Japan travel guide and things to do: 32 gold medal experiences

The Games of the 32nd Olympiad are here. One of the world's greatest sporting events in one of the world's greatest cities. It doesn't get much better than that.

This will be a time for athletes and for sports, of course. But it will also be an opportunity not just for Tokyo but for Japan as a whole to showcase its attractions, to demonstrate to the world what it can do, what it can offer, and why the country's tourism industry was booming until COVID-19 slammed on the brakes.

Japan has so many drawcards for visitors, from cities to nature, tradition to modernity, food to sport, culture to physical beauty. It has famous attractions and it has those that are flying under the radar. It's the perfect destination for pleasure-seekers, for thrill-seekers, for history buffs, for creatives, for gourmands.

It has so much, in fact, that you can almost forget the sheer breadth of experiences on offer in Japan. So now is the time to change that. Now, in honour of the 32nd Olympic Games, it's time to name Japan's 32 gold-medal-winning experiences, its absolute finest attractions, the 32 best reasons people should visit this amazing country.

You may not be able to visit right now, or perhaps for quite some time, but it Japan isn't already on your list, here's why it should be. And if you've been before, there's bound to be something on this list that you haven't yet tried.

These victors hail from all over the country and from all ends of the tourism spectrum: their binding thread is their excellence, their singular nature, their appeal to those who might be visiting Japan for the first time or for the 10th time.

It's not easy to break this country down to just 32 experiences, in the same way it's not easy to find the greatest exponents of a particular sport or discipline. But that's what the Olympics is all about. And these are our winners.

EXPERIENCE A RYOKAN

Japanese ryokan breakfast dishes including cooked white rice, grilled fish, boiled egg, miso soup,  natto, other side dishes iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. tra5-online-breakfast best traditional breakfast foods ben groundwater column

Traditional breakfast dishes at a ryokan. Photo: iStock

Japan has several unique styles of accommodation, but by far the best has to be the ryokan, a type of luxurious traditional inn. Ryokans are often set in old homes or larger buildings in gorgeous natural settings; they offer beautifully designed rooms with tatami-mat floors and futon beds, plus sumptuous traditional meals, and most have bathhouses and gardens on site. A stay at a place like this is immersive, authentic and relaxing. ryokan.or.jp

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GO BAR-HOPPING IN GOLDEN GAI

Tokyo, Japan - November 4 , 2017 : Edit color tone , Famous steet Piss Alley delicious street food in Tokyo Japan at Omoide Yokocho, Shinjuku tra25-eatjapan
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There's nowhere else like Golden Gai, the ramshackle dive-bar district near busy Shinjuku. This place should really have been crushed by gentrification decades ago, and yet it lives on, a warren of tiny alleys lined with even tinier bars, each with a theme or a speciality, ranging from books to photography to lemon sour cocktails to heavy metal music. Most are friendly and fun; a memorable night is pretty much assured. japan.travel

SKI IN HAKUBA

Hakuba Iwatake Snow Field and Mt. Shirouma in Hakuba, Nagano, Japan
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We've chosen Hakuba, which is a great resort destination for ski bums, but really it could have been anywhere in Japan – Niseko, Yuzawa, Shiga Kogen, Rusutsu, Furano – because the snow in this country is insane. It's deep, it's powdery, and it's dependable. The ski culture is also great, with affordable lift tickets and a relaxed attitude. Hakuba is particularly easy to access from Tokyo and has some great off-piste terrain. hakubavalley.com

CLIMB TO GOJUNOTO

In the heart of a dense forest of cypress and cedar trees, on the slopes of Mt Haguro in the Yamagata prefecture, lies Gojunoto, a stunning five-storey pagoda. Part of the attraction here is the climb, up stone stairs that lead through the forest, past babbling streams bathed in dappled light. Eventually you arrive at one of Japan's "National Treasures", Gojunoto, and it's a sight you won't readily forget. japan.travel

EAT AT SUSHI RINDA

The high-end sushi experience in Japan can be intimidating. What's the etiquette? What do you say? How do you eat? At Sushi Rinda, in Tokyo's Meguro district, you can forget all that. Yes, the food here is incredibly high quality, and you will be served about 20 courses of amazing sushi. But the chefs also speak English, like to crack jokes and drink sake with their customers, and the atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming. tabelog.com

DISCOVER SHOJIN RYORI

There are so many styles of cuisine to become acquainted with in food-obsessed Japan; however, be sure to leave room for Shojin Ryori, the traditional food of Buddhist monks, which is totally plant-based and often sourced from the mountainous areas in which you'll find many temples and monasteries. Sample this delicate and beautiful food at Saikan Sanroshu, a monastery in Yamagata prefecture. japan.travel

VISIT A SAKE BREWERY IN AKITA

You won't learn the secrets of sake production at an Akita brewery. Sake makers here tend to be secretive about the intricacies of their business. They'll give you the basics, for sure. They'll show you the facilities, talk you through the process, allow you to sample their wares. And that's great fun. But the deep secrets, the distinctive technicalities? You'll have to guess. japan.travel

CYCLE THE NOTO PENINSULA

Japan's Noto Peninsula is a quiet and pleasant finger of land that extends out from the country's mid-northern coastline, near Kanazawa. It's an ideal spot for keen cyclists, with plenty of excellent roadways that experience very little vehicular traffic, and hug the coastline, skipping the bulk of the peninsula's hills. Break up the journey with stays in fishing villages and rural towns, and you have all the makings of a great but gentle adventure. intrepidtravel.com

DO KARAOKE IN SHINJUKU

Is there a more quintessentially Japanese experience than booking yourself a private room, grabbing a microphone and belting out a few of your favourite tracks? Well, probably, but karaoke in Japan is a whole lot of fun, and a genuine cultural experience. It doesn't matter where you do it, though the karaoke bars in Shinjuku, in Tokyo, offer themed rooms and seriously high-end gear. japan.travel

VISIT KENROKUEN GARDEN

Kanazawa Japan - 13 April 2019: Unidentified people visit Kenrokuen garden for cherry blossom viewing in Kanazawa Japan satfeb1japan japan botanica apt ; text by sarah maguire ; iStock *** REUSE PERMITTED *** 

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Kenrokuen is one of Japan's most beautiful gardens – it's classified, in fact, as one of the nation's "Three Great Gardens" – and it's easy to see why. This is a stunning area in central Kanazawa, a beautifully sculptured series of ponds, rivers and forests, with plants chosen to flower at different times of the year and give the garden a completely different look for each season. This is the perfect example of Japanese horticultural prowess. japan.travel

GO TO A YAKULT SWALLOWS GAME

CA73M8 June 8, 2012 - Tokyo, Japan - June 8, 2012 - Tokyo, Japan - Fans of the Yakult Swallows Japan League baseball team sing and hold umbrellas overhead when one of their team's players hits a home run at Jingu Stadium. (Credit Image: © David Poller/ZUMAPRESS.com) sunjun9cover
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Yakult Swallows fans celebrate using novelty umbrellas. Photo: Alamy

This is baseball, but not as you know it. Baseball in Japan is a whole different ballgame, so to speak, where fans only cheer when their team is batting, where each team has a unique form of celebration for a home run, and where stadium snacks include sushi, karaage and bento boxes. One of the best teams to see is Tokyo's Yakult Swallows, who play at the historic Meiji Jingu Stadium, and have some of the best fans around. japanballtickets.com

EAT WAGYU IN MATSUSAKA

Wagyu beef has become world famous, but for the best of the best you have to go to the source. In the Mie prefecture, near Nagoya, raising wagyu cattle is an art form, and cuts of the highest quality A5 Matsusaka beef can go for up to $600 or $700 a kilo. Still, you have to try this, and where better than in Matsusaka city itself? Call past Isshobin Yakiniku for a memorable meal. isshobin.com

EXPLORE GANSO SAPPORO RAMEN YOKOCHO

Hot bowl of Ramen noodles with egg, beef seaweed, green onions and taro chips. Ramen noodles in a miso soup broth. Healthy Japanese lunch at a restaurant. Bowl of noodle soup. SatAug10Tohoku - Tohoku B Gourmet Food, Japan - Ben Groundwater
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If you share Japan's obsession with ramen noodles – and you should, they're delicious – you're going to love Sapporo, in particular the entire street of ramen restaurants called Ganso Sapporo Ramen Yokocho. This is where miso ramen originated, and the 17 eateries here all do an excellent version. Though it probably doesn't matter which one you pick, Teshikaga is up there with the best. japan.travel

HIKE THE KUMANO KODO

Spain has the Camino de Santiago, Peru has the Inca Trail, and Japan has the Kumano Kodo, a series of stunningly beautiful pilgrims' trails that wind through the forested hills of the Kii Peninsula. The Kumano is a UNESCO World Heritage site; stops along the famous route include temples, onsens and small mountain villages. It's no wonder this trek has become so popular. japan.travel

SOAK IN BEPPU'S OLD-SCHOOL ONSENS

Beppu, Japan cityscape with hot spring bath houses with rising steam. sunmar31japan Kyushu Japan rugby world cup ; text by Brian Johnston
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Steam rising from bathhouses in Beppu. Photo: iStock

Beppu, on the southern island of Kyushu, is about as old-school as it gets, a laidback and charming little town that benefits from eight different hot springs that well from beneath it. That has helped create one of Japan's best onsen destinations, with a host of public baths and private ryokans that do hot-spring soaking the traditional way, as well as offering mud baths, steam baths, and even baths in hot sand. japan.travel

TEMPLE HOP IN KYOTO

This is probably one of Japan's most famous experiences, but it's famous for a reason. Kyoto hosts an embarrassment of beautiful, tranquil temples, many nestled on the hillside in the city's east. It's a pleasure simply to stroll around this area for a day, walking the Philosophers Path, calling in at temples and shrines, soaking up the traditional ambience of Japan's former capital. kyoto.travel

UNDERSTAND KAISEKI

Here's a style of cuisine that requires some knowledge. Yes, you could sit down to a kaiseki meal – a traditional style mastered in Kyoto, a multi-course feast of raw, steamed, fried, grilled and deep-fried delights – and just enjoy it for what it is. But there is meaning in every dish here: kaiseki takes you on a journey, it tells a story, it showcases seasonal ingredients and local techniques and coaxes amazing flavour from seemingly simple materials. To further your understanding, eat at Eigetsu in Tokyo, where the chef, Hidenori Iwasaki, speaks excellent English and can guide you through the meal. tableall.com

MAKE FRIENDS IN FUKUOKA

It's a little difficult to quantify Japan's friendliest cities, but most agree that Fukuoka, in Kyushu, is up there. This is a laidback, charming place that never feels too big or too harried, and yet there's still plenty to do here, including temples and shrines, art galleries, museums, and restaurants serving the famed Hakata-style ramen. The city's bars are also some of the friendliest around. welcomekyushu.com

VISIT TEAHOUSES IN KANAZAWA

Though most travellers would be familiar with the teahouse culture of Kyoto, they might be surprised to learn that a similar thing also exists in quieter Kanazawa. This Ishikawa prefecture city has two historic teahouse districts, each of which offer the chance for visitors to immerse themselves in old-world Japan, taking tea in a traditional house and being entertained by geishas. visitkanazawa.jp

GO ARTISAN SHOPPING IN KYOTO

For those who love beautiful, handcrafted things, Kyoto is your heaven. The city has so many purveyors of unique and often traditional products, from lacquerware at Zohiko (zohiko.co.jp) to knives at Aritsugu (kyoto-nishiki.co.jp), ceramics at Hitamuki (hitamuki.com) to metalwork at Seikado (seikado.jp). If this sounds like your thing, head to the area around Nijo-dori and Teramachi-dori and begin wandering: many handmade delights await.

ATTEND AN OBSCURE MATSURI

The Japanese love a matsuri, or festival, so much so that the entire calendar is packed with celebrations around the country. Though the big ones are easiest to attend – the Sapporo Snow Festival, the Kanda Matsuri in Tokyo – it's more enjoyable to get out to rural areas and appreciate the quirk of the likes of Kokusekiji Sominsai in Iwate, where thousands of half-naked men fight over a special bag, or Hetomato in Nagasaki, which involves the carrying of a very large straw sandal through town. japan.travel

WATCH SUMO IN TOKYO

In this May 26, 2019, file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, center back, and First Lady Melania Trump, second right back, accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and his wife Akie Abe watch the ring-entering ceremony of sumo wrestlers during an annual summer sumo wrestling championship in Tokyo. (Kyodo News via AP, File)

Photo: AP

This is the classic Japanese sporting experience: all of the fanfare, the ceremony, the traditions, the huge men pushing each other around. Sumo tournaments are only staged three times a year in Tokyo – in January, May and September – and if you're lucky enough to visit during that time it's well worth getting down to the stadium in Ryogoku and soaking up the unique atmosphere. sumo.pia.jp

JOIN THE HANAMI VIEWING

Flowers aren't just flowers in Japan. Particularly not when they're sakura, or cherry blossoms, the symbol of the nation and the point of countrywide obsession when they bloom for just a few weeks in spring. The festival of cherry blossom viewing – hanami – is observed by the Japanese in various ways, though most popularly by taking a picnic blanket, some snacks and drinks and good friends and spending the day in a park admiring the sakuras' beauty. japan.travel

GO HIKING AND SNORKELLING IN OKINAWA

You may not picture Japan as a tropical paradise, all thick jungle and white-sand beaches, warm ocean waters ringed by reef – but that's what you get in Okinawa, the country's southernmost island prefecture. Okinawa has a culture and a lifestyle all of its own, and it's the perfect place to hike, to snorkel, to lie back and relax. visitokinawa.jp

DRINK WHISKY IN TOKYO

Japanese whisky has made a splash on the global scene in the past decade, with names such as Yamazaki, Nikka and Hakushu scooping up prestigious awards. Though it's popular countrywide, Tokyo is the place to sample local whisky culture, in particular at bars such as Zoetrope, Urushi or Ben Fiddich, which all specialise in a wee dram, staffed by obsessives who will happily guide you through their range. japan.travel

VISIT A MIXED ONSEN IN TOHOKU

Most of Japan's clothes-not-an-option onsens are modestly separated into men's and women's sections; however, not so in some of the old-school baths in the northern Tohoku region. At Sukayu Onsen, for example – a traditional onsen in the mountains of Aomori – there's one large bath for both genders, which can come as a shock to some visitors. Still, this is communal bathing the way it used to be done, and there's plenty of steam to preserve modesty. en-aomori.com

STAY AT A HIGH-END TOKYO HOTEL

This experience won't come cheap. We're talking $700 a night, or maybe $800, or even more. However, if you can afford it, a high-end hotel in Tokyo really is something else. Five-star properties such as the Palace Hotel Tokyo (palacehoteltokyo.com) and the Capitol Hotel Tokyu (tokyuhotels.co.jp) are elegant and luxurious, with beautifully designed rooms in a mix of Japanese and Western styles, and some of the city's best restaurants onsite. The locations are also spectacular.

ATTEND A TEA CEREMONY

Retro revival image of a geisha walking in front of her house. She's wearing a traditional kimono and brings a tea tray with tea mugs and teapot. Kyoto - Japan SatFeb25cover Credit: iStock

Photo: iStock

There's far more to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony than you can ever imagine. Every movement of the tea-maker is precise and choreographed. The matcha tea is whipped to a light, frothy perfection. The wagashi sweet on the side is a thing of singular beauty. And very often you'll be enjoying this experience in a beautiful old teahouse in a garden. Lovely from start to finish. japan.travel

EXPERIENCE HIGH-END YAKITORI

There's something to be said for cheap-and-cheerful yakitori, for the lively, down-home grilled chicken joints you'll find in the likes of Yurakucho and Shinjuku in Tokyo. However, this style of cuisine can be so much better. As with everything in Japan, it can be elevated to an art form, practiced by chefs who dedicate their lives to sourcing the best produce, the best charcoal and the best equipment, to perfecting the best technique, to serving in the best surrounds. Try Torisawa to see what yakitori can be. tabelog.com

SEE ITSUKUSHIMA SHRINE

Miyajima, Japan - November 15, 2014: People walking up to the torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine at low tide. A gate has been in place on Miyajima Island since 1168, the current gate dates back to 1875. satfeb1japan japan botanica apt ; text by sarah maguire ; iStock *** REUSE PERMITTED *** 

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This might just be the most famous and enduring symbol of Japan: the "floating" Shinto gate near the city of Hatsukaichi in the Hiroshima prefecture. Everyone knows this gate. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site; one of Japan's National Treasures. A visit here is one of those classic Japanese experiences. japan.travel

DODGE DEER IN NARA

In the Japanese town of Nara, its deer wander the streets in search of food.

Photo: AP

Nara was once the capital of Japan, and that heritage is easy to spot in the numerous large and impressive temples and shrines that still dominate the city. Nara is also known for its population of semi-tame deer, which wander the streets and make for great photos, though tourists' plastic waste is beginning to harm the animals, so be sure to leave nothing behind. visitnara.jp

HIT THE IZAKAYAS OF OSAKA

Japan's izakayas – casual, food-focused bars – are the perfect places for travellers, easy-going and often cheap joints where the food is great and the crowd is friendly. And nowhere are these izakayas better than in Osaka, the culinary capital of Japan, where a night spent hopping from bar to bar, drinking sake and sampling the foodie delights, could be the highlight of your whole stay. osaka-info.jp

FIVE SILVER EXPERIENCES

These activities still finish on the podium

CLIMB MT FUJI

Autumn Season and Fuji mountains at Kawaguchiko lake, Japan. xxTokaido - Shizuoka Tokaido & Fuji trek JAPAN - Louise Southerden
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This hasn't made our gold medal list because not everyone will be able to make this challenging climb: still, the feeling of rising early at your mountain hut and making your way up to Japan's iconic peak is one that won't readily be forgotten. japan.travel

VISIT A CRAFT CIDER HOUSE

The city of Hirosaki, in the Aomori prefecture, is famous for its apples – this is where the Fuji variety originated – and could one day be famous for its cider, too. Kobo Kimori is a local company producing high-quality, boutique apple cider, and it's worth calling in for a sample. kimori-cidre.com

WANDER NIJO MARKET

Japan has some excellent produce markets – Nishiki Market in Kyoto; Kuramon in Osaka; Omicho Fish Market in Kanazawa – but one of the unsung heroes is Nijo Market in Sapporo, a friendly, relaxed place where you'll find the best of Hokkaido's land- and sea-based bounty. japan.travel

GO TO A J-LEAGUE GAME

We've covered sumo and baseball, but how about Japan's other great sporting love: football? The country's domestic competition, the J-League, is hugely popular, and if you have the chance to see the likes of Vissel Kobe, Urawa Red Diamonds or Gamba Osaka you should definitely take it. www.jleague.jp

CHECK OUT TOKYO'S ART SCENE

There are some fantastic, world-leading galleries and museums in Tokyo. Some of the best include the Yayoi Kusama Museum, the Studio Ghibli Museum, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and the Nezu Museum, among many others. japan.travel

FIVE BRONZE EXPERIENCES

There's no shame in third place for these greats

TOUR TOKYO'S ANTENNA STORES

Here's how to tour Japan without leaving Tokyo: visit its antenna stores, shops that are set up to showcase the culture and products of various prefectures from around the country. Highlights include the Hokkaido, Nagano and Hiroshima antenna stores in Ginza.

SEE THE SNOW MONKEYS

A Japanese macaque, also known as a snow monkey, soaks in a hot spring in Jigokudani valley in Nagano Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo Saturday, March 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

Photo: AP

Japanese macaques are a native species to Japan that just happen to love jumping in hot-spring baths during winter, and just happen to look extremely cute when they do so. Visit Nagano or Yunokawa in the colder months if you'd like to witness this unique scene.

EAT EEL IN HAMAMATSU

The Shizuoka prefecture city of Hamamatsu is known around the country for the quality of its unagi, or eel – visit any of the huge number of unagi restaurants in the city and you'll get to taste this dish at its best, grilled and basted to perfection. hamamatsu-daisuki.net

GO TO FUJI-Q

Thrill-seekers will love Fuji-Q Highland, the amusement park at the base of Mt Fuji, which features not three, not four, but five rollercoasters, including the massive Eejanaika, which inverts passengers a ridiculous 14 times per ride. fujiq.jp

ATTEND A BRAVE BLOSSOMS MATCH

Here's another of Japan's great sporting experiences: get along to see the Brave Blossoms, the nation's rugby team, who exceeded expectations in the recent World Cup and are now a treasured part of Japan's sporting landscape. rugby-japan.jp

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