Japan is well known for its interesting and sometimes unusual culture and our visit didn’t disappoint. From a live action robot show to making sushi, and from exploring the ancient temples of Kyoto to hand feeding tame deer in Nara, there are so many things to do it can be hard to work out what to prioritise fitting into your trip. If you have a couple of weeks to explore these are our all time top 10 things to do in Japan, that will mean you make the most of your time in this amazing country.
We’ve included everything from foodie adventures to cultural days out and just about everything in between so it should appeal to all travellers visiting Japan’s main cities – Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima.
1- Be Amazed At The Robot Restaurant in Tokyo
This is a little on the pricy side at around £50 per person but it’s the most bizarre, craziest thing we’ve seen in all our travels and is something that is truly an ‘only in Japan’ kind of experience! Avoid picking the option with food (overpriced and doesn’t look great) and prepare to be amazed. After spending some time enjoying a drink in the most opulent waiting area I’ve ever seen, we watched giant robots and dancers battling and running around for an hour and a half in a display of energy and technology that I don’t think exists anywhere else.
If you want a surreal and crazy Japan experience this is definitely number 1 of the top 10 things to do in Japan. I don’t quite have the words to describe it, but here are a couple of pictures and videos to give you a better idea of what to expect!
2- Eat At A Themed Restaurant
Whilst the food is typically not the star attraction at these places, they are an experience that it’s well worth squeezing into your visit. Tokyo has everything from restaurants where you fish for your own dinner, to Moomins and Peanuts themed cafes, to elaborate Final Fantasy themed eateries and just about anything else you can imagine.
We opted to visit the Alice in Wonderland ‘Alice in A Labryinth’ restaurant and had an amazing night there enjoying themed cocktails and a 6 course tasting menu. We went for Mother’s Day and told them it was a special occasion and we had amazing service and some bonus extras so a good one for birthdays etc.
3- Play Games At A Pachinko
Another bizarre one, our third of the top 10 things to do in Japan (although this list is not in any particular order) is to visit a Pachinko. A Pachinko is a kind of Japanese arcade with machines that reminded us a little of pinball. You sit down, put your cash in the machine and play to win silver balls which can then be traded for food and toys etc in the adjoining shop.
Technically gambling is illegal in Japan so you play for other goods rather than cash, although I’ve heard you can take your winnings down the road to an illegal money changer if you’re in the know! Expect rows of people staring unflinchingly at screens and the loudest arcade music I’ve ever heard.
4- Take a Sushi Making Class
This is a must do not just for sushi fans, but for anyone who wants to learn more about Japanese food and culture. We’d highly recommend the class we took in Osaka which was a lot more budget friendly than the ones we found in Tokyo and gave us the opportunity to cook in a home environment and learn a lot more about Japanese culture and traditions as well as making some delicious food.
Sushi is also easier to prepare than you think so you’ll be sure to enjoy an amazing meal at the end of the class!
5- Spend A Day At Nara Deer Park
This is an easy day trip from Osaka or Kyoto and if you have the JR pass you can get there and back for free on JR trains which take less than an hour each way. We have a full post with our walking route and recommendations for the day, but expect to see a glimpse of ancient Japan with incredible shrines, sacred forests and hundreds of the cutest tame deer you’ll ever see.
Biscuits are on sale for just 150 yen and you’ll soon be surrounded by Sika deer! I’d say that on our top 10 things to do in Japan list this is by far the cutest and should be at the top of the list for any animal lovers out there.
6- Visit Hiroshima & Take A Trip To Miyajima
Many tourists in Japan only make it as far as Osaka and Kyoto, but especially with the availability of fast trains to Hiroshima its 100% worth making the effort to visit this historic city. No Visit is complete without a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Museum and Memorial Gardens which make for a fascinating if harrowing day. As history fans we were very keen to visit, learn more about the impact of the bombing of the city in WW2, and to pay our respects to its victims.
In complete contrast, just a short journey outside the city is Miyajima, a small island that’s home of the famous floating torii, that’s well worth a day trip to see. Free to reach if you have a JR pass it’s a beautiful scenic area that shows a completely different Japanese landscape – climbing Mt Misen is a great afternoon hike as well.
7- Enjoy a Traditional Tea Ceremony
If I’m honest this wasn’t the best thing we did in Japan but I’d still say that it’s worth doing considering the significant of tea ceremonies in Japanese culture. It deserves a place on the top 10 things to do in Japan as it’s an interesting way to get a better understanding of this cultural importance of tea and it’s quite a special thing to watch an an ancient ceremony being performed as the history of it is explained to you,
Kyoto is a great place to enjoy one as you’ll be in the heart of historic Japan and it offers a great opportunity to learn about the importance of tea and the rituals of the tea ceremony.
8- Go Geisha Spotting in Gion, Ancient Kyoto
Gion is the ancient heart of Kyoto, where you can wander old streets and see what life must have been like here many years ago. This area is also the traditional home of Geisha, and even today you can spot them sometimes hurrying between appointments. The best time to catch them is between 5 and 6pm but be respectful if you do catch sight of one as we heard that tourists will often chase them down the street like paparazzi as they try to take pictures.
Gion itself is an amazing place and worthy of a spot on the top 10 things to do in Japan whether or not you go for Geisha spotting or just to explore the old buildings.
9- Have A Sushi Breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market
This was a brilliant morning! We didn’t get up at a crazy hour to see the famous tuna auction but headed to the market for the time of 10am when it opens to tourists and had an amazing time exploring and people watching. You have to keep your wits about you and stay out of the way of the general to’ing and fro’ing that’s taking place but it’s so interesting to watch the market taking place.
A sushi breakfast is more or less obligatory and is one of the best spots for sushi in the city.
10- Visit the Temples of Kyoto
We’ve written a lot more about this in our blog on 4 days in Kyoto but this is an essential part of any trip to Japan and will show you the places that everyone imagines when they think of Japan. There are too many temples to mention but some of the all time best ones to visit include Tenryuji, Yasaka Shrine, Fushimi Inari-Taisha, Tofuku-ji, Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji, to name but a few!
So there you go – the top 10 things to do in Japan when visit! Whilst they’re not all cheap, if you have the budget they definitely all offer great value for money and offer an experience that is just unlike what you’ll get anywhere else.
Finally, if you need any more tips for planning your time in Japan – take a look at our two week itinerary which crams in absolutely loads of amazing places. Even if you don’t get to visit everywhere, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have an incredible time – friendly people, brilliant food, beautiful landscapes and fascinating culture make this one of our all time favourite countries.