There is no country on earth quite like Japan. From its slick bullet trains that travel at nearly 600 kilometres per hour to its mystical bamboo-clad landscapes and history that makes Western fairytales look mundane, visiting Japan offers one of a kind experiences that will take your breath away. However, planning a trip to Japan can be a daunting experience as there is simply so much to see and do spread across an archipelago that stretches from the sub-tropics to Siberia. Fortunately, this guide to the unique experiences you can only have in Japan will make sure you have an unforgettable time in the land of the rising sun.
Take the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto for a jaw-dropping view of Mount Fuji
Most visitors to Japan will want to hop on the world-famous shinkansen (bullet train) at least once during their trip. While they are by far the most effective way to travel across the country, they are also an experience in itself, as no other country in the world has trains that can run at nearly 600 kilometres per hour. Shinkansen can be taken between most of Japan’s major cities and any ride is a thrilling experience. However, the undoubted best of the bunch is the line between Tokyo and Kyoto, which will provide you with iconic vistas of snow-capped Mount Fuji right from the comfort of your seat. Make sure to book your seat in advance to get the best view.
Get a taste for traditional Japanese food at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market
Whether you want to slurp down a bowl of steaming ramen or pick your way through a platter of freshly prepared sushi, a trip to Tsukiji Market is bound to be an unrivalled culinary experience. Set right in the heart of Tokyo, the market was for decades the city’s main wholesale market (a title that has now been ceded to Toyosu) and is well known as the best place in the city to sample excellent Japanese dishes. For the best experience, arrive early in the day when the market is buzzing with chefs coming to purchase the day’s fresh catch and explore the atmospheric alleyways packed with vendors selling everything from handmade woks to sea urchin and delicate crockery. Once you have built up an appetite exploring its labyrinthine layout, make your way to the food hall where you can take your pick from a plethora of street food stalls, sit down restaurants and traditional tea houses.
Get lost in the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Set on the western outskirts of Kyoto is the mesmerising Arashiyama bamboo grove, where towering stalks of bamboo lead off in every direction. This is one of Japan’s most photogenic spots and you will be hard pushed not to be posting pictures of this otherworldly landscape on your social media accounts for weeks to come. The best way to explore this picture-perfect landscape is via the paths that wind their way towards Okochi Sanso, the former residence of a samurai film star that is now open to the public. In short, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is the perfect way to spend an afternoon away from the bustle of Kyoto.
Immerse yourself in Japanese nightlife in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district
If you were enthralled watching Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson navigate their way through Tokyo’s debaucherous and bizarre nightlife in Lost in Translation then a must-see destination in Japan in Shinjuku. Perpetually illuminated in a gaudy neon haze, Tokyo’s 24/7 party district, which is centred on Golden Gai, is packed with everything from intimate sake drinking dens to pulsating karaoke lounges and grungy alternative hangouts frequented by local artists. To navigate your way through this unrivalled nightlife hub take a guided tour of the area where expert locals will be able to take you to some of the area’s hidden gems. Moreover, it is best to come later in the evening when the area will be filled with office workers who have hit the streets in search of a euphoric release.
Spend a night in a Buddhist temple
Japan has no shortage of amazing accommodation. From chic boutique hotels to ‘sleeping pods’ found in train stations and youth hostels, travellers in Japan can find accommodation to suit any taste and budget. However, one of the most unforgettable ways to spend a night is by checking in to a Buddhist temple where you will stay in traditional shubuko lodging houses that have been welcoming weary travellers for centuries. The best temples to stay in are located on the slopes of the iconic Mount Koya with the most picturesque being Shojoshin-in Temple, which offers to lodge in a picture-perfect setting of landscaped gardens, historic pagoda roofed buildings and numerous shrines. What is more, all meals served in the temple are completely free of fish and meat, which makes it an ideal pit-stop for vegetarians touring the country. In short, if you want to immerse yourself in Japan’s rich Buddhist culture then there is no better way than staying in a temple.
Take a dip in a steaming hot onsen
There is no more quintessentially Japanese experience than taking a dip in an onsen (naturally occurring hot springs), which can be found across the entire country. Some of the best can be found in and around the city of Beppu on Kyushu where the area’s active volcanoes send geothermally heated water bubbling to the surface of the earth. These hot springs are not just for humans either. One of Japan’s most popular attractions is getting up close to the onsen loving snow monkeys of Nagano who descend on the thermally heated pools to relax during the frigid winter months.
Embrace Japan’s love affair with vending machines
Although it may sound ridiculous to put vending machines on a list of unique experiences you can only have in Japan, it is actually one of the unforgettable things to do in the country. Japanese culture is work-focused and vending machines suit the nation’s fast-paced lifestyle – indeed, there are now well over 5 million vending machines across the country! Stocking everything from fast food that the machine cooks itself, to items of clothing and a profusion of colourful sweets that come in endless varieties of flavour, exploring Japan’s love affair with vending machines is an unexpected delight.
“Over the past decade, Ross Cameron has travelled extensively across Europe, Southeast Asia, North America, North Africa, and the post-Soviet space. As someone who has areal passion for these regions of the globe, he is able to offer an expert opinion that highlights the best off the beaten track destinations.”
Image details and licenses: Shinjuku district: https://flic.kr/p/jFV93 (tracer.ca, CC BY NC-ND 2.0), Shojoshin-in Temple: https://flic.kr/p/6NM2j7 (Andrea Schaffer, CC BY 2.0), Monkey of Nagano: https://flic.kr/p/n3oS3p (David McKelvey, CC BY-NC-ND 2,0)