32 Best Things to Do in Japan for First-Time Travellers

32 Things to See and Do in Japan for First-Time Travellers

Fall in love at first sight with Japan’s ancient shrines, storybook landscapes, culinary delights and quirky cafes.

With Japan opening its doors to foreign tourists, it’s the perfect time to tick the country off your bucket list. A fascinating mix of ancient traditions, avant-garde, natural attractions, and all things weird, wacky, and wonderful. If it’s your first visit to the Land of the Rising Sun, the sheer variety of sights can be a bit overwhelming (in the best way possible). Here are 32 things to do in Japan for an unforgettable first-time experience.

Also read: 16 Unique Things to Do in Japan for an Unforgettable Trip

1. Sample authentic sushi

Image credit: Michael Wu

Sure, you can eat sushi virtually anywhere in the world. But trust us when we say there is nothing like tasting the most famous Japanese dish in its homeland. Mouthwatering sushi is everywhere here, whether you prefer high-end sushi restaurants or low-key joints. There are even places where diners are served a steady stream of sushi on a conveyor belt straight from the kitchen! Called kaitenzushi restaurants, these establishments are an affordable option for anyone who can’t get enough sushi.

Foodies who want the freshest catch can head to the fish markets first thing in the morning and relish delicious sushi for breakfast. Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market and Toyosu Fish Market are two tourist favourites in the busy capital.

Also read: Did You Know That the Japanese Normally Eat Sushi With Their Hands? 

2. See cherry blossoms in full bloom

Image credit: Simon Ma

Travellers from all over the world flock to Japan just to see cherry blossoms in bloom during springtime between March and May. The tradition of watching cherry blossoms is so beloved in Japan that there’s even a word for the activity: hanami. Traditionally, the Japanese celebrate hanami with a picnic under the shade of the pretty sakura trees. Remember that spring is peak season in Japan, so book your hotels and cherry blossom tours as early as possible.


Also read: Cherry Blossoms in Japan 2022: When & Where to See Them

3. Bask in the scenery of Mt. Fuji

Image credit: Denis Doukhan

You can’t visit Japan and not get a glimpse of the snow-capped Mt. Fuji, famous for being the highest peak in the country and a sacred site among locals for many centuries. Nowadays, travellers can enjoy the sight of this beautifully conical volcano in several different ways. Some of the popular spots for views of Fujisan are the Fuji Five Lakes region, Miho Beach in Shizuoka, and Mt. Takao in Tokyo.

 The views are typically best during early mornings and late afternoons, and usually better in wintertime than in other seasons. If you’re planning to climb the famous peak, plan a trip between July and September as it is closed to hikers the rest of the year.

4. Get lost in the magic of Studio Ghibli

Image credit Alex Rerh

Netflix introduced a new generation of film lovers to the whimsical world of Studio Ghibli, which includes hits like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. If you’re a fan, spend a few hours exploring the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. The museum complex feels like a Ghibli set that has come to life, with quirky architecture, plenty of colour, and replicas of beloved characters throughout the park. Travellers are advised to purchase tickets ahead of time for a cheaper deal.

5. Snap an iconic photo of Shibuya Crossing

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The chaos of Shibuya Scramble Crossing is so all-encompassing that it’s actually a tourist spot in its own right! Said to be the busiest intersection in the world, it’s a dazzling place for photographers to capture the vibrance and frenetic energy of urban Tokyo. The scramble intersection is an action-packed destination with modern buildings, flashy billboards, massive mounted screens, and as many as 3,000 people crossing the road at a time.

Located just outside the Shibuya Station, notable spots around Shibuya Crossing include the famous Hachiko Statue and a huge Starbucks Coffee overlooking the intersection.

Also read: Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, and More: 8 Coolest Things to Do in Shibuya, Tokyo

6. Embrace kawaii culture at Harajuku

Image credit: Laurentiu Morariu

Near Shibuya is the famously stylish district of Harajuku, the home of kawaii and all things cute and fashionable. Head to Takeshita Street if you’re hunting for kawaii fashion, cosplay costumes, and other trendy shops that appeal to youthful spirits. Harajuku is also home to the Meiji Shrine, one of the most famous shrines in the country.

7. Catch a sumo match

Image credit: Alessio Roversi

An ancient sport known as Japan’s national sport, sumo was originally a Shinto religious ritual locals performed for a good harvest. Eventually, the dance evolved into a competitive sport, although many ancient sumo traditions are still practised today (like purifying the ring with salt). It’s surprisingly majestic to behold!  

The best place to watch sumo wrestling in Japan is the Ryogoku district in Tokyo, home to many sumo stables that visitors can explore. If tournament season is ongoing, catch a match in the Ryogoku Kokugikan Stadium, where there’s also a Sumo Museum for anyone who wants to learn more about the sport.

8. Enjoy a soothing soak in an onsen

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There are more than 2,000 hot spring spots in Japan, so make the most of it with a relaxing soak in an onsen (hot spring). Be prepared to strip down to your birthday suit as the experience is traditionally enjoyed completely naked — don’t worry, most onsen and ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) have areas separated by gender. Your first time can be intimidating, but it’s definitely worth a try, especially during winter when a hot soak is extremely welcome. Visit Hakone for an authentic onsen experience in a variety of luxury and affordable ryokan.

Keep in mind that individuals with tattoos are banned from many onsen and public baths in the country. If they’re small and strategically placed, covering tattoos is recommended.


9. Get in some monkey business at Jigokudani Monkey Park

Image credit: Andrew Tan

Enjoy close encounters with hundreds of snow monkeys at the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano. These wild creatures are unafraid of humans, roaming the park without minding all the travellers marvelling and snapping photos every few feet. Touching and feeding them are not allowed, though! 

The park offers one of the most unique experiences in Japan: watching the snow monkeys bathing in the natural hot springs. Although the monkeys enjoy these warm baths all year round, wintertime is a particularly picturesque time to visit.

10. Frolic in flower fields

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Somehow, the natural attractions of Japan are still underrated, especially the stunning flower fields coming to life in the springtime. For nature lovers, one of the best things to do in Japan is visiting the different parks when the flowers are in full bloom. There are many flower fields in Japan, but here are a couple of standouts: Hitachi Seaside Park, Fuji Five Lakes, and Hamamatsu Flower Park.

11. Hoard essentials and souvenirs at 100-yen shops

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No country does discount stores better than Japan. Known as 100-yen shops (hyakkin or hyaku-en shops), stores like Daiso typically sell everything for ¥100. These are excellent options for anyone on a budget with store products running the gamut from kitchenware to sporting goods. Plus, 100-yen shops tend to be very accessible, with thousands scattered all over the country.

Also read: Top 30 Tokyo Souvenirs & Where to Get Them on Your Next Trip

12. Travel on a bullet train

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High-speed bullet trains or shinkansen are an exceptional mode of transportation in Japan, running at a maximum operating speed of 320 km/h. It truly feels like a futuristic way to travel! The shinkansen network is expansive, but the oldest and most popular line is the Tokaido Shinkansen, with its route taking travellers to Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka. Although trips on the shinkansen can be pricey, you’ll be happy to know that the Japan Rail Pass can be used in most bullet trains.

13. Discover otaku culture at Akihabara

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Dive into the colourful world of otaku, a term referring to people with a deep love for anime, manga, video games, and the like. Akihabara is home to the otaku culture with a lot of shops selling comic books, figurines, games, and other collectables. Even if you’re not familiar with manga and anime, the district is a superb place to soak in a new culture. It’s also a well-known spot for electronics, with hundreds of electronic stores lining Chuo Dori Street.

When it’s time for a bite to eat or a cup of coffee, try one of the many maid cafes and manga cafes in Akihabara. 

14. Visit quirky cafes in the city

The strange and surreal side of Japan never ends — even the country’s cafe culture offers so much more than a place to sit and a good brew! Maid cafes have become famous (and quite controversial), but there are many more: animal cafes, butler cafes, and a range of other themed cafes from vampires and ghosts to robots and ninjas. There are even cuddle cafes, where patrons can cuddle and sleep with someone. 

Also read: 8 Unique Cafes In Tokyo and Where to Find Them 

15. Find your calm in an enchanting bamboo forest

Image credit: Atsushi Tsubokura

While in Kyoto, soak up the serene atmosphere of Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Take a rejuvenating stroll through the canopy of bamboo trees and enjoy a rare moment of quiet in the busy tourist route of Japan. Just keep in mind that the forest attracts plenty of tourists on a daily basis. To avoid the worst of the crowds and make the most of this picturesque slice of nature, visit early in the morning when many travellers are still asleep in their hotels.

The Arashiyama district is home to other tourist spots, many of them strategically located around the Togetsukyo Bridge. Highlights include Tenryu-ji Temple and its lush garden, Nison-in Temple, Kameyama-koen Park, Gio-ji Temple, and more.


16. Make your Hogwarts dreams come true at Universal Studios Japan

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Potterheads, unite! Step into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Osaka, where the magic has been painstakingly brought to life. From the imposing Hogwarts castle to the famous Hogsmeade butterbeer, the extraordinary park will recreate the wonder of reading the books or watching the movies for the very first time. Bring extra cash to buy your own wand from Ollivanders — it will almost make up for the fact that you never received a Hogwarts letter from an owl as an 11-year-old!

Also read: New Harry Potter Museum Set to Open in Tokyo by 2023

17. Go izakaya hopping

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After a whirlwind day of sightseeing, wind down with a drink or two — or many. Izakayas are casual Japanese pubs, the perfect place to enjoy a meal, drinks, and the local culture at the same time. Food comes in a wide variety, often in small portions ordered over hours of drinking, similar to Spanish tapas.  

You’ll find izakaya establishments all over Japan. In Tokyo, Omoide Yokocho and the infamously named Piss Alley is home to really good izakaya-style bars. It used to be known for so many diners frequently urinating in the alley but nowadays, it’s as tourist-friendly as possible. As one of the best nightlife areas in the country, Osaka is also an excellent place for izakaya hopping, especially along Hozenji Yokocho Alley.

Also read: 8 Must-Visit Izakayas in Tokyo

18. Join a Japanese cooking class

Image credit: Luigi Pozzoli

It’s impossible not to get addicted to Japan’s incredible cuisine, so why not learn how to whip up your new favourite dishes while you’re there? Not only do classes teach you the authentic way to make Japanese food, but taking classes will also deepen your appreciation of the culture.

Sushi-making classes in Tokyo will sometimes include a stop at the iconic Tsukiji Outer Market. There are also ramen cooking classes for those who prefer a warm bowl of tasty noodles.

Also read: Popular Cooking Classes in Japan for Tourists 

19. Learn about legendary ninja

Image credit: John Gillespie

While there are no longer samurai warriors today, there are still ninjas around. No, I’m not telling you to be one — but you can find out more about these fascinating warriors at the Ninja Museum of Igaryu, where there are weapons and objects on display dating back to the time of the Iga Clan. Jinichi Kawakami is the honorary director of the museum and is often called “the last ninja” in existence. If you’re interested in ninjutsu, you may also want to visit the 300-year-old Koka Ninja Mansion that’s filled with booby traps and escape tunnels.

20. Watch an exciting kabuki performance

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Live music, dance, and talented all-male casts in elaborate make-up come together in a grand spectacle in kabuki theatres in Japan. An ancient art form depicting legends and historical events, it’s a dramatic and energetic show that’s probably the most fun type of theatre performance to watch in Japan. While the old Japanese language used in these performances is obscure (even for locals), you can pay for translations into your language of choice.

Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza, Tokyo is the most famous kabuki centre in the country, but there are well-known theatres in Osaka and Kyoto, too. 

21. Rent a kimono

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Kimono is the national dress of Japan, and although not widely used outside of special occasions, it’s still very much a part of the country’s character. Even international travellers can get in on the fun, rent a beautiful kimono, and be a part of the scenery for a day. Most kimono experience tours involve photoshoots in tourist spots — a great way to spice up vacation photos, don’t you think?

22. Challenge yourself with ice diving in Hokkaido

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For advanced divers, ice diving is an opportunity to take the sport to another level, and Japan is one of the best places in the world to try it. Most ice divers head to Shiretoko Peninsula on Hokkaido, where they are treated to awesome landscapes and sightings of wildlife like spotted seals. After a freezing dive, tourists can warm up in an onsen — honestly, the most pleasurable way to recover! Diving season in Hokkaido is from January to March.

Skiing is also exceptional on the island, with renowned ski resorts like Niseko Resort and Rusutsu Resort.


Also reading: 6 Winter Experiences in Hokkaido You Won’t Find Anywhere Else

23. Pay tribute to the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

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Hiroshima marks the site of the first city bombed by a nuclear weapon, an unimaginable tragedy in 1945 that killed about 80,000 (and tens of thousands more later), most of whom were civilians. It’s one of the darkest events in world history. Now, travellers can pay tribute to the victims at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, a beautiful and heartbreaking park with a museum showcasing photos and stories of the people who lost their lives.

A second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki just a few days after the Hiroshima bombing, killing an estimated 40,000 instantly with more casualties after. If you’re travelling in Nagasaki, visit the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum instead.

24. Roam Nara’s cultural sites with friendly deer

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An ancient city that used to be the capital of Japan, Nara is a historical wonder that’s home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Even so, the star of the show here is the thousand-or-so deer roaming the beautiful temples and parks in the city. Well accustomed to people, these deer are shockingly tame — they’ve even learned to bow in hopes of coaxing a few crackers from you!

Nara Park is the top attraction in the city, especially if you’re eager for deer interactions, but make sure you stop by a few of the Nara temples as well, especially the imposing Todaiji Temple.

Also read: Top Things to Do in Nara that Includes Feeding Deer!

25. Indulge in a Japanese tea ceremony

Image credit: Mirko Stödter

I’m more of a coffee lover than tea, but even I can’t resist the charms of a ritualistic tea ceremony in Japan. Serious and rather theatrical, it’s a tradition steeped in history that involves preparing, serving, and enjoying green tea. Uji is famous for its delicious green tea, which travellers can sample in an authentic tea ceremony at Taihoan. Many teahouses in Kyoto and other major cities also offer tea ceremonies for tourists.

26. Sample yummy snacks from vending machines

Image credit: Crystal Chen

If vending machines are the last resort in many places in the world, it’s a legit meal option in Japan! There is a wide range of crazy things you can get from vending machines in the country, from coffee and alcoholic drinks to ramen and vegetables. It’s ideal for a quick bite en route to your next sightseeing destination. Some even have toys, umbrellas, and accessories instead of drinks or food! 

Also read: 18 Cool & Unique Japanese Vending Machines That Will Blow Your Mind 

27. Splurge on a Michelin-starred restaurant

If you have a little extra cash, treat yourself to a first-class meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant. As one of the great culinary destinations in the world, Japan boasts quite a few dining establishments recognised with a Michelin star, mostly located in the major cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Traveller tip: come in for lunch, when dishes tend to be slightly more affordable than dinner plates.

28. Explore Osaka’s thriving food scene

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The entire country is acclaimed for its love of food but Osaka is especially known for its abundance of tasty delicacies — it’s not dubbed the “Nation’s Kitchen” for nothing! Hungry tourists flock to the famous Dotonbori, known as much for its food culture as it is for the bright, snazzy lights and billboards lighting up the district. A few must-try fares in Osaka: takoyaki (grilled octopus balls), okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes), and fugu (pufferfish).


29. Feel like royalty in Japanese castles    

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Castles are as beautiful in Japan as they are in European countries, with their rich history, unique architecture, and lush gardens. There are still numerous castles left standing across the country, but two of the most famous ones are the historically significant Osaka Castle and the hilltop Himeji Castle. Some castles are also prime spots for cherry blossom viewing, including the one in Osaka, Hirosaki Castle, and Nagoya Castle.

Also read: 16 Magnificent Castles on Airbnb and Vrbo That Will Make You Feel Like Royalty

30. Embrace the sacred in Shinto shrines

Image credit: Alexander Schimmeck

The Shinto religion originated in Japan, so exploring Shinto shrines is one of the best things to do in Japan to get to know its spiritual and cultural character. The 2,000-year-old Ise Grand Shrine, which is a network of a whopping 125 shrines, is one of the most sacred sites in Japan, while the Itsukushima Shrine gained renown for its floating torii gate that has become one of the most recognisable images in the country.

At the entrance of every shrine are the iconic red torii gates, symbolising the line separating the regular world from the sacred world. They may be “just” gates, but they can be just as magnificent to travellers as the shrine behind them. For instance, the 5,000 torii gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine will take your breath away. 

31. Travel to Buddhist temples

Image credit: Gregory Stevens

While the Shinto religion has shrines, Buddhists have their equally stunning temples. Exploring Buddhist temples is a staple on any Japan tour, and you’ll even see monks who live and roam the larger temples. It can be difficult to pick from the many beautiful temples found around the country, so here are a few of the must-see ones: Kinkakuji Temple or Golden Pavilion (Kyoto), Shitenoji Temple (Osaka), and Sensoji Temple (Tokyo). 

Some temples even allow travellers to stay overnight for the full experience. Shukubo (temple stays) is your chance to learn about daily life in these Buddhist temples, with activities like meditation and partaking in vegetarian food. There are a number of shukubo in Japan, but the most popular destination for temple stays is Koyasan (Mount Koya). Shukubo Koyasan Ekoin is one of the top temple stays in the area. 


32. Experience geisha culture in Kyoto

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The novel Memories of a Geisha (and the subsequent movie adaptation) popularised geisha or geiko culture all over the world, but it’s another thing to experience it in real life. Geisha are basically professional entertainers, trained to excel in traditional Japanese arts and culture like music and dance. 

Not everyone knows that the geisha culture has persisted in modern times, especially in Kyoto where five geiko districts are still around. Each district puts together a dance show annually, giving travellers the rare opportunity to see geishas in their element. Dining with geisha used to be exclusive and very expensive, but it’s been more open to travellers in recent years.

Also read: 10 Best Airbnb Homes & Vacation Rentals in Japan for the Trip of a Lifetime

These fun activities are just a fraction of the many incredible things to do in Japan — so after your first visit, don’t be surprised if you’re ready to start planning your next one!

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About Author

Celia Grace Nachura
Celia Grace Nachura

There are very few things Celia won’t do for a good story, but her favourite ones always involve the beach, animals, or any type of outdoor activity. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember, and can usually be found typing away at home with her cute dogs at her feet. Away from work, she spends most of her time trying out every hobby she can get her hands on, from running to crocheting to baking (she’s pretty okay at most things that don't involve cooking).