As you begin to plan your trip to Japan, you’ll quickly realize the country has seemingly too many gorgeous and fascinating places to visit. Resources like the JR pass can simplify getting around the country, but if you’re short on time, you might consider a small escorted tour of Japan or a group tour.
Visiting Japan on a guided tour can save precious time and ensure you hit all of the highlights. Here’s how you can make the best of your tour in Japan in a short amount of time.
Dating back to 645 AD, Senso-ji is the oldest temple in Tokyo. A massive paper lantern weighing 1500 lbs welcomes visitors at the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate). The centuries-old Naka-mise market lines the 200-meter road to the main hall and sells unique souvenirs.
Many restaurants in Tokyo offer sushi-making classes. Watch as a master chef deftly slices a fish, then learn how to press rice and fresh seafood into nigiri. Best of all, you’ll have a delicious lunch at the end of the day!
One of the best places to visit in Tokyo is the Tsukiji Outer Market, the largest fish market in the world. During the day, you can buy fresh seafood and other goods at wholesale prices. At the nearby Toyosu Market, chefs and restaurant owners bid millions of yen on tuna at the auctions.
During your Tokyo day tour, don’t miss a stop at the imperial family’s residence. For the Emperor and Empress’s safety, you can't enter most of the grounds except on January 2nd and the Emperor’s birthday. But you can always stop by the Double Bridge for a photo-op or stroll through the East Gardens.
At the center of Japan’s capital stands 333 meter-tall Tokyo Tower. It was the tallest steel tower in the world until 2012 when Tokyo SkyTree officially opened. From the observatory, you can look out across the skyline and as far as Mt. Fuji, making this a must-see place in Tokyo.
Ascetic monks revered Japan’s tallest mountain as a sacred place of worship, and the majestic area continues to astonish visitors from all over the world. The 5th station is the highest point you can reach by automobile and a great place to view Mt. Fuji’s iconic snow-capped visage. Things to do in Mt. Fuji include skiing in winter, hiking in summer, flower viewing in spring, and enjoying colored leaves in autumn.
Hakone is a small town surrounded by the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park in Kanagawa Prefecture. You can enjoy the Hakone Open-Air Museum, or take a cruise on a pirate ship that sails through Lake Ashi, one of Fuji’s Five Lakes. While here, stay in one of Hakone’s beloved traditional Japanese inn’s and take a dip in a hot spring.
At the top-most point of the Hakone Ropeway lies the Owakudani Volcanic Valley which releases impressive plumes of sulfuric gas. While here, try a hard-boiled kuro tomago (black egg), which chefs prepare in onsen water. According to legend, eating one egg extends your life expectancy by seven years!
After enjoying Hakone and Mt Fuji, hop aboard the Shinkansen and hurtle through Japan’s countryside at speeds up to 320 km/h to go south. Take in the scenery from your comfortable seat, and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of the carriages. While flying from Narita to Kansai Airport is technically a faster route, the Shinkansen conveniently takes you from one centrally-located station to another.
Koka, also pronounced Koga, is one of the best places to take a day trip from Kyoto within the Kansai region. Koka and its neighbor Iga are the historical homelands of the ninjas. At the Koka Ninja Mansion, you can explore authentic traps, learn about fighting techniques, and try your hand at throwing shuriken.
Designed by celebrated architect I.M. Pei, the Miho Museum’s complex seamlessly blends with the surrounding forests and mountains 30 minutes away from Koka. From the gift shop to the museum, you’ll pass through a tunnel that, shout as you might, doesn’t echo back. The exhibits feature the philanthropic founder’s collection of treasures from the ancient world.
Kyoto City’s most distinguished temple is well-known for its wooden stage that overlooks cherry blossoms and maple trees. It’s home to the love stones where you can test your compatibility prowess by walking from one to the other with your eyes closed. Below the main hall, you’ll see three fresh-water springs that bless a drinker with a long life, luck, or wealth.
Kyoto’s attractions aren’t exclusive to the downtown area. The stunning Arashiyama district was the prominent vacation destination for nobles in the Heian Period. From the historic Togetsukyo Bridge, it’s a short distance to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Tenryuji Temple and the serene bamboo forest.
Kinkaku-ji ranks as one of the best temples in Kyoto. Gold leaf covers every inch of the pavilion’s top two floors, which shimmer in the reflective koi pond. Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, takes after Kinkaku-ji’s design but doesn’t have any silver decorations.
If you love kimonos, there’s no better place to see them than the thousand-year-old weaving district, Nishijin. The Nishijin Textile Center is an alliance of seven-hundred factories and houses a museum, shop, and gallery in one place. Throughout the day, you can watch fashion shows exhibiting the latest designs.
The ritual of preparing a cup of frothy green tea is an ancient and storied tradition from Buddhist practices. Beyond drinking tea and sampling a sweet treat, the tea ceremony allows you to experience Japanese hospitality in a distinct atmosphere. Tea masters and maiko (apprentice geisha) often lead these rituals.
In the heart of downtown Kyoto, the Gion district is home to geisha and maiko. Okiya lodging houses line the ancient roads and pathways that still look as they did during the Meiji Era. If you’re lucky, you might spot a maiko or geisha as she darts from her door to a taxi, but don’t get fooled by the tourists that pay to dress up as one!
In the Shinto religion, Inaris are fox-like gods of, among many things, prosperity and industry. For this reason, many companies around the country bought and donated thousands of vermillion torii gates to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. There are an estimated 10,000 torii gates at the shrine and on the slopes of Inariyama Mountain.
Every morning, hundreds of sika spotted deer leave the forests and go to Nara Deer Park. Although they’re wild animals, the deer have acclimated to humans and will eat special biscuits from your hands. In fact, they’ve adopted Japanese people’s behaviors and will bow to try to coax food from you!
A communal effort of 2,600,000 citizens built this Buddhist temple, and it opened in 752 CE. Inside sits one of Japan’s Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statues, which measures around 15 meters tall. Although most of the temple went through multiple constructions, the base of the Buddha is original.
One of Japan’s great unifiers Toyotomi Hideyoshi built Osaka Castle in 1583 to serve as the center of the country after the Sengoku Period. The original structure fell after years of war and natural disaster, and now a concrete reconstruction stands in its place. A museum dedicated to Hideyoshi and the history of the castle opened in 1997.
If you’re a food tour fanatic, you can’t miss the Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi neighborhoods in Osaka. Here, you can shop and eat ‘til you drop! Don’t miss Osakans favorite street foods: takoyaki (fried dough balls with octopus) and okonomiyaki (savory pancakes).
The elegant Himeji Castle is one of only twelve Japanese castles that are original structures. It’s the best surviving example of 17th-century architecture, and its aesthetic ivory walls make it stand out against every other castle in Japan. The complex has a total of eighty-two buildings with significantly advanced defense systems and designs.
In the Edo Period, Kurashiki’s canal area served as a distribution center for rice. Merchants of the time built distinctive warehouses along the bank to keep up with the demand. Several of these still remain, but now house restaurants, shops, and museums.
The area we now know as the Hiroshima Peace Park was the commercial epicenter of the city until the atomic bombing in 1945. In the park, you’ll pass monuments dedicated to victims and their families like the Hiroshima Dome (aka Genbaku Dome). At the end of the route, you’ll find the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum where you can learn more about the fateful day, and hear first-hand accounts from survivors.
Off the coast of Hiroshima Prefecture lies one of Japan’s most scenic places, Miyajima Island. The outstanding Itsukushima Shrine ingeniously integrates with the surrounding nature. At high tide, the iconic torii gate that rises from the bay looks as though it’s floating on the water.
In the heart of Shikoku Island, the Oboke Gorge splits the land in a unique V-shape with jagged stone walls. No matter how slowly or carefully you walk, the pathways are dangerous. You can explore this hidden gem by taking a sightseeing cruise on the Yoshino River.
Within the geological wonderland that is the Oboke Gorge is the Kotohira-gu Shrine. To reach the shrine, you must climb over 1,000 steps, but the view from the top is well worth the ascent. If you’re unable to make the summit, you can hire a palanquin or take the Koto Bus for a fee.
As one of the most sizeable landscape gardens in Japan, Ritsurin Park has seasonal flowers, six ponds, and 750,000 square meters of pine trees. It takes more than thirty bonsai artists to maintain the pine’s scenic beauty. You could stroll around the garden for hours or take a ride in a traditional boat on one of the ponds.
Of all the delicious Japanese cuisines, there’s none so coveted as Wagyu Beef. Japanese cattle farmers take special care to track a cow’s pedigree to produce the tenderest and tastiest meat. You can eat Wagyu in stew, grilled hibachi-style, or even raw.
Japan’s sakura season generally takes place during April, but sub-tropical areas like Okinawa see them as early as January, and they last until May in Hokkaido.
Japan’s Momoji trees turn brilliant hues of red, orange, and gold from November to December.
Two major festivals to see in Japan are Kyoto’s Aoi Festival in May and Tokushima’s Awa Odori Festival in August.
As the cold weather settles in, powdery snow falls softly on the mountains. During this season, Japan’s macaque monkeys seek warmth by bathing in hot springs.