Japan: one of the most fruitful (and beautiful) nations on Earth. While other travel destinations may have just a single city, mountain, museum, castle, or cuisine to draw travellers and tourists in, there are thousands of things to do in Japan. Plus some. There’s seriously no end to what Japan has to offer, and it’s possibly the only country that has something fun for everyone: the foodie, the history buff, the nerd, the mountain climber, the spring breaker.
Japan is filled with an abundance of both modern and ancient cultural flavours to sink your teeth into, making it a dizzying, electrifying — yet entirely gratifying — spot to adventure for every type of traveler. Have we enticed you yet? Good. Keep reading. Here are 42 must-see temples, museums, castles, activities, restaurants (and more) that will blow your mind on your next trip to the Land of the Rising Sun:
The biggest draw to Sapporo is the Snow Festival: one of the best winter festivals in the world. The only catch is that it only happens for just one single week, usually at the start of February. Planning a trip to Japan and not sure when to visit? Lucky for you, a month-long journey starting in Sapporo will eventually lead you to the hanami cherry blossom festivals in March. The Snow Festival includes snow rafting fun for kids of all ages and the most beautiful ice sculptures you’ll ever see, transforming the city into a winter wonderland beyond your wildest dreams.
Confectionary factories around the world have a thing or two to learn from Willy Wonka — and Sapporo’s Shiroi Koibito. This confectionary company had the foresight of turning their factory and museum into a theme park, designed to look like a strange English/Dutch village out of the 17th century. Including a tiny steam train and various rides, this park is a fantastic sight, amazing fun, and will keep you sugar high for days. Forget what you know about Japanese food and throw yourself into this chocolate delight.
Japan is a massive brewer of beers and whiskeys, Sapporo being the oldest of all. The museum is a lot of fun and one of the few red brick buildings in all of Japan. It has a very Victorian aesthetic, and also offers a beer exclusive to the factory, known as 5-Star, making it one of our favorite things to do in Japan.
While not actually in Sendai, it’s just a quick bus ride away. The fox village itself is exactly what you’d expect: a snowy retreat full of hundreds of friendly, playful foxes. In Shinto mythology, the fox, or kitsune, is a treasured and magical creature, so these foxy friends are very well-respected, cared for and loved. At this village, you can stay overnight in a traditional house (but be warned: the foxes have the run of the place) and you can enjoy them to your heart’s content. Zao Fox Village is a little-known (and totally irresistible) space in the heart of Eastern Japan.
In the early ‘90s, this enormous 100m statue of the goddess Kannon was built in Sendai by a private company. The statue, which was once the largest on Earth, unfortunately drew little tourism to the area. We insist that you change that now. The Sendai Daikannon statue is an incredible sight and a true Japan landmark: glistening white and towering over everything within reach, it’s one of the nation’s grandest spots that nobody even knows about.
This collection of islands off the coast of Sendai is one of three legendary historic scenic spots in Japan, but somehow, it’s the least-visited. The Matsushima Bay islands form a mini-archipelago: perfect for a scenic ferry ride that exposes you to some pretty cool sights. The geology is gorgeous and the temples hidden across the islands are a lot more rustic than those found in the big cities. A real treasure — and one of our absolute favorite things to do in Japan.
Tucked just beyond Matsushima Bay is Entsuin. When you picture traditional old Japan — gardens, bamboo forests, shrines, and temples — all of that is here and more. Quite like Arashiyama in Kyoto, but far, far less touristy and much more relaxing, Entsuin is one of our favorite attractions in Japan.
Cherry Blossom Festival Japan Dates: Late March – Early April 2021 ; Meguro River, 2 Chome, Kamiosaki – Meguro or Naka-Meguro Station.
Often voted one of the best spots for viewing cherry blossoms in Japan, this 4km stretch of 800 trees line the Meguro River in Nakameguro, a district not far from Shibuya. The trees famously form a spectacular pink tunnel, which makes for some amazing photos. The festivities truly come alive at night here with fairy lights and illuminated paper lantern trees.
Disney Sea is pretty mainstream, sure, but it’s just too good to leave off of the list. While there may be a growing number of Disneyland resorts around the world, Japan is the only nation with a Disney Sea. Here, you’ll find Disney meets Sea World, with nautical-themed rides and attractions, riverboat rides, and some radical attractions and aesthetics not seen in your typical Disney theme park.
This building is beyond awesome. While it’s cool to enjoy Japanese samurai movies and video games, see it all in person at the Samurai Museum. A place that’s calling all history buffs and nerds who are seeking unique things to do in Tokyo, the Samurai Museum provides tours all of the coolest weapons, armour, and art of the Sengoku period. You’ll even get a genuine demonstration of battle moves from a trained samurai.
If you’re visiting Tokyo on a budget, wake up early and explore the lanes of the Tsukiji Market: a place where cars stacked with fresh fish whip around the streets on the way to deliver breakfast. Here, you’ll wander inside a hole-in-the-wall Tokyo restaurant and find local businessmen grabbing a quick bite before work. Don’t be turned off by the size of the restaurant, the smell, or the fact that there may not be another tourist in sight: the sushi is amazing and you’ll leave wondering why you’ve never thought of eating raw fish for breakfast before.
If you’re looking for some serious fun in one of the biggest cities in Japan, check out this seriously amazing restaurant in Tokyo. This café is all about aesthetic. Its ethos is simple: how much cuteness can you stomach before you can’t take any more? They’ve pushed this question as far as it can safely go, with an overabundance of adorable monsters and creatures filling the café, serving you drinks, and entertaining you. The food is great, too.
Golden Gai isn’t hidden gem or a secret find: this jam-packed district is filled with both locals and tourists looking for a few drinks and a great time. When you arrive at this Japan landmark, you’ll find six alleys stacked with bars (literally — they’re stacked on top of each other). Half the fun is popping in and out of each spot, grabbing a drink with some strangers, and then wandering up or down a hidden staircase to drink some more. Pro tip: most of these bars fit five to ten people max, so not recommended for the claustrophobic!
Located in the tech centre of Japan, this art installation is a ‘borderless’ experience that invites visitors to wander its space and marvel at the vibrant colour and tech-inspired art. The best part? It’s super interactive, allowing you to get right inside each installation. TeamLab Borderless is like wandering through a video game world made from nothing but light and colour. It’s a truly breathtaking experience that proves to any visitor that Japan is really the tech capital of the world.
Tokyo Tower, inspired by Paris’ Eiffel Tower, is an impressive sight from the outside, but what so many people don’t know is that hidden inside the tower is an entire theme park dedicated to Japan’s biggest manga and anime: One Piece. Even if you don’t know your otaku culture, chances are you’ve heard of the pirate anime sensation. And whether you’re a fan or not, you can’t pass up the chance to immerse yourself in an anime world full of costumes, attractions, gifts to purchase, and themed food. If you’re not into the theme, the tower is totally cool from the outside, and hits our list of one of the best free things to do in Tokyo.
Even with the crowds, this famous Japan attraction can’t be ignored. Tokyo’s most popular temple: Senso-ji in Asakusa is a must-see. This massive temple is the perfect place to start when you first arrive in Tokyo. It will introduce you to the the importance of temples in Japan and expose you to Shinto and Buddhist philosophies, which are at the heart of Japanese culture. If you want to understand Japan, places like this (however busy they might be) are important. There are also plenty of great restaurants in this old neighbourhood to try ramen, curry, gyoza, and more.
Popularised by a silly film starring Keanu Reeves, the 47 Ronin are a very cool piece of Japanese history. When their daimyo (leader) was forced to commit ritual suicide after assaulting a court official, these 47 ronin (samurai without a leader) spent a year planning and executing the murder of this same court official, all before committing ritual suicide themselves. The incident is known across the country and their graves can be found in Tokyo. Graveyards in Japan have a pretty cool aesthetic regardless, and this is one of the most unique you’ll find.
No nation does toys and games like Japan, and Pokémon is arguably the biggest global craze in history. As such, it’s hard to ignore the giant Pokémon Center in the heart of Tokyo where you can visit a Pokémon café, buy plushies, gifts, games, and toys, and take photos with statues of your favourite pocket monsters!
‘Museum’ is a bit of a misleading word, but we didn’t choose it. Besides, what it actually is — a ramen food court, is obviously far better. Here, visitors can experience one of Japan’s finest foods in the absolute best way possible: by sampling different kinds of ramen from all of Japan’s most famous shops, all under one convenient roof. The aesthetic of the whole place is designed to look like 1958, the year that instant ramen was first invented. Ramen was also initially brought to Japan from China, via Yokohama, thus explaining the location. This place is all kinds of weird and fun!
Chinatown in Japan is the biggest in Asia (apart from China itself, of course). This little town within a city is a delightful microcosm of Chinese culture. Full of stalls selling trinkets, high-end restaurants with traditional Chinese cuisine from every province — from Beijing duck to spicy Sichuan meals — and real-deal Chinese and Taiwanese street food, this place is a treat to get lost in. We recommend purchasing a few bao from a street vendor, visiting the traditional Taoist temple, and spending time selecting the perfect restaurant for you and your taste buds.
Kamakura was, once upon a time, the capital city of Japan (hence the Kamakura period). As such, it has some incredible architecture and monuments to be seen, though the entire town is often overlooked these days. The largest monument the Great Buddha in the Kotoku-in buddhist temple. The statue itself, cast from bronze, dates back to 1252 and is one of the most hauntingly beautiful sites in all of Japan.
Enoshima is a popular day trip destination for Tokyo locals who want to escape the city on a quiet Sunday. This quaint island houses a shrine, a garden, and an observation tower that doubles as a lighthouse. It’s a lovely place to visit, especially for families, while in Kamakura.
One of the grandest buddhist temples in Eastern Japan, Hasedera has vital links to Japan’s ancient history. Its main building houses an awesome wooden statue, almost ten metres tall, of Kannon, the eleven-headed goddess of mercy. More than just a temple, this collection of buildings covers quite a bit of ground and encourages peaceful wandering of its gardens, ponds, and bridges. It’s like a portal to the buddhist Japan of old.
Visiting Japan sometime between July 1st and September 14th? Looking to stretch your legs? If you’re looking to tackle an easy hike, take a casual day trip up to the peak of Mt. Fuji. Okay, we’re joking about the casual part. While this climb is totally doable for hikers of all capabilities, it’s 8 hours long and can be strenuous, even for those in tip top shape. Make sure that you take all necessary precautions, do your research and stay safe. And, most importantly, enjoy the (actually) breath-taking view from the top.
Embrace your fear, down a few drinks, and hop onto the stage at one of Japan’s many late-night karaoke bars. Karaoke originated in Japan and, if you ask us, Karaoke is the most fun things to do in Japan. Most bars are open from 11pm-3am and consist of multiple, private rooms so that you can hang with friends — or, if you’re feeling brave, join a group of strangers. Nervous that you’ll sound silly? Who cares. Your traveling. No one knows you here!
While this is probably Kyoto’s busiest tourist spot, avoiding it would be such a mistake. Kinkaku-ji (or Temple of the Golden Pavilion, as it’s often known) is a tremendous site. Beyond the fact that its walls are shimmering gold, it also sits at the centre of a pond surrounded by lush green and black pine trees. It’s a stunning setting that feels like it was ripped right out of a storybook.
This district is famous for its geisha: modern day versions of the courtesans of Edo Japan. You’ll find them wandering the streets, often posing for photos (they’re very gracious). Beyond the geisha, the area also has some of the best traditional tea houses — the things that made Gion famous — in Kyoto. When you visit, make sure to walk along Shirakawa, one of the most beautiful Edo areas in Japan, especially at night.
This forest is much more than it seems. The lanes of Japan’s bamboo forest hide wonderful surprises at every turn: artists, poets, and painters who often speak English (and are well worth talking to). They don’t push you to buy anything, but their art is worth browsing. After all, what better place to get inspiration? This is the only place in Kyoto where swimming in a sea of tourists feels comfortable. The atmosphere is such a dreamy mix of serene and electric.
Japan’s wild monkey park is crazy fun for two reasons: you get to interact with and feed semi-wild monkeys (while staying totally safe), and you get the best view of Kyoto city. Once you’re through the bamboo forest, this is your next stop. It’s something that feels so wonderfully out of place in Kyoto, but that’s the fun of it.
One of Japan’s great sights is a row of torii gates leading to the top of the hill, made famous by the film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha. The effect of wandering through this winding path is truly surreal, and it’s rarely as busy as you’d think it would be. Torii gates are a wonderful affectation of Japanese society, protecting shrines and temples from demons and bad spirits. In that regard, Fushimi Inari Taisha feels like the most blessed place on Earth.
The Shitenno-ji Temple is a fantastic piece of history hidden at the heart of modern day Osaka. Built in 593 (yes, you read that right), this temple aided in strengthening Buddhism in Japan during its early days. Locals claim that it has never been closed, remaining open every day for 1500 years. If you’re in the area (or not), this is one of the best things to do in Osaka.
Osaka has perhaps the best cuisine in Japan, with kushi katsu, takoyaki, taiyaki, and some arguing Osaka as the birthplace of sushi. The best way to sample all of this delicious food (and casually explore the city at the same time) is via Cycle Osaka, a tour company that offers food/bike tours which start in the historic Shinsekai district.
Owned by an American migrant to Osaka, this Japanese video game bar is home to fun and totally vintage game consoles from the NES onwards. Nerds and otakus are welcome to come and enjoy a few games and game-themed drinks as they make new friends with both locals and tourists. If there’s a better way to spend an evening in Osaka, we don’t know it.
Okonomiyaki is a lesser known Japanese food delicacy, and it’s so much fun to eat. The name derives from the phrases ‘pancake’ and ‘what you like,’ so there’s some fun variety to be seen. The best restaurant in Osaka (where the dish originated) is Ajinoya. Okonomiyaki perfectly represents Osaka people, who are far more relaxed and jolly than those who typically live and work in Tokyo.
Only a handful of castles still stand in Japan, and Osaka castle has the awesome luxury of being housed in the middle of a bustling city, allowing you to feel and experience a fantastic clash of eras. As you stand with your back to the castle and gaze over the cityscape, you’ll forget there’s an ancient palace towering over you from behind. Turn around and get ready to be blown away.
This whole district is fantastic fun, especially at night. Wandering along the river with friends, crossing the bridge to get a photo of the famous Gilco running man billboard, eating takoyaki from a street vendor, and taking in the electric atmosphere. As iconic neon-lit night scenes go, this one is better than anything you’ll find in Tokyo. Dotonbori is all kinds of fun.
While it may not be the only Universal Studios in the world, by virtue of this one being in Japan — the nation that loves Harry Potter more than even Britain does — its Japan’s Universal Studio’s Harry Potter themed rides and attractions are wonderful, spirited and literally dizzying. Nothing in the UK itself comes close to capturing the magic of Harry Potter, and it’s amazing experiencing something so quintessentially British so far from the birthplace of Harry Potter himself.
Most people come to Nara for its park, and it is honestly enough of a reason! Nara park is filled with wild deer roaming the paths and lush green grass. They’re friendly, sweet and kind (especially if you have a snack in hand!) You can visit one of a hundred vendors who will sell you a bundle of crackers for ¥100, and the deer absolutely love them. So here’s the scoop: go up to a deer, cracker in hand, and bow to it. The deer will bow back, and then you feed it the cracker. And of course, make sure to get it on film.
Photograph the country’s most epic and beautiful temple: Todai-ji
One of the most historically important buildings in all of Japan is also one of the most beautiful. Todai-ji temple houses the nation’s largest bronze buddha statue, is complete with a pagoda, enormous, lavishly decorated gates, and a belfry. Best of all, it sits smack dab in Nara Park, where deer roam around the temple freely. There may not be a more tranquil and awe-inspiring temple on Earth, honestly.
Arguably better than Osaka castle, and far less known. Sitting atop a hill and overlooking lush black pines, sakura trees, and old bridges, this Japan landmark takes the cake for most idyllic and dramatic spot in the country. Himeji Castle was built in 1333 and looks almost new due to pristine maintenance and care. Views of (and from inside) the castle are unparalleled.
When you picture Japan, you probably think of the bamboo forest in Kyoto, Osaka castle, Kinkakuji, and this: Itsukushima Shrine, the huge torii gate that proudly stands out at sea with waves crashing against it. Residing in Hiroshima Bay, the island of Itsukushima (often called Miyajima or ‘shrine island’), is a tranquil place of natural beauty and tons of hiking trails. If this place isn’t on your bucket list, what on Earth is?
Incredibly, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II in 1945 fell almost exactly on this dome, exploding in the air just above it. And yet the dome survived. While it may not be beautiful, this dome is important. Like Auschwitz in Poland, the dome serves as a cold reminder of that day — and how human beings can do better moving forward. It’s sombre, grim, but necessary sight.
Japan, 〒730-0811 Hiroshima-ken, Hiroshima-shi, Naka-ku, Nakajimachō, 1, 広島市中区中島町1丁目1
The park where the dome sits has been transformed into the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park: a serene space filled with trees, warmth and peace. If you visit on the 6th of August, the anniversary of the day the bomb fell, you can bear witness to a ceremony for peace, which includes a lantern lighting ceremony, each lantern a guiding light for victims passing over, and a wish for unity across all nations.
Home to less than twenty elderly people and hundreds upon hundreds of stray cats (you heard me), Aoshima is one of the most unique tourist destinations in Japan. The entire island is overflowing with furry, friendly feline bodies. Take a ferry over and enjoy the feeling of living in bliss for a few hours with no people and only purring kitties for company. Heaven.
Yakushima island is like nothing else in Japan, which is fitting since it sits in the sea beneath the country’s southern tip. It’s a glorious island made up of nothing but lush green forest, towering trees, and canopies split open by rays of yellow sunlight. It was the inspiration for the setting of Miyazaki’s movie masterpiece Princess Mononoke and exploring the island really feels like being in an animated film.