11 Things You Have to Do in Japan and The 4 Main Islands

11 Things You Have to Do in Japan

Beautiful Japan is a country that is like nowhere else. Known as the ‘land of the rising sun’, there are so many amazing things to see and do. So where do you start? If you’ve been dreaming of a trip to Japan then you’ve come to the right place. From ancient temples to futuristic skyscrapers. Tranquil tea ceremonies to cosplay go-kart rides around Tokyo. Relaxing hot springs to marvelling at Mount Fuji. Japan has so much to offer.

With five main islands (including Honshu, known as the mainland), and a whopping 6,852 islands in total, Japan can seem like a mind field. So we’ve put together 11 of the top things to do, for an amazing and unforgettable experience. Especially if you’re visiting for the first time. And we bet, it won’t be your last!

See sumo wrestlers in action

Sumo is the national sport of Japan, and it’s taken pretty seriously. It’s steeped in tradition, and matches include rituals that date back to its ancient origins. Tournaments happen a few times a year (January, May and September in Tokyo, and Osaka in March) and get booked up pretty quickly, so make sure you book your tickets in advance. Or why not take a tour to a sumo stable in Tokyo or Osaka to see the wrestlers’ morning training session?

Watch a geisha dance

Geisha are one of the most fascinating aspects of Japan. They are highly-skilled women who entertain using traditional arts. With their colourful kimonos, ornate hairstyles and iconic makeup. Watch them perform at one of the annual dances that take place every spring and autumn. The most famous is the Miyako Odori in April.

Geisha walking down a busy street
Credit: Han Min T

Miyagawacho is the perfect area to stay in Kyoto for spotting geisha without the crowds of Gion. The 3-star Rinn Miyagawacho Grande is well located. It’s set 0.8 miles from Samurai Kembu Kyoto, 1 miles from Sanjusangen-do Temple and 1.1 miles from Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

Bath in an onsen

Japan’s natural bubbling hot springs, known as onsen, are the ultimate in relaxation. Around 27,000 hot springs are spread across Japan’s 3,000 onsen towns. But the island of Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island, is where you’ll find the most. 

They come in different shapes, sizes and colours, and the colour of the water indicates the dominant minerals present. A red colour means more iron, milky has more sulphur, blue for bicarbonate and so on. Each type is said to have a different therapeutic effect. But beware, you must be completely naked! And they are very, very hot.

Tokyo 300*250

Ride a Shinkansen (Bullet Train)

The shinkansen high-speed trains are the fastest way to discover Japan, reaching a speed of 199 mph. The network is extensive and the trains are comfortable, clean, quiet, safe and ALWAYS on time! The Japan Railways (JR) network, which can be accessed by the Japan Rail Pass, practically covers the whole country, with the addition of the new Hokkaido Shinkansen, and the popular Tokaido Shinkansen.

A white Shinkansen bullet train in Tokyo Station, Chiyoda-ku, Japan
Credit: Fikri Rasyid

The Japan Rail Pass gives you unlimited access to all Shinkansen bullet trains except the two types of express trains: the Nozomi and the Mizuho, which run on the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu Shinkansen lines.

The 4 Main Islands of Japan

(and what makes them unique)

Japan is actually made up of an impressive 6,852 islands in total. It extends over 1,900 miles and is the fourth largest island country in the world, with a population of more than 126 million. 430 of its islands are inhabited, but it’s the four largest islands which around 98% of the Japanese population call home. 

The floating torii gate surrounded by water on the island of Itsukushima
Credit: Nicki Eliza Schinow

Hokkaido is the northernmost main island, with Honshu, the largest of the islands (also known as the mainland), just south of it. Then you have Kyushu and Shikoku as you move further south. Here we’ll take a look at each of the four islands and what unique things they have to offer. From the unspoilt national parks to the hustle and bustle of the illuminated cities. There’s an island to suit everyone, whatever you’re looking for from your next holiday.

Hokkaido

Hokkaido is the second largest, and least developed of Japan’s four main islands. It’s covered with snow and surrounded by sea ice in the winter. Some houses even have a second entrance upstairs, just in case it snows too much! But it’s these conditions that see skiers flocking from all over the world, with some ski areas receiving up to 20 metres of snow each year.

Niseko

Is considered the powder capital of the world and as such, is the most popular international ski destination in Japan. It’s not unusual for snow to fall constantly from December to February, so there’s always a scattering of fresh snow. You can also ski after dark so you can enjoy the fresh tracks under floodlights. Other famous ski resorts in Hokkaido include Rusutsu, Furano, Tomamu, Sahoro and Kiroro.

Hiking the Japanese Backcountry in the snow in Niseko, Japan
Credit: Oliver Dickerson

Summer in Hokkaido is a little different. Whilst temperatures are pleasant at around 20ºC, it doesn’t get as hot and humid as other parts of the country. Perfect for those who want to explore the island’s natural beauty without melting in the heat.

Sapporo

Is the capital of Hokkaido, and Japan’s fifth largest city. Its population has grown dramatically to just under two million, from just seven people in 1857. Sapporo became famous when it played host to the Winter Olympics in 1972, and visitors still flock for its annual Snow Festival in February, and its world-famous ramen and beer.

Noboribetsu Onsen

Is Hokkaido’s most famous hot spring resort. In volcanic crater Jigokudani (Hell Valley), steam rises from the mountains and hot water bubbles up from the Tessen Ike geyser. Its city centre is decorated by stone demon statues, and trails run between the oaks in the Noboribetsu Primeval Forest. Guided day tours are available so you can see some of Hokkaido’s most spectacular attractions in all its glory.

Furano and Biei

Are towns in central Hokkaido, known for their picturesque rural landscapes. Visit in July when the beautiful lavender fields are in full bloom. Or in winter if you want to go skiing.

Matsumae

Is a town just west of Cape Shirakami, Hokkaido’s southernmost point. The former home of the Matsumae Han, it has an Edo period castle, Matsumae Castle, which is the only one in Hokkaido.

Honshu

Honshu is the largest and most populous island in Japan. Known as the mainland, it’s home to most of the country’s major cities and cultural sites, including its capital, Tokyo. It has a humid subtropical climate, with warm and wet summers and mild winters. Most of Japan’s tea and silk comes from Honshu, and Yamanashi is a major fruit-growing area, with Aomori being famous for its apples.

A man taking a photo of Fuji San in Kawaguchiko
Credit: Roméo A

Mount Fuji

Is the highest volcano in Japan at 3,776m, and the seventh highest island peak in the world. Its symmetrical cone is snow-capped for around five months of the year, and it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013. It is one of Japan’s “Three Holy Mountains” along with Mount Tate and Mount Haku.

Stay at the Fuji Mountain Resort Hotel for a good base to explore the area. The hotel is around 2 miles from Lake Kawaguchi Ohashi Bridge, 2.3 miles from Fujiomuro Sengen Shrine and 3.7 miles from Kawaguchi Asama Shrine.

Kinkaku-ji

Is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. Formally known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and its top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history, and the present structure was rebuilt in 1955. But it is still one of the most popular buildings in Japan. 

Tokyo Skytree

Is a broadcasting and observation tower standing at 634 metres, making it the tallest tower in the world. There are two observation decks which offer spectacular views over Tokyo. Skip the queue and get your tickets before you go.

Osaka Castle

Is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks, and it played a major role in the unification of Japan during the sixteenth century. Its main castle tower was struck by lightning in 1665 and burnt down, and it wasn’t rebuilt until 1931. It’s now home to a museum about the castle’s history.

Gion

Is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. It’s filled with shops, restaurants and tea houses (ochaya), where geisha entertain. It attracts tourists worldwide with its traditional wooden machiya merchant houses, which are only five to six metres wide. 

Miyagawacho is the perfect area to stay in Kyoto for spotting geisha without the crowds of Gion. The 3-star Rinn Miyagawacho Grande is well located. It’s set 0.8 miles from Samurai Kembu Kyoto, 1 miles from Sanjusangen-do Temple and 1.1 miles from Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

Kyushu

Kyushu, the southwesternmost of Japan’s main islands. An early centre of Japanese civilization, it offers many historic treasures, modern cities and natural beauty. It has a subtropical climate, and it’s known for its beaches, natural hot springs and active volcanoes. 

A girl taking a photo in Fukuoka in Japan
Credit: Roméo A

Fukuoka

Is Kyushu’s largest and one of Japan’s ten most populated cities. It’s home to museums, mega-malls and Kushida-jinja, an 8th-century Shinto shrine. The annual Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival is centred on the shrine.

Karatsu

Is a coastal city, known for its castle, the annual Karatsu Kunchi festival which takes place in November, and its local pottery. It was once a major stop for ships making the journey towards Korea and China.

Mount Aso

Is the largest active volcano in Japan, and one of the largest in the world. Its peak is 1,592 metres above sea level, and the main crater can be accessed and viewed by tourists.

Beppu

Is one of Japan’s most famous hot spring resorts, producing more hot spring water than anywhere else in the country. Visitors can bathe in nutrient-rich water, mud and sand. To the west, Mount Tsurumi is accessible by cable car.

Usuki

Is a former castle town, famous for its stone Buddhas which are sculpted into the cliff walls and date back to the 12th century. In Japan, Buddha statues are usually made of wood or metal. Stone Buddhas are rare, and they were the first stone Buddhas to be selected as National Treasures of Japan.


Shikoku

Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s major islands. It’s encircled by a 1,200km, 88-temple Buddhist pilgrimage route (henro) honouring the 9th-century monk Kukai. The island’s mountainous terrain has hiking trails and rivers with whitewater rapids. The laid-back Pacific coast is lined with surfing points and beaches. The best time to visit the island of Shikoku is from May until October, when the temperatures are pleasantly warm, with little rainfall.

An islet with trees in Shikoku in Japan
Credit: Pavlo Klein

Matsuyama

Is the largest city on Shikoku, with the stunning Matsuyamajo castle standing at the heart. The castle’s hilltop vantage point offers a view of the city and a glimpse of the Seto Inland Sea.

Naruto

Is the northeastern most city on Shikoku island, known for its swirling whirlpools. They can be seen in the Strait of Naruto underneath the Onaruto Bridge connecting Tokushima to Awaji Island. It’s also the starting point of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, which visits the 88 temples around the island.

Ritsurin Koen

Is one of the most famous historical gardens in Japan. It’s located in the city of Takamatsu and includes a tea house, as well as ponds, hills, historic trees and beautiful pavilions divided into a Japanese style garden in the south, and western style garden in the north.

Yoshino River

Flows through Nishi-Awa and is considered to be one of the three greatest rivers in Japan. The Yoshino’s claim to fame is how beautifully crystal clear its waters are. It’s considered the best river in Japan for white water rafting, perfect for thrill-seekers.

Iya Valley

Is an area filled with steep mountain slopes and gorges. Today, it offers visitors a unique look at the traditional lifestyle of Japan along with a natural atmosphere. You’ll find hot spring hotels and museums, along with many hiking popular routes.

Still looking for inspiration? Here you’ll find a selection of the most popular escorted tours in Japan from Titan Travel

 

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