Updated May 25, 2021.
If you know anything about me, you know Japan holds a special place in my heart. Living in Japan gave me a lot of firsts: my first long-haul flight, my first solo trip, my first time living in another country, my first time crossing an ocean, and more! I loved the experience and will always cherish those memories.
Lots of people have asked me why I haven’t been back yet. Part of me is sad that things will be different. Part of me wants to keep my memories as they are. But all of me wants to go back one day. Here are some of the best experiences I had in Japan, and the ones I recommend to you!
*Some of the links below are affiliate links with JR Pass in Japan. This means that when you book your JR Pass with my links, you’re getting the best deal available and supporting my small business at no additional cost to you!
Go to a Grocery Store
No, really! I like to do this wherever I travel because it tells you so much about the culture—what kinds of food a country typically has or doesn’t have (such as rice vs. bread in Japan), prices of common food items, package sizes, etc. Grocery shopping in Japan was such an adventure because I couldn’t read any labels, the sweet potatoes were purple instead of orange, and there was definitely a disproportionate number of LIVE fish for sale compared to my home state of Tennessee! Trust me, you’ll be glad you popped into a Japanese grocery store for a unique look at Japanese culture!
Read on: How to Embrace Cultural Differences
Visit a Cat Cafe
Okay, so cat cafes have made it to America already, but my first cat cafe visit in Osaka was a fun, sweet, cuddly experience that I want to make sure you have on your trip! My work friend Yoko took me to her favorite cat cafe in her hometown of Osaka, and I quickly fell in love. You can get there by train with the JR Pass!
More here: 10 Reasons to Visit Japan
Relax at an Onsen
This is not an experience I was ever expecting to have… ever! I didn’t know until I got there that this would be a totally nude (and thankfully, all-female) event. It was my first ever soak in a hot spring, and while I don’t think it was the relaxing experience it was supposed to be (I was naked in front of my boss and co-workers!), it absolutely helped me become comfortable with my body at a time when I thought of my body as the enemy. See what a Japanese Onsen can do for you!
Sorry, no photos!
See the Deer and the Daibatsu in Nara
When I heard about the hundreds of deer roaming around Japan’s ancient capital city, I had to see it for myself! And did you know the largest bronze Buddha is located in Nara? It’s true! It’s called the Daibatsu, and Todai-ji temple that houses it is a UNESCO world Heritage Site. Nara was an unmissable experience, and one day I want to go back and see it all again!
What’s the best way to get to Nara? Take the train with your JR Pass!
Read on: Solo Travel: Japan
Visit the Wedded Rocks
This is my favorite place in Japan. It where I would go to think and reflect on all my new and life-changing experiences. It’s just a 40-minute bike ride from where I lived in Ise City, and they have the best takonezushi in the world here! The legend of the Wedded Rocks is that these rocks, joined by a rope, are married, and millions of years ago, they got together and gave birth to the Japanese islands! Definitely not a place to miss on your trip to Japan!
More here: 9 Habits of Successful Travelers
If you go to Japan and don’t eat sushi, did you really go? No! You have to try sushi if you’ve never tried it before. And I’m about to shock you: sushi is actually the vinegar-flavored rice, not raw fish! Raw fish is actually sashimi, and it’s VERY safe to eat, especially in Japan. So whether you just want the sushi rice, want to venture out to try sushi with veggies or cooked seafood, or want to go all-in on the interesting stuff, definitely have the sushi!
Keep eating: What to Eat in Japan
Have Tea at the Nagoya-Jo
I had never heard of Nagoya until I lived in Japan, but it’s Japan’s fourth largest city. And it has a beautiful castle, or jo! A visit to Nagoya is not complete unless you visit the Castle, which is only a mile and a half from the Nagoya main train station. I attended a traditional tea ceremony here, and it was one of my favorite things I did in all of Japan!
Can you believe I was so nervous my first time taking the train to Nagoya that I literally stayed inside the train station for hours until it was time to go back to Ise? I’m so glad I got over that! Because I had my JR Pass, I was able to go back another day and truly got to explore the city!
Become a Ninja at Ueno Castle
Speaking of memorable experiences, becoming a ninja (and exploring a “ninja house”) ranks as one of my top travel experiences ever! My co-workers at the English school took both of us American teachers here one weekend, and it vastly exceeded our expectations!
We got to dress like ninjas, learn a few ninja moves, see an incredible ninja skill demonstration, learn about ninjas’ lives and personal habits (their unique all-vegetarian diet means no body odor, which might have given them away in a stressful situation!) and see all kinds of secret compartments and contraptions inside a ninja house, which was a home of a prominent Japanese family who had their own ninjas to protect them—kind of like their own secret service!
Need to get to Ueno? Take the train with your JR Pass!
More here: Why it’s Okay to Be a Tourist
Go Kimono Shopping
You will see Japanese people wearing everything from cutting edge fashion to traditional clothing including kimono! You should definitely go kimono shopping while you’re here and learn how to wear it. I’ve used mine for travel talks at my mom’s elementary school, for Halloween, and at home just for fun! They can be quite expensive because the real ones are pure silk. You could get a yukata, which is a summer kimono made of cotton. Alternatively, you could go to a second-hand kimono shop and get a used one for a significant discount!
I got one at a second-hand shop in Tokyo, thanks to my local friend Shinoka. She’s the friend who told me about the JR Pass, and I used it to go visit her more than once!
Keep reading: Top 10 Packing Hacks
Walk Through Shibuya Scramble in Tokyo
Shibuya is a neighborhood in Tokyo, but it’s also a very famous, very chaotic crosswalk! Everyone waits on their respective sidewalks, then when the walk sign comes on, everyone walks in every direction to get to the side they need to get to! It’s an iconic spot in Tokyo, but it’s also a snapshot of the most populated city in the world. It’s the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, with an estimated 2,500 people crossing at a time!
Visit Naiku and Geku Shrines
These are the two most important Shinto shrines in the world, and they were just a five-minute bike ride from where I lived in Ise City. They are beautiful, and they’re both very important to Japanese religion and culture. Naiku is more visited, and there is more to do and see (and eat) there, but Geku is more peaceful. I used to go there to think and reflect, just like at the Wedded Rocks.
More here: 5 Trips for Positive Vibes
Visit Mikimoto Pearl Island
Some people believe the crowning jewel is a diamond, but after visiting Mikimoto Pearl Island, I’m convinced it’s pearls! Pearls were first cultivated in Japan, taking them from the most expensive stone in the world (more expensive than diamonds) to one of the most attainable. They still harvest the pearls the same way they’ve done for a hundred years, with ama women divers, and there’s a fantastic museum all about the beginnings of pearl cultivation (you’ll have a new appreciation for “pearly whites” after visiting the museum!), and you can watch the ama divers give a harvesting demonstration, too!
Bonus: Take the Shinkansen (Bullet) Train!
A woman I knew who grew up in Japan told me about the JR Pass before I left and highly recommended I get one. I’m so glad she did! The Shinkansen trains go up to 320 km/h (200 mph), and they’re fancy to boot! I can tell you from personal experience that taking seven hours’ worth of local trains (with train changes) from Tokyo to Ise City was an experience I needed to have and cherish to this day, but the Bullet Trains were far less stressful!
The JR Pass is only available to foreign tourists, and it’s good on almost all trains throughout Japan. Those include Shinkansen Bullet Trains, local trains, express trains, limited express, and rapid trains. You can also use it on the monorail to and from Haneda Airport in Tokyo, some local buses, and on the JR Ferry to and from Miyajima! You can get a JR Pass that’s good for one, two, or three weeks, and the discount makes any option well worth it! Stay tuned for more about the JR Pass in the coming months.
Are you ready for your own trip to Japan? Check out my Japan Page for the whole story about my first ever solo trip and my first ever trip abroad, as well as suggestions, tips, and insider info! And don’t forget to book your JR Pass with me here!
Love this post? Pin it for later!