of various deities and guardians, and ema, which are small structures covered in wooden plaques upon which visitors write their wishes and prayers. Although most Shinto shrines contain all of these elements, each shrine is somewhat different, and you may have a vastly different experience at one than you do at another.
Visit the island of Miyajima and you will be able to tour one of the most beloved and well-known Shinto shrines in the country. The Itsukushima Shrine (which is commonly just called Miyajima itself) has become an iconic symbol of Japan, thanks to the large red torii gate that stands out in the water and looks as though it is floating there at high tide. The entire shrine is actually built on top of the water, supported by sturdy pillars that have been keeping it afloat for centuries. Make sure to visit this shrine at high tide, so you can truly enjoy the spectacle of the shrine and gate floating on the water. If you do happen to arrive at low tide, don’t worry too much. You can always take the chance to walk out to the gate and see it up close, instead.
Itsukushima Shrine is open daily from 6:30am to 6:00pm and costs 300 yen to enter.
Take a tour of Hiroshima
For a truly humbling experience, take a tour of Hiroshima and learn about the dark history of this city. It is easy to spend an entire day touring the sights of the city, and provided you have the time to do so, it is highly recommended. There are over fifty sites located in the Peace Memorial park, near the hypocenter of the atomic bomb, and most of them can be visited along the walking tour that the city has mapped out for visitors. Start with the Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, which was one of the closest buildings to the hypocenter, then cross the Honkawa Bridge, which gives you an excellent view of the skeleton frame of the Atomic Bomb Dome before you continue your tour. Although you can’t go inside the Dome, you can view images of what it looked like before the blast, and compare them to its present-day appearance.
A walking tour of Hiroshima can be a very educational way to spend your time. One of the goals of modern day Hiroshima tourism is to ensure that everyone who visits the city understands the devastation that once occurred there and may make the decision to help keep it from happening again. Of course, there is something hauntingly beautiful about the way the city has grown lush and prosperous in the years following its destruction. Take time to learn what you can while you are here, and remember to be respectful. Many of these sites are memorials to the lives that were lost during and after the bomb, and visitors may be there to pay respects. If you only have a short time in the city, at least stop by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which summarizes a great deal of the information you can find throughout the walking tour.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is open daily from 8:30am to around 6:00pm, although it closes earlier in the winter.
The iconic statue at the Hiroshima Children's Memorial.
Go shopping in Harajuku
Harajuku is the place to go to experience the first-class shopping that only Japan can provide. The name Harajuku doesn’t actually refer to a city, but instead to a Prefecture, or a subdivision, of Tokyo. As soon as visitors get off of the train at Harajuku Station, they are surrounded by the epitome of Tokyo street fashion. Directly across from the station lies Takeshita Dori, the street that has made Harajuku such a famous shopping locale. On any given day, this street is packed with young people looking for the next trendy style to bring into their wardrobes. The shops on Takeshita Dori may be a little more off-the-wall than those that can be found on another nearby street called Omotesando. This is where the name brand stores are found, and the affluent atmosphere of this part of Harajuku is vastly different from the more teen and young adult vibe of Takeshita Dori.
If you plan to visit Takeshita Dori, try to stop by on a weekday during the midmorning. This street is always pretty crowded, but since it tends to draw a lot of teenagers and college students, it is naturally a little thinned out while they are in school. Ometesando should be fairly quiet during this time of day, too, although its popularity with adult shoppers makes it a little harder to predict. Either way, don't visit Harajuku on a Saturday evening, or you will be stuck in a major crowd! You may be tempted to dress in your most stylish clothes when you head to Harajuku, but I recommend wearing something comfortable and especially choosing shoes that you can walk in for a long time. There’s a lot of street to cover between Takeshita Dori and Omotesando!
The easiest way to get to Harajuku from anywhere else in Tokyo is to hop on the JR train and ride directly to the Harajuku Station, between Shinjuku and Shibuya.
Ride the bullet train
The bullet train is basically synonymous with Japanese tourism. The actual term for these trains is shinkansen, and these impressive machines are capable of zooming across the Japanese landscape at almost 200 miles per hour! Major cities such as Kyoto, Tokyo, Yokohama, and Nagoya provide station hubs for the bullet trains, and since Japan’s public transportation system is so efficient, you can be sure that any itinerary you book will depart and arrive right on time. Bullet trains serve light snacks and drinks throughout the trip, and most even include vending machines and full meal service for anyone who is interested. A seat on a bullet train provides all the comforts of a first class flight with none of the red tape to go through at the airport.
It may sound strange to recommend riding a train as part of a trip to a country that is almost fully serviced by trains, but a trip on a shinkansen is completely different from any other type of public transport. These trains travel at incredibly high speeds, but are so smooth that even a glass of water hardly shows any sign of the train’s motion. Since the bullet trains travel between most major cities, they are a great way to go from one sightseeing location to the next. I recommend staying for a while in Tokyo before hopping on a bullet train to speed away to Kyoto. The trip takes just over two hours and provides an excellent view of the Japanese countryside along the way. If you prefer to take an even longer trip on the bullet train, you can hunker down for an eight-hour tour from the station in Tokyo to Nagasaki. There is one transfer on this trip, but it provides a great way to get from the main island of Honshu all the way to the southernmost island, Kyushu.
A bullet train trip from Tokyo to Kyoto costs around 13800 yen, while a trip from Tokyo to Nagasaki runs about 25000 yen.
Hike on Mount Fuji
There is nothing in Japan quite as iconic as Mount Fuji. This incredible mountain, which can sometimes be seen out the window of the bullet trains on a clear day, often beckons to tourists to come and climb its steep slopes and see what all the fuss is about. The hike can be a challenging one, but if you give yourself plenty of time to make the trek, even a beginner can easily enjoy walking up the massive slopes of this incredible monolith. It can take anywhere between 10 and 12 hours to make a round-trip journey up and down Mount Fuji, but the views from the top are very much worth the day’s efforts.
Mount Fuji is a popular tourist and local destination. July and August are the busiest times of year to make the hike, and you may even end up standing in a line rather than actually hiking if you visit during this season. Go to Mount Fuji during the first week of July to have the best chance at avoiding the crowds. Although the path will be more crowded on the most popular route up the mountain, it is by far the best way to scale to the summit. The journey begins with a shuttle ride up a short toll road that leads to the Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station, where hikers can prepare for the walking portion of the quest. The hike then follows the Yoshida trail to the summit. If you do make it to the top, be careful. Mount Fuji is a volcano (and an active one, at that) with a deep crater in the center!
The Yoshida Trail path to the summit reaches an altitude of about 7500 feet (2300 meters), so take your time to avoid altitude sickness.
Eat at a weird restaurant
Tokyo’s bizarre dining culture has become very popular with tourists. Visitors from around the world flock to Japan to eat at the strange restaurants that have cropped up all throughout the city. Some are weirder than others, but all of them offer an experience that is truly Japanese. Visitors who are looking for a strange but still somewhat tame dining adventure may want to stop in any number of fish places that serve such unique offerings as still-squirming squids on a bed of rice, or the infamous fugu (poisonous blowfish). But if your tastes tend toward the wild side, there are plenty of opportunities for you to indulge yourself.
One of the strangest restaurants in Japan is Alcatraz ER, a bizarrely horror-themed place to enjoy a weird meal and an off-the-wall cocktail in the heart of Tokyo. Located in Shibuya, Alcatraz ER is designed to look like a grimy old prison full of (fake) corpses and dismembered body parts. Upon arriving at the restaurant, guests are greeted by a waitress dressed like a nurse, who directs you (while handcuffed) to a prison cell where a long table awaits. Rather than lying down on the table to be examined, however, guests sit at it and order horrifically fun drinks and food. Sip your drinks out of giant syringes, test tubes, and IV drips. One of the cocktails even arrives prepared in the head of a mannequin! Although the dishes may sound peculiar here, they’re actually quite simple food items that have been dressed up for the occasion.
Alcatraz ER is open daily from 5:00pm to 11:00pm. On weekends, it tends to stay open until 3:30am.
Relax at an onsen
Onsen are the Japanese equivalent of spas, but they are very different from their Western cousins. At an onsen, people gather to essentially bathe together in the warm and soothing waters. Although many onsen may be found in the cities, the best ones are those out in the country that require a little bit of travel to get to. The waters at an onsen are considered to have healing properties, since they usually contain minerals such as sulfur or iron, and many locals visit them regularly to help with various afflictions. Tubs for outdoor bathing are usually made of cypress or granite to facilitate the mineral healing aspect of the baths, while indoor tubs are made of tile or stainless steel.
When visiting an onsen, be prepared to follow the strict rules, and understand that you are going to be bathing with other people. Although the idea of getting naked and soaking in front of a bunch of strangers may seem bizarre to Western tourists, this is an important part of Japanese culture. As long as you behave correctly, no one is going to make fun of you or think anything negative about you. Before getting into the baths, bathers must soap up and wash off at one of the shower faucets around the bathhouse. Use a modesty towel to cover up while entering the water, and go slowly so as not to splash around. Never wring your towel out into the bath, as the water is considered to be dirty. Last but not least, take note of any rules that are specific to the onsen you are visiting. Some, for example, do not allow bathers to enter with tattoos.
Many web sites are available for use in searching for the perfect onsen to fit your needs. Check out Selected Ryokan to find the right spot for you.
Learn about different religions
We have already touched on the importance of taking day trips to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, but aside from simply sightseeing, visiting Japan can be a great way to expand your worldview and learn about religions you might not know much about. When you visit one of the major shrines or temples, take a look around or ask one of the locals for information in English. Chances are, if the place draws a crowd of tourists, there will be at least some of informative pamphlet or signage available for you to read. If you’re really feeling brave, you can always ask a monk or other official on-site to tell you more about the location.
There are several religions prevalent in Japanese culture that have not made big waves in the rest of the world, and you may not have even heard of some of them. Many of these more unique Japanese religions revolve around similar teachings and ideals as those that are found in Shinto and Buddhism. For example, one such religion is Tenrikyo, which is built around the idea that being charitable and thoughtful can lead to a Joyous Life. This religion seems to borrow heavily from both of the more common Japanese belief systems, teaching that problems must be faced with a constructive frame of mind, and that the world can be made better by everyone working together. The headquarters of the Tenrikyo religion is a massive church in Tenri, near Nara. It is free to tour at any time during the day. I recommend visiting this unique church for a glimpse at a lesser-known Japanese religion and a beautiful building, as well. If you arrive during a service, be respectful and quiet, and refrain from exploring the building until the service is over.
To get to Tenri, take the Kintetsu-Kyoto train line from Kyoto Station to Tenri station. From the station in Tenri, it is only a short walk of a few blocks to the church.
The main Tenrikyo church headquarters.
Japan may not be the first place you think of when you consider your skiing (and snowboarding) options, but the northern island, Hokkaido, is full of some of the best ski opportunities in the world. The snow is powdery and perfect for winter sports in this part of Japan. Although Nagano, on the main island, hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998, the skiing is actually much better on Hokkaido! If you are a beginner, Japan is a great place for you to learn how to ski. The slopes here are not very steep, so they may be less intimidating to newbies. If, however, you are a tried and true skier, never fear! Some of the slopes are packed with snow of up to sixty feet in depth. They are sure to provide you with all the challenge you need.
There are several resorts that tend to cater to international travelers, but when skiing Japan, it is really best to stay in one of the more local-friendly ski resorts. I recommend checking out Asahidake. Asahidake is the highest mountain (technically, another volcano) on the island of Hokkaido, which helps keep the snow cold and perfect for skiing and snowboarding. There is easy cable car access to the top of the mountain from the small village below. In the village, you can book a stay at an affordable youth hostel, or spend a little more money and stay at an onsen. If you can afford it, try the onsen. You’ll be happy to have a warm bath to soak in after a long day on the slopes.
The cable car access to the top of the mountain runs from 9:00am to 4:00pm and costs 1100 yen per one-way ride.
Hike a haunted forest
Perhaps you like to spend your time outdoors away from the snowy ski slopes and buried deep within the forest instead. If you like the idea of getting yourself a little lost in the woods, then you may be interested in hiking through one of the most haunted forests in the world. Aokigahara is a massive, sprawling forest that is supposedly plagued by the spirits of the many people who have perished there. Sadly, this forest has historically been a common location for people to commit suicide, and in ancient times, it is said that families often abandoned children or the elderly to die there when they could no longer afford to feed them. There is definitely a black history associated with Aokigahara, but it is actually a beautiful forest that makes for an excellent day hike.
Part of what makes Aokigahara so mysterious is its thick growth and its complete silence. Visitors often report never hearing a bird chirp or any animal make a sound among the gnarled roots and twisted branches. Sometimes, hikers who traverse far into the woods have even lost sight of the sun in the middle of the day. It can be perfectly safe to take a hike through this forest, but if you do, it is imperative that you stay on the trail. It is quite peaceful and serene to walk along the designated hiking trail through the woods, and there are many signposts along the way that will educate you about local plant life. A visit to this forest is an exciting way to walk on the wild side while still remaining safe!
Begin in the forest’s parking lot and follow the clearly labeled signs for the hiking paths through Aokigahara. The main trail takes about two hours to complete.
Go to Cat Island
It’s no secret that Japan loves cats. They represent luck in Japanese culture, and statues of cats are often placed near the entrances to restaurants and shops to bring good luck and money to the owners. But some people in Japan take their love of cats to an entirely new level. These are the people who live on Tashirojima, or “Cat Island.” Long ago, the island was the home of successful silkworm farms that had pest control problems. The farmers of the time brought over some cats to help keep down the rodent population, but instead, the cat population skyrocketed. Since the cats were originally the protectors of the silkworm farms, the people of Tashirojima began to worship them and to treat them with the same respect they showed to their fellow humans. When one cat died an accidental death, a shrine was erected in its memory to help the humans of the island honor their beloved feline companions.
Getting to Cat Island is a little bit of an out of the way trip, but if you are insistent upon visiting, it can be done. The island is located off the cost of Ishinomaki, a large city in the Miyagi prefecture. It is a long way from Tokyo, and an even longer way from Kyoto, but if you happen to be visiting Sendai you will be pretty close. From the train station in Ishinomaki, hop a bus or take a walk to the ferry terminal, then catch the Ajishima Line ferry to Cat Island. There are only three trips per day to the island, and each trip takes about an hour one way. Once you arrive, be prepared to see a lot of cats and not very many humans. There are only about seventy people still living on the island, and well over a hundred cats.
While on Cat Island, consider staying overnight in one of the cat-shaped houses available for rent on one side of the island.
Visit a bizarre museum
Just as Japan is known for its strange restaurants, so too is it well known as one of the best places to visit a weird museum. There is something about Japanese culture that just makes people want to look at weird things, and museums have capitalized on that fascination with the bizarre to draw in locals and tourists alike. There are dozens upon dozens of interesting and off-the-wall museums to tour in Japan, and pretty much any mid-range or large city is bound to have several you could check out on any given day. Of course, Tokyo seems to be the biggest hotbed of weird tours, and while staying in this capital city, you might consider making a trip to the Meguro Parasite Museum (featuring real preserved parasites), the Suwa Lucandiae Museum (focusing on Japan’s love affair with beetles of all shapes and sizes), and the Trick Art Museum (where visitors can enjoy optical illusions).
Perhaps the most unique museum in Japan is the TOTO Museum. TOTO is a company that has been making toilets for over a century, and in 2015, they opened a large toilet-themed museum located in the city of Kitakyushu, on the island of Kyushu. The museum follows the evolution of the toilet throughout history, and there are many displays of various ceramic works that led to the use of this material in today’s johns. There's a lot to explore at this strange museum, and when you've finished your tour, you'll be the go-to wealth of knowledge about toilets amongst your friends and family. Who wouldn't want that? Learning about toilets has never been more entertaining than it will be when you visit the TOTO Museum!
The TOTO Museum is open from 10:00am to 5:00pm every day except Mondays.
No matter what kind of traveler you are, there is always something exciting for you to explore in Japan. Do you like the outdoors? Then plan a wintertime ski trip to the volcanic, snow-laden ski slops in the northern part of the country, or take a hike up Mount Fuji or through the dark forest of Aokigahara. Is shopping more your speed? Visit Harajuku and try to uncover the next big trend in fashion among the shops that line its two major thoroughfares. From the mountains of Hokkaido to the skyscrapers of Tokyo, there is such a wide variety of entertainment to enjoy and activities to partake in that you will definitely never be bored in this thrilling country. So what are you waiting for? Go explore!
Lead image via Flickr user Moyan Brenn, Creative Commons, some rights reserved: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/
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