The Top 20 Must-see/do Things in Japan
There are million things one can experience in Japan. The country is so big and so varied that regardless of the intended destination, any trip to Japan will be memorable.
I am going to give an essential and far from comprehensive run down of must-see and must-do; it is not a trivial task, but here is a list of my personal top 20.
Miyajima Island and Itsukushima Shrine. The island of Itsukushima (known as Miyajima) is located in the Hiroshima bay and it's definitely one of the many World Heritage sites in Japan worth a visit. It is one of the three most scenic places in the country, together with Matsushima bay in Sendai and Amanohashidate sandbar in Kyoto prefectures. Miyajima Island is famous for the shrine that seems floating when the sea levels rise, and for the hundreds of deer chewing sightseeing maps off the tourist's hands.
Fuji Five Lakes
Fuji Five Lakes. The area at the feet of Mount Fuji, sacred mountain and symbol of Japan, in Yamanashi prefecture is the perfect destination for nature lovers as the scenery changes according to the seasons. Yamanaka, Kawaguchi, Motosu, Saiko and Shoji lakes have each their peculiarities and are all accessible from the entry point Fujiyoshida town. Lookout points at each lake allow visitors to snap the perfect Mount Fuji picture while the presence of the water invites for relaxation.
Okinawa islands. If beach is the desired natural scenery, Okinawa is the perfect place. The group of islands that make Okinawa stretch from just south of Kagoshima, in Kyushu, all the way down to almost Taiwan. Postcard-like views, sunshine and a lot of possible choices among smaller and bigger islands that make up the archipelago are some of the selling points. There is also the possibility to visit more lively and entertaining islands or quiet and remote ones, depending on the vacation goals.
Big cities. With big cities I essentially mean Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka. They are the most populated cities in Japan and represent technological progress and modernity. Any trip to Japan must include one of those destinations, as they show what traditional Japan is not, in many ways. Tokyo and Yokohama, especially, form one gigantic metropolis that offers everything. If a visitor's goal is to experience nightlife, entertainment, nerd-ness in all aspects, endless food choices, skylines and brand shopping, then those two cities will have all the items ticked off the list.
Temples in Kyoto
Kyoto and its temples. Kyoto is the exact opposite of Tokyo, and is a worldwide acknowledged town to best represent Japanese traditions and history, as the old capital of Japan. Despite the progress of the last 60 years, large areas of the city keep their original look, with small wooden buildings, narrow streets, women in kimono. There are thousands of temples, each of them unique and truly beautiful. Just to mention a couple, the Gold Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), and Kiyomizudera must be included in every sightseeing plan. If not Kyoto, a visit to one of the many temples in the main cities (Nara, Tokyo, Nikko, Kamakura) is definitely recommended, as being immersed in the zen atmosphere of these quiet places will pay back.
Big Buddha Statues
Big buddha statue. Buddhism is the main religion in Japan, together with Shintoism. Buddha and various gods statues are often found at or near temple grounds. Those who have never been in front of a giant statue representing Buddha should take advantage of a trip to Japan to see one. I think a good pick would be Kamakura, near Tokyo, where trails in the forest can be walked to reach the site where a bronze statue of a sitting Buddha is located (you can even go inside it!). Instead, if the trip to Japan doesn't include Tokyo area, then there is a temple in Nara, Todaiji, where the biggest wooden Buddha statue is on display.
Memorial sites. A trip to a new country should also include some sites that speak for the history of that place. Of all places, memorial sites are something worth spending a few hours for. The sad events that ended WWII are known to everyone, but not everyone knows what really happened. A visit to the memorial sites and museums in the cities of Nagasaki or Hiroshima will leave visitors disoriented but more aware. Those two cities are also beautiful, and peculiar, so make sure to include at least one in your Japan trip.
Shirakawa-go. Yet another world heritage site, the village of Shirakawa, between Takayama and Gunma prefectures, is a testimony of Japan's culture and history. Most buildings in the village are built in wood and have thatched roofs, just like farmers houses were used to be built in the very old days. The area is mostly visited in winter when everything is coated in a thick white layer.
Japanese gardens. Kanazawa is the city with one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan, Kenrokuen. The other two are Korakuen in Okayama city and Kairakuen in Mito city. But Japanese style gardens can be found everywhere, so make sure to visit at least one. These gardens are designed to please the eye in every season, with well thought choices of plants and flowers, meticulous care of all details, like shape or trees, ponds, bright and dark spots, sightseeing points, symbolism. Tokyo is also full of Japanese gardens, and so are all other main cities all over Japan. find the one closest to you and just spend a few hours strolling in them.
Japanese castles. With temples and gardens, castles are another point of interest. They represent the wealth and the military power of the Shoguns, those half king, half military chief figures that ruled Japan and fought for supremacy. Castles were the main residence of those lords and their families, and the headquarters of samurai and ninja. Most of the castles all over Japan are reconstructions of the original ones, which usually got burned down or bombed, but those worth visiting, like Himeji, Matsumoto and Matsuyama Castles, are said to be original and are well maintained.
Unkai Terrace Hokkaido
Unkai Terrace Hokkaido. On top of Tomamu, central Hokkaido, there is a sightseeing platform that's rather unique. From there, people can watch a "Sea of clouds", which is unkai in Japanese. In fact, the valleys and the peaks in that area get entirely covered by thick clouds so that one has the impression to float in the air. Best time of the day is before sunrise. This phenomenon depends on the weather conditions, and only happens during the warmer months, so plan ahead if you want to check it out, otherwise just enjoy the lush green mountains all around Hokkaido.
Onsen. Well, enough said. Hot springs are very common in Japan, as they are arguably the best depiction of a Japanese lifestyle, and are found all over the country. Try to find an authentic hot spring bath, where thermal water creates natural pools, and soak in for a while. Traditional onsen usually consists of a wooden building, fences that block any view (since one must bathe in the nude), and separate areas for males and females. The oldest spa in Japan is said to be Dogo onsen in Shikoku, which is about 3000 years old. Observe what the locals do and do the same when in doubt. People with tattoos are usually not welcomed, but there are exceptions, so make sure to check in advance before it's too late.
Sumo. Japanese wrestling is a very prestigious sport and many are those who try to become THE sumo wrestler. Tournaments are held every two months, and last about 10-15 days each, in various cities: Tokyo (three times), Osaka, Aichi and Fukuoka, so find the one nearer to you and try to secure a seat. You don't want to miss out on those giants fighting.
Bullet train. Very few countries in the world can compare to Japan in terms of transports. Riding the Shinkansen, or bullet train, is absolutely enjoyable. Trains ride along dedicated tracks, and lines connect every corner of Japan. The most modern trains can travel at a speed of about 300km/hour, so basically the 400km distance between Tokyo and Osaka can be covered in a little bit over one hour. Despite the speed, travelers won't feel a thing inside the train cars, as they are very stable, very comfortable, and come with electricity sockets, wifi, food and drink service. Tourists can also take advantage of very discounted prices by purchasing a rail pass that allows unlimited rides for a given period.
City and Bay Area Views
City view and bay area. They beauty of visiting Japan is, as mentioned, to be able to experience both thousands years old traditions and modernity. All big cities have to deal with the increase of population, while space is not always an option, so there will be plenty of tall buildings that eventually define the city's skyline. Find a sky bar or other observatory overlooking the city (or even better the bay, if by the seaside), be there before sunset and get a glimpse of the wide expanse of urbanization.
Karaoke. Singing your favorite songs can't get any better than at a karaoke parlor. These places are private, meaning that a group of friends get a karaoke room all for themselves so that they don't need to feel shy about being out of tune or tone deaf. Drinks come and go, and food can also be ordered. The more you drink, the better you sing (or, actually, you don't care anymore).
Wear a Kimono
Kimono experience. Be it a photo shooting in a studio, or a stroll around old neighborhood, organizing to wear a kimono, the traditional formal Japanese wear can be fun other than educational. It should also be accompanied with a tea ceremony. Such an experience can make people aware of how hard it is to wear the several layers of fabric and garments, to walk in wooden sandals, to sit in the same position for hours, to endure the slow and lengthy ritual of sipping some green tea.
Climb Mt. Fuji
Climb Fuji or hiking. The symbol of Japan, Fuji is open for climbing only two months each year, July and August. Tradition has it that people start climbing in the evening, from one of the stations at the base of the mountain, so that they will be reaching the peak just before or by the sunrise. The hike requires some preparation, but everyone can do it, in principle. During the climbing season (end of July to end of August) there are huts and food stalls along the trails so that people who can't climb in one go can rest. Outside of those months, one can also climb, but at their own risk, as all stations and emergency rescue will be shut down. If the timing of visiting Japan is not right, or if going up the 3,800m is not in the list, then hiking other mountains is recommended instead. Japan is highly mountainous, and hikes are very enjoyable year-round.
Festivals Celebrating the Seasons
Festivals. Mostly they happen in summer, associated to fireworks displays, but festivals are also core elements of Japanese lifestyle. For sure, there will be one temple or one park in a town where something is going on. Festivals are just nice, food and souvenir stalls line up the main temple entrances or the city street, various performances or ceremonies are held throughout the day, people walk and look around and the mood is good. Most of the times, people drink a bit too much, so passersby may experience some unexpected and fun entertainment gigs.
Food. The food scene in Japan is just unbelievable. Japanese cuisine alone is already good a reason to travel to Japan: sushi, sashimi, ramen, tempura, all fresh and seasonal, prepared following recipes that are different for each region. Try any of the local little places for an authentic experience, and don't worry about the language barrier. Especially, if in Tokyo, try hitting the biggest fish market in the world, Toyosu, and have a bowlful of the freshest catch. If Japanese food is not what you want, well, first that's really really sad, but fortunately, Japan can offer zillion other different cuisines that can satisfy everyone.