Published Oct 26, 2020
Ahh, Japan. It’s known as the Land of the Rising Sun. But I think a more suitable moniker would be “The Land of Contradictions”. Or for those who’ve been there, it’s the most enigmatic country they’ve ever visited.
I mean, they have robots that serve tea, people that dress like anime characters, and some of the latest technological advances in the world. But at the same time, you’ll find temples and castles that are thousands of years old. With these, it’s no wonder that Japan is a dream destination for many.
But if you’re visiting the country for the first time, it can be overwhelming to choose an itinerary. Remember that Japan is a top tourist destination. So you’ll find something of interest in almost every corner.
To help you out, we’ve scoured the web for recommendations. According to locals and tourists alike, these are the top 15 things to do in Japan that every first-time tourist shouldn’t miss:
1. Dine at a Themed Restaurant
If you’re tired of the usual restaurant set up, leave it to the Japanese to take your dining experience to the next level. With themed restaurants, you won’t just fill your belly. It’s a feast for your eyes too.
Because it’s Japan, the themes are basically anything goes. But the most popular ones are the maid cafes and the robot restaurant. And yes, they’re really what their name suggests. Maid cafes have waitresses dressed in maid costumes and calls you “master”. While the robot restaurant offers a futuristic approach to dining with robotics, dancers, and lasers.
2. Eat Ramen
You’ve probably eaten instant ramen during your college days. But the real thing is leaps and bounds better. In Japan, ramen is not just comfort food or something to get rid of hangovers. It’s an art and the Japanese are taking it rather seriously. You’ll see traditional ramen houses serve a steaming bowl of those chewy, richly-flavored noodles with a lot of different toppings. You can also head on to the fish market if you’re craving fresh seafood to go with your ramen.
3. Visit Shrines and Temples
Shrines and temples dot the Japanese landscape – from Tokyo to virtually every corner of the country. So it’s impossible to visit Japan and not catch a glimpse of at least one. Most shrines and temples are not just Insta-worthy, they’ll also teach you a thing or two about Japanese culture and belief. Plus, you can also get a fortune reading the traditional way.
4. Drive a Real-Life Mario Kart
If you’ve ever played Mario Kart and wished you can drive that iconic car in real life, you’re in luck. In Japan, you can cruise through traffic in a custom-built go-kart. If you have the license, of course. There are a lot of rental shops that offer this in Tokyo and Osaka so getting your hands on one is pretty easy. The go-karts are also fitted with GPS and communication bands. So you won’t have to worry about getting lost and ending up in God knows where.
5. Speed Off on a Bullet Train
Of all the things you can do in Japan, riding the Shinkansen is the one experience you’ll never forget. Traveling at 320km/hour, the shinkansen is one of the fastest trains in the world. So fast, you can put a coin in the window sill and it will stand up even while the train is moving.
6. See Sumo Wrestlers in Action
Aside from robots and ramen, there’s one thing most people always think of when they hear about Japan: sumo wrestling. Professional sumo matches only happen 6 times a year though. So seeing one might be hard. But you can also watch them while practicing. Some sumo stables allow tourists to watch wrestlers while on training. If you don’t speak Japanese, you can ask a Japanese friend or hotel staff to make the arrangements for you. Some tours also include this in their itinerary.
7. Soak in an Onsen
Japan is known for a lot of quirky things but soaking in an onsen will probably take the cake.
So, what’s an onsen?
Technically, “onsen” is a Japanese term for hot spring. But most of these springs have bathing houses attached to it so the term has also come to mean that. But what takes this experience to the next level is you have to soak in the spring water in nothing but your birthday suit along with tens of other people. If you’re not comfortable with nudity (either yours or others) or sharing bathwater with other people, you should probably skip this. But if you want to experience something truly Japanese, this should be in your itinerary.
8. Photo Op in teamLab’s Borderless Museum
Tokyo’s Borderless Museum is exactly what its name says – art without boundaries. Stepping inside feels like entering in a different world or a different dimension. Using LED screens and optical illusion, the visuals will assault all your senses making you feel like you’re in a dream. If you’ve ever watched Di Caprio’s Inception and James Cameron’s Avatar, this is probably what it will look like if those two worlds combine.
9. Take a Japanese Cooking Class
Can’t get enough of Japanese foods? We totally get you. I mean from sushi to ramen and everything in between, Japanese cuisine is more than just cooking. It’s basically an art. So if you go to Japan, take the time to attend a Japanese cooking class. There are a lot of tour companies offering this service from Tokyo to Hokkaido. You can get a private class or learn with a group.
10. Get a Glimpse of Mount Fuji
Mt. Fuji is one of the most iconic Japanese landmarks as well as the country’s highest peak. So a visit to Japan won’t be complete without getting a glimpse of Fujisan (the Japanese moniker for Mt. Fuji). But there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to see it’s peak as this serene beauty also tends to be shy. Most of the time, all you’ll see is the thick layer of cloud that envelops it.
But no worries. Even if you can’t see it’s legendary beauty, there are still a lot of things you can do on a visit to Mt. Fuji. Cafe’s and souvenir shops line the area near the view deck. If you’re into outdoor adventures, you can also climb the peak of this majestic mountain.
11. Stay in a Ryokan
A ryokan is Japan’s traditional version of a hostel. It features tatami-matted rooms with sliding doors and communal baths. It also has public spaces where you can wear a yukata and talk with the owner. Since there is only a handful of this in Tokyo, it’s often more expensive than hotels. But there are a lot of hotels around the world and you’ll only get to experience this in Japan. So I say, it’s worth every cent.
12. Brave the Shibuya Intersection
Dubbed as one of the busiest crosswalks in the world, watching people cross the Shibuya intersection is a sight to behold. But crossing it is another story. Just imagine jostling with thousands of people all coming and going from five different directions. This is why they say that crossing the Shibuya intersection is not for the faint of heart and, we daresay, stomach too.
13. Drink Sake
Drinking is a big part of Japanese culture. From business meetings to funerals, Japan is basically a drinker’s paradise. And one drink that’s a staple in these ocassions is the sake, a traditional wine made from fermented rice. It’s such a popular drink in the country that there are a lot of different types of sake from different regions. Some guided tours include sake tasting in their itinerary and it’s also on some bar’s offering.
14. Eat Sushi at a Fish Market/Conveyor Belt
Sushi is one of the most popular Japanese foods around the world. But as with anything else, Japan takes it to the next level. Some restaurants not only offer unlimited sushi, but you can also eat it right off a conveyor belt. But if you want the freshest seafood, get your sushi at the fish market.
15. Wander Through a Bamboo Forest
Bamboo forests are common all throughout Japan. So if you’re visiting, you shouldn’t miss walking through one. Aside from being a good background for photos, Japanese bamboo forests have that sort of tranquility that will just soothe your worries away.