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BlogDestinationsThe top things to do, eat, and see in Japan
Destinations

The top things to do, eat, and see in Japan

Sep 02, 2020 by Laura Cooper

Soaring towers. Shinto shrines. Seasons that bring a sense of wonder to the country. Our Japan travel guide is here to give you the scoop on the country and how you can get the most out of your visit. We sat down with some of our staff to hear their experiences so we can share their Japan travel tips with you!

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Fast travel facts

Currency: Japanese Yen

UNESCO World Heritage Sites: While Japan has 23 in total, some of our favorite are Himeji Castle, the “floating” gates of the Itsukushima Shrine, and the Tenryu-Ji Temple in Kyoto.

Best way to get around: Walking or jumping on the train system.

Phrase to know: “Arigatou gozaimashita.” When speaking with our staffers the first thing they said was how kind everyone they met was. So, use arigatou gozaimashita to say thank you and show your gratitude!

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THE BEST TIME TO VISIT JAPAN

Japan offers something exciting and new to travelers every season. From the beautiful pink cherry blossoms in the spring to the golden autumn foliage, Japan has a season for everyone. This makes Japan the perfect destination for every type of traveler.

February for the Sapporo Snow Festival. Winter always brings with it the best festivals and activities, and wintertime in Japan is no exception! The Sapporo Snow Festival is a multi-day festival where travelers get the chance to see some amazing artwork, like ice sculptures and snow statues. While strolling between the artwork stalls at the festival, you will also find several different winter activities to take part in. Truly an experience for any traveler!

March and April for cherry blossom season. These blooms only last for a short while, so, you’ll want to go in mid-March to early April to spot them. This is the prime time to go to see the sakura around the country and join in celebrating hanami, the act of enjoying the cherry blossoms. “Everything is sakura this time of year,” said staffer Drew. “The food, the art, anything, and everything. It’s magical.”

September through November for some Momijigari (red leaf hunting). Fall is a great time to visit Japan for breathtaking views of the country’s fall colors that rival the New England autumn (though we may be a bit biased since we have an office in Boston). Starting in September in the north of Japan, the leaves begin to turn. This season lasts through November in some parts of the country, giving you plenty of time to visit and see them for yourself.

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WHAT TO PACK FOR A TRIP TO JAPAN

Any guide to Japan will tell you to bring layers, layers, layers when visiting the island. Having layers is essential to make sure you can stay warm or cool whenever the weather calls for it! Here’s what else to pack for your trip to Japan.

Walking shoes. “Comfortable walking shoes are a must,” says our staffer Drew. Most cities have a very extensive metro system, but walking is a great way to get around Japan.

A small bag for trash. There are few public trash cans in Japan, and littering is rightfully frowned upon. We recommend bringing a small bag to hold any trash until you can find a can or get back to your hotel. Another tip: “If you get street food, eat at the stall and don’t walk away,” says our staffer Adam. They’ll have a place to throw away any trash once you’re done!

Small folder. This one comes recommended by our staffer Andy, who says, “Japan loves paper—paper tickets, brochures, you name it.” Bringing a folder is a great way to keep everything together, and also makes a great souvenir to bring home.

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THE BEST THINGS TO EAT (& DRINK) IN JAPAN

When going to Japan, “bring a sense of adventure and your appetite,” says our staffer Drew. While there are several different things to try eating in Japan (like all the street food our staffer Andy loved) here are some of our favorites.

Sushi. A staple and one of the most popular Japanese dishes outside of Japan. Some of our staffer Drew’s favorite sushi restaurants in Japan are the ones where you can enjoy omakase and see the chef prepare the sushi in front of you. “It’s an experience being able to share the meal with not just the other travelers, but with the chefs who prepares the meal!”

Ramen. This is no Cup O’ Noodles. The fun of eating ramen in Japan comes from experimenting with different broth bases, toppings, and flavors. Our recommendation? Enjoy a bowl topped with an ajitama (a seasoned soft-boiled egg) while you learn about the history of ramen in Japan and its place in the culture.

Mochi. One of our top tips for traveling to Japan is that no trip is complete without tasting mochi. Like several Japanese dishes, mochi is deeply tied to Japanese culture and has been around for centuries. While a bit of an umbrella term, mochi starts with a dough made from pounded, steamed rice. From this base, you can add flavors and tastes ranging from sweet to savory.

Unagi. If you’ve seen this famous episode of Friends, you’ll know Phoebe is right—unagi is a delicious meal of freshwater eel. Traditionally, unagi is grilled and served on a bed of rice (unagi-don) and is considered a delicacy. Unagi is served year-round, but is especially popular during the summer months.

Matcha. Identifiable by its bright green color, matcha is a powdered tea that is originally from Japan and packed full of antioxidants and fiber. Kyoto is known as one of the most popular areas for matcha. While it’s starting to become more well-known outside of the country, we recommend grabbing a cup (or two!) in Japan and trying one of the several other matcha-flavored foods while you’re there.

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THE BEST THINGS TO SEE IN JAPAN

Wondering what to do in Japan? One of the best parts of visiting Japan is learning about the culture and meaning of the sites you visit. On tour, our insightful guides will be there to share their knowledge while you soak up the stunning views at these top places to visit in Japan.

Mount Fuji. Considered to be one of three holy mountains in Japan, Mount Fuji is a must-see and one of our staffer Drew’s favorite places to visit in Japan. The five lakes surrounding Mount Fuji also offer stunning views and are a great backdrop to any commemorative photo. Whether you’re looking to hike the mountain or just stand and admire the view, any season is perfect for visiting Mount Fuji.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Originally part of the residence of the Naito family of feudal lords, it’s now a national garden featuring three distinct design styles. That means there are plenty of things to discover as you walk around this park in Tokyo. It is also a fantastic place to stroll around and see the cherry blossoms when they’re in bloom.

Kinkaku-ji Temple. Also known as the Golden Pavilion, this temple is a must-see for any traveler heading to Japan. Kinkaku-ji has a deep connection to Buddhist history in Japan and houses many different Buddha relics. The Golden Pavilion gets its name from the top two levels that are covered in gold foil. With its gold colors reflecting from the pond surrounding it, the red leaves during autumn are truly breathtaking—making the fall a great time to visit Japan!

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HOW TO SPEND FREE TIME IN JAPAN

No matter what your interests are, you’ll find Japan has many things for you to explore. These are the best things to do in Japan during your free time—whether you’re a literature-lover, a cinephile, or have an artsy side.

For bookworms. Explore the T-site Tsutaya bookstore. It has a “library in the woods” design concept, meaning you could get lost perusing the three buildings and six book departments. Maybe grab a copy or two of your favorite books and be as guilty as us in tsundoku (the act of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them).

For cinephiles. Founded in 711, making it one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto, the Fushimi-Inari Shrine is a must-see recommendation from our staffer Andy. With its breathtaking Torii gates, this view will seem familiar for those who’ve seen Memoirs of a Geisha. These gates lead the trail all the way to Mount Inari. While walking the trail, enjoy reading the names of the family and individuals who have donated a gate for this trail. There are five shrines that make up the entire Fushimi Inari shrine and one of our staffer Andy’s favorite things to do was look at the different wooden plaques, called ema, where worshippers have left their prayers.

For art enthusiasts. Wandering through the 21st-century Art Museum in Kanazawa is a terrific way to spend some free time in Japan. With many exhibits going at a time, there is plenty of contemporary art to see. Some of the most popular exhibits include The Swimming Pool by Leandro Erlich and Green Bridge by Patrick Blanc. The circular design of the building and the floor to ceiling windows allow multiple different entry points, to reflect that art can be viewed from multiple sides.

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SOUVENIRS TO BUY IN JAPAN

One of our favorite things about traveling is finding souvenirs that remind us of the time we spent exploring new places. Japan is a beautiful country filled with rich history and culture, so there are many mementos you can pick up to remember your trip. Here are a few of our favorite souvenirs to bring home.

Tenugui. Tenugui are thin Japanese hand towels that are handmade and hand-painted with several distinctive designs. One of the reasons we love recommending Tenugui as a souvenir is that they're not only stunning and gorgeous works of art, but they are so versatile. You can hang them as art, you can wear them as a wrap, use them as a handkerchief—the possibilities are endless!

Chopsticks. Our staffer Andy’s favorite souvenir he brought back from Japan lands a spot on this list. Boutiques often sell a variety of chopsticks in unique styles and colors. They’re a perfect gift to bring home since you’ll be reminded of all the tasty food you ate while in Japan. “There are even some places you can get them engraved,” said Andy.

Ceramics and pottery. Looking for something handmade and unique? Japan is home to some of the oldest ceramic traditions in the world. Our staffer Drew recommends picking up some handmade houseware goodies or a decorative piece while in Kyoto. You won’t be disappointed with the level of detail and attention put into these stunning pieces!

Matcha set. Did you fall in love with matcha during your travels? A matcha set is a perfect souvenir to bring home. Consisting of a matcha bowl, a wooden whisk, and a matcha spoon, this is one you’ll get a lot of use out of once you’re back home. You can impress your friends while you make them a cup of matcha just like had in Japan while telling them all about your trip.

Omamori charm. Need some good luck or know a student with finals coming up? A great souvenir is an omamori charm, also known as a good luck charm. These tiny charms have origins in Buddhism and are designed to drive away evil spirits and misfortune. The charms come in many different sizes and forms, so we’re sure you can find the perfect one for you.

Have you visited Japan on tour? Tell us your Japan travel tips on Facebook!


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About the author | Laura Cooper
Laura was bit by the travel bug in college during a trip to Italy, her favorite thing about traveling is being able to wander through the streets of wherever she is visiting and soaking everything up. She is always up to learn about a new place and discover places to visit. When she's not helping our travelers or out exploring the world, Laura can be found walking through secondhand bookstores looking for a new book to read or listening to her favorite podcasts.

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