Long ago, Japanese ranked the three best of almost every natural wonder and attraction in their country: the three best gardens, the three best scenic spots, the three best waterfalls, even the three best bridges. But choosing the "best" of anything is inherently subjective, and decades -- even centuries -- have passed since some of the original "three best" were so designated. Still, lists can be useful for establishing priorities. To help you get the most out of your stay, I've compiled this list of what I consider the best Japan has to offer based on years of traveling through the country. From the weird to the wonderful, the profound to the profane, the obvious to the obscure, these recommendations should fire your imagination and launch you toward discoveries of your own.
Making a Pilgrimage to a Temple or Shrine: From mountaintop shrines to neighborhood temples, Japan's religious structures rank among the nation's most popular attractions. Usually devoted to a particular deity, they're visited for specific reasons: Shopkeepers call on Fushimi-Inari Shrine outside Kyoto, dedicated to the goddess of rice and therefore prosperity, while couples wishing for a happy marriage head to Kyoto's Jishu Shrine, a shrine to the deity of love. Shrines and temples are also the sites for Japan's major festivals.
Taking a Communal Hot-Spring Bath: No other people on earth bathe as enthusiastically, as frequently, and for such duration as Japanese. Their many hot-spring baths -- thought to cure all sorts of ailments as well as simply make you feel good -- range from elegant, Zen-like affairs to rustic outdoor baths with views of the countryside. No matter what the setup, you'll soon warm to the ritual of soaping up, rinsing off, and then soaking in near-scalding waters. Hot-spring spas are located almost everywhere in Japan, from Kyushu to Hokkaido.
Participating in a Festival: With Shintoism and Buddhism as its major religions, and temples and shrines virtually everywhere, Japan has multiple festivals every week. These celebrations, which range from huge processions of wheeled floats to those featuring horseback archery and ladder-top acrobatics, can be lots of fun; you may want to plan your trip around one (and book early for a hotel).
Dining on Japanese Food: There's more to Japanese cuisine than sushi, and part of what makes travel here so fascinating is the variety of national and regional dishes. Every prefecture, it seems, has its own style of noodles, its special vegetables, and its delicacies. If money is no object, order kaiseki, a complete meal of visual and culinary finesse.
Viewing the Cherry Blossoms: Nothing symbolizes the approach of spring so vividly to Japanese as the appearance of the cherry blossoms -- and nothing so amazes visitors as the way Japanese gather under the blossoms to celebrate the season with food, drink, and dance.
Riding the Shinkansen Bullet Train: Asia's fastest train whips you across the countryside at more than 290km (180 miles) an hour as you relax, see Japan's rural countryside, and dine on boxed meals filled with local specialties.
Staying in a Ryokan: Japan's legendary service reigns supreme in a top-class ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. You'll bathe in a Japanese tub or hot-spring bath, feast your eyes on lovely views past shoji screens, dine like a king in your tatami room, and sleep on a futon.
Shopping in a Department Store: Japan's department stores are among the best in the world, offering everything from food to designer clothing to electronics to kimono and traditional crafts. Service also is among the best in the world: If you arrive when the store opens, staff will be lined up at the front door to bow as you enter.
Visiting a Local Market: Tsukiji Fish Market, in Tokyo, is Japan's largest, but there are local seafood and produce markets virtually everywhere. Those in Kyoto, Kanazawa, Takayama, Hakodate, and Okinawa are among my favorites.
Attending a Kabuki Play: Based on universal themes and designed to appeal to the masses, kabuki plays are extravaganzas of theatrical displays, costumes, and scenes -- but mostly they're just plain fun.
Strolling Through Tokyo's Nightlife District: Every major city in Japan has its own nightlife district, but probably none is more famous, more wicked, or more varied than Tokyo's Shinjuku, which offers everything from hole-in-the-wall bars to strip joints, dance clubs, and gay clubs.
Seeing Mount Fuji: It may not seem like much of an accomplishment to see Japan's most famous and tallest mountain, visible from about 150km (100 miles) away. But, the truth is, it's hardly ever visible, except during the winter months and rare occasions when the air is clear. Catching your first glimpse of the giant peak is truly breathtaking and something you'll never forget, whether you see it from aboard the Shinkansen, a Tokyo skyscraper, or a nearby national park. If you want to climb it (possible only in July-Aug), be prepared for a group experience -- 400,000 people climb Mount Fuji every summer.
Spending a Few Days in Kyoto: If you see only one city in Japan, Kyoto should be it. Japan's capital from 794 to 1868, Kyoto is one of Japan's finest ancient cities, boasting some of the country's best temples, Japanese-style inns, traditional restaurants, shops, and gardens.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.