Five Lesser-Known Highlights to Experience on a Japan Vacation

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Woman Feeding Sika Deer in Nara Park, Japan

There is no shortage of things to do on a Japan vacation, but there are some activities that attract more attention than others on a first visit. Visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo; having a geisha experience in the Gion district in Kyoto; climbing Mount Fuji or merely viewing it from one of the vantage points around Gotemba or Lake Kawaguchiko; these are all classic experiences that everyone should have at least once on a trip to Japan. But even if they are great introductory activities on a Japan vacation, they should by no means be the extent to which you explore this incredible country.

There are other things to do when visiting Japan. Whether it involves getting out of the main cities or searching for a corner within those cities that you wouldn’t normally think of, a little outside-the-box thinking will pay great dividends. The following are five lesser-known highlights of a trip to Japan. They are ideas of where to visit, what to do, and how to spend your days after you’ve seen your share of sumo matches and another sushi dinner would make you explode. They are by no means exhaustive, as there are always more experiences to fit into an incredible Japan vacation, but be sure to consider some of the following when planning your trip to Asia.

Dive Deep into Otaku Culture in Tokyo

Everyone is aware of anime culture, but that doesn’t mean anime takes a central focus on everyone’s trips to Japan. Usually, traditional Japanese cultural aspects like temples, onsens, and sushi dinners take precedence over modern Japanese obsessions. However, if you’re looking for something different to do, take a day to explore otaku culture (meaning manga obsessed) in Tokyo. It’ll give you insight into a subculture that consumes young people the world over and will be a blast to boot.

Your best spots to experience otaku culture in Tokyo are primarily Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Akihabara. Nighttime in Shinjuku is its own crazed cultural experience, with more neon lights and people than you thought could ever exist within a confined urban space. The area’s nightlife is invigorating even if you have no interest in otaku culture, but if you want a taste of this subculture, Shinjuku can amply provide. To experience this culture in its most ridiculous form, head to the Robot Restaurant, where you can watch an evening show consisting of 3-metre-tall robots, seemingly a billion laser lights, and scantily-glad space vixens. In Shibuya, you can explore Takeshita Street, which is ground-zero for youth fashion innovations (think candy-coloured and impossibly creative outfits). If you merely want to lose yourself in a haven of otaku culture, Akihabara is the place to be. This area, known as “Electric City,” is home to all manner of manga stores, maid cafes, anime theatres, and giant video game arcades like the Gigo Sega Building, which has six stories of video games for you to play all through the night.

Shinjuku District in Tokyo, Japan
Shinjuku district in Tokyo

Get off the Main Island of Honshu

Most typical Japanese tours stick to the main island of Honshu. If you want to do something that’ll have even other travellers to Japan jealous, break from tradition and head to one of the other islands, such as Kyushu to the southwest or Hokkaido to the north. If you like wilderness, Hokkaido will satisfy your desires. It contains a fifth of the country’s landmass, but only has a twentieth of its population, so wide open spaces and lush forests are the norm here.

To experience something a little closer to Honshu, but with fewer crowds and more affordable prices, the island of Kyushu is a safe bet. The metropolis of Fukuoka attracts a lot of Chinese and Korean tourists, but fewer westerners. It’s a great place to explore castle ruins, catch a baseball game to see how Nippon Professional Baseball is different than Major League Baseball, and enjoy incredible Kyushu food, such as Hakata ramen. The island also houses Nagasaki, site of the second atomic bomb blast that ended World War II, and the incredible volcanic crater of Aso. The island’s high number of volcanoes makes it a great place to relax in some hot springs during your Japan vacation.

City Skyline of Fukuoka, Japan
City skyline of Fukuoka

If you really want to get away from the main avenues of Japan, head to Okinawa in the Southwest Islands, where you can experience a beach climate and feast on the famed Okinawan cuisine, widely considered one of the healthiest diets in the world.

Head to the Mountains and Experience a Rustic Lifestyle

Float Travelling Through the Street at Takayama Spring Festival, Takayama, Japan
Float travelling through a street at Takayama Spring Festival

If you want to stay on Honshu but stay away from the major metropolises, consider heading to the northwest and experiencing the Japanese Alps. Although the Japanese Alps are havens for skiing and other winter sports (remember the 1998 Winter Olympics were held in Nagano), the region is still highly recommended if you’re visiting in the summer on a Japan vacation. The mild temperatures, gorgeous landscapes, and picturesque villages combine into something you thought only existed in Studio Ghibli movies, not in real life. The town of Takayama is a particular highlight. You can visit its morning farmers market, then see the elaborate parade floats that serve as the highlight of its spring festival. Take the afternoon to head to the nearby Hida Folk Village to see how life in the mountains existed for hundreds of years prior to modernization, and in the evening, dine on soba and Hida beef, some of the most succulent beef available the world over.

Close to Takayama are also the historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You can spend a night in one of these villages’ hedge-roofed farm houses and get a taste of rustic Japanese life. The larger centre of Kanazawa on the coast is also worth exploring. It avoided bombing in World War II, so its historical centres, such as the large samurai district of Nagamachi, remain pristine examples of early modern Japan. As well, the convenient location next to the ocean makes it a great place to feast on sushi, with prices that are more affordable than in Tokyo or Osaka.

Nagamachi Samurai District in Kanazawa, Japan
Samurai district of Nagamachi in Kanazawa

Spend an Afternoon Among Sika Deer in Nara

Nara is usually a day-trip from Kyoto on most Japan tours, but it’s worth exploring at a slower pace so you can appreciate it fully. Nara is a historical capital to the southeast of Kyoto and it’s full of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, all within a walkable area. However, what’s perhaps most fascinating about Nara is that it is populated by large numbers of friendly deer. According to legend, the god, Takemikazuchi, arrived to defend the capital riding on a white deer, and ever since, the people living in the city have venerated the deer as sacred. Although they are not legally considered sacred anymore, the Nara deer are still listed as “national treasures.”

In Nara Park, you’ll find a little over a thousand deer wandering about, eager to feast on any treats you might offer them (or maps that might be sticking out of your back pocket). Unlike deer almost anywhere else in the world, the Nara deer will not flee at the sight of humans. You can pet them gently and you might even get them to bow to you if they think they’ll get a cracker out of it. It’s well worth heading to Nara on your Japan vacation just to interact with the deer. Fortunately, however, you also have plenty of other landmarks to keep you occupied while you visit the city, such as Kasuga Shrine and, most importantly, Todai-ji, the world’s largest wooden building and home to the Great Buddha statue or Daibutsu.

Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan
Todai-ji Temple in Nara

Stay at a Buddhist Temple on Top of a Mountain

This is probably the most eclectic suggestion on this list, but it’s assuredly one of the most unique experiences you can have on a Japanese vacation. While many people stay in a ryokan or traditional inn on their trip, not everyone gets the chance to stay at a Buddhist temple. However, if you head to Koyasan, you can do just that.

Lush Japanese garden of topiary trees and shrubs lines the entrance to a Buddhist temple in Koyasan, Japan
Lush Japanese garden of topiary trees and shrubs lines the entrance to a Buddhist temple in Koyasan

There are over 50 temples on Koyasan or Mount Koya that offer rooms for guests to stay the night on the mountain. You have to book in advance, however, as the mountain can get popular in the spring and summer months. While staying at a temple on the mountain, you’ll get to meet Buddhist monks, enjoy vegetarian Buddhist meals, and have the opportunity to engage with Buddhist rituals like the morning temple service. Just don’t expect the kind of experience you’d get at a ryokan. Although the monks love to be accommodating, they have religious duties to attend to in addition to helping guests, so their time is limited.

To get to Koyasan, you ride the train for around two and a half hours from Osaka, then ride the cable car up the mountain, and then a bus into the temple areas. It’s a bit of a trek, but it’s definitely worth it as you’ll get a taste of the contemplative Buddhist lifestyle, something you can’t experience most anywhere else. The mountain is also home to Okunoin, one of the most famous cemeteries in Japan, so it’s worth exploring on your Japan vacation, even if you have no interest in experiencing temple life overnight.

Path through the Okunoin Ancient Buddhist Cemetery in Koyasan, Japan
Path through the Okunoin ancient Buddhist cemetery in Koyasan

Japan is a destination that rewards Globetrotters who avoid the ordinary, as there’s always another magical experience to discover around every new corner.

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