Out of all the topics to write this is one of the hardest. It’s also one I get asked about the most. “What’s interesting in Japan?”, “What is there to do when I visit?”, and my answer is always the same: it depends. Let me elaborate.
It depends on who’s coming. Are they party people or outdoorsmen? Fine diners or fast food junkies? Anime fans? Samurai aficionados? Or just your family who have no particular interest in Japan? The Land of the Rising Sun has a great deal to see and do; it’s hard to fit everything in one or two weeks. Here are some things I try to remember when giving recommendations for things to do in Japan.
Mix History with Culture
Japan’s biggest revenue comes from its culture. Tourists spend millions of yen in international flights, hotels, public transportation, and souvenirs. They flock to UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Kinkaku Temple and Mt. Fuji by the hundreds.
I don’t want to dawdle on this topic because, well, everybody who has written about visiting Japan has said the same things: good picture opportunities, interesting food, people in kimonos. And really, it’s not much. I sometimes wonder why people travel so far to take a picture of these places without knowing the roles they played in shaping the cultural landscape of the country. These places only tell half the story!
The other half can be found in Japan’s museums. Unfortunately, many historic landmarks have been lost due to fires, earthquakes, or neglect. But thankfully many of the items that were housed in these places like swords, scrolls, and art have been preserved and are on display throughout the country’s various museums. These halls of history allow you to get into the mindset of ancient Japan when the popular temples and shrines were being built.
When scheduling days where you go to famous sites, try pairing them with museums and historic landmarks. If you are visiting Asakusa’s Kaminarimon in the afternoon, spend the evening at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Learn about what it was like for the Japanese people as they opened their doors to the Western world. If you are in Kyoto and seeing Kiyomizu Temple, stop by the Ryozen Museum to learn more about what transpired during the period when Kyoto was the capital of Japan.
While in Japan here are a few popular sites to see:
Kiyomizu Temple (Kyoto)
Fushimi Inari Taisha (Kyoto)
Nara Deer Park (Nara)
Learn about Japan’s history at these museums and landmarks:
Edo-Tokyo Museum (Tokyo)
Sakamoto Ryoma Museum (Kochi)
Honnou Temple (Kyoto)
The Bluff (Yokohama)
Himeji Castle (Hyougo)
Start and End with Tokyo for a Hassle-free Trip
Most international flights come through either Narita or Haneda International Airports. Landing in Japan, the first thing many visitors tend to do is go through all the things they want to do in Tokyo. From there they catch the bullet train to their next destination and repeat. This leads a lackluster and exhausting ending because some try to take the bullet train back to Tokyo, then go to Narita/Haneda, and then go home in one fell swoop.
Personally, the last thing I want to do is spend six hours on a train and then thirteen plus hours on a plane. That’s almost a full day sitting on your rear! My recommendation is to split your Tokyo plans in half. If you are planning on spending four days in Tokyo start with two days, travel, then return for two more days of sightseeing. The best part is that you can buy any souvenirs in Tokyo at the end and don’t have to worry about carrying them around with you the whole time!
Things to see in Tokyo:
Akihabara Electric Town (Tokyo)
Ghibli Museum (Tokyo)
Theme Cafes (Tokyo)
Tokyo Skytree (Tokyo)
Leave Flex Time and Don’t Rush Your Plans
The first time I wanted to visit Japan I had a very long list of things to see. A very long list. In order to get everything done I planned activities down to the hour. When I arrived, all my plans seemed to fall apart. My schedule was so tightly packed that long lines, late trains, sleeping in, and not being able to decide what I wanted to order for lunch ruined everything.
Now, I tend to only put two or three activities in per day. This leaves ample time to walk around, find souvenirs, and locate restaurants. Depending on the time of year, crowds will also play a factor in what can be accomplished in one day. I went to Kyoto during Easter/cherry blossom season and there was a three hour wait to see Kinkaku Temple. I ended up scrapping that day’s plan and running around Kyoto. It turned out to be the best day of the trip.
Planning can be hard and it can be easy. If you have people who are knowledgeable about the country, then it is a matter of taking suggestions and planning the commute. If you are traveling with people who have no knowledge outside of what they see in pop culture, then doing more than a Google search on “top places to go in Japan” is necessary. Try searching for things they like to do and add Japan to the end, e.g. “hiking in Japan”, “bike riding in Japan”, or “spicy food in Japan”. These will provide a much more tailored trip than any “Top 10” blog post ever will.
Best of luck!
Software Engineer and Blogger at TalentHub
Usually coding, writing, or exploring Japan.
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