Comprised of four mountainous, thickly wooded islands, Japan’s landscape is stunningly beautiful. Most of its huge population live in cities sprawled along its coastal areas, and these are attractions in themselves, with their incredible juxtapositions of old and new, and the sheer quirkiness for which Japan is known on the global stage. Don’t neglect the opportunity to venture out of the centers though as there are many things to see and do in Japan.
1. Climb Mountain Fuji
You have to at least see Mt Fuji, obviously - but you really should take it one (okay, several) steps further by climbing to its peak. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s best climbed between July and mid-September - but be aware that its popularity means that the route - which takes about 6 hours and is amply dotted with mountain huts - can get very crowded. Altitude sickness affects many people who tackle this 3,776 meter peak, so plan your trek to include an overnight at hut 7 or 8 so that you can acclimatize and more readily enjoy the view from the summit.
2. Catch a bullet train
Japan’s bullet trains - Shinkansen - are a legendary mode of transport, not least because in over 50 years, they have never been the cause of any accident or death, which is pretty impressive for something that travels at up to 320 kilometers per hour. Their punctuality, cleanliness and comfort are also aspects that those of us from “eewwww, the subway” countries tend to marvel at. Japan’s four main islands - Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu - are all linked by these trains, so they make a great - and reasonably cost-efficient - way to maximize what you can see of the country if you’re short on time. There are no guarantees that your ‘shot-from-the-train-window’ Insta-stories won’t just be one mad blur, though.
3. Experience Hanami
One of the most popular times to visit Japan is cherry blossom season; something so special and unique to Japanese culture that there’s a whole verb devoted to it: hanami. Typically hanami involves just taking the time to appreciate the blossom, although at its best, it involves looking at the flowers from the vantage point of a picnic rug, surrounded by friends and enjoying food and drink. There’s a poignancy inherent in the custom; since the season is so short lived, part of hanami’s appeal stems from a recognition of the transience of life. The season is predicted, like the weather, by professionals so that people can plan ahead and make the most of it.
4. Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Bamboo is a vital (literally!) part of Japan’s rich history and this enchanting forest will transport you to a place of utter serenity - an incredible feat when you consider that you’ll actually be in the heart of one of the country’s busiest cities - Kyoto - when you visit. Towering stalks of bamboo filter out noise and, indeed, the outside world here - and the impact on the daylight provides endlessly gorgeous photo opportunities. There’s more than one way to take in the forest, whether on foot along its marked walkways, or from the saddle of a bicycle - either way, it’s a restorative experience.
5. Fushimi Inari
Beautiful, serene shrines abound in Japan but this one, in Kyoto, is undoubtedly one of the most photogenic, with its long tunnel of thousands of brightly colored torii gates (through which you’ll no doubt be hoping for at least one person in traditional garb to pass - it makes a gorgeous photo). A network of trails beyond lead into the forest of Mount Inari, a 233-meter high sacred mountain which is part of the shrine grounds. Inari is the Shinto god of rice - obviously an important god in Japanese culture and, if you’re wondering what all of the fox statues dotted around the grounds are about, these wily creatures are thought to be the messengers of Inari.
6. Jigokudani National Park
Established in 1964 as a conservation area, you should plan your trip to this park for the winter months if you’re hoping to get a look at those adorably pensive looking snow monkeys chilling out in a hot spring surrounded by snow. These are Japanese Macaques, and they are the most northern-dwelling primate, other than humans, in the world, living in temperatures as low as -15C. Despite being known as ‘snow monkeys’ however, these creatures inhabit the park all year round and summer - which also has the benefit of extended park opening times - is prime time for seeing the babies getting to grips with their new-found independence.
In terms of theater and spectacle while you’re traveling in Japan, you can’t go past the opportunity to see a kabuki performance. Characterized by costumes and acting that are equally OTT as each other, this traditional art form dates back to the Edo Period, when it was originally performed by an all-female cast. Still popular today, modern kabuki differs from its historical counterpart with its solely male cast, but the storylines, often drawn from history or myth, provide valuable insights into Japanese culture - as well as being highly entertaining in their own right. Performances typically last a few hours, although there are several intervals during which you can digest what you’ve seen and heard before the next instalment.
One of the most celebrated temples in Japan, Kiyomizu-dera was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1994. Originally founded in 780 in the thickly wooded hills just east of Kyoto, its name translates as “Pure water Temple’, a name derived from the sparkling waters of the Otowa Waterfall by which it is placed. The temple formed its own sect in 1965, having originally been associated with the Hosso sect, one of the oldest schools of Japanese Buddhism - but tourists are as enthralled by gorgeous views from the veranda as by its history. You can sample the fall’s pure waters for yourself but be careful to drink from only one stream; it is believed that drinking from all three will result in none of your wishes being granted.
One of the most delightfully fascinating things about Japan is the seemingly effortless juxtaposition of ancient serenity with frenetic modernity - to get some of the measure of this, try spending some time in a temple or shrine before heading to the futuristic, artificial island of Odaiba. Get to it via the Rainbow Bridge and then immerse yourself in its high-tech quirkiness, with interactive robots at the Miraikan science museum, malls in which you could easily get lost and the Daikanransha Ferris wheel, from which there are great views of Mt. Fuji to be enjoyed. Head down to the waterfront to eat at one of the many sushi bars that line it, and people watch to your heart’s content.
10. Experience Teppanyaki
What’s one way of combining an evening of theater with the very basic need to eat - and, on a less basic level, to eat food that’s outrageously delicious? Head out for teppanyaki, the Japanese style of cooking where the lines between performance and culinary art are beautifully indistinct. Diners are seated around a wide, flat grill - the teppan - and the chef cooks directly in front of them, typically using very little oil. Various implements are used to manipulate the ingredients in each course, but the star of these is a razor sharp knife, which the chef will likely spin around in a daring display, before performing other tricks like flipping food directly into open mouths or onto plates, spinning eggs on his spatula and in mid-air - before catching it in his hat and then producing a baby chicken in its place - creating huge bursts of sudden flame and slicing ingredients with at a blurringly rapid-fire pace.
11. Robot Restaurant
Weird, mechanical, vaguely sexual - where do you even start to describe this madness?! The Robot Restaurant cost a big old chunk of money to make, and this is reflected in the admission prices, although you can get lucky with certain days and times - but for pure futuristic, out-there fun, this is definitely something worth factoring in to your budget. Take a trip into an alternate reality - the mind-bending starts almost as soon as you enter - but don’t, no matter what the name may imply, come here expecting droolworthy food: the show is very much the main thing and eating is, although available, of secondary importance. Popcorn, anyone?
12. Monkey Mountain
Wild monkeys take on a whole different aspect when they’re as accustomed as these ones are to human interaction; what you get are monkeys simultaneously wild and tame, engaging in random and erratic behavior but unafraid of close-up interaction. Iwatayama Monkey Park, also known as “Monkey Mountain,” is located in Arashiyama in Kyoto - the site itself offers fantastic views over Kyoto, which you have to earn by a fairly strenuous hike of about 30-40 minutes. Plus, of course, there’s the chance to get close to the monkeys from within the shelter of a hut, so that you can feed them without having the ears ‘borrowed’ from your head by marauding fingers.
13. Lake Ashinoko
With its bright red torii gate, and its backdrop of the iconic Mt. Fuji, Lake Ashinoko is worth visiting if only for its postcard perfect appearance. Beyond this, however, the lake has many lovely onsen (hot spring) towns along its shores, as well as a range of boat tours via which its waters can be explored. Not far from Ashinoko’s main bus station, you’ll find Hakone Shrine - look out for martial arts practice taking place in the small dojo attached to it. Beyond this lies Hakone National Park, in which there are plentiful hiking trails, waterfalls and hot springs - plus, of course, those epic Fuji views.
14. Nijō Castle
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994, Nijō Castle was built in 1603 and extended over the years that followed, including with its five storey keep. Made up of three separate areas - two circles of defense and gorgeous traditional gardens surrounded by stone walls and moats - the castle’s most popular attraction, the Ninomaru Palace, is located within the secondary defense circle. It survives in its original form, complete with ‘nightingale corridors’ - so called because they squeak to warn of intruders - linking its separate buildings, plus beautifully decorated ceilings. The sheer variety of blossom trees planted in the palace gardens means that the season tends to last longer here than in other popular hanami sites; it’s gorgeously colorful in autumn, too, with maples and gingkos all turning with the season.
15. Snow in Sapporo
Popular with ski and board enthusiasts, Sapporo has six resorts and was put on the map in 1972 when it hosted the Winter Olympics - quite some shift from 1857 when its entire population was a mere 7 people! If you’re not one to attach long flat implements to your feet and go hurtling down a mountainside, then you can still get your snow fix by timing your visit to coincide with the annual Snow Festival, where incredibly large and ornate snow sculptures take center stage in Odori Park, with other snow slides and attractions to be found in the Tsu Dome site. Smaller ice sculptures, illuminated well into the night, are to be found elsewhere throughout the area, and there’s a varied program of concerts and events held to entertain the crowds.