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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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Universal Studios Japan
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18 Tours and Activities

Theme park rides and shows come together in Osaka at Universal Studios Japan®. Like its sister parks in the U.S., the movie theme park provides fun for the whole family!

Snoopy, Hello Kitty, Woody Woodpecker, Shrek and many other stars are on hand to greet you as you make your way through the park. Entertaining rides include Jaws, Back to the Future, the Spider-Man Ride and Jurassic Park! Partake in ultra-exhilarating shows like Shrek's 4-D Adventure, Terminator 2: 3-D or Backdraft. Universal Studios shows are fun for everyone and are full of excitement! And if you're a Harry Potter fan, be enchanted by the newly opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter! Fly over Hogwarts on the "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" flight simulator; tour Hogwarts castle to see some of its most famous rooms; or even take a ride on a Hippogriff (winged horse with an eagle head)!

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Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
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36 Tours and Activities

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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Fushimi Inari Shrine (Fushimi Inari Taisha)
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137 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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Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
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119 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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Arashiyama Park
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86 Tours and Activities

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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Gion Corner
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131 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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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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More Things to Do in Japan

Odori Park (Odori Koen)

Odori Park (Odori Koen)

17 Tours and Activities
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Sapporo TV Tower

Sapporo TV Tower

12 Tours and Activities
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Shiroi Koibito Park

Shiroi Koibito Park

9 Tours and Activities
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Susukino

Susukino

6 Tours and Activities
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Mt. Moiwa (Moiwa-yama)

Mt. Moiwa (Moiwa-yama)

5 Tours and Activities
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Jozankei

Jozankei

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The hot-spring town of Jozankei is the perfect place to escape for a relaxing weekend soaking in the healing waters of myriad natural geothermal baths. This full-featured resort town just an hour outside of Sapporo has about 20 hotels, as well as a variety of restaurants and shops.

In the fall, Jozankei is also a popular base for foliage watchers looking to enjoy the scenery of the changing leaves. The onsens themselves are true volcanic hot springs laden with healing minerals, and during the winter, the nearby Toyohira River mixes with the spring waters, enveloping the town in inviting steam. As with most onsens in Japan, baths are divided into men’s and women’s sections, and bathing is done in the nude. The nearby Jozankei Dam and Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort are also popular attractions in the area.

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Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

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110 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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Nijo-jo Castle

Nijo-jo Castle

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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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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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Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyoto Gosho)

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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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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Yasaka Shrine (Gion Shrine)

Yasaka Shrine (Gion Shrine)

48 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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