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Things to Do in Japan

In Japan, the past and the future are gloriously juxtaposed. Robots dance to techno beats in Tokyo; snow monkeys soak in hot springs in Yamanouchi; and geishas serve green tea ceremoniously in Kyoto. Tokyo, the Land of the Rising Sun’s capital, is the obvious starting point for any Japan trip. Must-do activities in and around the city include watching a cabaret show at the Shinjuku Robot Restaurant, witnessing an early-morning tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market, and taking a day trip to Hakone to gaze at the snow-capped peak of Mt. Fuji during a Lake Ashi cruise. Visit hundreds of UNESCO World Heritage–listed shrines and Buddhist temples in Nara; ski and snowboard on the frozen slopes of Hokkaido; or relax on white-sand beaches lapped by the Pacific Ocean in Okinawa. Super-speed bullet trains make ticking off less central cities such as Nagoya, Osaka, and Hiroshima (home to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park) possible on a day trip, while food tours of major cities showcase the best of local Japanese cuisine, from sushi to ramen and gyoza (dumplings). For the ultimate sensory banquet, take your Japan vacation during the sakura (cherry blossom) season between March and April, when the country is carpeted in pastel-pink blooms.
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Okayama Korakuen Garden
8 Tours and Activities

One of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, Okayama Korakuen Garden was commissioned by regional ruler Tsunamasa Ikeda in 1686 and took over 14 years to complete. Today, the 13-hectare garden is a protected public park and retains its original appearance despite undergoing extensive restoration in the post-World War II years.

Its vast grassy lawn is Korakuen’s most unique attribute, but for many visitors, it’s the traditional Japanese features that draw the most attention, like the immaculately clipped bonsai trees, the blossom trees that bloom with color each spring and the network of water ways bridged by dainty stepping stones and narrow wooden footbridges. Climb to the top of the Yuishin-zan hill for a view over the garden and the neighboring Okayama Castle, gaze out over the central lake from the Enyo-tei tea house, then follow the walkways to discover the plum and cherry orchard, small tea plantation and rice field, and cages of rare red-crowned cranes.

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Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine
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Kamakura makes for a colorful and cultural day trip from Tokyo. The small city has over 75 temples and shrines, the biggest and most famous of which is the Shrine of Tsuragoaka Hachimangu.

The shrine was founded by Minamoto Yoriyoshi in 1063. Despite being a shinto shrine it's layout is that of a Japanese buddhist temple. Because of its extreme beauty it's a popular spot for weddings and for the year's first shrine visit, a practice called hatsumode. During the New Year holidays it draws over 2 million visitors. The walk from the station to the shrine is beautiful and dramatic: a long wide street embellished by orange torii gates that leads from the waterfront through the entire city. In April and September archery on horseback is performed along this street. The best time to visit is early springtime when the cherry blossoms and azaleas burst into colorful bloom.

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Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
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Few will forget the fateful events of Aug. 6, 1945, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city, effectively ending World War II and costing the lives of some 80,000 residents, and Hiroshima will forever be tied to its tragic past. Despite its losses, the overwhelming sentiment in Hiroshima is of peace and wandering around the poignant memorials and tributes is an emotional experience, made all the more powerful by the moving exhibitions at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

Both a fascinating insight into the pre-war city and a harrowing glimpse into the horrors of the bomb’s aftermath, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is surely one of Japan’s most important museums and it’s compelling, if uncomfortable, viewing. Exhibitions chronicle the lives of Hiroshima residents during World War II and after the bombing, and depict the graphic reality of the bomb’s destruction.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine (Fushimi Inari Taisha)
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Dedicated to the gods of sake and rice, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan. Five shrines dot the forested temple grounds, and the arched red lines of torii gates straddling the pathway leading up to Inari Mountain are a truly iconic sight. You’ll also see plenty of stone foxes at this temple, another symbol of Shinto.

A lovely place for a stroll in rural surrounds, there are fine views of Kyoto from the top of the torii gate pathway up the mountain. Stop off for a sustaining bowl of tofu soup at the small restaurants along the way.

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Zenkoji Temple
13 Tours and Activities

In the year 642, Zenko-ji Temple was founded when one of the earliest Buddhist statues in Japan, brought over from the Korean Peninsula, was enshrined at the site. Today, the temple is one of the most important Buddhist sites in the country, as well as Japan’s third largest wooden structure, with the entire town of Nagano built up around it.

The structure as it stands today dates back to 1707 and contains a large hall displaying a variety of Buddhist statuary, a main alter and an underground passage beneath the alter where visitors can pass in complete darkness, feeling for a single key on the wall -- the key to paradise -- that’s believed to grand salvation to any who touch it. Behind the main temple, a newer pagoda houses the Zenko-ji History Museum with its collection of statues of the Buddha and his disciples.

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Fuji-Q Highland
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Located near the base of Mt Fuji sits Fuji-Q Highland, one of Japan’s most popular amusement parks. Aside from its scenic setting, Fuji-Q Highland is best known for its record-setting roller coasters — four in total. Considered one of the most extreme roller coasters in the world, Dodonpa holds the record for fastest acceleration, while Takabisha features a drop angle of 121 degrees, making it the steepest steel roller coaster on the planet. Eejanaika, a 4D roller coaster with rotating seats, has more inversions than any other coaster, and the park’s first coaster, Fujiyama, was the tallest and fastest when it debuted in 1996.

Thrills can be found off the track as well; the park is home to one of the world’s largest haunted attractions, the appropriately named Super Scary Labyrinth of Fear, which takes guests on a spine-tingling trip through a haunted hospital. Carnival rides, anime-inspired attractions and kid-friendly Thomas Land round out the park’s offerings.

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Gion Corner
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The refined traditional arts of Japan are highlighted for visitors at Gion Corner, an entertaining and informative nightspot. From tea ceremony to the twang of the Koto, Ikebana floral arranging to puppet plays, Gion Corner dramatizes and explains the ins and outs of the esoteric world of Japanese traditions. There are two performances each evening, plus an on-site photo gallery and the opportunity to experience tea house hospitality at a traditional Kyoto banquet, hosted by geisha.
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More Things to Do in Japan

Narukawa Art Museum

Narukawa Art Museum

6 Tours and Activities
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Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)

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The Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji, is one of the most famous temples in Kyoto, and a major highlight of any visit to the city. The three-story pagoda gleams with gold leaf, though it is a 1955 replica of the original 1397 temple, which was destroyed by fire in 1950.

The beautiful temple hovers over a lake, surrounded by twisted pines and forests. The image of its reflection captured in the mirror-like water is a Kyoto symbol, and a must-have photo opportunity. The classic stone and water gardens are another highlight for a stroll.

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Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

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Also called Genbaku Dome, this landmark was the only building left standing after the Enola Gay dropped an atom bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, eventually killing 140,000 people. Genbaku is the Japanese word for “atomic bomb.”

Originally built in 1910 as the Hiroshima Commercial Exhibition Hall, in 1933 it was renamed the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. The five-story building, its exterior faced with stone and plaster, was topped with a steel-framed, copper-clad dome. The bomb blast shattered much of its interior, but much of its frame – as well as its garden fountain – remain.

The area around the building was re-landscaped as a park between 1950 and 1964; when complete, it was formally opened to the public as a museum. Since 1952, an annual peace ceremony has been held her eon August 6th, and in 1966, the city of Hiroshima decided to preserve the site in perpetuity. In 1996, it was declared a World Heritage Site.

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Pola Museum of Art

Pola Museum of Art

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Jigokudani Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen Koen)

Jigokudani Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen Koen)

21 Tours and Activities

Located 2,789 feet (850 meters) above sea level in the Valley of Yokoyu, Jigokudani Monkey Park stands out as one of Japan’s most popular and unique onsen. Onsen, the Japanese term for hot springs, are popular throughout the country, and the onsen found in the frequently snow-covered region of Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park in Northern Nagano prefecture attracts more than just human bathers.

The forests of the valley serve as the natural habitat of wild Japanese Macaques, or Snow Monkeys, who gather in large groups to bathe in the natural hot spring water. Jigokundani Monkey Park features a manmade onsen where the natural hot water collects and the monkeys congregate. Since they’re quite accustomed to human observers, it’s possible to view them from close range.

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Maruyama Park (Maruyama Koen)

Maruyama Park (Maruyama Koen)

19 Tours and Activities
Set at the base of Maruyama Mountain in the western suburbs of Sapporo, Maruyama Park (Maruyama Koen) comprises 15 acres (6 hectares) of virgin and secondary forest filled with oak, magnolia, maple and Japanese katsura trees. Some 1,700 Hokkaido wild cherry trees also grow within the park, making it a particularly popular destination come springtime.
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Todai-ji (Eastern Great Temple)

Todai-ji (Eastern Great Temple)

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Located in Deer Park (Nara Park) in Nara, about 35 minutes from Osaka by train, Todaiji Temple is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant Buddhist temples. Originally built in the year 752, the temple as it exists today dates back to 1709. The main hall, called Big Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden), is the world’s largest wooden building, even though it’s a third smaller than the original hall from the 700s.

The greatest attraction in the Todaiji Temple complex is the enormous bronze Buddha statue (Japan’s largest) housed with the massive main hall. When the temple was first built, Emperor Shomu planned for Todaiji to serve as the headquarters of Buddhism throughout Japan, and he ordered the casting of the statue as part of that plan. The 50-foot-tall (15-meter-tall) statue required eight castings to complete.

According to local legend, anyone able to squeeze through the hole in the pillar located behind the Big Buddha achieves enlightenment.

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Asahiyama Zoo

Asahiyama Zoo

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Osaka Castle (Osaka-jo)

Osaka Castle (Osaka-jo)

89 Tours and Activities

One of Japan's most famous castles, Osaka Castle played a major role in unifying Japan in the sixteenth century. First built in 1583 by one of Japan’s most fabled warlords, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, succeeded in ending century-long wars and using Osaka Castle as his stronghold. The castle was built on about one square kilometer (less than a mile squared) of land, with two raised platforms supported by sheer walls of cut rock and surrounded by a moat. The central building is five stories outside, and eight stories on the inside. The thirteen structures that make up the castle have be designated as Important Cultural Assets by the Japanese government.

Osaka Castle was nearly destroyed during WWII, when used as one of the largest military armories. A full restoration started in 1995, and by 1997, had been completely restored to it's Edo-era days. The current castle is a concrete reproduction of the original castle, with a modern museum within.

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Itsukushima Shrine (Itsukushima Jinja)

Itsukushima Shrine (Itsukushima Jinja)

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Itsukushima Shrine, a Shinto holy site on Miyajima Island in the Seto Island Sea near Hiroshima, has a history dating back to the sixth century, when the first shrines were likely erected on the island, believed to be the above of gods. The iconic red torii, or shrine gate, that appears to float on the surface of the water just of the shores, guards the UNESCO-listed shrine. At the time the shrine was built, commoners weren’t allowed to step foot on the island due to its holy status, so the gate and temple were constructed in the water to allow visitors to approach by boat.

The entire Itsukushima complex, which in its present form dates back to the twelfth century, comprises several buildings connected by boardwalks, including a prayer hall and a performance stage.

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Iriomote Island

Iriomote Island

3 Tours and Activities
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