Japan darts into the future while keeping a quiet hold of its traditions. Dazzling towers of light and luxury goods sit alongside timeless temples and traditional inns with old-world manners, and Japanese dishes that continue to delight the tastebuds.
Quirky cafes brim with youthful glee, while sleek bullet trains zip you to turquoise beaches, ice sculptures and hot springs nestled on emerald mountains. Japan manages to both delight you instantly and have you come back to discover its slow secrets.
This is how to get the best out of Japan, both ancient and modern.
1. Experience old Japan in Kyoto
With over 2000 exquisite temples, Kyoto is where traditional Japan thrives. Visiting splendid gardens and ceremonial teahouses is part of the deep dive into history. One of the most exquisite sights in the whole of Japan is the gold-leaf tiers of Kinkaku-ji beaming gloriously in the sun, with a mirror image in the pond below, framed by layers of pine trees.
The garden tradition in Kyoto has close ties to monks, emperors and philosophers. Japanese gardens are minimalist designs to allow breathing room for meditation and reflection. The finest gardens in Kyoto can show personality even through simplicity with subtle choices; a weathered bridge to represent the march of time or unique pebbles. The most intriguing Zen garden is Ryōan-ji, a mysterious arrangement of 15 rocks.
Local tip: Take an evening stroll through lantern-lit streets lined with 17th-century traditional restaurants and teahouses in the Gion entertainment and geisha quarter. There is a lot to love in Kyoto, so arrive early on a weekday to beat the crowds and enjoy a peaceful time reflecting on Japan’s living traditions.
2. Drink sake in Saijō
Come to a sake town for blissfully quiet history. Lift the small cup with two hands, one supporting the bottom. Admire the gold leaf dancing on the clear sake. Sip and feel the smooth, crisp liquid go down, chased with a hint of plum. Then it’s on to another brewery next door. Transforming rice into alcohol goes back 2000 years, and some Saijō breweries date back 150 years.
The town is an austere set of eight white-washed breweries with brick chimney stacks proclaiming the name of each brewery in Japanese. Begin your taste-testing at the Kamotsuru Sake Brewing Company where you can watch the brewing process. Feudal lords drank here during the Edo period (1604–1868), and it was this brewery that produced a gold-leaf sake that US President Obama tried in Tokyo, poured by Japanese President Abe. It may even entice you to declare your devotion to the god of sake.
3. Sleep in a capsule hotel
Get ready for a wonderfully unique Japanese experience. Scan the stacks of capsules and step up the ladder into your “space pod.” Sit cross-legged (there’s enough room) and enjoy the plush mattress and feeling of being cocooned in comfort.
A capsule hotel is where a bed is for sleeping and privacy – paramount in Japan. Fortunately, there is plenty of space in the communal bathrooms that usually have ample shower cubicles. On the weekends, the cheaper capsule hotels might get drunken revelers snoring, but people are usually very respectful. This is not a place for socializing, which is heaven for solo travelers that just want a good night’s rest in what looks like a spotless space station.
Planning tip: While originally intended for businessmen, today there are a number of female-only capsule hotels for solo travelers who’d rather not share with the opposite sex.
4. Get your otaku on in Akihabara
Akihabara in Tokyo is the promised land for anime otaku (fanatics). Even if you aren’t a fan, Akihabara is worth experiencing for the height of artistic geekiness done the Japanese way. In Japan, anime is more than something you watch – it is toys, video games, fashion… and a way of life. Even big banks sometimes print anime characters onto their credit cards. Step into this neighborhood and see fans bringing characters to life in costume.
Under towers of Japanese signs and flashing lights, it’s easy to be dazzled and transported into a cartoon world. French-style maids tout you to enter a maid cafe. You can dress up as a Mario Bros game character and drive real-life Go-Karts on the streets of Akihabara. The hundreds of stores have all the manga (comics), retro collectibles and cutting-edge tech gadgets your otaku heart could want.
Tokyo Anime Center is especially foreigner-friendly and hosts live radio events where you can see anime artists and actors and get their autographs.
Detour: If you, or the kids, prefer a calmer way to be spirited away by anime, the Ghibli Museum in West Tokyo is also magical.
5. Experience a multi-course kaiseki meal
Capturing ingredients at the height of their freshness is the essence of a kaiseki meal. The tasting menu is where the height of Japanese design meets natural beauty and flavor with roots in sixteenth-century tea ceremonies. In-season ingredients make up a formal kaiseki meal that might start with a course of sea urchin and horsehair crab, move on to a soup, and then a seasonal platter of cute dishes such as sushi and Kameoka beef.
The subsequent courses are dedicated to in-season sashimi, color-coordinated vegetables and tofu, grilled seasonal fish, sake, rice in a clay hot pot and dessert. In spring, expect a budding cherry blossom to decorate your plate. Every course is a gasp-inducing journey through Japanese ceramics and presentation in a tatami-floored room.
6. Try every Japanese snack in a konbini
Japanese konbini (convenience stores) are one of the most fun eating experiences in Japan. It might not be fine dining, but they’re part of many Japanese bullet train journeys, and surprisingly (to most foreigners) high-quality snacks wherever you are in the country, 24 hours a day.
Delicious sushi, onigiri (rice balls filled with tuna, meat or plum), and grilled-fish bento meals are delivered around the clock, so you will likely get something fresh. There is more novelty and an explosion of choice (and matcha flavors) in the candy, beer, and green tea aisles. The most reliably good konbini are Family Mart, 7-Eleven and Lawson.
7. Shoot across Japan on a bullet train
Its space shuttle nose glides into the station as if from another cosmos. That galaxy is Japan, where high-speed trains zip between cities up to 320 kph (199 m/h) with extra-terrestrial accuracy and comfort. From the clean, comfortable seats, skyscrapers scroll whisper-quietly by, transforming into pines and rural countryside in a flash. There is a touch of yesteryear to the hardwearing carpets and putty-colored luggage racks of some train models. Yet nothing looks weathered; it’s just carriage loads of retro-futuristic charm.
Kusatsu Onsen in the Kantō region is one of Japan’s most famous
8. Take a dip in an onsen
A hot onsen hot spring is a 3000-year tradition that takes volcanic energy and converts it to a hot bath with the power to evaporate your worries. Onsen are found all over Japan and are one of the most Japanese experiences you can have, either within humble public bathhouses or bathing outdoors in Zen gardens. The natural settings let you really feel the delicious contrast of the hot waters against the pine-fresh open air.
You can try them in many ryokan and in resort towns such as Kusatsu and Beppu, where budget options are available in public bathhouses. To literally dip your toes in, there are free outdoor public foot baths in onsen towns.
Local tip: You have to bathe thoroughly at separate facilities before getting into a hot bath. Expect to get utterly naked (modesty towels are allowed at some modern baths) and refreshed head to toe.
9. See the wilds of Japan in winter
Snow poised on the eaves of temples. Trees glazed with ice. Steam wafting over the onsen (hot springs). Winter in Japan is a time that fewer travelers see, which means you’ll have open spaces all to yourself. Ski and hike across powdery snow in the wilds of Hokkaidō. Or enjoy the Japanese art of coziness in izakaya (taverns) with winter comfort dishes like oden fishcakes in a dashi broth. A side trip for taste-testing at Nikka Whisky is a warm delight. For families, the ice sculptures of the Sapporo Snow Festival and the bathing wild monkeys of Jigokudani Monkey Park are fun for all ages.
10. Sleep in a ryokan
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that, at its best, is fit for a feudal lord. Staying in a ryokan room is easy and rewarding. Slip off your slippers, slide open the shoji paper-screen door, and step across the tatami mat floor of your room to the window. The sunset flickers through the maple leaves and across the futon. When ready, change into your yukata (traditional cotton robe) and head to the dining room for a multi-course kaiseki meal of the region’s cuisine.
11. Embrace Tokyo’s quirky side
Spend a day embracing Japan’s wonderfully weird side in Tokyo. Start the day at your hotel, staffed by humanoid robots. Test every button on the Japanese toilet, from angled sprays for men and women to a modesty button that plays the sounds of the ocean. Head out and buy a treat from one of 5 million vending machines. There are soft drinks and sugar-free green tea on every corner, but more novel choices include masks, sake, fresh popcorn, dashi stock, flowers, umbrellas, or hot corn soup. Even small restaurants often use vending machines to buy meal coupons, so staff never handle any cash.
12. Catch one of 200,000 festivals
Yes, there are plenty of matsuri (festivals) to celebrate snow, summer, music or any subject you can think of. They are a perfect way to watch dancers and drummers in the traditional dress of each region, enjoy some street food and be dazzled by lanterns and fireworks. Things always stay orderly, so they’re ideal if you have young ones in tow. The biggest festivals worth planning for include Kyoto’s summer bash Gion Matsuri in July, when you can see giant floats and locals dressed in elegant yukata (cotton robes). Sapporo’s annual snow festival Yuki Matsuri in early February includes the international snow sculpture contest, ice slides and mazes for kids.
Plum blossom viewing is nature’s own festival, if not an official one. Pink and white blooms signal the end of February and winter. The gardens in Mito have the country’s most spectacular plum blossoms.
13. Make a wish at a Shinto shrine
Shinto shrines are where the Japanese pray or ask for good fortune. The kami (deities) range from Princess Konohanasakuya, the Shinto deity of Mount Fuji, to founders of powerful clans, or local shrines to neighborhood deities. A wall of wooden tablets (ema) hangs at many shrines, where you can write down your wish or offering on an ema for the deities to read. For a visitor, it’s a chance to reflect and appreciate the tranquil surroundings.
A Shinto shrine is a place in harmony with nature, where the trees and wind are framed by a giant gate. Pray to the kami of rice at Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari-Taisha and its tunnel of vermillion torii gates, ask for good exam results at plum-tree decorated Tenjin shrine Dazaifu Tenman-gū or at the imperial shrine with a chrysanthemum crest like grand Meiji-jingū, or pray for general good luck at Japan’s oldest Shinto shrine, Izumo Taisha, in Tokyo.
14. Go clubbing in Tokyo
Tokyo is the cool kid of Japan’s club scene. That means a reliable night of house music at Womb and subterranean cool at Circus Tokyo. Leading the way for LGBTQIA+ inclusion, the raucous crowds spilling onto the street around the gay clubs of Shinjuku-Nichome show how progressive Tokyo can be.
15. Eat sashimi at a fish market
Japan is the largest fish-eating nation in the world. Preparing fish and seafood is an art, and its fish markets are the life force of that tradition. They are impeccably clean places with barely any fishy smells. Early risers can catch the wholesale auctions at their new home in Toyosu Market from behind glass, but the real action is still in the laneways of Tsukiji Market. Stalls sell excellent fish cakes, sashimi bowls, fish floss and every tool to prepare seafood, including some only a pro would need (gumboots, anyone?).
Local tip: Karato Ichiba is a favorite for a local vibe. On weekends, fisher folk set up stalls selling bentō of sashimi and cooked dishes of the local specialty, puffer fish (with the deadly parts removed, of course).
16. Relax in towns by the sea
Japan is a country borne of the sea. This is where you’ll see squid being dried on spinning racks in the sun, eat the freshest sashimi, find wooden shopfronts of yesteryear and soak up the lazy rays.
Tomonoura inspired anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki to create Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. No wonder the views from a hillside temple are impressive – green hills sheltering old Japanese houses and a timeless port of bobbing white boats.
The Oki Islands are a natural seaside oasis of rock formations jutting up from the water, quiet sea coves, the highest sea cliffs in Japan, traditional fishing villages, and pristine waters all to yourself. On one of many coastal walks, you’ll come across varied plant life and maybe even small grazing horses. To really go slow, Okinawa is an island dreamland.
Local tip: Matsue has one of Japan’s best sunsets. The giant red orb melts into the water with a silhouette of a torii gate on a distant shimmering island.
17. Surf and chill
Japan has a surf scene of one million surfers, who know where to find turquoise waters and sparkling sand. Even if you can’t yet catch a wave, the best surf beaches in Japan have a chilled vibe that you can enjoy. You can learn to surf at one of the schools at Shira-hama, which has year-round, easygoing breaks. Swells tend to be smaller in Japan (outside of typhoons), making it a great spot for newbies.
Ōkinohama in Shikoku is a surfer’s paradise. The jewel-like blue water is warm year-round and sees very few visitors.
Detour: Even if you are in Tokyo, the waves and summer beach shacks are just an hour away at Yuigahama Beach in Kamakura.
18. Eat Japanese food with locals
Wafts of charcoal yakitori chicken skewers with sweet teriyaki sauce. The sizzle of okonomiyaki seafood and cabbage “pancakes” on the hotplate. Everywhere you turn, restaurants and tiny diners are serving world-beating Japanese dishes. Taking a walk through a different food style every day is one of the most exciting Japanese experiences.
For casual eating for couples and groups, a cavernous izakaya is part bar, part restaurant, and great for a good-value meal of nabemono (hotpot dishes), sashimi and grilled fish. Narukiyo in Tokyo is a favorite.
Solo travelers (and fussy kids) can join in on the fun, picking out sushi from a kaiten-sushi conveyor-belt restaurant. Numazukō is a fresh choice. Most casual ramen-ya (ramen restaurants) are filled with solo diners slurping down a bowl of ramen topped with sliced roast pork.
Plenty of small restaurants and train station stands that specialize in just one dish but taste incredible, such as kara-age (fried chicken), udon (thick wheat noodles), soba (thin buckwheat noodles) or katsu-kare (crumbed pork-cutlet in mild curry). Even small yakitori (barbecued chicken skewers) bars can wow you with their simple smoky flavors washed down with a glass of sake.
Local tip: A teishoku (set menu) lets you try a bit of everything (rice and miso soup included) and makes a good choice for lunch or at tempura restaurants.
19. Experience a renewed Hiroshima
Hiroshima today is an attractive city of boulevards and okonomiyaki restaurants. It’s also a city that has the ability to change the way you think about world conflicts. The great wonder of the Peace Memorial Park is how the human tragedy of the atomic bomb attack on the city has been transformed into a message of peace.
The Peace Memorial Museum is humane and moving, while the outdoor space gives visitors the breathing room to reflect with hope. There, the Children’s Peace Monument is decorated with strings of thousands of paper cranes sent from schoolchildren around Japan and the world. The origami symbol of longevity and happiness is an ongoing living message of peace.
20. Cycle between islands around the Seto Inland sea
The Shimanami Kaido is a place spun from the stuff of cyclists’ dreams. A 70km (43-mile) blue-painted cycle route unfurls across six islands taking in jade mountains, orange groves and sea air. From Onomichi on Honshū to Imabari on Shikoku, you can make stops to swim at secluded beaches, visit a museum dedicated to local painters, and visit shrines with sea views all to yourself.
Detour: To get even more off the beaten track, take the Tobishima Kaido.
21. See carp swimming on a former samurai street
Tsuwano is one of those Japanese mountain towns where time seems in no hurry. Take your time up through the many torii gates to reach its hillside temple. Up there, you might be the only person taking in the spectacular views across the town and the green mountains.
At the heart of Tsuwano, surrounded by sleepy sake storefronts, is a former samurai mansion. You can’t help but feel like you are in an ancient Japanese fairytale with red-tiled eaves and a narrow canal that runs through the center of town. Swimming about are orange, gold and black carp, sparkling in the sun and going about their business as they have for two centuries.
22. Discover art on rural Naoshima
Encountering contemporary art on an island village is a delight. On Naoshima and the surrounding islands, you’ll find traditional Japanese buildings converted into modern-art installations incorporating the island’s history. Outdoors, sun and sea air add magic to a treasure hunt of uncovering outdoor art installations. One of the most famous and joy-filled is the Yayoi Kusama Yellow Pumpkin sculpture waiting for you at the end of a jetty.