There’s always something new to discover in the land of the rising sun.
At the mere mention of Japan, the neon glow of Tokyo’s sprawling cityscape springs to mind—fast trains, crowded streets, shopping for days. Appetizing thoughts of sushi, sashimi, and ramen noodles are conjured. But there’s a whole other world outside Japan’s buzzing capital metropolis, and hundreds of heavenly culinary creations generally unknown away from their regional locales.
While snow bunnies skid down ski slopes in the far northeast, surf bums splash in the pristine tropical waters of the distant southwest. In between, bathers soak in steamy natural onsens (hot springs). Buddha and the Shinto gods are honored at remote and urban temples and shrines, and mountain lovers hike some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world. Chefs in Osaka slap okonomiyaki (savory pancakes) onto an iron griddle, while those in Kagoshima barbecue succulent kuro buta (black pork). No matter how long you have to explore this country full of historic, cultural, and culinary gems, there will always be something left to discover—but these 25 top Japan experiences will more than scratch the surface.
Go Skiing in Niseko
Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, provides a whole new definition of the word “powder.” Aligned with Russia to the west, Hokkaido’s winters are long and frigid—great news for snow lovers. Averaging around 15-plus meters of snow each season, Niseko is the most famous ski area in Japan, known for its wide open powder bowls and tree runs. As well as kilometers of ski trails, many of Niseko’s resorts offer winter adventure seekers the chance to explore off-trail skiing, accessed on guided tours or through special gates around the resorts. Every year from December to March, the slopes of Niseko are dotted with gleeful skiers and snowboarders plowing and carving through this winter wonderland.
INSIDER TIPThe most famous yuki matsuri (snow festival) in Japan takes place in Sapporo, just an hour and a half northeast of Niseko. For four days, from the first Wednesday in February, more than 200 elaborate snow sculptures and ice carvings are displayed in Odori Park. The main showstoppers are the state-of-the-art colossal snow statues, some measuring up to 75 feet in width and 49 feet in height, that require a staggering 3,500 tons of snow to mold. While you’re there, don’t forget to defrost with a bowl of soul-warming soup curry—chunks of roasted and marinated seafood or chicken and vegetables in a flavorful spicy curry broth.
Soak in a Steamy Hot Spring Amid Snowfall
The ultimate Japanese relaxation activity is sliding into a steamy bath of geothermally heated water from natural springs. Onsen resorts usually have indoor and outdoor pools, and bathing outdoors often affords spectacular views from piping-hot rock pools surrounded by verdant vegetation. While sublime in any season, snowfall has a way of adding a hint of magic, and the Nagano region is teeming with snowclad outdoor onsen in the wintertime. While you’re there, drop into Jigokudani Park to see Japan’s famous bathing snow monkeys dipping their icicle-coated fur into boiling natural springs. These Japanese macaques live in Hell’s Valley at the foot of Shiga Highlands, a ski resort and hiking area known for its heavy winter snowfall and its myriad of natural hot springs.
INSIDER TIPHot springs are almost always separated by gender and everybody goes in naked—don’t be tempted to wear a swimsuit! Before entering the indoor tubs or outdoor pools, be sure to scrub off thoroughly in the showers provided (in the same area as the indoor baths). Remember to leave your towels and clothing in the changing room lockers provided— don’t bring anything but your disrobed self into the bathing area.
Eat a Fresh Sushi Breakfast at a Fish Market
Waking up before 7 in the morning might make you feel like a fish out of water, but it is certainly worth the early alarm to see the hustle and bustle of Japan’s seafood markets in action. They are dotted around in cities and towns all over the country, the Osaka Central Fish Market being one of the biggest and busiest. This mammoth market is spread over 320,000 square meters. Loud and competitive live fish auctions provide an enthusiastic backing track and it is mind-blowing to see how much money changes hands for one of the world’s most prized fish – the Bluefin tuna. While the sushi in any Japanese market restaurant is as fresh as it gets, nowhere does the seafood breakfast quite like Sapporo’s Nijo Market. Japan’s northernmost island prefecture Hokkaido is renowned for its crab and shellfish as the chilly waters and flourishing plankton give Sapporo’s markets some rare types of seafood, and bigger fish than anywhere else. Arrive at the market by seven, take a seat at one of the many food vendors, and treat yourself to Hokkaido’s fruits of the sea.
INSIDER TIPTokyo’s historic Tsukiji fish market has moved its operations to a new facility, Toyosu fish market opened in the city’s Koto Ward in October 2018.
Watch the Traditional Dance-Drama of Kabuki
One of Japan’s three major classical styles of theater along with bunraku and noh, kabuki traces back to the Edo period (1603–1868) and involves elaborate costumes, bold makeup, extravagant wigs, and exaggerated gestures. The performances feature exciting drama-filled stories. The actors’ tremendously stylized movements serve to convey meaning to the audience, who frankly need all the help they can get since old-fashioned language is typically used (imagine the Japanese version of Shakespeare!). For foreign audience members, Tokyo’s National Theatre is a good choice for a kabuki experience as English subtitles and audio guides are available. The theatre also offers a Discover Kabuki package combining an hour introduction in English to kabuki theater plus a one-act show (usually lasting an hour and a half).
INSIDER TIPIf you hear audience members shouting out names to the actors during a performance, don’t mistake this for heckling! All kabuki actors have a yago (hereditary stage name), which is closely associated with the theater troupe he is from. In the kabuki world, troupes are tight-knit hierarchical groups, usually carried on through generations within families. It is expected for the audience to shout out the actors’ yago at appropriate times during the show as a sign of support.
Wander Through an Exquisite Garden
So distinctive is the simple, minimalist aesthetic of a Japanese garden. Wherever you are in the country, there is a peaceful, well-manicured strolling garden waiting to take you back in time and dial you into reflection mode. Built for the pleasure of the former feudal lords, Kenrokuen in Kanazawa and Ritsurin Koen in Takamatsu both feel like a collection of several impressive gardens that include an assortment of flower gardens, walking trails, ponds, hills, streams, groves, and a number of pavilions and tea houses. Or there’s the more recently created garden at the Adachi Museum of Art near Matsue in Shimane Prefecture, which is so impeccably maintained it’s almost surreal—being there feels like walking around in a fantasy animation.
The garden with the most impressive example of shakkei (borrowed scenery), however, has got to be Sengan-en in the southern city of Kagoshima, with the active volcano of Sakurajima in the background. This stately residence and picturesque landscape garden date back more than 350 years to when it was created by Shimadzu Mitsuhisa, who ruled the area in those feudal times. Regular guided tours take place where guests can enjoy the private inner garden while drinking matcha tea and eating traditional Japanese sweets.
INSIDER TIPThe moss-covered garden of Kyoto’s Kokedera (meaning “moss temple,” referring to the temple garden’s estimated 120 different varieties of moss) is one of the most renowned gardens in Japan, but if you want to visit, reservations by mail at least two weeks in advance are required, as well as participation in a sutra copying session.
Climb Mount Fuji
WHERE: Shizuoka Prefecture
Immortalized by Japanese poets throughout the ages and portrayed by numerous artists, including the renowned woodblock artist Hokusai (1760–1849), the highest mountain in Japan is the country’s most famous icon. Despite the fact that scientists consider the active volcano to be overdue for another eruption (the last one was in 1707), more than 300,000 people climb Fujisan every year. Standing at 12,388 feet tall, it takes an average of six to seven hours to climb to the summit, and there are a total of four routes to choose from. To see the sunrise from Fuji’s summit, known as goraiko, you need to start the climb the day before. Most climbers get to about the 8th station, stop for dinner and a short nap in one of the mountain huts, and get up again at around 1 a.m., continuing to the summit to meet the sunrise at around 4:30 a.m. At the mountaintop, you can send a postcard from Japan’s highest post office.
INSIDER TIPClimbing Mt. Fuji is only permitted from July 1st to early September during the summer period when the trails are open. At the summit, the temperature is low enough to have snowfall even in the summer season. Be sure to bring a woolen sweater, a raincoat, and a headlamp. It’s wise to avoid the period between August 13th and 17th, which is the Obon holiday week in Japan, when Fujisan becomes packed with crowds of people.
Stroll Through the Edo-era Post Towns
WHERE: Nagano Prefecture
If you pick only one place in Japan to stroll through old-country neighborhoods with well-preserved Edo-era buildings, make it the picturesque Kiso Valley. An ancient 25-mile trade route called the Kisoji was developed along this valley during the Edo period (1603–1868) and was the lifeblood for commerce in the region. The towns in the area are known as “post towns” resulting from travel restrictions enforced by the shogunate at the time, which meant travelers were almost always forced to make their trips on foot. As a result, “post towns” popped up every few miles to provide travelers with places to rest and refuel during their long journeys.
Tsumago is one such town and is known for being one of the best-preserved in the country. Its residents take great care to recreate the Edo-era atmosphere; phone lines and electricity cables are hidden and cars are barred from the main street in the daytime, allowing visitors to imagine they have transported back a few hundred years while wandering along the stone paths and past machiya (old wooden houses).
INSIDER TIPIf time permits, it is well worth it to hike the 5-mile trail between Magome and Tsumago, which takes around two to three hours. This is a well-kept section of the former Nakasendo (“path through the mountains”) route that ran along the Kiso Valley connecting Tokyo with Kyoto during the Edo era. The trail winds through the countryside, passing by the houses and fields of the locals who call the area home.
Visit the Temples and Shrines of Kyoto
WHERE: Kyoto Prefecture
One of the historical jewels of Japan, and a past capital city, Kyoto is home to more than 1,600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shinto shrines. Perhaps the most iconic shrine to visit is Fushimi Inari-taisha (dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice) with its seemingly endless tunnels of vermilion torii gates snaking up and over Mount Inari. A visit to Fushimi Inari makes for a picturesque half-day hike, with plenty of street food to try at the food vendors’ market at the bottom. Another Kyoto spiritual staple is the temple of Kiyomizudera (the “pure water temple”). Kiyomizudera is famous for its seasonal cherry blossom and autumn leaf views, as well as sweeping views of Kyoto City. Unlike many of Japan’s temples and shrines, Kiyomizudera is very interactive in that there are several activities visitors can do on the temple grounds. One is in Zuigudo Hall, which is dedicated to Buddha’s mother, where guests can wander through a pitch-black basement tunnel in an act that symbolizes rebirth.
INSIDER TIPThere’s no better place than Kyoto to have an authentic Japanese tea-ceremony experience. Kyoto remains the heart of the Japanese tea-ceremony world; the three main schools are all located in Kyoto, as well as several traditional tea houses. In addition to formal tea ceremonies, many temples simply offer for guests to drink tea in their gardens. For 500 yen, they will serve a Japanese-style sweet with a bowl of matcha (powdered green tea).
Get Lost in Arashiyama’s Bamboo Forest
WHERE: Kyoto Prefecture
There’s a certain enchantment about Arashiyama’s peaceful groves of slender green bamboo stalks that stretch high into the sky, leaves at the treetops seemingly whispering secrets to the clouds. It is not hard to see why it is one of the most photographed places in Japan. The groves can be accessed directly from the main street of the also highly photogenic township of Arashiyama, slightly to the north of the entrance to Tenryu-ji Temple. This temple is worth a visit to explore the main hall and view its well-manicured garden and pond. Another highlight of a bamboo-grove visit is venturing into the adjacent grounds of Okochi-Sanso Villa—formerly the estate of the renowned film actor Okochi Denjiro (1898–1962). The 1,000-yen entrance fee is worth it at least once and includes a tasty Japanese sweet and a cup of hot matcha tea (hold onto your ticket in order to get these in the teahouse). Both the garden and architecture are exquisite–the main house is a fine example of traditional Japanese residential architecture, and the garden has a viewpoint that offers panoramic vistas over the whole city.
INSIDER TIPGo first thing in the morning to beat the crowds. Later, when the crowds set in, hike to more tranquil towns nearby like Kameoka, Kiyotaki, and Takao. Rafting on the river Hozugawa is a refreshing way to cool down in the warmer months and can be done from Kameoka, which is a launch point for rafting and kayaking activities. The Sagano Scenic Railway is a picturesque way to get to Kameoka from Arashiyama as the line runs parallel to the Hozugawa river providing passengers with stunning vistas through the open windows.
Sleep in a Ryokan
A visit to Japan wouldn’t be complete without the quintessentially Japanese experience of spending the night in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). Sleeping on a futon on tatami (straw floor mats), bathing in the onsen (if you choose a ryokan equipped with one), and eating an elaborate kaiseki (traditional, multi-course Japanese dinner) meal are highlights of the experience. The kaiseki dinner is usually a 6 to 15-course meal either served in the privacy of your room or in a large dining area. The ryokan atmosphere is conducive to relaxation and reflection and there are often tea rooms and gardens dotted around the premises to spend time in. Ryokan are quiet places and it is important to keep voices low and cell phones should be kept silent and hidden, particularly in the shared public spaces. Don’t be surprised when you don’t see a bed upon entering your room, ryokan rooms are typically set up as minimalist tea rooms during the day. The idea is to relax in the extra space and the staff set up guests’ beds in the evening. Sleeping on the plush Japanese futons is an experience all on its own—like snoozing on light, fluffy clouds.
INSIDER TIPThere is some etiquette to keep in mind on arrival at a ryokan. Remember to remove your shoes and trade them for indoor slippers that you will wear around the property (take them off when entering your room, though). Separate “toilet slippers” are provided in the bathrooms. In the rooms, each guest is provided with a yukata — a lightweight cotton kimono, which can be worn anywhere around the ryokan (including in the dining room). But be sure to put it on the right way (left side over right) because the opposite is how the Japanese dress the dead.
Eat Until You Drop in the Nation’s Kitchen
The Japanese call Osaka kui-daore no machi, “the town that loves to eat.” Kui-daore on its own is a mantra that means “eat yourself bankrupt.” Many would argue Osaka is Japan’s top spot to eat, drink, and party—the locals certainly do. At night, head for the epicurean districts of Ura-Namba, Temma, and Horie, get lost in the labyrinths of alleyways and back streets, and allow Japan’s friendliest city to sweep you off your feet. At the indoor cluster of restaurants known as Torame Yokacho in Ura-Namba, you can choose from all Osaka’s culinary favorites—okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), takoyaki (fried dough balls filled with octopus legs), and kushikatsu (meat and vegetable morsels strung on a stick and dipped in rich tonkatsu sauce).
Get international cuisine with a Japanese twist in the Horie area. In Temma, feast on fresh seafood and then duck into one of the many tachinomi (standing bars) for a shochu (liquor distilled from potatoes, wheat, or rice) or sake (Japanese rice wine). Osaka is also well-known for its kappo-style restaurants where a multi-course meal is served to customers in the omakase style, meaning the menu is left entirely up to the chef. He or she will often serve a customer dish-by-dish over the counter while talking to them about the ingredients used and style of preparation.
INSIDER TIPA big epicurean trend in Osaka (and all over Japan) in recent years is the booming ji-biru (Japanese craft beer) industry, and as a result, craft beer bars are popping up all over the city. A local brand to look out for is Minoh beer, brewed in the Minoh area of Osaka by three entrepreneurial sisters.
Watch Sumo Wrestling at a Tournament
Japan’s national sport can be seen during six annual sumo-wrestling tournaments where the big guys come out to play: three in Tokyo (January, May, and September) and one in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July), and Fukuoka (November). The tournaments run for 15 days during which each wrestler generally performs in one match per day. Tickets are sold for each day of the 15-day tournaments and can be purchased in advance through the official vendor or via buysumotickets.com. Alternatively, they can be bought at convenience stores (some Japanese language needed) or at the stadiums. Tokyo’s Ryogoku district has been the center of the sumo world for about two centuries. It’s home to many sumo stables (where the wrestlers live and train together) as well as the Kokugikan sumo stadium where the three annual Tokyo tournaments are held.
INSIDER TIPThere are a few terms that are good to know for a better understanding of sumo. Rikishi is the Japanese term for a professional sumo wrestler. A yokozuna is a Grand Champion that can never be demoted. Only 72 men have achieved this rank. Ozeki is sumo’s second-highest rank. Two consecutive tournament victories as ozeki mean a promotion to yokozuna.
Belt out Your Favorite Tunes in a Karaoke Room
Gone are the days of daydreaming about your moment in the limelight performing on stage in front of wild screaming fans. All those mornings honing your very own spectacular version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” in your shower will finally pay off the moment you step into one of Japan’s famed karaoke rooms. Get a nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) deal where you can order drinks on demand from your room, grab your mics, and sing the night away with your pals. One of the great parts of Japanese karaoke establishments is that it’s more common to rent your own room with friends rather than having to share the system with an entire bar (of course, this is also an option, but there’s always that one guy who insists on singing Don McLean’s American Pie in its entirety—yawn!).
INSIDER TIPDecide with your group in advance how many hours you want to book the room for (two is standard; one usually not enough) or if you want it for the whole night (renewing the room hour after hour can get expensive quickly, better to book for the whole night up front). Oh, and don’t forget to remove your shoes before jumping on the couch for your encore!
Visit the Giant Buddha and Hang out with Curious Deer in Nara Park
WHERE: Nara City
Todaiji (“Great Eastern Temple”) is one of Nara Prefecture’s main draws—a massive wooden structure housing one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu), a 50-foot-tall seated Buddha. Todaiji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world’s largest wooden building, despite the present reconstruction of 1692 being only two-thirds of the original temple hall’s size. It lies in Nara Park, which is the location of several of Nara’s other main attractions including Kasuga Shrine, Kofukuji Temple, and the Nara National Museum. Dedicate a whole day to Nara Park in order to make the most of it. The vast area covers 660 hectares and is full of temples, shrines, traditional tea houses, and winding forest paths. Stroll through the traditional Japanese garden of Isuien on the way to the park, and pick up some green-tea mochi (a pounded-rice treat) to snack on while you explore.
INSIDER TIPNara Park is famous for its curious and hungry deer. They are generally very docile and accustomed to people, however, they are also accustomed to being fed deer cookies (which can be bought at the park). If you don’t have deer cookies, and you want to avoid unexpected nibbles and nudges, don’t make it look like you do!
Eat the Food of Buddhist Monks on a Temple Stay
WHERE: Mount Koya
The ultimate location to try shojin ryori (traditional vegan temple cuisine) is in the quaint temple village of Mount Koya, which for the last 1,200 years, has sat quietly up in Wakayama Prefecture’s misty Kii Mountain Range; a training ground, sanctuary, and home for Shingon Buddhist monks, and a tranquil retreat for a handful of visitors looking for a place to quiet the mind and escape the urban rat race. Around half of Koyasan’s 120 temples open their doors to visitors to stay overnight, allowing them a glimpse into the life of a monk, to share in morning prayer and meditation rituals, and sample traditional monk’s cuisine. The temple food is the World Heritage-listed washoku ryori (traditional food of Japan). Everything is made from local, seasonal ingredients and carefully prepared by the monks on temple grounds. Typical dishes include koya-dofu, a type of freeze-dried tofu, smooth, creamy goma-dofu, which is made from white sesame seeds, konnyaku, the hard jelly made from the root of the devil’s tongue plant, and of course, tsukemono, Japanese pickled vegetables. Multiple courses are served to guests in their rooms.
INSIDER TIPWhile in Koyasan, be sure to leave at least half a day to explore the mysterious and enigmatic Okunoin cemetery, Japan’s oldest and largest graveyard, holding more than 200,000 graves dating as far back as the 11th century. For a slightly spooky twist, sign up at Eko-in temple to be taken on a night tour of Okunoin, where you learn about all the myths, legends, and curses of the cemetery.
Hike the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Routes
WHERE: Wakayama Prefecture
After setting off on a Kumano Kodo trail, you’ll soon realize you’ve stumbled upon a treasure. The Kumano Kodo is a series of ancient pilgrimage routes that weave across Japan’s largest peninsula, the Kii peninsula, which is endowed with magnificent scenery, remote hot springs (including Tsuboyu in the onsen town of Yunomine, the only World Heritage hot spring open to visitors), warm countryside hospitality, and rich pilgrimage traditions. Its tree-clad forest paths have been revered for more than a thousand years. First-time hikers in the area are best off following the well-marked Nakahechi trail. Sections of the trail can be explored depending on the amount of time available as public buses are there to take hikers in and out of the different areas. A minimum of five days is a good chunk of time to allocate to the trail, which remains rather off-the-map for most visitors to Japan and even to most Japanese people. Even in the peak seasons of autumn and spring, it’s possible to hike for a whole day and pass fewer than five other people.
INSIDER TIPMinshuku (guest houses) along certain parts of the trail can be few and far between, so advanced planning and booking is needed to ensure you have nightly accommodations and that you can complete the distance between accommodations during daylight. Baggage transfers between guest houses can be arranged for around 1,500 yen per day.
Sip Sake on a Brewery Tour
WHERE: Hyogo Prefecture
By the time the Edo period (1603–1868) came around, Nada in the Kobe area of Hyogo Prefecture had firmly staked its place as the main hub of Japanese sake production. This was thanks to the discovery of Nada’s miyamizu, the mineral-rich water that flows from Mount Rokko via 6 rivers to underground wells. It provides the ideal water for quick, robust fermentation—perfect for brewing sake. Today, one-third of all sake produced in the country is brewed in Nada, and while there are many other sake regions worth visiting in the country, few are as accessible and have such well-serviced cellar doors as Nada. For a simple day trip, check out Hamafukutsuru Ginjo Kobo, Sakura Masamune, Kiku Masamune, Hakutsuru, which are all within walking distance of one another. Sake tasting is available as well as samples of various types of sake-related cosmetics; rice powder (nuka), is a popular ingredient in many cosmetics such as moisturizers and creams for soft skin. Take a look at the soft, smooth hands of a sake brewer and you’ll see why!
INSIDER TIPSake may be served either hot, cold, or at room temperature, depending on the drinker’s preference, the type of sake being consumed, and the season. Typically, hot sake (atsukan) is preferred during colder weather, and chilled sake (reishu) is preferred in the hot summer months.
Visit Japan’s “White Heron” Castle
WHERE: Himeji City
Affectionately known as the “white heron” or “white egret” because of its unique architecture and brilliant white exterior, Himeji Castle is Japan’s most famous original castle. Film buffs will instantly recognize it from the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice and from Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha and Ran. This World Heritage Site is the epitome of the feudal Japanese castle and the biggest and best-preserved of all its counterparts across the country. Himeji-jo is both a formidable fortress and an eloquent work of art. Walk through the main keep and climb the ultra-steep staircases to the top floor to see sweeping views of Himeji City and the surrounding region. After marveling at the castle architecture and strolling the grounds, take a short walk west to the well-manicured neighboring Japanese garden of Koukoen and sip a cup of green tea in front of the koi (carp) pond.
INSIDER TIPHimeji Castle is most crowded during the cherry blossom season (late March through early April), Golden Week (spanning the end of April and the first week of May), fall-leaf season (late November through early December), and on weekends. On these busy days, the number of visitors is limited, so arrive early in the morning to ensure you get a ticket. The Himeji Castle website has a handy congestion forecast worth having a look at when planning your trip.
Take a Boat Tour in the Historic Canal Town of Kurashiki
WHERE: Okayama Prefecture
In Kurashiki, long, narrow boats that once transported grain now have a cargo of tourists. This old town has a preserved canal area that dates back to the Edo period (1603–1868) when the city served as a key rice distribution center. The name “Kurashiki” can be loosely translated as “town of storehouses,” which refers to the storehouses where the rice was kept. Streets are lined with white-walled kominka (traditional houses), and many of these old buildings have been converted into cafes, museums, and boutique shops. After a tranquil canal boat ride, head for the Bikan district, home to more than half a dozen museums and galleries including the Kurashiki Archaeological Museum, Kurashiki Museum of Folk-Craft, and the Ohara Museum of Art.
INSIDER TIPWhile in Kurashiki, try Okayama’s local dish of bara-zushi (scattered sushi), the most famous type of sushi in the prefecture. It contains a variety of locally grown vegetables, like bamboo shoots, and fish, like eel or shrimp, scattered on top of rice along with fried egg yolk and salmon roe.
Island Hop Through the Seto Inland Sea and See Japan’s Island Art
WHERE: Setouchi Region
The Seto Inland Sea, also known as the Setouchi region, is the body of water separating Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, three of Japan’s four main islands. The area is dotted with pristine little remote islands just waiting to be explored (such as Shodoshima, known as Japan’s olive island) and some of the islands have become renowned for their art museums and quirky outdoor art.
One such place is Naoshima, a white-beach-fringed island known for the iconic beachside pumpkin sculptures (one red and one yellow) created by Yayoi Kusama. Naoshima’s transformation into an intriguing art project began in the late 1980s, and it now has a reputation as “Japan’s art island.” Built into a hillside, Chichu Art Museum has paintings from Monet’s Water Lilies series. Benesse House Museum exhibits contemporary sculptures and installations. On the east coast, the Art House Project is a collection of architectural art pieces.
INSIDER TIPIf you find yourself with a day or two to spend on Naoshima, book an overnight stay at Tsutsujiso, a giant Mongolian yurt by the beach!
Pay Respects at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park
WHERE: Hiroshima City
Hiroshima’s 120,000-square-meter Peace Memorial Park is the central draw of the city and what it is well-known for. The park’s main facility is the Peace Memorial Museum, dedicated to Hiroshima’s legacy as the first city in the world to suffer a nuclear attack, and to the memories of the victims of the 1945 bombing. The museum’s main focus is on the events of August 6, 1945—the dropping of the bomb and the human suffering that resulted. Some of the stories and displays are quite heavy and graphic, serving as a reminder that we should not take peace for granted. The skeletal A-Bomb Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is what remains of the former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. When the bomb exploded, it was one of the few buildings to remain standing.
Visit the Shrine in the Ocean
Long ranked as one of Japan’s top three most scenic views, the famous Itsukushima Shrine and its “floating” vermillion torii gate, which rises out of the ocean at high tide, is one of Japan’s most iconic images. Located on Miyajima, a small island less than an hour outside the city of Hiroshima, it’s well worth a day trip and an overnight stay to roam the island and take in views of Itsukushima. Omote-Sando is the name of the main street stretching from the port to Itsukushima Shrine, home to a plethora of souvenir shops and quaint cafes on both sides of the street. Order giant grilled oysters from street vendors, or duck into a restaurant offering tasty conger eel. For dessert, much on momiji manju, a sweet maple-leaf-shaped cake filled with red bean paste. Mount Misen is the highest peak on Miyajima with three hiking trails leading up to the summit. Of the three, the Daisho-in course offers the most spectacular views and isn’t as steep as the other two.
INSIDER TIPFor a different view of the Itsukushima floating torii gate, opt for a kayaking tour that leaves from Paddle Park Miyajima where you can paddle the mile from the marine park to the shrine gate, weaving back and forth between the giant vermillion pillars before making your way to the shore to explore the island.
Take a Tour Around an Active Volcano
Over many thousands of years, the landscape of the southern prefecture of Kagoshima has been shaped by one thing, the puffing active volcano of Sakurajima. The volcano smokes continuously, and minor eruptions often take place multiple times per day. Rising above sea level at 3,665 feet, the mountain dominates the view from just about every angle within Kagoshima City. From Kagoshima port, you can take a short ferry ride across to the volcanic peninsula. There’s a bus tour that takes visitors around the 48 mile base of the volcano, stopping at all the top lookout spots for epic views of the mountain and across the bay of downtown Kagoshima. Near the Ferry Terminal, walk the Nagisa Lava Trail and explore footpaths that carve through a lava zone created by the big 1914 eruption. Have an outdoor foot bath at Nagisa Park and soak your feet in steaming natural foot baths with a full view of the volcano in front of you.
INSIDER TIPKagoshima is famous for its food, known as Satsuma cuisine. Tuck into specialties like satsuma age (deep-fried fish cakes), kuro buta (black pork), tobiuo (flying fish), and charcoal-grilled eel. For dessert, treat yourself to a cold, sweet “Shirokuma shave ice” (shaved ice coated in condensed milk and fruit).
Hike to Yakushima’s Ancient Jomon Sugi Tree
WHERE: Kagoshima Prefecture
The subtropical island of Yakushima is clad in an expansive cedar forest and is home to some of Japan’s oldest living trees. It is also renowned for having some of the best hiking in the country. Known for being one of the world’s oldest trees, Jomon Sugi is estimated to be up to 7,000 years old and is the main attraction on Yakushima. It is only 82 feet tall but has a massive trunk of about five meters in diameter. On the hiking trail to Jomon Sugi, you can find some of Yakushima’s other well-known trees like Wilson’s Stump )the hollowed-out remains of an enormous cedar cut down almost 300 years ago), the Daiosugi (one of the island’s largest trees), and the Meotosugi (a pair of trees that resemble two people embracing).
INSIDER TIPThe hike to Jomon Sugi takes about 10 hours round trip, and you should leave before dawn to complete the trek by sunset. Hikers who prefer to take it slow can stay overnight at Takatsuka Hut about 650 feet past the old tree. The newer and larger Shin Takatsuka hut is about half a mile further along the Miyanoura Trail.
Visit the Pristine Tropical Beaches of Okinawa
WHERE: Okinawa Prefecture
Okinawa is like Thailand without the crowds of tourists. The beaches on these tropical islands are pristine, and it’s not uncommon to have one all to yourself. Ishigaki Island is the place to go for diving with giant manta rays. The nearby, and very remote, Iriomote Island has fields of colorful coral and tropical fish, as well as waterfalls, mangrove kayaking, and a star-sand beach, where the grains of sand are all star-shaped. Yonaguni is the island closest to Taiwan where it’s possible to see schools of hammerhead sharks while scuba diving. Closer to the main island of Okinawa Honto, the Kerama Islands are an easy and stunning getaway, with Zamami island being home to giant hawksbill sea turtles who often hang around in the shallow waters near the beach.
INSIDER TIPOne of the best parts of visiting Okinawa is eating Okinawan cuisine like umi budo (delicious salty sea grapes), goya chanpuru (where the bitter goya vegetable is stir-fried with tofu), eggs, pork or spam, and Okinawa soba, which is served with a thick slice of stewed pork belly in broth. Wash it all down with a few drams of the local awamori liquor distilled from barley, sweet potatoes, or rice.