At Boutique Japan, our specialty is helping travelers who believe that travel is about unique, memorable experiences – not just sightseeing or checking items off a list.
But when you’re planning a trip to Japan, it can be hard to know which sights are worth visiting, and which places you’re best off skipping. After all, some popular experiences are worthwhile — and live up to the hype — while others are as touristy as they look on Instagram.
If you’re looking for a truly memorable and authentic experience, and inspiration on where to go in Japan, we recommend these 25 remarkable places and experiences. Some are more famous, while others will help you get off the beaten path (and into the Japanese countryside).
You won’t be able to fit them all into a single trip, but we hope these amazing Japanese places and experiences inspire you – and make it onto your personal bucket list!
Originally written in 2015, this post was updated and republished on March 30, 2020.
1. Stroll Through Arashiyama’s Bamboo Forest
Too touristy? Not necessarily.
Yes, Kyoto’s scenic Arashiyama district (home to Zen temples and the iconic bamboo forest) can get extremely crowded at peak hours, and during peak seasons such as spring (see below) and fall.
On the other hand, if you visit off-season — or have the motivation to wake up early — you may have this magical place all to yourself. Depending on the time of year, the crowds often also begin thinning out in the late afternoon, when most tourists head back to their hotels.
2. Splurge on a Night at a Great Tokyo Hotel
Tokyo is home to some of Japan’s best hotels.
Luxury options include Aman Tokyo, Palace Hotel Tokyo, and HOSHINOYA Tokyo.
Stylish boutique hotels in Tokyo include TRUNK, K5, and Hotel Ryumeikan Ochanomizu Honten. And there are many, many others (including, of course, the Park Hyatt Tokyo made famous in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation).
With so many fun and beautiful options, it’s worth splurging on at least one night at a luxurious Tokyo hotel.
3. Explore Art & Architecture on The Art Island of Naoshima
For art lovers, the so-called art island, Naoshima, is a must-visit, with museums designed by Tadao Ando and works by world-class artists from around the world.
Stay at the museum-hotel Benesse House, and also make sure to visit the tiny nearby art islands of Teshima and Inujima.
4. Eat Your Way Around Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market
Wait, didn’t Tokyo’s fish market move to Toyosu?
Yes, but actually Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market remains a must for food and market lovers. The wholesale operations have moved to the modern, slightly out-of-the-way Toyosu, but Tsukiji is still thriving.
At Tsukiji, you will find historic lanes and alleys packed with a colorful array of shops and small restaurants — not to mention atmosphere and charm to spare. Check out our guide to visiting Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market.
5. Eat Authentic Japanese Ramen
These days you can find good-quality ramen in most major cities around the world, but there’s still nothing like ramen in Japan.
Wherever you go – from Fukuoka (aka Hakata) in the west to Sapporo in the far north – you’ll find incredibly good ramen shops with passionately devoted followers.
See our introduction to ramen in Japan.
6. Ride the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) Around Japan
Whether or not you’re a train geek, you’ve probably heard about Japan’s incredible rail system.
The shinkansen (bullet train) connects the country from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the southwest and is an amazing way to travel around Japan.
Part of the fun of riding the bullet train is the food. Before hopping on the train, pick up a delicious seasonal bento and a bottle of sake (eating and drinking on the train is a national tradition), and enjoy the landscape as it zips by.
7. Soak in Healing Onsen (Hot Springs)
Soaking in a remote onsen (hot springs) while the snow falls around you is one of the most magical experiences you can have in Japan, and makes braving the cold all the more worthwhile. It’s one of our favorite things about winter in Japan.
Combined with a stay in a traditional ryokan (Japanese-style inn), and you have all the makings of an unforgettable trip.
For more ryokan inspiration, see our Luxury Ryokans & the Japanese Countryside sample trip.
8. Sample the World’s Finest Sushi & Sashimi
Sushi and sashimi in Japan are, unsurprisingly, on a level of their own.
Tokyo’s best sushi shops are just the tip of the iceberg, and you’ll find top-quality sushi and sashimi throughout the country, in places such as Kanazawa, Hokkaido, Toyama Prefecture, and more.
Even more price-conscious travelers will find excellent sushi and sashimi at moderately priced restaurants, and in beautiful depachika bentos.
9. Experience Japanese Nightlife
Japan is culturally thrilling during the day, and equally dynamic at night.
Whether you’re enjoying craft cocktails or Japanese whisky at a tiny bar, drinking with locals at a casual izakaya (see below) or tachinomiya, or singing all-night karaoke, Japan has some of the most varied and entertaining nightlife in the world.
Tokyo’s nightlife is legendary, and you’ll also find bustling nightlife scenes in cities such as Sapporo, Osaka, Fukuoka, and more.
10. Watch Sumo & Baseball
The chance to watch sumo in Japan should not be missed! Along with being highly entertaining, attending a sumo basho (tournament) is also a fascinating cultural experience.
And even if you’re not a baseball fan, few things are more fun than going to a baseball game in Japan. Japanese baseball fans are renowned for their liveliness, and the food and drink is also a highlight!
11. Attend a Japanese Matsuri (Festival)
If you want to see Japan at its liveliest, a high-energy matsuri is the place to do it!
Japanese festivals (matsuri) are full of color, tradition, and exuberance.
12. Admire Sakura During Cherry Blossom Season
Despite the crowds, which seem to increase with each year, there is nevertheless something uniquely magical about Japan’s cherry blossom season.
During hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season, the country is covered in pink blossoms, and parks and gardens are filled with revelers celebrating over sake and seasonal bentos.
(Recently, Japan’s beautiful fall foliage has also begun to attract nearly as many travelers as spring, as well.)
13. Visit Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
Like Arashiyama’s bamboo forest (see above), Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine tends to draw huge crowds.
Despite this, it is still worth visiting – especially if you can make it early in the morning before most travelers have had their morning tea (see below) or coffee.
For a more off-the-beaten-path experience of Fushimi Inari, hike up Mount Inari and you’ll see that gradually the selfie sticks give way to peace and quiet!
14. Drink and Dine at an Izakaya
Japan offers an amazing variety of culinary experiences, but there’s nothing like eating and drinking at a Japanese izakaya.
In addition to being the perfect place to sample a wide variety of Japanese dishes – from sashimi and fried foods, to tofu and seasonal vegetables – eating and drinking at an izakaya is also a great way to mingle with locals.
15. Find Zen in a Japanese Garden
Kyoto is particularly well-known for its wealth of gardens (not to mention its shrines and temples). Beyond Kyoto, stunning gardens abound in Japan, from renowned stroll gardens like Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, to the gorgeous gardens of the Adachi Museum of Art.
See our full guide to Japan’s best gardens.
16. Go Skiing and Snowboarding in Hokkaido’s Legendary Powder
From the legendary powder of Niseko and Hokkaido to the Japanese Alps and Tohoku, Japan has some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the world.
After a day on the slopes, rejuvenate with cozy izakaya food and healing onsen (see above).
17. Hike Through the Japanese Countryside
Japan is a hiker’s paradise, with wonderful day hikes and multi-day walks throughout the country.
18. Stay at a Buddhist Temple
For a taste of traditional Japanese Buddhist life, there’s no better experience than spending a night or two at a shukubo (temple lodging).
Temple accommodations are typically on the rustic side, but prepare for a fascinating and immersive cultural experience, and delicious vegetarian shojin ryori cuisine.
Japan’s most famous destination for shukubo stays is sacred Mount Koya (Koyasan), and there are many other off-the-beaten-path options elsewhere in Japan as well.
19. Marvel at Japan’s Stunning Modern Architecture
Along with its traditional gems, Japan is home to some of the world’s most accomplished architects, and you’ll find stunning modern architecture throughout the country.
In Tokyo, you could spend hours strolling the main avenues and backstreets of the Aoyama and Omotesando neighborhoods, filled with iconic buildings by Japanese luminaries and Pritzker Prize-winners.
The work of legendary architects such as Tadao Ando and Kengo Kuma is featured all over Japan, from tiny villages to major cities.
20. Go Sake (Nihonshu) Tasting
Many would-be sake lovers have been soured on nihonshu (sake) by subpar experiences at Japanese restaurants outside of Japan. The quality of sake to be found in Japan is simply remarkable.
Forget the sake you’ve tried in the US, Europe, or Australia. Come to Japan with an open mind and prepare to sample fresh sake from small local producers who rarely export.
Read more in our Sake 101 guide.
21. Visit an Original (Preserved) Japanese Castle
Lovers of history and traditional architecture should go out of their way to visit at least one original, preserved Japanese castle.
Most castles you see in photos of Japan (for example, Osaka Castle) are reconstructions, with beautiful external appearances, but gutted interiors.
Japan retains a small but wonderful collection of preserved original castles including Himeji-jo (Himeji Castle), Matsumoto-jo (in the alpine city of Matsumoto), Hikone-jo, Matsuyama-jo, and more.
With gorgeous exteriors and captivating interiors full of intrigue, these national treasures are a must-visit for history buffs.
22. See the Famous Snow Monkeys in Nagano
Located in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, animal lovers flock to the Jigokudani Yaen Koen (Snow Monkey Park) to see Japan’s famous snow monkeys up close.
While possible to visit throughout the year, the best time to visit the onsen-loving snow monkeys is in deep winter, when the landscape is completely covered in snow.
23. Drink Matcha Green Tea
Even coffee-obsessives should make sure to sample tea in Japan. Though best known for green tea, while exploring Japan you’ll come across an incredible variety of teas, ranging from matcha and genmaicha to tea made from sakura (cherry blossoms).
Whether as part of a tea ceremony or in a charming teahouse along with seasonal wagashi (Japanese sweets), there is nothing more heartwarming than a freshly-prepared cup of matcha green tea.
24. Climb Mount Fuji (Fujisan)
According to an old saying in Japan, there are two types of fools in the world: those who never climb Fuji-san, and those who climb it more than once.
On the way up you’ll see children and grandparents, and while not the most scenic trek, it is all worthwhile when you reach the summit in time for sunrise.
25. Experience Paradise in the Islands of Okinawa
The islands of Okinawa are home to stunning beaches, world-class scuba diving, and fascinating culture and history.
In particular, the remote islands of Okinawa – such as the pristine Yaeyama Islands – feel worlds apart from mainland Japan.
Japan Has Even More Amazing Places to Experience
Whether you usually plan your own trips, or normally work with a destination expert, planning a trip to Japan can seem overwhelming at times.
At Boutique Japan, our specialty is crafting completely customized trips for travelers seeking unique, authentic experiences.
If you are interested in learning more about working with us, please feel free to explore our trip planning process.