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It is an island state in East Asia. It is located in the Pacific Ocean to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North and South Korea, and
Russia. Japan is a small country located on more than 6 thousand islands, with an area of about 378 thousand square kilometers. It is
one of the most densely populated countries in the world with a high population density. Almost 127 million people live here, which is
only 17 million less than in the vast Russia.
Settled by migrants from the Asian mainland back in the mists of prehistory, Japan has seen the rise and fall of emperors, rule by
samurai warriors, isolation from the outside world, expansion over most of Asia, defeat, and rebirth. One of the most war-like of nations
in the early 20th century, Japan today often serves as a voice of pacifism and restraint on the international stage.
1) Spend a Night in a Ryoka
For at least one night of your trip, I highly recommend staying in a ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese inn. Tatami mat rooms are elegant,
minimalist spaces, usually with just a table and low chairs where you can enjoy green tea on arrival. Breakfast and dinner are often included in
the price and served in your room.
The epic, multi-course meals are a highlight of a stay in a ryokan and have been some of our best meals in Japan. Ryokans can often cater to
vegetarians and vegans, but let them know any dietary requirements in advance (you don’t get a choice of dishes).
After dinner, futons will be set up on the floor and can be surprisingly comfortable to sleep on.
Ryokans range from simple (such as guesthouses called minshuku) to ultra-luxurious, sometimes with private baths and views overlooking
exquisite Japanese gardens. They are more expensive than regular hotels but are well worth it for the experience.
We loved our stay at Hotel Musashiya in Hakone (a top spot for seeing Mount Fuji) where our room and the public Japanese bath overlooked
Lake Ashi. It’s reasonably priced, friendly, and the food was wonderful.
2) Soak in an Onsen
The classic Japanese experience is soaking in the steaming hot waters of an onsen (hot spring bath)—it’s a must for your Japan bucket list.
Onsens come in many forms—indoor and outdoor, simple and luxurious, small and large. Most of them are shared, but some ryokans have
private baths you can reserve.
Onsens can be a challenge for foreigners (they were for us at first!), as you must be completely naked (most are divided by gender). Make sure
you shower thoroughly before you get in the bath too. It’s worth getting over your fears as they are such a relaxing experience.
If you want the full onsen experience, head to an onsen town. These small resort towns are usually in rural settings and feature many different
onsens. They are popular destinations for the Japanese for relaxing getaways.
The best way to experience one is to stay in a ryokan. Some have their own onsens and usually include a pass to visit the other onsens in town.
After putting on the provided yukata (cotton kimono) and geta (wooden sandals), you head out to hop from one onsen to another and relax in the
steaming waters.
There are many onsen towns in Japan. We loved Kinosaki Onsen, which is easily accessible from Kyoto and Osaka and is particularly pretty in
the spring when the canals are lined with cherry blossoms.
We stayed at the friendly Morizuya Ryokan which has two small onsens available for private use in the afternoon—perfect for your first time.
Watch a Geisha Dance
Geishas are one of the most fascinating aspects of Japan, especially if you’ve read Arthur Golden’s popular novel Memoirs of a Geisha about
these highly-skilled women who entertain using traditional arts.
It’s hard to believe they still exist, but when we spent a month living on a traditional street in Miyagawacho in Kyoto (near the more well-known
Gion area), we often saw them in brightly coloured kimonos emerging from wooden teahouses.
Rather than stalking geisha on the streets of Gion, I recommend watching them perform at one of the annual dances that take place every spring
and autumn.
The most famous is the Miyako Odori in April, but we went to the Kyo Odori instead, which doesn’t attract many foreign guests. It’s one of our
absolute favourite things to do in Kyoto.
The performance was spectacular, and it was fascinating to get a closer look at the extravagant kimono, ornate hairstyles, and iconic white
makeup these graceful women wear.
Top tip: Miyagawacho is the perfect area to stay in Kyoto for spotting geisha without the crowds of Gion. We rented a studio on Vrbo that’s no
longer available but you can search for more vacation rentals in Miyagawacho here. Options include this lovingly restored townhouse and this
incredible samurai machiya.
6) See Sumo Wrestlers in Action
Sumo is serious in Japan and the national sport is steeped in tradition. Matches still include rituals that date back to its ancient origins as part of
the Shinto religion such as purifying the ring with salt.
You can see sumo wrestling at one of the sumo tournaments that happen a few times a year (book tickets in advance on Voyagin) or take a tour
to a sumo stable in Tokyo or Osaka to see the wrestlers’ morning training session. Tournaments happen in Tokyo in January, May and
September and Osaka in March.
I loved the novel The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama, which gave me a greater insight into sumo culture.
Watch a Kabuki Performance
Kabuki is a form of traditional Japanese theatre that dates back to the Edo Period. It includes drama, dance and music and the all-male
performers wear elaborate makeup.
The best place to see a Kabuki performance is the Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza, Tokyo (English captions are available), but you might find
performances in other major cities.
Enter the World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Japan
Universal Studios Japan in Osaka is a must for Harry Potter and theme park fans.
The highlight is the immersive Wizarding World of Harry Potter where you can wander the snowy cobbled streets, stroll through Hogwarts,
drink butterbeer, shop for sweets in Honeydukes, and even cast your own spells if you buy a magic wand.
Elsewhere in the park, there are plenty of rides for thrill-seekers including Hollywood Dream and The Flying Dinosaur—the scariest
rollercoaster I’ve ever been on!
The park gets extremely busy, so avoid weekends and buy your tickets in advance. Consider purchasing an Express Pass to skip the queues.
Japan is a bewildering, beautiful country that is like nowhere else. There are so many amazing things to do in Japan that one trip is never
enough—it has stolen our hearts and we can’t stop returning.
From ancient temples to futuristic skyscrapers, tranquil tea ceremonies to over-the-top arcades, relaxing hot springs to cosplay go-kart rides,
Japan has so much to offer everyone.