In 2018 we spent 45 days in Japan. We went to all the “must-see” places like Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Nara Deer Park, and Fushimi Inari Taisha, and were inevitably disappointed by how overhyped and crowded these sites were. So here’s a list of places we recommend instead. Some of them are well known while others remain hidden gems, but all are a bit more unique and far more enjoyable than the overrun tourist path.
- Go to Dōtonbori at sunrise. You’ll go later in the day as well and jostle with the crowds, but it’s beautiful and silent in the morning.
- Cherry blossom viewing at Osaka Castle Park and along Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto. It really is worth coming to Japan during cherry blossom season. Everyone is out and about viewing the blossoms and picnicking, the energy is contagious.
- Eating at an izakaya restaurant in front of an open grill. At the one we went to, Isaribi, every item was three dollars, you shout out what you want, and it gets grilled up in front of you.
- A visit to the Cup Noodle Museum. The history and evolution of instant ramen is fascinating.
- Strolling through a landscaped Japanese garden. Keitakuen Garden is a hidden gem.
- A day trip to Koyasan, a temple settlement in the mountains south of Osaka with a walking path through towering cedars and cemeteries. It’s a serene place where you can practice the Japanese concept of “forest bathing.”
- Attending the Miyako Odori, a geisha dance performance with a tea ceremony in Kyoto. Each geisha house puts on a performance twice a year, in spring and autumn. We paid about 40 USD each for front row seats. It was absolutely worth it. We bought our tickets a year in advance on the day they went on sale.
- Eating fresh soba and tempura. We recommend this restaurant in Nara. The couple who runs this place doesn’t speak English but they only make soba and tempura, so just keep nodding yes when the woman asks you in Japanese. You’ll get the combo set, which is about 13 USD.
- Viewing Mount Fuji from Kawaguchiko. On the evening we arrived, the skies were clear and we saw Mount Fuji at sunset. It was beautiful, but clouds quickly set in for next two days! For better luck, monitor the weather and take a day trip from Tokyo. Buses run from Shinjuku every day. Chureito Pagoda and Lake Kawaguchi are good viewing spots.
- Eating handmade udon at Mount Fuji. The noodles are so chewy, you will never enjoy commercial udon again. Be aware the meat is horse meat. We got the vegetarian version.
- Staying at a pod hotel in Tokyo. Aaron loved it. The showers are super clean.
- Tokyo National Museum, a treasure trove of relics and art from Asia. Don’t miss the buildings on the side. They house extraordinary collections from temples in Kyoto and Nara.
- Going to a local parade or festival, a unique insight into Japanese culture. Akabane Baka Matsuri, a parade that’s been taking place every April since 1956 in Akabane, a suburb of Tokyo. It’s a huge parade with marching bands, a drumming performance, and groups of people chanting and hoisting mikoshi, portable Shinto shrines, down the street. Another festival, the Sanjo Matsuri in Asakusa, takes place in May.
- Eating taiyaki, a fish shaped pastry filled with sweet red bean paste, from Taiyaki Wakaba, a famous taiyaki shop in Tokyo. After waiting in line, you might as well get two or three!
- Eating ramen with sake lees, the lees left over after sake is pressed from fermented rice, imparting a fragrant flavor to the broth. Ask for the ramen with sake at Ginza Kazami. It’s less than $10 USD.
- Eating sushi at a standing sushi bar, where you’ll see that the proper way to eat nigiri is by picking it up with your hands, not chopsticks.
- Visiting Kinkaku-ji, the golden temple, as close to sunset as possible for the best light illuminating the temple’s gold leaf facade. Just make sure you arrive before it closes at 5pm!
Most of all, take time to wander without a destination or agenda. Japan still has many hidden gems.