What are the best things to do in Japan?
It’s all very well to flick through pictures (Instagram, is that what the kids call it these days?) and Youtube videos of temples and gardens online, pondering what you’re going to see on your upcoming trip to Japan. But what are you actually going to do once you’re here? Unless all you’re after is a series of photographs in famous places, you will no doubt be on the hunt for unique, memorable, and interesting ways to enjoy your time in Japan. Rest assured, there’s no shortage of options. From the summits of its mountains to the depths of its gorgeous coastal seas, you’ll find plenty of things to do here in Japan.
What is there to do in Japan?
In this 1916 advertisement (right) for the steamship company Osaka Shosen Kaisha, a (relatively svelte) sumo rikishi stands astride the Pacific Ocean, one foot in Eurasia and the other in the Americas, above dotted white lines tracing the company’s full web of routes. The 1930 advertisement from Japan Government Railways (left) opts for feminine appeal with a sketch of a woman in traditional makeup and kimono perched in some sort of open palanquin, ringed by cherry blossoms, Mount Fuji, and the sea.
Fast forward to modern times, and the ongoing Cool Japan (クールジャパン) campaign (which markets what it thinks that the rest of the world “finds cool about Japan" to foreign tourists), and you will find not too much has changed. The modern campaign makes some additions, of course, to capitalize on trends such as surging worldwide interest in Japanese anime and manga as well as the broader popularity of Japanese cuisine (sushi wasn’t much of a thing outside Japan yet in the 1910s). But mostly you still get cherry blossoms, Mount Fuji, kimono, and even the odd sumo wrestler (these days quite likely to be Mongolian!).
There is a comfort in this for foreign visitors, a feeling of tradition and authenticity, a sense that a trip to Japan offers a rare glimpse into a completely different world.
Which is not (entirely) wrong. Japan is still very much an island nation, culturally and linguistically as well as geographically, which undeniably forms part of its attraction for foreign tourists. This extends far beyond sightseeing. Opportunities for direct engagement in the more traditional aspects of Japan are plentiful (calligraphy, martial arts, cooking, Japanese language, farming, shrine and temple life, the tea ceremony...) through demonstrations, activities, or more extensive classes or courses. The traditional can extend into where you stay (try a beautiful old ryokan), what you eat (try kaiseki cuisine), and even where you bathe (try an old sento or onsen). And yes, if you are there at the right time of year, you can take in a sumo tournament (though you might struggle to find a Japanese person under 70 who has ever been to one).
What tourists also realize soon after they arrive is that modern Japan, while incorporating many elements borrowed from overseas, is still very, very different. From the ubiquitous convenience stores (konbini) to the conveyor belt sushi restaurants (kaiten-zushi) to the whoosh of a bullet train (shinkansen) flying by, things in Japan (even things that you think you recognize) tend to be full of surprises.
This extends to popular activities too. Opportunities abound in Japan for outdoor pursuits such as hiking, skiing, and camping, but even these seemingly universal excursions into nature get a bit of a unique spin in Japan. Attending sporting events, going to the theater, even something as simple as drinking with friends--all such common pursuits will feel comfortably familiar but also fascinatingly different.
The following article on The Best Things to Do in Japan is, of course, highly subjective. Many similar online articles tend to mostly list popular destinations (e.g. “Visiting Kinkaku-ji Temple” as an activity) but here I have tried to focus more on actual activities as opposed to sightseeing locations (there is some overlap, of course!).
Since we have a separate article on Tokyo, (The Best Things to Do in Tokyo), my recommendations here explore the rest of Japan, outside the capital city. To keep things manageable, I’ve (mostly) kept it to five top recommendations per section.
Right, let’s go find some stuff to do in Japan!
Eating (and Drinking)
Food is the national obsession in Japan. There have been times when I have flipped through the channels on my television here and every single one was featuring food at the same time, even the samurai drama and children’s animation! Japan was also the first place I ever saw people take pictures of their food, now a common practice worldwide (and the first camera I bought in Japan had a “food photo” setting).
Every locality has its meibutsu (local specialties), advertised proudly at train stations, in travel guides (food always features first in Japanese travel guides, along with sumptuous photographs) or around town (or in the form of oddly-shaped mascots), and so everywhere you go you will find those local dishes that you’ve just got to try. This makes suggesting top food destinations in Japan an all but impossible task!
Here are a few general recommendations for what to eat (and how to eat it) around Japan.
Dining in Japan can be a very solitary experience if you wish, especially in certain ramen spots and kaiten-zushi restaurants offering one-person cubicles where you can enjoy a quick meal alone in peace.
However, if you prefer a more social dining experience, the best thing to do in Japan is head to an izakaya. Izakaya is a rather general term for restaurants serving a range of tasty dishes from which you can choose to fill up your table and share with your dining companions. Those who enjoy a drink (or two…) with their meal will find izakaya relatively cheap, as many offer nomi-houdai (all-you-can-drink) plans for a fixed time (usually two hours).
All cities in Japan (and even relatively small towns) contain izakaya, many of which feature regional specialties as well as more common dishes (sashimi, gyoza, noodles, yakitori, etc.). Outside of Tokyo, I am quite partial to Sapporo’s Susukino district as well as Fukuoka in the area around Hakata Station as spots with lively izakaya serving up delicious local food.
Izakaya come in many different forms, from the cheap and more raucous to the pricier and more refined. At the latter, you will generally be provided with a button with which to call your server; at the former, simply bellow out Sumimasen! and someone will come take your order.
Many izakaya offer nomi-houdai (飲み放題) plans which allow you to drink as much as you want (or can…) within a set period of time (normally two hours). Sometimes these plans only include certain drinks, or require that you pay a seating charge or order a certain amount of food, so be sure to check the details before you dive in!
Fish (and other creatures of the deep)
Japan is home to so many (so many) delicious fish that are completely unknown (or at least uneaten) anywhere else in the world. The first time I ate sanma, all I could find on English Wikipedia was that it was “a fish eaten in Japan.” And yet this delectable silver needle-shaped fish is so treasured by the Japanese that it is essentially a synonym for autumn. (These days, the fish I can name in Japanese vastly outnumber those I can name in English!).
Obviously, most people tend to identify Japanese food first and foremost with sushi due to its booming popularity worldwide over the past couple of decades. Once a rare (and quite expensive) treat, delicious sushi is now available all over Japan across all price ranges. Supermarkets prepare daily trays of cheap but excellent sushi and sashimi, while chains of kaiten-zushi restaurants such as Sushi-ro and Uo-bei deliver choice morsels to customers via conveyor belt (or sometimes via plastic bullet train!). If you are in search of a slightly classier experience, you will find specialty sushi restaurants all over Japan, particularly near the coast.
However, Japanese seafood ranges far, far beyond sushi. Fish are also served grilled, poached (ni-tsuke), deep-fried, or even as part of rice or noodle dishes. I’m especially partial to ni-tsuke, so give that one a try if you get the chance. Invertebrates also feature prominently on Japanese menus, including kani (crab), uni (sea urchin), ika (squid), tako (octopus), and (my favorite) hotate (scallops, often grilled in their own shell).
The best places in Japan to sample seafood are definitely the nation’s fish markets. With Tsukiji in Tokyo now relocated to the far-less interesting location of Toyosu, tourists can head to fish markets in Kanazawa, Numazu, or Hakodate for a more authentic experience.
For some foreign visitors, sushi in Japan can come as something of a surprise. While “sushi rolls” (maki-zushi) do exist in Japan, they are usually small and contain only tuna or cucumber, rather than the exotic ingredients (avocado, etc.) wrapped up by Japanese restaurants outside Japan. In fact, Japanese travelers are often shocked (and sometimes horrified) by the “evolution of sushi” they discover in other countries!
The vast majority of sushi in Japan is served nigiri style, with a simple piece of fish atop a bed of lightly vinegared rice. There are of course many different types of fish to try (I recommend buri, aji, saba, sanma, tai, and katsuo along with more familiar friends such as salmon and tuna) and you can sometimes find creative versions with seared fish or various interesting toppings. Hamazushi even has a cheeseburger nigiri (which I do not recommend).
Noodles (ramen, soba, udon)
Until recent times, ramen was mostly known outside Japan only in its instant packaged form, a pale imitation of the real thing: fresh-cooked noodles drifting in deep bowls of steaming savory broth. Conventional ramen toppings include thin slices of chashu pork, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, and sheets of nori seaweed, but there are many other varieties based on fish, chicken, and shellfish. There are also different varieties of ramen broth, the most popular being tonkotsu (pork bone), miso, shiyo (soy sauce), and shio (salt). Ramen shops can be found everywhere in Japan (just look for a sign or banner marked ラーメン) and shouldn’t (always) be judged by appearance. The dingiest-looking ones are often the tastiest! Many towns around Japan boast that their type of ramen is best, but Fukuoka and Kitakata (in Fukushima prefecture) both might actually be right.
Soba (buckwheat noodles) have never really caught on outside Japan, a fact that I find baffling as I cannot get enough of them. Soba is served either hot in a light broth, generally with vegetables and tempura, or cold alongside a broth that you fill with wasabi and green onions to dip your noodles into. For those who think cold noodles sound unappetizing, just give it a try. You’ll thank me later!
While cheap soba joints are everywhere in Japan (sometimes even on train platforms), soba is at its best in rural regions. I am partial to soba from Fukui prefecture, home to Japan’s best, and funniest, dinosaur museum. You can also try wanko soba in Morioka which is served in little cups (wan-ko = one cup) that you can keep ordering until you are too full to walk.
Udon is the other well-known noodle in Japan and is also served cold or hot. Some udon restaurants allow you to select from a range of simple toppings. There are also more adventurous varieties such as kare-udon (curry udon) and yaki-udon (fried udon), as well as famed regional varieties like kitsune udon (Osaka) and Sanuki udon (Shikoku).
Other noodle dishes to try are Nagasaki champon, yakisoba (great at matsuri festivals), and tsuke-men (ramen that you dip into broth). For something spicy, try a bowl of red-hot tantanmen.
Grill it Yourself! (okonomiyaki, takoyaki, Hiroshima-yaki, yaki-niku)
The Japanese word yaki means “to fry or grill” and as such appears in the names of many dishes that originated in the tiny eateries and street stalls known as yatai.
Osaka is the undisputed king here, home to the unique culinary creations known as okonomiyaki and takoyaki. Translating or even explaining these two dishes in English is no mean feat: okonomiyaki is sometimes termed a “Japanese pancake,” a translation verging on criminal, and takoyaki are often advertised under the less-than-appetizing moniker “octopus balls.” Both are fried on a sizzling hot plate (takoyaki on a special dimpled one) and contain just the right combination of crunch and juiciness to keep you coming back for more. Hiroshima boasts its own spin on okonomiyaki with Hiroshima-yaki, which is grilled atop a bed of noodles. There is a whole building in Hiroshima devoted to this dish; just don’t tell anyone in Osaka that you went there!
Certain restaurants allow customers to grill their own okonomiyaki, though foreigners are usually offered assistance. Ingredients and batter are delivered to your table along with metal paddles to stir and flip your meal. Don’t worry too much if you mess it up. Somehow, it all comes together in the end and tastes good.
Yakiniku (which you might know as Korean BBQ) is also very popular in Japan. Different cuts and varieties of meat are served in thin slices that you grill yourself in the middle of your table. They cook quickly, so keep the tongs in your hand and your eyes on the prize. Gyu-Kaku is a nationwide chain of yakiniku restaurants that is relatively inexpensive and delicious. Those in search of a more authentic Korean experience could head to Shin-Okubo (Tokyo’s "Koreatown”) where some restaurants supply scissors for you to snip your cuts of meat.
Sake (Nihon-shu) and Japanese Beer
Sake (酒), the generic Japanese word for alcohol, is the common term outside Japan for Nihon-shu (日本酒), a clear or cloudy drink made from fermented rice. It is sometimes referred to as “rice wine” but it is actually brewed more like beer and tastes nothing like wine (and its alcohol content, generally 15-18%, is higher).
As with wine, however, Nihon-shu varies widely based on factors such as regional climate, season, soil, rice strain, and brewing process. Aficionados possess many words to describe taste, texture, and color, but for beginners the descriptors ama-kuchi (sweet) and kara-kuchi (dry) are most useful. Nihon-shu can be enjoyed cold or hot (great in winter). General practice is to pour it out from a small decanter into little cups for everyone at the table.
There are many old sake breweries around Japan offering tours (and tasting, which is what we’re all there for) especially around Tokyo and Kyoto. Ide Brewery near Lake Kawaguchi at the foot of Mount Fuji also offers tours in English. Further afield, check out the excellent Kinryo Sake Museum in Kotohira (Shikoku) or the Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery in Niigata.
Beer has been dominated by the major Japanese labels (Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, Ebisu) since it was first introduced to Japan in the mid-1800s. However, the craft beer boom has hit Japan hard, with delicious brews like Yona Yona, Ao Oni, and Suiyoubi no Neko now a common sight on supermarket and convenience store shelves. The pick of the bunch for me though is Baird Brewing Company, a small brewery based in Numazu (Shizuoka). While their beer can be somewhat tricky to find in stores, you can visit one of their three Taproom bars in Tokyo and Yokohama or head out to Numazu itself and opt either for the Numazu Taproom restaurant or the campsite right next to their brewery!
Whether you think of travel as an opportunity to expand your gastronomic horizons or just want a “you’ll never guess what I ate over there” story to wow and disgust your friends back home, Japan has you covered. Most seafood and sushi restaurants serve slippery orange spoonfuls of uni (sea urchin) and dollops of gray kani-miso (crab brains/innards). Sazae (large sea snails) are served boiled in the shell (you fish out the meat with a toothpick). On land, basashi (raw horse meat) can come as something of a surprise, as can the widespread consumption of raw eggs in certain Japanese dishes (or even just mixed into a bowl of rice).
The ultimate taste test in Japan (one that I have failed time and time again) is to enjoy a bowl of nattō, a stringy stinky mass of fermented soybeans, often eaten for breakfast. The first time I tried nattō, I thought it was something rotten past its sell-by date and promptly tossed in the garbage.
Experiencing Japanese Culture (Hands On!)
If you’re the kind of person who likes to visit a country with more than just your eyes and ears, it can be worthwhile seeking out hands-on experiences in Japan that can deepen your understanding of Japanese art, culture, history, and daily life.
The best way to narrow down your options is consider either things you are already into or things you have always wanted to try.
For example, if you already love cooking, a class in preparing home-cooked Japanese meals might be interesting and useful. On the other hand, if you’ve always been intrigued by the thud of a taiko drum or the mystique of the tea ceremony, a lesson in either of these quintessential Japanese traditions could add something truly memorable to your trip.
Anyway, it helps to have some idea of what’s out there, so here are just a few suggestions for ways to experience Japanese culture (hands on!).
Interest in Japanese home cooking (both ingredients and preparation methods) has boomed in recent years due to increased awareness worldwide of its health benefits and mild yet comforting flavors.
Cooking classes in Japan, once popular with newlywed housewives seeking to impress, are now increasingly courting curious foreign visitors. Options range from simple one-hour lessons to full multi-week or multi-month courses for aspiring cooks and chefs.
High marks for style and efficiency go to Cooking Studio Oishii no Tsukurikata in Asakusa (Tokyo), while it would be hard to beat the Osaka Okonomiyaki Cooking Experience for fun in the kitchen. The owner of Kura Cooking in Nagoya offers classes right at her own home for a more relaxing and intimate experience.
Many classes, particular in more rural areas, focus on local ingredients and specialties. There are also many cooking classes available in Okinawa, due to its unique cuisine, that are popular with Japanese and foreign tourists alike.
Whether you are a lifelong disciple of jujutsu (since before it was cool) or just a devotee of The Karate Kid from back in the day, Japan exerts an inexorable fascination on those with an interest in the martial arts (武道, budō). As well as karate and jujutsu, Japanese martial arts include judō, kendō (Japanese fencing with bamboo swords), aikidō, and (a surprise to most foreign visitors) sumō. Lesser familiar abroad is the Japanese style of archery known as kyūdō.
For experienced practitioners, you will find no shortage of classes, gyms, and dojos across the nation. For beginners, well…since Japanese martial arts are nowadays essentially modern sports (many of them Olympic events), joining a class or competition with no experience could be rather difficult (and painful!) as proficiency takes years of practice. One exception to this that I found was at the Uotoshi Ryokan in Nagano prefecture (near the famed snow monkeys…) where the proprietor offers ¥500 kyūdō lessons. Humiliating, to be sure, but no danger to life and limb.
For those interested in watching Japanese martial arts, the Budōkan in Tokyo (where the Beatles played in 1966) hosts national and international tournaments. Professional sumō tournaments are held five times annually (see Live Sports and Entertainment, below, for more details).
Some companies marketing cultural activities to foreign tourists in Japan are actually run and/or staffed by foreign residents. The main reason for this is the need for fluent English speakers, particularly for those activities (or tours) requiring lengthy or complex explanations. Cultural preferences also play a part, as anyone who has ever taken a long Japanese bus tour can attest.
That said, pushing past the language barrier can make for memorable connections and valuable experiences, so even if an activity is only available in Japanese, don’t be afraid to try! After all, many hands-on activities, by their nature, allow you to learn by observation and imitation.
Conversely, it should also be noted that long-term foreign residents can be some of the most passionate practitioners of certain traditional Japanese arts. Many have lived and studied in Japan for decades and thus have extensive knowledge and interesting perspectives on the country.
The development of the Japanese tea ceremony (茶道, sadō, “the way of tea”) stretches back more than 1000 years when tea itself was first introduced to Japan from China. So enamored of tea and its ceremonies was the powerful warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi that he had a portable golden tea room constructed so that it could be carried wherever he went, including the battlefield.
For a truly traditional tea ceremony these days in Japan, it is generally best to head to one of the tea houses found in traditional gardens, temples or shrines, or on castle grounds. As the cultural (and once political) capital of Japan, Kyoto is particularly renowned for its tea and tea ceremonies.
Personally, my most memorable experience with tea was at the Genkyu-en Garden on the grounds of Hikone Castle (one of Japan’s 12 remaining original castles). The ceremony itself was relatively pared down, but the experience, the tea, and the views were wonderful.
As for the tea ceremony itself, it varies from place to place, and is too detailed to explain here. Your tea will generally be served by a hostess in full kimono. Be prepared for a lot of bowing, a lot of sitting, and a lot of waiting. And, of course, a spot of (green) tea.
In a word: Yes.
Now, having donned a hakama at my wedding (as well as ill-fitting samurai armor at Japanese castles on more than one occasion…), I have to admit that I’m a little biased here. But the vast majority of people in Japan are perfectly happy for non-Japanese people to wear traditional Japanese clothing, so it seems a moot point. The fuss a few years back in America over a museum event where visitors could try on kimono was met in Japan with utter confusion and bemusement.
For those with concerns about cultural sensitivity, I guess the main thing is to be aware of the situation. If you are sporting samurai armor (or unhistorical ninja clothing), it is totally fine to clown around a little, as any Japanese people doing so will also be having a laugh. Wearing a geisha-style kimono in Kyoto is fine, as it is a popular activity among young Japanese girls as well (just don’t get in the way of the real maiko- and geiko-san…they’re busy!). However, if wearing a kimono to a fancy dinner, wedding, or other such occasion, maybe consider it similar in formality to a nice suit or dress. You can also feel free to wear yukatta (a light robe) to summer fireworks or festivals (or at onsen hotels).
Just be prepared for a few stares and giggles, as a foreigner in traditional Japanese clothing is still something of an unexpected novelty in Japan.
Traditional Japanese Music
Anyone traveling to Japan expecting train stations and department stores to be filled with the haunting twangs and tones of traditional Japanese music is in for a big disappointment (instead you might get anything from J-pop to Beethoven to gangsta rap).
While full concerts featuring traditional Japanese instruments such as the koto, shakuhachi, and biwa are regular occurrences around Japan, all but the most ardent music enthusiasts may find these difficult to sit through. Two exceptions, in my experience, are the Tsugaru shamisen of northern Aomori prefecture and the famous taiko drum, both of which are played at great pace and volume for a truly visceral experience.
As for hands-on experiences, taiko is probably the most approachable for beginners, with various places around the country offering opportunities to bang big drums for fun. Another fantastic chance to try out different instruments from around Japan (and the world!) can be found at Hamamatsu’s excellent Museum of Musical Instruments.
Japan is home to many excellent museums filled with stunning cultural and historical treasures. Efforts have been made in recent years to make them more accessible to visitors who cannot read or understand Japanese (with English explanations, subtitles, tours, etc.).
There are also several museums in Japan that provide slightly more hands-on experiences. The Edo-Tokyo Museum, which chronicles the history of the world’s biggest city, is one, as is the delightfully outdated Science Museum near the Imperial Palace (a fantastic place to take the kids on a rainy day). The aforementioned Museum of Musical Instruments (Hamamatsu) is also a great little spot to check out.
Japanese Language Classes
Written in a blend of three alphabets (kanji, katakana, hiragana) including thousands of kanji characters (many of which can be pronounced multiple ways), Japanese can sometimes seem like the Mount Everest of foreign languages to learn.
But hey, mountains are there to be summited! The first few steps are relatively painless, as basic Japanese pronunciation is not too difficult and the considerable number of English loan words provide a (rather misleading) bridge into speaking the language.
The slope then gets much steeper, fast. Luckily, these days there are more Japanese language schools than ever catering to all levels and purposes, from fun beginner lessons to fully immersive university or business courses.
Retired Harvard professor and acclaimed translator Jay Rubin, the man responsible for bringing many of Haruki Murakami's novels to the English-speaking world, penned a fascinating little book in 1992 that was originally entitled Gone Fishin': New Angles on Perennial Problems (later re-released under the title Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don't Tell You).
The original title stemmed from the Japanese phrase Honjitsu wa yasumasete itadakimasu from a sign on the front of a shop. Rubin explains: [a] completely naturalized translation for the sign might simply be "Closed,'" though that way we lose the interesting cultural difference. Perhaps "We thank you for allowing us to have the day off'" or "We appreciate your permitting us to have the day off'" would begin to convey some sense of the respectful tone of the Japanese in natural sounding English. But make no mistake about it: the owner has gone fishin'.
The book is a witty, accessible, loving tribute to some of the most dastardly challenges that Japanese poses to speakers of other languages. No knowledge of Japanese is required to understand and enjoy it.
Staying in Cool Places (Accommodation in Japan)
With so much to see and do in Japan, you might not be too bothered about where you lay your head at night. And if all you are after is clean, convenient, and affordable accommodation, you will find plenty of perfectly comfortable hotels (especially nationwide chains such as APA, Dormy, or Toyoko), especially clustered around train stations.
What some travelers overlook, however, is that the places you stay can actually provide some of the best memories of your trip to Japan.
To experience a sense of traditional Japan, you should spend at least one night in a ryokan (旅館). For an even deeper step back in time, try staying overnight in one of the ancient monasteries of Koya-san, just two hours south of Kyoto, or an A-frame gassho-zukkuri in Gifu's Shirakawa-go.
For those seeking calm and relaxation, onsen hotels are the ultimate quiet getaway. Capsule hotels, on the other hand, are a weird novelty (for Japanese people too) and a bit of a laugh (but one night is more than enough).
Here are a few suggestions for the coolest places (i.e. most interesting types of accommodation) that can add something special to your stay in Japan.
A ryokan (旅館) is a traditional Japanese inn that generally features tatami mat floors, sliding paper and wood partitions, communal bathing, and low lighting. Visitors sleep on futon (sleeping mats) that are unrolled and spread on the tatami mats before bedtime.
Many ryokan in Japan offer meals (either breakfast and dinner, or just breakfast) as a package deal with your overnight stay. The food is almost always superb and served in gorgeous atmospheric surroundings. You definitely won’t leave hungry.
While ryokan can be found throughout Japan, even in major cities, Kyoto contains a particularly high number (prices tend to be quite high, though, especially in spring). Those looking to walk the old Nakasendo in Nagano will find some especially beautiful old ryokan in the towns of Tsumago and Magome.
Many ryokan provide guests with traditional yukatta (robes) and haori (overcoats) to wear around the premises so that you can look the part as well.
A ryokan by any other name... Many travelers find that a visit to a ryokan ranks high among their best experiences in Japan, but it is worth doing your research before you choose one. Some places call themselves “ryokan” for marketing purposes, but are pretty much just conventional hotels with tatami mat floors.
For many Japanese people, an overnight trip to an onsen hotel in the mountains is a welcome respite from their busy lives in the city. Foreign visitors may find some of these hotels slightly large and ostentatious (occasionally hilariously so), but they do offer opportunities for ultimate comfort and relaxation.
Most onsen hotels in Japan offer meals (either breakfast and dinner, or just breakfast) as a package deal with your overnight stay. The food is generally excellent. Some hotels serve buffets, while others provide individual servings.
Due to its proximity to Tokyo, Hakone is a popular getaway for onsen lovers, as is the seaside resort of Atami. For a more secluded getaway, I would recommend Yuya Onsen (about an hour from Nagoya) or, for something truly traditional, Nyūtō Onsen in Akita (often used as a set for samurai films and dramas).
Bathe without the stay! Quite a few onsen hotels offer the opportunity for higaeri-onsen (day-use), where you pay a nominal fee to use the onsen facilities without staying overnight!
Koya-san (Mount Koya) is a monastic community about two hours south of Kyoto and Osaka that was founded by the great monk Kūkai in the early 9th century. While it is still a place of active Buddhist worship and study, various monasteries also offer travelers the unique opportunity to spend the night within their temple grounds.
Rooms are comfortable (similar to ryokan) and the surroundings are incredibly beautiful and atmospheric, adorned with treasures of art and woodwork. If you wish, you can rise early to join the monks as they recite Buddhist sutras in their morning devotions.
Food (breakfast and dinner) is provided in the form of shōjin ryōri (精進料理), monastic cuisine that is actually entirely vegan (almost unheard of elsewhere in Japan). For you meat eaters out there (like me), rest assured that it is delicious and very filling. The monks have been at this a while!
In popular worldwide imagination, capsule hotels conjure up images of Japan as a sort of Blade Runner-esque post-industrial cityscape, so crowded that its denizens have no option but to subsist piled up on top of one another.
In reality, capsule hotels are very much a rarity in Japan these days, and very much a novelty. They’re kind of a laugh after a night out with friends and aren't so different in size than a bunk in a train or a ship (they’re not quite what you’re picturing from The Matrix). Still, one night is usually enough.
Some of the older capsule hotels in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka still exist (they are really old school: most only admit men) but in recent years trendier versions have also arisen to cater to younger travelers, such as the Nine Hours and luxury First Cabin chains. Kyoto also has a tatami capsule hotel called Capsule Ryokan Kyoto (which is pretty much just a conventional hostel).
A good mainstay for solo travelers (or couples) is the ubiquitous business hotel. Functional, comfortable, cheap, and generally located near transport hubs, business hotels are nothing spectacular but they get the job done.
Many business hotels these days are members of nationwide chains found even in relatively small cities across Japan. Some of the best known and most reliable in terms of quality and service are Dormy Inn, Toyoko Inn, APA Hotels, and Route Inn.
Do keep your eyes open though. I’ve stayed in cheap business hotels with rooftop onsen, beer vending machines, and hilarious workout rooms. They can sometimes surprise you!
Booking accommodation in advance Be sure to book accommodation in advance, especially if you are traveling to popular destinations like Kyoto in busy seasons like spring or late fall.
Chilling (Boiling) in Cool (Hot) Onsen!
Japan’s volatile volcanic topography has brought the country one incredible blessing: thousands and thousands of hot springs (温泉, onsen) that bubble up right out of the ground.
Soaking one’s body in these warm (or often, quite hot!) pools of water is a time-honored Japanese tradition that will soon melt your cares (and aches and pains) away. Sitting in an outdoor rotenburo (露天風呂) in natural surroundings (whether sakura or autumn leaves or deep piles of snow) is a particularly serene and relaxing experience.
You can also slip into the past (as you slip into hot water) with a visit to one of Japan's historic onsen, some of which are housed in buildings that are over a hundred years old.
Note that many onsen hotels or ryokan also offer “day bathing” (hi-gaeri onsen) where you pay a nominal fee to use the facilities without staying overnight.
Here are just a few recommendations for the most memorable onsen experiences that you can have in Japan.
If visiting Tokyo, your easiest option is Hakone, a pleasant little region in the hills above the seaside town of Odawara (worth a stop for the castle). The little town of Hakone-Yumoto is absolutely packed with onsen hotels to suit all budgets, but there are many other attractive options around the region, some more hidden than others. Hakone is also well-known for the "Hakone loop" tourist circuit that requires several rather unique modes of transportation (make sure to ride the pirate ship across the lake…).
The area around Nikko also has many onsen with spectacular views of autumn colors. So does Kurama Onsen, located right at the end of a beautiful hilly walk from Kibune, making it the perfect spot for a relaxing soak before catching the train back to Kyoto.
For those in search of something truly unique, search out Hotel Iya Onsen in the remote Iya Valley on the island of Shikoku, which uses a funicular cable car for access to its riverside rotenburo!
While the pleasure of soaking in a hot bath will undoubtedly appeal to many of you, it is important to be aware that visiting a Japanese onsen brings with it certain rules based on cultural norms.
You must be naked. No trunks, no bikini, not even a Speedo. Starkers. Baths are (almost always, these days) segregated by gender. If this is a problem for you – culturally, religiously, or personally – you might want to avoid a trip to an onsen.
Tattoos are generally not allowed. If you can cover them, it might be okay. Otherwise, they are a no-go in most onsen in Japan.
Translation (sign, at right): "Ascending or descending the stairs naked is strictly prohibited."
Winter might just be the best season for a soak in a pool of hot water! An outdoor rotenburo surrounded by snow is an unforgettable experience (you just have to survive the freezing cold walk to the tub!).
The ski resort of Zao in Yamagata prefecture is a great choice if you would like to soak your aching joints after a day on the slopes. The town itself is literally steaming, with hot water running in streams through the town!
For those in search of a particularly picturesque experience, Nyūtō Onsen (乳頭温泉) in Akita is a winter’s dream, as is the incredible Kaniyu Onsen (加仁湯) in the forests north of Nikkō.
Onsen by the Sea
While one usually pictures the mountains when thinking of onsen, there are also several places in Japan where you can gaze out across the sea while neck deep in hot water.
Along with the seaside resort of Atami, a short trip from Tokyo, the west side of the Izu peninsula at Dogashima boasts baths with spectacular views of the rugged coastline. Just a bit further along, the Yaizu Grand Hotel's clifftop onsen looks back along the Pacific coast towards Mount Fuji.
Further west, on the Kii-hanto peninsula (south of Osaka and Kyoto), a beachside onsen sits alongside the white sands of Shirahama. Kagoshima and the Satsuma-hanto peninsula in the far south of Kyushu, are home to several onsen offering panoramic views of Sakurajima as it sputters out volcanic ash just across the bay.
As well as Nyūtō Onsen (乳頭温泉) in Akita (often used as a set in samurai dramas), those in search of historic onsen will also enjoy the historic Dōgo Onsen (道後温泉) of Matsuyama.
My personal favorite, however, is Kanaya Ryokan (金谷旅館) in Izu, home to a gorgeous long wooden bath (a sennin-buro, "thousand person bath") that dates back over a hundred years.
The lovably tacky onsen town of Beppu on Kyushu (home as well to the “hells of Beppu,” bubbling pits of mud and mineral-tinged water surrounded by dubious tourist attractions) is also home to several historic onsen, including Takegawara Onsen, which was first constructed in the early 1900s. Many visitors claim that the building's facade reminds them of the bathhouse in Hayao Miyazaki's classic Spirited Away. Just be prepared: the water is very hot!
Though not easy to get to by any means, it is possible to find some undeveloped natural hot springs in the great Japanese outdoors, particularly in the Japan Alps and Hokkaido.
These can be tricky to locate, so seeking out local advice is usually essential (this is true in terms of safety as well, as some onsen are to be found in places where noxious gasses seep out of the ground).
One truly unique wild onsen experience can be found in Wakayama prefecture at Kawayu Onsen, where you can dig into the sand alongside a freezing cold river and have hot water bubble up from below! Note that there are no facilities here at all; you are on your own (and will be giving the nearby community a bit of a free show…).
While onsen are usually associated with the Japanese countryside more than its large cities, Tokyo is home to a surprisingly large number of places to immerse yourself in soothing pools of hot water. Certain areas still contain many sento (銭湯), local bathhouses which were once the place where the whole neighborhood went to relax, chat, and get clean. Nowadays they are no longer a necessity, but their creaky floors and bright mosaics offer a welcome dip into the camaraderie and community of Japan’s past.
Many cities around Japan are still home to sento, so be sure to seek them out!
Exploring Japan’s Great Outdoors
International awareness of Japan as a land of great natural beauty has greatly increased in recent years, in contrast to common conceptions of the country in the latter half of the twentieth century, which were dominated by images of its large sprawling cities.
In reality, much of the archipelago is dominated by steep mountain ranges and rugged rocky coastlines. The rural regions that are flat enough to be inhabitable are dominated by the emerald green hue of rice-fields, while the forests of the land are thick and verdant.
The seas are also wonders to behold, from the frigid north to the semi-tropical south and everything in between. Aside from Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa, there are also many smaller islands off the beaten track and just begging to be explored. Hokkaido itself is of great interest to nature lovers, with many plants and animals that do not exist in the rest of Japan. The same could be said of the Okinawan islands, due to both their distance from the mainland and semi-tropical climate.
All of this makes Japan’s great outdoors ripe for exploration and outdoor adventures, from scaling the nation’s highest peaks to shredding perfect powder to donning a mask and fins for a plunge into a kaleidoscope of underwater colors. Personally, I love nothing more than to hop on my bicycle, get off the main roads, and find a place in some remote corner of Japan in which to get lost.
Here are just a few suggestions to send you on your way.
Hiking in Japan offers something for everyone. Beginners can head for Mount Takao near Tokyo, the Fushimi-Inari Shrine south of Kyoto, or the trails of Nara Park for leisurely strolls filled with gorgeous natural views that never stray too far from civilization.
More energetic types with limited time can head to Mount Tsukuba in Ibaraki, Mount Nokogiri in Chiba, or Rokko Mountain in Kobe for a quick jaunt up into the hills. Those who want a historical experience can also walk parts of the old Nakasendo Highway (Tsumago to Magome) or the Kumano Kodo pilgrim trail in Wakayama.
For more adventurous souls, the sky (or the top of Mount Fuji…) is the limit. Grueling multi-day treks can be done across the craggy peaks of the Japan Alps, while traversing the mountains and valleys of Shikoku feels like visiting a Japan that time has left behind. Wild northern hikes can be found on Hokkaido’s remote Abashiri peninsula and Daisetsuzan mountain range. You could also scale Mount Rishiri in the far north to gape across the sea at Russia or explore the mountains and primeval old growth forests of stunning little Yakushima off the southern coast of Kyushu.
Mountain huts in Japan Note that many hikes in Japan have mountain huts (山小屋) where you can stay the night (some even serve meals). It is best to book in advance.
Across its expansive north-south range, Japan is home to a diverse range of birds and mammals. Of particular interest to many visitors are its Japanese Macaque monkeys (common and often seen) and Asiatic black bears (common but not often seen), but wild boars, deer, strange antelope things known as kamoshika, golden martens, tanuki, and many other interesting beasts also inhabit the grasslands and forests of Japan. Hokkaido and Okinawa are home to ecosystems very different from the rest of the country.
Unfortunately, the two main images of animals in Japan familiar to most people are the snow monkeys of Jigokudani and deer of Nara Park. Both are something of a disappointment, particularly the snow monkeys which live in what is really just an outdoor zoo. In fact, the most entertaining thing in Jigokudani is watching tourists contort themselves in attempts to take photographs that don't include other tourists!
Bird lovers will also find an impressive diversity of avian species. Pretty little songbirds flit through gardens and parks, while elegant white tsuru (cranes) and herons prowl rice fields with hawks circling overhead. Migratory waterfowl are a common sight throughout the country as well, even in busy Tokyo at the impressive Tokyo Port Wild Bird Park (東京港野鳥公園).
If you encounter animals in the wild in Japan, keep your distance as you would in any country. Monkeys are not usually aggressive (except for the ones who chased my bike in Fukushima...) but Asiatic black bears can be. Several species of poisonous snake also inhabit Japan. None are as deadly as trailside signs may have you believe, but getting bitten is still obviously best avoided.
While cycling in Japan is still commonly considered more of a necessary form of local transportation for shopping and taking the kids to school than a leisure or adventure activity, this is slowly starting to change.
If you are confident riding on roads, Japan is a dream for cyclists, especially outside major cities. Roadways are well-maintained and traverse stunning terrain that cannot be easily accessed on trains or buses.
Those more comfortable on a cycling path separated from the road will love the Shimanami-Kaido, a trip over the Inland Sea which meanders its way from Honshu to Shikoku across the orange and lemon groves of five small islands connected by large bridges. Designated cycling paths keep cyclists safe on the roads (and bridges). Cheap, (relatively) decent bicycles can be rented from Imabari (Shikoku) or Onomichi (Honshu) and returned on the other side. The trip can be comfortably covered in two days.
Another good option is Lake Biwa, the largest lake (by far) in Japan, home to beautiful Hikone Castle among other attractions. A full circuit runs 180-250 km, but with excellent bicycles available to be rented and dropped off at various locations around the lake, visitors are free to choose how far they want to go.
If you are in Tokyo and want to ride without stoplights and traffic, I recommend heading to the rivers! Both the Tamagawa in the west and Arakawa in the east have excellent paved cycle paths running for many miles of speedy riverside riding (which both run all the way out of Tokyo into the mountains).
While rental bicycles are available in many locations across Japan, you should be prepared: many have just one gear and are only slightly lighter than armored tanks. If you are a taller person, you may also find yourself cycling with your knees next to your ears.
A few locations, such as Lake Biwa and the Shimanami Kaido, do offer excellent bicycles that fit all sizes and can be rented over multiple days. Another option is to bring your own bicycle; you can carry it on trains with you as long as you have a bicycle bag (if traveling on the Shinkansen, you must reserve a luggage space behind the last seat of a car, but this is free if booked in advance).
Some municipalities also offer electric bicycles for rent which you can pick up and drop off at different unmanned parking stations. Just know that cycling purists like me will glare at you as you whizz up the hill past us on your motor-assisted steed.
Skiing and Snowboarding
While some foreign travelers seem to believe that ski resorts only exist on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, some of the most incredible skiing and snowboarding in Japan can actually be found on the main island of Honshu, easy to get to from most of Japan’s biggest cities.
Gala Yuzawa, for example, can be accessed via a quick shinkansen ride from Tokyo (you walk out of the station right onto the slopes), as can Karuizawa Prince Hotel Ski Resort. Those with more time can head to Hakuba, site of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, which has combined 10 former ski resorts into a single massive playground for snow sports.
Aside from weekends and school holidays, you will find most ski hills to be relatively empty, especially away from the beginner slopes.
Are you insured? Be sure to check whether your travel health insurance covers sporting injuries incurred during skiing or snowboarding. In the (hopefully) unlikely event of an injury on the slopes, you do not want to be left with a hefty medical bill!
Swimming, Snorkeling, Scuba Diving (and Surfing!)
In spite of the fact that Japan is a country composed of hundreds of islands, many people remain completely unaware of its many gorgeous beaches and coastal areas.
The southern islands of Okinawa are obviously the best-known destinations in the country for sun, sea and sand, but there are dozens of other places around Japan where you can don a swimsuit or wetsuit and head out into the waves. The Shonan coast (just a quick local train west of Tokyo), for example, is a particularly happening spot in summer, as are the lovely beaches of Chiba, on the other side of the capital city. Further afield, the beaches of Shimoda or the coast near Hagi are perfect quiet spots for a relaxing swim.
Scuba diving and snorkeling are also popular. A quite astonishing number of Japanese people seem to possess PADI diving licenses and many book holidays to Okinawa, the Izu Islands, or Kyushu to experience the underwater menagerie of invertebrates and fish to be found in Japanese waters.
Surfing is a big deal here too. Shonan is probably best known, but Kujukuri Beach, a 66 km (or 99 ri, as the name implies) stretch of sand with nothing between it and North America but the endless waves of the Pacific Ocean, is where the serious surfers go (it hosted Olympic surfing in 2021).
There are plentiful opportunities for camping in Japan, from car camping to rough camping to camping in Tokyo (there is even a campsite within a stone’s throw of Haneda Airport!).
If you are traveling to Japan from abroad, however, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to bring your camping gear along (and purchasing gear in Japan could be quite expensive…).
It is possible (if you have a driving license valid in Japan), however, to rent a “camping car” (camper van) and there are some outdoor activity companies available that can provide tents and other camping equipment.
Those looking for a tent spot with a view will find many fine options across Japan, though it is pretty hard to beat the three campsites on the far side Lake Motosu on a clear day as they gaze back across the lake towards Mount Fuji.
The best known maker and retailer of outdoor equipment in Japan is Mont Bell, which has stores in cities nationwide. Quality is excellent and prices are reasonable (and there is a wider range of sizes than in typical Japanese clothing stores!).
Live Sports and Entertainment
As well as the iconic sport of sumo, contested in five two-week-long tournaments annually, Japan is home to several professional leagues for different sports and frequently hosts international sporting events. Japanese sports fans are passionate and enthusiastic, often sporting colorful outfits and chanting choreographed songs in unison.
If music is your thing, it is possible to attend concerts given by Japanese or foreign musicians. Live theater, both modern and traditional, can also be found in the major cities of the country, though access for non-Japanese speakers does tend to be somewhat limited.
Younger visitors can catch a thrill or two in one of Japan’s many colorful game centers (arcades). Alternatively (if Mom and Dad can be persuaded), a visit to one of the major amusement parks in the country, such as Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, can be a great time for all involved.
Here are the most enticing live sports and entertainment options available in Japan.
In Japan, sumo (大相撲) is more than just an athletic pursuit. It is part sport, part national symbol, part religious ceremony.
Attending one of Japan's five annual professional sumo tournaments offers a fascinating glimpse into a sport that still has one foot in the vanished world of Edo and the Tokugawa and one foot in the modern world of TV broadcasts and fast food sponsorships.
Make no mistake about it though, these big dudes are athletes! Clad in nothing but their colored fundoshi, sumo rikishi smash together like stripped-down football linebackers until one lies in the dirt (or the lap of some poor old obaachan in the first row!). Everyone is after the exalted rank of yokozuna, but once attained, it is forever a precarious perch.
Because watching sumo can work up a healthy (?) appetite, you might want to seek out some chanko nabe after the tournament's final bout has been fought. Chanko nabe, a hotpot stew of tofu, vegetables, and chicken or fish, is known as the favorite dish of sumo rikishi. It is actually (surprisingly) quite a lean meal.
It’s a difficult question. It’s quite uncommon to meet a Japanese person, particularly under the age of 60, who actually watches sumo on television and exceedingly rare to meet one who has been to see it live. That said, the five annual tournaments are generally well-attended (some days even sell out), are broadcast live on NHK, and are featured in the sports pages of national newspapers alongside baseball and soccer. I guess the best answer is that while most Japanese people these days don’t actively watch or follow sumo, many are sort of glad it still exists as a sport (/cultural entity) that is truly unique to Japan. Oddly enough, it is also possibly the most international professional sport in Japan, having featured Hawaiians, Bulgarians, (lots of) Mongolians, and other nationalities among its top ranks.
Baseball and Soccer
The biggest spectator sports in Japan are baseball and soccer. Both sports are typically enjoyed by vibrant chanting crowds powered by plenty of snacks and beer.
Baseball has a long history in Japan, dating back to the Meiji period when it was adopted as a way to encourage teamwork within the military. Babe Ruth once toured Japan and many Japanese players have starred in America’s Major Leagues. The Japanese league is known as Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and features 12 teams. Traditional powerhouses (and bitter rivals) Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants and Osaka’s Hanshin Tigers have been somewhat overtaken in recent years by upstarts like the Nippon Ham Fighters (where Shohei Ohtani got his start) and Yakult Swallows.
As for soccer, the J-League is one of international soccer’s best kept secrets. Despite the league only turning fully professional in the 1990s, Japanese players now feature in some of the world’s best teams and the national team has become a constant presence at the World Cup.
The (cursed) Yokohama F Marinos are the current J-League champions, having finished just two lousy points above my beloved Kawasaki Frontale in 2022. Kashima Antlers have a gorgeous stadium and long-standing following, while Vissel Kobe also have a gorgeous stadium (and Andres Iniesta!).
Got tickets? Tickets to soccer matches and baseball games can be purchased online or at convenience stores. Some Japanese may be required, so you might need to ask for assistance. Big games often sell out, but smaller teams might have tickets available on site.
Sumo tournaments take place five times a year, with three at the Kokugikan in Tokyo, one in Osaka, and one in Nagoya. Tickets can be purchased online (in English) from Oosumo a few weeks before the tournament starts.
Other professional sports (such as basketball or rugby) can also be found in Japan, but will probably be only of interest to truly die-hard fans, as the level is nowhere near that of soccer or baseball (or sumo).
For those interested in traditional forms of Japanese theater, outside of Tokyo, Kyoto is probably your best bet in terms of accessibility to non-Japanese speakers. Institutions such as the Minamiza Theater offer a series of short performances of various Japanese theater arts (kabuki, noh, bunraku, etc.) with explanations available in English. While somewhat touristy, these performances do give you a bit of a taste so that you can decide if you want to delve deeper.
One recommendation I do have is a visit to the Kanamaru-za (built in 1835), the oldest surviving kabuki theater in Japan. Hidden away in the tiny town of Kotohira (琴平) on Shikoku, this unique building offers an incredibly rare glimpse into the vanished world of the Edo samurai period. Colorful lanterns illuminate its all-wood interior and it is equipped with a human-powered rotating stage (which your guide will gleefully operate for you!). Actual performances here are rare, but spectacular (if you can land a ticket).
Surviving traditional Japanese theater… Noh (能) is an extremely old slow and stylized form of theater that is all but incomprehensible to modern Japanese audiences. Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a livelier and more narrative dramatic form that rose to prominence during the Edo samurai period. Check before you go whether headsets giving English explanations are available. Trust me, no matter how good you think your Japanese is, it’s not this good (imagine going to the opera thinking that your classroom knowledge of Italian will suffice, then multiply this feeling by a thousand). Even Japanese patrons tend to use headsets explaining the plays in modern Japanese.
In the land that gave the world SONY, SEGA, and Nintendo (I can’t believe I never realized until my 30s that the world’s most famous Italian plumber was born in Japan!), game centers (ゲームセンタ) have not yet quite been squeezed out of existence by home gaming.
To call a Japanese game center an “arcade” is kind of like calling a slice of Kobe beef a hamburger. The larger ones are stocked with an astonishing array of games, many requiring quite a bit of physical exercise such as the taiko drums and the one where you dance around like a fool, trying to step on colored lights. I’ve even seen a full Yamanote line driver’s cabin where you pilot the train between actual stops in Tokyo. Game centers are also often attached to bowling alleys, batting cages, futsal courts, pool or ping-pong tables, and other attractions.
Game centers can generally be found in shopping centers, though there are some large standalone ones as well. ROUND1 is a nationwide chain that has particularly impressive facilities.
Outside Tokyo where Disneyland reigns supreme (even though it is technically in Chiba…), Japan’s next best known amusement park is unquestionably Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. Home to a wholescale version of Hogwarts, wild Jurassic Park and Jaws rides, and Super Nintendo World, there is plenty there to amuse kids of all ages over multiple days.
Those in search of higher speed thrills can head to Fuji-Q Highland to ride its gravity-defying roller-coasters within sight of the country's biggest and most famous mountain. Always wanted to throw up while looking at Mount Fuji upside down? Fuji-Q Highland has you covered.
Elsewhere, Ghibli Park is a nice stop for anyone who is a fan of the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki. Huis Ten Bosch (near Nagasaki) is an odd little slice of Holland in the midst of Japan. Oddly enough, Huis Ten Bosch is not alone as a strange replica of towns from overseas. There are several "Doitsu Mura" (German towns) dotted around Japan and even, I was stunned to discover, a version of Nelson, British Columbia, Canada in the middle of Shizuoka prefecture.
Let’s just get this out in the open: Japan has a bit of a reputation worldwide for being a bit...weird. And so searching out the bizarre and strange has long been an obsession of foreign tourists who come to visit this country.
Some of the weirdness, of course, is a put-up job these days, a marketing ploy directed at foreigners. When you go to a ninja training course or a jail restaurant or maid cafe, the Japanese are in on the joke.
Scratch the surface in Japan, though, and there are plenty of truly bizarre discoveries waiting to be made. For example, just in my local neighborhood, there is a large and quite intimidating concrete whale full of slides for children, on the site where an actual whale was hunted and killed in Tokyo Bay in the early 1800s (the Tokugawa shogun of the time even ventured out of his palace to come check it out). A nearby shrine preserves the ashes of the bones of that whale and his fellows.
Just keep in mind, I guess, that what you find weird is always a matter of perspective.
Shopping and Nightlife
Shopping in Japan isn’t fundamentally too different from anywhere else, but there are a few nuances that I’ve pointed out in the following sections. Ubiquitous convenience stores stocked with essentially everything anyone could ever need offer quick and simple access for travelers searching for snacks or essentials.
Those looking for better (and cheaper) food can check out Japan's excellent supermarkets that have a good range of pre-made ready-to-eat food (even sushi!). Fashionistas will love the swanky department stores in major cities, while those searching for bargains can head to old school shotengai (shopping streets).
Nightlife focuses more on eating with friends or acquaintances than going to bars and hitting on strangers. Bars are plentiful if often somewhat small and pricey, while clubs are generally only frequented by the young (and wild and free) or certain devoted subcultures. Karaoke is very popular, especially after a few drinks.
Shotengai (商店街, Old Shopping Streets)
For a bit of a stroll back in time, you can head to one of Japan’s many remaining shotengai (商店街), covered shopping arcades containing a diverse range of shops and other businesses. They are often referred to as “Showa-ppoi” (“of the Showa era”, which ended in 1989).
Osaka, Takamatsu, Kochi, and Sapporo are all home to quite impressive covered shotengai. Central Osaka, in particular, contains a veritable labyrinth of shotengai where many a traveler has got well and truly lost.
Keep your eyes open as you stroll along. Shotengai can be a great place to find cheap deals as well as interesting and unusual items.
Convenience Stores and Supermarkets
If there is a symbol of modern Japan, it is the ubiquitous konbini (convenience store). Unlike their foreign counterparts, the 7-11s, FamilyMarts, and Lawsons of Japan contain far more than fizzy drinks and chocolate; they’ve got pretty much everything you could want or need to survive.
Supermarkets are also a good place to shop for inexpensive premade meals in Japan, including sushi! Popular chains include Tokyu Store, MyBasket, LIFE, Ito-Yokado, Maruetsu, and Seijoishi.
Sayaka Murata’s 2016 hit novel Convenience Store Woman (コンビニ人間) is a short but eerily enthralling novel about a young woman who decides her life’s calling is to work in a convenience store. Murata partially based the story on her own experiences working in a konbini. An English translation is widely available.
Department Stores, Shopping Malls and Outlet Stores
Japan is home to many large department stores, shopping malls, and outlet stores, the latter of which is a huge draw for visitors from the Asian mainland.
Department stores often have excellent restaurants on their upper floors, while shopping malls have food courts.
While the bigger cities of Japan contain some Western-style bars these days, these are not the norm for most Japanese people. They might head to a sports bar now and then to watch a game or split an oversized burger with friends at an America-themed restaurant, but for most it’s a novelty rather than a regular experience. The reverse is true for many long-term expats, many of whom tend to congregate in such places (such as the ubiquitous HUB chain of English pubs) for a bit of a taste of home.
Japanese bars tend to be on the small side, often including just a few seats (often occupied by the same people every weekend) and frequently sporting strange English names. These are fun places for a quiet drink or a chat with the regulars, who are often (not always!) happy to have someone new to talk to!
Clubbing is not really a mainstream activity in Japan, attracting mostly only the young (and wild and free) or certain devoted subcultures. Some places advertised as “clubs” may actually be hostess bars or similar rather than the dance clubs familiar overseas.
Karaoke is a more popular activity than clubbing in Japan, especially after drinks at a bar or restaurant. Many karaoke spots are open late and offer nomi-houdai (飲み放題) so you can drink all you want while you belt out the hits (booze makes everyone better at karaoke).
Finding the nightlife spots around Japan Outside of Tokyo, it is relatively simple to locate the nightlife centers of Japanese cities, as most revolve around just one or two areas (typically near major train stations). A few well-known examples are Nagoya’s Sakai district, Osaka’s Umeda-Dotonbori, Sapporo’s Susukino or Fukuoka’s Hakata station area.
Conclusion: What are the best things to do in Japan?
As you can see, there is not only a lot to see in Japan but so (so!) much to do!
Planning a few activities in advance can add a lot to your trip, but leave yourself open to opportunities for adventure and discovery as well.
Finding something new is all part of the fun of visiting Japan!