Everything to see, eat and do in Japan

blooming cherry blossom trees over a river with a temple in the background. a man is poling a boat with passengers down the river.

Zoe Macfarlane

Posted June 05, 2023

Blossom trees, Mt Fuji, sushi and sumo wrestling. There’s nothing quite like a trip to Japan to experience unique culture, landscapes, food and attractions. 

Japan is a unique country of contrasts, where the ultra-modern and extremely traditional often sit side-by-side. Ancient temples neighbour hip shopping districts. Traditional restaurants vie for your trade next to quirky arcades. High-speed bullet trains whizz you past centuries-old monuments.

With so much to see and do, here's what makes Japan a fascinating visit.

 RACV Members save on tours to Japan. 

ShapeJapan’s ancient history 

As a country that is 15 million years old with evidence of early inhabitancy since 30,000 BC, Japan was officially founded by Emperor Jimmu in 660 BC. 

While many believe the country is its four main islands – Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku - there are close to 7,000 individual island areas, with 430 of those inhabited, making Japan the second-largest island nation in the world (after Indonesia).

While Japan was once under the rule of samurai warriors and several emperors, today, the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ is one of peace and neutrality. Japan is a homogenous nation of 130 million people, and its low crime rates, UNESCO sites, clean spaces and cultural phenomenons increase the appeal of travel to the Eastern region. 


women in kimonos walking through a temple

Visiting a temple or shrine is a must on any Japanese itinerary. Image: Intrepid Travel.

ShapeRich culture

To experience the best of Japan, include a diverse range of activities on tour. 

Visiting a temple or shrine is a must on any itinerary, not only to see its distinct architecture, but for insights into Japan's two main religions, Shinto and Buddhism. 

The most popular temples include the stunning Kiyomizu-dera, the iconic Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto, and the marvellous Hokokuji Temple nestled amid a lush bamboo forest in Kamakura. To truly get to grips with Japanese religion, you can opt to stay overnight in a temple tatami room or ryokan.

For a cultural foodie experience, tea ceremonies are about so much more than just sipping of cup of tea. It’s an insight into Japanese culture. Sadō – or the Way of the Tea – is a ceremonial approach to drinking green tea. It’s laden with rituals and formality that are fun to learn about, as well as improving one's mindfulness.


temple in kyoyo

The Kinkakuji Temple of Kyoto. Image: Supplied. 

Get out in nature

North of the equator, Japan’s four seasons are distinct, with each offering a standalone reason to visit. 

In spring, the cherry blossom season transforms the landscape into a fairytale-like scene, while autumn transforms the national parks with expansive hues of orange and red as far as the eye can see. 

In winter, Japan is considered the best ski destination in Asia. The chilly climes and mountainous landscapes make the cool season a drawcard for ski and snowboard lovers alike.

Over the summer, hit up one of Japan’s gorgeous coastlines, including stunning white-sand beaches and marine-rich aquamarine waters to explore by snorkel or scuba around Okinawa, especially Mikayo-jima and Sunset Beach.

Other coastal locations of note include the rock formations of Jōdogahama and for surfers, Shirahama Beach. 

Year round, Japan’s predominantly mountainous landscape (over 80 per cent of the landmass) offers ample opportunities to get outdoors to hike, bike, camp, kayak, canyon, fish and more. As 67 per cent of Japan is forested, there are some outstanding regions to explore. 

The Sagano bamboo forest of Arashiyama is one of the most breathtaking. Aokigahara Forest wows with its eerie vibes, and of course, hiking the iconic Mt Fuji draws visitors globally.


pristine coastline in okinawa

Japan has plenty of gorgeous coastlines, including Okinawa. Image: Shutterstock.

Delectable food

While Japan is the 11th most populous country in the world, it ranks second in the world for its seafood consumption. Unsurprising when you consider how delicious the Japanese staple of sushi is. 

Sushi dates back 2,000 years and, across Japan, you can find it everywhere, from convenience stores to train stations and top restaurants. 

Dine at some of the country’s finest eateries, like Sugita Nihonbashi-Kaigaracho and Sawada in Tokyo, and, if possible, find a tour that includes a sushi cooking class. 

A lesser-known popular Japanese dish is okonomiyaki. This savoury pancake meal is cooked fresh on a teppan, and topped with the thick okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, and pickled ginger. There are two types of okonomiyaki – the thick doughy version from Osaka, and the thinner Hiroshima version with yakisoba (fried noodles). Visit Tokyo and Osaka to taste-test each and choose your winner.

It would be remiss to talk about Japanese food and forget nattō. This healthy fermented soybean dish is often compared to Vegemite, as it is a polarising breakfast dish with extreme fans - and even more extreme critics. Be brave and try it while touring Japan.


mario go kart in tokyo

For a unique experience you can't have anywhere else, head for a MarioKart ride around the streets of Shibuya. Image: Supplied. 

Only in Japan

A trip to the East is not complete until you’ve experienced one of the country’s only-in-Japan activities, such as sumo wrestling, one of Japan’s oldest sports! Rife with rituals (often based in Shintoism), this is more than just a martial art. It feels part sport, part ceremony, part performance.

Alternatively, if you want to be a part of the action, consider getting in to a real-life Mario Kart race on the streets of Shibuya.

If you typically enjoy including a show on your travels, consider attending a Noh drama, a slow and poetic performance. Noh is the oldest surviving form of Japanese theatre. Involving dance, music and acting, it’s typically a performance about Japanese legend or literature.

As odd as it may sound, you may wish to have a go on a high-tech toilet, which can be found in many hotels, restaurants and public restrooms in Japan. 

While a good soak is part of many cultures, the Japanese onsen stands apart thanks to the communal nature of the baths (often split by gender), the healing properties of the water, and the connection to nature. If you want to experience a truly Japanese onsen phenomenon, consider visiting Jigokudani to see snow monkeys (macaques) bathing in hot springs.

For more on individual cities, check out our guides to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka


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