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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Japan

In Japan, the past and the future are gloriously juxtaposed. Robots dance to techno beats in Tokyo; snow monkeys soak in hot springs in Yamanouchi; and geishas serve green tea ceremoniously in Kyoto. Tokyo, the Land of the Rising Sun’s capital, is the obvious starting point for any Japan trip. Must-do activities in and around the city include watching a cabaret show at the Shinjuku Robot Restaurant, witnessing an early-morning tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market, and taking a day trip to Hakone to gaze at the snow-capped peak of Mt. Fuji during a Lake Ashi cruise. Visit hundreds of UNESCO World Heritage–listed shrines and Buddhist temples in Nara; ski and snowboard on the frozen slopes of Hokkaido; or relax on white-sand beaches lapped by the Pacific Ocean in Okinawa. Super-speed bullet trains make ticking off less central cities such as Nagoya, Osaka, and Hiroshima (home to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park) possible on a day trip, while food tours of major cities showcase the best of local Japanese cuisine, from sushi to ramen and gyoza (dumplings). For the ultimate sensory banquet, take your Japan vacation during the sakura (cherry blossom) season between March and April, when the country is carpeted in pastel-pink blooms.
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Zenkoji Temple
12 Tours and Activities

In the year 642, Zenko-ji Temple was founded when one of the earliest Buddhist statues in Japan, brought over from the Korean Peninsula, was enshrined at the site. Today, the temple is one of the most important Buddhist sites in the country, as well as Japan’s third largest wooden structure, with the entire town of Nagano built up around it.

The structure as it stands today dates back to 1707 and contains a large hall displaying a variety of Buddhist statuary, a main alter and an underground passage beneath the alter where visitors can pass in complete darkness, feeling for a single key on the wall -- the key to paradise -- that’s believed to grand salvation to any who touch it. Behind the main temple, a newer pagoda houses the Zenko-ji History Museum with its collection of statues of the Buddha and his disciples.

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Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
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121 Tours and Activities

The Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji, is one of the most famous temples in Kyoto, and a major highlight of any visit to the city. The three-story pagoda gleams with gold leaf, though it is a 1955 replica of the original 1397 temple, which was destroyed by fire in 1950.

The beautiful temple hovers over a lake, surrounded by twisted pines and forests. The image of its reflection captured in the mirror-like water is a Kyoto symbol, and a must-have photo opportunity. The classic stone and water gardens are another highlight for a stroll.

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Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
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Few will forget the fateful events of Aug. 6, 1945, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city, effectively ending World War II and costing the lives of some 80,000 residents, and Hiroshima will forever be tied to its tragic past. Despite its losses, the overwhelming sentiment in Hiroshima is of peace and wandering around the poignant memorials and tributes is an emotional experience, made all the more powerful by the moving exhibitions at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

Both a fascinating insight into the pre-war city and a harrowing glimpse into the horrors of the bomb’s aftermath, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is surely one of Japan’s most important museums and it’s compelling, if uncomfortable, viewing. Exhibitions chronicle the lives of Hiroshima residents during World War II and after the bombing, and depict the graphic reality of the bomb’s destruction.

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Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
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32 Tours and Activities

Also called Genbaku Dome, this landmark was the only building left standing after the Enola Gay dropped an atom bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, eventually killing 140,000 people. Genbaku is the Japanese word for “atomic bomb.”

Originally built in 1910 as the Hiroshima Commercial Exhibition Hall, in 1933 it was renamed the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. The five-story building, its exterior faced with stone and plaster, was topped with a steel-framed, copper-clad dome. The bomb blast shattered much of its interior, but much of its frame – as well as its garden fountain – remain.

The area around the building was re-landscaped as a park between 1950 and 1964; when complete, it was formally opened to the public as a museum. Since 1952, an annual peace ceremony has been held her eon August 6th, and in 1966, the city of Hiroshima decided to preserve the site in perpetuity. In 1996, it was declared a World Heritage Site.

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Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyoto Gosho)
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Japan's royal family no longer live in Kyoto Imperial Palace, but the imperial furnishings have been preserved. The immaculate parkland surrounding the palace is one of Kyoto’s favorite public gardens.

The palace has been empty since 1868, when the Emperor moved into the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. You need to book ahead to take a palace tour led by the Imperial Household Agency. Tours highlight the ceremonial halls, Imperial Library, the Empress quarters and throne room. The lovely parklands are filled with flowering trees and grassed areas, carp ponds and cherry blossom trees. Pack a picnic and come for the day.

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Nijo-jo Castle
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80 Tours and Activities
Nijō Castle was built in 1603 as the official residence of the first Tokugawa shogun. With its moats, walls, secret passageways and hidden chambers, the heavily fortified castle stands as a defiant symbol of the shogun's power. Entered through an elaborate main gate, the castle complex includes two palaces, Ninomaru and Honmaru. A visit to Ninomaru Palace reveals spectacular artworks, including painted screens and intricate gold leaf ceilings. Known as 'nightingale' floors, the squeaking floorboards were designed to alert the shogun’s bodyguards to the presence of intruders.
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Kiyomizu-dera Temple
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114 Tours and Activities
The Kiyomizu Temple is an ancient institution, dating back to 798 AD and the days of Nara, which has inspired temple architecture for centuries. This Kyoto landmark provides fabulous views over the city and is surrounded by gardens and shrines. Climb the steeply inclining steps leading up to the temple where You’ll find pavilion teahouses and restaurants in the grounds and the main hall jutting out over the hillside.
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Gion Corner
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132 Tours and Activities
The refined traditional arts of Japan are highlighted for visitors at Gion Corner, an entertaining and informative nightspot. From tea ceremony to the twang of the Koto, Ikebana floral arranging to puppet plays, Gion Corner dramatizes and explains the ins and outs of the esoteric world of Japanese traditions. There are two performances each evening, plus an on-site photo gallery and the opportunity to experience tea house hospitality at a traditional Kyoto banquet, hosted by geisha.
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Fushimi Inari Shrine (Fushimi Inari Taisha)
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145 Tours and Activities

Dedicated to the gods of sake and rice, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan. Five shrines dot the forested temple grounds, and the arched red lines of torii gates straddling the pathway leading up to Inari Mountain are a truly iconic sight. You’ll also see plenty of stone foxes at this temple, another symbol of Shinto.

A lovely place for a stroll in rural surrounds, there are fine views of Kyoto from the top of the torii gate pathway up the mountain. Stop off for a sustaining bowl of tofu soup at the small restaurants along the way.

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More Things to Do in Japan

Tofuku-ji Temple

Tofuku-ji Temple

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Few places on earth are more breathtakingly beautiful than Fall in Tofucku-ji Temple. During cool autumn months travelers and locals make the journey to this Zen temple in southeastern Kyoto that’s known for its incredible colors and brilliant Japanese maples. Visitors climb to the top of Tsutenkyo Bridge, which stretches across a colorful valley full of lush fall foliage in fiery reds and shocking oranges.

Visitors who make their way to Tofuku-ji other times of year can still wander beautiful temple grounds and explore places like the Hojo, where the head priest used to reside. Well-kept rock gardens provide the perfect spot for quiet contemplation and a stone path near the Kaisando is lined with brightly colored flowers and fresh greenery that’s almost as beautiful as the Japanese maples this temple is famous for.

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Pontocho Alley

Pontocho Alley

20 Tours and Activities
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Kamogawa River (Kamo River)

Kamogawa River (Kamo River)

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Strolling along the Kamo River (also referred to as Kamogawa River) at night is a quintessential Kyoto experience. The fourth longest river in Kyoto spans from the northeastern most parts of the city southwest to the Katsuragawa River. The most popular section of the river runs through the famous geisha district of Gion. In warmer months, the river becomes a popular spot for picnics, walks, and people watching.

A walking path along the river’s edge gives way to stretches of parkland, perfect for enjoying an afternoon or evening. Restaurants situated above the river light up at night, illuminating the river below. There are five bridges that span the Kamo River. More adventurous travelers may enjoy finding each of them. Along with the Seine in Paris or the Tiber River in Italy, the Kamo River is a favorite spot among locals.

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Tsutenkaku Tower

Tsutenkaku Tower

33 Tours and Activities
Vintage fun comes to Osaka in the shape of the Tsutenkaku, Osaka’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. Tsutenkaku, translated into "tower reaching heaven," reaches 338 feet (103 meters) high, making it one of the tallest buildings in Asia when it was built in 1912.
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Nishi Hongan-ji Temple

Nishi Hongan-ji Temple

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While many of Kyoto’s temples provide insight into ancient Japanese Buddhist history, few showcase contemporary movements. That’s what makes Nishi Hongan-ji unique. Built in the late 16th-century, the temple remains today an important landmark for modern Japanese Buddhism. Located in the center of Kyoto, the large temple and its sibling-temple, Higashi Hongan-ji, represent two factions of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism.

The three main attractions on the temple grounds include Goeido Hall, Amidado Hall, and the temple gardens. Goeido Hall is dedicated to the sect’s founder, and Amidado Hall to the Amida Buddha – the most important Buddha in Jodo-Shin Buddhism. Cultural treasures, including surviving masterpieces of architecture, are displayed in these main halls. The Temple garden is known as a “dry” garden, utilizing stones, white sand, trees, and plants to symbolize elements of nature such as mountains, rivers, and the ocean.

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Yasaka Shrine (Gion Shrine)

Yasaka Shrine (Gion Shrine)

52 Tours and Activities

Host to Japan’s most famous festival, Gion Matsuri, Yasaka Shrine is located in the heart of Kyoto. Yasaka Shrine dates back to the 7th century, when it was known as Gion Shrine for its location near the Gion district, famous for the geisha that live and work there. The shrine consists of several buildings. The main hall houses an inner sanctuary and a secondary hall. One of the most prominent features of the shrine is a large stage out front lined with hundreds of lanterns. One of the most popular times to visit the shrine is in the evening or at night, when the lanterns light the stage. The annual Gion Matsuri festival began more than 1,100 years ago at Yasaka Shrine. In modern times, it takes place every July. Originally, the festival sought to expunge the city of illnesses. Today, the festival celebrates craftwork. Intricate fabrics, textiles, and sculptures adorn floats that men carry through town. Music, costumes, and street food contribute to the festive atmosphere.

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Sannenzaka Ninenzaka

Sannenzaka Ninenzaka

30 Tours and Activities
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Maruyama Park (Maruyama Koen)

Maruyama Park (Maruyama Koen)

20 Tours and Activities
Set at the base of Maruyama Mountain in the western suburbs of Sapporo, Maruyama Park (Maruyama Koen) comprises 15 acres (6 hectares) of virgin and secondary forest filled with oak, magnolia, maple and Japanese katsura trees. Some 1,700 Hokkaido wild cherry trees also grow within the park, making it a particularly popular destination come springtime.
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Arashiyama Park

Arashiyama Park

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For classic Kyoto in a nutshell, head to Arashiyama Park. The perennially popular area is rich in temples and a riot of fall colors in November, with pink cherry blossoms in April.

The park area embraces several major sights, including Tenryu-ji Temple, founded in 1339. The main temple of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, Tenryu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounded by tranquil Zen gardens and bamboo forest. There are many other temples in Arashiyama, including the Gio-ji, Jojakko-ji and Daikaku-ji temples. Another highlight is walking across the Moon Crossing Bridge, with views over to Mt Arashiyama.

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Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market

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From sushi fish to kitchen knives, you’ll find everything under the sun relating to food at Nishiki Market. The covered market is a foodie's wonderland, and provides fascinating glimpses into the shopping and eating habits of Kyoto's locals, chefs and families. Pick up produce to prepare in your hotel/apartment if you’re self-catering, or choose from a staggering array of ready-to-eat snacks, sweets and drinks. This is a great place to pick up a Kyoto souvenir with a difference, from authentic cooking equipment to green tea or photographs of this colorful market.

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Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

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Kamakura makes for a colorful and cultural day trip from Tokyo. The small city has over 75 temples and shrines, the biggest and most famous of which is the Shrine of Tsuragoaka Hachimangu.

The shrine was founded by Minamoto Yoriyoshi in 1063. Despite being a shinto shrine it's layout is that of a Japanese buddhist temple. Because of its extreme beauty it's a popular spot for weddings and for the year's first shrine visit, a practice called hatsumode. During the New Year holidays it draws over 2 million visitors. The walk from the station to the shrine is beautiful and dramatic: a long wide street embellished by orange torii gates that leads from the waterfront through the entire city. In April and September archery on horseback is performed along this street. The best time to visit is early springtime when the cherry blossoms and azaleas burst into colorful bloom.

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Sanjusangen-do Temple

Sanjusangen-do Temple

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Built in 1164, Sanjusangendo Temple impresses in scope, size, and detail, with 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, flanking the main image of a giant, seated Kannon. Carved in the 12th and 13th centuries, the statues are arranged in 50 columns, each two rows deep. It's said that the Kannon witness and protect against human suffering. To aid in their mission, the Kannon are equipped with 11 heads and 1,000 arms.

"Sanjusangendo" translates to hall with thirty three spaces between the columns," describing a traditional measurement system. The wooden temple building extends 118 meters (387 feet), making it the longest of its kind in the world. Originally built for former emperor Go-Shirakawa, the Temple today remains a religious destination and popular tourist stop. It represents some of the most exquisite Japanese Buddhist sculpture and architecture in the country.

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Shitenno-ji Temple

Shitenno-ji Temple

36 Tours and Activities
Built in the 6th century by Prince Shotoku—a cultural hero who helped to bring Buddhism to the country—Shitenno-ji is one of Japan’s oldest temples. The complex includes a multi-tiered tower, pagoda, lecture hall, and gate. Though most of the current structures are from the 1963 rebuilding, they still reflect the 6th century design.
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Tenryu-ji Temple

Tenryu-ji Temple

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Ranked number one of Kyoto's five great temples, Tenryu-ji celebrates a history dating back to 1339 and stands in dedication and memory to an ancient emperor. Many of the temple buildings have been destroyed over the centuries, but the temple's landscape garden remains much the same today as it did in the 14th century.

The garden boasts a clever and unique design that marries imperial taste with zen aesthetics. Lush foliage lines a shimmering pond, and as visitors walk from one end of the pond to the other, it appears as though the seasons change in front of their eyes. Intricate stonework on one hill represents a mountain stream cascading into the pond, while in another area stones appear to be carp fish. Visitors seek out the garden to be transported to another time.

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