We all know that Japan’s a bucket-list destination par excellence. Beyond the usual suspects in every Japanese itinerary though, are experience even more worthy of your time & energy than first meets the eye.
From scouring the back alleys of Japan’s biggest cities among cherry blossoms to soaking out all your stress (and them some) in hot springs onsen, here are a few of the most unforgettable things to experience while visiting Japan…
Frolic with the Snow Monkeys in Jigokudani Yaen Koen
Let’s start with a weird one: Who wouldn’t love hanging out with a motley crew of ravenous monkeys hanging out in hot spring?
Well, maybe it’s not exactly the dream of every traveller on the planet, but visiting the Japanese macaques in Jigokudani Yaen Koen (Snow Monkey Park) is one of the coolest experiences you can have in Japan.
Jigokudani Yaen Koen lies just an hour outside of the city of Nagano, a popular city for Japanese winter sports enthusiasts that famously hosted the Winter Olympics not so long ago. The troop of macaques here are unique in the simian world for bathing in the park’s hot springs.
Although photos from National Geographic would lead you to want to swing your visit to Japan in winter to check these little dudes out, the “snow” monkeys hang out in Jigokudani Yaen Koen all year round.
Unless you’re prepped up for the cold temperatures of winter in Japan, autumn is great alternative time to catch these macaques in action with the fall colors out in full force.
Hang out with deer in Nara Park
Just as with the snow monkeys of Jigokudani, visitors from far and wide love heading over to Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital, for chance to spot the majestic deer of Nara Park.
Over a thousand deer free-roam the park area and are revered as messengers of the gods by local Shinto followers. They’re unique enough that they’ve even been listed as a Japanese national treasure!
Rest assured that this park (and city) goes well beyond deer. Nara Park is home to a number of temples, shrines and museums including the city’s famous Toda-ji Temple, dating back to 752 and occupying an important spot in the history of Japan.
Surprisingly, entrance to Nara Park is free. If your wallet’s been taking a hit (as it often does in this country!), Nara Park’s the perfect budget-friendly break, especially if you’re travelling to Japan with kids on a budget. Not only will you save some yen here, but the whole family will adore these loveable animals! (Just make sure your kids are careful feeding the deer as they can get a little unintentionally aggressive when hungry.)
Visit the jaw-dropping villages of Shirakawa-gō
If your only vision of Japan features endless neon lights and never-ending streams of traffic then you simply need to visit the villages of Shirakawa-go near Takayama. Both Shirakawa-go and the neighboring Gokayama regions harken back to a simpler time in Japan’s history.
These UNESCO World Heritage regions are famous for their centuries-old farmhouses built in gassho-zukuri, a distinctly Japanese architecture style that features characteristicly steep gabled thatch roofs.
While you can visit the villages here at any time of year, they’re undoubtedly at their most magical in winter with the farmhouses under a blanket of snow.
Get awed by Japanese cherry blossoms
Although Japan doesn’t have the monopoly on cherry blossoms in Asia, there’s no denying that this is one of the best places to see ’em. Every spring, cities & towns throughout Japan become painted with delicate pink & white hues as the cherry trees begin to blossom.
There are a ton of places to see the blossoms throughout Japan, but perhaps no popular destination is better in spring than Kyoto. Seemingly every corner of the city springs to life.
For some of the most stunning scenes the city has to offer, be sure to check out Shirakawa-minami Dori, a lovely canalside cherry-tree-lined street in the heart of the historic Gion District.
Eat your way through the streets of Osaka
Tokyo might be Japan’s most famous city for travellers, but anyone serious about Japanese food knows that Osaka’s where it at. Only citizens with with such a lust for food could create a single word, kuidaore, that so succinctly describes their approach to their appetite: Eating yourself to bankruptcy.
Fortunately, in Osaka you don’t need to take the saying at face value to send your tastebuds on a journey. It’s less a quip on the Osaka’s food supply being exorbitantly expensive (actually it can be fairly reasonable!) than the volume of food you’ll find in Japan’s second city.
One of things that’s most surprising about Osaka is that every corner of the city seems to be stuffed with restaurants & food stalls to cater to all your Japanese cuisine whims & cravings.
Two of the best areas in Osaka for foodies are undoubtedly neon-flooded Dotonbori and the nostalgic & retro Shinsekai area. As you eat your way through the city, keep your eye out for local favorites like takoyaki (octopus balls), okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancakes), yakiniku (Japanese BBQ), and kushikatsu (deep-fried meat & vegetables). Yummm!
Soak in an Hokkaido hot springs onsen
To those in-the-know, Japan’s natural attractions are just as compelling (maybe more so!) than it’s urban ones. One uniquely Japanese experience is to soak in natural hot spring (onsen).
Thanks to Japan’s volcanic underworld, onsen towns are spread throughout the country. In fact, soaking in a hot spring might almost be considered a national pastime!
Even with all the choices available in Japan’s easier-to-reach quarters, there’s perhaps no better place to enjoy your first onsen experience than the northernly island of Hokkaido. One of the top choices is the town of Noboribetsu, whose active geothermal park of Jigokudani (Hell Valley) provides some serious after-onsen entertainment for avid hikers wanting to see the earth at its rawest.