19 experiences you must have in Japan

Japan blends tradition with a fascinating history, delicious food and all the delights offered by modern, vibrant cities – and it’s filled with incredible experiences.

From being captivated by towering pagodas, finding shrines hidden in the woods, negotiating the bright lights of the cities, driving a Mario Kart and even hiking up an active volcano, check out 19 of the must do experiences in Japan.

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Kiyomizu-dera shrine, Kyoto.

1. Discover magnificent shrines in the city

You can’t visit Japan without getting up close to a shrine, or two, or three, or four…. There’s shrines and pagodas scattered all throughout Japan.

In Tokyo, check out the Senso-Ji Shrine in Asakusa and Nezo Shrine in Ueno.

If you’re in Kyoto, head over to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine with its beautiful vermillion torii (gates). The Kiyomizu Temple and Kiyomizu-dera shrine are also worth a look, especially for sunset.

Senso-ji Shrine, Tokyo.

2. Go hiking to a shrine

If you like your shrines more among the great outdoors, then head to Mt Kurama from Kyoto.

You can access this area by taking the Eizan Railway from Kemachiyanagi Station to Kibuneguchi or Kurama stations and taking the loop hiking trail. The trail takes in a handful of beautiful vermillion-coloured shrines.

3. Get a bird’s eye view of Tokyo

Head up to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and you can get a 360-degree view from the building’s windows of sprawling Tokyo. And the best news? It’s free.

Fushimi-Inari Shrine, Kyoto.

4. Tour the streets of Tokyo – in a go-kart

If you want to cruise around the streets of Tokyo – why not do it in a Mario Kart? Where else can you race down city streets in a Mario Kart dressed as a superhero?

5. See the world’s busiest intersection

The Shibuya crossing is said to be the world’s busiest intersection. Wait for the pedestrian crossing sign to go green and you can see more than 1,000 people at a time going in all directions through the crossing.

Ueno Park, Tokyo.

6. Roam through Tokyo’s parks

Need a break from the hustle and bustle of the city streets? Lucky for you, Japan loves their parks. If you’re looking for a break in Tokyo, head along to Ueno Park or Yoyogi Park.

7. Grab fresh sushi at the Tokyo fish market

If you’ve got a craving for sushi, one of the best places to get it is at the Tsukiji Fish Market. It’s one of the largest wholesale fish markets in the world – and you can stop off for some fresh sushi at one of the many small restaurants inside the market complex.

Sunrise from the top of Mt Fuji.

8. See sunrise from the top of Mt Fuji

If you love the great outdoors, then a highlight of your trip to Japan will be hiking to the summit of Mt Fuji and then staying above the clouds for sunrise. You can then walk around the crater.

The ascent takes about 6-8 hours, but you can opt to stay at a mountain hut along the way if you need a break or a few hours of sleep before sunrise. Bookings are recommended.

On the trail up Mt Fuji.

Make sure you bring plenty of water, food and warm clothing – it gets very cold on the summit.

Mt Fuji’s hiking season runs from July to September. The hike starts from Mt Fuji’s 5th Station, which is accessible by bus from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal.

9. Relax on the shores of Lake Kawaguchiko

If you don’t happen to visit Japan during July to September – you’ll be out of luck to hike up Mt Fuji. But don’t worry, you can still get a view of Mt Fuji from Lake Kawaguchiko. The town offers all modern conveniences, a great view and scenic pathways around the lake.

This is also a great place to relax after your Mt Fuji hike.

Yutaki Falls, near Nikko.

10. Bathe in an onsen

If you need to wind down even further, go find an onsen (thermal bath). There’s lots of onsens scattered throughout Japan that will help you relax and recharge as you sit down in the hot water.

You also may find an onsen in your accommodation.

Be mindful that the more traditional onsens do not allow entry to people with tattoos. The etiquette also is to shower before entering the onsen and bathe naked.

The stone statues in Kanmangafuchi Abyss, Nikko.

11. Visit the temples and mountain areas around Nikko

A couple of hours north of Tokyo is the town of Nikko – a beautiful town located in the foothills of forested mountains.

To reach Nikko from Tokyo, hop on a limited express train from Tobu Asakusa station. Many people visit Nikko as a day trip from Tokyo, but I recommend staying at least a night if you have time. There’s plenty of accommodation options in Nikko, as well as nearby Kinugawa Onsen.

Nikko attractions include the Shinkyo Bridge, Rinno-ji and Nikko Toshogu temples, and the Kanmangafuchi abyss, which features the stone statues of Jizo Bosatus.

Kanmanfuguchi Abyss.

You can also travel to Yumoto Onsen and Lake Chuzenji from Nikko. This is a beautiful area and there’s some nice trails. Buses depart regularly from the Nikko bus station. The cost depends on how far you travel but expect to pay about 1,950 JPY each way. Tickets can be bought at a counter inside the train station.

Yumoto Onsen.

My recommendation is to take the bus all the way to the Yumoto Onsen bus stop. This takes about 90 minutes due to the winding road and numerous stops to let people off.

From there, follow the trail beside the Yukawa River, stopping by Yutaki Falls. From there, head towards Ryuzu Falls and Lake Chuzenji – passing through grasslands with views of volcanoes. You can then walk around Lake Chuzenji if you still have some energy left. This trail is mostly flat or downhill and will take about 3-4 hours.

Trail near Yumoto Onsen.

Another option is to get off at Lake Chuzenji and hike up the Mt Nantai volcano. This hike takes about six hours return and is recommended for experienced hikers. The trail is open May to October.

Hiking near Yumoto Onsen.

12. Visit Kamikochi National Park

Not as popular as Mt Fuji, but just as worthwhile is Kamikochi National Park.

This national park is the gateway to the Japanese Alps and is located west of Tokyo.

Even if you’re not a hiker, the park is worth a visit to get a nice view of the surrounding mountains.

Kamikochi National Park.

If you are just after some chill explorations, head to Kappabashi Bridge and then walk around the Myojin Pond and up to Niimura Bridge and the Tokusawa campground.

If you have time, you can also continue up to Hondani Bridge or to the Karasawa-koya campground.

No cars are allowed into the national park, so many people take a bus from various locations, typically Matsumoto. If you choose to take a car, you still have to take a shuttle from the parking areas to the trailheads.

Buses depart twice daily at 5.30am and 10.15am from the Matsumoto Bus Terminal and takes 90 minutes. The cost is 2,570 JPY to reach Kamikochi and 2,710 JPY for the return journey.

Buses depart from Kamikochi at least once every hour. The last bus departs at 5.30pm. The return bus will take you to Shin-Shimashima train station. From here, you can take a train back to Matsumoto (included in your return ticket).

Tickets can be booked online. I recommend you book a ticket ahead of time to guarantee your seat as Kamikochi is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike.

It’s also possible to stay in the national park. You can camp, or there are some hotel options, however they are on the expensive side.

View from the top of Mt Yake.

13. Hike an active volcano

If you’re into hiking and love volcanoes, then you have to check out Mt Yake (also known as Mt Yake-dake).

Mt Yakedake is located in Kamikochi National Park. It last erupted in 1962, but the volcano is still active and you’ll spot steam coming out of vents as you hike up the mountain. However, if there’s high volcanic activity, the trail will be closed.

One of the ladders along the trail.

It’s a steep hike over several hours, so come prepared with plenty of water, snacks, hat and sunscreen, and warm and waterproof hiking as the weather can change quickly in the mountains. Hiking shoes are recommended as the hike is very loose and steep in the last hour of so and can be slippery.

The return hike covers 12.5km and will take around 6-7 hours.

The hike starts at Taisho Pond. First you head along a trail heading around the pond, and then you link to a dirt trail. From the dirt trail, you then head right onto the Mt Yakedake hiking trail, which steadily heads up through a beautiful forest. There are ladders on some of the steeper sections.

Once through the forest, the trail starts to get exposed and you’ll reach the saddle and a hut after about two hours. From the hut, it’s a rocky and steep trail which can be sometimes hard to follow. The views of the Japanese Alps get better and better as you head up.

View along the Mt Yake trail.

The most difficult section is the last hour or so as the steep trail is very loose with scree and there’s some light rock scrambling involved. But the view from the summit is very impressive as you look out to the surrounding mountains, down into the smouldering crater and onto the crater lake.

Vibrant Osaka streets at night.

14. Visit Matsumoto Castle

If you’re heading to Matsumoto, make sure you visit the Matsumoto Castle at night. The castle is lit up until 10pm and if the weather is calm, there’s nice reflections on the water surrounding the castle.

Matsumoto Castle at night.

15. Try a Sapporo beer

Looking for something to quench your thirst? Then why not try a local beer. Sapporo beer is Japan’s oldest beer, and has been brewed since 1876 after its founder learnt beer brewing techniques in Germany.

16. Visit Japan’s ancient capital

The town of Nara now sits on what was the site of the ancient capital of Japan between 710 and 784. Points of interest in Nara include the World Heritage Sites of Todaiji Temple, Toshodaiji Temple and Yakushiji Temple. These are all located within Nara Park. You will also see lots of deer roaming between the World Heritage Sites. Deer are revered in this area and are considered a natural treasure.

17. Ride a bullet train

If you need to travel long distances, you can be there in a few short hours by taking one of Japan’s bullet trains (called shinkansen). The trains can travel at speeds of more than 300km/h.

Delicious ramen.

18. Wander the vibrant city streets

Take the time to simply wander the streets in Japanese cities and towns during the day and at night. I found it interesting to see the modern, brightly lit streets interspersed with more traditional facades.

19. Eat all the food

No trip to Japan is complete unless you get your fill of all the delicious food. From ramen, to sushi, to takoyaki – there’s many unique dishes you can try. No matter where you are in Japan, there’s delicious food to try that will suit all budgets.

And it might sound strange, but some of the best meals I had came from convenience stores. 7-11, Lawson and Family Mart convenience stores all offer ready made meals such as sushi or chicken and rice dishes that are surprisingly delicious.

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