At Boutique Japan, our specialty is helping travelers who believe that travel is about unique 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 places are worth visiting, and which places to skip. After all, some popular experiences are actually worthwhile and live up to the hype, while others are just as touristy as they look on Instagram.
If you’re looking for inspiration on where to go and what to do for a truly memorable Japan trip, we recommend the remarkable places and experiences listed below. Some are more well-known, while others will help you get off the beaten path (and into the Japanese countryside).
Originally written in 2015, this post was updated and republished on September 21, 2021.
To Tour or Not to Tour
While we specialize in planning custom trips to Japan, we realize many people refer to our website to help them plan their itineraries independently. Many of the experiences featured below can be done without a guide, though most can be greatly enhanced with a fun, local expert.
We hear from lots of travelers who have had mediocre tours in the past, and we get it. Few things are more frustrating than a boring, or bad, guide. Along with visiting boutique and luxury hotels and ryokans, perhaps the most important part of our team’s work is vetting guides and local experts (there are plenty of guides throughout Japan, but few who are knowledgeable, flexible, and authentically engaging).
Of course, even for travelers who appreciate a great guide, there may be times where you simply want to relax or explore on your own. This might mean wandering around a charming neighborhood, people watching at a stylish cafe, or enjoying a spa treatment. We take this into account when designing your Japan itinerary, and suggest local experts especially where we think it will most enhance your experience.
We hope our ideas provide you with travel inspiration, whether you contact us for your trip or plan independently!
Here are 30 unique and immersive experiences to consider for your Japan bucket list:
- Drink and Dine at an Izakaya
- Soak in Healing Onsen (Hot Springs)
- Explore Art & Architecture on The Art Island of Naoshima
- Splurge on a Night at a Tokyo Luxury Hotel
- Attend a Japanese Matsuri (Festival)
- Sample the World’s Finest Sushi & Sashimi
- Ride the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) Around Japan
- Stroll Through Arashiyama’s Bamboo Forest
- Eat The Best Ramen of Your Life on a Ramen Deep Dive
- Stay at a Shukubo (Buddhist Temple Lodging)
- Watch Sumo and Baseball
- Ski or Snowboard Japan’s Legendary Powder
- Admire Sakura During Cherry Blossom Season
- Taste Premium Nihonshu (Sake)
- Hike Through the Japanese Countryside
- Experience Nightlife in Japan
- Cycle Through Kyoto or Tokyo
- Trek Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
- Eat Your Way Through Tsukiji’s Outer Market
- Climb or Admire Fuji-san (Mount Fuji)
- Marvel at Japan’s Modern Architecture
- Find Zen in a Japanese Garden
- Experience Japanese Coffee Culture
- Savor Matcha, Genmaicha, and More
- Visit an Original Japanese Castle
- Get Lost in Tokyo’s Stylish Backstreets
- Sip on Rare Japanese Whisky
- Experience Paradise in the Islands of Okinawa
- See the Famous Snow Monkeys in Nagano
- Obsess Over Japan’s World-Class Baked Goods
1. Drink and Dine at an 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. Kanpai!
2. Soak in Healing Onsen (Hot Springs)
Soaking in a remote onsen 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.
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. Splurge on a Night at a Tokyo Luxury 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.
If you can, it’s also worth splurging on a night at a luxury ryokan in rural Japan, as well!
5. 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. Some of the most remarkable include Hokkaido’s Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival), Shikoku’s boisterous Awa Odori dance festival, and the beautiful Gion Matsuri of Kyoto.
6. 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 beyond.
Even more price-conscious travelers will find excellent sushi and sashimi at moderately priced restaurants, and in beautiful depachika bentos.
7. Ride the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) Around Japan
Whether or not you’re a train geek, you’re likely aware that Japan’s rail network is part of what makes traveling around Japan such a joy. Even though we typically don’t recommend the Japan Rail Pass for most of our clients, we do recommend getting around via shinkansen whenever possible, and fortunately Japan’s extensive rail system connects the country from Hokkaido in the north, to Kyushu in the southwest.
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.
8. 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 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.
9. Eat The Best Ramen of Your Life on a Ramen Deep Dive
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 southwest to Sapporo in the north, you’ll find incredibly good ramen shops with passionately devoted followers.
If you’re a hardcore ramen lover, geek out with a ramen-obsessed expert who will take you to a selection of great ramen-ya to experience distinct styles and varieties. There are also less obsessive ramen guides for travelers seeking a more basic introduction to these famous noodles.
10. Stay at a Shukubo (Buddhist Temple Lodging)
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.
11. Watch Sumo and 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!
12. Ski or Snowboard Japan’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.
13. Admire Sakura During Cherry Blossom Season
We were torn about whether to include this on our list, as we generally believe Japan is best experienced with fewer crowds. On the other hand, despite the number of tourists, there is nevertheless something beguilingly magical about sakura (cherry blossoms).
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. It’s definitely not for everyone though, so make sure to read all about the pros and cons of visiting Japan in cherry blossom season.
A popular and slightly less crowded alternative is Japan’s autumn, renowned for its brilliant fall colors.
14. Taste Premium Nihonshu (Sake)
Many would-be nihonshu (sake) lovers have been turned off of sake thanks to subpar experiences at Japanese restaurants outside of Japan. But 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 premium nihonshu from small local producers who rarely export.
15. Hike Through the Japanese Countryside
Japan is a hiker’s paradise, with wonderful day hikes and multi-day walks throughout the country (there are even great hikes near Tokyo, and many more in and around Kyoto).
Two of Japan’s best multi-day hiking adventures are the charming Nakasendo Trail in central Japan’s Kiso Valley, and the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route in the Kii Peninsula, but for intrepid travelers there are also plenty of other options, on and off the beaten path.
16. Experience Nightlife in Japan
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 or tachinomi (stand bar), 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.
17. Cycle Through Kyoto or Tokyo
For serious cyclists, the Japanese countryside offers countless opportunities for distance rides (mountain biking is also popular in Japan). But even if you’re not looking to plan your whole trip around cycling, you can still fit some in while having fun exploring cities such as Kyoto and Tokyo.
Both are great cycling cities, especially when you’re winding your way through charming backstreets, away from the tourist centers. Think of it as a neighborhood stroll by bicycle, taking in quiet areas filled with authentic street life, old-fashioned shops, and neighborhood shrines and temples.
18. Trek Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
Like Arashiyama’s bamboo forest, Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha tends to draw huge crowds. Yet also like the bamboo forest, Fushimi Inari is nevertheless still worth visiting.
One way to minimize exposure to crowds is by coming here early in the morning before most travelers have had their morning tea or coffee. For a more off-the-beaten-path experience, hike up Mount Inari and you’ll see that gradually the selfie sticks give way to peace and quiet!
19. Eat Your Way Through Tsukiji’s Outer Market
Wait, didn’t Tokyo’s fish market move to Toyosu? Yes, it did! But Tsukiji remains a must for food and market lovers. While the market’s wholesale operations have moved to the slightly out-of-the-way Toyosu, the jogai (outer market) at Tsukiji is still thriving.
In Tsukiji’s Outer Market you’ll find historic lanes and alleys packed with a colorful array of shops and small restaurants, not to mention atmosphere and charm to spare. For more info, see our guide to visiting Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market.
20. Climb or Admire Fuji-san (Mount Fuji)
As the old saying goes, there are two types of fools in the world: those who never climb Mount Fuji, 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.
There are other great ways to admire Mount Fuji, as well. One is to visit Hakone, which offers good views of the mountain if and only if the weather is clear. For an even closer vantage point, and incredible views when it’s clear, head to the lakeside resort of Kawaguchiko. And for active travelers seeking a vigorous hike with views of Mount Fuji, there are some excellent off-the-beaten-path in the Fuji-san area.
21. Marvel at Japan’s Modern Architecture
Along with its traditional gems, Japan is home to some of the world’s most accomplished architects, and you’ll find stunning architecture throughout the country.
In Tokyo, you could spend hours strolling the main avenues and backstreets of the Ginza, Aoyama, and Omotesando neighborhoods, filled with iconic buildings by Japanese luminaries and Pritzker Prize winners. Throughout Japan, from tiny villages to major cities, you’ll come across the work of legendary architects such as Tadao Ando and Kengo Kuma, often in the most surprising of locations.
22. Find Zen in a Japanese Garden
Kyoto is particularly renowned for its wealth of gardens (not to mention shrines and temples). Even beyond Kyoto, impeccable gardens abound in Japan, from stroll gardens like Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, to the gorgeous gardens of the Adachi Museum of Art. See our full guide to the best gardens in Japan.
23. Experience Japanese Coffee Culture
Coffee has been an art form in Japan for decades, and while tea may still be a more prevalent part of traditional daily life, coffee is also deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. Throughout Japan you’ll find classic kissaten (old-school tea and coffee shops), where part of the experience is slowing down.
You come to a kissaten to sit for a while, chat quietly or read a book, and enjoy an expertly, laboriously prepared cup of coffee. As with most things in Japan, you’ll find that kissaten proprietors on the whole take a meticulous approach to quality and technique. At some shops, the obsession with perfection is taken to another level!
To complement your quaint kissa experiences, you’ll also want to seek out some of the modern temples of specialty coffee in Japan.
24. Savor Matcha, Genmaicha, and More
Even coffee-obsessed travelers 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 and more. Whether at a specialty tea shop, or as part of a tea ceremony, few things are more heartwarming than a thoughtfully prepared cup of matcha.
25. Visit an Original 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 (for example, Osaka Castle) are reconstructions, with beautiful external appearances but lackluster 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 for history buffs.
26. Get Lost in Tokyo’s Stylish Backstreets
Getting lost is not everyone’s idea of fun, but in a safe and gem-filled city like Tokyo, it can lead to some delightful travel experiences.
For expert insight to complement your wanderings, spend some time walking through the maze-like backstreets of Daikanyama and Naka-Meguro, two of Tokyo’s most unique neighborhoods, with a fun local guide. Leave the main streets behind as you find endless inspiration in the labyrinthine (and astoundingly quiet) lanes of these fashionable and picturesque districts.
27. Sip on Rare Japanese Whisky
One option for spirit lovers is to visit some of Japan’s whisky distilleries, but you don’t necessarily need to go to the source to enjoy some of the country’s best whisky.
There are few better places to drink Japanese whisky than in Tokyo (and other major cities, including Kyoto and Osaka), which are home to some of the best whisky bars on the planet. You can venture out on your own, or with a local whisky expert be introduced to exclusive whisky establishments where you can splurge on rare samples.
28. 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. For culinary travelers, Okinawa’s food is also a highlight.
29. 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.
30. Obsess Over Japan’s World-Class Baked Goods
It’s easy to focus on Japanese cuisine when traveling through Japan, but for lovers of bread, croissants, and pastries, do not miss out on enjoying baked goods while in Japan! You can find top-quality bakeries and patisseries around the country, from the remote countryside of Hokkaido, to cities like Osaka and Tokyo. While you’re at it, make sure to save a meal for one of Japan’s legendary pizza specialists, too.
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.