A beginner’s guide to exploring Japan, from the cities to see to the traditions to partake in

Various
Jun 8, 2020

Whether you’re in the process of planning a trip of a lifetime, or you’re simply continuing to dream of one day reaching that bucket list destination, here’s everything you need to do, see and experience when visiting Japan

Visiting a new country for the first time can be overwhelming. There are so many towns and cities to visits, signature cuisine to taste, traditions to engage with and stories to be told. And of course, this goes for Japan –  the island country in East Asian that is so rich is instantly recognisable and symbolic culture.

Of course, you’ll never be able to take everything in –  from amazing sceneries and rich histories – in one trip. But if you’re planning your first trip, here are the key things to weave into your itinerary and tick off your bucket list before you inevitably succumb to Japan’s and start planning your next exploration.

From speeding past Mount Fuji on a bullet train to strolling in cherry tree-dotted parks, here’s your beginner’s guide to exploring the Far Eastern country.

Visiting Japan: The Traditions

colourful Japanese umbrellas with floral pattern details
Spot traditional Japanese umbrella as you journey through the country

Mount Fuji

Good news: if all you want is a glimpse, on clear days (usually in winter) you can see Fuji-san from some of Tokyo’s skyscrapers, or more reliably, out of the window of the Shinkansen bullet train en route to Osaka or Kyoto (about 45 minutes into the journey). Want to get closer? The lakes at Fuji’s base — Kawaguchi, Saiko, Shoji and Yamanaka — provide year-round jumping-off points for walks or kayaking trips. But if you’re determined to join the thousands who climb to the 3,776-metre summit each year, you’ll need to visit between July and early September, and dedicate 11 to 16 hours to the challenging ordeal (see fujisan-climb.jp).

Geishas 

Geishas, and their apprentices, maikos, are traditional artist-entertainers skilled in song, dance and the art of conversation. If you want a one-to-one, expect to shell out — in Kyoto, where you’ll find the highest concentration, you’ll pay hundreds of dollars for a privately hosted evening, plus more for food and drink (high-end hotels can arrange this). Alternatively, ask your tour operator if it can arrange an affordable group experience, or hang out in Kyoto’s historic Gion district at dusk (in Tokyo, try Asakusa’s Kannonura Street; in Niigata, the Furumachi district). This is the time the geishas are hurrying to their appointments and you might just spot them for free.

The Tea Ceremony 

Tea ceremonies are silent, meditative events, in which a kimono-wearing host gracefully mixes and serves thick, bitter matcha tea (it’s the aesthetics that are the point). There are complex rules about where to sit, how to handle cups and when to eat your wagashi sweets, but you’ll get full instructions. Most, such as those available in the tea heartland of Uji (near Kyoto), last about 20 minutes — long enough, if you’re doing it the traditional way, kneeling on the tatamimat flooring!

Ryokans 

Traditional inns — with no-shoes allowed tatami floors, shoji paper screens and, often, onsen hot springs — are found throughout Japan. Many are unexpectedly large and modern, with extensive facilities — see ryokan.or.jp and ryokancollection.com for top selections. On arrival, ryokans supply you with yukata robes and slippers, and it’s acceptable (expected, in fact) that you’ll wear these around the hotel, even in lounges or dining areas. Dinner is often served at a set time, sometimes in your room (don’t be late) and will consist of numerous dishes, from sashimi to cockle-warming nabe stew. Rice, miso soup and pickles will follow, before a light dessert. 

woman holding traditional Japanese tea cup in ceremony
Tea ceremonies are silent, meditative events and are a great way to unwind

Karaoke

Firstly, don’t panic: karaoke bars in Japan have private rooms, so no one will hear you. Secondly, choose a chain with English songs — the best are Big Echo (bigecho.jp), Uta Hiroba (utahiro.com) and Karaoke Kan. The price is based on time of day (pre-5pm weekdays is cheapest), time spent (half an hour or an hour), room size, and whether you buy any food and drink packages. Expect to pay from $4 for a brief Wednesday lunch session, to upwards of $40pp for a long evening.

Onsen

You may have a romantic vision of steaming rock pools cloaked in forest — and, while these do exist, know that the majority of onsen hot springs are slightly clinical indoor affairs. With very few exceptions, genders are strictly separated and swimming costumes are banned (it’s birthday suits only, folks). Almost every onsen posts guidelines inside the bathing areas to avoid foreigner faux pas, but the other main rules are: no tattoos allowed (if you have a small one, cover it with a plaster); wash your body thoroughly with soap before entering the pools (sit on the shower stool, don’t stand); and never let your small towel (there to protect your modesty) touch the water — when bathing, simply rest it on your head or leave it at the side.

Sumo

Catching a sumo tournament in action can be tricky, as basho only occur six times a year, in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya or Fukuoka. If your visit coincides, buy tickets online, then pop in anytime during the daylong sessions (a couple of hours is usually enough). If not, you can still get a sumo ‘experience’ by visiting Tokyo’s Ryogoku district’s stables (beya), where the wrestlers live and train. Ask your tour operator to arrange.

Bullet Trains

The famously fast Shinkansen (which can reach up to 320kph) isn’t one train, but a network that runs between the country’s main hubs. Comfy and faultlessly punctual, it’s a no-brainer way to get between Tokyo and Kyoto, and plenty of other places, too, if you invest in a Japan Rail Pass. But the pass excludes transport on Nozomi, the fastest train service, so if your heart is set on zipping along at top speeds, you’ll need to splash out separately.

Cherry Blossom

From a barely-there flush to neon bright bubble-gum, Japan has countless varieties of sakura (cherry trees) in a thousand shades of pink. In Tokyo’s Ueno Park and Shinjuku Gyoen, friends congregate to clink glasses under rosy canopies; elsewhere, you’ll often find trees surrounding important cultural spots, such as castles. And while April is when they’re most famously blooming, flowers can be spotted as early as February in the country’s southern reaches. No worries, then, if you can’t make peak sakura season: come earlier — in February or March — when the equally beautiful, but lesser-known, plum blossoms are on show.

Visiting Japan: Places to see

The historic Higashiyama District in Japan, view from roof at night onto streets
The historic Higashiyama District is a must-visit

You’re finally going to the Land of the Rising Sun. But where to start? Right here, with our essential two-week, step-by-step guide to the must-sees

Days 1-2: Tokyo, for capital fun 

You’ve arrived! At your Tokyo airport, start by picking up the Japan Rail Pass you booked in advance via jrailpass.com. You’ll need it: the next two weeks will involve a lot of train journeys. For now, you have two days to explore Japan’s mesmerising, frenetic capital.

Day 3: Nikko, for scenery and shrines 

Sensory overload? Time to head away from the capital on a day-trip. Aim for Nikko, tucked in mountains to the north, where forests envelop the opulent Toshogu Shrine, the last resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the 17th-century Shogun. Along with nearby Futarasan Shrine and the Rinno-ji Buddhist temple, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is well worth the fiddly journey (30 minutes by the Shinkansen bullet and local trains, then a 30-minute walk) for its 42 structures, wrought by 15,000 artisans and adorned with gold leaf and carvings (spot the ‘Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil’ monkeys at the stable). Keep your energy levels up with a trout pressed-sushi ekiben (boxed lunch) from Tobu Nikko station or try the local speciality yuba (soy milk skin) from Nikko Yubamaki ZEN, between the station and the shrine.

Day 4: Kamakura, for seaside and history (or more Tokyo) 

Desperate for one more day in Tokyo? Now’s your chance. Otherwise, hop on the Yokosuka main-line train from Tokyo station, bound for historic Kamakura (about one hour). This walkable seaside town, easily seen in a day, was once the political heart of medieval Japan and is studded with shrines, temples and a vast, 13-metre-high Great Buddha, its bronze exterior now green after eight centuries of typhoons and tsunamis. Wander down to Yuigahama Beach — a favourite with surfers — and stock up on bird-shaped Hato Sable cookies by the station, before returning to Tokyo.

Days 5-6: Hakone, for hot springs 

Hakone, a popular mountain spa retreat, can be done as a day-trip from Tokyo (trains go regularly from Shinjuku station; 90 minutes), but as you’re here to unwind, allow two nights — the area is famous for its onsen hot springs. Take a speedy morning Odakyu Line ‘Romance Car’ (not included in your rail pass: buy a two-day Hakone Freepass, which includes this quick train and all Hakone transport). Look out for the iconic profile of Mount Fuji on the way, before dropping your bags at KAI Hakone, a tatami-matted ryokan with onsen overlooking rushing streams and forest. You’ll be back later for a soak, an in-room massage and a multi-course, traditional ryokan feast taken in a private dining room. But first, get out. Take in the active volcanic scenery on Hakone’s classic, well-signposted sightseeing circuit: a cliff-hugging bus ride, followed by a half-hour cruise across Lake Ashi, a cable car over steaming, sulphur-bleached landscapes, a vertiginous funicular and then, finally, a winding historic train, operated by a white-gloved conductor. Factor in stops at the waterside Hakone Shrine, shop-stuffed Gora town and Owakudani, to eat a ‘black egg’ (cooked in sulphur springs, it’s said to lengthen your life by seven years) — the route takes five to six hours. The next day, spend a low-key morning wandering round the Hakone Open-Air Museum or one of the many other museums, or bob in soaking tubs mocked up to look like giant bowls of ramen or saké at hot-spring theme park Yunessun. Genders are mixed and swimming costumes worn. Now hike the hills prior to sweet fermented rice drinks at 400-year-old Amazake-chaya Tea House, a brief bus ride east of the Hakone Shrine.

The sun sets over Yuigahama beach near Kamakura
The sun sets over Yuigahama beach near Kamakura

Days 7-9: Kyoto, for culture 

Rise early for the train from Hakone-Yumoto station to Odawara city (a 15-minute ride) and join the Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train westbound to Kyoto (two to three hours). Steeped in centuries of history, the ancient imperial capital is Japan’s cultural heart, with 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Mitigate the inevitable crowds by avoiding the cherry blossom and autumn seasons, and by renting bikes or sharing taxis instead of enduring the squeeze of the busy bus network. It’s also worth hitting major sites early. 

Visit the Imperial Palace and 17th-century Nijo Castle on arrival. Then check in at Enso Ango, a hotel spread over five historic buildings. A walk away is the Nishiki produce market and Yasaka Shrine, beautifully illuminated at night. At 5.30pm, spot geishas in nearby Gion and Pontocho areas. Don’t be fooled by costumed tourists — and reckon on crowds. Kyoto’s eastern edge is fringed with noteworthy Buddhist temples. Spend day two on foot, starting at 6am at Kiyomizu-dera for a tranquil start in this, the city’s most popular temple. By 8am it’s busy, so head for Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka slopes for teahouses old and new (try the Starbucks Tea Parlour, in a 100-year-old house). Marvel at grand-scale Chion-in temple and eclectic Nanzen-ji, with its giant pines, rock garden and aqueduct, as you head north towards the gorgeous Philosopher’s Path for a 30-minute canal-side stroll to Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion (spoiler alert — it’s not silver, but the rock garden is sublime). There’s a whole range of places to eat en route: try Jugo (opposite Mirokuin temple), or book Monk for seven hyper-local courses, including chrysanthemum pizza. 

Start day three bright and early, photographing Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, as soon as it opens at 9am, before clambering aboard Kyoto’s only remaining tram, destination Arashiyama (22 minutes), to marvel at the towering Kitasaga Bamboo Grove. Spend the afternoon absorbed in temple contemplation (known as zazen) at Shorin-ji temple or winding down in a real Kyoto sento (public bath house). 

Alternatively, head south to the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine and make the two-hour-plus hike through the tunnel of torii gates to the summit of Mount Inari. Raise a final glass to Kyoto while sipping your way through the Fushimi Saké District, before taking an evening Shinkansen bullet train west to Hiroshima (1hr 40min).

Days 10-12: Hiroshima, for reflection 

Be prepared for strong emotions when visiting the city that was the world’s first to suffer an atomic bombing. Don’t rush it: allow a full day in the contemplative Peace Memorial Park, entering via the Aioi bridge, the bomb’s intended target on August 6, 1945. Across the Motoyasu river stands the A-Bomb Dome, one of a few buildings left standing. Onwards into the park is the Children’s Peace Monument, topped with the figure of child victim Sadako Sasaki beneath an origami crane. Steel yourself for the Peace Memorial Museum, which includes a devastating exhibition of personal stories and artefacts. Later, for relief, take an evening bicycle tour along the riverside, passing Hiroshima Castle, followed by an izakaya crawl around un-touristy Yokogawa neighbourhood.

Spend the next day exploring contemporary Hiroshima, with a downloadable architecture trail from Arch-Walk Hiroshima, featuring everything from public toilets resembling an origami crane to an incinerator created by Yoshio Taniguchi, the architect behind the smooth 2004 extension of MoMA in New York. 

Days 13-14: Miyajima, for stunning spaces 

Make your final stop the vermilion ‘floating’ O-torii (Grand Gate) at Itsukushima Jinja a UNESCO-designated shrine on stilts in the Seto Inland Sea, off the island of Miyajima. Just 40 minutes from Hiroshima by train, you can ‘do’ Miyajima on a long day from Hiroshima, but it’s better without the day-trippers. Check in at cheerful Mikuniya guesthouse by the shrine, and visit at 6.30am, when Ikutsushima opens, and you’ll have its floating halls and walkways to yourself; alternatively, go late afternoon, when the trails on Mount Misen — the 535-metre hiking peak at the island’s centre — are deserted again. Check tide times (visit-miyajima-japan.com) if you want to snap the O-torii ‘floating’, or take a sea-kayak tour (paddlepark.com). Miyajima is renowned for its wildlife, such as the tame deer in Omoto Park and naughty monkeys at the summit of Mount Misen, but Mikuniya warns guests to look out for tanuki (Japanese racoon dogs), which run off with people’s shoes.

Got more time?  3 more stops along the way

women strolling between cherry blossom trees wearing traditional Japanese kimonos in Osaka
Cherry blossom strolls are are a must

Naoshima (1-3 days) 

Japan’s ‘art island’ is Insta-famous thanks to its Yayoi Kusama spotted pumpkin sculptures, perched along the silvery-blue coastline. But art lovers will find a lot more to get excited about here, with three Tadao Ando-designed contemporary museums, including clifftop Benesse House (also a hotel, it’s the place to stay). Don’t miss the Art House Project, a series of quirky installations inside homes in a local village. You can see everything in a day or two, but allow a third if you want to visit some of Naoshima’s neighbouring Setouchi Islands — less famous, but also art-filled.

Osaka (1-2 days) 

Japan’s third-largest city is more compact and gritty (locals would say more fun) than Tokyo. It’s just a 15-minute bullet train ride from Kyoto, too. Get stuck into okonomiyaki pancakes and shopping in neon Dotonbori; wander around the Kuromon Ichiba wet market (nearby ‘kitchen street’ Sennichimae Doguyasuji is famous for cheap Japanese crockery), and stroll by whitewashed Osaka castle (a reconstruction, but still pretty). 

Nara (1-2 days) 

Japan’s 8th-century capital is a mini- Kyoto, with temples, landscaped gardens, tile-roofed Edo-era teahouses and roaming sika deer (adorable, although they bite). Gawp at the Buddha at Todai-ji, see the oldest wood structures on the planet at Horyu-ji, and pop over to Naramachi, the Old Town.

Looking for more inspiration? Read on traveller’s journey through snowy Japan and see how Japan fits as a couple-pleasing honeymoon destination.

Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing