There’s no shortage of articles on the internet about the best things to do in a destination. For me, the problem is that, more often than not, these lists include a number of places to go see. As someone who loves to take photos, it’s nice to have that list of spots to photograph in the back of my head, but ultimately, what I want is a list of experiences I can throw myself into. I want to be able to do or create something, to meet people who can introduce different aspects of the culture that make me say “I never knew that” or “So there is more to this place than just A, B, and C.” With that in mind, I’d like to share my list of best things to DO in Japan. Enjoy!
Anthony Bourdain doesn’t call Tokyo his favorite place to eat for nothing. Sure you’ve heard of sushi, tempura, ramen, etc. and maybe have tried variations of those foods where you live, but to eat in Japan is to eat at the source and discover new foods you’ve never heard of. For example, do you know what fugu is? It’s pufferfish or blowfish, and it’s one of the most poisonous fish you can eat, unless it’s cooked properly by a licensed chef. Add that to your list of foods to try when you come to Japan.
Take a cooking class or food tour to learn about Japan’s food culture, meal etiquette, how food acts as the magnet that pulls people together, and pushes people to explore other parts of the country. If you take a cooking class, my recommendation is to rent an Airbnb apartment and practice what you’ve learned at home. I also suggest taking a walk through the basement floor of the major department stores like Seibu, Tobu, or Shibuya’s Tokyu Food Show to name a few. It is here where you can buy a bunch of different foods to sample and figure out what you like before restaurant hopping.
Get Physical and Creative
Try your hand at aikido, karate, tai chi, a taiko drum class, yoga (aerial yoga), meditation (learn to breathe, baby), any physical activity that gets your body moving. For something more traditional, take part in a tea ceremony in Kyoto, ikebana (flower arrangement), or practice calligraphy. For my adrenaline junkies, how about bungee jumping, fly boarding, surfing, kayaking, or heading up north to go skiing and snowboarding? The options are endless.
Rent a Kimono
Some may scoff at this recommendation because it seems too touristy or silly to walk around and take pictures. On the contrary, I highly recommend renting a kimono and wearing geta on your feet to feel what it’s like to walk a kilometer in mildly suffocating traditional Japanese garb. Kimonos are not just reserved for geisha. Both men and women wear them to festivals, important family events/celebrations, and on national holidays. There are a plethora of kimono rental shops, primarily in Kyoto and Tokyo, where you can get a kimono fitting, learn how to tie the obi belt, slip your feet into geta, and go for a walk around the city.
Dance in a Festival
It’s a lot of fun to watch any one of Japan’s many festivals, but it’s even more fun to dance in one. The first festival I ever went to and participated in was Yokohama’s Obon festival where people come together to honor the spirits of their relatives that have passed on. It was the first time I had danced in public in a really long time, and it was such a joyous occasion. People from Yokohama’s different neighborhoods came out to dance in a big circle. The dancing was choreographed and taught by the hosts standing on a platform in the center of the crowd, and they danced along with everyone. It is now one of my goals to dance in one of Japan’s most famous festivals Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri where you can rent festival wear, dance in the streets with everyone, and sing at the top of your lungs.
Attend a Meetup
The quickest way to meet a bunch of new people who have similar interests is to attend a Meetup event. If you’re studying Japanese or just want to learn a few basics, I suggest a language exchange meetup. Language exchange is a great way to meet in the middle of cross-cultural communication, build empathy between language learners, break down cultural barriers, and it’s also just cool to interact with and learn from people of all ages and backgrounds.
My other recommendation is to attend an event or go on a retreat with Tokyo Gaijins or Tokyo Snow Club. They host ski trips out to Nagano and Hokkaido in the winter, and in the summer, they do camping trips to neighboring islands, hiking trips, and Mario Kart go kart racing through Tokyo.
Other Noteworthy Meetups
Mountains aren’t the first thing that spring to mind when you think of Japan, but the country is actually quite mountainous, offering retreats for city dwellers and travelers alike. My favorite thing to do on the weekends is to go hiking in the mountains, count my footsteps, maybe try some ice cream or any local foods on offer on the trails, stop to enjoy the view every once in a while, and eat a picnic lunch at the top. I wrote about my favorite hikes on the Live the Adventure blog, but here are a few other recommendations to get you started:
- Mt Fuji (July and August only)
- Mt. Takao (Tokyo)
- Mt. Mitake (Tokyo)
- Japanese Alps
- Shikoku Pilgrimage
- Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage / Mt. Koya
- Mt. Hiei (Kyoto/Osaka)
- Mt. Homanzan (Fukuoka)
- Mt. Unzen (Shimabara)
- Hiji Waterfall (Okinawa)
I wrote this section with only Tokyo in mind, due to the atmosphere created by the sheer number of tiny bars and izakayas condensed in a small area, but of course, you can apply this to anywhere you go in Japan. Also, drink responsibly! For the night owls, I recommend walking into any izakaya in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, ordering a drink (even if it’s non-alcoholic), and starting a conversation with the person sitting next to you (regardless of nationality) as well as the person serving you drinks.
Golden Gai is one of many but arguably the most famous yokocho alleyway that forms a small neighborhood of tiny bars and izakayas. The yokochos have a reputation for being a late night hangout for the veteran salarymen of Tokyo who go out drinking together with their colleagues or friends after work. What makes this area so unique is that each place only seats about 5-8 people at a time and the alleyways are dark only lit by shop lanterns and the occasional fluorescent street light.
This is a unique item I wanted to add in the spirit of the human experience. If you get lost, ask train station staff or the police for directions. If you’re looking for a restaurant or recommendations for things to do in the neighborhood, ask another human. Too soon do we resort to our phones and guidebooks for guidance that we miss out on rich interaction with those around us when we walk with our heads down. Only if they are unable to help, then turn to your phone/guidebook as a backup.
Finally, for those of you who, like me, love to take photos and are always looking to improve, try out a photography tour with Eyexplore Tokyo. They run photo adventure tours in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, and I wrote about my experience and shared some of my favorite photos from the tours. For other suggestions on best photo spots to check out on your time, bookmark these articles:
- 18 Best Places to Photograph Tokyo (via japan-talk)
- 8 Best Kyoto Spots for Photographers (via japan-talk)
- 11 Best Spots in Tokyo for Your Inner Photoholic (via TravelinBoots)
- Shooting Tokyo (via Shoot Tokyo)
- Ten Unique Places to Take a Selfie in Tokyo (via Time Out Tokyo)
For more information, check out my Japan Travel Resources page.