Japan is a fascinating country with a unique mix of modern innovations and ancient traditions. It has one eye fixed on the future, while the other one looks deeply into the past. While the gleaming post-war cities are incredible to experience, don’t miss out on the many Japan cultural activities and sites that will be right at your fingertips – sometimes quietly tucked away within the metropolises.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan and are wondering where to go to best learn about its culture, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading for a list of the best places and experiences to have in Japan to truly dive into its unique culture!
Best Places in Japan for Cultural Activities & Attractions
1. Japan’s Golden Route
Perfect for first-time visitors, Japan’s Golden Route runs from Tokyo to Kyoto, passing through ancient historical sites, modern cities, stunning scenery, and much more. Sites included on the route are Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Hakone, Nara, Osaka, and Kyoto, some of which will be mentioned in more detail further down in the post.
This world-famous route pretty much covers all the basics in Japan, ancient and modern alike. It follows the old Tokaido road which runs between Tokyo and Kyoto, which has been used for centuries by samurais, merchants, and pilgrims to get from one city to the other.
Today, the Golden Route is a very popular itinerary because it is a great way to see all of Japan’s most impressive cities, scenery, and attractions. It is a sort of prearranged itinerary which can be strictly followed, or, better yet, adapted to your style.
2. Yakitori Stalls
Even though Japan doesn’t really have a street-food culture like Thailand and other Asian countries, yakitori stalls have a similar feel to them.
Every big city in Japan has narrow streets crammed with open-air stalls set around charcoal-cooked yakitori. The aroma of roasted strips of marinated meat or chicken with vegetables is tempting enough for tourists and locals alike to cram themselves into one of the stalls.
Chances are, you’ll find yourself savoring the soy and garlic spiced Japanese delicacy among Japanese workers and young adults out for an evening. Paper lanterns and the smoke-filled sky complete the picture of a seemingly timeless ritual preserved alive in the midst of modernity.
If you feel intimidated about jumping into the dining scene, consider starting off your trip to Japan with a Tokyo food tour to help you get oriented. We did one on our first night in the country and it really started us off on the right foot! Our guide introduced us to many of the typical cuisine styles as well as local restaurant etiquette, ordering customs and more.
3. Meiji Jingu Shrine
One of the oldest shrines in Tokyo, Meiji Jingu Shrine is enclosed within a forested garden, offering a soothing opportunity to escape the city bustle while learning about Japan’s history and Shintoism.
The shrine was dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji, the first emperor of modern Japan and his consort, Empress Shoken in 1920, who passed away in 1912 and 1914, respectively. Even though it was destroyed during WWII, great efforts were made to rebuild it and preserve its essence.
The garden’s entrance is located by the busy Harajuku station in the Shibuya district, but you’ll feel like you’re worlds away as soon as you enter. The various walking paths within the spacious park are fantastic for a nice, relaxing stroll. The inside of the shrine is as quiet as it can be, with visitors being allowed to enter at no cost to observe and accompany prayers.
Not far from the shrine, you’ll find the Meiji Jingu Museum and the Inner Garden. At the museum, treasures from the shrine collection and personal belongings of the emperor and empress are displayed, including their royal carriage. At the garden, the highlight is Kuyumasa’s Well, built over 400 years ago and frequently visited by the emperor and considered a “power spot” nowadays.
4. Mount Koya (Koyasan)
Mount Koya is a monastic complex enclaved in the mountains, south of Kyoto and Osaka. While we didn’t get there on our Japan itinerary last time, we look forward to including this amazing cultural experience next time.
Home to the Shingon Buddhist community, it boasts over 100 temples and monasteries where you can immerse yourself in the lifestyle and philosophy of the monks who live there.
Many people chose to visit during the day, but staying for one or more nights is quite recommended, especially if you’re interested in Buddhism and Japanese culture and enjoy close contact with nature. Being a guest at the temple means waking up early to the sound of morning prayers, witnessing rituals, and generally observing their secluded lifestyle. Many temples or shukubo offer lodging facilities, which are simple but you get a private room.
One of Koyasan’s main highlights is Okunoin Cemetery, a beautiful wooded cemetery that is one of Japan’s most sacred sites. It’s an amazing place to visit during the Obon festival (August) honoring deceased ancestors. Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum is located here, as well as Torodo Hall, which features more than 10,000 lit lanterns. Other sites to explore are Kongobuji temple, Konpon Daito Pagoda, and Banryutei Rock Garden, the largest rock garden in Japan which depicts a pair of dragons emerging from the clouds!
5. Peace and Memorial Museum and Park
Visiting Hiroshima can be a challenging experience, but it’s also one filled with hope.
The tragic events of 1945 are remembered at the Peace and Memorial Museum and Park, which is often visited by many school children as a way to honor the dead and to reaffirm their fight for peace and their leadership against nuclear weapons. It highlights the shift from the insular, imperial pre-war culture of Japan to its modern-day role in the global arena.
The Children’s Peace Memorial in the park is very special, with paper cranes and other symbols of peace constantly displayed. If you are interested in history, a guided tour here will help you gain insight into how the year 1945 completely changed the country.
6. Miyajima Island – Itsukushima
Set just off the coast of Hiroshima, Miyama is a lovely island in Japan where you can spend a day or two visiting famous shrines, hiking, swimming, enjoying delicious food, and snapping gorgeous pictures.
Most people travel to Miyajima to visit the 1,500-year-old Itsukushima Shrine and the amazing floating Torii Gate that sits in front of it. The huge red Torii gate’s base is surrounded by water when the tide comes in and the entire shrine complex is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Treasure.
This is probably one of Japan’s most photographed sites and you surely won’t want to miss the opportunity to get some pictures of your own. On a cultural side note, non “floating” torii gates are present at the entrance of many shrines, marking the transition from the mundane to the holy.
We loved our immersive experience at Okeiko Japan, which included learning how to dress in traditional kimonos, participating in a tea ceremony and trying out Japanese calligraphy. It’s a great way to incorporate several Japanese cultural activities into your trip. Other fun adventures on the island include hiking up to the top of Mount Misen, visiting Daisho-in Temple, strolling along Machiya Street, and enjoying its gorgeous sunsets.
Miyajima Island is also the perfect place to stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guest house. It’s one of the top Japan cultural experiences because you’ll experience so much in a short time: sleeping on futons in a tatami mat room, eating a distinctive ryokan breakfast and bathing in the calming onsen every evening. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Ryokan Kinsuikan, and yes we slept very well on our futons.
7. Onsen Baths
Onsens are bathing pools built for hot spring baths, which are an important part of Japanese culture.
Many Japanese escape to relax in the steamy thermal waters that result from the high volcanic activity on the islands. Traditional onsens are large pools where bathers enter the steamy waters completely naked.
If you are the adventurous type, you’ll jump into this new experience without a second thought. On the other hand, if you’re not ready to bathe with a bunch of naked people there are also plenty of hotels and dedicated onsens around the country that offer private facilities.
You’ll find hot spring baths in almost every corner of Japan, but a real hotspot for onsen culture is Hakone, located in the mountainous region southwest of Tokyo. The views of the surrounding forests are as splendid as they get, and you might even get to see Mount Fuji in the distance if the day is clear enough. We loved Hakone Yuryo, which offers several sizes of private rooms that are perfect for couples, families and anyone else who prefers a private setting. Just be sure to book far enough in advance to get the room and time you want, as it’s a popular location!
If you visit Japan during the winter months, you can immerse yourself in an onsen while being surrounded by snow at Hakone National Park.
Located between Kyoto and Osaka, Nara is a peaceful city with a unique blend of culture, impressive architecture, and lots of deer.
Yes, you read that right! Nara boasts 1,200 deer roaming freely. Considered messengers of the gods in Shintoism tradition, they have been designated a natural treasure and are allowed to come and go pretty much as they please. The vast majority of them are quite used to humans and you can easily get close to them. It’s one of the most delightful cultural attractions in Japan!
As the first permanent capital of Japan in the 7th century, Nara is an important cultural and historical center where the influence of Shintoism and Buddhism can be perceived. The city features a variety of temples and shrines found in well-preserved neighborhoods, making it a great option for a day outing to get away from the hustle and bustle of larger cities.
The most popular highlights are the giant 46 ft-high Buddha at Todai-ji Temple and Kofuku-ji, a 5-story pagoda, but the city has many more activities on the menu. You’ll find plenty of coffee shops, craft-beer bars, art galleries, and shops, many of them housed in Edo-era townhouses.
9. Mount Fuji
One of Japan’s most world-renowned natural highlights, Mount Fuji towers over its surroundings, producing a picture-perfect site that has been painted and photographed over and over through the centuries. It is also considered a holy site by adherents of both the Buddhist and Shinto religions.
Climbing the majestic volcano is a favorite activity for tourists and locals alike. The view from the summit is spell-binding. If you’re not in the mood for climbing to the top, thought, there are plenty of other things to do here. Cruising Lake Kawaguchiko to view Mount Fuji from afar is another great option. Exploring Arakurayama Sengen Park’s pagoda and cherry blossoms is another marvelous way to experience what Japan is all about.
If you want to take a classic photo like the one above featuring Chureito Pagoda, you’ll find it up the hill at Arakura Sengen Shrine. It’s just about 2 hours from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, so it makes an easy day trip. Even better, you can book a private guide to take you to both Hakone and the Mt. Fuji area – that eliminates a ton of time you’d otherwise spend transferring among local transportation providers and is what I would have chosen if I’d realized how involved some of the legs were.
10. Sumo Tournaments
Sumo wrestling is Japan’s favorite past time and originated more than 1000 years ago as part of an agricultural ritual. The more “modern” version of tournament-based grappling and wrestling has existed for around 500 years, and many aspects remain the same today with respected wrestlers living and training full-time in specialized “stables”.
Attending a sumo tournament today is a wonderful way to see some of Japan’s ancient rituals combined with participating as a spectator alongside welcoming Japanese people. It’s a great way to interact with locals outside of the typical canned tourist experiences! We loved attending in Osaka and sitting among kind people who showed us the ropes through a few words of English and plenty of hand gestures.
Watch for two very Japanese features of attending a sumo tournament. First, if you’re sitting in a “box” (delineated by metal pipes and lined with cushions) remove your shoes just as you would in someone’s home. Second, concessions in the arena are extremely limited so spectators bring a picnic either from home or from a local convenience store (like some delicious fried chicken or pizza buns).
The matches themselves are fairly quick but are an amazing display of ritual and pageantry. It’s truly a once in a lifetime opportunity!
You can attend a sumo tournament in Tokyo (January, May, September), Osaka (March), Nagoya (July), or Fukuoka (November). Each tournament lasts for 15 days, with higher division matches toward the end of each day and in the last several days. The final day of each tournament has the best matches, so you’re very lucky if you can get tickets!
Planning your trip to Japan
A trip to Japan is absolutely incredible! I hope you’ll include some of these amazing Japan cultural attractions and locations in your own itinerary.
Ready to dive in? Don’t miss these helpful resources for planning your own Japan trip!
- Buy your Japan Rail Pass
- Essential Japan Itinerary: 10 Days of Family-Friendly Travel (Plus Optional Extension)
- What to Pack for Japan in Spring (and What to Leave at Home)
- Best Things to do in Japan With Kids: A Kid’s Take
- 9 Tips for Japan Travel You Can’t Afford To Miss
- Things to do in Tokyo With Kids: Itinerary for 4 Days of Old and New
- The Best Hotels in Tokyo for Families (and How to Choose Yours)
- Visiting Kyoto With Kids: 2+ Day Itinerary + Must-Read Travel Tips
- Best Family Hotels in Kyoto
- Awesome Pokémon Things to do in Japan
- Visiting the A-Bomb Sites in Hiroshima with Kids
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