As evident in my Local’s Activity Guide to Tokyo, I have spent much of my time in Japan suffering perpetual ADD and thus, seeking oddball adventures. Even as a newbie to the country at 22 years of age, most of my weekends included escapes beyond little Harima-cho. So as a follow-up to that last one, here comes “Japan Activity Guide.”
Now, naturally I did the touristy things upon arrival. I attended tea ceremony and tried my hand at ikebana (both never again, so help me God). I fed crackers to deer at Nara, via my mouth. Because yeah. I went to the Ghibli museum and Robot Show and more temples in Kyoto than probably exist.
The gaijin trail is all well and good in its own sense: fly into Tokyo or Kansai, visit both, and make side trips out to Osaka, Nara, maybe even Hiroshima and Nikko. Amazing places and opportunities for mischief, obviously. But it was my random experiences that I now recommend here in my “Japan Activity Guide.” Maybe because they’re a little hard to each. Maybe because I like a little drama mixed in with my travel. Or just maybe because I whole-heartily believe that Japan has so much to offer in such a tiny country, and that most of it lies beyond the cities.
My “Japan Activity Guide” consists of 25 endeavors and is divided up into areas of Japan from north to south.
(Caveats: there are tons of other wonderful things to do in Japan depending on the season. I shall save those for another Japan activity guide blog. The following are activities you can pretty much do all year long (though some months are more comfortable/ appropriate). Also, this is not a complete list, duh. I’ll need to make Japan activity guide parts two and three at some point or something. I also haven’t seen or done everything I’ve wanted to in Japan… 8 years is not enough, my friends).
Japan Activity Guide: Hokkaido
1. Hike the Hachi-jikan course (Rebun Island)
The northern islands of Rebun and Rishiri are truly off the beaten path, way up north in Hokkaido, requiring a traveler’s serious commitment to reach. For me, hiking on Rebun was one of the most magical experiences during my time in Japan. The 32km hike takes 8 hours (thus the name) and it weaves down the coast from Cape Sukoton. Besides the fabulous views, Rebun blooms with flowers and alpine plants during the “tourist” months. And you may just be able to spot a sea lion or two. Backpacking Man has some great photos of the island hikes.
2. Run into some bears (Shirektoko N.P.)
One of Japan’s lesser known gems is Shiretoko National Park, a World Heritage Site, up in the northeast of Hokkaido. In this massive stretch of land (176,000 acres), you’ll find foxes, deer, and most importantly, brown bears. The bears may look cute and cuddly but at 400 kg and 2 meters tall, some of them have been the source of bloody news stories. To see them in person though— at a safe distance— is truly something else. Take a cruise with Goziraiwa and watch them feeding from afar, or better yet, walk the wooden paths of Shiretoko Go-Ko and witness them chilling nearby.
3. Get drunk at an ice cream bar (Sapporo)
Randomly decorated bar in the middle of Sapporo. Your staggering choice of mini shots. A shit ton of Hokkaido ice cream. You do the math. I love Hokkaido Milk Mura (北海道ミルク村) even if I’m traveling alone, simply for the chance to play mad scientist. With your little spoon, test trial different combinations and be prepared to request a free refill of ice cream. Super Silly Traveler has a description of the place here, as well as other recommendations for what to eat in Hokkaido.
4. Catch and eat squid in front of an audience (Hakodate)
Hakodate’s Asa-ichi morning market is quite the tourist attraction in itself and most people are content simply dining on a fresh kani (crab) bowl. But for extra good times, head to the center of the covered market and find the squid pool. Here you can line up to go fishing for your personal squid meal. Inevitably, your catch squirts the audience (that’s why people give the pool some room). Though I chose not to partake in squid, each prize is promptly— and sadly— transformed into sashimi in front of your eyes.
5. Explore an abandoned amusement park (Noboribetsu)
Nara Dreamland, a Disney-themed copycat of an amusement park, was once the place to explore. But it was unfortunately demolished this year (I’m actually quite, quite sad about this). But do not worry! Close to Noboribetsu (hot spring mecca) still exists Tenkaen. This is an abandoned Chinese themed amusement park just as easy to sneak into. My friend and I loved creeping around, pondering how this park could even function in the first place with such crap attractions. Nevertheless, beauty exists in the ruins… even if we were too scared to climb up the tower. Just make sure to wear long pants to avoid needing a tetanus shot.
Japan Activity Guide: Honshu
6. Rent Totoro’s house (Okayama)
In my last guide, I suggested eating Totoro in the form of cream puffs. Why that’s awesome enough, why not go the extra step and pretend you are Totoro? That is, staying at the house that was the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s anime, “My Neighbor Totoro.” Hattoji International Villa is a fabulous place to rent out for the weekend with a few friends. Revel in nature, bathe in the same round bath seen in the movie, and dangerously cook indoors on their fire pit. Heaven with bragging rights.
7. Swim with wild dolphins (Miyakejima)
We all know that Japan doesn’t exactly have the greatest reputation in terms of dolphins. Cough cough. So instead of supporting a dolphin show or reeking havoc in Taiji, Wakayama, head out to the remote island of Miyakejima— 180 kilometers from Tokyo— for a close encounter with the legit, living thing. Miyakejima in itself is an incredible destination, with a unique history of volcanic eruptions and gas mask tourism (hint: find the abandoned school overflowing with dried lava). From the island, a boat will take you out to nearby Mikurajima where you can swim alongside wild and curious dolphins. It was pure joy to have Flipper inspect my GoPro.
8. Search for glow-in-the dark mushrooms (Ogasawara Islands)
All of the Izu Islands have their special flavor, but the islands of Ogasawara are a marvel due to their sheer distance from the mainland (about 1,000 kilometers). It takes 25 hours to reach them via rocky boat (lots of puking on our voyage), this being the only transport in. While the island chain is most famous for its involvement in WWII (Iwo-jima is one such island), travelers are drawn here because of the otherworldly nature. Chichijima in particular is the “popular” destination, likened to the Galapagos thanks to its biodiversity. Think 100 indigenous plants and 14 species of animals unique to the islands. Scuba diving is exquisite (just don’t touch the sea snakes). And at night, you can venture out and spot the glow-in-the-dark mushrooms called “green pepe” to the locals. Shitty picture I know, but aren’t they cute?
9. Scream your head off (FujiQ Highland)
This one may make some tourists’ lists but I simply cannot emphasize how FREAKIN’ AWESOME Fuji-Q is. World-record breaking rollercoasters that defy angles, speed, loops, and everything else. I’ve been three times and am always pleased with the amount of screams/ tears that I inevitably produce. It’s best to avoid weekends or university holidays if you can or risk waiting two hours a pop. Still worth it. A little more about the rides and access can be found on Gaijin Pot.
10. Bathe in red wine (Hakone)
Mountainous Hakone is an onsen (or hot spring) destination to many a traveler. And while the regular experience is already relaxing and freeing (yay nudity!), one such spa resort in Hakone takes it to the next level. Yunessun resort encourages bathers to soak in their coffee, green tea, and even wine-infused onsen (just like Cleopatra did). Each bath has its own health benefits. Just don’t go and drink your bath… it’s not 100% said substance as I found out. Feet on Foreign Lands explains the resort with more pics.
11. Take trapeze lessons (Hikone)
Because why not. Hikone is most famous for its castle and cute kitty mascot. But on the outskirts of town, thrill-seekers can take a swing at the trapeze with Hikone Sky. It’s not as easy as it looks, especially if you lack arm strength. So don’t expect to be doing any catches the first time around. It’s best to go in the warmer months when the weather is less likely to delay your lesson. Texan in Tokyo has a guide to the rest of Hikone if you want to do more than fly with the greatest of ease.
12. Ride a camel (Tottori)
Japan is a myriad of landscapes, but few realize it also has a desert in its smallest prefecture of Tottori. 32 square kilometers of one. With sweet sand dunes. That you can ride a CAMEL on. Leave Your Daily Hell has a fantastic blog about the logistics for visiting Tottori and riding its camels. You can also paraglide off the dunes… making for a soft fall. Too bad they don’t do sandboarding. Added bonus: Tottori also hosts an epic international snowball fighting competition in winter. Sigh… someday.
Japan Activity Guide: Kansai
13. Make your own instant ramen (Ikeda)
Every poor college student loves their instant noodles. So why not come to the birthplace of this fantastic invention and make your own? The Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum has its own Chicken Ramen Factory where you can make and fry the noodles by hand. And it’s just 500 yen. Plus, you get to decorate the packaging. I gave in and ate my noodles about one week later. Boo. It’s best to make a cooking appointment ahead of schedule, but if you’re lucky like us, you can just show up and and nab a last minute spot.
14. Get drunk inside a temple (Kyoto)
Woops, I included a temple (actually, there’s another one below). But I promise this one is super cool because it has a hidden bar inside. Kanga-an is not an “undiscovered” as it once was so they now charge a sort of cover fee to enter. But once you’re in, the umeshu (plum wine) is worth is, as is the ambiance and general badassness of drinking inside a religious temple. Japan Travel explains a bit more about the history of the temple.
15. Be ninja for a day (near Kyoto)
The photo ops are worth it alone. Head out to one of Kansai’s ninja villages to run around, in colorful costume, playing pretend ninja. Koka Village is especially a delight as it includes a bunch of ninja obstacles, including a chance to throw ninja stars and “walk on water” challenge. As an adult, you’ll be in the minority so better defend your territory. Iga also has rental costumes (and a castle nearby that you probably shouldn’t climb as a ninja but um…)
16. Giggle at the statues of Otagi Nenbutsu-ji (Kyoto)
Yup, one more temple. This one I love because it’s hidden in such a touristy part of Kyoto: Arashiyama. Just bike about 20 minutes away from the center to find Otagi Nenbutsu-ji. Here, 1,200 carved statues crowd the temple grounds, a temple that has suffered catastrophe after catastrophe. And that’s why the statues are there. They were carved between 1981-1991 by worshippers from all over Japan, as a means to lend their support and prayers for the restoration of the temple. Have fun discovering the statues, especially the ones with special personalities or hobbies.
17. Hike through abandoned train tunnels (near Osaka)
Yes, I like abandoned things… but this one is legal and safe, I assure you. The Takedao hike runs along the old JR Fukuchiyama Line for two or three hours, a flat walk through six different train tunnels (the longest being 450 meters). What made this hike sensational, besides the history, was the scare factor. Even with our phones are flashlights, the tunnels were so long and dark at times that we questioned our decision to enter. At the end, you can stop at one of the local restaurants and eat inoshishi (boar) curry. Yummy oink oink. Izanau has fantastic directions and explanation of the hike.
Japan Activity Guide: Shikoku
18. Channel your animal at the world’s longest monkey bars (Konan)
Random, yes. But for some reason, Konan town in Kochi prefecture has a set of monkey bars spanning 102 meters long. I made it about three bars before calling it quits. Enough said.
19. Bike the world’s longest suspension bridge (starts in Onomichi)
What is considered one of the most scenic bike rides in all of Japan, the Shimanami Kaido spans five islands. The last bit includes a never-ending cycle across the world’s longest suspension bridge, actually a series of bridges called the Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridges. In total, that part is about about 4km long of the 76km total. You pick up a bike on one end and drop it off on the other, hoping any issues will occur around one of the pit stops. Most people do the path in two days, but we chose one very long and arduous day… worth the time save. I really enjoyed biking through the small towns, being out in nature, and marveling at the engineering genius that were these expansive bridges. The Occasional Traveller has a complete travel guide to surviving this cycling endeavor.
20. Climb the chains of Mount Ishizuchi (near Matsuyama)
Ishizuchi is the highest mountain in Shikoku at 1,982 meters. It’s a sacred mountain, one of the primary stops in the renowned 88 temple pilgrimage around Shikoku. During the hike, you’ll run into one old Japanese man after another mid-pilgrimage… usually with their bear bell ringing and metal cup clanking. Toward the summit, you’ll have some extra fun climbing the metal chains that are necessary to continue. Don’t take them lightly. People have died on the trail from falling off them in high winds. Makes for an exciting hike either way! Best Regards From Afar has some tips on how to survive the climb.
21. Stroke the long-tailed cocks (Kochi)
Because who doesn’t love a cock? The Onagadori cocks, or long-tailed roosters, can grow tails of up to ten meters long. The damn things have been adopted as natural treasures and have been in bred in the Kochi area of Shikoku since the Edo period. Stop by their breeding center to free them from their weird ass cages for a caress or two.
Japan Activity Guide: Kyushu and the islands
22. Sleep at a hotel run by robots (Sasebo)
Henna Na Hotel opened in 2015 to much fanfare, promising technological advancements that would blow your mind. Besides a control staff behind the scenes, reception and room features are run by lifelike robots. It will cost you a pretty penny to stay the night. But damn, getting checked in by a velociraptor was hilarious. Breakfast wasn’t too bad either in their lovely atrium of sorts. A new one just opened in Chiba using over 140 robots if you don’t fancy going all the way to Sasebo and nearby Dutch-themed amusement park.
23. Boat to abandoned Hashima, once the most densely populated island in the world (Nagasaki)
Known affectionally as Battleship Island thanks to its appearance from a distance, Hashima or Gunkanjima was evacuated in 1974. It once supported a coal-mining community of 5,000 people on its tiny shores of only 6,300 square meters. In its heyday, the people lived with all the comforts of the mainland— movie theater, church, pachinko parlor. When gas became Japan’s primary source of fuel, the residents rushed off Hashima in search of jobs, leaving behind the very intact remains of their community. These days, you can boat out to see Hashima in its decaying state… but only select areas as many of the structures are crumbling. Fun fact: it was also
24. Eat the longevity meal (Okinawa)
I’m sure you’ve heard that Japanese people, specifically people in Okinawa, live the longest in the world. This is thanks to diet, community, and an active lifestyle. To get a taste of their Fountain of Youth, head to Emi-no-Mise in Ogimi village, north of the capital of Naha. This village is tiny but has over 100 centenarians. Here you can try the famous “longevity meal” which consists of some of the not-so-secret ingredients like tofu and green tea that promote good health.
25. Dive with schools of hammerheads (Yonaguni)
Yonaguni island is a lot closer to Taiwan than to Japan, making it a bit of a trek to get there. But it’s worth the natural wonders, especially underwater. Schools of hammerhead sharks congregate there in winter months. Think sharknado. One consisting of hundreds of shy, sleek, and beautiful hammerhead sharks (if you need a shark education on why this endeavor is safe, I would be happy to comply). I just missed peak season but was still thrilled to see several lingering about. If you’re a dumbass that’s scared for no reason, try out the actual dangerous dive skirting Yonaguni Monument. This underwater structure was discovered in 1986 and it’s up for debate whether or not it’s a sunken city or only clever natural formations. Swift current make it an advanced dive but it’s a thrill to see it in person and decide for yourself.