The Shinkansen Bullet train flies past Mt. Fuji.

Japan is a mystical country unlike any other destination in Asia.The island chain, which extends almost 2,000 miles, is full of surprises, from exotic foods to a sense of style that far surpasses its neighbors. It could take a lifetime to discover all this wondrous country has to offer, so where do you go on your first visit? 

Below, what you must experience when visiting Japan.

Shinkansen Bullet Train

As soon as I saw this train, I immediately fell in love with its futuristic retro shape and cool design. At speeds of over 200 mph, the Shinkansen whisks you across the country, nearly as fast as taking a flight. It’s ridiculously comfortable and you can leave your tray table down as long as you want—plug in your computer, drink sake—or take a nap.

With the Japan rail pass, you can ride almost anywhere in the country with the Shinkansen and other JR trains. This magical pass costs about $250 for seven days, but can pay for itself on your first trip. It can only be purchased by non-Japanese residents outside Japan. It is the best travel investment you can make if you want to visit other parts of Japan besides Tokyo.

A visit to Steakland in Kobe.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Kobe Beef 

What’s cooler than eating Japanese teppanyaki? Eating the best steak in the world in the town it comes from. Most carnivores agree that Kobe is the beef by which all others are judged. Kobe is a special breed of prized Wagyu cattle that comes from the town bearing its name. Since only 3,000 head of cattle are certified as Kobe every year, a steak can be very expensive. The good news is that the closer you are to the source, the better the price. A lot of restaurants in Kobe offer a chance to sample this melt-in-your-mouth experience for much less than you’d pay at home. Plus, you get bragging rights. Try Steakland near the train station for a high-quality steak that won’t break the bank. The lunch menu is an even better deal.

Karaoke  

Karaoke in Japan is nothing like a sing-along night at an American bar. First, you don’t have to listen to bad singing from people you don’t know;  you rent a private room and listen to bad singing from people you do know. Your space is rented by the hour and comes with a sound system, video screens, and little hi-tech tablets that allow you to queue up your favorite songs if you can figure out how to use them. Waiters are on hand to keep your drinks flowing and help you navigate the controls. We rented the actual room that was used as a filming location in the movie Lost in Translation.  We even brought in our friends on Facebook Live to share in the fun—Japan has a great phone network, so streaming live video is a breeze. Singing Elvis Costello was not quite as easy.

The Itsukushima Shrine

Hiroshima

When the Japanese refused to surrender to the Allies during World War II in 1945, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city and then a second one on nearby Nagasaki. The results were terrifying—buildings and people were vaporized;  the blast and its aftermath killed upwards of 225,000 civilians. In spite of these horrific events, Hiroshima today is a lovely city with great parks and museums—the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum are a sobering experience—a vibrant culture and an easy-to-get-around tourist bus that is included with your JR Pass. The beautiful Itsukushima Shrine is a UNESCO world heritage site and is only one of the many places to see in this lovely town. 

Mount Fuji

Imagine the perfect image of a postcard mountain. It’s actually volcanic in origin and on a clear day can be seen on the train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto. For a closer look, take a bus to Fujikawaguchiko from Shinjuku and join a tour, rent a bike, get a paddle boat or go skiing. Three ski resorts offer access to the world’s most famous mountains. If you miss the winter season, there’s still plenty of places to snap the perfect photo: visit an ice cave, explore the five pristine lakes in the area, or take the aerial tram across from Lake Kawaguchiko and then follow the steps to the top of the building for even more amazing views of Mount Fuji.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Kyoto 

Known for its numerous temples, the huge city of Kyoto can be a little intimidating to navigate, so investing in a one-day bus pass ($6) can be very helpful getting you around to the main sites. There are 17 UNESCO sites in Kyoto, and it’s unlikely you’ll have time to see them all—best to decide which ones are the most important to you and plot a route that minimizes backtracking. Kyoto is also known for its development of amazing gardens that have significantly influenced landscaping throughout the world.

Sakura

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Sakura

The blooming of the cherry blossom trees in Japan is a major celebration of life, and spring is one of the most beautiful times of the year to visit the country. For two to three weeks, the buds burst like popcorn into beautiful flowers in all shades of colors from pure white to flamingo pink. The Tokyo area blooms around the first of April. The Sakura occurs earlier in the south than the north, so if you barely missed the season, chances are you can still catch it a bit further north. The weather bureau also releases estimates each year for the best viewing dates, especially important to people planning Hanami, the tradition of getting a group together and celebrating the blossoms on a big picnic blanket with food and drinks. During the season you can also find cherry blossom ice cream.

Themed Restaurants

The Japanese love to commit to themed restaurants that probably wouldn’t make it in a lot of other places. Whatever you’re into, there’s a good chance someone is serving food in the setting you imagined. Animal restaurants allow you to eat a meal with cats, dogs, goats, owls or even hedgehogs. Maid restaurants feature young uniformed waitresses singing and serving hamburgers decorated like teddy bears in a room that looks like a Hello Kitty movie set. Have you been missing prison? There’s a restaurant that serves you your meal behind bars. There’s even ninja and sumo-themed restaurants.

Perhaps the most well known of all the themed restaurants is Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. Words can’t really describe this “dinner theater” (it’s really just drinks and snacks) that offers all the weirdness you can handle. LED-decorated vehicles weave between the audience. The monster and robot costumes, dancers, stunts, lights, and fog look like they’re borrowed from Power Rangers and every Japanese science fiction movie from the '60s. The plot? I’m pretty sure that no one knows what any of it means, but you’ve never seen anything quite like it.

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