Top sights and activities in Japan
Japan is a country that I just couldn’t get enough of. At the end of our trip I really wished we’d have more time!
We’ve spent most of our time in Tokyo and Kyoto, we also went to Hirosaki in the North to visit the Cherry Blossom Festival and we made a day trip to Mt Fuji.
Japan is quite an expensive country (I wrote down my tips for travelling on a budget in Japan) but there’s so much to see and do that you’ll probably feel just like me when you’re leaving the country: you wish you had more time there! It’s definitely worth buying a Japan Rail pass if you’re going to Japan and you intent to see more than just Tokyo. You’ll have to order this pass a couple of weeks before your trip. For more information about the JR pass I’ve written this post for you.
On this page I’m sharing my top sights for Tokyo and Kyoto as well as a short blog on visiting Mt Fuji with public transport from Tokyo and our day trip to Hirosaki. I’ve also made a video of our time in Japan that will be on my YouTube channel soon.
Tokyo feels like Manhattan times 100! It’s the biggest city in the world and you can tell! There seems to be tons of wide streets with high buildings and if you visit an observation desk the city seems endless. Every neighborhood has it’s own sights and activities. And everywhere there’s food! Tokyo is the city with the most amount of restaurants per capita! I’ve listed my favorite Tokyo food spots here, the sushi restaurants I recommend here and the best vegetarian and vegan restaurants here.
Below I’m sharing my favorite sights and activities in Tokyo. Are you in Tokyo when it rains? Check this page for my tips!
The Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo is the biggest fish market in the world. The infrastructure wasn’t designed for many tourists so you can only visit after 10am. The traders will have done most of the sells by then, so I advise you to arrive at 10am sharp to still see some action!
Senso-Ji is the biggest shrine in Tokyo. We spend a long time here taking pictures because there was so much to see! Besides the main temple there’s also a pagoda and a small park.
A real ‘only in Japan’ experience is to visit the Robot Restaurant. Despite its name I recommend you eat somewhere else and just come for the show. Sure it’s all a bit much and they have a break every fifteen minutes to sell more drinks, but it’s also a real Japanese amusement experience. During the show you’ll see several high energy acts (check the video on the bottom of this page). Amongst other things you’ll see drums, fights and glow sticks. Just give in to it and enjoy the spectacular show!
Ever heard of an Onsen? It’s like the sauna of Japan. Onsen are thermal hot water baths and it’s a great activity for you to do when you’re in Japan. Tokyo has a very accessible onsen called Oedo Onsen Monogatari, it’s located on Odaiba Island. If you’ve never been to an Onsen before, you probably want to read how it works.
Only 2.5 hours away by bullet train, Kyoto has a totally different atmosphere than Tokyo. It’s a lot smaller and there are way more temples. Kyoto is a perfect city to discover by bike. At most hotels you can hire them, and also at some rental spots around the city. Prices range from ¥500 to ¥1000 a day. By bike is also great to go from temple to temple. There are loads of temples in Kyoto, on this page I’ve listed my favorites, so if you’ve only got 1 or 2 days in Kyoto I recommend these sights.
First stop should be Kinkaku-ji also called the Golden Temple. This temple is just magnificent! You pay an entrance fee but I thought it was definitely worth it! The temple is beautifully situated next to a pond and it has a nice park surrounding the temple.
Also a great experience is to eat a golden ice cream! You can do so at Kinkaku soft, right next to the entrance of the golden temple. The original version has rice balls and red bean paste in it, but you can skip that if you don’t feel adventurous. At the cost of ¥800 (8$) this isn’t the cheapest ice cream you’ve ever had but I’m sure it’s probably a once in a lifetime experience!
Read more about food in Kyoto.
The Bamboo Forest is another beautiful site that you can visit for free. You’ve probably seen magical pictures of the Bamboo forest on Google. Endless green bamboo trees with an empty walkway in between. I’m afraid reality is a bit different. First of all, it’s probably very crowded at the Bamboo Forest (also because it’s free to visit). Second, the bamboo trees aren’t that green. That being said; it’s still a wonderful place to visit and it does have a magical feel to it. The surrounding park is also beautiful and worth a stroll.
The Bamboo Forest is a bit west of the city, but if you’ve hired bikes it’s worth the bike ride!
The red shrine gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha were one of my favorites in Kyoto. Just like the Bamboo Forest you can visit the grounds for free and it also gets very crowded. But it’s still very impressive to walk underneath the seemingly endless arcades of vermilion red shrine gates (torii). If you go to the left side of the main shrine you’ll find the start of the walkway that if you follow it all the way goes up the mountain and loops back to the entrance. In total there are about 40.000 shrine gates. The further up the mountain you go, the less busy it gets and the bigger chance you’ll have a taking an Instagram worthy picture where it looks like you’re the only one there.
A really nice street to walk around in the evening is Ponto-Cho: It can get a bit crowded around dinner time, but it’s also very charming to walk around this small street with all the lanterns. Restaurants here are quite pricy and some don’t have an English menu. But it’s a great experience to go for a drink at Stardust, this small bar on the second floor with walls covered in old Jazz posters serves great Japanese Whiskey. The owner seems to have been around for years but still gets away with a hipster look.
On the other side of the Kamo-Gava river you’ll find Gion: the Geisha district. You’ll see tourists dressed up as Geishas everywhere, but here you’ll have the biggest chance of spotting a glimpse of a real Geisha. There’s also a nice Okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancakes) place here, read more about it on this page.
Seeing Mt Fuji is a must when visiting Japan. Even though there’s a big chance it’s half covered in clouds, it’s such an icon that you’ll have to see it.
You obviously won’t get the best pictures if you’re climbing Mount Fuji, so for good views I recommend that you’re going to the 5 lake area. The best spot and also easy to reach is the town Kawaguchiko with the Kawaguchiko lake. It’s easily reached by train from Tokyo.
Just take the JR train to Otsuki. This trip is for free with your Japan Rail pass. From Otsuki you take the Fujikyuko line to Kawaguchiko (last stop). This is a private railway so you’ll have to buy a ticket at Otsuki station. The journey will take between 2 and 2.5 hours.
From the Kawaguchiko station it’s an 800 meter walk to the lake. You’ll arrive at the south side of the lake. The best spot in Kawaguchiko to view Mt Fuji is on the north side of the lake. It’ll probably take you 20 minutes to walk to the hotels on the North-East side of the lake. From there you’ll see Mt Fuji with the lake at its feet.
Cherry Blossom Watching
One of the main reasons why I wanted to visit Japan were the cherry blossom trees. You can find parks with cherry trees all over the country but if you want to see the blossom you’ll have to come in spring.
We arrived in Japan at the end of April, which meant that the cherry blossom season in Tokyo already ended. Luckily it was the perfect time to visit the Cherry Blossom Festival in Hirosaki park. Hirosaki is a city in the Shin-Aomori region and it has a beautiful park with a castle and many cherry trees.
Hirosaki seems far away from Tokyo but with a Shinkansen (bullet train) it’s perfect for a day trip! It’ll take you less than 4 hours to get there. And if you have a Japan Rail pass (read here why you should buy one) the trip is for free! You take a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Sin Aomori, it leaves quite often so you can choose wether you want to make the most of your day or you rather sleep in. The ride takes about 3 hours. In Shin Aomori you transfer to a regular JR train to Hirosaki, this takes about 30 minutes.
From the Hirosaki you have 3 ways to get to the park. You can walk, it’ll take you around 30 minutes. You can take the bus in front of the station, this is the most popular option. Or you can rent a bike at a stand next to the bus stop. It costs 500¥ (less than 5€/$) for the whole day. I prefer the bike rental, you’ll arrive at the park within 10 minutes.
Hirosaki park has more than 2600 cherry blossom trees! The park entrance is free but if you want to enter the area around Hirosaki entrance you’ll have to buy a ticket for 310¥ (3€/$). Besides the many cherry trees there are a few specific sites that make this park worth a trip. The castle tower surrounded by the cherry blossom trees is picture perfect. There are several nice red bridges and there’s a boat pier where you can rent a row boat and enjoy the view from the water.
Every year at the end of April/beginning of May there’s a Cherry Blossom festival here. You’ll find many food stands in the park as well as some games for the children.
Only in Japan: Robot Restaurant Tokyo