Japan rewards the repeat visitor.
It is the kind of place you can visit many times and always make new discoveries. This could be a hidden Zen temple, a steaming onsen or a new twist on a classic noodle dish.
But whether it’s your first trip to Japan or your fifth, there are a number of bucket list experiences and sights that cannot be missed. Here’s my pick of the things that Japan is famous for.
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What is Japan Famous for?
If you were to ask ten friends what Japan is known for you are likely to get ten different answers.
Mention Japan to the average Westerner and anime, sushi and geisha will spring to mind. But this seductive country in East Asia is so much more than these.
Thanks to its seamless blend of the ancient and modern, Japan is a fascinating, exciting and culturally unique destination. From serene Shinto shrines to high tech toilets, let’s take a look at just some of the things that Japan is most famous for.
Famous Things in Japan
Geisha in Gion
The ultimate Kyoto bucket list experience is to glimpse a Geisha scurrying along a dimly lit alleyway in Gion.
Contrary to popular misconception in the West, modern geisha are not brightly painted hookers. These custodians of Japanese culture are refined, respected and highly accomplished.
If you are lucky enough to spot a geisha – I was on my first visit to Kyoto – please treat her with respect.
Don’t touch her, follow her or block her way. She is a working woman with appointments to keep. And don’t shove a camera in her face or – worse still – ask for a selfie.
The many visitors who dress up as Geisha will usually happily pose for a photo for you.
The tea ceremony
One of the geisha’s skills is conducting tea ceremonies.
Japan is known for its green tea or matcha. Not only is this refreshing, but it is also rich in antioxidants
During this centuries-old ritual, powdered green tea is prepared in a traditional tea room with a tatami floor.
As a visitor to Japan, you can join a tea ceremony (I did this on my first visit to Japan). Many organisations offer this experience but those in Kyoto are probably your best bet.
Many of these tea ceremonies take place in teahouses in traditional gardens.
Japan is famous for its garden design, which has been refined over the last 1000 years.
There are a number of styles of traditional Japanese gardens. These include Zen gardens with their raked sand and dry stones, and strolling gardens that were created for the Edo Period lords.
The finest garden of them all is Kenroku-en in Kanazawa. This Edo-period strolling-style landscape garden takes its name from the six attributes associated with a famous Sung-dynasty garden in China: seclusion, spaciousness, antiquity, human ingenuity, abundant water and scenic views.
Starting life as an undergarment for the aristocracy, or everyday wear for commoners, from the 16th Century the kimono became the principal item of dress across classes and sexes. These simple, straight-seamed garments are worn wrapped left side over right and secured with a sash (obi).
The pattern of the kimono indicates social status, personal identity and cultural sensitivity
Cherry blossom (sakura)
Few things are more iconic of Japan than the fleeting beauty of sakura or cherry blossom.
Regarded as a symbol of renewal and vitality, sakura is a national obsession in Japan and draws visitors in their thousands.
The timing of the cherry blossom season depends on the geographical location, with blooms usually opening first in Japan’s southern region, and progressing northward. Weather conditions can also cause the cherry blossoms to appear either earlier or later than average and can lengthen or shorten the blooming season.
The Japan Meteorological Corporation starts to release its cherry blossom forecasts from the start of the year, revising these dates at regular intervals.
When it comes to the performing arts, Japan is famous for kabuki.
This traditional form of theatre is thought to have originated in the Edo period and uses music, dance, and mime to depict tales derived from regional myths and history. It’s an outlandishly visual spectacle that features elaborate costumes and sets
Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Fukuoka are good places to catch a kabuki performance.
Whilst all kabuki events are performed in Japanese, many of the major venues offer English translation devices for an extra fee. Check before booking.
Anime and Manga
Anime is a direct descendant of kabuki.
Along with manga, anime has been at the heart of Japanese culture for over a hundred years.
In Japan, the term is used to describe all animation, not just animation that is native to the country. But to those outside the country, anime is a distinctive art form. Much like kabuki, anime often relies on visuals to propel the narrative.
Thought to have originated in the 12th Century, manga refers to comics or graphic novels.
Produced in their thousands during the Edo period (1615 – 1868), woodblock prints depicted scenes from everyday Japan. Also known as ukiyo-e – literally ‘pictures of the floating world‘ – they portrayed the licensed brothel and theatre districts of Japan’s cities during the Edo period.
Despite their low social status, the courtesans and Kabuki actors that inhabited this world were the style icons of their day.
For this, they had to thank woodblock prints. The low cost of these prints allowed their fashions to speared to the general population. Think of woodblock prints as the Vogue of the Edo period.
But some of the most iconic ukiyo-e prints take their inspiration from nature.
The best known of these is Hokusai’s Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa, featuring a huge wave that threatens to engulf two boats.
Gracing some of the most famous woodblock prints is Mount Fuji.
Located in the Hakone region, and standing at 3,776 meters, Mount Fuji is one of Japan`s most famous sights. Together with Mount Tate and Mount Haku, it is one of the country’s three sacred mountains.
This volcano, which last erupted in 1707, is best known for its symmetrical cone. It is covered in snow for around five months in the year and is one of the best places to photograph cherry blossom in Japan.
Origami is another art form that Japan is famous for.
Originating in the Edo period, this art of paper folding allows you to transform a flat square of paper into an exquisite sculpture. Cuts, glue or markings on the paper are strongly discouraged.
The best-known origami model is the Japanese paper crane, immortalised in the 1982 movie Blade Runner.
Japan has its considerable geothermal activity to thank for its abundance of onsen, or hot springs.
Although onsens are traditionally located outdoors, there are also plenty of indoor ones throughout Japan. Good places for an onsen experience are in Hakone, close to Mount Fuji, and the towns of Beppu and Yufuin in Kyushu province.
But a few words of warning.
Make sure that you are comfortable with getting naked with total strangers. The Japanese consider bathing as a great social leveller, so don’t be shy.
Trust me. When you dare to bare, it doesn’t take long for any self-consciousness to evaporate.
Many onsens ban people with tattoos. So, if you have been inked, you will need to conduct some research to find a tattoo-friendly hot spring.
Serene Shinto shrines
Japan is home to tens of thousands of Shinto shrines, which are dedicated to the kami, the Shinto gods. Most Shinto shrines will feature orange tori gates, a main and offering hall, ema (wooden plates on which to write wishes) and omikuji (fortune-telling paper slips).
The most famous Shinto shrine in Japan is the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is one of the sights not to miss when you are in Kyoto.
Dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of Rice, this is a complex of five shrines scattered across the thickly wooded slopes of Mount Inari. Hundreds of vermillion torii (Shinto shrine gates) line the 4km pathway winding its way to the summit of the sacred mountain from the main shrine.
Buddhist Temples also number amongst the most important and famous buildings in Japan. Used to store and display sacred Buddhist objects, some of these temples continue to function as monasteries.
Don’t expect to be greeted by vibrant tori. Instead, Japanese Buddhist temples will typically feature gates at the entrance to the temple’s grounds, a main hall, cemetery, pagoda and bell.
Majestic feudal castles
Japan is home to some of the most spectacular castles in the world.
In the 15th Century, the authority of Japan’s central government had weakened and the country had fallen into chaos. During this time, the country was made up of dozens of warring independent states who built castles for defensive purposes.
Sadly, many of these no longer survive, either destroyed as unwelcome reminders of the past or casualties of WWII. More still were unsympathetically reconstructed, using concrete instead of traditional building materials.
For my money, Japan’s best-preserved feudal castle is in the charming city of Himeji.
Samurai and ninja culture
Samurai and ninja warriors played a pivotal role in the history of Japan.
Serving feudal lords and enjoying special privileges, the samurai usually belonged to noble classes of Japanese society. They were military nobility if you like.
Lovely Kanazawa is one of the best places in Japan to feel like a samurai. Its Nagamachi district was home to samurai and their families and is brimming with historic atmosphere.
If you are able to visit Kagoshima in Southern Kyushu, Sengan-en is another fabulous place to dive into Japan’s samurai past. This UNESCO World Heritage site is home to a traditional Japanese-style landscape garden and the former residence of the Shimadzu family, who ruled Kagoshima until the 19th century.
Ninjas, on the other hand, belonged to the lower classes of Japanese society and were trained as assassins and mercenaries. Think of them as covert ops men.
The tragedy of Hiroshima
The city of Hiroshima is a powerful reminder of one of the darkest days in world history.
On the morning of August 6th, 1945 the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped the world’s first atomic bomb over the city. An estimated 140,000 people were killed as a result of the explosion.
The Peace Memorial Park and Peace Memorial Museum are moving reminders of the events of this day and an essential part of any Japan itinerary.
Travelling in Japan is a breeze, thanks to Japan Rail’s extensive network of trains that include the world-famous shinkansen, Japan’s super-fast bullet trains. Featuring a streamlined sleek design and a distinctive pointy nose, the shinkansen bullet trains carry passengers across the width and breadth of Japan at a top speed of 320 km/h.
Japan is also home to one of the world’s greatest travel bargain, the Japan Rail (JR) Pass, which allows unlimited access to JR trains, as well some partner railways, buses and ferries for 7, 14 or 21 days.
It’s this unbeatable travel infrastructure that helps to make Japan one of the best solo destinations in the world.
Courtesy and politeness
Name another country where the train attendant bows when entering and leaving the carriage.
As a nation, the Japanese are famous for respect, politeness and punctuality. Unlike many European countries, people in Japan form an orderly queue to board trains. Don’t even think about queue jumping and surging onto the train when it arrives.
Reflecting the importance that the Japanese place on punctuality, it’s rare for trains in Japan to be delayed.
Ask a random selection of people what Japanese food means to them and chances are that they will say sushi and noodles.
Made of raw fish and seafood wrapped in specially prepared rice, sushi is Japan’s most famous culinary export. There are many different forms of sushi, and it is a staple of bento boxes, Japanese lunch boxes that are superb for tucking into on train journeys.
Japanese noodles come in different thickness and colour, from thick udon to yellow ramen, with countless regional varieties. My favourite noodle dish is Hakata ramen, a speciality of the city of Fukuoka in Kyushu province.
But Japanese cuisine is so much more than ramen and sushi.
One of the most sublime dishes that I have tried on my travels was okonomiyaki, a type of savoury pancake with vegetables, meat, or seafood, topped with a thick, sweet sauce, mayonnaise, aonori seaweed, and dried bonito flakes. Visit Osaka for an authentic experience.
What’s better than Japanese food? Japanese food washed down with sake.
Sake, or rice wine, has been fermented in Japan since 450 BC at the latest.
You can try different varieties of sake in a bar – this is one of the best things to do in Himeji – or take a sake brewery tour. But one of the best Japanese experiences is to take a seat in an izakaya and feast on snacks and sake.
Did you know that you can also get your rice wine fix from a sake vending machine?
Japan is known for its vending machines which offer a dizzying array of things you need and things that you didn’t think you needed.
There are the usual suspects: water, cigarettes, soft drinks and snacks.
There’s the not so usual: flowers, t-shirts, eggs.
Then there’s the downright weird: lobsters, used schoolgirl underwear (eeuw!), dog wigs
In 2020, there were just over 4 million vending machines in Japan generating $60billion of sales each year
One of the reasons why vending machines are prevalent in Japan is the country’s low crime rate.
Whilst you shouldn’t be complacent, you don’t have to be concerned about pickpocketing or walking alone at night as much as you would in other countries. Just use your common sense, watch your belongings and drink alcohol in moderation.
Careful with that sake!
Unique accommodation (capsule hotels & ryokan)
Japan is famous for two types of accommodation: capsule hotels and ryokan.
If you are travelling on a tight budget, a capsule hotel (pod hotel) might be just the ticket. But caveat emptor.
Although a pod in a capsule hotel is cheap by Japanese standards – expect to pay between $20 and $50 per night – it is insanely small.
The capsule is the length and width of a single bed that you close either with an unlockable door or a curtain. I guess that the clue is in the name.
Your belongings are stored in a locker and air conditioning is not guaranteed. It goes without saying that shower and toilet facilities are shared.
Not for me.
A better option is one of Japan’s popular ryokans. Dating back to the 8th Century, these Japanese inns offer a comfortable stay with a traditional character.
Ryokans are characterized by tatami mat flooring, futon bedding, low wooden tables and yukata robes. But what sets these accommodations apart is the hospitality (omotenashi) embedded in their DNA, multi-course kaiseki dinner and breakfast spread.
Now that’s much more me.
One of the classic images of Japan is that of an urban jungle of brightly coloured neon stretching high into the sky. If you’ve watched the 2003 movie Lost in Translation, you’ll know what I mean.
One of the best places to walk amongst these neon-spangled skyscrapers is Shinjuku in Tokyo. With its karaoke bars, cat cafes, izakaya and immense pachinko parlours, this is the Tokyo of the imagination brought vividly to life.
Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing
For another iconic Japanese experience, head to vibrant Shibuya in Tokyo.
This is home to the world´s busiest pedestrian crossing and one of Japan’s most famous sights. Against a neon backdrop, each time the light turns green hundreds of people come from all directions at once with graceful agility.
For a bird’s eye view, take a seat in the Starbucks café on the 2nd floor of the building across the street.
If possible, try to time your visit with one of Japan’s famous festivals. The Japanese love a party and the country’s festivals are quite a spectacle.
On my first visit to Kyoto, I arrived on the day of the Aoi Matsuri Festival. It was quite a sight.
A procession of two oxcarts, four cows, 36 horses, and 600 people dressed in the traditional costumes of Heian nobles paraded behind the Imperial Messenger from the Imperial Palace to the Kamo shrines.
Unforgettable and a superb way to gain awareness of the culture of the region.
Few things typify Japan more than sumo wrestling.
This full-contact wrestling originated in Japan as part of a Shinto ritual. To this day, Japan is the only country where it can be practised professionally.
Sumo is all about discipline and physical strength.
Sumo wrestlers usually live in communal training stables, and tradition dictates what they wear and eat. In a flurry of slapping and heaving, wrestlers use their physical strength to force their opponent out of the ring or to bring them to the floor.
To do this, the wrestlers will push, grapple, or shove their opponent down with sheer force.
There are only 6 official sumo tournaments each year, and three of these take place in Tokyo.
Which one of us hasn’t belted out I Will Survive at a karaoke evening? For this, we have the Japanese to thank.
A Japanese drummer named Daisuke Inoue invented the first karaoke machine in 1971. The rest, as they say, is history.
Over the subsequent 50 years, the popularity of karaoke has soared. China and Japan are both home to 100,000 karaoke bars and the global market is worth an estimated $10billion.
If you are looking for a more relaxing pastime in Japan, make a beeline for one of its cat cafes.
Although the world’s first cat cafes opened in Taiwan, the popularity of cat cafés boomed in Japan. There are thought to be over 150 of them across the country.
What’s the deal?
Basically, a cat café is a coffee shop where you can cuddle and play with the feline occupants of the establishment. The cat cafe charges you for the time spent in the café.
The best toilets in the world
Saving one of my favourite things in Japan until last.
Put to the back of your mind for a minute Japan’s samurai history, its serene Zen gardens and sublime sushi. One of my favourite things about Japan is that it has the most awesome toilets in the world.
A heated seat, adjustable spray wash, air dryer and deodoriser; what more could you wish for from a loo? Only its music to relax the anal sphincter I guess.
And that’s the bottom line.