Everybody wants to visit Japan. Are you ready to experience the thrill of Japan? Click here to find the top Japan experiences.
How many countries in the world can offer geisha dances, go-karting, Studio Ghibli, and ramen from a vending machine all in one crazy little island? Listen—when we say Japan is unlike anywhere else in the world, we mean you have to experience it to appreciate how stunning it truly is.
The trick, of course, is figuring out which Japan experiences are worth the time. After all, how can you pick just one?
No worries—we picked five. Here are our top five Japan experiences that every traveler should experience, whether you’re experiencing the cotton candy crazy of Japanese culture for the first time or you’re a returning visitor with discerning tastes.
1. Soak in an Onsen
Onsen in Japanese simply means hot spring, i.e. a public bath where water has been heated by the earth. But to say an onsen visit is simply a trip to the public bathhouse to wash off is to completely miss the cultural connotations of onsen. These springs are loaded with minerals that are fantastic for the skin, and it’s one of the most popular ways for the Japanese to relax.
There are four types of onsen:
- Jimoto onsen (local onsen)
- Uchiyu (inside onsen)
- Tachiyoriyu (day-use onsen)
- Rotenburo (open-air bath)
Onsen also have a lot of rules and etiquette. Centuries of it, in fact. The biggest unofficial (but regularly enforced) rule at an onsen is that people with tattoos aren’t allowed inside. That’s because tattoos have a different historical context.
Historically, the only people in Japan who had tattoos were Yakuza members (Japanese organized crime). Yakuza hid their tattoos in public to blend in, and shedding clothes at an onsen would give up the game to everyday people (and more importantly, the cops). By banning anyone with tattoos, onsen owners were thus banning the Yakuza—a reasonable ban for bathers disinclined to have their me-time interrupted by an arrest warrant.
And while you’re probably not secretly a member of the Japanese mob, you should still cover your ink. If you have a small or medium-sized tattoo, you can cover it with a sticker. If your tattoo is too big for that, you’ll have to stick to the tattoo-friendly onsen.
2. Stay in a Ryokan
Sure, you could stay at a ritzy Tokyo hotel, but let’s be honest—a stay at a Japanese ryokan has to be on your bucket list.
Ryokans are traditional Japanese-style inns found throughout the country, particularly hot springs resorts. That said, simply calling them inns is a misnomer—they’re more like a concentrated shot of traditional Japanese culture, complete with tatami mats, sliding doors, and onsen. Yup, a two-for-one cultural experience. You’re welcome.
These inns are typically found outside of urban centers, but they cater to every budget and are completely worth a trip on the bullet train (a cultural experience in itself). Those on a shoestring budget can partake of the ryokan experience at a lovely minshuku, while those with rich tastes can opt for luxurious ryokans with private onsen and views of stunning Japanese gardens.
Regardless of what you pay, the highlight of the ryokan experience is the epic multi-course meals. Breakfast and lunch are included in your stay and served in your room. If you have dietary restrictions, let the ryokan know in advance—they can often cater to various dietary restrictions, but you don’t get a choice of dishes at your meals.
Trust us, after a night (or three) in a ryokan, you’ll be in the perfect mood for a day of Tokyo sightseeing.
3. Go to a Hanami
Japanese culture gets a lot of foreign attention for the noisy and flashy sides of its culture—you know, things like Japanese cute culture or geishas or teenagers saving the world from giant robots a la Neon Genesis Evangelion. But Japanese culture is also replete with exquisite silences and appreciation for the world’s small but precious beauties.
Hanami, the annual ritual of viewing cherry blossoms, is one such case.
Cherry blossoms, or sakura, hold a special place in Japanese culture, symbolizing springtime, renewal, and the beautiful ephemerality of life. Each year, Japanese families go to hanami, literally “watching blossoms”, as Japanese families have for thousands of years. It’s a lot like a picnic—you eat, drink, barbecue, and spend quality time with loved ones under beautiful sakura trees.
If you get a chance to visit Japan in the springtime, hanami is a non-negotiable part of your trip. The Japan National Tourism Organization has a regularly updated timetable of cherry blossom predictions online (the blossoms have a short life, peaking in beauty around the two-week mark before they start to die). You can go anywhere, but if you have a choice, check out the best spots for cherry blossom viewing.
4. Dig Into Japanese Cuisine
Okay, it’s not really fair to lump Japanese cuisine under a single category, but how can we pick just one? Japan’s unique cultural heritage, national food obsession, and cult-like obsession with perfect produce (trust us, that’s not hyperbole) mean that Japan offers some of the best food you’ll find in the world.
The best way to approach it is by crafting a Japanese cuisine bucket list. Our favorites include:
- Sushi (trust us: so much better than California roll)
- Kobe beef (you have not known bliss until you’ve had this melt-in-your-mouth beef)
- Soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles with dipping sauce, a.k.a. joy in a bowl)
- Yakitori (a place to enjoy literally every part of the chicken)
- Kaiseki (exquisitely plated multi-course meals in Kyoto)
- Ramen (the original Japanese comfort food)
- Sake (rice wine that tastes different in every region)
We really wouldn’t blame you for dedicating your whole trip to Japan to the joys of Japanese cuisine. You’ll spend the entire trip as one very happy tourist.
5. Sit in on a Tea Ceremony
At the cross-section of Japanese cuisine and Japanese tradition is the world-famous Japanese tea ceremony, or chado. It’s the traditional (and frankly the best) way to enjoy matcha.
If you’re picturing English high tea or a casual cuppa in front of your fireplace, both are worlds away from a traditional tea ceremony. A true chado is a complete choreographic ritual of preparing and serving matcha, always ceremonially performed in the same way. This way, participants can focus on the mental states achieved during the ceremony (oh, and some crazy good matcha with traditional sweets to balance the bitterness).
Regardless of whether you’re looking for a meditative exercise or a killer cup of tea, the best spot to experience a tea ceremony is Kyoto.
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Oh, and if you need more inspiration to plan your trip, make sure to check out our other great posts, like our guide to Tokyo’s famous Harajuku station.