It's tough for first-time visitors to choose what to do in Japan - there's so much to choose from. As one of the most interesting countries on the planet it's not just the things to do in Japan that are fascinating, it's also the people. The Japanese are determined folks and live in closely-knit families. They are staunch believers of family bonding and are really friendly in nature. Every year, the country welcomes around 6-10 million tourists from across the globe, many of those on gap years. We've outlined a few of our favourite hotspots in Japan at gapyear.com, but if you have any more just let us know @gapyeardotcom on Twitter.
Unquestionably the highest natural landmark of the country, Mount Fuji always attracts the eyes of the travel enthusiast. The beautiful peak can be photographed from different angles and has been climbed by millions of trekkers. Visibility of Mount Fuji attains the maximum level during winter months when the peak looks saintly in white. No surprise that it's considered a holy peak by many, with quite a collection of shrines positioned just at the crater rim. The famous hiking routes helping trekkers reach the peak are Fujinomiya, Gotemba and Kawaguchiko.
Known as the 'White Heron Castle' the Himeji Castle is one of the most popular edifices surviving in its original form. It's adorned by cherry and pine trees and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The original part of the castle dates back to 1333-1346.
Often called the Golden Pavillion, the Kinkaku-ji is one of the most visited sites of Japan. Surrounded by lavish ponds and plush pine trees, the temple of the Golden Pavilion is associated with Zen Buddhism. The place which is reigning over the heart of millions of Japanese also draws attention of the average traveler who is always ready with the camera to capture the picturesque scenes surrounding the site. So, while you consider these few places to visit in Japan, make sure that you explore the enormous web resource to grip hold of the whereabouts.
Anyone who's read Memoirs of a Geisha will be interested in checking out the goings on in the Gion District. If you haven't read it soak up the atmosphere and try to catch a glimpse of them through the windows of the old teahouses lining the river.
It's also a great spot for picking up some souvenirs for the folks back home - used kimonos sell for as little as 1000 yen, and there are plenty of antiques and other crafts on offer, as well as numerous food stalls.
If you have any slight understanding of history you'll have heard of Hiroshima - thanks to the devastating nuclear bomb that was dropped here in 1945 killing more than 150,000 people. It's a site that's now become popular with death tourists who flock here to remember the horrific event. There's now a Peace Memorial Museum where you'll find a fair few disturbing exhibits, in particular the tattered school uniform of children who died in the blast
Although Hiroshima is now synonymous with the atomic bombing, it's also a thriving modern city. Whilst you're here it’s worth sampling Hiroshima’s version of okonomiyaki, a famous pancake-like dish served across Japan, but in Hiroshima given the added twist of noodles. Most visitors also head to the nearby island of Miyajima - you may be familiar with the image of the famous red torii (shrine gates) which at high tide appear to be floating in the sea. Miyajima is a good day trip, with a number of temples, some decent walks, and lots of tame deer wandering around hoping to be fed.
The Tohoku region is in the northeast of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. It consists of six prefectures: Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata and Fukushima. Most travellers tend to overlook Tohoku in favour of more famous sights further south, which is a real shame because this area has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty and the chance to experience a slower and more traditional side to life in Japan. If you head to Tohoku during the summer, you’ll be able to catch some of its most important matsuri: the famous Nebuta festival in Aomori consists of a procession of large coloured floats lit from within by hundreds of bulbs; Sendai's Tanabata festival is symbolised by beautiful paper decorations strung from bamboo poles; and the world's largest drum parade can be seen at Iwate's Sansa Odori.
In Aomori prefecture there are the Hakkoda mountains, a volcanic range popular with hikers in the summer and skiers in the winter, who come for its thick powder. More remote is Mount Osore, or 'Fear Mountain', said to mark the entrance to hell: it's hardly surprising that it got this name, with a volcanic landscape and bubbling sulphurous pools. Psychics claim to be able to summon the souls of the dead during a five day festival held from mid-July. Aomori is a destination that really requires a car in order to appreciate it fully - there are plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten track here.
Visiting an onsen is one of the top pastimes for many Japanese, and something that every visitor should experience. Onsen translates as 'hot spring', and you can find them all over the country. They come in many shapes and sizes, from modern spa-like facilities with a variety of different baths to choose from, to natural sulphurous pools bubbling up among the rocks on the side of a mountain. Bathing in an onsen is a very relaxing way to pass a couple of hours.
However, please take note: in the majority of onsen, you're required to bathe naked. Yes, you did read that correctly. This is obviously a bit off-putting for a lot of people, but the majority of onsen are single sex. There are some mixed sex baths, but they are few and far between, and generally require some sort of bathing attire (whether this is to be considered a plus or a minus is up to you!). There is a bit of etiquette involved in using an onsen, but as long as you stick to a few rules, you can’t go wrong.
Be warned, some can be seriously hot and it can be a bit of a shock if you're not expecting it - always dip your foot in first before submerging the rest of your body!
Once in the water, you can stay for as long as you like, although you might become a bit light-headed, in which case get out for a while and sit on the side. You can also become dehydrated if you are in for a long time; some more modern onsen will provide drinking fountains, but it’s always sensible to take a bottle of water with you and leave it in the changing area.
Once you've been to your first, you'll probably begin understand why so many Japanese love them, and you may even spend the rest of your trip searching for good onsen rather than sightseeing!