A heady mix of the cutting edge and deeply traditional, try these 21 unique must do Japan experiences and discover why this is a country that leaves its mark on all who visit. From sand bathing and forest bathing, to world class noodles and the ultimate sushi feast, Japan will wow you.

Whether you’re hunting down top eats or basking in the country’s stunning landscapes, it’s impossible to take it all in during one visit to Japan, but you’ll have a fun time trying. I’ve built the ultimate cheat sheet of all the top (and most unique) Japan experiences to help you plan your next visit. Some I have done but others are on my own list of unique must do Japan experiences.

sand bathing unique must do experiences in Japan

Sand bathing in Kagoshima Prefecture (Kyushu) 

*21 unique must do Japan experiences

Sand Bathing

Forget the sauna or even the sea, sand bathing is the ultimate healthy experience and it’s just one of the unique Japan experiences every traveller needs to try once! The southern tip of Kagoshima has a hot spring town that is famous for its sunamushi, or sand bathing. Volcanic hot springs line the coastline of Ibusuki, warming the sands to about 50-55 degrees Celsius. Resorts along the coastline offer a sand bathing experience with regular hot springs to soak in afterwards. You wear a light cotton yukata to sand bathe and lie a shallow depression on the beach. The attendant protects your face with a towel and shovels warm sand over you until you’re buried, up to your neck, in the black sand. Only your head is exposed to the air. After ten minutes or so, you emerge, warm and relaxed. You can take a shower at the beach or explore the nearby hot springs. Visitors also can hike around nearby Lake Ikeda and Kaimondake. This active volcano resembles Mt. Fuji. Chiran Samurai District, a town with well-preserved samurai houses, with gardens that are open to the public, is a 50-minute drive from Ibusuki.

sand bathing unique must do experiences in Japan

Sand bathing in Kagoshima Prefecture (Kyushu) tops my list of unique must do Japan experiences

Unique outdoor accommodation

Only in Japan can you bunk in a Buddhist temple one night and rent your own city-based sleeping pod the next. High-tech Japan lovingly reveres its cultural traditions, making for the best kind of culture shock. Glamping sites have also popped up around Japan in recent years for those seeking a unique outdoors escape. My pick is Fujino Kirameki, which sits on a gently sloping site with stunning views of Japan’s most famous mountain.

Catching smelt in Japan

That moment that I caught smelt in Sapporo!

Winter sport adventures

If you’re a winter sports aficionado, you’ve probably heard of Niseko. The rural Hokkaido retreat offers skiing, sleigh rides, snowshoeing and more. But you may not have heard of smelt ice fishing in Mt. Akagi. As you admire the sweeping, snow-kissed mountains, you’ll cut a hole in the ice to dangle your fishing rod. And it’ll be worth the effort – your catch goes straight to a nearby restaurant to be turned into delicious golden tempura.

I have tried ice fishing and it is a lot harder than it looks.  I sat for a long time dangling my rod until I had some help to land one of the tiny fish.  We fried them right on the spot and ate them in the ice.  It was delicious!


ninji training in Japan

Kerry Heaney learns how to be a ninja

Learn the ancient art of Ninja

The location of the Ninja Do training hall is strictly on a need to know basis to confuse their enemies. Students arrive on kerbside to be greeted by a man dressed head to toe in black and ushered into an unmarked building. It’s straight down the stairs to a basement door with a large lock on the outside. It’s all very mysterious and slightly dramatic, like we are extras in a Monkey Magic (a classic 1970s television series shown alongside The Goodies and Roger Ramjet) remake.

Next, there is a lot of clothing to put on and tie up. Pants, top, headband and wrist guards and then suddenly I looked like a ninja! All I needed was a sword, but first I had to learn to walk silently and swiftly like a ninja, blow a dart into a target (fail), throw a ninja star into a target (fail) and escape from my enemies.

When I finally got my hands on a sword, I was schooled on drawing it from its sheath and standing ready to pounce.  My best tip is to pick a sword that is shorter, not longer than your arms!  Ninja Do offer two-hour training sessions four times a day.

Unique must do Japan experiences Ryokan Musashi

Ryokan Musashi. Image credit Ryokan Musashi

Stay in a ryokan

Ryokan – Japanese inns – provide a taste of the authentic with rice paper shoji doors, tatami flooring, futon beds and natural hot spring baths. Catering to all budgets, they can be found throughout Japan but most commonly in the countryside outside urban centres. Wakayama prefecture’s Ryokan Musashi is consistently rated as one of the top onsen ryokans in all of Japan. Some rooms even boast a private hot spring tub with ocean views.

Relax and recharge at a traditional tea ceremony

Running deep within Japan’s rich culture, the tea ceremony tradition has remained a cherished ritual for centuries, bringing people together in an environment of tranquillity to enjoy freshly whisked matcha tea. I was quite surprised by the precision of the ceremony and the way the tea whisks into a frothy mixture. Shizuoka is home to some of Japan’s best tea growing, and you can experience them right from the source. Set in beautiful surroundings just below Kakegawa Castle, Ninomaru Teahouse is the best place to experience this meticulous tradition.

Explore ancient temples, shrines and castles

At ancient shrines and in the heart of historic cities, Japan’s rich cultural heritage lives on as something not just to be admired from afar but actively appreciated. What’s more, some unique accommodation in Japan offers experiences too. Home to the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, Hakujukan is a ryokan-cum-temple lodge in Fukui prefecture where guests get a taste of traditional Japanese hospitality and can join monks at the monastery for a Zen meditation session.

Devour world-class sushi

Sushi is probably the most recognisable Japanese food and has exploded in popularity. For under 600 yen ($7), you can walk into any supermarket in Japan and pick up fresh sushi. For a real treat, spend upwards of 60,000 yen for a three Michelin star omakase (chosen by the chef) course. An unassuming lantern on the street outside is all that marks the entrance to internationally acclaimed sushi bar Ginza SUSHI AOKI, in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Take a seat at the counter, and you’ll soon realise that there’s nothing modest about the food on offer.

Ginza SUSHI AOKI. Image credit Ginza SUSHI AOKI

unique must do Japan experiences GinzSUSHI AOKI
 unique must do Japan experiences Omoide Yokochō, Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Izakaya hopping and sake bar crawling

Slurp oodles of noodles

Noodles are a staple of Japanese cuisine. Whether it’s ramen, udon or soba, noodles have been served for hundreds of years in a variety of different ways. Longing for ramen? Why not head to the Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum and savour a wide selection of this favourite soul-food dish.

If Soba is more your thing, the ultimate farm-to-table foray into soba noodles can be found in Chino, Nagano prefecture, where you can join a master noodle maker as he shares deep insight into the fundamentals of making delicious soba.

No trip to Japan is complete without trying beloved Japanese sake and experiencing local nightlife in an izakaya (Japanese pub). Izakaya are typically crowded, but that’s all part of the fun. The dishes served each afternoon will vary, but you can expect a selection of food ranging from niche regional specialities to all-time Japanese classics.

In Sendai (90 minutes from Tokyo), narrow streets are lined with alluring red lanterns, enticing you into the cosiest of watering holes. Tohoku Local Secret Tours offer English-speaking tours of this city that will take you to places normally only locals know.


Is there a city that conjures up visions of fast-paced Japan more than Tokyo? Tokyo’s vast, bustling cityscape is home to some of Japan’s most iconic landmarks, including Tokyo Skytree, the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Tower.

Japan’s “underground tunnel” is a must-visit for a truly unique experience and for those urban architecture fans. This subterranean attraction (known rather factually as the Metropolitan Area Outer Floodway) is the world’s largest underground flood diversion facility. The tunnel system runs 50 metres deep and 6.5 kilometres long. It prevents disasters in low-lying Tokyo, which is vulnerable to flooding during the rainy and typhoon seasons.


This ancient capital of Japan is home to three World Heritage sites and filled with natural beauty, charming townscapes, and national treasures, all less than an hour by train from Kyoto and Osaka and easily accessible from Tokyo.

Nara is also home to almost 1400 ‘celebrity’ deer that roam free among the park’s famous heritage temples and shrines. The deer are considered sacred and have coexisted with the people of Nara for more than 1000 years. Pick up “shika senbei” (deer crackers) to feed them, which the deer will happily take from human hands.

Gallery and museum mania

Museums and galleries in Japan can be dedicated to just about anything you can think of, from the weird and wonderful to the film and animation of Studio Ghibli and gorgeous, traditional art.

After a three-year renovation by architects Jun Aoki and Tezzo Nishizawa – who also designed the flagship Louis Vuitton store in Tokyo’s Ginza district – Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art reopened in March 2020. Blending Japanese, Western, contemporary and modern architecture, this photogenic museum is a must-visit spot for permanent exhibits and modern art exhibitions.

Visit eccentric art islands

The scattering of small islands of the Seto Inland Sea, or Setouchi for short, is littered with incredible modern art and sculptures and form one of Japan’s most artistic regions. Japan’s art island of Naoshima is on the bucket list of almost every art lover inside and outside Japan. The Setouchi Modern Art Triennale is returning in 2022. The artistic, architectural, and cultural festival takes place every three years and takes the art world by storm.

Experience Japan’s love for all things Manga and Anime

Anime and Manga are significant parts of modern Japanese culture today. From Pokemon to Studio Ghibli, the distinct look of Japanese comics, animations, and games attract fans from all around the world. Even if you’re not a lover of this unique art, manga and anime are a powerful vehicle of influence in subculture and is worth experiencing. Kyoto International Manga Museum has a collection of some 300,000 comics and manga-related exhibits. Visitors can read any piece of manga they fancy from the towering wooden bookcases that line every wall and hallway

Hike the Japanese Alps

Kamikochi in the Northern Japanese Alps offers some of Japan’s most spectacular mountain scenery. A fifteen-kilometre-long plateau in the Azusa River Valley and about 1500 metres above sea level, Kamikochi is encompassed by soaring mountains and the active volcano ‘Yakedake’. An outstanding hiking experience, trails lead through the valley and towards the summits of the neighbouring mountains. Hike along the river, a mostly flat terrain requiring only a few hours and is easy for inexperienced trekkers.

Beach hop the country’s vast coastlines

Japan is a country made of islands, and that means there are plenty of beaches with golden sands and crystal-blue seas for you to explore. Okinawa is arguably home to Japan’s best beaches, like Ishigaki and Kerama, with sugar-white sand fringed with palms and turquoise waters. This semi-tropical archipelago forms an arch between Kyūshū and Taiwan, and the differences are apparent in everything down to the architecture and food. Amami-Okinawa, a chain of islands that stretch across Kagoshima to Okinawa prefectures, was even recently added to the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List.

Okinawa. Image by Sho K on Unsplash


Unique must do Japan experiencesFujino Kirameki

View of Shodoshima. Kagawa, Japan. Photo by Yu on Unsplash

Be wowed by the changing colours of autumn in Japan

As the summer heat wanes and a winter chill sets in, Japan’s dense forests begin turning hues of vivid orange, yellow, and red. Gardens and parks attract crowds of visitors eager to see the changing leaves, and the temperate weather makes for an ideal time to experience traditional festivals and events. Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri autumn festival takes place every September in Kishiwada City, Osaka. It features danjiri – large intricately-carved wooden festival floats – that speed through the streets pulled by up to 500 eager locals.

Flock to the forest for relaxation

Japan is about disconnecting as much as it is high stimulation exploring. So be sure to schedule in some me-time during your trip to Japan – whether it is heading into the mountains of central Japan for hiking, relaxing in rocky, hot spring baths overlooking the ocean or meditating in a luxury mountain retreat.  Forest bathing or ‘Shinrin-yoku’ is a centuries-old tradition that involves immersing yourself in nature. It took off in the 1980s when busy, over-stressed city workers needed help to wind down and re-calibrate. The purpose was twofold: to offer an eco-antidote to tech-boom burnout and to inspire residents to reconnect with and protect the country’s forests. No hiking, running, or mountain-climbing is necessary.

Japan has stunning national parks that make perfect Shinrin-yoku locations. Suppose you want to combine a spiritual pilgrimage? In that case, the Kii Peninsula south of Osaka is home to the sacred forests of the Yoshino-Kumano National Park.

Hop on a scenic train ride

Japan has an enviable network of trains. From efficient high-speed Shinkansen to traditional steam trains, you can be transported to a dream destination in whichever style suits you. For the luxury traveller, the brand-new Shiki-shima, JR East’s most luxurious train offering, travels across Eastern Japan and stops off at some seriously hidden gems and local hotspots, with guests enjoying the sheer beauty of the landscapes on board in-between excursions.

Stay in a local village

Steeped in history and culture and often set amongst breathtaking natural scenery, Japan’s villages are a haven for those desiring a break from city life. Between the mountains and deep woodlands in central Japan lies UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakawa-go village, a sprawl of gassho-zukuri houses — unique Japanese-style homes with steep-pitched, thatch-gabled roofs. Owners have worked to preserve the local traditions and landscape integrity by limiting visitors to those who respect the town’s heritage and embrace the spirit of mutual assistance that drives the local culture.

Shirakawa Go village. Image by Fabian Mardi on Unsplash

Shirakawa Go village unique must do Japan experiences

Surprising summertime festivals

After the cherry blossoms fall, many unique and exciting outdoor activities occur during the summer in Japan. Summer is also one of the main seasons for festivals in Japan. Akin to Mexico’s ‘Day Of The Dead’, Obon (also known as The Bon Festival) is one of the largest and sees Japanese people pay tribute to lost ancestors. In Nagasaki, the Shoro-Nagashi ‘Spirit Boat Procession’ is held where boats are painstakingly decorated by the grieving family members of the people of Nagasaki who died that year. Bon dancing looks really easy but it is harder than you think to make it look like an elegant dance. Yes, I have tried this!

Bon dancing is harder than it looks and is a unique must try Japan experience

bon dancing unique must do experiences in Japan
Saporo dining sand bathing unique must do experiences in Japan


Set amidst beautiful nature, Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido, northern Japan. Sapporo is well known for its magnificent seasonal beauty. Long winters bring perfect snowfall for winter sports, and summers are comfortable, with lower humidity and cooler temperatures compared to its southern neighbours. In summer, waterfalls, mountains, and dramatic valleys all form a part of the nearby untouched wilderness, of which many tourists are unaware. Sapporo also has a lesser-known but growing ‘cool’ factor, including a bourgeoning art, culture and foodie scene showing Hokkaido’s unique regional differences.

I visited Sapporo in winter which was a big surprise to someone from subtropical Queensland.  I went to ice festivals, tried snow sledding, ate amazing food and explored the city.  The ramen is amazing!