Japan is a weird and wonderful country. From robots to ninjas to interesting food adventures, it’s easy to come up with a list of must do things in Japan a mile long. I’ve enlisted fellow travel writers to come up with some of the coolest things in Japan to see and do to help with that list.
I’ve divided this post into adventures, cultural experiences, and unique food experiences. Of course, they can all be considered cultural, most of them adventurous, but probably not all food-related.
If you are looking for the coolest experiences in Japan, but don’t want to leave home, be sure to check out my reviews of books set in Japan.
Adventurous Experiences in Japan
Snowshoeing Up a Volcano
I am an outdoorsy gal, so of course I think outdoor adventures are some of the best things to do in Japan. Read about other Epic Outdoor Adventures in Japan here.
Japan Location: Kannabe Highlands, Toyooka, Hyogo
If you visit the Kansai region in winter and want to do something a little unusual in Japan, then you may want to go snowshoeing up an extinct volcano in the Kannabe Highlands. Located in Toyooka in Hyogo prefecture, adventurers strap on a pair of snowshoes and hike their way up the Kansai region’s youngest, but thankfully extinct, volcano to enjoy a warm snack and unparalleled views of the valley.
What makes snowshoeing so appealing is that anyone can do it. No skill or experience is required and the chances of getting hurt are slim to none. It’s a great alternative for people who want to experience snow in Japan but don’t know how to ski or snowboard.
If you’ve never done it, then walking on fresh powder can feel awkward at first but you quickly get the hang of it. You slowly amble your way up the volcano until you reach a large snow-filled crater with sweeping panoramic views of the valley. While you’re taking in the view, your guides will prepare a light snack for you. Snack may vary but our group was treated to fresh bananas in chocolate fondue. Yum!
Japan is known for its unique quirky experiences but enjoying banana chocolate fondue on the snow-covered rim of a volcano remains one of the most unique things I’ve done in Japan. Try it yourself! — JB from Will Fly for Food
The World’s Oldest Tree — Jomon Sogi
Yakushima Island has to be one of the cool places in Japan given its abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities.
Japan Location: Yakushima Island, south of Kyushu
Jomon Sugi is a large Crypromeria or Yaku Sugi tree which is estimated to be between 2,200 and 7,200 years old, making it an easy contender for the world’s oldest tree. This beautiful old tree is located in the centre of Yakushima Island, 150km south of Kagoshima.
To get to Jomon Sugi requires hitting one of the island’s many hiking trails that criss-cross through the mountainous interior. Here you will find an ancient forest filled with giant cedars, yaku sugis, and evergreens clinging to the steep soil.
Yakushima is also an excellent destination for adventurous explorers given the island’s wealth of outdoor activities. As well as hiking, Yakushima is also a popular destination for kayaking, diving, and exploring some wonderful onsens located on the beaches.
From April until August loggerhead turtles come up onto the beaches to lay eggs. You can witness this incredible natural phenomenon with the help of a local guide as the beaches are closed to protect the turtles.
To get to Yakushima Island you can fly direct to the small airport at Anbo or take a boat from Kagoshima. There are eight hydrofoil services per day taking around three hours. For adventurous travelers you can also take an overnight cargo ship, the Hibiscus freighter. See this guide to Yakushima Island for more information. — Steve from thetripgoeson.com
Multicolored Hot Springs in Beppu
Hot springs are always at the top of my list and I can’t imagine skipping out on hot springs in Japan.
Japan Location: Beppu
One of the most unique experiences I had in Japan was exploring the beautiful hot pools of Beppu. Beppu is a small coastal city on Kyushu (the island south of Honshu) and is easy to visit while taking a bus, train, or car around the island, or on a day trip from Fukuoka.
These multicolored hot springs are too hot to swim in, but make up for it by their breathtaking appearances. Look out for steaming pools of bright red, blue, and green, alongside bubbling mud and even a geyser. (Yes, Beppu is home to one of the most regularly occurring geysers in the world!) There are actually 2000 hot springs here.
To experience the heat in action, have lunch at one of the steam kitchens. After ordering food off a vending machine, you’ll be provided with huge oven mitts and safely guided to place your food into a vent that reaches the naturally boiling water below. They even had vegan options. Beppu is a wonderful way to enjoy Japan’s volcanic scenery. — Cass from cassiethehag.com
Snow Monkey Park
Seeing Japanese wildlife up close has to be one of the best things to do in Japan.
Japan Location: Joshinestu Kogen National Park
The Snow Monkey Park is located inside Joshinestu Kogen National Park, which is around an hour away from Nagano. It’s located in the beautiful mountains in Japan, and you can experience snow monkeys up close and personal.
There are hot springs that you can sit and relax in, but the monkeys enjoy them as well. In the winter, you can catch them soaking, while the surrounding areas are covered in snow.
You can also choose to stay at the ryokan inside the park. This is a traditional Japanese stay, where you sleep on comfortable rice pads, have a traditional home cooked meal prepared, wear kimonos, and so much more. — Jenny from LimitlessHiker.com
Cool Cultural Experiences in Japan
Nikko Edo Wonderland
Another of the coolest things to do in Japan is visiting a living history park and learning about the Edo Period and ninjas.
Japan Location: Nikko
Nikko’s Edo Wonderland is a history theme park that recreates town life during Japan’s Edo Period (1603 – 1868). The entire town has been rebuilt in Edo style architecture and all staff in the theme park are dressed in period costume. As a guest to the park you can dress up as well. You are encouraged to become an Edo citizen for a day! It is easy to rent costumes and participate in all kind of games and attractions, live shows, and theatre performances.
The Ninja section of the theme park is the most popular attraction. You can dress as a Samurai or Ninja and make your way through the Ninja houses in the park, learn some Samurai moves and navigate Ninja games using traditional style tools. Do not miss trying the Karakuri Ninja Maze and Kai Kai Ninja House.
There are several restaurants within the park and a whole alleyway of street food stalls where you can taste traditional dishes that originated in the Edo period.
It’s easy to reach Nikko by train (2 hours from Tokyo) and a visit can even be done as a day trip. — Sarah from AwayWithTheSteiners
Robots in Odaiba
Encountering robots has to be one of the top things to do in Japan.
Japan Location: Odaiba
If you’re looking for unusual experiences in Japan, I would recommend going to Odaiba in search of robots.
Odaiba is a large artificial island in the Bay of Tokyo and not only is it home to a lot of futuristic buildings, but it’s also a place where you can see a lot of experimental technology. Robot encounters are normal here and they are mind-blowing!
Reaching Odaiba is an experience in and of itself as it involves traveling aboard the Yurikamome, which is a self-operated train with no conductor.
Once you arrive on the island, you can meet Junco Chihira at Aqua City Shopping Complex. Junco is an android, meaning she is a robot designed to look like a human. She works at the info desk offering general visitor information and is trilingual, speaking Japanese, Chinese, and English.
Another robot to visit in Odaiba is Unicorn Gundam outside DiverCity. Gundam is a fictional robot from an anime series and he stands 20 meters tall. He transforms a few times a day, changing from Unicorn Mode to Destroy Mode. This event draws big crowds.
Then, there’s ASIMO at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. He is a humanoid robot that was created by Honda in 2000 and he can do things like walk, hop on one foot, dance, play football and more. Alter is another fascinating robot inside that same museum who is able to move and make facial expressions that are almost life-like.
If you want to experience Japan’s modern and innovative side, then you can’t miss visiting Odaiba. — Audrey from That Backpacker
Even for those of us without a sense of fashion or style (sighs, raises hand) the Harajuku District is one of the cool things to do in Japan.
Japan Location: Harajuku district around Tokyo’s Harajuku Station
Best known for its bright colors, quirky teenage subcultures, and extreme fashion, Harajuku is a Tokyo neighborhood located near Tokyo’s Harajuku Station along the Yamanote Line.
It’s one of the most unique experiences in Tokyo and all of Japan, and while some things here will probably surprise you, this area is definitely worth a stop on your itinerary. Here you will also find many outlandish cafes with neon-colored candies, cotton candy, pancakes and other extravagant choices.
The highlight of the district is the famous Takeshita Street, the hub of latest fashion trends and shops that cater to youth trends. Here you can find many fashion stores, small boutiques, and street vendors selling everything from bright wigs to Halloween-like costumes in all shapes and colors.
When you get done exploring this place, head to the nearby Meiji-Jingu Shrine located about five minutes away. It’s a perfect place to walk around and get a break after a crowded atmosphere of Harajuku District. — Daria from The Discovery Nut
Monks’ Morning Ritual
If you aim to get off the beaten path, Japan has many experiences to offer, including observing monks during their morning rituals.
Japan Location: Koyasan
One of the most magical places to visit in Japan is Mount Koya, also called Koya-san. This is because the mountain and the surrounding region of the same name are home to more than 600 Japanese monks. Visiting the impressive cemetery and some of the stunning temples of the area are only two of the best things to do in Koyasan.
Even walking through the vast cemetery and forest of Koyasan in daylight, you can feel the spiritual atmosphere of this region. But it gets even more exciting when you leave for the monks’ morning routine.
The ceremony starts in the early hours of the morning, around 6 am. Therefore, you should get up early. As you walk through the forest in the direction of Okunoin Temple, where the monks’ ceremony takes place, you can hear the monks’ prayers.
After you reach the temple, you can sit down on the ground to listen to the monks’ prayer sounds. Even if you can’t understand the prayer itself without knowing Japanese, its sound is very touching. The ceremony lasts about an hour, but you don’t have to stay there the whole time. It is also worth visiting the adjacent lantern room. However, since the temple inside is considered a sacred place, photos are not allowed there. — Vicki from vickiviaja.com
Staying in a Ryokan
For one of the quintessential Japanese experiences you have to stay in a ryokan. This article will help you understand everything you need to know about experiencing a Japanese ryokan onsen.
Japan Location: Throughout Japan
Staying in a ryokan is nothing like staying a typical western-style hotel. It is an unusual experience that is quintessentially Japanese and is a great way to connect with traditional Japanese culture. It starts when you are greeted at the door by a hostess wearing a kimono. You will be expected to take off your shoes at the door so you can walk on the tatami (grass mat) floors.
There are many wonderful ryokans in Japan, but most of them tend to be in onsen (hot springs) towns. Most ryokans have their own shared baths (though some do have a private onsen in your room as well), as soaking in hot mineral waters is a wonderful way to relax at the end of the day.
Ryokans also serve a kaiseki (multi-course Japanese haute cuisine) meal. You will sit on the floor and be served course after course of beautifully presented food on a tray in your room.
After dinner, a futon (thin mattress) will be rolled out on the floor of your room for you to sleep on.
From start to finish, your stay will be steeped in Japanese hospitality traditions that are unusual and unique to Japan. — James from Travel Collecting
Unusual Food Experiences in Japan
The Instant Noodle Museum
Another unique and fun thing to do in Japan is visit a quirky museum. Even better when you can help create and eat a piece of the art.
Japan Location: Yokohama
The cup noodle museum is precisely what the name states, a museum about the history of cup noodles and its founder Momofuku Ando.
This informative museum explains how packaged ramen noodles, cup noodles, and the most recent invention (noodles that can be eaten in space) came about.
If you arrive early enough, book a spot to make your own takeaway noodles. The fun activity also includes decorating your very own cup noodle packaging. The booking spots fill up fast and take approximately an hour to complete.
The museum will take you through the history of the ramen noodle with some fun exhibitions for all ages, with videos and stories to explain the timeline of events.
Finish off by entering the world of noodles at the noodle bazaar, where you can choose a vending machine from your country of choice. Grab a ticket, hand it over to your selection of cuisine, and in return a steaming hot noodle dish is ready. I chose my favorite Indonesian noodles, my Goreng, and I wasn’t disappointed. — Paula from trulyexpat.com
Fishing for Your Supper at a Restaurant
This really has to be one of the coolest things to do in Japan, at least at dinner time.
Japan Location: Tokyo
Japan is not only one of the most beautiful dream destinations on earth, it’s also a country filled with unusual and fun experiences, such as getting to fish your own meal for dinner at a quirky “boat” restaurant. That’s right — if you’re spending the night in Tokyo, be sure to drop by Zauo Fishing Restaurant in Shinjuku, where in order to enjoy your dinner, you’ll have to work for it.
This restaurant has a huge wooden boat in the middle of the room surrounded by a circular stream. You sit on this “boat” to eat and are given a fishing rod to catch live fish directly from the stream. After you’ve caught the fish, the chef will then prepare and cook it for you the way you want it.
There’s a catch, though: whatever you catch, you’ll have to eat it. So if you’ve accidentally caught a big, expensive fish, you’ll have to eat it too.
Having a meal at Zauo Shinjuku is definitely one of the most unique experiences in Tokyo and any seafood lover should try it out. — Jiayi from The Diary of a Nomad
Japanese Snack and Host Bars
Several of the unusual experiences in Japan involve food and how it is served.
Japan Location: Throughout Japan
Snack bars and host bars have been a big part of Japanese entertainment culture and night life for almost half a century. They are a truly unique Japanese bar experience and its a nice way to get an authentic glimpse at the local culture. You can find snack and host bars anywhere in Japan from big cities to rural areas.
Snack bars, Sunakku in Japanese, are basically designed for a male clientele. The guests are generally middle-aged or older salarymen. They go to snack bars to unwind, have a good time and relax.
The guests are served and entertained by female staff and/or the mama-san. The mama-san is an older lady who is the owner and manager of the snack bars. The hostesses in the snack bars can be considered the modern counterparts of geishas. They chat with their clients, light the client’s cigarettes, pour the drinks, while drink alcohol together such as beer, whiskey and shochu (Japanese distilled beverage), and singing together in karaoke.
Snack bars have a ‘no touching’ policy and private or sexual conversation topics are prohibited.
You normally pay for a table that includes the company of a girl and some light food. You would pay around 3,000 yen in an average snack bar for one hour. On the top of that you pay for the alcohol you and your hostess consume.
The girls’ job is also to make the client buy as much alcohol as possible. The guests can expect to spend around 5,000 – 6,000 yen on a single visit.
The host bars, hostu baru in Japanese, are similar to snack bars. But in host bars, female customers pay for the company of handsome men.
The ultimate goal in both snack and host bars is to make the clients feel happy and loved, and make them want to repeat this experience. — Diana from The Globetrotting Detective