From essential experiences to can't-miss destinations, we've partnered with Qantas to bring you an incredible travel tale each month.
You’ve heard the stories, you’ve seen the shots, but have you actually experienced Japan? At the nexus of ancient tradition and uber-modern sci-fi futurism, Japan offers an alternate world: a fusion of the magical, the surreal and the downright crazy.
There’s things in Japan you can only do and see in Japan. Wild things. Incredible things. Things that’ll make your hair curl. We suggest you take in this 20-point missive on the craziest and coolest Japan has to offer, and get yourself over there post haste. Tanoshinde!
Sing karaoke in the place it was invented
When you’re done working your Bill Murray shtick over a stiff Suntory at Park Hyatt’s New York Bar, be sure to keep them vocal chords warm with a good, old fashioned off-key thrashing at Karaoke Kan, Shibuya. Karaoke is king in Japan, and there are seemingly infinite venue options, many of them eccentrically themed, including Lovenet, where one can (finally) butcher one’s most cherished pop hits in the comfort of their own private hot tub.
Stay in a hotel staffed by robots…
It doesn’t get much crazier or archetypal techno-Japan than spending a night in the world’s finest robot hotel. Situated near Nagasaki’s Dutch theme park, Huis Ten Bosch, the aptly titled “Weird Hotel”, or “Henn-na”, is run exclusively by – you guessed it – robots. An English-speaking animatronic dinosaur checks you in at reception, while a hairless doll-like robotic concierge sorts out your breakfast and tourist info. Doors are fitted with face recognition technology, and to ensure maximum peace of mind (?) humanoid staff are designed to blink, make eye contact, and appear as if they’re breathing. Sadly many of the robot staff were laid off recently for human people, but there’s still a lot of robotic fun to be had.
…Or eat at a robot restaurant
If you’re going to sleep in their midst, you might as well dine with our silicon brethren too. Deep in a basement in Tokyo’s Kabukicho red-light district, every night is a good night to wind down over a stiff dose of robot cabaret. At Kabukicho Robot Restaurant, bikini clad queens of the galaxy take on 10-foot tall robots in a ballet of the bizarre, featuring support from an eclectic cast of dinosaurs, pandas, samurais, techno beats and epilepsy-inducing neon. You can’t make this up.
Get everything you need from a vending machine
From canned, noodle-based meals and neckties, to a range of booze endorsed by Tommy Lee Jones, Japan’s vending machines are next level compared to run of the mill chip-n-choc counterparts. Relish in the joys of Japan’s convenient, and very odd, on-the-go purchasing.
Visit the art island of Naoshima
South of Okayama and Tamaro in the Seto Inland Sea, you’ll discover the Benesse art site of Naoshima, one of Japan’s most unique islands. Known as the “art island”, Naoshima is replete with an impressive collection of contemporary art galleries and exhibits, including the Chichu Art Museum and the famous pumpkin sculpture on the end of a jetty by Yayoi Kusama. Sporting an underground maze lined with crypts, copper bars and puzzles, this surreal island has been likened to a real life game of Myst.
Ride on a super-fast train
Forget all other international transit services, the Shinkasen has their number. For half a decade, Japan’s bullet train has led the world in super-fast train technology, a reliable transport network that covers the nation from the very south in Kagoshima Chuo, to Shin Hakodate Hokuto in the north. Relish in the speed, cleanliness, and the quality service of the Shinkasen’s polite, immaculately dressed snack-vending hostesses.
Visit en eerie former prison turned sculpture site
Heading to north-eastern Hokkaido? Ensure Abashiri’s Prison Museum is on your list. Well worth the trip, Abashiri is no standard open-air museum – once used for the incarceration of political prisoners, this grim joint was the real deal, made even more realistic today thanks to the presence of eerie mannequin prisoners.
Eat some of the world’s best food (dear god, the food)
If you’re like the litany of folk who cite Japanese as their choice of cuisine they’d settle on forever should they become stranded on a hypothetical desert island chances are Japan is your gastronomic Valhalla. Sushi, sashimi, okonomiyaki, you name it – all the good stuff is here, in supreme abundance and quality. Be sure to factor in Osaka’s Dotonburi for a decent night’s nom-fest, and by all means go out of your way to sup some of the rarer local delicacies – many restaurants here specialise in tendon, lung, liver, and even diaphragm.
Climb Mount Fuji
It’s a steep, handsome beast, but even for the trekking novice, Mount Fuji is a surprisingly doable endeavour. Four different routes will take you to the summit, each dotted with a network of signboards and cosy mountain huts. Best time to climb is from late July to late August when the weather conditions are relatively stable.
Spook yourself on ghost island
Channel your inner 007 and trek out to spooky Ghost Island, Hashima. Located 15 kilometres from Nagasaki, this one-time coal mining hub was abandoned in the ’60s after the industry bottomed out, only to become evil villain Raoul Silva’s secret lair in 2012 Bond film Skyfall.
Go full pop culture in Yoyogi Park
Go visit the King – he lives in Yoyogi Park (all 50 of him). Each Sunday in this popular recreation spot between Shibuya and Shinjuku, you’ll find freshly quiffed Elvis impersonators jiving to pop-rockabilly grooves with serious, unabashed aplomb. As well as the famous Elvis Dancers, there’s a whole scene to feast your eyes on by Yoyogi’s east entrance, including wild buskers, hip hop bandits, and a slew of goth lolitas and cosplay kids by the Harajuku bridge.
See monkeys play at Arashiyama
Whether you’re in love with them, terrified of them, or a complicated fusion of the two, there’s a whole lot of monkey business going on at Arashiyama Iwatayama Monkey Park. Getting to Iwatayama involves a steep incline trek, at the top of which you’ll share in stunning views of the Kyoto surrounds with a score of local macaques. Two rules apply in Monkey Park: don’t touch, and don’t stare them in the eye. For your amusement, the inhabitants are fed by park staff three times a day to the tune of amusing pied-piper style music.
Go on, visit a maid cafe
Maid Cafes are a revered local institution: a variety of sit-in restaurants staffed chiefly by Japanese women in French maid cosplay. Featured in countless anime and manga titles, the maid archetype is a popular one in Japan, and there’s no better place to appreciate, or pay homage, than one of these quirky dives.
Roll with the sumos
An institution harking back to ancient Imperial times, Sumo wrestling still captivates. Matches take place on an elevated ring made of clay, and rules are simple enough: first wrestler to leave the ring, or touch the ground with anything but the soles of their feet, gives the bout away. As the traditional national sport, Sumo tournaments are a big-ticket item, so be sure to get your pass well in advance.
Have a hoot in an owl cafe
Pet-related diners: the latest global hit. You may have come across the odd cat, rabbit or reptile cafe in recent months, but have you enjoyed a good cup of Joe amidst the timeless wisdom of owls? This modern proclivity towards animal-cafe fusion is nowhere more alive and well than in Japan, and Tokyo’s Fukuro no Mise. Aka the “Owl Cafe”, it’s the place to experience the goods. Welcome to Hooters Japan-style, a caffeine hub housing between 20 to 40 intense-eyed fluff-balls to pat, talk to, and put on your head.
Get Instagram-happy at the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Japan is rife with otherworldly nooks, and Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto, is certainly one of the more ethereal. Experience the feeling of wandering through tall bamboo thickets and eerie light in this whimsical, unique forest wonderland.
Other unusual stays
Should the robot hotel be fully booked, fret not: Japan offers all manner of bizarre accommodation solutions. Consider spending a night or two in the Lockup, a jail-themed den where staff bring you drinks based on your alleged crimes. Failing that, go for a coffin-sized suite in one of the ubiquitous, and uber-claustrophobic capsule hotels; or a convenient by-the-hour tariff at any one of the nation’s chain of alluring, though slightly shady, “love hotels”.
Marvel at the amenities
Japan’s toilets are legendary, and rightly so: who knew there was so much choice to be had with one’s morning ablution? Bidets are a common auxiliary feature, as well as seat warmers, relaxation music, and medical urine analysis, all controllable through remote control and futuristic LED displays. Neato.
Become a ninja
If stalking crooks in the night, flinging shuriken and sneaking about rooftops is your bag, than consider a one- or two-day course at the Nara Prefecture’s Ninja Academy. Kill Bill-it-up, wield a samurai sword or two, and let your trusted sensei guide you to ninja glory!