If you've been setting your sights on Japan then look no further than our ultimate guide to the ancient country. Using over 20 years of Asia and adventure travel experience, we have put together this comprehensive tool to help you plan your adventure to some of Japan's most intriguing destinations!
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For nearly 220 years, during a period known as Sakoku, Japan turned its vision inward, effectively cutting ties with the rest of the world. During this isolation, Japanese culture blossomed and a unique cultural identity flourished that is still evident today in artforms such as haiku poetry, kabuki drama, wood-block prints, the tea ceremony, landscape gardening, and bonsai trees. Japan began to open up its ports and, on March 31, 1854, signed the Treaty of Kanagawa (Japan-US Treaty of Peace and Amity). This led to establishing diplomatic relations with other western powers and the modernization of Japan.
Today, Japan is a beguiling juxtaposition of modern and ancient, cutting-edge and old-fashioned—where chic fashionistas can be found alongside kimono-clad geishas and hundred-year-old temples stand in the shadow of glittering high-rises. Here, you are spoiled for choice, with opportunities to enjoy world-class cuisine, soak in a natural hot spring, chant with monks, hike mountain trails, stroll peaceful garden paths, search for wildlife, walk the neon-lit streets of futuristic cities, and shop until you drop—Japan has the power to enthrall and delight even the most experienced travelers.
Japan is on the bucket list of travelers world wide and for good reason. From its stunning natural landscapes, bustling city sights, and it's ancient cultural traditions, there's no shortage of things to do and places to see there. As with any new country you visit there are details you should plan out before you decide to take the leap and buy that plane ticket.
In the following sections you’ll find helpful information to start planning your trip—from when to go to how to get around, cuisine you have to try, helpful phrases, etiquette and much more!
Japan is a year-round destination, though generally, spring and fall are the best times to visit. Days are sunny and temperatures are mild during March and April and October and November. Summers can be very hot and humid in most of Japan, while winter is cold with heavy snowfall in the Japanese Alps and Hokkaido.
Spring is from March to May. Temperatures are warm but not too hot, plus there isn’t too much rain. The famous cherry blossoms are out during this time, and there are plenty of festivals to enjoy.
Note: “Golden Week” falls in the springtime and is made up of four national holidays which fall into a seven-day span. This means many Japanese people will also be traveling around the country and accommodations and tours are often booked far in advance.
Summer runs from June through August, and the country experiences a three to four-week rainy season, usually from mid-June to mid-July. It is hot and humid during this time ,and temperatures are often in the high 80s°F. Summertime highlights include Mt Fuji, which opens for climbing in July, and beach holidays in Okinawa.
Autumn is from September to November and is characterized by light breezes and cooler temperatures of around 45 - 50°F. October is the best month to observe the colorful autumn foliage. It’s during this time that many exhibitions, music concerts, and sports tournaments are held in Japan.
Winter, from December to February, is quite dry and sunny along the Pacific coast, and the temperatures rarely drop below freezing. The temperatures drop as you move north, with the Central and Northern regions experiencing heavy snowfall. This is a wonderful time to plan a ski vacation, or appreciate the magical landscapes from an outdoor onsen (hot spring). Southern Japan is relatively temperate and experiences a mild winter.
Japan has a huge variety of accommodation options; some that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Most people choose to stay at hotels, but you should be aware there are other options to consider.
$ - $50 or less
$$ - $50 - $100
$$$ - $150 - $300
$$$$ - $300+
Western Style Hotel $$ - $$$$
Western style hotels, with all the amenities you would expect, can be found across Japan, especially in the larger cities. You can find everything from basic to five-star luxury.
Business Hotel $ - $$$
Rooms are small but clean, usually have WiFi, and as they are aimed at professionals who might have missed the last train home, come equipped with everything you might need: towels, soap, shampoo, toothbrush, comb, and robe. They always have a private bathroom, desk, fridge, and kettle. Some business hotels may have laundry facilities, free breakfast, and even an onsen bath. Business hotels don’t have charm or character and the staff may not speak much English, but they are a good budget option for a few nights.
Ryokan $ - $$$$
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. You’ll sleep in a tatami mat room on a futon—a stack of thin mattresses that are stored during the day. Usually the only furniture is a low table with cushions. The most traditional inns are made from wood with sliding paper doors and offer views of elegant gardens. Modern ryokans are more affordable and look like a normal hotel from the outside, but with tatami mat rooms. Modern ryokans are more likely to have en suite bathrooms, air conditioning, and other modern conveniences.
Many traditional ryokan rooms don’t have private bathrooms, and even if they do, communal bathing is part of the experience, especially in towns famous for its onsens. Typically, there are separate male and female bathrooms, sometimes with set bathing times. If you’re not comfortable with communal bathing, look for ryokans that allow you to reserve a time slot for a private bath. Some of the more expensive ryokans have private baths in the rooms.
Dinner and breakfast are usually provided, and this is part of the reason the room price is high. In your room or a public dining area you’ll be served a traditional, multi-course Japanese feast.
Minshuku $ - $$
A minshuku is a more basic, family-run version of a ryokan, like a Japanese-style bed and breakfast. They are smaller with a homely atmosphere, and offer a great opportunity to meet local families and experience traditional Japanese life. Minshuku tend to be small with just a few guest rooms. In-room amenities tend to be basic and may include a television, small table, heater, tea set, and towels. Most have shared bathroom facilities. Some older minshuku may not have locks on room doors. Dinner and breakfast, when included, are usually served in a common dining room.
Pensions $ - $$$
Pensions are comparable to minshuku (see above), except that they offer Western-style rooms rather than Japanese-style rooms. They are typically found in mountainous resort towns and in the countryside.
Temple $$ - $$$
For a truly unique experience, you can stay in a Japanese Buddhist temple. The room style is similar to a ryokan—you’ll sleep on futons in tatami mat rooms, share communal baths, and eat multi-course feasts for dinner and breakfast. The difference is you’ll be served shojin ryori vegan meals, and you’ll be encouraged to participate in the early morning chanting and meditation ceremony with the monks. You can find temple lodgings in Kyoto temples and in Koya-san, a pretty temple village up in the mountains a few hours outside of Osaka.
Hostel $ - $$
The most affordable option for budget travelers, hostels usually feature shared bathroom facilities, dormitory-style bedrooms, and shared common areas. This is a great option to meet and interact with fellow travelers. Rooms are often gender segregated; however, some hostels do offer private rooms, some with en suite facilities.
Apartments $$ - $$$$
Vacation rental services are becoming more popular and prevalent in Japan. Options vary from apartments and rooms with traditional or modern interior, as well as restored historic houses. In addition to Airbnb, there are several other companies offer platforms for private home rentals in Japan.
Capsule Hotels $
Mainly targeting a male clientele in need of nothing but a bed, capsule hotels accommodate guests in small capsules. A television, a shared bathroom, and coin lockers are usually provided.
Japan has an efficient public transportation network, especially within metropolitan areas and between the large cities. Japanese public transportation is characterized by its punctuality, superb service, and the large numbers of people using it.
Most visitors arrive in Japan by airplane, landing in one of four international airports—Narita or Haneda in Tokyo, Central Japan in Nagoya, and Kansai in Osaka. Over 50 domestic airports connect all of Japan’s islands, and offer a fast and efficient way to cover great distances quickly. Thanks to the deregulation of Japan’s airline industry and increasing competition from discount airlines, domestic airfares have dropped dramatically in recent years, and flying can sometimes be a cheaper alternative to the shinkansen (bullet train) on some routes. Discount air passes are available for exclusive use by foreign tourists, which enable pass holders to use domestic flights at a fixed cost of slightly above 10,000 yen (around $90) per flight.
Japan’s four major islands—Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku—are covered by an extensive and reliable network of railways. Trains are a very convenient way for visitors to travel around Japan, especially in conjunction with the Japan Rail Pass (several options are available). About 70 percent of Japan’s railway network is owned and operated by the Japan Railways (JR), while the remaining 30 percent belongs to dozens of other private railway companies, especially in and around metropolitan areas. Japan’s high-speed trains (bullet trains) are called shinkansen and are operated by Japan Railways.
Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Sendai, Sapporo, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and Fukuoka have city subway networks, linked to other rail systems including the JR Yamanote Line in Tokyo, the JR Loop Line in Osaka ,and JR Shinkansen lines. Most subway systems in Japan start at around 5am and the last trains depart at around midnight. Services are less frequent on weekends and public holidays. Subway announcements are generally in Japanese, but English announcements are not uncommon. The next station is often displayed on electronic boards in the carriages in both Japanese and English. Some subway lines have women-only carriages running in the rush hour period—look out for the pink sign on the platform.
Unless you’re only in the country for a day or two, you’ll really benefit from grabbing a stored value card. You can buy a PASMO card from a machine or the station office and then reload it when you need to. You may also purchase online one, two, or three day passes; these offer unlimited use on the Tokyo subway system. Please observe the rules of no food or drink, no loud conversations, no bags or feet on the seats, and make as much room for others as possible.
In Tokyo, Osaka, and some other large cities, buses serve as a secondary means of public transportation, complementing the train and subway networks. In cities with less dense train networks like Kyoto, buses are the main means of public transportation. Buses also serve smaller towns, the countryside, and national parks. Using buses in Japan can be intimidating to foreign tourists (and even Japanese people), because there are different ticketing systems depending on the company, and recognizing the stop where you need to get off can be challenging. While some bus companies do a good job at providing English signage, timetables, and announcements, many buses lack any English information, altogether.
Consisting of several thousand islands, Japan is naturally home to an extensive network of ferry routes. Japan’s four main islands (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku) are connected by bridges and tunnels, but many smaller islands can only be reached by ship.
Renting a car is an option worth considering if you plan to explore rural Japan where public transportation can be both inconvenient and infrequent. A rental car can also be an economical alternative when traveling in groups, or can make traveling with a lot of luggage easier. On the other hand, a car is usually unnecessary or even burdensome for exploring Japan’s big cities, where it is not recommended. Traffic in large cities tends to be heavy, orientation difficult, and parking inconvenient and expensive. Public transportation is generally a better choice when exploring metropolitan areas.
In Japan’s large cities, taxis are an expensive and unnecessary alternative to the efficient public transportation system. However, taxis are often the only way of getting around once trains and buses stop operating around midnight; this results in a sudden increase in their demand, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when long lines and waiting times at taxi stands at train stations are not uncommon. In smaller cities, the countryside, and in Kyoto, public transportation tends to be less convenient, thus taking a taxi from the nearest train station to your destination can be a good alternative. If you travel in groups of three or more people, taxis can also be an economical option if you are traveling a short distance.
When you board a taxi, note that the vehicle’s left rear door is opened and closed remotely by the driver. You are not supposed to open or close the door yourself, except when using a different door. If you do not speak Japanese or if your destination is not well-known, it is recommended to give your driver the address of your destination on a piece of paper or, point it out on a map, since the Japanese address system can be confusing even to local taxi drivers.
Many taxis accept payment by credit card. Stickers on the door often indicate accepted payment methods. When paying in cash, try to avoid paying small amounts with large bills. Tipping is not necessary in Japan.
Bicycles are widely used in Japan by people of all age groups and social standings. Visitors will find rental bicycles available in many tourist destinations as an alternative means of getting around. They can be an inexpensive and convenient way to explore relatively compact cities or towns, where distances between attractions are slightly too far to cover on foot. Rental shops can usually be found at train stations.
In Japan, the currency is yen ( ¥ ). The current exchange rate (July 2018) is as follows:
Tip: We recommend downloading a converter app on your phone to see the exact exchange rate for your selected currency at the time of your trip. Or, jot down the conversion rate in increments of $1, $10, $50, $100, etc. in your notebook or a slip of paper that you can keep in your wallet.
An ATM is an easy and convenient way to withdraw local currency. They can be found at airports, in train stations, and convenience stores in most big Japanese cities. You will typically get the best exchange rate possible at an ATM. Make sure to stock up on cash before heading to a rural town, where ATMs are not as prevalent.
If you don’t have an ATM card, or you prefer to have money in-hand when you arrive, you may order yen from your home bank before you leave. (Do this at least two weeks before your departure date).
Major credit cards will typically be accepted at big hotel chains, nice restaurants, or shops in large cities, but you’ll want to have cash on hand to use in small restaurants, markets, or in more rural towns. There are still many places where credit cards are not accepted, so it is a good idea not to rely on your plastic alone.
Be sure to alert your bank that you will be traveling, so they know your transactions aren’t fraud. Also, it’s a good idea to carry more than one card in case you have an issue with one of them. Make sure you carry them in two different locations—for example, one in your wallet and another in your backpack—so if one gets lost or stolen, you still have access to the other.
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world with a very low crime rate. In case of a dangerous situation, you can call 110, Japan’s emergency number, or look for a police box, often located on every other street corner.
No vaccinations are required to enter the country, the tap water is safe to drink, and foods are prepared hygienically all over the country. Japanese hospitals are well equipped and you can expect a high standard of treatment if you should require it. We recommend purchasing travel insurance for peace of mind, as medical costs can be expensive.
When bringing your cell phone, it is not necessary to get a SIM card for your travels in Japan. WiFi is common, and you’ll find it in most hotels or hostels, as well as in coffee shops and restaurants around the country. While in WiFi, you can easily talk with friends and family back at home through apps like Skype and Facebook Messenger, and you can connect with locals using WhatsApp. If you do want to get cell service with a data plan so you always have Internet access, it is possible to buy a Japanese SIM card, but make sure your phone is unlocked and has the capability to accept a foreign SIM—many do not.
While no one expects you to speak the language fluently, making an effort to communicate in Japanese is always appreciated and can even be fun!
Thank you: Arigato
Thank you very much: Domo Arigato
Beer, please: Biru kudasai
How much? Ikura
With all the contrasts of this complex culture, what should you see and do on your trip to Japan? Here are a few places we recommend for first-time travelers.
Meiji Shrine (Tokyo) - Located in the Shibuya neighborhood, the Meiji Shrine honors the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji (Japan’s 122nd emperor, who opened Japan to the west after a long isolation) and Empress Shoken. Formally dedicated in 1920, the original Shinto shrine buildings were burned during the war, then rebuilt in 1958. The shrine complex is composed of two parts: Naien, which houses a treasure museum of articles from the Emperor and Empress, and Gaien, which includes a gallery and sports facilities. The entrance’s torii gate is made from 1,500-year-old cypress, and the area is planted with over 100,000 trees. Learn more about the Emperor and Empress before you go; they were well-known for their progressive views, as well as their life-long dedication to writing Waka poetry.
The Samurai Museum - Located in Shinjuku, the Samurai Museum showcases over 700 years of samurai history. Permanent exhibits include clothing and weapons, all in a small but beautiful space. Visitors can explore the museum on their own; the museum is laid out in chronological order, with captions in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean. There are also guided tours available approximately every 20 minutes. Visitors can try on samurai clothing (battle coats, helmets, and kimono) and take photos while wielding a sword. There are also live performances every day, samurai calligraphy lessons, and a sword lecture.
The Ghibili Museum - Studio Ghibli is a world-renowned, groundbreaking animation studio with many beloved films, including Spirited Away (which won the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2003), My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle. The museum is a place of pilgrimage for Studio Ghibli fans. The museum has a cat bus replica (from Totoro), a theater, cafe, bookstore, rooftop garden, and plenty of interactive options for kids.
Kinkakuji - Most people travel to Kinkakuji, a Buddhist temple in northern Kyoto, for the beautiful Golden Pavilion. But you should also take a walk through its Japanese strolling garden (kaiyu-shiki-teien). This garden showcases natural and man-made design via a pond that reflects the golden pavilion. The landscape is also structured to represent famous places in Japanese literature. It is based on the minimalist Muromachi period of garden design.
Heian-jingu - At just over 100 years old, the Heian-jingu Shinto shrine is relatively new. Ogawa Jihei (1860-1933), created the beautiful, surrounding Shin’en Garden, a quiet leafy space where, if you visit in spring, has the best cherry blossom viewing spots in Kyoto. The shrine was built to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto. The strolling garden features a pond, dragon stepping stones, and a covered wooden bridge adorned with a phoenix.
Todai-ji Temple - Just one hour from Kyoto, Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 - 784 AD. The Todai-ji Temple complex. a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains the world’s largest wooden structure, which was built in 743. Within the temple complex, the Great Buddha Hall houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha. It’s known as Daibutsu, and was originally cast in 749. Visitors can also explore the Todai-ji Museum, the Bell Tower, smaller temples, a cultural center, and more. Note that small deer roam the grounds at will, and are believed within the Shinto religion to be messengers of the gods—today, they are considered national treasures. During a visit, be sure all bags are tightly closed and nothing is sticking out of your pockets or hands. The deer are quite adventurous and boldly seek out food. What you think might be a barrier (such as a zipper) may not be much of a deterrent to them! Special deer crackers are available for purchase and offer a great opportunity to grab a selfie with these adorable ambassadors.
Peace Memorial Park - Located in what was once the city center, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum is an important part of Japanese history. After an atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945, the area was burned, flattened, damaged, and vaporized. This UNESCO World Heritage Site seeks to educate visitors about this horrific event, as well as the damaging after-effects suffered by victims. The museum also places great emphasis on peace and understanding of the past through its exhibits, park, and the Peace Database. The park features the Children’s Peace Monument (also called the Tower of a Thousand Cranes), which is a beautiful area that includes millions of origami paper cranes.
Read More: History and Culture of Japan and South Korea
Miyajima - Located in Hiroshima Bay, the island of Miyajima is known for its beautiful forests, historic temples, and “floating” torii gate. This island, also known as the Island of the Gods, is one of the most beautiful places in Japan and is part of Setonaikai National Park. The Shinto Itsukushima Shrine, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, was established in the 6th century. The shrine is most famous for its red torii, or gate, that appears to float during high tide. The first gate was built in 1168, but being made of wood, there have been a number of replacements over the years. The current gate dates back to 1875. On the island, you’ll find other shrines and temples as well as beautiful maple trees. If you visit in the fall, be sure to plan a trip here to see the autumnal colors. Whenever you visit, partake in delicious pastries stamped with (or in the shape of) a maple leaf. As in Nara, watch for the deer, which are sacred and can be quite bold.
Read More: The Best Japanese Islands to Explore
Kanazawa is one of the best-preserved Edo-period cities in Japan where you will find many wonderful temples, shrines, and museums in a compact central area. Be sure to visit city’s historic teahouse and geisha district, as well as the Nagamachi Bukeyashiki samurai district, the bustling Omicho Market, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, and Myoryu-ji (the Ninja Temple). You can also explore the remains of the Takeda Shrine, dedicated to a revered local samurai.
Kenroku-en - Located just outside the gates of Kanazawa Castle, this ancient garden is considered one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan (the other two are Koraku-en in Okayama and Kairaku-en in Mito). The garden was initially developed in the mid-1600s and features a pond, waterways, teahouse, pagoda, the oldest fountain in Japan, and a flower viewing bridge. It is also known as the Garden of the Six Sublimities.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is an isolated mountain village located in central Japan’s Sho River Valley, where nature reigns supreme. The area offers gorgeous wintry scenes, an abundant hanami (cherry blossom) season, green summers, and beautiful fall colors that illuminate the importance of the changing seasons to locals. Ogi-machi Gassho Style Village showcases historic buildings dating from the 1800s. They have steeply sloped thatched roofs, which resemble two hands meeting in prayer. These roofs were designed to withstand the weight of winter’s heavy snow. The attics are typically utilized as work spaces, often as a space for breeding silk worms. While there, wander the Gasshozukuri Minkaen Outdoor Museum, which is comprised of 26 buildings, including a watermill, shrine, and temple. Also, visit the Tajima House Museum of Silk Culture, located in a gassho-style building dedicated to silk farming.
One of the best places in Japan for art lovers, the art island of Naoshima is home to a large collection of contemporary art museums, galleries, exhibits and installations. Benesse House (also home to Naoshima’s most noteworthy hotel) features works by an impressive collection of artists, including Hiroshi Sugimoto, Gerhard Richter, Shinro Ohtake, Richard Long, David Hockney, and many more. The gorgeous Chichu Art Museum was designed by Tadao Ando to let in an abundance of natural light, and features a small but impressive collection of works by artists including Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria. The Art House Project is a collection of abandoned houses and workshops, as well as a temple and a shrine, that have been converted into venues and art installations for artists from Japan and around the world.
Read More: Top 24 Things To Do In Japan
Don’t miss Japan’s abundant natural wonders, which range from unique wildlife to gorgeous landscapes.
Cranes - In Asia, the crane has long been considered a symbol for good fortune and longevity. The most famous species is the red-crowned or Japanese crane (tanchozuru), the second-rarest crane species in the world. Japanese cranes are black and white, with a bare red patch of skin atop their head. There are an estimated 2,750 Japanese cranes left in the wild, with 1,000 of those in Japan (mostly in Hokkaido).
Read More: A Nature Lover's Guide to Hokkaido, Japan
Head to the Arasaki Crane Reserve in winter to see the annual gathering of 14,000 cranes, including the common crane, hooded crane, white-naped crane, and sandhill crane. If you’re lucky, you could also spot the rare demoiselle or Siberian crane. The Izumi Crane Visitor Centre provides excellent viewing (and photography) areas. Arrive early for the best sightings, as the birds are most active around sunrise.
Monkeys - The snow monkey, which is also known as the Japanese macaque, is native to Japan and lives in mountainous areas. Snow monkeys are most famous for their penchant for swimming and relaxing in natural onsen (hot springs). The most popular portrayal of snow monkeys (aside from National Geographic onsen photos) is the three wise monkeys. You will find this “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” depiction in fairy tales, stories, art, and, most famously, at Nikko’s Tosho-gu Shrine as a carving.
Want to see snow monkeys and cranes in Japan? Learn more here.
Rebun, or Flower Island - Located at the northernmost part of Japan, Rebun Island is home to extraordinary flowers, including many endemic species. Surprisingly, all are alpine plants, which really should not be growing at such a low altitude! The island has six walking paths, ranging from short strolls to more strenuous hikes. Along the way, you can see a waterfall, take a forest road, hit a high observation point, or climb a mountain—all while being surrounded by beautiful scenery. Rebun Island is part of Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park.
Mt Fuji - The tallest mountain in Japan, Fuji also carries a long historical and cultural importance. The volcano has shaped the landscape here and is both a pilgrimage site and popular tourists destination.
Hakone - Famous for hot springs, natural beauty, and views of Mt Fuji across Lake Ashinoko, Hakaone is a popular getaway located about an hour from Tokyo. One of the more unique features in Hakone, is “Hell Valley” a hot spring filled crater surrounded by barren landscapes interspersed with forest and sulphuric steam escaping from earthen vents at odd angles and locations. Visitors often take an aerial tram or bus up to reach the hot springs. Once there, you can purchase chicken eggs (kuro tamago) that have been cooked in the sulphuric hot springs, which turns them black and are reputed to extend your life by seven years.
Onsen - There are over 3,000 onsen (natural hot springs, usually segregated by gender) scattered all throughout Japan. Entire towns are built around onsen, and there are even onsen-focused hotels, which are called onsen ryokan. While onsen differ from each other in color (depending on what minerals are present), smell (depending on how much sulfur is in the water), and temperature (hot, hotter, hottest), the experience essentially will be the same.
First, you head into the washing room and scrub yourself completely. Once you’re clean, cover yourself with a small towel (don’t let it touch the water!), then slip into the hot spring and relax. If you’re lucky, it’ll be snowing, making for a magical experience.
Please Note: Some onsens will deny entry if you have a tattoo, as they have been associated with illegal, or gang activities in the past. You may choose to conceal your tattoo with a waterproof bandage, or check with the onsen before you enter the bathing area.
Musical Performances - From the ubiquitous karaoke bars to performances on traditional Japanese instruments, music plays a huge part in Japanese culture. Popular musical attractions include Taiko drums (which date to the 7th century), bamboo flute, or the shamisen (a lute-like stringed instrument).
Not all music played on these instruments is traditional: modern music is often incorporated into the repertoire. Of course, there are also variety of other musical genres in Japan, from J-pop to jazz, heavy metal, and classical.
Sing Karaoke - One of the most popular things to do in Japan is karaoke. Found at many bars and restaurants, this is a fun group activity. If you’ve never done it before, karaoke involves grabbing the microphone and singing along to recorded music (without a vocal track) in front of an audience or group of friends. The lyrics are printed on a screen, and audiences love to see singers with passion and enthusiasm.
These days karaoke has become a global phenomenon, with popular songs available in various different languages. Before you go, pick a song (or two) to practice, so you can really shine during your turn at the mic.
Tea Ceremony - Called “the Way of Tea,” this is a deeply cultural activity that showcases the preparation of powdered green tea, called matcha. Influenced by Zen Buddhism and dating back to the 9th century, the traditional tea ceremony takes place in a tea house with a tatami room and specific hanging scrolls and flower arrangements. Utensils used include a tea pot, bamboo whisk, tea bowl, and tea scoop. It’s an aesthetic experience like no other.
Theater - There are three types of traditional Japanese theater–Kabuki (which arose from the geisha in the early 1600s), Noh, and Bunraku (a puppet theater).
Kabuki theater is a ritualized performance that combines music, dance, drama, and often sword battles. The art form is rich in showmanship, involving bold make-up, elaborate costumes, and outrageous wigs. Over 400 Kabuki works are still regularly performed today.
Noh theater is characterized by elaborate costuming, masks, and ritualized performances. If you are in the Kanazawa area, be sure to visit the Kanazawa Noh Museum to learn more.
Bunraku is a medieval tradition that utilizes puppets to tell a story. The puppeteers are dressed all in black in order to make the puppets stand out.
Spot a Geisha - The most significant marker of living tradition in Japan is geisha. These professional women study and train for years in dance, song, music, and conversation. They wear a traditional kimono with a wig and full white face makeup. Apprentice geisha are called maiko. Kyoto is the best place to see them—there are around 100 geisha and 100 maiko, located in five geisha districts. Hospitality and high culture are the hallmarks of a successful geisha. Geisha entertain at special teahouses and restaurants, and also perform at concerts and theaters. If you would like to meet with a geisha or maiko, the easiest way is to arrange for a meal at a kaiseki restaurant, though expect to pay a premium for this unique experience.
Sumo Wrestling - As Japan’s national sport, sumo wrestling is both an exciting tournament and fascinating cultural experience. Two wrestlers compete on an elevated clay ring with the goal of each wrestler trying to force the other either off his feet or out of the ring. Matches are surprisingly quick—usually lasting only a few seconds. Official sumo tournaments, are held every other month. Of the six annual tournaments, three are held in Tokyo, with the others held in Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka. You may also visit sumo training centers throughout the year to observe an exhilarating live practice session.
Japan is an extremely polite society, and there are many rules of conduct to be observed. Here are a few tips for a blooper-free trip to Japan.
Japan is a shopper’s delight with everything from haute couture to electronics to handmade paper. While you are welcome to shop ‘til you drop in everything from mega-stores to quaint mom and pop shops, we highly recommend that you seek out some of Japan’s traditional handicrafts. Many handicraft industries are unique to the country, so you should have no problem finding a high-quality, one-of-a-kind souvenir to remind you of your travels.
Shodo is the art of Japanese calligraphy using a brush to paint single characters, words, or short poems; some may even resemble landscape paintings. The art has been influenced by Buddhist thought and many monks are masters of this artform.
Known as Ukiyo-e, this genre of Japanese art thrived from the 1600s to 1880s. These pictures often portray famous Kabuki actors, Mt. Fuji, the lively city life in the Edo period, and more. All have a distinctive style with a beautiful usage of color. Currently, ukiyo-e designs can be found on many small items and stationery as well.
Origami is the Japanese art of folding paper to create decorative art. Japanese origami paper is well known for its colorful prints and high quality. It can be a great souvenir if you’re looking for something authentic and fun. You can find origami paper in most stationery shops.
The folding fan was invented in Japan. Japanese fans are considered a cultural item that are used in ritual, dance, and festivals. They were also historically used as a weapon of war by the samurai. Japanese folding fans, known as Sensu, vary widely in quality and often feature original art.
This small doll made from papier mache is thought of as bringing exceptionally good luck, since it always returns to its original position even if knocked over. Dolls are sold without the eyes painted in: the custom is to make a resolution and paint in the left eye of the daruma. If the challenge is successful, the right eye is then also painted.
This artform hails from Hakone, located in a mountainous region near Mt Fuji. It’s a type of traditional Japanese parquetry developed during the Edo period, using pieces of wood to create intricate mosaics. These hand-made products include puzzle boxes, jewelry boxes, coasters, cups, and decorative items.
These collapsible bamboo lanterns, covered in paper or silk, emerged in Japan around the year 1085. They are usually adorned with shodo or a painting. Chochin are hung at temples and as decorations for matsuri. They are also traditionally used to mark shops and restaurants such as izakaya.
With a history going back more than 1,000 years, this hand-molded paper is made from fibers of plants such as paper mulberry, bamboo, hemp, rice, or wheat. Washi is produced the same way as ordinary paper, but the process involves far less chemicals. For centuries, the Japanese have used washi for all kinds of things—window, door, and lantern coverings; wrapping paper to keep kimono dry; candy wrappers; writing paper; art work; and money.
These light summer kimonos are easy to pack and come in a variety of colors and patterns. Yukatas can be found in specialty kimono shops. In the summer you can even find them in major supermarkets such as Aeon or Ito Yokado.
The first product to be designated as a Traditional Craft of the Nation in 1975, this traditional craft has approximately 400 years of history. The handmade ironware created by skillful craftsmen can last for three generations if used with care. Some of the latest designs are very stylish and can be used with induction stoves.
A type of Japanese lacquerware using powdered metal such as gold, silver, copper, or pewter. An artist uses a fine brush to shape the powder into decorative patterns on items such as pens, boxes, vases, jewelry, and even cell phone cases.
Careful preparation and meticulous presentation are crucial elements of Japanese cuisine. Food is an art form and even the simplest dishes are often prepared by chefs who have trained for many years. Food is so important to Japanese culture that UNESCO has added traditional Japanese cuisine, or washoku, into its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, meaning that the preservation of this way of eating is vital to the survival of the traditional culture. It was only the second national traditional cuisine honored as such, after French food. In fact, Tokyo has 14 Michelin three-star restaurants, which surpasses even Paris. Japan was also featured as one of our top 10 foodie travel destinations for cultural connoisseurs!
You simply can’t go to Japan and not try sushi. It would be like going to Italy and not eating pasta. Compared to other meals in Japan, sushi is not all that expensive—so order it often! Try a conveyor belt restaurant where you can pick each piece off the moving counter beside you.
Light and fluffy tempura is Japan’s contribution to the world of deep-fried. The batter-coated seafood and vegetables are traditionally fried in sesame oil and served with either a tiny pool of salt or a dish of soy sauce-flavored broth spiked with grated radish for dipping.
Part dinner, part work of art, kaiseki is Japan’s haute cuisine. It originated centuries ago alongside the tea ceremony in Kyoto (and Kyoto remains the capital of kaiseki). There’s no menu, just a procession of small courses meticulously arranged on exquisite crockery. Only fresh ingredients are used and each dish is designed to evoke the current season.
Okonomi meaning “what you like,” and yaki, meaning “grilled,” this savory pancake is “grilled how you like.” The batter and toppings vary throughout the country, but the traditional version is said to have originated in Osaka. Here you will find pancakes filled with cabbage, yam, pork belly, and green onions. Other versions can include noodles, seafood, cheese, and even fried eggs.
These thin egg noodles are almost always served in a hot broth flavored with shoyu (soy sauce) or miso. This is topped with a variety of ingredients such as slices of roast pork, bean sprouts, sweetcorn, soft-boiled egg, or butter. Ramen is popular throughout Japan and different regions are known for their unique variations.
Translated as “rice ball,” this Japanese fast food consists of rice shaped into a ball or triangle and filled with a salty or sour ingredient like pickled prune, salted salmon, or fish roe. Many are wrapped in nori, a type of seaweed.
Udon, are thick white noodles made from wheat flour. They are boiled and served in a broth, usually hot but occasionally cold in summer. Soba are long, thin buckwheat noodles—a staple of Japanese cuisine, particularly in the mountainous regions where hardy buckwheat fares better than rice. The noodles are served in either a hot, soy sauce-flavored broth or at room temperature on a bamboo mat with broth on the side for dipping.
The tea in Japan is different than the loose-leaf variety you may be used to. Here, the leaves are ground into a fine powder called matcha. Not just a beverage, there is green tea flavored EVERYTHING! Lip gloss, KitKat bars, and especially, ice cream, which is found everywhere.
Other popular dishes include Bento Boxes where you get to try a variety of foods: Check out our Bento 101 Info graphic here.
While some restaurants do make an effort to cater to those with common food allergies by informing patrons of what is in the dishes, this trend is far from universal. We recommend that you carry around a card with your allergy information printed on it in Japanese. Research Japanese cuisine and seasonings beforehand so you are familiar with the ingredients. Use Google Translate or a similar app to scan food labels or menu terms. If you rely on an EpiPen for emergencies, be sure to bring extra ones to Japan just in case.
When it comes to travel, there is no “right or wrong” way to explore. Your personality, interests, and what you are looking to achieve in your travels to this fascinating country.
Japan is a safe and easy place to visit on your own. Transportation in large cities is efficient with lots of English-language signs to help you find your way around, though the Tokyo subway system can be confusing. As you travel to more rural areas, English is less prevalent, so make sure to plan ahead and do your research. Independent travel offers you the flexibility of changing plans depending on the weather or your mood, and you are able to do as much or as little as you like according to your interests. You may also choose to a join city tour or book a day trips to learn more about specific attractions. We recommend purchasing a guidebook or three well before your travels and do lots of research and planning before you leave. Travel insurance can prove invaluable in case something goes wrong.
Guided tours offer you the peace of mind that all of your arrangements are taken care of down to the smallest detail. Guides often offer a wealth of information and can point out interesting features or cultural phenomenon that you would not notice otherwise. Japan is unique in so many ways, having a local to offer insight and answer questions will deepen your understanding and appreciation of Japanese culture and traditions. A guided tour is also a great way to get into the more rural, or lesser-traveled regions of the country without having to deal with complex logistics or the language barrier. Tour companies often have connections throughout Japan and can arrange insider access to a multitude of Japanese experiences, such as tea ceremonies, meeting with geisha, kimono fittings, dance performances, and much, much more. A guided tour is also a great choice if you’d like to meet and travel with like-minded people.
Zegrahm Expeditions has been organizing tours to Japan for over two decades. Our itineraries offer an immersive experience and are led by seasoned experts and personable local guides.
Discover the castles, temples, and shrines of Japan’s imperial past as you explore Tokyo, Takayama, Kanazawa, Kyoto, and Hiroshima.
October 9 – 20, 2018
April 16 – 28, 2019
October 7 – 19, 2019
The perfect adventure for those with an interest in Japanese arts, cuisine, customs, and culture. This itinerary is perfectly timed to take in the autumn colors—you’ll visit celebrated gardens, hike serene trails, learn about Japan’s traditional industries, and make meaningful connections with locals.
October 12 – 30, 2018
Discover Japan’s wild side as you witness huge gatherings of white-napped cranes, search for Steller’s sea eagles, and watch the playful antics of Japanese macaques as they soak in the hot springs of Jigokudani.
January 16 – February 3, 2019
Travel with comfort and ease aboard the 100-guest Caledonian Sky, savoring gorgeous coastal scenery and waking up in an exciting new port each day. A team of expert leaders and lecturers will be with you every step of the way as you discover some of Japan’s many treasures.
April 12 – 28, 2019
This trip is featured in National Geographic Traveler, August 2018.
Or, design your own itinerary with Zegrahm’s Private Travel services. Our experts will help you plan the Japan vacation of your dreams.
Call 844.285.8013 to speak with an Expedition Adviser today!
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havingtraveled numerous times with the company, and we still plan to continue traveling with you as long as you continue to offer such interesting, well-run trips."
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"One cannot find a finer company. Each expedition is well thought out and planned to optimize every moment. If something isn’t right they fix it and if nothing could be better they make it so. They make every expedition a treasured memory – simply magical!"
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Learn about Japan travel 101: best times to go, how to get there, and what to expect.