10 things to do


Wander around the main sights of Tokyo or Kyoto and it’s obvious that Japan is a major tourist destination for millions of visitors from around the world. Yet venture beyond these two cities and you can easily travel for several days without meeting another foreigner. With so many itineraries just focussing on places in and areas Tokyo and Kyoto it’s very easy to lose the crowds and enjoy some of Japan’s best experiences pretty much to yourself. Here are 10 ideas for seeing some of Japan’s best places:


1. See one of Japan’s three most scenic spots 
A short hop by ferry from Hiroshima, Miyajima is home to the Itsukushima Shrine and its famous O-Torii gate which appears to be floating on the sea at high tide. It is very popular with Japanese day-trippers but you can soon lose the crowds by hiking to the top of Mount Misen, the island’s peak. There is a vending machine at the summit. 


2. Stare into a volcanic crater
Around three hours north of Tokyo, this winter ski resort becomes a sleepy spa town in the summer months and is a great base for hiking in the surrounding hills. Take the ropeway (cable car) to the top and head for the emerald green Okama volcanic crater lake.  The open air baths above the town are a perfect treat after a day on the hilltops.


3. Enjoy a traditional British afternoon tea
Hakodate became a hugely important city in the mid-19th century when it developed as an international trading port soon after Japan abandoned its policy of isolation from the rest of the world. Now you can wander around the Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Episcopal churches remaining from that period, while the old British consulate serves cream teas and stocks a range of Paddington Bear toys and highly authentic Union Jack memorabilia. 


4. See bears and whales on a single boat trip
It’s a long slog to get up to the Shiretoko Peninsula on the north-east of Hokkaido but it’s an effort that’s richly rewarded with some stunning scenery. There are many walking trails and you can take a boat trip where within a couple of hours (if you’re lucky) you’ll spot black bears and sperm whales. 


5. Visit a Japanese castle
There are plenty to choose from and they offer a completely different experience from the traditional European stone fortress. Most of Japan’s castles were damaged by war or fire with only a handful of originals still standing. One of the finest reconstructions is Kumamoto Castle in Kyushu, boasting great views from its tower and one of the most impressive castle interiors in the country. 


6. Soak in a hot spring
Japanese people take their onsen (hot spring baths) very seriously. There are over a thousand around the country and many traditional guest houses will have a pool for their guests’ private use. No swimming costumes are allowed in an onsen and you need to wash thoroughly before coming anywhere near the communal pool. One of the finest traditional bathhouses is found at Dogo Onsen near Matsuyama. 


7. Get buried in hot sand
Another take on the onsen, this time you dress in a gown and lie on the hot sand before eager staff shovel generous piles of hot sand onto you. The most popular place to try this unusual treatment is at Ibusuki, near the southern city of Kagoshima. You need a good shower after you emerge from the sand to avoid an uncomfortable trip back to town on the train. 


8. See some of the world’s biggest whirlpools
Twice a day near Naruto the tide sends water rushing through the narrow strait that separates the Inland Sea from the Pacific Ocean. Giant whirlpools are formed around the base of the suspension bridge that crosses the straits. Head onto the bridge and stare through the glass floor at the whirlpools below. You’ll need to check peak viewing times before you go as for much of the day there is nothing to see.


9. Visit a Ninja temple
Head over to the north coast of Honshu and the city of Kanazawa, famous for having one of Japan’s finest gardens. It is also home to Myoryu-ji, better known as the ‘Ninja Dera’ temple. Visits are only by guided tour and you will find secret trap doors, false walls, hidden staircases and even a room with no exit (the suicide room). 


10. See Japan’s largest Buddha

While in Kyoto take a day trip to nearby Nara, the ancient Japanese capital. Here you’ll find temples galore, including Todai-ji which holds Japan’s largest Buddha figure. It’s one of the few temples where you can take pictures inside, although you’re not allowed to use the tripod required to get a decent shot of the dimly lit Buddha.