Last updated on August 23, 2023
Japan is a fascinating place. It’s a country thriving on contradictions. Japan’s gorgeous ancient history is present, and it lives alongside space-age technology and development. This is a thoroughly modern country that looks nothing like the West.
The Japanese have cultivated a strong national identity that is only enhanced by modern technology. From robots at restaurants to cat cafes to towering temples—it’s an assault to the senses.
It’s a wonderful destination for all types of travelers—it has pilgrimage routes, Mount Fuji, whale watching, ancient temples, and a booming food tourism industry. The country also has an advanced transportation infrastructure that makes navigating a cinch. I visited for the first time in 2015.
After seven years of travel, I stood under Tokyo’s towering skyline and felt a wave of culture shock wash over me. It’s not like any place you’ve visited before.
And while I heartily recommend visiting Japan, there are some ethical tourism concerns, so be sure to check the responsible travel section.
Continue reading for a guide to things you should know before you go, and tips about navigating Japan. Or skip straight to the Japan travel guides by city!
Things to Know Before Traveling to Japan
Japan has a rich, complex, and varied history. It’s these very complexities that have created such a fascinating culture today. Japan has spent centuries vacillating between isolationist tendencies and rapid outward expansion. Though it’s a moderately sized country, it has the 10th highest population in the world—most of that is densely packed into urban centers.
Even more remarkable is that much of Japanese land isn’t inhabited. The terrain is forested mountains and volcanoes. The country is very, very homogeneous—98.5% of the country is ethnically Japanese. Shintoism, the predominate religion dates back to 1,000 B.C.E., and is often practiced alongside Buddhism.
Japan’s ancient civilizations date back to prehistoric times; spanning from then on, the country’s history includes clan feuds, shifts in power, and slow growth. In 1192, the Shogun, or era of military rulers, began. This period lasted many centuries (700 years). It’s during this era that Japan’s military prowess was born, including the samurai and the country’s famous martial arts.
The Edo period started in the 1600s and didn’t end until 1853, when the U.S. led efforts encouraging Japan to open trade routes with the rest of the world. During the centuries of Shogun rule, the leaders maintained a strong focus on the caste system, which encouraged an isolationist view toward ruling—limiting outside influence on its citizens.
It’s this limited influence that created such a strong history of craftsmanship and traditions, from Kabuki to silk to traditional ryokan inns.
From the mid-1800s until WWII, Japan had regional, smaller wars with Russia, Korea, Taiwan, and China. Then, the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 marked Japan’s entry into WWII. The U.S. retaliated with the devastating atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—an act that changed history as we know it, as well as led to Japan’s surrender.
In the decades after the war, Japan focused on peace and economic growth. In the wake of WWII, Japan joined the United Nations and has continued to prosper economically. Growth slowed in the 90s, but continues.
The tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 were devastating for the country. But tourism remains a in full force and Japan continues to rebuild areas affected by the tsunami.
Fast Facts About Japan Travel
Japanese Yen (JPY) (current exchange rate)
100V/50-60Hz (North American plug; usually two prong, without the ground. Often has both flat pins the same size. This is my favorite travel adapter.)
Japan’s Primary International Airports
- Tokyo’s Narita Airport (NRT)
- Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (HND)
- Osaka’s Kansai Airport (KIX)
Can you Drink the Water in Japan?
Yes, you can drink the water in Japan. It’s safe. Bring a water bottle and fill from the tap as you travel.
How’s the Wifi in Japan?
Japan has excellent internet; it’s among the fastest in the world. No matter where you travel, you can essentially count on easy internet access. Many guesthouses offer wifi for free, and you’ll find free wifi in many public spaces as well.
How to Buy a SIM Card in Japan
I highly recommend you secure a SIM card once you land. Although it’s not cheap, it is handy. Outside of the touristy areas, English signage and penetration is very low.
Having a phone with data will allow you to easily navigate the trains, check routes, and translate on the fly. This piece is a great overview of securing a SIM card, which is now available before you even land in Japan. Since you’re likely sending yourself your Japan Rail pass (buy this before you leave!), you might as well be totally prepared and send yourself this, too.
If you want to buy it locally, it’s harder but doable, start your research here. You will need your passport.
Although you can sometimes secure a SIM at the airport, if you arrive late the process is a little more complicated. I seem to live for complicated, so I had to hunt down a SIM card. I bought mine at the Bic Camera store in Shibuya. They had me sorted with data in about 25 minutes, although I admit the first 10 minutes were a confusing game of pantomime.
Japanese Festivals of Note
- Hanami, or rather Cherry Blossom season is a popular time to visit (end of March through early April)
- Sapporo Snow Festival (February)
- Fuji Rock Festival (July)
- Tokushima’s Awa Odori Festival (August)
- Golden Week (April 29 – May 5—it’s nearly impossible to find accommodation during this week.)
Best Time to Visit Japan
Spring is busy with the cherry blossom season (end of March through early April).
Autumn is beautiful, the manicured gardens riot with color.
Summer is quite hot, and Japan is a popular ski spot in the winter. Fuji’s climbing season is only open in July and August, with the shoulder months possible but not popular.
Japan is tricky as a vegetarian. The concept is not widely understood. I struggled to communicate the nuances (like no fish broth). You will need good translations and research ahead of time to suss out what you can eat.
Happy Cow has great vegetarian restaurant recommendations for cities across Japan; this lists the dishes you can eat, and this shares good translations at the end. This is a good general food primer guide for non-vegetarians.
If you’re celiac, then this is a thorough gluten-free guide. For all types of eaters, the convenience stores and 7-11s have fresh snacks and are very popular among locals and travelers alike.
Accommodation in Japan
Accommodation is one of the most expensive parts of traveling in Japan. There are no truly budget options. The upside is that even the hostels are impeccably clean.
Ryokans (and their budget versions, called, minshuku) are traditional Japanese guesthouses and are the best spot to learn about the cultural traditions related to food and hospitality. Plan at least a couple of nights in one of these.
Japan also has the quirky capsule, or pod, hotels where you essentially sleep in a high-tech cupboard. If you’re visiting during Cherry Blossom season you need to book many months in advance.
Visas for Japan
Citizens of North America, UK, and Europe do not need a visa to enter for 90 days.
Longer extensions are available for some of these countries, and most outside of these regions will need to apply ahead of time. Full visa requirements here.
How to Get Around Japan
When arriving in Japan, you’ll likely want to fly into Haneda over Narita if possible. Nearly all travelers will want to buy a Japan Rail Pass if they plan to leave Tokyo. As of 2021, you can technically buy a pass in country, but it costs more.
The old rules were that you must buy one before you enter the country since it’s a tourist pass. They are super sketchy on how long they plan to offer in-country purchasing, so just buy one online before you leave and they’ll send your pass within several days to your home.
The pass offers a steep discount on train travel in the country and is almost always a good deal if you plan to leave Tokyo on trips to at least two other areas of the country. Japan has an extensive and effective rail network and it’s how you will get between cities.
Also download the Hyperdia app before you leave and use it to find the best train routes throughout the country—this app is detailed and highly accurate. In addition to your JR Pass, you’ll want to buy a Suica card from a vending machine or ticket agent. You preload this card with money to easily to pay for local rail/subway lines, and it also works at the vending machines.
When in doubt, use a ticket agent to book travel as they can usually find someone behind the counter who knows a bit of English.
How Much Does Japan Travel Cost?
Japan is expensive. It’s impossible to travel Japan on an extreme budget, but it is possible to travel and save costs. I met one guy camping out on the beaches and biking the country—he was saving money.
But in general, do your budget research so you are comfortable spending a bit of money to enjoy the sights and food. You can save food costs by grabbing snacks at the convenience stores (tons of 7-11s), but you’ll likely want to sample all the delicious soups, sushi, and foods of Japan.
Even the shared-bed hostels are moderately priced and will set you back $20-35 USD per night. Plan on a budget trip at about $70 USD per person. Budgets can escalate quickly from there. This is a great 2016 couples budget. Matt shares budget tips here too.
Is it Safe to Travel in Japan?
Japan is incredibly safe. Crazy safe. The culture runs to a rigid set of rules and citizens adhere to these cultural norms. Very young children ride the subways alone. Scams are rare, if not nonexistent. Though crowded, pickpocketing and petty crimes just don’t happen outside of, perhaps, the airport area.
Anything that befalls you will be accidental. There are some reports of a skeezy behavior from men on the trains, but it’s rare. Even with Japan’s safety record, however, insurance is about more than destination safety. I am a firm advocate of securing travel insurance like IMG Global for every trip; read my key tips to pick a good travel insurance.
You’re pretty safe in Japan, so really the language barrier is your biggest issue, and a few quicks specific to traveling in Japan.
Things like your Japan Rail pass, discount flights, and that sort of thing are only available for booking outside of Japan. To get these discounts you have to plan ahead. English language signs are also not very extensive in Tokyo, though that changed some in preparation for the 2021 Summer Olympics.
In the years leading up to the Olympics, the country overhauled train stations for a more tourist-friendly travel experience. Even so, plan on using translation apps, have a good map, and stay patient. I found locals incredibly willing to help me, even when that involved a lot of pantomimes.
Younger Japanese (college age and teens) are the most likely to speak some English, and will understand written English.
Pre-Trip Reading Inspiration: Books About Japan
Fiction & Nonfiction Books About Japan
- Shogun: This is an epic, sweeping saga of Japan. It weaves narrative, history, love, and adventure into one book. It’s also a page-by-page unfolding of the intricacies of Japanese culture that are best understood when shown through imaginative characters and an intriguing storyline.
- Memoirs of a Geisha: An easy read that is beautifully written. This novel is a fictional but informative look at Japan’s Geisha culture. The movie is also wonderful and will whet your appetite for what you’ll see when you visit Kyoto.
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: Written by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, it’s an acclaimed novel detailing a post-WWII Tokyo with a fascinating cast of characters that shed light into Japan’s rigidly structured culture.
- Zen and Japanese Culture: This book shares the nuances and intricacies of Japanese Zen and will shed light on everything from the delicate tea ceremonies to intricate craftsmanship to detailed gardens. It’s like a slice of life look into the founding ideas behind Japanese culture.
Podcasts and Online Reads
- Sex and Suffering: The Tragic Life of the Courtesan in Japan’s Floating World: “A window into the world of Edo-Period Japanese prostitutes,” this piece breaks down the lives of sex workers in this period of Japan’s history. It follows the rise of the geisha and how this has shaped Japan’s current culture.
- How Japan Stood Up to Old Age: You can’t go far without reading about Japan’s cultural reverence for the elderly. This is a great piece looking into how their culture cares for their elderly and why it’s an important part of Japanese society. And a counter piece on the darker side of such an elderly society.
- The Man Who Sailed His House: a Fascinating true story of a tsunami survivor who was found floating out to sea on the roof of his house. The tsunami is among the most significant events to happen over the past decades, this is an interesting way to learn more through an intriguing longread.
- Japan, And How I Failed to Figure it Out: You can always count on “Wait But Why” to give an informative and entertaining breakdown on any topic, including this longread on his travels through Japan.
- Let’s Talk Japan: Load up your podcast playlist with any of these episodes for a detailed look into a range of topics from current events to traditional arts and culture.
Lonely Planet Japan. Lonely Planet travel guides have extensive cultural information, plus practical transport details.
Socially Responsible Travel in Japan
Responsible travel in Japan comes down to doing your research and making a strong effort to understand the cultural norms and adhere to them.
Japan is a country entrenched in deep traditions and rituals. The Japanese are quite proud of their unique culture heritage; this cultural heritage is deeply ingrained in how the country runs.
As a first-time tourist, it’s impossibly hard to understand the complex layers of tradition and customs underlying the behavioral norms. Use this guide to responsible travel in Japan for more respectful, ethical travels.
Understand Cultural Norms
Respect and hierarchy underlie a large part of Japanese society. Under this umbrella includes everything from the bowing etiquette to bathing to the words you choose to use.
Customs like not using shoes on tatami mats, and how you enter the baths—all of these have precise, specific behavior. Elders are given respect and it’s polite to allow them to enter before you on buses, businesses, and other locations.
Locals are rarely offended if you fumble a few things, they know the rules are complex. Best to learn a few greetings and phrases of thanks, however, as it is much appreciated and goes a long way in feeling welcome in the country.
The recommended readings above are a good starting point to unpacking these cultural norms. And also consider this Etiquette Guide to Japan—it’s inexpensive and will save you some blunders!
Make Ethical Food Choices
Japan is one of just a few countries that still consumes whale and dolphin meat. Responsible travelers should avoid supporting this part of the country’s food industry. Documentaries like The Cove shed light on the cruel practices involved in slaughtering these animals, and the global community generally frowns on the continued consumption of both of these types of meat.
Avoid Animal Tourism
The tide of public opinion against dolphin and whale tourism has shifted in many countries, but hasn’t yet reached Japan. The country has a growing dolphin and orca tourism industry—many of these animals are still caught from the wild. This contrasts with the vast majority of countries that have stopped capturing wild animals and instead use captive breeding programs (still fraught with issues but at least not pillaging the world’s oceans).
I don’t suggest a visit to the dolphinariums or the orca circuses. Nor bear parks and dog fights for that matter.
Lower Your Environmental Impact
The Japanese are eco-conscious and have implemented programs at every level to limit the negative impact of life on their beautiful natural environment. The country has every form of public transport imaginable. Use it. This is a cornerstone of any trip to Japan. The country’s public transport systems are among the best in the world; use the trains, buses, subways, funiculars, and more to visit all the nooks and crannies of this fascinating country.
Also limit your waste and use the country’s recycling bins. And for women, use a menstrual cup for not only easy of travel, but it’s eco-friendly, too.
Support Local Artisans
Japan has beautiful crafts and artisanal works throughout the country. Buying these traditional crafts is a wonderful way to support these industries and make sure they live on into future generations.
Consider these additional responsible travel tips to lessen your impact on the places you visit.
Best Things to Do in Japan
Japan is a small country and the high-speed train system allows you to navigate from top to bottom in a flash. There’s a lot to see, however, and each area has its own vibe. You can explore the highlights in just a one- or two-week trip, but to get under the skin and understand a place you should try to spend longer in each city and explore deeper.
There’s too much history to see it all in one trip—the number of UNESCO World Heritage sites across the country alone are impressive—so pick a region and stick to it. I found it took a few days just to overcome the overwhelm and learn how it all works.
The Japanese love systems, so from ordering your food to navigating their trains, there’s a precise system and you’ll need to figure it out!
The tips below are notes from my trip, as well as the heaps of suggestions from A Little Adrift readers who helped me plan my sites and activities. For a visual itinerary, enjoy the 100+ photos in my Japan Photo Essay.
My Favorite Travel Experiences in Japan:
- Exploring the temples of Kyoto’s northern and southern Higashiyama Districts.
- Spending the day wandering around Kamakura visiting the Buddha and the beach.
- Relaxing on Miyajima at the very top of the mountains, with sweeping views of the islands around Hiroshima.
- Mowing down on okonomiyaki at a tiny eatery in Hiroshima.
- Sitting at the gorgeous Isuien Gardens in Nara—the prettiest gardens that I saw on my entire trip.
- Hiking behind the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto.
Things To Do Tokyo
On my visit traveling through Japan, I had a SIM card—this was essential for me to navigate the city easily and I was very glad I had it. Also, I downloaded this Tourist Map image on my phone and used it to help navigate.
Visit Ueno Park during the Cherry Blossom season.
This is a great spot for beautiful views of the cherry blossoms. The season runs end of March through early April, and if you dream of visiting you should book everything well in advance.
Affordable accommodation will be nonexistent even in December/January, so you’d do well to find a good spot and book it—Booking.com often has refundable bookings until just days or weeks before your trip, so you could book a spot now, before the rest of your trip is planned, and then adjust or cancel if needed.
Grab coffee at a quirky cafe.
From cats to maid cafes, Tokyo doesn’t want for the weird or the novel. My friends visited a maid cafe and recount that experience here.
Deeply Explore the Shibuya/Harajuku and Shinjuku areas of Tokyo.
These are the three main areas those visiting Japan for the first time will want to see. There’s enough to fill a day or two just wandering, eating, and soaking in the vibes. Here are some ideas of how to get started on your day out:
- Shop and wander near Shibuya Station and the “Hachiko” dog statue. (Shibuya Hachiko Exit)
- Visit the Starbucks above the Shibuya Crossing intersection and watch the masses cross the street each time the light changes.
- Visit the Meiji Shrine (Harajuku Station)
- Hang out in Yoyogi Park (Yoyogi Station)
- Take a night walk through the “Omoide Yokocho” area. These bars, restaurant, and stalls harken to a previous era of Tokyo. (Shinjuku West Exit)
- Take in the free view from the north tower of the Tokyo Metropolitan Building (10 min walk from Shinjuku Station West Exit)
Get some culture in the Asakusa, Ryokoku, and Ueno areas.
Spend a day at museums and temples when you explore this part of Tokyo. Japan has an enormous amount of history and culture, and these areas preserve a lot of it. Here’s how to get started:
- Visit the Sensoji Temple (Asakusa).
- Wander the Edo-Tokyo Museum (Ryokoku, closed Mondays).
- Plan on a bit of time to explore the National Museum (Ueno, closed Mondays)
- Take in the night view from the top of Tokyo Sky Tree. It’s pricier but has beautiful evening views of the city.
Mow down on tasty Tokyo eats.
Stay somewhere central.
There are no shortages of places to stay across Tokyo, nor types of accommodation. The transportation system in Tokyo is a breeze, so staying a bit far from some of the main things you want to do is OK—you’ll still be able to easily explore those areas. These are my top picks for where to stay in Tokyo:
- Budget: Oak Hotel is a recommendation from a friend—she notes that this is your best best for a super budget place to stay in Tokyo.
- Midrange: Agora Place Asakusa is located in a popular area of Tokyo, the guesthouse is affordable and it’s still super central to the sights.
- Stay in a nice spot: APA Hotel Keisei Ueno-Ekimae is an upper midrange option, and Hotel Gracery Shinjuku is another a nice place from which to organize your search.
Best Day-Trips From Tokyo
While there is plenty of things to do in Tokyo to keep you busy, there are a number of fascinating day trips nearby. These are among the best places to explore beyond Tokyo.
This charming small town is less than an hour from the Tokyo city center. It’s best known for the well-maintained, traditional 17th-century buildings. The town is low-key and low slung, two aspects that has allowed it to preserve the architecture and ancient temples. Many buildings date back to the 1800’s, with the design even older.
The city is nicknamed “Mother of Tokyo” because it was bigger than Tokyo until Tokyo became the capitol. The city’s Candy Alley is a narrow section of the city filled with traditional sweets and artisan candy shops. It’s a great place to pick up pretty, sweet souvenirs. The Candy Alley was swamped with Japanese tourists, and the entire city seems a bit less touristy than the other easy day trips from Tokyo.
I loved spending the day in this pretty coastal town, which is a bit more than an hour from Tokyo. The most famous site is the giant bronze Buddha statue, dated to about the 13th century. There is a larger Buddha in Nara (good day trip from Kyoto), but you can easily spend a day in Kamakura too.
I enjoyed wandering around Hase-dera temple, which is very close to the Buddha. And they have delicious sweet potato ice cream that you can eat to relieve the heat. I recommend grabbing an ice cream and then wandering down to the beach for a bit to watch the kids play in the water.
There is an easy bus you can grab from the Buddha area that will take you back to the train station. Download an offline map of Kamakura if you don’t have a SIM—it’s a lot easier to navigate between the temples as there are not many signs on how to get to the water.
Nikko National Park
Nikko is a UNESCO World Heritage city and well worth a visit. This town is a bit farther—about two hours from the Tokyo city center. This makes a good weekend trip if you are based in Tokyo for a while. Many temples date to the mid eighth century and this is a good spot to plan on exercise as visit the lakes and mountain (Kegon Waterfall is a beauty).
Plan on visiting: Futarasan Shrine, Tosho-Gu Shrine and Rinno-ji Temple. There is also a ninja-samurai theme park, Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura, which could be fun for kids.
Jigokudani Snow Monkeys
Plan on a weekend trip north of Tokyo to see the snow monkeys basking in the hot mountain springs. It’s about three to four hours from Tokyo, and easy to visit with a Japan Rail Pass. This is a winter and early spring activity as it’s too warm later in the year to catch the monkeys monkeying around in the water.
Things to Do in Kyoto
Four Day Itinerary
I spent four full days in the city, and filled them from early morning when I left the house until I crashed into my bed late each evening. There’s a lot to do in Kyoto. Not only the incredible temples, but also food, markets, and so much more.
This is a loooong day of walking and exploring Kyoto, but it’s stunning. I used followed his notes religiously at those links above, and I enjoyed everything I saw.
Kyoto has a ton of temples you’re really going to want to see, and knowing which are worth your time is half of the battle. That’s why using a walking itinerary, or a walking tour booked on Viator or Get Your Guide, is the best way to ensure you hit the high points.
Day Two: Arashiyama Walking Itinerary 3
This itinerary through Kyoto was a bit lighter on the walking since the Bamboo forest isn’t too far from the train station. There’s a good bit to do in the area if you plan to stay for the day.
I spent some time just relaxing at the Okochi-Sanso Villa with a notebook and the tea included in the ticket price.
Day Three: Nara Day-Trip
More on this in the Nara part of the guide. Nara is a very easy day trip from Kyoto, especially if you have the Japan Rail Pass, like I did, because most of the ticket price is included in your pass. For that reason, if you’re in Kyoto, then use my things to do in Nara guide below to pop over to the city, admire the best of the city, and then make it back to Kyoto in time for a late snack from the markets.
Day Four: Fushimi Inari Shrine & Wandered Gion District
I spent an afternoon hiking around the Fushimi Inari Shrine, and then I headed to the Gion district for my last dinner in town and to get the vibe of this pretty area.
My Favorite Kyoto Temples
- Kiyomizu-dera Temple
- Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)
- Shoren-in Temple
- Chion-in Temple
- Honen-in Temple
Where to Eat and Sleep
- Budget: Santiago Guesthouse. This hostel was clean, efficient, and central. It was a great value and I would stay there again in a heartbeat.
- Midrange: You can’t go wrong with Reiah Hotel Otsu Ishiyama for midrange accommodation in the city.
- Stay in a nice spot. and Hotel Hokke Club Kyoto for a nice place from which to organize your search.
- Where to Eat in Kyoto. This is a thorough round-up of where and what to eat in Kyoto.
Best Day-Trips From Kyoto
Osaka is huge—the second largest city in Japan—but a world apart from traveling in Tokyo. While wandering around Tokyo seems anonymous and overwhelming, Osaka has a reputation as the friendlier of the two cities.
Osaka is known for its food scene, so plan to eat in the Dotonbori area in the evening. This is a handy free guide to Osaka’s food scene. If you haven’t yet tried takoyaki, battered octopus, this is the spot for it. Also consider a visit to Osaka Castle.
Adjacent to Osaka, this port city is home to the famous beef of the same name. You won’t be disappointed if you’re looking for Kobe Beef, as there are many near the Sannomiya area. There is a good deal of foreign influence here, which is rare for Japan.
This is one of the few places foreigners were allowed to live during the late 1800’s. Many former foreign residences are preserved in the Kitano-Cho area. Also consider that the Ashiya district is one of the few luxury districts in Japan. You’ll find boutique shops, expensive homes, and yacht harbors.
By all accounts this makes for a beautiful stop if castles and 14th century architecture interests you. It’s an easy train stop too on the Bullet Train. Himeji city is known for its beautiful castle that survived a number of wars and natural disasters.
Things To Do in Nara
This historic Japanese city predates Kyoto and just an hour from Kyoto. In the 8th century, this was the capital of Japan, and as such has some truly stunning temples and architecture.
It’s an easy day trip from Kyoto (a very full day, but it can be done in a day), but one A Little Adrift reader suggests spending the night in the city so that you can see the Nigatsu-do temple at night. Many of the temples of Nara are designated as UNESCO World Heritage spots. This page has navigation information for Nara.
Pick up deer biscuits on your walk from the train station.
It’s an easy walk from the train station to Nara Park. Buy some deer biscuits here so you can feed the deer not only in Nara Park, but also throughout your temple visits.
Note that his is not the only place with bowing deer, but it is the most iconic. I also saw these cute deer on Miyajima Island near Hiroshima, so it’s one of things that you’ll get to do in multiple places across Japan.
Stand in awe of Todaiji Temple.
Todaiji Temple is an absolute must visit in Nara. It’s one of the most significant temples in Japan and houses the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in the world.
You must visit the Isuien Gardens.
This is most beautiful garden that I visited in all of Japan. It’s perfectly manicured. They also have a tea house. And they have the best example of “borrowed scenery,” incorporating the nearby mountains and temples into the garden’s design.
Catch the reflection of Kofuku-ji temple on your walk out-of-town.
I timed my evening exit from Nara to watch Kofuku-ji as the sunset and the temple reflected in the water. You can and should walk through the temple grounds as well, as they are peaceful and the temple is also pretty up close.
Visit the Nigatsu-do Temple.
If you’re staying in Nara, plan to visit this spot at night. ALA reader Shelley lived in Nara and says, “It is so peaceful and gorgeous with the lanterns aglow. It’s on a hill and you can see the city lights.” It’s also very, very pretty to visit during the day or early evening.
Stroll through Nara Machi.
Also worth a stroll is Nara machi, which is an old part of the city (although really, it’s all old) where you can find lots of traditional shops.
Sleep somewhere nice.
Things To Do in Hiroshima
Hiroshima is a must-visit spot if you’re touring that area of the island. It’s an easy trip from Nara or Osaka and has enough things to do to fill at least two of your days in Japan.
Learn and remember at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park.
The Peace Park is a humbling day learning about the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and other areas. The exhibits are somber and beautifully presented. The park is tranquil and calm. I rented a bike from my hostel and spent half a day at the Peace Park, and then spent time riding around the city processing. I visited the Shukkeien Garden to relax and process.
Spend the day on Miyajima Island.
This spot is about an hour from Hiroshima, and you’ll need to take a train to the ferry to get over to the island. From Miyajima Station, take the ferry across.
On Miyajima, you’ll pass the iconic floating Itsukushima Shrine. This was originally built in the 6th or 7th century and the gate “floods” at various times of the day creating a floating torii. The tides are always different, so check when you’ll be able to see the gate both floating, and when the tide recedes you can cross the sand to stand under the gate.
Besides the gate, you can spend half a day scaling Mt. Misen. You can hike to the top, or take the cable car. Even if you take the cable car, there is a bit of a hike to get to the very top. I took the cable car up and walked down through the very pretty forest paths.
I spent one entire day on Miyajima Island, arriving on an early ferry, spending my morning exploring the mountain, then lunch and a late afternoon of wandering while I waited for the sun to set over Itsukushima Shrine.
Dine out on okonomiyaki.
Hiroshima is the spot to try okonomiyaki and you won’t want to miss it. The Hiroshima version is unlike the kinds they make in other areas of Japan. Most restaurants will also make a completely vegetarian version of the food, so don’t shy away from the city’s many okonomiyaki restaurants. It’s usually a delicious, affordable lunch or dinner option.
Visit Shikoku Island.
Shikoku is famous for the “88 Temple pilgrimage.” It’s much less touristy than Miyajima, but a beautiful spot and one of the four main islands of Japan. This island is known for hospitality, seafood, and udon noodles.
Stay somewhere central.
- Budget: J-Hoppers Guesthouse is a great chain throughout Japan and they had a well-run hostel and gave great city recs. The boast a good community of backpackers as well. The best okonomiyaki I tried in all of Japan was just around the corner at a spot they recommended.
- Stay in a nice spot: Try Hiroshima Pacific Hotel for midrange, and Hotel Granvia Hiroshima is a nice place from which to organize your search.
Travel to Other Spots Around Japan
There are so many beautiful spots in the country. These are a few other cities/regions/options for travelers looking to supplement the bigger cities with a few small towns or interesting off-the-path adventures.
This iconic spot is the tallest spot in Japan and sits on the border of two provinces, Yamanashi and Shizuoka. Both prefectures afford pretty views of the mountain—actually an active volcano—and are up to two hours from the city center of Tokyo.
Check the time of year you’re visiting as you can only climb Fuji at certain times of year.
Sunrise from Fuji is a wonderful cap to a Japan trip if you’re there in the right season. This page has a lot of information that will get you started on planning a Fuji hike. This is a narrative account of climbing Fuji.
If you’re not there in climbing season, there are some amazing other walking trails throughout the country (several options below).
Wisteria Tunnels of Kawachi Fuji Gardens
I haven’t yet made it this far south, but I had noted it as a potential plan because it looks like a stunning spot. This page has more information on the pretty tunnels.
Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route
This ancient pilgrimage route is a beautiful walking route through Japan. There are short one- to two-day trails, or longer ones too.
The Nakasendo Way Trek Between Kyoto and Tokyo
This walking route uses old Edo-era trails and is also stunningly pretty.
Fuji Views at Hakone National Park
Consider buying a Hakone Freepass for access to all the transport options. This is also a good spot stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan and to indulge in a hot spring bath.
Stay at a monastery in Koyasan.
Vegetarians should head here and book time at one of these temple monasteries. The food is vegetarian and it’s a wonderful place to learn the etiquette and customs without any food fears.
Essential Travel Planning Resources
🛏️ Find great accommodation.
Booking.com is essentially the only hotel booking site that I use. It has a wide and affordable selection of traditional hotels, but also hostels and vacation rentals, too. Use these pro tips to find the best travel accommodation.
📍Navigate more effectively.
Rome2Rio is super handy to assess the full range of transport options between two cities—shows everything from flights to trains, buses, minibuses, and more. If you’re booking a rental car, I’ve always found the best deals on RentalCars.com.