There were loads of experiences that I was beyond excited to have when I arrived in Japan.
The top ones were were definitely photography-related… I just can’t resist a good photo op! Pretty shrines and temples, mountainous scenery, and unique city streets had my camera practically jumping out of my hands to document the country on its own.
During my travels around Japan, I had many more unexpected yet authentic experiences. Some were unable to be properly captured by my camera, as the experience was more about feeling present in the moment than what could be seen through my lens.
Japan is a truly special country that enlightened and engaged me in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. If you’re planning a trip to this colourful Asian destination, here’s a roundup of all my must-have experiences in Japan!
1. Bathe in an onsen
Onsen are geothermal hot spring baths that can be found all over Japan, often in hotels or guesthouses. Public onsen are generally split into separate male and female baths, while private onsen can be booked for couples and friends to bathe together.
I had an onsen experience in our hotel in Hiroshima which had a spa on the top floor. Bathing is strictly done in the nude, which turns some people off (Rob refused to do it but I had only a slight apprehension about stripping down!). There are also a specific set of rules that are generally used for bathing in an onsen – this guide was particularly helpful for me to understand the etiquette.
2. Catch the bullet train
Catching the Shinkansen bullet train is an essential experience for any visitor to Japan! This high-speed rail network stretches all the way from Hokkaido to Kyushu (nearly the entire length of Japan) and has max speeds of 320 km/h (200 mph).
Tickets on the bullet train are far from cheap (Japan can be expensive), but it’s extremely convenient and makes travelling between cities super easy – I caught the Shinkansen between Osaka, Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Mt Fuji. A popular trip like the Tokyo to Kyoto train takes only 2 hrs and 15 mins each way.
You can buy a JR Rail Pass or individual tickets at the train station and reserve your seat for the next departure. Trains leave approximately every half hour.
3. Eat all of the food
I’m not usually much of a foodie when I travel – probably because being vegetarian makes it somewhat hard to enjoy all the local delicacies. But in Japan, I was totally obsessed with all the Japanese food! It’s simple, flavoursome, and just so incredibly good.
I tried loads of vegetarian foods in Japan, and it’s hard to pick a favourite dish. The okinomiyaki in Hiroshima was definitely a hit, as was the veggie gyoza dumplings (pictured above) in Kyoto. Keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming guide to the veggie foods I ate in Japan!
4. Try green tea flavoured everything
Now I love a good cup of tea, but I generally prefer black tea over green tea. In Japan, it seems like absolutely everything is matcha green tea flavoured – the Japanese are totally obsessed with it!
I had matcha ice cream, chocolates, cake snacks, cookies, lattes, and even a green tea rice soup (which was pretty weird, to be honest!). I think the above matcha soft serve that I had in Nara, complete with themed deer biscuit, was the green tea snack that I enjoyed the most.
5. Drink sake
I really love sake! This Japanese rice wine is rather strong at around 15-20% alcohol. Sake is usually sipped from a small cup (porcelain or glass) and depending on the product it can be served cold, hot, or at room temperature.
You can visit a sake tasting bar, tour a sake brewery, or just drink sake at any restaurant that you go to for dinner. We decided on a tasting bar in Kyoto to sample sake flights of different grades, and the owner let us borrow a book that explained the process of sake-making in Japan.
6. Visit a Shinto shrine
Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan. The colourful shrines that you’ve probably seen on Instagram are lovely places to wander through in real life, though be aware that some of the more popular ones can get crazy busy with tourists.
Shinto shrines can be found all over the country, with some areas like Kyoto having a large concentration of the historic religious sites. My favourites were the Itsukushima Shrine and Floating Torii Gate in Miyajima (near Hiroshima, pictured above) and Fushimi Inari Shrine with its path lined with thousands of torii gates in Kyoto.
7. Relax in a zen garden
There’s something incredibly tranquil about a zen garden. I visited a handful throughout Japan, with my favourite being Yoshiki-en in Nara. This garden is free for international tourists if you show your passport, but somehow it’s kept relatively off the radar… there were only a handful of other tourists in the garden while we were there.
I found a stone bench in the moss garden and sat to meditate for 10 minutes to the sounds of birds, trickling water, and footsteps. It was such a lovely place to collect my thoughts away from the crowds of Nara Park. Zen gardens can be found near many temples are shrines throughout Japan – make sure you take a few moments to sit quietly and relax when you find one.
8. Stay in a tatami room
Traditional Japanese-style rooms are a little different from what we might expect from a regular hotel. Tatami rooms can be found at most Ryokans (Japanese inns) or onsen resorts around the country.
The rooms are generally an open space with tatami straw mats covering the floor. Shoes must be taken off before entering the room. Instead of beds, futon mattresses are laid out on the mats. This might sound like a strange way to spend the night, but it’s actually quite comfortable! We stayed in a tatami room for one night at a resort in Mt Fuji for a unique experience.
9. Get lost in the streets of Tokyo
Tokyo is truly a huge and mind-blowing city. The streets, which range from the insanely busy Shibuya crossing to tiny hidden alleyways, are lined with neon lights and lanterns that hang outside brightly lit bars and restaurants. The various sights, smells, and sounds trigger a sensory overload.
We stayed in a boutique hotel in Ebisu – just one stop on the metro south of Shibuya. There were a few tourists in the area, but there were plenty more Japanese, which made it an authentic area to wander around and get lost in.