Japan, despite being a small island nation, has had a massive cultural impact on the world. It sits at the top of many people’s lists of ideal vacation destinations, and for good reason. Japan has managed to blend the modern world with its history, culture, and traditions to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Though most people are familiar with the worldwide phenomenon that is anime, Japan has much more to offer its visitors. Regardless of whether you’re an anime fan, a history enthusiast, or just a curious traveler, there is something for you.
Urban centers provide options for a night out on the town full of parties and drinks. Meanwhile, the rural countryside offers a chance to breathe and relax away from the busy streets of the cities. Plus, thanks to the country’s incredible transit systems, you don’t have to choose one or the other during your trip. You can simply hop on a train and go from the lively city to the calm country in no time.
When it comes to things that you must experience in Japan, its many onsens are an obvious choice. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring that usually includes an inn or spa, making it the ideal way to unwind and relax after a long day. Most onsens are open to the air and sit in the middle of some of the most beautiful vistas in the world. Kusatsu Onsen is one of the most popular, but there are many available in almost every city and village.
Most people are at least vaguely familiar with sumo wrestling, but it is so much more than a wrestling match. Ryōgoku Kokugikan is a famous Tokyo arena that hosts many sumo tournaments, and it stands in the middle of one of the most sumo-focused areas in Japan. Dozens of wrestlers from different sumo stables meet to put their pride on the line and battle as thousands of cheers fill the air. There are few sports left in the world as culturally rich as sumo, and to experience it firsthand is truly extraordinary.
Chances are if you’re visiting Japan, you’ve probably played Mario Kart at some point in your life. Even if you haven’t, totally-copyright-safe MariCar has you covered. Customers can dress up as their favorite Mario characters and speed around Tokyo, Osaka, or Okinawa in a real-life version of Mario Kart. Though it’s technically more of a guided tour than a race and you can’t pelt your friends with Koopa shells, it is still one of the most fun ways you can take in the city sights.
If you wish to shop and see incredible handmade crafts from around Japan, you should visit Aoyama Square. The entire area is simultaneously a showroom and a store where visitors can enjoy everything from woodworks to textiles. Some artisans even provide videos showing the creation of the very pieces in front of you, showing just how much spirit goes into each item. The square has everything from expensive heirlooms to affordable souvenirs for you to take home.
Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward is one of the most famous and visually unique areas in the world. Within this ward is Golden Gai, a street that is a collection of tiny bars, each with a distinctive charm. It’s no exaggeration to say that the street is as much a work of art as a celebration of drinking. You can bar hop or simply stroll down the street until you find a bar with a style that calls to you.
Autumn is many people’s favorite season thanks to its cool temperatures, calm weather, and beautiful foliage. If you’re a fan of fall and want a place in Japan to fully enjoy it, look no further than Eikan-dō. This incredible temple is a destination full of interesting architecture, gardens, and works of art. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful places throughout autumn as its many trees paint the area with their oranges, reds, and yellows.
Every country has its diverse subcultures and groups, but few seem to embrace them the way that Japan does. There’s no easy way to describe Tokyo’s pop culture hub of Akihabara, except that it’s an experience. Maybe you’ll decide to pop into a cafe and have maids dote on you, or perhaps you’ll find solace in a hammock while reading manga. Regardless of what you choose, you’ll find something fun and unlike anything else you’ve seen.
In terms of famous anime, not many hold the social regard that the Gundam series does. It has had such a massive impact on Japanese culture that a life-size replica now towers over DiverCity Tokyo Plaza. Throughout the day, this massive 55-foot mecha transforms, its panels shifting and revealing an intricate light show as various Gundam opening songs play. After a show, you can walk into the plaza and enjoy tons of shops and even Japan’s first virtual reality ride.
Japan’s folklore is full of legends of yōkai: ghosts, spirits, and demons that range from tricksters to legendary monsters. Many of these myths and stories have survived into the modern world, and people continue to spread them. Lovers of the occult and the terrifying should look into one of the many Tokyo ghost tours. Follow a guide and journey across Tokyo’s various neighborhoods as you learn about the mysterious and ethereal figures that haunt them.
Throughout Japan are hundreds of beautiful and historic Shinto shrines that, even today, remain at the heart of Japanese culture. Regardless of which shrine you choose to experience, you’ll probably find small wooden blocks hanging from their fences and walls. These blocks, or ema, hold the wishes and prayers that visitors ask of the benevolent spirits that frequent the shrines. Take the time to make a wish of your own as you take in the majesty around you.
In the West, karaoke bars are usually loud, open bars where visitors can drunkenly blast out renditions of their favorite songs. While these bars have their charms, they’re not for everyone, but Japanese karaoke bars have something else to offer. Rather than singing on a stage in front of the entire bar, you and your friends can rent a private room. Inside this room, you can order drinks and food as you throw a completely private karaoke party.
There is no doubt that Japan is a beautiful country, full of marvel and wonder. Even so, there is an area that transcends beyond what you should expect from nature. Tucked away in the forest near Biei, Japan, is a mesmerizing blue pond that looks like it belongs in a fairy tale. The pond itself is like blue glass, reflecting the trees and sky above it while still allowing a peek at the roots beneath.