What makes Japan so alluring? It’s that captivating mix of ancient history contrasted by modern life. It’s historic temples standing side-by-side with futuristic works of architecture that show where a civilization has been, as well as where it’s going. It's a country of depth, one that you’ll appreciate more and more the further you immerse yourself in it. That's why we're excited to offer several country-intensive voyages to Japan that bring you closer to the art, food, and stunning natural landscapes that make “The Land of the Rising Sun” so special.
While Japan may seem small—it’s roughly the size of California—it’s flush with things to see and do. So much so that it can be a challenge to curate a travel plan that speaks to your interests without missing any of the highlights. Luckily, we're here to help get you started with seven sure things to do when you visit Japan. We’ve also put together a handy Japan Travel Guide for you at the end of this post.
Travel Back In Time
Samurai warriors, aristocratic families, and powerful emperors have all called Japan home for centuries. In fact, people have inhabited Japan since prehistoric times, building a rich legacy that you can delve into on your journey.
Visiting the Kakunodate Samurai District in Akita is a must. Samurai, usually referred to as bushi, were the military nobility in Japan and the highest-ranking social class during the Edo Period (1603 to 1867). Their origins can be traced back to around 1192, when the shogun, or Supreme Military Commander, established a new military government after emerging victorious in a battle between clans. Akita’s Kakunodate Samurai District is a well-preserved neighborhood in an otherwise youthful and modern city and showcases what samurai life was like. Around 80 families once lived there, and some buildings in the district are centuries old. There are also museums to explore, artisan boutiques to shop at, and cafes to enjoy.
Head to Japan’s northernmost island to experience the nearly untouched historic port city of Kushiro to connect with nature and the traditional ways of the Ainu indigenous peoples. Keep an eye out for pods of migrating Repunkamui (killer whales) or venture just beyond the city to discover one of three caldera lakes within Akan National Park, formed from volcanic eruptions ages ago.
Outside the hustle and bustle of busy modern cities, you’ll find many ports where the old ways are still treasured. In Kanazawa, discover a 14th century town, relatively untouched by the ravages of war, natural disaster, or time. It’s here you’ll find Tera-machi, or Temple Town, with over 70 beautiful temples grouped together. Explore Myoryuji Temple, commonly known as Ninjadera, or simply Ninja Temple. Its labyrinth of corridors, staircases, hidden tunnels, secret rooms, and traps make this one of Japan’s most interesting buildings.
In Takamatsu, history buffs should visit Tamamo-kōen to see the ruins of the 16th century Takamatsu Castle. Built in 1588, this castle in one of three Mizujiro (water castles) in all of Japan. For nearly 300 years, the castle was home to Takamatsu’s military rulers, and the original structure’s impressive seawater moat, walls, and turrets remain for you to explore.
For a glimpse into Japan’s more recent history, a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is sure to be a moving experience. A cenotaph in the park lists the names of the known victims of the devastating atomic bomb. The Peace Memorial itself, often called the Atomic Bomb Dome, is a structure that survived the bombing and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Step Into The Future
You could spend an entire trip (or several) to Japan focusing exclusively on the country’s fascinating past. That says a lot, considering the country is famous for being on the cutting edge of technological advancements. A visit to Japan can often feel less like a journey through a new country, and more like a leap into the future. Japan is home to the Shinkansen (a lightning-fast bullet train line), vending machines that sell everything under the sun, innovative inventions, and futuristic fashions.
At the heart of ultra-modern Japan is Tokyo, a city that is buzzing with energy. Pay a visit to Akihabara Electric Town in Tokyo, the heart of otaku–or geek–culture. You’ll see everything and anything here–stores selling the latest gadgets, boutiques devoted to elaborate costumes, manga (Japanese comics), and anime, and “maid cafes” with servers dressed in elaborate maid costumes.
If you consider yourself to be tech-savvy, you’ve come to the right place. Japan is home to several museums dedicated to the advancement of technology, including the Toshiba Science Museum, Sony ExploraScience Museum, and the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation—all of which you will find in or near Tokyo.
Japan is also known for its attractions that can sometimes leave visitors scratching their heads. So if you’re interested in something a little out of the ordinary, consider a pit stop at the eclectic Toto Toilet Museum in Kitakyushu. Here, you’ll discover the unique innovations that have garnered Japan a reputation for having the most elaborate toilets in the world. This is one opportunity you won’t want to flush down the drain.
Shop ‘Til You Drop
If you love to shop, you’ll love Japan–and particularly Tokyo. Head to the city’s famous Harajuku neighborhood first. Made famous by Japan’s trendy youth, fashions here are an eclectic mix of runway couture and vintage finds. It’s worth a visit just for the people-watching, if not the shopping.
Nearby Aoyama skews more sophisticated than sassy. This wealthy neighborhood is home to high-end boutiques and trendy restaurants. Stroll Omote-sandō boulevard and do a little window–or actual–shopping. For more designer goods, visit the posh neighborhood of Ginza.
If you find you preferred the youthful energy of Harajuku to the upmarket elegance of Ginza, head to Shibuya. This is another of Tokyo’s trendy teen haunts, home to quirky boutiques and a vibrant nightlife.
Finally, we cannot talk about shopping in Tokyo without mentioning Shinjuku. If you skipped Akihabara Electric Town, check out the latest and greatest gadgets at shops in Shinjuku instead. This neighborhood is home to Isetan, the city’s most famous department store. Here, you can choose a garment that will put you on the cutting edge of fashion, or discover a delicious new dish on the trendsetting food floor. Isetan even has an entirely separate building dedicated exclusively to men’s fashion located behind its main digs (know, cleverly enough, as “Men’s Isetan”).
Explore Beautiful Gardens and Forests
When you need a break from Tokyo’s chaotic crosswalks (including Shibuya Crossing—the busiest in the world) and flashing, neon signs, you can escape without leaving the city. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a peaceful and beautiful urban retreat. The gardens blend the styles of traditional Japanese, French Formal, and English Landscape. It boasts more than 20,000 trees – including 1,500 cherry trees, which are simply breathtaking should they be in bloom when you visit.
Japan’s natural landscape has an astonishing beauty–and our immersive voyages call on more than just the largest cities. Other gorgeous gardens along our itinerary include Hakodate City Tropical Botanical Garden, Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa, Kawachi Wisteria Garden in Kitakyushu, and Ritsurin-kōen in Takamatsu.
At Kawachi Wisteria Garden, purple wisteria flowers canopy two 100-meter long tunnels creating a stunning scene. Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en Garden is renowned as one of the top three gardens in all of Japan, and dates back to the 16th century.
In Kobe, nature lovers should consider a visit to the nearby Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The towering, green bamboo trees give the paths an otherworldly quality and make for a startlingly photogenic scene.
Shimizu boasts some of the most beautiful views in all of Japan. Sitting beneath the striking Mount Fuji, this region is home to pristine lakes, forests, rivers, and coastline. Kakita River Park, with its natural springs, as well as the ancient grove of 30,000 pine trees in Miho-no-Matsubara, are definite highlights—both of which offer incredible views of Mount Fuji.
Go On A Culinary Adventure
One of the best ways to explore authentic food is to stroll through the bustling local markets–that’s certainly the case in Japan. As a nation of islands, seafood is an integral part of the cuisine. A visit to one of Japan’s many fish markets will showcase the unique ingredients used in cooking.
Check out these markets in the ports along our itinerary.
Tsukiji Fish Market
This Tokyo market is the largest, busiest fish market in the world. Early birds should make a point of visiting around 5:00 a.m. – not to catch the worm, but to catch the market’s famous live tuna auction.
Hakodate Morning Market
Do a little shopping at Hakodate’s tourist-friendly morning market, where hundreds of stores sell live and fresh fish as well as dried goods, sweets, and souvenirs. In Japan, gift-giving is an important aspect of culture, politeness, and tradition. These gifts are known as omiyage. For a true local experience, select omiyage for loved ones back home.
Shimizu Fish Market
Shimizu is a fishing town, so it's no surprise they have a bustling market. See where restaurants acquire their fresh fish before going out for a meal!
For approximately 300 years Kanazawa’s Omichi Market has been selling fresh produce, seafood, and dried goods from its many stalls. You’ll also find clothing, kitchen tools, flowers, and more here—making it a popular spot for locals and tourists alike.
Furukawa Fish Market
Aomori’s market boasts fish, seafood, produce, and more. Visit and order up the market’s signature dish, nokkedon. This favorite seafood bowl is typically served seasonally, but at the Furukawa market, it’s available year round.
Want to learn more about Japanese cuisine? Check out this handy infographic!
Tour Temples, Shrines, and Castles
No trip to Japan is complete without visiting some of the country’s incredible temples, shrines, and castles.
Japanese castles date back to the 16th century when they were built as defensive fortresses. At one time there were more than 5,000 castles scattered across Japan. And though the years have taken their toll on many, over one hundred castles remain today for you to explore.
Shinto Shrines are the dwellings of the kami, Shinto deities. Sacred objects are stored in the innermost chambers and worshipers come to pay respect or pray for good fortune. The first recordings of Shinto beliefs and mythology date back to the 8th century. Today, Shinto is the largest religion in Japan. It is practiced by 80% of the population, though it is regarded as an ethnic rather than institutional religion.
Temples are places of worship in Japanese Buddhism. Buddhist shrines and Shinto shrines share very similar architectural features, including the tori gates. It is thought that Korean monks introduced Buddhism to Japan in 552 AD. There are several schools of Buddhism in modern-day Japan, including Zen, Shingon, Pure Land, and Nichiren. Over a third of the Japanese population identifies as Buddhist and the religion’s popularity is growing. If you’re doing the math and wondering 33% of the population can identify as Buddhist while 80% practice Shinto, don’t worry—Buddhism and Shinto are not mutually exclusive. In fact, many Japanese people identify as a combination of both.
During your trip to Japan, visit Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples to gain a deeper respect for and understanding of the country’s spiritual culture. To learn more, check out our blog “The Castles, Shrines, and Temples of Japan”.
Stay Out Late
When you travel to Japan with us, you can look forward to longer stays, late-night departures, and overnight visits to the country’s bustling ports. This means you’ll have plenty of time to explore the vibrant nightlife, enjoy snacks and drinks at local izakayas, or take in the sights in a whole new light.
In Hakodate, a three-minute cable car ride up Mount Hakodate delivers incredible vistas that are especially stunning after dark. You can even have dinner up there, as you take in the glittering panoramic view.
Speaking of views, in Kobe the place to get a great one is Kobe Port Tower. It’s open until 9:00 p.m., allowing another opportunity for dazzling nighttime views.
With these seven Japan travel recommendations, you're almost ready to set sail! But we have one more thing before you go. This handy travel guide will help you navigate the language, food, and intricacies of Japanese culture.
Browse our upcoming sailings to Japan today.
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