From samurai to sakura, where to go and what to do in Japan

From the neon-lit streets of Tokyo to the ancient arts of Kyoto, and all the mountain villages, feudal castles, traditional ryokans and unique restaurants in between, Japan is a trove of extraordinary experiences. Read our Japan travel guide for all the best places to visit and things to do, plus delicious dining experiences you can’t miss on your trip to Japan.

Where to go in Japan

Tokyo

You can’t miss visiting Tokyo on your Japan trip. It’s the neon-lit capital of the country, where you’ll find everything from futuristics skyscrapers to ancient temples. Your Tokyo travel guide will take you exploring from Sensoji Buddhist Temple, the oldest temple site in Tokyo, to the top of the Tokyo Skytree, the world’s highest free-standing broadcasting tower.

Wander the leafy Imperial Palace and stroll down the colourful Nakamise shopping street and Ameyoko Street Market. Dive into Tokyo’s Edo era at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, or cruise along the Sumida River. Whatever you do, Tokyo is sure to be unforgettable.

EXPERIENCE IT FOR YOURSELF: Tokyo with Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji and the Five Lakes District

It wouldn’t be a travel guide to Japan without mentioning the famous Mt. Fuji. The snow-capped, UNESCO-listed slopes of Mt. Fuji sweep across the landscape of the stunning Five Lakes District, and we’ll take you to the 5th station at 2,300 metres for spectacular views over it all. You might also like to ride up Mt. Tenjo on the Kachikachiyama Ropeway, for breathtaking views of Mt. Fuji and Lake Kawaguchiko.

We’ll also take you to Oshino Hakkai, a small village in the Five Lakes District. Here you’ll find eight beautiful natural spring water ponds fed by the melted snow from Mt. Fuji.

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Kyoto

If you’re looking for beautiful places in Japan, it’s got to be Kyoto. As another former capital city, Kyoto is the heart of Japanese culture. Your Japan travel guide will take you walking through the vibrant Gion District and the historic Arashiyama district, famed for its spring-time cherry blossom trees (sakura). You’ll wander through the bamboo groves, then get back to nature in the Zen gardens of Tenryuji Temple. 

If you can’t get enough of gorgeous Japanese temples, don’t forget the star of Kyoto – the Kinkakuji Temple. This UNESCO-listed temple is famed for its glimmering Golden Pavilion. We’ll also take you through the iconic orange torii gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine, to the sacred site that dates back to the 8th century. And don’t forget Sanjusangen-do Hall, where you’ll discover 1,001 exquisite ‘thousand-handed’ goddesses of mercy statues. 

Feeling hungry? Be sure to head to Nishiki market or ‘Kyoto’s Pantry’ for traditional delicacies. Or, if you’d like to see more of Japan’s traditional arts, head to Sumiyama Village. Here you’ll discover the beautiful Kiyomizu Pottery, which originated in central Kyoto around five centuries ago.

Nara

You’ve probably heard about the famous deer of Nara… And now you get to meet them in real life when we take you to this ancient city. We’ll head to Nara Park where you’ll love seeing the hundreds of tame deer roaming freely around the pretty scenery.

There’s also plenty of history to explore as Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan. We’ll take you to the historic Todaiji Temple, one of the Seven Great Temples. It’s also home to the largest bronze statues of Buddha in the country.

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Gokayama

Get out of the bustling cities and into the peaceful mountains to Gokayama, a UNESCO-listed village. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time as you marvel at the local Gassho-zukuri wooden houses, all built without nails and with sloped roofs to stop snow piling on them.

You’ll meet a local family in one of these unique houses and watch how the local artisans make washi paper. You can even have a go at making your own and you’ll leave knowing you’ve made a difference to this incredible small business.

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Takayama

Take a scenic journey through the Japanese Alps to the hillside town of Takayama, famed for the gorgeous Edo-style streets of the Old Town. If you’re there at the right time, you’ll get to witness the famous Takayama Festival. The festival celebrates the changing seasons and has some amazing traditions dating back to the 17th century.

You’ll see the intricate yatai (festival floats) and karakuri ningyo (marionettes) twirled around by the tsunakata (puppeteers). It’s easy to get caught up in the festive atmosphere here, with the booming drums and jingling bells following the parade through the streets of Takayama.

EXPERIENCE IT FOR YOURSELF: Splendours of Japan – Celebrate the Takayama Festival

Kanazawa

Kanazawa is full of traditional treasures and your Japan travel guide will reveal them all when you visit this gorgeous coastal city. First, you’ll learn the delicate art of painting gold leaf, a stunning craft dating back to the 16th century. Then, you’ll stroll through the Kenrokuen Garden, one of the most stunning gardens in the country. You’ll love relaxing in the lush greenery, tranquil ponds and temples.

We’ll switch it up with a visit to the Nagamachi District, where you’ll marvel at the well-preserved samurai houses in the old-world stone streets. You’ll also visit Nomura House, a beautiful samurai mansion, where you’ll get a glimpse into the life of the samurai. If you’re after more Kanazawa culture, we’ll wander through the Omicho market and watch the locals go about their daily life.

Kotohira

A traditional ryokan is one of the best parts of any Japan trip, so of course we’ll take you Kotohira for your ryokan experience. This mountain hot springs village is the home of one of Trafalgar’s most extraordinary ‘Stays With Stories’. Here you’ll get to stay in a stunning traditional ryokan where you can spend the evening soaking in the onsen (hot spring). 

You can visit the Kotohira-gu Shrine next door, and those who climb the steps will be rewarded with spectacular views of the mountain countryside. The temple wonders don’t stop there, and we’ll also visit the nearby Zentsuji Temple. It’s the birthplace of the high priest Kobo Daishi, one of the most revered monks in Japanese Buddhism.

Hiroshima

Once the site of catastrophic devastation, today Hiroshima is a vibrant and wonderful city. Your Japan travel guide will share the story of Hiroshima’s tragic past and the incredible strength and spirit of the locals that led them through it.

You’ll visit the Peace Memorial Park and Museum, where you can pay tribute at the UNESCO-listed Peace Memorial. It was the only structure left standing after the first atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. You’ll have time to reflect on the past horrors and memorial’s symbol of hope and peace.

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Matsue

While Japan is famed for its ancient temples and gleaming skyscrapers, it’s also known for its feudal castles. We’ll take you to the ‘City of Water’, where you can explore some of the few remaining original castles.

You’ll stroll down the gorgeous Shiomi Nawate street to see Matsue Castle, or the ‘black castle’, with its original wooden frame standing on the shores of Shinji Lake. Step inside and you’ll discover an incredible collection of samurai swords and armour. You’ll learn more about samurai history when we visit a local home that once belonged to a samurai family who worked for the Matsue clan. 

EXPERIENCE IT FOR YOURSELF: Classic Japan with Matsue and Osaka

Tsuyama

This former castle town is always a highlight of any Japan trip, and you’ll love discovering the ancient history here. First, you’ll marvel at the remains of the 45-metre stone walls, dating back to between the 17th and 19th centuries. Then you’re sure to snap some pretty photos with all the cherry blossoms blooming in the springtime.

Your local Japan travel guide will show you around the scenic Kakuzan-koen park, then take you to the Joto district. Here you’ll see the charming machiya (traditional townhouses) and learn all about the city’s trading history.

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Osaka

We’ll board the high-speed bullet train and zip away to Osaka, one of the most vibrant cities in Japan with endless things to do. Get a dose of history at Osaka Castle, or shop ‘til you drop in the famous Dotonbori Street area. Cruise along Okawa River on the aqua-bus, and head downtown to Shinsekai to see the Tsutenkaku Tower.

Learn the tragic love story of the Tusyunoten Shrine in the Umeda District, or head to the Floating Garden Observatory for breathtaking views over Osaka. Whatever you do, you won’t forget Osaka in a hurry.

Top things to do in Japan

Witness a Japanese Tea Ceremony

If you want to get to the heart of Japanese culture, you’ve got to discover their ancient tea rituals. We’ll take you to a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony, where you’ll meet a professional Tea Master and learn the history and customs of tea making in Japan.

You’ll see how the powdered matcha is mixed into hot water with a bamboo whisk, then learn the Japanese way of drinking tea. You’ll even get to have a go at making your own, and be sure to try some Japanese sweets to go with your comforting mug of tea.

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Try on a traditional kimono

Kimonos are the stunning icons of Japanese dress, and we’ll take you to a special kimono hiring shop to try them on for yourself. Your expert ‘kimono dresser’ will help you get dressed up and show you the tricks of wearing a traditional kimono (with matching bag and shoes!).

Then you’ll get to spend some time wandering the streets and taking some gorgeous photos in your kimono. It’s a fun experience for everyone, and you’ll also get a very special insight into these wearable Japanese artworks.

Learn the art of Taiko drumming

We’ll take you closer to the traditional culture of Japan with a mesmerising Taiko drumming experience. Your local Japan travel guide will introduce you to professional Taiko performers, and you’ll watch how they pound on the enormous drums in choreographed movements, forming a special connection with the rhythmic energy. You can have a go at playing the Taiko drums and learn what it takes to perform this powerful art.

See the artistic wonders of the Gion Corner

Want to see Kyoto’s traditional performing arts in one place? You can’t miss the incredible Gion Corner. You can witness seven traditional arts on one stage here, including the UNESCO-listed traditional Bunraku puppet play and the soulful Koto Music, where masters play an ancient six-stringed zither. 

You’ll also see a performance of Kyogen Theatre, a comedic play and Gagaku, indigenous imperial court music. Witness the traditional Ryurei tea ceremony and the ornate art of flower arranging. And don’t forget Kyo-Mai, the elegant Maiko dancers who perform in stunning dress. If you’d like to learn more about the Maiko dancers, you can visit the Maiko Gallery to see dazzling costumes, hairpieces and videos.

Best dining experiences in Japan

Enjoy a shabu-shabu dinner

shabu shabu dinner Japan travel guide

This beloved Japanese hotpot dish is one of the best dining experiences in the country. You’ll get to cook your own meat and vegetables in your hotpot, with dipping sauces on the side, then share it around with your group. It’s a fun way to dine in Japan and we’ll show you how to shabu-shabu like the locals.

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Learn how to make sushi in Tokyo

You can’t visit Japan without trying sushi, but we’ll take it one step further and teach you how to make your own! Your local Japan travel guide will take you to the bustling Ginza district, filled with trendy boutiques and sushi bars, and show you all the tips and tricks for making the very best sushi.

Enjoy lunch with a local farmer in Sumiyama Village

We’ll take you to meet a local farmer in his home in the Sumiyama Village of Kyoto. You’ll learn all about the daily life of his family while enjoying a wonderful home-made lunch. You’ll also get to sip on fresh tea before going for a stroll around his aromatic tea plantation.

Discover the art of wagashi in Matsue

Your Japan travel guide will reveal the secrets of wagashi, the traditional Japanese sweets made in all shapes and colours. Matsue is one of the top three producers of wagashi, so there’s no better place to learn all about these cute and tasty desserts.

Cook up a Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki

chefs making Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki Japan travel guide

One of the best Hiroshima foodie experiences is their world famous okonomiyaki. It’s a delicious savoury pancake made with eggs, soba noodles, cabbage and layers of meat, seafood or cheese, all grilled to perfection on a hot plate.

We’ll show you where to find the best okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, and also show you how to make your own. You’ll learn how to mix up the ingredients and cook it on a hot plate, before tucking into your tasty pancake for lunch. 

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Enjoy a local dinner in Dotonbori

We’ll take you to the buzzing dining district of Osaka where you’ll enjoy a traditional dinner at a local restaurant. Feast on Osaka specialities like takoyaki, okonomiyaki and kushikatsu, then wash it all down with dessert, beer or sake.

Learn how to make Momiji Manju on Miyajima Island

We’ll take a ferry to Miyajima Island to see the UNESCO-listed Itsukushima Shrine and torii gate rising out of the sea, and we’ll also show you how to make the tasty local speciality, Momiji Manju. These scrumptious steamed buns are filled with sweet red bean paste and shaped like a maple leaf, and of course, you’ll get to taste your delicious work at the end.

Experience izakaya dining in Tokyo

izakaya dining experience Japan travel guide

An izakaya is Japan’s version of the casual pub, where the atmosphere is warm and welcoming and the food is shared by everyone, tapas-style. We’ll take you to a fantastic izakaya in Tokyo, where you’ll feast on everything from sashimi and tempura to steamed fish, grilled chicken, miso soup and vegetarian options. You’ll get to top it all off with dessert, and it’s an amazing dining experience you can’t miss!

Are you dreaming of a trip to Japan? Do you have any hot Japan travel tips? Let us know in the comments below!

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