When you think of Japan, it can be overwhelming – where do you even begin with a country that has it all? Bustling cities bursting with light, ancient temples, cherry blossom-clad mountains and fascinating traditions, Japan has so much to offer even the pickiest traveller. That’s why we’ve done the heavy lifting and thrown together this list of 17 reasons to get yourself to Japan in 2017:
1. Bond with the Snow Monkeys
Watching these Japanese Macaque monkeys bathe in the hot springs will immediately put a smile on your face. About 200 of these “snow monkeys” have gathered in Jigokudani which sits in the valley of the Yokoyu River, frolicking in the hot springs and surrounding cliffs. In winter, they bundle together for warmth and show their playful side, making snowballs. It offers a unique experience to visitors who can watch their hilarious and adorable antics up close without disturbing their spa time.
2. Visit Cat Island
It was only a matter of time before cats took over not only the internet and cafes, but whole islands, too. There are actually multiple ‘cat islands’ in Japan, but the most well known is perhaps Aoshima, in the southern Japan’s Ehime prefecture, where cats outnumber humans six to one. They’re mainly feral or stray cats that were originally brought over to deal with the mice plaguing fisherman’s boats but have multiplied on a huge scale. You’ll be the hit of YouTube, for about, you know, 15 minutes.
To get here, take a two-hour boat from Nagahama Port for 1360 Yen, round-trip.
3. Stay overnight at a Temple with a monk
If you want a truly traditional experience in Japan, an overnight stay at Mount Koya is sure to make it on your bucket list. The secluded temple (to get here you’ll take a couple of trains and a picturesque cable car ride) in the mountains of Kansai is over 1,200 years old and is home to monks practising Shingon Buddhism. Here, you have the chance to basically ‘shadow’ a monk, sampling their cuisine and waking up early to participate in the daily chanting and meditation ceremony.
4. Hike the Japanese Northern Alps
Japan may not be the first destination that pops into mind when thinking about Alpine hikes, but Kamikochi could give the French/Swiss Alps a run for their money. Translating to ‘upper highlands’, Kamikochi is a plateau 15km long and about 1,500 metres above sea level, home to stunning vistas and dramatic mountain backdrops. Hiking trails are open from mid-April to mid-November and arriving into your base at Kamikochi is only possible through bus or taxi – no private cars are allowed for the preservation of the landscape.
5. Sing your heart out at Karaoke
Karaoke might be on the list of things you’ll never do, but in Japan, do you really want to be that sort of party-pooper? Karaoke comes in all sorts of forms, from no shame singing in a karaoke bar full of strangers to private rooms with a group of friends, known as “karaoke boxes.” The private rooms are by far more popular and honestly, for everyone’s dignity, highly recommended.
If you’ve got a hankering for some karaoke in Tokyo, head to Karaoke Kan for the bar Bill Murray visits in Lost in Translation (rooms 601 and 602 if you want to get super stalkerish) or Lovenet, which has some questionable room themes, like karaoke from a hot tub, which seems like an accident waiting to happen.
6. Soak in an onsen
Onsens are hot springs, and not an unusual way to pass your time in Japan, with over 3,000 of them throughout the country. They’re like saunas to Scandinavians, pubs to the Irish, lakes to Canadians. The idea is that you bathe naked with strangers in water that’s at least 25 degrees Celsius, soaking up at least one of 19 chemical elements that legally allow it to be called an onsen.
Etiquette is important in an onsen. For example, use the showers to clean yourself properly before you enter the onsen and dry off completely before you go back into the changing rooms. Try Jinata Onsen or Takaragawa Onsen for amazing scenery. Remember to always check rules about tattoos in onsens – a lot of places don’t allow them.
7. Experience themed restaurants and animal cafes
Have you really lived until you’ve been to Tokyo’s robot restaurant? Less about the food and more about the absolutely insane, slightly pornographic show, it’ll leave you almost speechless, thinking, “Huh… so that’s Japan…”.
If funky robots aren’t your style, maybe the vampire, ghost or fishing (where you actually catch your own fish from a gimmicky boat) themed restaurant will draw you in. And if that fails, you can always check out one of Japan’s animal-themed cafes, now including owls and hedgehogs (both in Tokyo, unsurprisingly).
8. Ride the Shinkansen (bullet trains)
Ok, for real this time, you haven’t lived on a trip to Japan until you go on a bullet train, or, Shinkansen. These futuristic yet cartoon-looking trains reach maximum speeds of 240-320 km/h and haven’t yet had a single casualty despite the high speeds and carrying over 10 billion passengers a year. What’s more, they’re rarely ever delayed, and if they are, it’s only measured in seconds – train services around the world, take note!
9. Watch a Geisha performance
Geishas are like how we felt about shiny Pokemon cards as kids – you knew they were out there, but rarely saw them. Witnessing a Geisha performance under normal circumstances is for the highly privileged, but there are opportunities to catch annual public performances. Kyoto is a popular place for this, the most renowned being the Miyako Odori and take place from late March to May and early November. The dances themselves are accompanied by shamisen (traditional Japanese guitar) and tell stories of love, life and loss, also reflecting the changing of the seasons.
10. Take part in a tea ceremony
Often going hand in hand with Geisha performances, a tea ceremony is a Japanese tradition spanning back as far as between the 9th and 13th centuries. Otherwise known as Chanoyu, Sado or Ocha, they’re traditionally performed with matcha tea, a vividly green powder that’s much thicker than you’d expect. The taste will leave you understanding why the Japanese boast the highest lifespan in the world.
11. Admire the Japanese cherry blossoms in spring
All of those pretty Pinterest pictures of cherry blossoms blanketing Japan in the spring are not Photoshopped. You have to be quick, as the viewing period of the sakura (cherry blossoms) only lasts roughly two weeks of the year – so time your flights well and keep an eye on the cherry blossom report. The best places are Mount Yoshino (although very crowded), Mount Fuji and Shinjuku Gyoen.
12. Watch a sumo wrestling match
Probably the only time to get excited about two nappy-clad huge men fighting, sumo wrestling tournaments happen six times a year: January, May and September in Tokyo, March in Osaka, July in Nagoya and November in Fukuoka. As well as the fight, the match also involves a ceremony beforehand, complete with stomping (shiko) and rinsing their mouths with “strength-water” (chikara-mizu). Pick your favourite wrestler and cheer him on just like a local!
13. Cycle along the Shimanami Kaido
This 70 km road is a bridge network which connects Japan’s Hiroshima and Ehime prefectures across six islands, making it the world’s longest series of suspension bridges. It gives cyclists stunning views of the Seto Inland Sea National Park – just keep your eyes on the road as the views can be pretty distracting! Bikes can be rented and dropped off along any of the 14 bike depot locations, usually requiring a deposit.
14. Stay in a traditional ryokan
Ryokan are Japanese-style inns that are more than just a place to sleep; it’s a way to experience a traditional Japanese lifestyle, including futon beds, local cuisine and etiquette. You’ll trade in your “regular” clothes for slippers and yukata (a Japanese robe) and many ryokans have an onsen to soak in, too. It can be a pricey option, but there’s no experience like it and it’s very unique to Japan, so for one or two nights, it’s well worth it.
15. Hike Mt Fuji for sunrise
No easy feat, but we have faith in you. Climbing Japan’s highest and most prominent mountain might seem like a hard no, but it shouldn’t be difficult for someone in good health and takes about six hours to get to the summit. The best time to do it is July to mid-September when the mountain is typically free of snow, the weather is mild and the mountain facilities are open.
Climbing Mount Fuji is historically a spiritual pilgrimage, that the Japanese would make in straw hats and white robes. Nowadays, the route up the mountain is much less peaceful and actually very congested at times. This notably happens on weekends and late August around the O-Bon holidays when spirits can return to Earth and therefore a very spiritual time.
16. Get lost in a Bamboo Grove
You’ve all seen it: a lone, stylish figure gazing up at the towering bamboo around them on Instagram. While you’ll have to go very early in the morning to avoid the crowds to get the same shot, seeing these sky-high plants is definitely awe-inspiring. After all the grove is not your standard forest by any means. In fact, bamboo releases 30% more oxygen into the atmosphere and absorbs more carbon dioxide than other plants, so if you think about it, you’re basically saving the planet by visiting a bamboo grove. Head to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto – it’s open 24/7 and admission is free. Avoid weekends like the plague.
17. Visit temples and feed the deer in Nara
Also be sure to check out our Ultimate Travel Guide: Japan Edition!
Featured image by diloz