Creating a list of all the things that are entertaining or exciting or different about Japan would take years to write. Instead I decided to create this list of things that I would suggest every person who is visiting Japan attempt to experience to really get a sense of how Japan differs from the rest of the world.
I am going to try to keep this list very high level instead of calling out explicit places to visit. I will give those places as examples but please don't think you need to visit them to get the "true" experience. I myself have visited such a small portion of Japan that not even I fully understand what makes these things uniquely Japanese.
Probably isn't surprising that the first thing I would recommend is food related but wagyu (literally "Japanese cow") is the closest I have experienced to a Come-to-Jesus moment in my life. The instant you put that marbled meat into your mouth and just let it melt on your tongue you will be transported from your body to a place of pure bliss.
I have written about my experience with wagyu in Kobe as well as in Tokyo but I cannot understate how important it is to try wagyu in Japan.
A lot of people may think that sushi is that thing that you can only get the best of in Japan, and while they are probably right, you can still find world class sushi chefs who have left Japan for other parts of the world and brought their craft with them. In my opinion it is essentially impossible for that to happen with wagyu because true wagyu is only bred and raised inside Japan. Any wagyu you see outside of Japan is just not the same. I have had Alberta wagyu and wagyu that has been flown from Japan to San Francisco and it does not compare to eating in downtown Kobe.
Omakase is a Japanese phrase that essentially means "I'll leave it up to you". In American parlance it usually refers to a sushi restaurant where the chef chooses the entire contents of the meal. It is typically ten or so pieces served in a very specific order because the chef feels that when they are eaten this way it generates the greatest feeling of satisfaction or gratification. The pieces are also made moments before you eat them. The chef will literally pack the rice, cut and place the fish on it, brush it with soy sauce and then place it on your plate for you to immediately pick up and eat with your fingers. After wagyu this is the other type of meal that you absolutely must try if you are in Japan. Just watch this video by Mark Wiens and tell me you don't want to try that sushi.
The greatest omakase I ever experienced was at Sushi Dai which I wrote about here. One of the greatest things I found about omakase was that it made me try fish I never would have ordered on my own. Red snapper and cutlass fish are prime examples of that. Usually when I go to a sushi restaurant I stay with tuna and salmon (maybe some yellowtail) but when I did omakase I had no choice but to soldier on and in the end I really appreciated that I had to do that.
To find omakase restaurants I would recommend websites like Tablelog, Foursquare, OpenTable and TABLEALL.
Conveyor belt sushi also known as kaiten-zushi (literally "rotation sushi") is another type of sushi restaurant that I think everyone would enjoy going to. The sushi is served on small plates that are placed on a conveyor belt which moves them throughout the entire restaurant. If you see a plate you want you simply take it and then your final bill is based on the number of plates you took. The plates are usually color coded which represent the various prices that are possible. I've found that they typically range from from ¥50-500.
Some of you reading this may have already visited a kaiten sushi restaurant in the country you are from but I would still suggest you give it a try while you are in Japan. I've gone to kaiten sushi restaurants at 8pm and the fish has still tasted better and fresher than most places I have been to in Canada and the US.
The closest comparison for an izakaya bar would be an Irish pub, tapas bar or a North American tavern. It is a very casual after-working drinking establishment that usually has small plates of food that are eaten slowly over an extended period as you drink and be merry with friends and/or colleagues. Some izakaya bars also have specials for nomi-hōdai ("all you can drink") and tabe-hōdai ("all you can eat") so if you want things to get particularly messy you can keep your eyes peeled for that.
The reason I include izakaya bars on this list is because it is probably the most informal and casual you will see Japanese people. I've written previously how the Japanese can be very reserved in public but every izakaya bar I have been into has had such a boisterous and jolly atmosphere. Seeing hordes of Japanese salarymen with their jackets around their chairs, their ties undone and their sleeves rolled up while laughing over a pint truly is a uplifting sight.
If you are looking for a specific example then I would have to say Maguroya Nakatsu is the prime one for me. Mouth watering tuna in a lively atmosphere was absolutely outstanding. Just watch this Mark Wiens video and start planning your trip to Osaka. 😉
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. You can think of them as very fancy bed and breakfasts. What makes ryokans so attractive from a tourism perspective is that everything is done in the traditional Japanese manner. The bedrooms are made using tatami mats and the doors usually slide. We had a tea ceremony performed for us when we arrived. The meals were traditional Japanese cuisine which contained dishes I had never heard of before. While you are having dinner the hosts will make up your room by laying down futons (Japanese bedding not shitty fold out sofas) so it is ready for sleeping. There will almost always be an onsen of some kind.
Essentially every aspect of the ryokan we visited was never experienced again for the rest of our trip. If you are looking for a completely unique Japanese experience you cannot do better than a ryokan.
I mentioned this with ryokans above but onsens are Japanese hot springs and the bathing facilities that are situated around them. Public bathing is incredibly common in Japan for reasons that aren't really well known but Japan is an island with thousands of hot springs so it was probably inevitable that someone would eventually hop in and bathe themselves. Bathing in a Japanese hot spring was incredibly relaxing and so it is something I would recommend to all visitors especially after a long day of sightseeing. There are private onsens as well if you are not comfortable bathing in public. If you'd like to know more check out this video by the Life Where I'm From YouTube channel to get a foreigner's perspective on the subject.
Watch Sumo Wrestling
I had never watched a sumo wrestling match until I visited Tokyo in 2017. We lucked out and were there during the November tournament known as the Kyūshū Basho. Even though the matches usually only lasted a few seconds they were completely enthralling and bore some of the greatest acts of athleticism I had ever witnessed. Tournaments last for 15 days and we actually found ourselves scheduling our days so that we could be back in Airbnb in the afternoon to watch the final matches of the day. Six professional tournaments are held every year and I am legitimately planning my next vacation to Japan so that I will be able to attend one of the tournaments in person.
Japanese arcades are absolutely amazing for one main reason: the Japanese still build games specifically for arcades. While arcades have up and died in basically all other parts of the world they are still thriving in Japan. Some of the most popular video games in the country are only playable in arcades. Take Chunithm, my absolute favorite arcade game. It is a rhythm game with a completely custom cabinet that contains a touch bar you tap and/or press to trigger notes as well as a sensor that detects how far your hands are from the touch bar because sometimes you need to hover you hands to play the correct notes. There is even a MOBA called Wonderland Wars exclusively for the arcades. I literally saw entire floors that were only this game.
There are dozens of games with ludicrously complex cabinets that would be nearly impossible to release for a modern home video game console. To boot almost every game is compatible with these RFID cards that you use to log in to the game so that all of your progress can be stored. Even if you don't have an active interest in video games I highly recommend you at least pop your heads into a arcade just to get an idea of how massive they still are in Japan. Coin-op arcades from the 80s got nothing on Japan.
I do not know what the Japanese's fascination with themed cafes are but if you are in the country you may as well experience some of them. Maid cafes are the most common where waitresses dress up in maid costumes and treat the customers as their masters. If this makes you uncomfortable, as it should, there are dozens of other cafes that specialize in cats, rabbits, dogs, birds, etc. We've visited both a hedgehog cafe and an owl cafe during our travels. We even found a cafe for that served food and drink inspired by our favourite game franchise, Monster Hunter.
My point here is that wherever you visit in Japan make sure to google for "theme cafes" and check one of them out because I guarantee you'll at the very least get a great story to tell.
Yodobashi Camera is a massive consumer electronics retailer in Japan. Actually massive may not be doing them enough justice. The size of their buildings is absolutely bonkers. Stack a GameStop on top of a Fry's Electronics on top of a B&H Photo Video on top of a Best Buy and you're still not close to Yodobashi because they sell appliances, workout equipment and bicycles! Just for kickers they usually have arcade machines and huge model train building supplies as well.
I have spent an unhealthy amount of time in Yodabashi Camera during my two trips to Japan and if you are looking to do any shopping at all while you are there you absolutely must check one of these crazy department stores out.
You know those small vending machines that pop out crappy toys at supermarkets? OK take the crappy toys and replace them with cool things you really want. Next, take the supermarkets and replace them with every possible place imaginable and you will maybe start to understand the gachapon craze in Japan. I honestly don't even know why I am writing this because it is physically impossible to go to Japan without being exposed to gachapon.
I was going to write here "I wish I understood this fascination with gachapon" but then I searched YouTube for "gachapon" and found this video and I now completely remember why it is a thing.#Japan#JapanTravelTips