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Japan Travel Guide: What to Do in Japan

Think of Japan and what comes to mind? Sushi? Toyota? How about hot spring baths, tea ceremonies and so-called maid cafes? The truth is, Japan is much larger and more diverse than most people imagine (1,800 miles end to end), offering a wealth of activities and experiences found nowhere else. From mist-shrouded Buddhist retreats to an island devoted to cutting-edge art, from elaborate kaiseki cuisine to Okinawan dishes credited with promoting longevity, there’s enough to satisfy the whims of every style of traveler.

Let our slideshow of memorable experiences fire up your imagination, as you picture yourself hiking a pathway once used by samurai, visiting a sumo stable where wrestlers live and train, or witnessing a parade of thousands of participants dressed as courtiers or warriors.

Sleep Like a Buddha on Mt. Koya

Reached via cable car, Mt. Koya is a famous Buddhist retreat, founded almost 1,200 years ago and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More than 100 temples are spread along the mountaintop, almost half of them offering simple tatami rooms for overnight stays, vegetarian cuisine and the chance to participate in early-morning ceremonies. (Learn more about Japan Lodging.)

The one-mile trek through an ancient cemetery to the grave of Kobo Daishi, one of the most revered figures in Japanese history, should be hiked twice: at night, when 200,000 tombs under towering cypress trees take on a mystical glow, and during the day, when Buddhists dressed in white complete their pilgrimage here after visiting Shikoku’s 88 temples. Also not to be missed is Kongobuji Temple’s impressive rock garden.

Learn Cultural Traditions in Kyoto

You can sightsee Kyoto’s many temples till you drop, but taking a class focusing on the tea ceremony or another of Japan’s traditions might prove equally memorable.

WAK JAPAN, a grassroots organization that employs skilled housewives, provides instruction in the tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, how to wear a kimono and Japanese cooking, with classes sometimes held in private homes. It also offers tours to a sake brewery and the Gion geisha district. At Marumasu-Nishimuraya, classes teach techniques for kyo-yuzen (painting dyes directly onto cloth), furoshiki wrapping, and making your own chopsticks and carrying case.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

2 Weeks in Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto and More) — Part I by GregW
“Shoren-in might not be the most beautiful of all the temples in Kyoto, but it is only as I am alone, with no sounds but the call of the birds, the splash of the waterfall and the rustle of the wind through the bamboo that one gets a true appreciation of the peace of mind that meditating at these temples can bring.” Read more!

Live Longer with Okinawa’s Cuisine

Separated from Tokyo by 1,000 miles and ruled by the Ryukyu Kingdom for 500 years, Okinawa developed its own language, culture and cuisine before its 19th-century annexation to Japan. In a country known for longevity, Okinawans stand out as one of the longest-living people in the world, thanks mostly to an active lifestyle and a diet of vegetables (many of them grown at home) and seafood.

Traditional dishes include pork (like pig’s feet simmered in sake and soy sauce), goya (bitter melon), nabera (sponge cucumber), seaweed, sweet potato and champuru (a stir-fried mixture of tofu, vegetables and other ingredients). Makishi Public Market, in Okinawa’s main town of Naha, offers a colorful display of local products. Many restaurants serve goya champuru, rafute (simmered pork belly) and other traditional fare, including Ashibiuna and Yunangi, both in Naha. The drink of choice is awamori, a locally distilled liquor.

See Where Sumo Wrestlers Train

Sumo is a Japanese form of wrestling, with ancient traditions stemming from the Shinto religion and the Edo period (1603 – 1867). The objective is to force an opponent outside of a 15-foot ring or cause him to touch the ground with anything other than his feet by employing a variety of holds and throws.

Fifteen-day tournaments are held six times a year in Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka and are widely televised; in Tokyo, matches are held at Kokugikan Sumo Hall in January, May and September. Wrestlers are generally required to live and train in sumo stables, which you can visit on a tour when tournaments are not in session. See the Sumo Training tour on

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

2 Weeks in Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto and More) — Part I by GregW
“The wrestling consists of two large men slapping each other, occasionally pulling the hair of the other guy and attempting to grab their opponent by his underwear. At some point, one guy manages to throw the other guy down or push him out of the ring. At that point both wrestlers return to the ring, stand facing each other, and then the referee yells at one of them, declaring him the winner. … I watched the sumo for about 3 hours, but never really ‘got’ it. I think, much like ice hockey to a person from Mississippi, unless you’ve grown up with it, you probably won’t understand it.” Read more!

Bike from Hiroshima to Shikoku

The Seto Inland Sea National Park is renowned for its 3,000-some islands and islets. Take in the scenery by cycling the Shimanami Kaido, a 43-mile dedicated biking trail that links Hiroshima Prefecture and Shikoku Island via a series of islands connected by six bridges. The trail is generally flat (with a few steep inclines getting onto bridges), and takes about seven hours at a leisurely pace.

Rental bikes are available on both ends of the trail and along the way, with drop-off sites allowing rides of various lengths. Beaches, ice cream shops, restaurants and sights — like Choseizan Kosanji Temple with its reconstructions of famous Japanese historic buildings, and Oyamazumi Shrine with an astonishing collection of samurai swords — make this one of Japan’s best outdoor experiences. For information, see

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

2 Weeks in Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto and More) — Part I by GregW
“I knew little about Hiroshima before arriving, and must admit that I was shocked to find such a vibrant city built up around the site of the first atomic bomb explosion. Hiroshima reminded me a lot of the other cities in Japan like Nagoya or Osaka, and that’s what was amazing about it, that its history was not its present.” Read more!

Visit Off-the-Beaten-Path Matsue

The Shinkansen bullet train beats a well-worn track between Tokyo and Hiroshima, but for travelers with a little extra time, it’s worth switching trains and detouring to Matsue near the northern coast of Western Honshu. On the shores of a lake and crisscrossed by a river and canals, it’s dominated by a castle and willow-fringed moat, around which are museums (like the Matsue History Museum), restaurants, shops, a 1779 teahouse offering traditional Japanese tea and a modest samurai mansion open to the public.

Day trips from Matsue include the Adachi Museum, boasting one of the country’s finest gardens as a spectacular backdrop to Japanese art since the 1860s, and the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that illuminates the backbreaking work of miners during the feudal age.

Watch a Parade of Costumes

Festivals are hugely popular in Japan, with festivities relating to religion, history or culture held multiple times every week. Many feature participants dressed in traditional garb, from Obon dancers wearing yukata (cotton kimono) to men in happi coats and loincloths carrying or wheeling gigantic floats through city streets.

The best parade highlighting traditional dress is Kyoto’s Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages), held each year on October 22 to commemorate the 794 founding of Heian-kyo (now Kyoto) as the new capital, with approximately 2,000 people wearing traditional costumes representing more than 1,000 years of history.

With the city’s famous castle as a backdrop, Himeji’s Oshiro Matsuri (Castle Festival) in early August includes a parade of more than 1,000 townspeople in warrior outfits and other costumes. Shunki Reitaisai (Grand Festival of Spring), held May 17 and 18 in Nikko, is a reenactment of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu being transferred for reburial at Toshogu Shrine, with a procession of Shinto priests on horseback and some 1,000 men dressed as samurai warriors.

To see which festivities might be going on during your trip, check out the website of Japan’s National Tourism Organization.

Hike the Nakasendo Highway

In the days of the shogun, feudal lords throughout Japan were required to travel to Edo (present-day Tokyo) every year or two. The Nakasendo Highway was one of two footpaths between Kyoto and Edo, bustling with lords and their samurai retainers who stayed overnight in post towns along the way.

You can relive the spirit of old Japan with a hike on this historic trail in Kiso Valley, where a five-mile section connects two well-preserved post towns, Magome and Tsumago. Skirting the path of a gurgling stream and passing waterfalls, old monuments, farmhouses and scenic outlooks, you can hike the trail in about three hours, with plenty of restaurants and traditional inns welcoming travelers on both ends just as they did long ago.

Feast on a Kaiseki Meal

Kaiseki is the epitome of Japanese cuisine, an aesthetic feast for the eyes and the palate. With origins dating back to the imperial courts, Buddhist temples and the tea ceremony, kaiseki is not a specific dish but rather a multicourse meal, with each bowl, plate and ingredient dependent on the season and arranged like works of art.

Kaiseki is the trademark of Japan’s top Japanese inns and is served throughout the country in luxury hotels and restaurants decorated from rustic to contemporary Zen. Kyoto, home to the imperial court for 1,000 years as well as many Buddhist temples, is especially famous for kaiseki; some restaurants (including Hyotei and Minokichi) have offered meals fit for an emperor for more than three centuries.

See Cutting-Edge Art on Naoshima

Naoshima, a small island in the Seto Inland Sea, may well be Japan’s hippest destination. It’s devoted to contemporary art and architecture that complement the natural beauty of the island and sea and inspire self-discovery through interactive displays.

Benesse Art Site Naoshima consists of museums, outdoor sculptures and the Art House Project, which includes traditional homes and a shrine that have been transformed into thought-provoking art projects. Art museums, designed by architect Tadao Ando, include the Benesse House Museum — which boasts works by Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, Jean-Michel Basquiat and other contemporaries — and Chichu Art Museum, built entirely underground to preserve the island’s topography.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Hearts of Cherry Blossoms (Japan) by Habari
“We dragged ourselves onto three trains and a ferry then a minibus to reach the world-renowned Benesse House Hotel on Naoshima Island. Tadao Ando, a well-known Japanese architect, designed it. The island is blotched with underground museums also designed by Ando, sculptures by various artists and little art house projects intermingled with residents’ houses.” Read more!

Soak in a Hot Spring Bath

If there’s one universal ritual in Japan, it’s soaking in a hot spring bath (onsen), popular since ancient times. Japan’s volcanic origins translate into more than 19,000 hot springs, many with therapeutic qualities for everything from skin conditions to arthritis.

Baths range from simple affairs in small traditional inns to gigantic facilities with both indoor and outdoor pools. Spa resorts dot the nation, from the Kyushu mountaintop resort of Unzen and the Hakone region at the foot of Mt. Fuji to Tohoku’s rustic Nyuto Onsen. Bathing procedures are the same for all, cleansing before entering the tub and soaking in the buff (baths are separate for men and women).

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

2 Weeks in Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto and More) — Part II by GregW
“The other experience is the onsen, or public bath. Most of the hotels have these, or you can head up into the central part of the country where mountain hot springs provide a natural version of this. One enters the onsen, gets naked and then squats on a stool. They soap up and rinse off using a bucket of water and a washcloth, and then, now clean, they enter the bath itself, of really hot water. It is a relaxing and liberating experience, and apparently one of the few places in Japanese society where you are free of rules, as long, of course, as you follow a set of rules in expressing your liberation.” Read more!

Hang Out in Wacky Akihabara

Long famous as Japan’s largest electronics shopping district, Tokyo‘s Akihabara is also an emerging mecca for otaku (literally, geeks) in search of manga (graphic comics and novels) and items relating to anime (Japanese animation) and cosplay (costume play). There are also many maid cafes, where young women dressed in frilly maid costumes serve tea, coffee and snacks.

Most shops are on or around Chuo Dori, the main drag, where you’ll also find the Akihabara Tourist Information Center, offering maps highlighting key shops.

Best Time to Go to Japan

Japan has four seasons, which generally correspond with those in North America. Summer, from June through August, is the most popular time for travelers to head to the Asian island. While summer can be quite rainy in some parts of the country, it’s the best season during which to enjoy balmy temperatures in Japan. In autumn, trees across the country display spectacular colors. During winter, Japan sees colder days, shorter temperatures and fewer tourists. Spring is the best time to visit Japan if you want to see those iconic Japanese cherry blossom trees in full bloom.

Japan on a Budget

Japan isn’t necessarily a budget-friendly destination for the Western traveler. To save big on your trip to Japan, avoid traveling to the country during the busiest times of the year, including summer, cherry blossom season and when big festivals are taking place. Look into rail passes if you’ll be spending a lot of time traveling by train, and consider renting an apartment or staying in a guesthouse instead of booking a room in a large hotel.

–written by Beth Reiber

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