Japan is known for being a land of marvellous curiosities that are bound to attract a lot of hype especially in the age of social media sharing where every cutesy doughnut and flowering cherry tree is worth a post. Japanese supermarkets alone have a dedicated following for their unguessable products and selection of sweets, just as people flock to Disney Japan to get their hands on the exclusive Alien Mochi.
However, a destination hyped up as places are in the Instagram age, is bound to have its share of disappointing attractions that have been caught up in a phase of mass hysteria. In this post, I share my thoughts on the 8 attractions in Japan that are totally were worth the hype.
1) THE FOOD
Thank goodness this one doesn’t disappoint! The food in Japan is insanely good with enough options in Tokyo alone to last more than a lifetime. Top restaurants in Japan are expensive, and for the very well refined palate, with over 200 restaurants in Tokyo gaining at least one Michelin Star. But food is one thing in Japan that does not need to cost you the earth to be well worth every inch of hype.
Sushi is obviously a must and the sushi train restaurants are often a good, budget friendly way to go (it is also extremely good fun to take guesses at what each item might be as there are often no English signs to be found). Another budget friendly and extremely delicious option are the ramen restaurants: they are distinctive as they’re just casual bars where steaming bowls are served up right in front of you, after ordering at the strange vending machine that takes your money and spits out a ticket with your order written on it. There is a reason ramen is a bit of a global phenomenon and one I didn’t fully get until I was in Japan, but this stuff is definitely worth the hype!
The best of the bunch though is anything sweet. The Japanese are pretty much the creme dela creme of making food look as cute as it can get and who doesn’t love doughnuts that look like animals or rice dumplings that look like your favourite emoji?
Street food in general, especially in Osaka, is fabulous, with options ranging from traditional Octopus Balls (Takoyaki) to boiled potatoes covered in butter to crepes to tempura, the choices are endless. In addition, bento boxes are great for picnics or commutes on the long distance bullet trains (not the metro!) and come with all sorts of surprises. For more sit down meals, Teppanyaki is imperative.
The best of the bunch though is anything sweet. The Japanese are pretty much the creme de la creme of making food look as cute as it can get and who doesn’t love doughnuts that look like animals or rice dumplings that look like your favourite emoji? The guessing game is more than half the fun of eating in Japan, so take a risk and buy the Easter egg decorated sandwich because it’s definitely not going to be chocolate inside!
2) CHERRY BLOSSOM SEASON
Hanami (the festival that happens around the blossom season) is one of the happiest times in Japan and it’s pretty obvious why. The cherry blossom season is short lived and hard to predict but it’s a huge deal for the locals and tourists alike as the parks are suddenly flooded with party goers the moment the first blossom opens in Spring. It’s pretty hard to have not seen pictures of pink blossom festooned trees and parks that look like its been snowing with flowers, and for me it was the biggest reason I wanted to go to Japan and I am so happy it lived up to all the hype.
What makes it different and special to the pictures is the fact that you can’t capture the joy that Hanami brings to people in an image. Sure, you can take photos of smiling picnickers or happy sake drinkers, but the pure intoxicating joy in the air will never come through in a photo. Locals come out in droves to sit beneath the trees and spend time with friends and family away from their busy lives. If you ever thought of the Japanese as serious and austere then you haven’t seen them during the first few weeks of Spring. The atmosphere is something else, but the blossoms themselves don’t disappoint either!
3) UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
Universal (or more importantly, Harry Potter World) is going to be a hit wherever it is, but it truely is worth the queues because this place is magical for any fan or kid at heart. I usually avoid theme parks like the plague but this is one I’d happily go back to time and time again just for the Butter Beer in the Three Broomsticks Pub. If you are going to visit any of the theme parks in Japan, let it be this one as it trumps Disney for thrill rides and innovation. Harry Potter World is a timed entrance which you can only get once in the main park already, so make sure you arrive early in order to be able to spend the most amount of time there as possible.
4) FUSHIMI INARI-TAISHA SHINTO SHRINE
Fushimi Shrine is one of the most photographed sights in Japan for sure and it’s pretty obvious why. Winding paths of vermilion torii gates lead up the forested Mount Inari, giving you a pretty spectacular view of contrasting colours. The lower sections of the over 10,000 gates are always crowded and busy with bus loads of camera wielding tourists.
At first impression, Fushimi can be a little disappointing because it’s nothing like the solitude you see in pictures. However, trekking up the mountain is definitely worth the effort because the further you hike the less people you see until you are basically alone to reflect on nature and the beauty around you in this scared place, while walking through avenues of orange. There are little ‘restaurants’ along the way where you can stop for a green tea and take a breather if the hike gets too much, but it truely is worth the hype and the exhaustion because you are going to walk away from it with more than just some pretty pictures.
5) OSAKA NIGHTLIFE
Before going to Japan, Osaka was not really on my must do list, I guess I just wasn’t that sold on the hype of those T-shirts everyone has. However, it quickly became my favourite place I visited in Japan. It is full of character and, because it is much smaller than Tokyo, easier to get around and explore. There are great artistic neighborhoods and neon lit streets that churn out curiosities and food like nowhere else.
Downtown Osaka at night is a sensory overload. The streets are lit as bright as day, only there are more people, music and fun. The signage is some of the craziest in the world and the restaurants display their speciality in the form of giant cartoonish, model exterior displays such as pufferfish, octopus, crab, gyoza and sushi. There are arcades of games, photo booths that turn you into porcelain looking dolls, and karaoke bars that blast everything from the latest hits to the best of K-pop. There are clubs and drinking holes galore which makes Osaka have a much younger vibe than cities such as business central Tokyo and traditional Kyoto.
6) CAPSULE HOTELS
Capsule Hotels are completely bizarre but the Japanese have turned budget lodging into an experience that is totally unique and feels a lot more luxurious than one might think. Most capsule hotels are divided into male and female floors, often with individualised elevators. Shoes are always left downstairs in little lockers and luggage is kept in changing room style lounges. The bathroom at the particular hotel I stayed in was like a seriously lux communal gym with Japanese beauty products, hair stylers, jacuzzi, robes and pyjamas all for complementary use. The only thing that makes it not like staying in a five star resort is that you all get to sit in the giant mirrors and get ready for the day together which is actually way more fun anyway!
The sleeping arrangements are amazing too, with each guest literally getting their own ‘pod’ with TV, AC, power points, iPhone docks, adjustable lights and blackout blinds. Once you get over the initial feeling of being in a morgue, you wonder why all hostels around the world aren’t like this? It completely eliminates the questions of where to change?; can I turn on the light at 7am without disturbing people?, and when is an acceptable time to go to sleep in a communal room without bothering everyone else? Literally the best inventions ever!
7) KYOTO’S GION REGION
The Gion region of Kyoto is the main Geisha district and attracts tourists because of its high concentration of traditional wooden buildings, hanging lanterns and Geisha spotting, as well as many temples and shrines. Most of the ‘Geishas’ or Maiko you see in the area are actually just tourists (both international and domestic) dressed up for a few hours. Many Japanese girls will do this for fun or as a test to see if they enjoy the lifestyle. Despite this, real, fully trained Geishas can be seen and even if you don’t, the area is full of mystery, intrigue and beauty with narrow canals hung with cherry blossoms and tea saloons. If you want to see the real deal in action, you can book tea ceremonies with Geishas. The area isn’t completely authentic anymore but it’s still beautiful and gives you a sense of history and intrigue that is often so appealing about the unknown.
8) JAPANESE GARDENS AND PARKS
Japan has made a worldwide export of its gardens and they are touted as having mindfulness properties as they are known for their serenity and peacefulness. They are truely things of great beauty and are religiously cared for by their owners and workers. They are raked and planted out to depict larger, real life places on a smaller scale and they are great places to rest during a day in the city sight seeing. The parks too are an oasis of respite in cities that are the most densely populated on earth. It is no wonder they are as much a necessity as an aesthetic in Japan where life in big cities takes on a whole new meaning of busy. During the cherry blossom season the parks aren’t so relaxing, although they take on new levels of beauty, so join the party and drink some sake beneath the cascading flowers.
Have you ever visited Japan? Please share your experience with our readers in the comments below. Read Next > 9 Off The Beaten Path Things To Do In Tokyo, Japan