Note: This post is a summary of the Solo Travel Talk podcast episode: Top 10 Japan. If you’d like to listen to this podcast rather than read the summary, click here.
When visiting Japan, it’s hard to decide exactly which sites you want to see - especially when deciding between the many, many temples and shrines. For example, in Kyoto, there are over 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites - 8 of which are temples and shrines. In order to prevent your trip from becoming a little lackluster, you want to make sure you include a variety of sites and activities in your itinerary.
When I start planning a trip, I start by making a big list of all the places I want to see.
I then zone in on key destinations and figure out how long I think the trip should be based on my desired activities and cost. When I went to Japan, I spent 3 and a half weeks traveling across 5 Japanese cities. I visited 2 major metropolitan cities: Tokyo and Osaka, 2 “traditional” cities: Kyoto and Nara- where Imperial Japan started, Hakone which is famous for its gorgeous nature and little villages, and finally, Hiroshima.
My goal When Visiting Japan
My goal when visiting Japan was to gain a deeper understanding of the Japanese way of life and culture. I wanted to learn about their history, their spiritual beliefs, and their architecture - from ancient to samurai to modern times. I wanted to experience the fashion scene and understand Japanese aesthetics. Although I’m not much of a foodie, I wanted to get into the food - which I did and I will be doing an entire podcast episode on this topic. I wanted an opportunity to interact and get to know Japanese people. When you travel enough, you begin to realize that the people you meet are the most fulfilling part of your travels. You might have gone for the sights or the food or the shopping, but you often times will leave remembering what an impact the people rather than the place had on you.
Note: Getting around as a solo traveler in Japan can be very difficult.
I found that I had a hard time accomplishing everything I wanted to do in Japan. Unless you know Japanese or are going on a day tour with an organized group, you will find that it is very time consuming trying to get from point A to point B. Sometimes there are no numbered buildings or street signs, GoogleMaps is not always clear and you have to stop and use GoogleTranslate or ask someone for directions and pray that they speak some English. However, what this forced me to do was seriously prioritize and also, just let go. I guess you could say I got into that Zen consciousness a little bit - I let myself go with the flow and really be in the moment wherever I was.
Bottomline: do a lot of pre-trip research, make a list of what you want to experience and prioritize this list daily. Use your concierge to help you with logistics and scheduling, but you’ll probably want to take some day tours as well so you can hit some of the must-dos efficiently. I didn’t think I’d want to take very many day tours, but they ended up being a great thing in Japan because you have an English- speaking guide and you can ask questions and more fully understand what it is you’re seeing.
So, let’s get into the Top 10 (More like 20) Must-Do’s
1. Glimpse (Maybe!) Mount Fuji
This probably comes at no surprise, because Mount Fuji is #1 on a lot of people’s bucket lists. This mountain is sacred to the Japanese and really is the iconic symbol of Japan. Here’s the thing about Mount Fuji: it’s not that easy to see or photograph - it’s kind of elusive. It’s tucked into the surrounding mountains and there’s a lot of clouds and fog that keep it hidden from view. You sort of have to be lucky to see it at all on a given day. I targeted viewing Mount Fuji from this village called Moto-Hakone, in the Hakone Mountains. This particular village situated near Lake Ashi has a gorgeous shrine nestled within a forest, a wonderful museum full of modern Japanese paintings done in old techniques, and an abundance of restaurants and shops. To me, it sort of felt like an Austrian village even though it was in Japan. This is where I chose to stay and attempt to view Mount Fuji.
This Mountain is So Elusive!
Below the village, Lake Ashi is a great place to try and spot Mount Fuji as well as from the cablecar going up to the village. On my first day, the rain and fog kept the elusive mountain out of sight, so I headed to the café at the museum for a light lunch - hoping I might be able to see it from there. By the time I got there, the clouds had rolled in, so I decided to go into the museum and take my time perusing around. When I finally came out, there it was! Mount Fuji in all its glory!
Other places to spot Mount Fuji if you don’t want to go to the Hakone Mountains:
Lake Kawaguchiko - part of the Fuji lake district.
Kamakura - a coastal town outside of Tokyo. Great if you want to get a view of Mount Fuji from the beaches.
Enoshima- an island in Sagami Bay, which is about an hour and a half outside of Tokyo
Gotemba - a town not far from Hakone at the base of Mount Fuji. I chose not to go here because it seemed like it was swarming with busses and people. Even though it has a great view of Mount Fuji, it just wasn’t the Mount Fuji experience I wanted.
From the Tokyo Sky Tree - great if you are only visiting Tokyo and still want to see Mount Fuji! (On a clear day, of course.)
2. Go to the Gion Geisha District in Kyoto
Whereas Toyko is very modern, Kyoto is very traditional. Especially in The Gion Geisha District of Kyoto, you will find a very “old Japan” feel. I liken it to the French Quarter in New Orleans. It is just very different from the other areas of Kyoto. This is where you will find beautiful, traditional tea houses, called Chashitsu, where Geisha and Maiko (Geisha apprentices) entertain guests with dance performances and tea ceremonies.
I highly recommend going to a Geisha performance. I went to a show at The Gion Corner Theater (which features a variety of Japanese theatre) and was so mesmerized by the Geisha. Their every movement is so fluid, methodical and thoughtful. You can just feel the feminine energy in the air, and it is an absolute treat to witness.
A bit about the Geisha:
Geisha and Maiko are considered Japanese cultural treasures. When a girl decides she wants to go this route, she will never marry. She will live with other Geisha and Maiko, teach younger apprentices, and be totally dedicated to all the Japanese arts that go into this practice. It really takes a special kind of person, because it is a very structured way of life and many young women are not willing to do this anymore. They are not prostitutes. This is a Western misconception.
Note: Geisha, like Mount Fuji, are a little elusive. They are not typically “out-and-about”. They dash across the streets like a deer in the woods in tiny, quick steps. Also, please do not stop them and ask for a photograph as this is considered very rude, and they likely will not respond. If you she a Geisha strolling in the streets and she’s happy to take a picture with you - she’s not a real Geisha.
Other things to see in this area of Kyoto:
Traditional Machiya houses - home to many urban merchants and artisans.
Kenning Temple which has a beautiful Zen garden
The famous Yasaka Shrine
Hanamikoji - a street with lots of upscale restaurants and boutiques
3. Visit the Asakusa Neighborhood in Tokyo
The historic section of Tokyo, what I refer to as “Old Tokyo”. Here’s what you should do there:
Walk under Kaminarimon, the Thunder Gate. This is a massive gate adorned with huge lanterns, and upon entering the Thunder Gate, you are on sacred ground.
Visit the Sensoji Temple. This is the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo.
See The Five-Storied Pagoda
Visit The Asakusa Shinto Shrine
Shop the Nakamise- dori: the best place to buy traditional goods and souvenirs in Tokyo.
Take a rickshaw ride. A little cheesy, but fun!
Dine in one of the restaurants there (not on Nakamise-dori). Find one of the traditional restaurants nestled amongst the alleyways.
4. Visit the Meji Shrine in Tokyo
This shrine was created in honor of the Emperor Meji and Empress Shōken. It is located in the most gorgeous 170-acre evergreen forest in the middle of modern Tokyo.Once you venture beyond the uniquely-designed, stained-wood and gold-leaf torii gate at the Meji Shrine, you will feel the calmness of nature surround you. (Note: The entrance to a Shinto shrine is most often marked by a torii gate, whereas a temple will have doors). The Shinto religion emphasizes the relationship between nature and man, and they believe everything has a spirit in it: be it a rock, water, tree or person. They believe that things with good spirits have calming properties - which is exactly what you will feel in the Meji Shrine. I suggest spending a few soothing hours here. When you leave, there is, of course, a great gift shop with very high-quality, traditional Japanese goods and an abundance of food vendors. Tip: get the matcha ice cream!
Also near here is the Harajuku Fashion District. This kind of fashion is based on the concept of cuteness, refereed to as kawaii. Hello Kitty originated here! There’s a lot of things to do in this area: shopping, food, sweets, etc. and it has a high energy, so I think it’s worth the visit.
5. Spend at Least 1 Night in a Ryokan
A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn which features tatami mat floors, natural baths called Onsens (private often available), rice-pane windows and doors, and low-level, sort of minimalist furniture. When staying in a ryokan, you will sleep on the floor on what to me looks like a tissue packet, but is called a futon and be taught how to wear a traditional Yukata, a cotton Kimono-like robe with big sleeves and a belt. I stayed in the village of Hakone-Machi at the ryokan, Yamagaso. If you want to stay in the real thing, this is the real thing. Now, it cost be about $400 to sleep on the floor, but I loved it. The property has about 6-8 private bungalows situated around a garden with a pond, flowering plants, cherry blossom trees, fountains and singing birds - it was like paradise.
Each bungalow has its own living room with a low dining table and chairs, and a bay area with a scroll and seasonal flower arrangement - used in special ceremony. The bedroom has only the simple futon, features rice-paper windows and a private bath. The atmosphere is so wonderfully peaceful.
This particular ryokan had a private Onsen which the attendants will prepare for you and escort you to when it’s ready. By the time you’re finished they’ll be waiting for you at your bungalow ready to greet you with a bow. Everything is executed perfectly - and with delight. You can tell they really take pride in what they do. From the welcome green tea and sweets to the Yukata demonstration to the unwavering attentiveness, everything about this experience is just wonderful. It luxurious but in a very simplistic way.
If you’re interested in staying at the Yamagaso, click below to check out current prices on Booking.com
6. Go to the Hakone Open Air Museum
I’m an art lover, so consequently I visit a lot of museums when I travel. I know a lot of people don’t love museums and they don’t want their vacation to feel like a field trip, but there really are some museums around the world that you really shouldn’t miss even if you couldn’t care less about art. This Hakone Open Air Museums, in my opinion, is one of those.
The museum is set in the mountains, so it has this great harmony of nature and art. One section is an outdoor sculpture garden with pieces by some very famous International and Japanese sculptors. The grounds are just gorgeous. I think I took 500 pictures in there. There’s an interior exhibition hall dedicated solely to works by Picasso. There is a top-class gift shop as well as a cafe here. The Creative Adventurer has a great blog (with a ton of photos) dedicated entirely to the Hakone Open Air Museum which you can read here.
7. Walk through the Bamboo Forest, A UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Arashiyama area, nestled in the Storm Mountains along the Ōi river, is noted for its scenic beauty. Located in this area, is one of those 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, the Bamboo Forest. This bamboo towers above you like skyscrapers. You’ve never seen anything like this. It really is a spiritual experience.
In this area is the Tenryu-ji Temple and the Temple Arashiyama. The Temple Arashiyama, in particular, I found to be fabulous. The gardens surrounding it feature meandering paths through the bamboo which lead to shinto shrines where you’ll see people praying, tossing coins, etc. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people there, but regardless, you will be overcome by the magnificence of this nature.
After visiting the Bamboo Forest, I took a lunch cruise on this flat-bottom boat on the Ōi river - which was a little touristy, but I enjoyed it.
Bottomline: If you don’t visit the Arashiyama area, you’ve missed something. Give yourself a full day here, you’ll be glad you did.
8. See the Kinkaku - Ji Temple
This is one of the most famous and loved temples in Japan. It has that Japanese look, of course, but it’s different. It was originally a shōgun retirement villa, but is now a Buddhist temple - so I don’t think you can go inside, but the setting is beautiful. It is situated on a gorgeous lake, and around the whole lake is a “go-around” classical Japanese Garden. It is set up to where the temple is always reflected in the water, from all kinds of angles depending on the sun. It features the typical bridges, plants, rocks, flowers and trees with strategic places to sit, but the three-story, gold-leaf temple reflected by the mirror pond really steals the show.
Be prepared to see a lot of tourists here. Be patient, and don’t forget to try and soak in some of that Zen energy and relax.
9. Walk through the Fushimi-Inari Shrine
If you’ve ever seen an advertisement promoting tourism in Japan, you’ve probably seen a photo of this place. It is noted for 10,000 torii gates. The shrine itself is dedicated to the goddess of the Inari who is the patron of rice, saki and prosperity.
If you want to take the path through all 10,000 gates, it will take you 2 hours to complete this mountainous journey. People do this almost as a sort of pilgrimage and in hopes of personal prosperity.
This is a very special place, but it is also very popular so it is best to either come very early or late in the day to avoid most of the crowds.
Plan to spend some time there because they have a lot of great street food in front of the shrine. (Especially the sweets … Fun fact: The American fortune cookie actually comes from the Japanese, not the Chinese. Imagine that!)
10. Pay a Visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum
I must say, as an American, I felt drawn to pay my respects here. Many people might leave this place off their list, but I am glad I took the time to go all the way down south to visit this place. The first place I visited was the A-Bomb Dome. Before the bomb hit, this was the commercial and trade center of this area. Somehow, despite being almost directly underneath the impact, this building was not entirely destroyed. It’s exposed steel-dome is what gives this building its name and it is now the center-stone of the peace park.
Then you have the Hiroshima Museum, which is very difficult to visit. You’ll see a simulation of what happened before, during and after the bomb was dropped. But you will also see how Hiroshima began to heal and come back.
There’s also a beautiful area called the children’s peace museum, which is famous for its 1,000s of paper origami cranes - each one a prayer for the children lost as a result of the blast.
In my opinion, the whole place is beautiful, but eerie, moving, and extremely thought provoking. It is an emotional experience for sure, but to me, it’s worth it.
A few bonus things to do in Japan:
1. If you need to go anywhere outside of Tokyo, take the bullet train, the shinkansen. The train is a much easier way to get from A to B than a plane. It’s a great way to see the countryside, and can be luxurious if you go first class.
2. Take a food tour. You’ll learn the Japanese secrets to cuisine and health.
3. If you can time your visit, go during Cherry Blossom Season or during Fall.
Stay tuned for more!
This is just the beginning of my Japan podcast series. I’ll be releasing a new podcast every Thursday with more information on solo travel in Japan. If there’s any questions you’d like me to answer, please leave a comment below!
Author: Astrid Clements
Astrid Solo Travel Advisor CEO and founder, Astrid, has spent over 40 years traveling around the world. She is passionate about embracing the world’s diverse cultures and sharing with others the global need and personal benefit of cultural literacy. Her focus is on affordable luxury travel that is both substantive and fun! To read more about her and each one of our Solo Travel Advisors, head over to the About page!