Top Things to Do in Japan

June 1, 2012 by

Asia, List Mania: Viator's Top Picks, Suggested Itineraries, Things to Do

We asked Cheryn for her top things to do in Japan, Tokyo, Kyoto and beyond for travelers planning a trip to Japan. This is her reply, updated with the latest links and info.

#1 Sleep on the floor

Ryokans

Things to do in Japan: #1, sleep in a ‘ryokan’

Forgo the usual western hotel for a Japanese inn called a ryokan. While ryokans are often more expensive than hotels, and usually come with a few rules (a curfew, for example), they give you an intimate glimpse into Japanese customs: communal baths, peaceful gardens, the ability to wear a robe (yukata) in public any time of the day.

They also offer kaiseki (elaborate and highly traditional) meals and simple rooms with sliding rice-paper doors, shrines, tatami-matted floors, and futons (which are laid out on the floor each night). If sleeping on the floor doesn’t sound comfortable, have no fears: most ryokans provide padded quilting and cushions to soften the experience.

#2 Eat fish for breakfast

Japanese breakfast

Things to do in Japan: #2, eat a traditional breakfast

Food is the most elemental expression of a culture, so while in Japan be sure to try a traditional Japanese breakfast (if you’re staying at a ryokan, it’s often included).

A traditional breakfast is served at a low table with cushioned seating on the floor and includes an assortment of small lacquer-ware bowls filled with grilled fish, a ‘rolled omelet’ called tamagoyaki, salad, rice, miso soup, fermented soy beans called natto, dried seaweed, and tea. Mmmm.

Visit the Tsukiji fish market to see where some of the fish comes from. 

#3 Take a communal bath

Onsen

Things to do in Japan: #3, take a communal bath

Put fears of public nudity aside and dip into a steaming-hot pool at a communal bath. These are known as sento or onsen – the latter uses water from hot springs. Japanese traditionally bathe in the evening, but communal baths are open for several hours in the morning as well.

Don’t worry about soap and shampoo – these items are always provided, along with moisturizing lotion, cotton swabs, and hair dryers. Just be sure to first wash yourself at a shower surrounding the bath, rinsing all the soap off your body before getting in.

Soaking in steaming hot water is relaxing, meditative, and a great way to immerse yourself in Japanese culture. Communal bathing is a tradition that goes all the way back to AD 700.

#4 Sit on the toilet (go ahead, the seats are warm)

Japanese toilet

Things to do in Japan: #4, sit on a Japanese toilet. Photo credit: Karl Baron via Flickr.

My mother taught me to never sit on a public toilet seat, but in Japan, it’s hard to resist: The seats are warm. And the comforting feeling a warm toilet seat provides is hard to express. Being on the cutting edge of technology and electronics as it is, Japan’s toilets plug into the wall, and often offer more services than just a warm seat. Many have something akin to an armrest with buttons that operate bidet-like features and fake flushing sounds for the shy.

#5 Ride a bullet train

Bullet train

Things to do in Japan: #5, ride a bullet train

With 12,400 miles of track, high-speed bullet trains called Shinkansen can take you pretty much anywhere you want in Japan at speeds close to 186 mph (300 km/h). The trip between Kyoto and Tokyo takes a mere 2 hours.

The trains are operated by the Japan Railways Group, who offers 7-day, 14-day, and 21-day rail passes for unlimited travel on all JR lines throughout Japan. It’s a great value if your itinerary includes a lot of destinations.

A pass is also convenient, and does away with the hassle of figuring out how to purchase tickets. Simply show your pass to the station attendant and you’re good to go. This is especially handy as the passes work for JR’s city metro lines as well. The only hitch is you must purchase a rail pass before arriving in Japan, so plan accordingly. Also note that you can organize a Mt Fuji day trip from Tokyo by bullet train over on the Viator site, including the popular Mt Fuji & Hakone from Tokyo (return by Bullet Train) trip.

#6 People watch in shopping districts

Japan people watching

Things to do in Japan: #6, people watch

No matter what city you happen to be, there will be shopping districts. And that always makes for good people watching, especially in Japan where teenage fashion is so varied and extreme. Find a coffee shop or restaurant with a good view to while away a few hours. This is especially fun on a weekend in Tokyo’s Harajuku district, or any day of the week above Shibuya’s famous Hachiko crossing.

There’s a Starbucks with a great view of the crossing, with hundreds of pedestrians weaving in all directions at once in a mesmerizing stop-go-stop dance timed to the traffic lights. This type of crosswalk is called ‘scramble crossing’ and while there are about 300 in Japan, this one is the busiest, as it’s located right in front of the busiest train station in the world, Shibuya Station.

Book a walking tour of Tokyo to see some of the city’s coolest neighborhoods 

#7 Shop for toys

Japan toys

Things to do in Japan: #7, shop for toys

Even if your days of throwing tantrums in the toy store are long over, indulge your inner child and spend some time browsing the dense shelves of 6-floor toy stores. They sell everything from Miyazaki movie paraphernalia to scary Goth dolls, radio-controlled cars, and plastic figurines of just about any fictional character ever drawn or imagined. If the shops get too crowded, head over to an arcade and get yourself a cuddly stuffed creature from one of the many ‘claw’ game machines. And keep your eye out for vending machines that sell capsule toys–there’s one outside the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto that dispenses Hello Kitty lunch bags for a couple of bucks.

#8 Check in to a ‘love hotel’

Japanese love hotel

Things to do in Japan: #8, check into a love hotel

Take a ‘rest’ in a love hotel — so named for the activities of lovers that transpire within. Although some look ordinary and unassuming, they’re usually easy to spot.

Look for discreet windowless buildings or tacky structures with bright colors (think Vegas); neon signs that advertise amenities like themed rooms, costume play, and ‘rental goods’; and a backlit picture menu in the lobby.

Renting a room for a ‘rest’ will get you a few hours, whereas renting a room for a ‘stay’ is usually overnight, and only available in the late evening.

While the whole idea may sound kinky, a romp in a Love Hotel is apparently quite normal to the Japanese, who often have little privacy at home.

#9 Gaze upon Tokyo from the 52nd floor

Tokyo Park Hyatt

Things to do in Japan: #9, check out the view over Tokyo

If you’ve seen the film Lost in Translation, you’ll know the view from the “New York Bar” in Tokyo’s Park Hyatt Hotel. It’s spectacular, and well worth shelling out the 20-odd dollars for a cocktail. From 750 feet in the sky, the immensity of Tokyo is a sight to behold, especially when the city is lit up a night, full of red blinking lights that make it seem as if the city was breathing. And from here, you can actually see the curvature of the Earth.

If you’re only interested in the view, it’s best to get here in the late afternoon/early evening to avoid the nightly $20 cover charge for live music (the cover charge starts at 8 pm). The bar also offers a casual dining menu, and includes a $60 hamburger.

#10 Zen out

Todaiji Temple

Things to do in Japan: #10, visit a temple

A visit to Japan is not complete without visiting a temple. Kyoto alone has several thousand of them. Built with wood and simple in design, Japanese temples are quietly beautiful, usually set in the peaceful grounds of a garden. Kyoto is the place to go.

Spared destruction during WWII for its historical importance, today the city is home to countless temples and shrines considered national treasures. The nearby temple-laden city of Nara makes a great day trip from Kyoto, if only to visit the famous Todaiji Temple, the world’s largest wooden building.

Photos courtesy of Cheryn Flanagan.

-Cheryn Flanagan

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47 Responses to “Top Things to Do in Japan”

  1. matthew lawrence Says:

    I haven’t been to Japan but it looks nice in your pictures and I see that there are a lot of things to do there too. I would like to try the bullet train very much.

  2. Evan Says:

    Great article. I hope to be traveling to Japan soon to put these ideas into practice.

  3. Carol Ferndale Says:

    Lovely descriptions which really bring back to me my time spent in Japan! I agree wholeheartedly with you that Kyoto is the place to go. That was where I lived, and I think it has to be one of the best, if not the best, Japanese city. Why? Well, it was the capital for so long, and is still very much the seat of Japanese culture. Add to that that it was very much undamaged by World War II, and so still has intact so many of its fabulous traditional wooden houses. It also has loads of lovely temples, gardens and parks to look round. Additionally, Kyoto has more universities than I can name, and so there is a high student population which makes for a lot of vibrant nightlife. If you want a good night out, dowtown Kyoto is the place to go.

  4. Jon - The DC Traveler Says:

    Great list. Are the communal baths coed or same sex only? I recall an old movie where an American family “rented” a bath, only to have a second Japanese family join them.

  5. Akum Says:

    Hi, Thanks for the information. Though i have always dream of traveling to Japan, every year i always end up somewhere else. Anyway thanks for the information. Hey check out my blog, its about travel. am sure u’ll like it. Thanks.

  6. Journeyetc Says:

    Interesting stuff, I thought Japanese people just sit and watch anime/manga all day long :D

  7. Sal - Luggage Repair Parts Says:

    Hi there, You’ve got some very insightful articles. My wife and I are planning on taking a trip to Japan later this year and didn’t know where to begin regarding “things to do” there. I’ve bookmarked your site for reference. Cheers!

  8. bhaktipradipbanerjee Says:

    hi, i have already visited japan in 1979. i have visited tokyo/sendai/kyoto/osaka. but i feel the tour is not completed. last time i went on a free invitation. but my friend in sendai has expired suddenly. i am real sorry. i wish to visit again. but i am not sure at this age of 62, if i can make it again. you know i am retired now but very much travel oriented. may be i can exchange a vacation with some one in india at darjeeling/sikkim ? can some one recomend some thing ? you can send me email at bhaktipradipb@gmail.com. i can be a good travel company too. thanks

  9. Faara Says:

    Yes, Japanese hotels are worth to try, and also learn a bit how to bow in Japan could be useful, since the angles of bowing all have different meanings:-)

  10. jamie Says:

    hi, i found this site very helpful. my mum and i are planning to travel around the world next year and i’m very excited about visiting all the asian countries. one thing i thought of interest would be the universal studio. maybe because i’m young but i thought going there might be in your top ten rather then a warm toilet seat hehe

  11. Melissa Says:

    I really like your ideas on top ten places to visit^^ However, I thought something to add is that at almost any temple you visit that has a working staff or an admission fee…you can get a “signature” of that particular place; a temple stamp in red and on top of that a monk will hand write the temple name in beautiful traditional japanese right in front of you….and if you really beg they can even write something more personal (written in japanese..naturally). Furthermore, for 1000en or about 10 dollars, you can buy a book that is made especially for that purpose and the nice thing is that it actually folds out and can be hung like a scroll. The bad thing is those temple autographs can run anywhere from 200en to 500en (2-5 dollars). Most places will provide an area where you can stamp your book yourself for free…although sometimes these little stations are practically hidden…for anyone who is going up fuji-san…check out the outbuildings behind the main buildings at the last rest stop…its hidden there^^ Another thing…my favorite place of all time was used in the film memoirs of a geisha…where the girl runs through all those red arches….fushimi-inari temple, Ive been in the day and evening and the evening is best…the lanterns are all lit along the trail. There are never many people there and there are several miles of beautiful hiking trails…it was shown to me when I was on a date with a Japanese guy…I would have never seen it otherwise. He advised that it is a good date spot because girls get creeped out and want to hold hands with the guy..hahaha. A tip for all you guys:) And lastly, someone asked about communal baths…some bath houses have two seperate baths for men and women, some have one main bath that is for men at some times and women at other times, and some have certain hours where it is open to men and women at the same time. Personally speaking…I have found that it doesn’t really matter…no one really seems to stare or care who is in there…or if they are staring they are very good at being unobtrusive. I have noticed that when I went with my other american friend who lives in Japan and there happened to be only one other (japanese) person in the bath she left immediately…who knows what that was about…perhaps my white butt was too scary? lol Hope some people find this helpful^^ I have been living in Japan for some time and now that I am back in the states I miss it and plan on going back….if you have any questions feel free to email me at mnl764@gmail.com

  12. Andrius Says:

    Excellent suggestions. I’d add the suggestion of going in the spring or fall when it’s still warm but isn’t as hot and humid as the summer. Cherry Blossom ‘Sakura’ season is quite nice, though sometimes still a bit chilly, and a great opportunity to picnic under the trees and admire the blossoms while sipping sake or beer with your snacks. Don’t be afraid to try some new foods while you’re there. The Japanese take their food very seriously, especially in Osaka. The quality and textures are amazing and not taking advantage of the opportunity should be a crime. Speaking of which, there isn’t much crime in Japan at all. Japan is an orderly place, and though the norms might not be spelled out, you won’t have many problems if you keep an eye on what everyone else is doing. People will line up to get on the trains, stick to one side of the escalator to let others pass, and not take up more space than they need. Most Japanese will spot you for a tourist, and as long as you’re nice about it they’ll cut you a lot of slack if you mess up on the customs. Just remember to take your shoes off in any house and don’t leave your chopsticks sticking up in the rice. One more thing worth checking out is Osaka’s baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers. Attending any game here is more intense than the most fired up crowd at any major league championship here that you could imagine. The fans organize into their own groups that practice cheers, songs, and bring their own brass sections and drummers. Make sure you wear some yellow or pick up a Tigers hat and support your new favorite team. (Not to nitpick, but isn’t that the Todaiji in Nara pictured at the top of the page as a Temple in Kyoto?)

  13. Scott Mc Says:

    Hi Andrius, yup, you’re right. The photo was mislabeled. It’s been fixed, thanks for keeping us honest! Happy travels.

  14. The Joker Says:

    i like thos public baths. ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

  15. Nhatsu Says:

    I definitely recommend to go to the love hotel and the best area is in Shibuya, there are some many…it should be called Love Hotel town instead of Dogenzaka. here is the location on the mpa for the people interested: The good thing is that it’s close to the main clubs, quite convenient isn’t it?

  16. Scott Mc Says:

    Hi Nhatsu. The link you provided was broken, so we removed it. Just wanted to let you know.

  17. Travel planners Says:

    It is interesting to see that the basic things are different in this country like sleep, bath, travel…etc. Nice details..Thanks

  18. William Wallace Says:

    Tokyo seems like an amazing city to visit, so unlike any place I have ever been. I just hope I get the opportunity and start making more money so I can experience the wonders and delights of the place.

  19. Milligan Says:

    Don’t assume that all public toilets are of the fancy heated-seat variety. Many are Asian-style squat toilets that don’t have a seat at all. Don’t sit on them! Many Japanese people consider them to be much more hygenic than the sit-down type, especially for public toilets, since you’re not sitting on a seat that someone else has already been on.

  20. Japanese Words Says:

    very interesting list. I remember my first time in Japan, fish for breakfast was difficult for me. I think going to the onsen would have to be my top of this list!

  21. Jeff Says:

    I love Shibuya! Great ideas – thanks!

  22. samantha Says:

    i the this website you really shows how fun it can be in japan. my biggest wish was to visit japan and i did i was in tokyo park hyatt hotel for two weeks it was great for me i wish to visit again real soon….

  23. Speak Japanese Says:

    I am not to sure about number 6 or 7. I would recommend cormorant fishing and going to the Sumo. You could do a Ten Things to Eat in Japan.

  24. Jeff Says:

    Very interesting and excellent photos. I would like to visit Japan.

  25. Khoi Says:

    Hi I will be there next week, What’s the best thing for gift in japan Thanks for your advice

  26. CHRISTIE HERNANDEZ Says:

    I love Japan, its culture, history, beautiful places….

  27. JR@TheDriftersBlog Says:

    i’ve been considering the land of the rising sun for my next visa run, coming up soon. i know that its crazy expensive there, but this post is getting me more amped for the possibility of doing these things! thanks for the inspiration.

  28. Rebekah Says:

    where can you get some good picres of JApan

  29. Rebekah Says:

    Japan is awsome it is the birth place of anime it created chibi it is the place to be when they have their feastevals its amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  30. Zona Indonesia Says:

    When you are visit Nagoya in Aichi Perfecture .. you may enjoyed to play Pachinko.. its very interesting event.. Peace :)

  31. harry Says:

    excellent comments

  32. Studienreisen Says:

    Japan is one of my favorite countries, and I love those warm toilet seats :) One of my hightlights in Japan was staying in a capsule hotel in Tokyo. Sleeping in a tiny room just large enough to fit a mattress is one of those experiences one can only have in Japan.

  33. Japan Travel Mate Says:

    #6 is my fav… i people watched on the corner of Takeshita and Harijuku streets for hours…

  34. George Peacock Says:

    This is exactly what I was looking for. Now I just have to pluck up the courage to try these things.

  35. Olly Says:

    Thank you for this, all sounds great. We’re hoping the cocoon seats on the coaches will also be a fun experience.

  36. Ecosummit Travel Blog Says:

    Love the article! Japan always has a fusion of tradition and modernity and that’s why I love this place! I’m definitely gonna try #2 but not so sure about #8. If anyone is going to try #4, feel free to try the buttons on the armrest. You’re gonna be surprised! (love it or hate it)

  37. Katelin Says:

    Hey i’v always loved japan and its music I’v never really travled any where sadly but japan is one of the places i really wish to go<3 i really want to go there so bad, but the problem is money DX what is the cheapist way to get there from Illinois in the USA x.x and still have money to spend freely there.

  38. cody Says:

    I went to japan and loved it. Way better than computer tour.#11: Eat their unusual food.(chocalate cricket are my faverite.)

  39. Mauritius Travel Guide Says:

    Nice post i really want to go to Japan some day i was a manga fan since my childhood and the way they think are totally different I’m fascinated with those Japanese People

  40. luggage repair parts Says:

    Very nice review of a great destination. I’m looking forward to visiting Tokyo soon.

  41. Steven Says:

    lol things to do sit on a toilet really great ideas thanks man .

  42. Peter Atsal Says:

    I have a unique question for Japan visitors and residents: I am in search for a sincere, compassionate culture to live in while I teach English abroad for a year. I am native American, and very turned off by what I (used to think was uniquely) American 1) selfishness and 2) shallowness. I think Americans are really only interested in how good looking and how wealthy other people are. Also, American culture is very individualistic, and I feel like there is little camaraderie among people. I studied abroad in Nicosia, Cyprus, and found much of the same–it seemed very ”wannabe” American, materialistic, narcissistic. I am considering Japan to live in. How would you rate Japanese people’s caring about other people, and valuing ideas and humor over just good looks/money? Thanks in advance for your insights on this different type of question. I’m excited to hear your opinions.

  43. Finch Says:

    Inyeredting.Japanese are very funny when they speak english.En,i love public bathroom,haha.

  44. frank Says:

    i’m pretty sure the Shinkansen bullet trains are not cover with the rail passes.

  45. Jérémy@ExpatEnVrac Says:

    Good article ! I tried 5 things on your list so I have to go back to do the 5 others ^^

  46. ER Says:

    Depends on the type of JR Pass you purchase. There are some with access to local trains. Another to do: Pan ya san (don’t miss daily visits to the many bread shops throughout the city.. train stations, etc.) Oishi!

  47. Mary @ Green Global Travel Says:

    Such a fascinating country and one that I would to explore in great death! Interesting article with a definite and enlightening focus on cultural differences.

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