Japan is a one-of-a-kind country that offers a great variety of experiences for everyone. From genuine Japanese cuisine to fake food to the ancient temples, from joyous festivals to unusual animal encounters, I’m recounting the tale of our highlights in Japan after spending thirty-five days. As promised. in this post, the last in the series, I’ll ultimately cover my personal top 10 cool and unique things to do in Japan. Here we go.

Unique Things To Do  in Japan
If you haven’t read my previous posts yet, you may want to check them out in the following:

By no means I’ve seen it all or been everywhere in Japan, but after all these experiences, I left a country satisfied for the first time in my life. Returning to Japan is not high on my list, though one day I will be back for one thing for sure: to swim with Japanese Giant Salamanders in autumn! (I guess that makes two 🙂

Traversing the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route: Alpine Marathon Japanese Style!

Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route was one of the coolest highlights of our entire trip to Japan! As if we hadn’t seen enough snow in the wintery Arctic Siberia just a few months before, we both were instantly sold upon seeing a picture of the Snow Corridor, a famous seasonal attraction that’s literally carved through the impressive volume of snow piling up during the winter months.

Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is a 90 km sightseeing route through the Northern Japan Alps, which is also known as the Roof of Japan. The route is traversed by various means of transportation, well 7 precisely: a cable car, highland bus, tunnel trolley bus, a ropeway, another cable car, another trolley bus, and finally another local train to starting/end stations. All these vehicles may not sound extraordinary today, but given that the Alpine Route has been in operation since 1971, it’s one of the early trophies in fast-growing industrial Japan after World War II.

Image source: jrtateyama.com/e/

The Alpine Route can be traversed in either direction as a one-way trip starting from Ogizawa Station on the Nagano-side (east) and finishing at Tateyama Station on Toyama-side (west), or vice versa. You can also choose to do just parts of this route, and return to your starting point. The full one-way Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route takes at least six to seven hours, depending on the waiting time for transport and how many photos you want to take or how much hiking you want to do at each spot. Every stop along the route is dotted with spectacular sights, such as the caldera lake Mikurigaike, dramatic alpine vistas, and the powerful Kurobe Dam, the highest dam in Japan. If you have at least a day to spare, you must definitely do the entire route and soak up the scenery at your leisure!

We did the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route from the east (Ogizawa) to west (Dentetsu Toyama) as a day trip from Takayama (not the best idea). It was a crazy race against the time and busloads of mainly Japanese tourists, but we made it! Start at 7:40 a.m. in Takayama, finish at 9:05 p.m. in Takayama rushing through amazingly beautiful scenery, impressive tunnels, sacred mountain peaks, wilderness, forests, and Japan’s highest dam. In May, the route was covered with more snow than alpine vegetation but the snow corridor with snow walls reaching up to 20 meters is simply a unique sight around Murado station and can only be seen from mid-April to mid-June. It’s Tateyama-Kurobe’s most distinct and unique feature, though I am pretty confident that Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route offers spectacular sights in summer and autumn as well. Please note that the alpine route is closed during winter from December to mid-April.

Tickets can be purchased separately for each section, but the Alpine Route Combo Ticket (excludes Alpico Bus from Shinano-Omachi to Ogizawa), would save a lot of time if you plan on doing this route as a day trip. You can find the details about prices and timetables on the Alpine Route’s official webpage: https://www.alpen-route.com/en/. They even offer Baggage Delivery Service for a fee allowing you to drop off your baggage at one station and pick up at the end station (before 8 p.m.). So, no excuses? Then check out the snapshots below and join the race whenever you get a chance!

Kurobe Dam, with a height of 186 meters, is Japan’s tallest dam and the first attraction when traversing route from east to west. The construction of the dam was finished in 1963, and it’s the reason for digging a tunnel that the Kanden Tunnel Trolleybus now runs through. From late June to mid-October, up to 15 tons of water per second are discharged through the dam, and sightseeing cruises are operated on the lake from June to early November.
Daikanbo is the transfer station between the Tateyama Trolley Bus and the Tateyama Ropeway. The observation deck offers stunning views of the mountains with a small greenish lake down in the valley!
A 10-minutes journey on the trolley bus transports you to the other side of the 3,015 meters high peak of Mt Tateyama, Murodo station, which is the highest point of the Alpine Route offers fantastic views of the Tateyama Mountain Range. Long or short hiking trails lead to the surrounding peaks and to the nearby Jigokudani ‘Hell Valley’, where volcanic activity can be observed. Murado station is also the access point to Hotel Tateyama, Japan’s highest located hotel with an onsen.
Keep your eyes peeled for rock ptarmigan in the Murado area, where approximately 240 of these birds live. They are perfectly camouflaged and blend into the landscape with their all-white wintery feathers turning to all-brown in summer. The birds are designated as a Special National Treasure in Japan.
Mikurigaike Pond surrounded by several mountain peaks over 3000 meters was almost entirely frozen in early May 2018. The rock ptarmigan, perfectly dressed up for the season, is a sight to behold.
Up next is the Highland Bus that runs along the Tateyama Snow Corridor. The approximately one-kilometer passage is open to pedestrians from around mid-April to mid-June.

Bathe in a wild onsen (natural hot spring) tucked away in Hokkaido’s mountains

If you feel cold by now, imagine how magical an experience it would be to soak in a wild onsen when the snow falls around you while the moon and stars provide ample light in the woods. Now, this is your reward for braving the cold.

The term ‘onsen’ refers to Japan’s natural hot spring baths, traditionally open-air so that the bath-goers could enjoy the surrounding views. Today, many indoor baths are on offer as well, scattered across Japan.

The northernmost island in Japan, known as Hokkaido has become an international winter sports destination in recent years, whereas in summer the region is famous for gorgeous lavender fields. In the off-season though, your best bet is to visit one of the many onsen facilities high in the mountains. As Hokkaido is home to active volcanoes, the region is literally flooded with boiling water. We visited the highest onsen facility in Hokkaido, but another wild one hidden just off the road felt way more natural and authentic. Haruki Murakami fans would know what I’m talking about by now.

Lavender farms in April
Sunset onsen visit on Mt. Tokachidake
Fukiage Onsen is one of the great secrets of Hokkaido, admission free, open 24 hours
Moonrise onsen visit on the other side of the mountain

Celebrate the flower-mania in Sapporo City!

There is no denying that Japan’s cherry blossoms season is truly magical, despite the crowds. During the sakura (cherry blossom) season,  the country is covered in pink blossoms, and parks and gardens are filled with people enjoying themselves over a hanami (flower viewing)  picnic along with sake or a cold Sapporo beer. By the time the sakura season will already be over in Honshu (mainland Japan), spring won’t arrive in Hokkaido until late April.

So, on May 1st, 2018, we joyfully joined the Sapporo City residents at Maruyama Park with a hanami picnic. The park has both cherry and plum groves and they start to bloom at the same time here. Plum blossoms (ume) along with cherry blossoms (sakura), and a lively atmosphere. How cool is that?!

Forget Shinkansen and take a long-haul overnight ferry!

Traveling in Japan does not need to be expensive when you follow the local advice. Forget about the Shinkansen (bullet trains), take the (overnight) ferries!Japan, being an island nation, is naturally home to an extensive network of ferry routes. Although Japan’s four main islands (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku) are connected with each other by bridges and tunnels, ferries can be an interesting alternative to trains, buses, and planes. Especially when traveling in the high season like Sakura or Golden Week, chances are that ferry is your cheapest bet, even if not the fastest.

Being in the midst of Golden Week holidays, where all rates raise to the sky, we opted for the yellow route from Tomakomai to Nagoya with two overnight stays on board Kiso, a large ferry equipped with a range of amenities such as public baths, a restaurant, karaoke rooms, a theater and more.

The tickets must be reserved by phone in advance and once you arrive at the ferry port, you go to the ticket counter, present the reservation number, make the payment, and get your boarding pass. This all worked out like a breeze without the employees speaking a word of English, thanks to readily available instructions in both Japanese and English.

As for the sleeping arrangements, there are several options such as king’s suite, first-class, the second class with a bunk bed (tourist class), and the cheapest option, second class with a common sleeping area (with tatami mats to rest on).

The view from the Onsen aboard Kiso Ferry

The damage for 40 hours of fun? 11900 Yen/approx. 90 EUR per person during Golden Week. Otherwise cheaper deals are available. Oh, before I forget: just like the Japan Rail Pass for tourists, there is a Japan Ferry Pass 21 for 21000 Yen, which provides up to 6 journeys within 21 days and valid on all lines but Okinawa. Pass holders are entitled to ride ferries in the 2nd class and have the option to upgrade to a higher class. The pass cannot be used during peak seasons, including Golden Week, Obon, and New Year.

The video at this link https://youtu.be/MKlcMEETzTY is a compiled clip from the piano & violin concert in the theater room the first night. The second night there was a movie on the screen.  I can highly recommend the overnight ferry ride even in the cheapest class. And again don’t count on an English-speaking crew, but everything works without issues because Japanese people are so polite and helpful—in the worst case they would hold your hand and bring you to your final destination.

Sleep in a quirky lodging

Japan is abundant in accommodation options for all budgets. and some are quite quirky. From robot hotels to bookshelves, one of the most popular types of lodging in the country is capsule hotels, first introduced in the late 1970s in Osaka. Nowadays, capsule hotels are found in major cities across Japan, although more creative options are available as well. Our favorite is urban camping in Kyoto, complete with cricket sound effects! Camping is of course not as comfortable as having a bed but we paid roughly 27 EUR per night per double tent and loved having a slice of nature in a big city.

Kyoto Station Base, a super cool hostel campground with outdoor showers, a kitchen, lounge area, and even cricket sound effects!

Speaking of alternatives, here is a hostel with a rooftop public bath with Mt. Fuji view (that I had it all to myself privately), let alone the super comfortable bed and extra room beneath your bed to sit (or dig out your luggage) for 21 EUR per head per night.

Kawaguchiko Station Inn with public onsen

Play hide-and-seek with Mt Fuji at Shibazakura Festival

It’s impossible to think of springtime in Japan without an iconic image of cherry trees in full bloom. Flowers are deeply rooted within Japanese culture, and it would be pretty naive to think that cherry blossoms are the only flowers that are celebrated. Relatively unknown to Western travelers, the Shibazakura blossom provides an equally impressive opportunity to immerse yourself in Japan’s flower-viewing culture.

Shibazakura is a flower that covers the ground like a lawn. The shape of its pretty petals is similar to that of sakura (cherry blossoms) and thus the name means ‘lawn cherry’ in Japanese. Fuji Shibazakura Festival is held annually from mid-April through early June, and it’s one of the most popular events in Japan to celebrate flowers, food, and scenery. The vast fields of Shibazakura (or phlox moss) in varying shades of pink, purple, red, and white create a vivid sea of color at the foot of the majestic Mount Fuji.

Shibazakura Garden, the venue of the  Fuji Shibazakura Festival, offers food stalls, souvenir shops, a cafe, as well as free wifi, and it get can get quite crowded on weekends or public holidays. The Shibazakura Liner shuttle bus operates between Kawaguchiko Station and the Fuji Shibazakura Festival’s venue (40 minutes, 1-2 departures per hour) during the entire festival period. Depending on the flowering conditions, the best time to see the festival of course varies from year to year, though the full bloom is said to happen in the first half of May (the full bloom was already over during our visit on May 15, 2018). All the same, a springtime trip to Japan would not be complete without seeing this truly breathtaking colorful landscape, especially on a clear day with unobscured views of Mt Fuji in the backdrop.

We missed the full bloom in mid-May, and Mt Fuji was a bit shy but it was a beautiful sight nevertheless.

Join the locals at Asakusa Sanja Matsuri (festival) in Tokyo

One of the best things to do in Japan is to attend a matsuri, a Japanese festival, and by complete coincidence, we took part in one of the top three festivals in Tokyo, Sanja Matsuri.

Sanja Matsuri is annually held during the third full weekend in May to celebrate the three founders of the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. It’s a grand festival attracting a crowd of nearly two million people over the course of three days. During the festival, around a hundred portable shrines (mikoshi), where Shinto Gods are symbolically placed, are paraded through the streets to spread good fortune and prosperity to Asakusa’s businesses and residents. The shrines are bounced through all of the streets, neighborhoods, and shopping arcades of Asakusa by the neighborhood teams wearing matching festival garbs. Lots of food, beer, and sake complete the high-spirited, lively, and joyous atmosphere.

Matsuri is an incredible thing to witness, and bear in mind that there are actually hundreds of festivals held throughout Japan over the course of a year. It’s worth doing some homework beforehand and organizing your trip around a festival.  Here is a short clip: https://youtu.be/jCkmQJKfP6c

Cheer on a Sumo Wrestling Grand Tournament, Tokyo

Touted as Japan’s national sport, the most exciting way to see sumo is through a professional sumo wrestling tournament. Sumo has a very long history, dating back to ancient times when it was a means of entertaining Shinto deities. And many of the traditional rituals are still followed today, including salt-sprinkling, singing, and foot-stomping. In fact, the actual wrestling is surprisingly brief, usually lasting only a few seconds.

There are six grand tournaments, each lasting fifteen days. and take place every other month in four major cities. Three out of six tournaments are held in Tokyo and one in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka each. Tickets for sumo tournaments go on sale over a month in advance and usually sell out very quickly. Technically you can buy the tickets online from abroad, but you’ll very likely be out of luck. In that case, waking up very early and queueing in front of the ticket office at the stadium before 6 a.m. is your only option to snag one of the 400-same-day tickets. You can buy one ticket per person, thus everyone who wants to see sumo must be present in the queue to get a numbered card for the same-day ticket. Weekend matches and matches late in the tournament are more popular, so you’ll want to queue as early as possible.

A sumo tournament day is long and starts with the lowest division matches at 8:30 a.m. The higher-ranked wrestlers don’t show up until after 2 p.m, as does most spectators to watch the top-ranked wrestlers. Anytime before 2 p.m, you can descend to prime seats before their actual ticket holders arrive. After 2 p.m, Juryo matches begin following the entrance ceremony. Wrestlers at this rank and above are considered full professionals, and the best matches (makuuchi rank) take place between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., again following their entering ceremony.

After spending a bit of time in the morning watching some of the low-ranking sumo wrestlers from prime seats, you may want to go out for lunch or return to your hotel to rest, or check out the nearby Edo Museum (Tokyo) and return to the stadium later in the day to watch the top-ranking wrestlers. This is when spectators are most passionate about the matches, and the ambiance makes the whole thing an unforgettable spectacle.

If you find yourself in any of the aforementioned cities during a sumo tournament, you should definitely do your best to attend one. So we did and we were up on our feet at 5 a.m. to secure tickets for the 6th day of the Sumo Wrestling Grand Tournament in Tokyo back in May 2018.  In the video at this link https://youtu.be/8W_XDX3vzWU, you’ll see some scenes from the tournament.

Cardboard cutouts of sumo wrestlers at the entrance of the stadium

Ride a bicycle on a former railway, Gattan-Go!

The ‘Rail Mountain Bike Gattan Go!!’ was another highlight of our trip to Japan, and I had published a separate post about this exhilarating outdoor activity before I decided to categorize the experiences into master posts. For the sake of completeness, I’d like to mention it here once again and invite you to read the details here in this post.

Throw a birthday party with wild bottlenose dolphins in Mikura Island, Tokyo

Believe it or not, Tokyo has also several small islands under its administration. A tiny drop of paradise, Mikura Island approx. 200 km south of the city of Tokyo, was my choice to have a birthday party with the wild bottlenose dolphins. It meant 7.5 hours one-way ferry ride with beautiful views of the Tokyo bay area at night. Even if there wasn’t even a tatami mat in the second class cabin this time, I was right there where I feel happiest.

The tiny volcanic island of Mikura has about 300 residents and 110 resident wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. Only a small portion of the island is inhabited, the rest is an untouched jungle, as such home to an array of different species of animals and plants.

Mikurajima Island can be accessed by overnight ferry from Tokyo Takeshiba Ferry Terminal, which departs daily at 10:30 p.m. and arrives on the island by 6 a.m. However, ships may not be able to dock in adverse sea conditions, as the waves often wash over the pier. If that happens, don’t worry, you’d get the ferry fare refunded. For ferry info, check out their webpage: https://www.tokaikisen.co.jp/en/

As the island is tiny, there is only a handful of places to stay, and during the dolphin swimming season from mid-April to early November, you should make reservations in advance. The best address to contact is Mikurashima Tourist Information Center (Email: blue@mikura-isle.com, URL: www.mikura-isle.com), they’ll have the most thorough list of places to stay. Don’t try to shop around and contact anyone else, as they all know each other on this tiny island and you’d just cause confusion 🙂

Swimming with dolphins usually lasts up to two hours, where each swim can range anywhere from mere seconds to several minutes. The most important rule is of course not to chase the animals, but instead let them dictate the encounter. At my birthday party, a pod of dolphins was around with their newborn babies!

The odds of getting to Mikurajima is like throwing dice, and you may not want to take such a risk and hassle of reaching the island,  but if you are crazy enough, make sure to meet the Mikura dolphins while in Japan. I personally couldn’t think of a better way to say goodbye to my thirties and join the big 4-0 club, in the ocean with such beautiful creatures complete with calves! â™Ș