With its recently revamped transport network and even-tidier-than-usual cities, Japan is desperate to start welcoming tourists again, so whether you’re a foodie, culture vulture, outdoor junkie, or sports fanatic there’s never been a better time to visit. Here’s our list of the best things to do in the Land of the Rising Sun.
1. Get a sunrise snap of Mt Fuji
There’s a reason Mt Fuji is in all the photos – it’s simply spectacular. Its cratered peak is snow-capped all year round and on a clear day, it’s visible for miles. From Tokyo, you can get a good view from the Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Skytree, but in the morning it’s best seen from the lakes in the surrounding regions. Contiki’s Japan Unrivalled tour includes a stop in Hakone, near Lake Ashinoko – and if you’re lucky enough to be up before the fishing boats, you might be rewarded with an image of the mountain reflected in the still, clear water. No filter required.
2. Explore Tokyo’s districts
Whatever your vibe, you’ll find it somewhere in the mega metropolis that is Tokyo. Fashionistas will love the funk-fusion of Harajuku (so admired by Gwen Stefani), zen seekers will appreciate the famous Senso-Ji Buddhist temple in Asakusa and shopaholics need look no further than the streets of Ginza. If you’re a foodie, why not try a sushi-making class at the new fish market in Toyosu? And for a bit of everything, head to the famous crossing at Shibuya. Snapping a selfie at the world’s busiest intersection is obligatory – but are you brave enough to cross?
3. Get your geek on at Akihabara
Technophiles, assemble! You’ll find plenty awesomeness at the world’s largest electronics bazaar. It’s best at night when the neon signs are all lit up, but head there any time to find all the latest gadgets, software, manga and toys. For total immersion, try the Final Fantasy themed Eorzea café, or simply wander around gawking at all the eye-popping electronics. It’s a pop culture paradise.
4. Have a ‘Super’ time go-karting around a real city
There won’t be any bananas or coins to collect, but you’ll still have to watch where you’re going as you’ll be driving on actual roads in an actual city! These experiences aren’t affiliated with Nintendo, so they won’t actually say Super Mario Kart on them, but you can still pick your kart and helmet and some companies will even rent you a superhero costume. Contiki offers this experience in Osaka and Tokyo, so all you have to worry about is having the correct license, and it’s Ready, Set, Go for the ride of your life! What better way to get the adrenalin going for some karaoke and sake later.
5. Get steamy in an Onsen
When your legs and feet need a rest from all that sightseeing, revive them with a rejuvenating soak in one of Japan’s famous hot springs. These traditional baths – called Onsen – are all over the country and have been part of Japanese culture for thousands of years. Contiki tours offer an Onsen experience in Tokyo, but be warned – you’ll have to put modesty aside, as swimsuits aren’t allowed! Think of it as a bonding experience with your new travel mates.
6. Take time for tea
The tea ceremony, known as The Way of the Tea, is a serious business in Japan, steeped in history, ceremony and tradition. Tea rooms, called chashitsu, are typically made of wood, and guests must remove their shoes and wash their hands before entering and sitting on the traditional tatami mats. Japan’s capital has several famous tea houses, including Happo-En, with its six different floors and famous 500-year-old bonsai tree, and Jidaiya, where you can enjoy your tea in a traditional kimono.
7. ‘Hang around’ an active volcano on the Hakone Ropeway
Mount Hakone last erupted 3,000 years ago, but a 30-minute gondola ride will show you that it is still very much active, with bubbling springs and sulphurous fumes dotting the landscape. Drift over this scene in comfortable safety, then once you’re on the ground treat yourself to a local delicacy – boiled eggs turned black by the sulphur in the water. If you feel the need to stretch your legs there are some great hiking trails around the lake, or if not, take a cruise and enjoy the views of Mt Fuji from the lake.
8. Ride a Japanese bullet train
The Japanese take efficiency to a new level with the Shinkansen, the fastest high-speed train in the world. Originally unveiled for the 1964 Olympics, Shinkansen always depart on time – not a second too late or early – and zoom across the Japanese countryside at a cool 320km per hour. A Shinkasen ride is included in all Contiki’s Japanese tours, so the tricky booking process is taken care of. You’ll be at your next destination in the same amount of time it takes to fly, with considerably less carbon footprint. It’s a win-win for the planet and your bucket list.
9. Pray for world peace at Hiroshima
Nowhere is there a starker reminder of the global reach of World War Two than at Hiroshima. The town that was completely destroyed by the atom bomb in 1945 is now home to the Hiroshima Museum and Peace Park, where the great cenotaph lists the names of almost 300,000 victims – and more are being added each year. As you wander around the park, contemplate the paper cranes at the children’s memorial, pause for a moment at the Flame of Peace, and ring the Peace Bell in hope for the future. It’s a heartbreaking and haunting place.
10. See the gate between the worlds at Mijayima Island
Not far from Hiroshima is Mijayima Island, where the great torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine stands imperiously as if floating on the water. Arrive at high tide for maximum impact, then hike or take the ropeway to the top of nearby Mount Misen for views over the island. There are some architectural marvels to look out for, including magnificent temples and shrines, but watch out for the miniature deer – carelessly placed snacks will be gone before you can say ‘pagoda’!
11. Walk through a thousand gates at Inari Shrine
Along with Buddhism, Shinto is Japan’s main religion, which is founded on the belief in the existence of protecting deities, or guardians, known as kami. This shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, and is famous for its thousands of orange torii gates, creating a bright vermillion tunnel leading up the mountain. Explore the shrine and then follow the trail up to the summit, and be sure to look out for the many fox statues placed around the trail, believed to be the messengers of Inari.
12. Make snow angels in Japan-uary
There may not be cherry blossoms in winter, but there’s plenty of snow – especially in January where there’s fresh snow most days. If powder and pistes are your thing, Contiki’s Winter Wonder tour includes a Ski plus option in Hakuba. Spend your days gliding over the pristine slopes of Japan’s northern alps, then unwind with a dip in the hot springs. If your legs need a rest, how about dangling them from the sky on a mountain glide, where there’s nothing but glistening white as far as the eye can see.
13. See fifty shades of pink during the cherry blossom season
Nothing evokes thoughts of Japan quite like cherry blossoms – called Sakura – which burst into life every spring in a short but brilliant display, dusting the whole country in a coat of delicate pink. Symbolising the impermanence and transience of life, the Japanese observe hanami – or flower viewing – by picnicking under the cherry trees, often staying long into the night when the blooms are illuminated by lights and lanterns. Ueno park in Tokyo is a popular spot, where the blooms last from late March to early April. Just remember to take your rubbish home with you – the Japanese are scrupulous when it comes to tidiness!
14. Fill your feed – and your belly – with a traditional tasting meal
Sampling Japanese street food is a must, but don’t overdo the katsu at lunch time if you’re heading for Kaiseki in the evening. This traditional Japanese tasting meal comprises many small courses, all presented in the simple yet exquisitely beautiful way that only the Japanese seem to manage. You’ll start with appetizers, followed by sashimi, cooked dishes, a rice course and dessert with palate cleansers in between. Have your food filters ready, because you’ll definitely be ‘gramming some gourmet.
15. Find your zen in a Buddhist temple
There’s nothing like a moment of calm to balance the buzz and activity of city sightseeing, and no one does mindfulness better than the Buddhists. The best time to join them is first thing in the morning, when the world is quiet and the only light comes from flickering lanterns. Be carried away by the monks’ chanting and watch as the rising sun reflects off the sumptuous golden decoration. Take a deep breath. Pause. Then go about your day with a new spring in your step.