Japan is a mystifying, magnificent country unlike any other. There are so many incredible things to do in Japan that one visit is never enough. However, if you're visiting Japan for the first time, you might want to draft an itinerary that covers all the glorious aspects and features that this country has to offer.
It has something for everyone, from ancient shrines to modern skyscrapers, traditional tea ceremonies to fine dining; costumed go-kart rides to traditional tea ceremonies, and so much more. Whether you're on a family vacation, a romantic honeymoon, or a solo trip, there is no shortage of activities and places to visit.
In this post, we have compiled a list of 20 things to do in Japan on your first visit. They come together to give you an all-immersive experience of Japanese culture, history, technology, cuisine, and ingenuity. Let's begin:
The Asakusa neighborhood in Tokyo has a more traditional Japanese ambiance than other parts of the city, making it one of Japan's best-known tourist destinations. This is where the famed Senso-Ji temple is located, as well as one of the city's oldest geisha districts.
The Senso-ji temple is Tokyo's oldest and most colorful temple, featuring a 200-meter-long shopping street. Visitors waft incense smoke over their bodies to heal ailments and improve their health. The shrine itself is the location of the annual festivals, the Sanja Matsuri, and the Asakusa Samba Carnival, and the Hagoita-ichi.
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Of all the things to do in Japan, eating sushi is on everyone's list. Sushi comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and flavors. While most of it involves rice cooked in sushi vinegar, not all of it includes raw fish. Although, sushi prepared with tofu, cucumber, as well as other vegetables is more difficult to come by. Sushi can be found in a variety of places, from convenience stores to fine dining establishments.
If you want to take it a step further, you can learn how to make and eat your own sushi at one of the many classes offered in Tokyo. They can teach you accurate sushi-making techniques and help you learn the importance of each one.
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The Tsukiji Fish Market was once renowned for its tuna auctions. Though these auctions are not held there anymore, the market still has much to explore and experience. The outer market is still open to tourists and has a plethora of eateries and sushi shops, including small cafés, noodle shops, and cooking-supply stores, all of which serve wonderful meals at reasonable prices. Hot tamagoyaki on sticks, i.e., Japanese-style omelets, is a local favorite.
There are numerous possibilities to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji's stunning features in person, whether you favor the rough waves of Kumomi Kaigan or the tranquil waters of Lake Tanukiko. The hot spring resort of Hakone and the Fuji Five Lakes area are the ideal places to spot a breathtaking view of Mount Fuji. You can plan a hike to ascend Mount Fuji, but only in July - August, and it is a difficult trip.
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Ryokans range from basic guesthouses known as minshuku to incredibly luxurious ryokans with private onsen and views of beautiful Japanese gardens. Their tatami mat rooms are charming, modest rooms with just a table and low seats where you're welcomed with a cup of green tea. They are more costly than standard hotels, but the pleasure of experiencing a night at a traditional Japanese inn is well worth it.
Kaiseki is a high-quality, classical meal with multiple courses. Guests are fed a series of small, elegantly plated courses, usually in gorgeous tatami mat chambers. Fresh and seasonal ingredients are always available, and the presentation complements the theme.
Kaiseki meals might be somewhat costly, but they are a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Lunch is less expensive than dinner. When it comes to Japanese cuisine, trying a kaiseki meal is just as essential as trying ramen or sushi.
If you're visiting Japan for the first time, you might be surprised at how convenient their transportation system is. The train system in Japan is extensive, and the trains are pleasant, spotless, silent, reliable, and on schedule. The shinkansen, or bullet trains, are the fastest, going at ultra-high speeds.
You could even take amusing themed bullet trains from Osaka to Fukuoka, like the Hello Kitty Shinkansen. Shinkansen are pricey, but a Japan Rail Pass reduces the cost by allowing you to ride as many as you like without the need to book a reservation.
The Miho Museum was designed by the famous architect, I. M. Pei, and is located west of central Koka. The museum's collection includes pieces from ancient civilizations such as the Romans, Egyptians, and other Asian cultures, with the majority of the artifacts originating from the founder's - Koyama Mihoko - personal collection. About once a year, the primary exhibit changes, while special exhibits vary every few months.
The structural design of the museum itself is fascinating, with each aspect being integrated into its natural surroundings. The interior features steel, glass, and stones contrast with scenic views of the environment.
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Kiyomizudera, or the Pure Water Temple, is a must-see if you're visiting Japan for the first time. It was constructed in 780 on the location of the Otowa Waterfall in the lush forests east of Kyoto, and its name comes from the purity of the fall's waters. The wooden platform of the temple provides visitors with a beautiful view of the many cherry and maple trees on the hill below, which bloom in a flood of colors in the spring and fall.
The Jishu Shrine is said to bring luck in finding love for visitors who can find their way from one of the shrine's stones to another. The Otowa Waterfall divides into three streams; each believed to have unique benefits, namely, academic success, longevity, and a prosperous love life.
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Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, is another must-see in Kyoto. The gleaming gold temple is mirrored in a pond amid green gardens and creates a spectacle to behold. Gold was a brilliant strategic addition to the pavilion because of its underlying symbology and visual appeal. In ancient traditions, gold had been used to cleanse and reduce any impurities, as well as any bad sensations or thoughts about mortality. Furthermore, it reflects the light of the sun, making it shine brightly against the background.
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Fushimi Inari is one of Japan's most popular tourist destinations and often gets extremely crowded. Hundreds of bright orange torii gates wind up the mountainside through a forest, and a full walk through the track takes roughly 90 minutes to finish. After presenting an offering and praying to the kami, visitors stroll out onto the grounds to admire the vermilion torii gates. Even if you can't complete the entire walk around the shrine, a 45-minute stroll will lead you to a remarkable view of Kyoto city.
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The yukata is a relaxed variation of the kimono. It is a robe that is draped across the body, secured with a sash (obi), and is commonly made of synthetic fabric or cotton. Yukata basically translates to "bathing cloth," and it has been designed to be precisely that. The garment is typically worn after soaking in a public bath or onsen as a simple way of covering the body and absorbing any residual moisture.
Though it was originally the characteristic dress code for ryokans, it is now considered fashionable summer wear. Both young and old people enjoy wearing designed and flashy yukatas at festivals.
Soaking in these Japanese hot springs is one of the best things to do in Japan. If you're visiting Japan for the first time, you might find it to be a strange practice since no clothes are allowed in an onsen. Fortunately, there are private onsens in many ryokans for couples who prefer to relax with some privacy. Many onsens have a beautiful view of the ocean and mountains, adding to your zen experience.
A bamboo forest, with its tall green stalks flowing in the breeze, has a beautiful and Japanese aspect to it. Arashiyama in Kyoto is perhaps the most famed bamboo forest in Japan, and going to see it for yourself is considered one of the best things to do in Japan.
The tall bamboo stalks generate a soothing rustling sound. Even in the midst of the tourist crowds, it's easy to lose track of time and get lost in the soothing atmosphere.
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From Kyoto, Nara is a fantastic day excursion. It was Japan's first permanent capital and is home to numerous UNESCO world heritage monuments. Nara Park is one of the best places to visit if you like deer and want to see them in their natural habitat. In the Shinto religion, deer are considered gods' messengers. In Nara Park, almost 1,200 peaceful deer wander freely.
The Himeji Castle is also known as the White Heron Castle, and its well-preserved, elegant, and complex architecture has earned the reputation of being the country's most spectacular castle. The Sannomaru section is a gorgeous place for photographs thanks to the idyllic view of the castle visitors can get amidst cherry blossom trees.
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Getting a closer look at a Geisha's lavish kimono, ornate hairdo, and famous white makeup is surely captivating. These highly skilled women use traditional arts and dances to entertain the public. The Gion district in Kyoto is infamous for Geishas walking around the streets in full attire and makeup. If interested, you can watch them dance at their annual performances, which usually take place in the spring or autumn months.
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Tea is more than a beverage in Japan. It is accompanied by a rich history and tradition, one which you can truly appreciate by participating in a Japanese Tea Ceremony. For a truly authentic experience, we suggest that you head to Kyoto, the home of the tea ceremony.
Some tourists choose to wear a kimono to enhance the experience, while others participate in a ceremony where they are served tea by a Geisha.
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Outside Hiroshima, Miyajima Island is famous for the Itsukushima Shrine and more so for the colossal torii gate, which appears to be floating on the water. Miyajima is a romantic destination, and spending a night at one of its ryokans is the finest way to experience it. Although there are normally a lot of day travelers, the neighborhood is much calmer and more serene in the nighttime. You can also find friendly wild deer around the island.
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The Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Expressway project's route linking Onomichi and Imabari is known as Shimanami Kaido. The pedestrian and biking roads, as well as the highway bridge, form a one-way riding trail that is roughly 70 kilometers long. Through the route, you can see beautiful islands and striking bridges against the Seto Inland Sea.
When visiting Japan for the first time, it can be hard to prioritize which activities to participate in or which tourist destinations to explore. This list is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things to do in Japan. Once you've checked off everything on this list, you will surely want to plan your next trip right away.
Click here to see our group tours that include a visit to Shimanami Kaido for 2023, 2024 & 2025