Mount fuji Japan

26 things to do on your first trip to Japan

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Japan is a celebration of the weird and the wonderful, the ancient temples and the futuristic cities, the world-renowned beef and the delicate sushi.

It’s a place that will confuse you as much as it will excite and educate you.

It’s a country you simply can’t just visit once. BUT, on your first trip here are a few of the things we think would be worth factoring in to really get a taste of what this truly one-of-a-kind country has to offer….


1. Walk back in time on the Nakasendo Way

nakasendo way walking trail Japan

The Nakasendo way is a 332-mile hiking trail that weaves its way through the mountains and traditional villages of rural Japan, linking the ancient capital of Nara and Kyoto, with Tokyo (or Edo as it used to be known).  One of the most popular sections, Magome to Tsumago, can be tackled as a day trip from Kyoto. This side of Japan – the quieter and more rural side – is so enchanting and offers a stark contrast to the bright lights of the modern cities. Find out more with our ‘Walk Through Old Japan’ sample itinerary 


2. Eat sushi at the first ever sushi-train in Osaka

Eat sushi at a sushi train restaurant in osaka

Sushi is almost synonymous with Japan. In 1958 the first sushi-train restaurant opened in Osaka after its creator was inspired by the machinery in a beer brewery. What better way to immerse yourself in the Japanese culture, than to prop yourself up at a sushi conveyor belt restaurant, tasting many delicious dishes and trying to figure out what on earth the rest are! Why not try your very own masterclass and learn how to make it for yourself?! 


3. Get a thrill at Universal Studios in Osaka

Harry Potter world universal studios Osaka Japan

You will have never experienced joy like you will when walking around Osaka’s Universal Studios. With the team beaming at you and waving at every opportunity, countless hair-raising, adrenaline-pumping rollercoasters and an impressive Harry Potter World to rival America’s offering, this is a fab day out.


4. Spend a night in a Ryokan

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn; complete with tatami mats, futon beds and communal baths. Say goodbye to your shoes at the door and don slippers and a traditional Japanese robe (yakuta) for this taste of authentic Japanese culture. Booking into a ryokan is very different to a hotel stay anywhere else in the world. But, one thing is for certain, you will experience Japanese hospitality at its finest.


5. Soak in an onsen

An onsen is a natural hot spring bath. There are a fair few ettiquete rules surrounding them, so be sure to do your research (or chat to us!) before your visit to make sure you don’t put your foot in it. For example, most traditional onsens do not allow bathing suits… so if that doesn’t sound appealing – a private onsen might be more for you. (If you have tattoos, be sure to search for onsens that allow them as they’re a bit of a taboo in Japan!)


6. Watch a sumo practice

sumo wresting Japan

Sumo is almost a religion in Japan, they take it very seriously! Their national sport has been around 1,500 years and the rules are fairly straightforward. The first wrestler to step out of the ring or to touch the ground with any body part (other than the bottom of his feet), loses. Visiting a sumo stable is something that requires a fair amount of planning and a fair amount of being in the right place at the right time… but it’s worth it!


7. Learn about Japan’s nuclear history at Hiroshima

Hiroshima dome

In 1945, during the Second World War, the worlds’ first atomic bomb was dropped by an American B-52 over Hiroshima. The devastation to the city was unparalleled, with 90% of it instantly flattened and more than 80,000 people killed. The effects were long-lasting with radiation poisoning affecting many more over the decades that followed. Today though, Hiroshima is a thriving city and a really interesting one to visit – take a boat over to neighbouring Miyajima too and take in the iconic Itsukushima floating Shrine.


8. Grab a Bento Box and Ride a shinkansen (bullet train)

Shinkansen bullet train Japan

The Japanese transport system in general is something to marvel at – but the shinkansen, is the jewel in its crown. Reaching speeds of up to 199 mph and linking so much of the country, the bullet train is a fast and luxurious way to get around. For an even more authentic experience, grab a delicious Bento Box from one of the platform stalls and chow down as you blaze through the Japanese countryside.


9. Sing your heart out at a karaoke room

Warm up your vocal cords and pick your tune because Japan is the birthplace of karaoke and is the perfect place to belt out a number. With the word karaoke stemming from the Japanese ‘Kare’ – meaning ‘empty’ and ‘Oke’ – meaning ‘orchestra’, the Japanese take this pastime exceptionally seriously and after a few turns with the mic, we think you will too!


10. Design and make your own pot noodle

cup noodle museum Japan

Japan is full of the weird and the wonderful. If you fancy indulging in a bit of a wacky activity when in Tokyo, hop on a train out to the suburb of Yokohama and pay a visit to the Cup Noodle Museum. Here you can create and design your very own pot noodle. Who wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon choosing artificial flavourings and colouring-in a pot noodle tub?! You might be horrified by your creation, but who knows, you might uncover a talent you never knew you had.


11. Get anything and everything from a vending machine

vending machine Japan

Vending machines are EVERYWHERE in Japan. And you can get ANYTHING from them. Fancy a pizza? There’s a vending machine for that. Need a new tie? Japan’s got you covered. Many local restaurants have a vending machine at the door for you to select your food, pay and wait for it to arrive!


12. Learn how to forge a samurai sword

From samurai swords (katanas) to fancy kitchen knives, the Japanese really know their stuff when it comes to blades. Why not treat yourself to the ultimate unique experience and spend an afternoon learning to forge your very own knife? Using the same methods and processes that have been practiced over the years, an experienced swordsmith will guide you as you forge your very own souvenir. An impressive memento and a memory to be treasured.


13. Eat okonomiyaki in Hiroshima

okonomiyaki Hiroshima

Delicious and tempting food is EVERYWHERE you look in Japan. (Along with a fair amount you wouldn’t eat if someone paid you.) One of the most delectable snacks on offer is the savoury pancake, okonomiyaki. Topped with almost anything and everything you can imagine; cabbage, vegetables, meat, cheese, you name it. ‘Okonomi’ literally means ‘to everyone’s liking’ – and that couldn’t be more apt. You absolutely must try this in Hiroshima… we guarantee, one will not be enough!


14. Take a cooking class and learn to make udon noodles

Here at Holiday Architects, we love our food almost as much as we love to travel. What better way to really get under the skin of a destination than to learn how to cook the cuisine like a pro? From making udon noodles from scratch to rolling sushi, the opportunities are endless and there are classes available all over the country. Think of how impressed your pals will be at your next dinner party!?


15. Experience a traditional tea ceremony

tea ceremony japan

Tea is so much more than just a refreshment to the Japanese. It’s a ritual and a key part of their culture. A tea ceremony involves the ceremonial preparation and drinking of green tea in a traditional Japanese tearoom, sat on tatami mats and following a strict routine. It’s all about gratitude, respect and tradition and is beautifully Japanese. There are opportunities to experience one all over the country, so there will be plenty of chances to fit one of these into your Japan itinerary. Find out more.


16. See the cherry blossoms

Japan see the cherry blossom

The cherry blossoms are as fleeting as they are beautiful, so be sure to time your visit perfectly to be in with the best chance of seeing them. The little pink, pillowy buds make the perfect backdrop (or foreground!) to your Japan photos, looking truly magical set alongside one of the many castles or lining the roads. Every year there is a cherry blossom forecast released to show where and when they will be in bloom.


17. Take a hike through the red torii gates at Fushimi Inari

Japan Fushimi Inari shrine kyoto

The iconic red tori gates of the Fushimi Inari shrine are found in Southern Kyoto. This trek up through thousands of bright red gates. This is the greatest of hundreds of shrines to Inari throughout Japan. On your hike, you’ll spot plenty of foxes, considered the messenger of Inari.  What’s more, it’s free to visit and is open ALL hours. Go early for the best chance of experiencing this shrine without the crowds.


18. Marvel at Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto’s golden temple

golden temple Japan 

Kinkaku-ji (otherwise known as the golden pavillion) is a zen buddhist temple in Kyoto. With it’s top two floors entirely covered in gold leaf and built over a large pond – the building is striking. As the sun bounces off the gold and illuminates the water below, it’s not hard to see why this is one of the most popular buildings to visit in Japan. You can’t go in the temple unfortunately, but seeing it from a far is an experience in itself. Take it all in on our Cultural Kyoto full day tour… 


19. Visit the temple from ‘The Last Samurai’

Engyo-ji Temple in Himeji Japan - the last samurai

The Engyogi temple is nestled in the mountains high above Himeji city. Hop off your shinkansen at Himeji centre and jump on a bus to the base of Mount Shosha. After a short rope-way/cable car ride up the mountain and a 10 minute walk, you’ll find yourself at the entrance of this temple complex.  The history of this place spans back well over 1000 years and there are multiple structures and temples to explore. Due to its beauty, it’s often used as a filming location – one of the most famous and impressive of the films being ‘The Last Samurai’.



20. See the bowing deer at Nara

deer nara japan

Nara is a beautifully green, temple-filled city and was actually the first capital city of Japan. Home to the staggering Great Buddha (Diabutsu), Nara has a long and rich history, illustrated by the many sights peppered throughout a relatively small space.  Well renowned for its (questionably) tame deer, you might even see one bowing if you’re lucky! (And yes, that is a dog in a pram. This is Japan for you!)



21. Take a chance at spotting Mount Fuji

Mount fuji

Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji is notorious for being shy and tending to hide itself behind the clouds. However, if you time it right (and keep an eye on the forecast) there are many places close to Tokyo that would offer you a great view of this mysterious snow-capped mountain. Whether you choose to visit the onsen town of Hakone (can be quite busy here!) or find somewhere a bit more off the beaten track to get your glimpse, you won’t regret your efforts if she decides to put on a show.


22. Experience a slice of olden Japan at Shirakawago

 Shirakawago Japan heritage site

Walking around Shirakawago feels like you’ve stepped back in time. A visit to these traditional thatched a-frame houses nestled in a valley beneath the mountains is picture perfect. If you travel to Japan in the winter, a trip out here could well be rewarded with snow! It would be worth teaming a visit here with a stay at the beautifuly preserved ancient town of Takayama. This is real, rural Japan at its finest.



23. Indulge in melt-in-your-mouth Kobe beef 

Indulge in kobe beef in kobe

Meat eaters rejoice! You’re in for a treat in Japan. Hop off the Shinkansen in Kobe, to taste the world-renowned Kobe beef in its namesake-town. The marbled look of this delicious wagyu beef, is what makes the meat so tender.  This is just one of the many foodie delights Japan has to offer… Find out more with our suggested activities for food lovers! 



 24. Take a stroll through Arashiyama bamboo forest (but go early!)

Arashiyama bamboo forest KYOTO

Bamboo is found all over Japan. The warm and humid climate is just what bamboo trees need to thrive – and they’re seriously pretty while doing it! Japanese myth and legend often compare the strength of bamboo, with the strength of man – and at Arashiyama (a district in the Western outskirts of Kyoto) you can walk through a magnificent forest of these towering stalks. Top tip would be to get there early though! Your photos will look much better without the crowds!


25. Walk across the busiest pedestrian crossing on earth

Shibuya crossing Japan

Shibuya crossing in Tokyo is known for being the busiest in the world. With around 2,500 people crossing each time the lights flash green from what can seem like endless angles. It’s absolute chaos but – being Japan – it just works! Like a dance of busy people who all have somewhere to be, everyone effortlessly weaves around eachother and making your way across is a must. Top tip! You can get a great view and photo of the crossing from the Shibuya station (with a little bit less of a crowd!).


26. Get to grips with the toilets

Last but not least (certainly not the least challenging anyway!), is getting to grips with the toilets. With more buttons than your average remote control, figuring out how to flush the chain can take a while! But whether you want to be played a tune whilst you go about your business or have it clean itself, the Japanese future-proof toilets have you covered.



So there we have it. 27 things worth doing on your first trip to Japan. Needless to say, this is by no means everything the country has to offer, this is just the start. Find out more here. 

Want to talk to someone who really knows his stuff? Our HA Japan specialist Fenton recently returned from a visit and has SO much knowledge about this wonderful country to share. Give him a call on 01242 253 073 to talk more about the adventure you want to have. He’s ready to listen and make it happen.


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