I visited Japan a few months ago for the first time and I’m smitten by the country! It’s a place with unique experiences, incredible cuisine, and special traditions.
It’s always interesting to be immersed in a different culture. Your senses are in overdrive about all the new experiences. It was an adventure exploring Tokyo, Hakone, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara. They each had their special features and every day was a new discovery.
I’ve condensed our two-week trip into 13 favorite things. Here are some recommendations of what you should do on your trip.
This is what I anticipated the most about our trip and it did not disappoint! From street food tours to Michelin meals, we had so many different food experiences. See these posts for more about eating in Japan:
- 20 Best Eats and Drinks I Had in Japan
- 8 Best Foodie Experiences in Japan
- Kaiseki Michelin Meal at Yugen in Osaka, Japan
- Sushi Omakase at Sushi Punch in Tokyo, Japan
- Wagyu Tasting at Tsurugyu in Osaka, Japan
Want an easy way to try new food? Join a food tour! We did the Ninja Food Tour in Tokyo and Taste Osaka in Osaka.
Stay in a Ryokan with an Onsen
I was wary about this experience before the trip because I’m not great at relaxing, but it was one of my favorites! We stayed at a ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) in Hakone, which is a mountain town known for its onsens (hot springs). Our hotel had baths with hot spring water that we enjoyed soaking in every day. Ryokans typically offer dinner and breakfast with the stay, and the kaiseki meals (traditional, multi-course) were beautiful and filling! There are a few mountain towns around Mt Fuji and Hakone is about a 2.5 hr train ride from Tokyo, a great stop on the way if you’re also planning to visit Osaka and Kyoto.
Visit Tsujiki Fish Market
This market in Tokyo was my favorite we visited. The food was top-notch and varied. From wagyu skewers to grilled seafood, the freshness is on another level. Come early mid-morning and enjoy bites throughout the market.
Admire Japanese fashion
You can’t miss it when you’re walking the streets or riding the subway. Japanese fashion, women in particular, features unique ensembles. You wouldn’t necessarily call it trendy (as in commonplace fashion) but it’s effortlessly cool. There is also an abundance of thrift stores in Japan. Visit the Shimoktazawa neighborhood for a lot of options. And lastly, you’ll also see traditional kimonos, especially in touristy areas. Locals and tourists rent and wear these for photo shoots and special occasions. Some locals wear these for work, like in a tea ceremony shop.
Visit a Buddhist Temple or Shinto Shrine
There are many religious buildings to choose from in every city. My favorite was Todai-ji Temple in Nara. This Buddhist temple was built in the 8th century, and while it has gone through several reconstructions, the expanse of the building and complex are awe-inspiring. No matter which temple you visit, go early or expect it to be crowded. Here are some other temples we visited:
- Hie Shrine (Tokyo)
- Senso-ji Temple (Tokyo)
- Asakusa Shrine (Tokyo)
- Meji Jingu Shrine (Tokyo) – another favorite, this is in a huge park
- Shitennoji Temple (Osaka)
- Hokan-ji Temple (Kyoto)
- Kiyomizu-dera Temple (Kyoto)
- Fushimi-Inari Shrine (Kyoto)
See Nara’s Bowing Deer
While the experience itself can be a little off-putting, especially when deer are nipping at you, the bowing deer are a unique thing to see. Vendors sell stacks of crackers near the parks. These deer have been conditionally trained to bow for crackers, so walk up to a deer and bow, and feed it a cracker when it bows back. Avoid the deer with antlers as they tend to be more aggressive. (Nara is about a 30-minute train from Osaka and a 45-minute train from Kyoto.)
Visit a Museum
There are many cool museums, and we went to two. Team Labs has locations in Tokyo and Osaka and is known for its immersive experiences. Imagine walking into a room knee-deep in water with projections of fish swimming around or a room full of suspended flowers. We also went to the Hakone Open Air Museum, which has large sculptures spread out over their outdoor property plus a stained-glass tower and a whole exhibit building about Picasso.
A few museums we missed that you could try are the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka (outside Tokyo), the Yayoi Kusama Museum in Tokyo, and the Cup Noodles Museum in Osaka.
Visit the Bamboo Forest
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto is a magical place. It feels like a whimsical scene in a Studio Ghibli movie. It’s a quick walk through the forest on a paved path and get there before 8 am to avoid the hordes of visitors.
Get to Know Locals
What better way to learn about Japan than through the locals? One of the ways I do it is through food tours, especially since there is a language barrier. (We did the Ninja Food Tour in Tokyo and Taste Osaka in Osaka.) We happened to meet a new friend while on a food tour who we met up with the next night. Through Google Translate, we had an active conversation and enjoyed time at restaurants and bars frequented by locals.
To meet locals more proactively, look for Facebook groups like Girls Love Travel to connect or book a tour on EatWith.
Walk through a shopping district
Every city has one or multiple! You’ll see a long covered pedestrian road filled with shops and they’re typically in touristy areas. There will be lots of food options and souvenir shops. Try walking off the busy strip for places “off the path” that may have cheaper items. However, these places can be overwhelming and very similar, so plan ahead!
- Kuroman Ichiba Market in Osaka
- Nishiki Market in Kyoto
- Dotonbori and Namba neighborhoods in Osaka
See Mt Fuji
One of the reasons we stayed in Hakone was to see Mt Fuji. The surrounding towns have natural springs and great views. Unfortunately, we only got a quick glance of Mt Fuji on train rides because it was cloudy on the days we were there, but in Hakone, you can see it when you ride the ropeway up to Owakudani and take the sightseeing pirate ship cruise around Lake Ashi.
Ride a Bullet Train
A possibly commonplace thing where you are but not in the U.S. is bullet trains. The first time we saw one speed through the train station, we looked at each other in amazement. It is called the Shinkansen and goes up to 320 kms per hour. Taking this train between cities will save you some time.
Wander, Explore, and Be in Wonder
One of the best parts of travel is going somewhere you’ve never been before and discovering something new. So make time to wander the streets with no clear direction, meander through a market, or take a detour to see something because you’re curious. And then be in wonder and gratitude for the experience. I look through my photos and see things we happened upon: a Buddhist temple, a waterfall, a fluffy duck, and so many creative manhole covers.
I started noticing and taking pictures of all the manhole covers because they’re so pretty and unique. These started as a PR campaign in the 80s for taxpayers to get on board with modernizing the sewer system. The enthusiasm has grown into another feature that makes Japan endearing. Almost 12,000 unique designs can be found in Japan!
These are the surprises that complete your trip. Make a trip plan, but leave room for unexpected adventures.
Here are a few other things we tried and other recommendations:
- Gaming complexes like in the Akihabara neighborhood in Tokyo
- Bar districts like Golden Gai in Tokyo
- Itoya in Tokyo, a six-floor stationery store
- Walk through Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing
- Relax at a spa
- Souvenir shop (especially Japanese snacks) at Mega Don Quixote (seven floors!)
- Sengokuhara Pampas Grass Fields in Hakone
- Enjoy bidets
- DisneyLand in Tokyo
- Universal Studios/Nintendo World in Osaka
Take my suggestions and make YOUR trip.
Enjoy your visit to Japan!
Want more Japan recommendations? Check out these posts.