There’s just so much to do in Japan, that it can get overwhelming. Where do you even start planning?!
Here’s a list of experiences you absolutely must not miss out on during your time in the country – all personally recommended by Miss Wanderlust. And if you happen to visit Japan during the month April, you should add enjoying the cherry blossom season to this list as well!
Tourist-y posing in front of the Kobe Tower, Kobe
1. Do the Shibuya crossing: It would be a real shame to visit Tokyo and not experience the famed Shibuya crossing. Movie buffs will recognize this bustling intersection—one of the world’s busiest—from the movie Tokyo Drift. Every time the lights turn red, a deluge of pedestrians pour onto the crossing, swarming in every direction. Method meets madness in one, gigantic human flood. If you’d like a view of the crossing, head to the strategically located Starbucks.
At the Shibuya Crossing – waiting for the light to turn green. The picture does not do justice to the magnitude of people crossing!
At Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s hippest neighbourhoods. Here’s Coldplay resounding through!
2. Ride the bullet train: Japan’s much-loved bullet trains (known locally as the’ shinkansen’) is an experience of sorts. These high speed trains regularly hit speeds of 300km/hour—making travel a real breeze! With frequent services connecting all major centres, travelers will love the convenience and comfort of the bullet trains.
Navigating the bullet trains can be slightly challenging at first for tourists – but don’t worry, you will soon be up to speed.
3. Go Geisha spotting in Gion, Kyoto: If you’re looking to spot a real-life Geisha, the Gion district of Kyoto is the place to do it. Spotting a geisha is extremely rare. If you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a beautiful Geisha, dolled up in a lavish kimono, her face powdered white and lips painted a vibrant red—before she magically disappears just as suddenly as she appeared.
These two smiling girls aren’t Geishas – capturing a Geisha on camera is extremely hard! But Miss Wanderlust was fortunate to fleetingly spot a passing Geisha through the window of a coffee shop. I immediately rushed out of the cafe immediately and ran down the alley she took – but mysteriously enough, she had vanished.
4. Visit the UNESCO world heritage sites: Japan is home to seventeen beautiful world heritage sites. Visit the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island with its iconic floating gate. The majestic Himeji Cstle in Hyogo dates back to the feudal ages, while the Horyuji Temple in Nara houses the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures.
Osaka Palace, Osaka (not a UNESCO World Heritage site though)
World Heritage site Miyajima Island.
5. Japan on a platter: Teppanyaki is a form of Japanese cooking that uses a hot metal grill to cook food. Diners sit around a common dining table, fitted with the grill, as the chef dishes up hot food and personally serves diners. Most chefs perform a series of deft maneuvers as they cook—for example, stacking onion slices to produce a flaming onion volcano.
Teppanyaki meal being cooked up in Nagoya
When in Japan, Ramen Noodles is a must-have as well!
Sea food lovers will enjoy Japan – Check out this fascinating moving lobster sign outside a restaurant in Osaka.
And finally, here’s something really cool – An Indian restaurant named Mithila (that’s what they call me) nested in the heart of Osaka. Who would have thought!
6. Check into a capsule hotel: If you are in the mood for adventure, check into a Japanese capsule hotel for the night. Developed specifically for the business traveler, these no-frill hotels give guests one individual block (hence the name “capsule”) each to spend the night. The capsules are stacked side by side and one above the other.
Here’s a well known capsule hotel called 9h – named for the amount of time people ideally spend there (eight hours of rest and one hour to freshen up)
For a more, erm, interesting experience, check out Tokyo’s Love Hotels.
7. Eat lunch from a vending machine: Japan has innumerable vending machines—you can barely walk a few steps without chancing across one. You can pretty much get anything—from a bouquet of flowers to newspapers, cans of beer, umbrellas or cactus plants from a vending machine. For the sake of experience, buy a hot Japanese meal out of a vending machine.
8. Get pushed by Tokyo’s Pushers: If you ride the trains during rush hour, you may have the dubious honour of being “pushed” by Japan’s famous “people pushers.” Their job, as the title explains, involves pushing commuters into the crowded trains, while carefully coaxing the train doors closed. And yes, they wear gloves and blazers.
While this photogtaph has been taken by Scott Murdoch, Miss Wanderlust had the most fascinating experience of being ‘pushed’ into an overstuffed train compartment by a Tokyo people pusher.
9. Play a game of pachinko: Gaming is a national obsession in Japan. Step inside a gaming parlour—prepare to be dazzles by the countless rows of gaming machines in neon colours, flashing bright lights. The game of choice is “pachinko,” a Japanese variation of pinball. It is not unusual to see grandmothers and their little ones sitting side by side, playing the game with equal fervor.
Apparently this woman was one of the best players to have ever played at the parlour.
10. Spend plenty of time people watching: You will make some interesting observations – like the fact that the men always wear blazers (even to the just buy bread from the corner grocer), the women pretty much live in their shorts, and pets are very well dressed too. Look out for the Harajuku Girls in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighbourhood and their Barbie doll meets punk queen dressing style.
11. Feast on black eggs in Hakone: Making a trip to the breathtaking Hakone region is a must. Admire the wonderful views of Mount Fuji (pray for good weather though) and soak in the natural panorama of the area. Tuck into the local specialty—eggs hardboiled to black in the hot springs. Eating one egg is said to increase your life by seven years. Visit a traditional bath house to enjoy the famed hot springs of Hakone.
12. Watch robots at work: A visit to the Toyota Kaikan Musuam and Plant near Nagoya is an experience like no other. Visitors can watch hundreds of robots at work on the mechanized assembly line—a sight we’ve seen previously only in sci-fi movies. Do remember to make an advance booking online to visit the plant.
Named Sonny, this robot can play the violin. He has a wind pipe and a voice box!
As per Toyota, this is the personal transport vehicle of the future.
13. Say a silent prayer at the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Truly one of the saddest moments in the history of mankind.
The A-Dome, Hiroshima. The horrific atom bomb burst exactly above this building.
Origami swans at Hiroshima.
14. Soak in the culture: The Japanese are extremely proud of their culture and you will have numerous opportunities to experience it and learn more through food, festivals, visits to religious places and more. Don’t miss out!
Kyoto’s annual Aoi Matsuri Festival – An ongoing tradition since the 10th century AD.
This story was originally published in DNA Travel – September 2013.
More from Miss Wanderlust