VIDEO| Underrated attractions in Japan that are less crowded

Photos by Erica Earl
Photos by Erica Earl

VIDEO| Underrated attractions in Japan that are less crowded

by Erica Earl
Stars and Stripes

I am a bit of a cynic and a self-declared “travel snob.” As I write this, I’m worried that people may find me a pessimist or think that I don’t like Japan. But the truth is I am writing this story because I love Japan, and I want you to genuinely enjoy it too.

Here are my honest reviews of Japan’s top-rated attractions that appear on just about every list searchable on Google, and some suggestions that may not be as obvious to new arrivals.


Don’t: Fuji-Q Highland

What you expect: A mecca of Japanese thrill rides

What you get: A lot of waiting in line, rides closing before you get the chance to wait in line for them, a possibly broken neck

Fuji-Q Highland, a theme park uniquely located at the base of Mt. Fuji, is known primarily for two things, it’s views of the revered mountain and its record-breaking thrill rides.

The amusement park is home to the Guinness Book of World Record’s steepest roller coaster, Takabisha, a ride that somehow manages a 121-degree drop. It also is home to Fujiyama, a ride that used to be a  record holder for tallest coaster at 259 feet high.

But despite these thrills, Fuji-Q fails to impress as a high-quality theme park. For starters, lines can exceed a whopping four hours per ride, making it impossible for guests to visit every attraction within the park’s operating hours of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Somehow, even the lack of international tourists, which has favorably impacted crowds at many touristy places, does nothing to reduce these lines. Visitors can purchase express line passes, dubbed “screaming priority tickets” for around 2,000 Yen ($17) per ride, on top of fees for tickets that allow access to attractions, so this can get both costly and confusing very quickly.

The rides at the park also operate on an unusual timetable. I have been to the park twice and have never seen every attraction open for the day. Fuji-Q will also only run some of its most popular rides until 2 p.m. and cut off the queues around noon, despite the park being open until 5 p.m.

Recently, the park also had to indefinitely close one roller coaster last year, a launch coaster called ”Do-Dodonpa,” for a federal investigation after riders reported injuries stemming from the ride.


Do: Universal Studios Japan

At first glance, a day trip to Fuji-Q Highland may seem cheaper for those stationed in the Kanto Plain. But by the time you factor in costs of parking, tolls, an all-access ride pass and “screaming priority” tickets to skip the three-to-four-hour wait times, you might as well put that money toward a more memorable time at Universal Studios Japan.

Located near buzzy Osaka, Universal Studios Japan is an homage to cinema, much of the attractions at Universal Studios Japan are themed after moviemaking, as are its sister parks in the U.S.

Universal Studios Japan is the only park so far to have the Mario Bros.-themed Super Nintendo World, a crown jewel of sorts for the already exciting theme park. Unlike Fuji-Q Highland, Universal Studios has atmospheric, definitively themed areas. The park sections, which include Harry Potter and Jurassic Park lands, are as aesthetically enjoyable as the rides and shows.

 A one-day ticket costs 8,400 yen ($72) for adults and 5,400 yen ($46) for children under the age of 11, although ticket prices are subject to change.

When I visited last September, reservations could not yet be made online, but it appears now that you can purchase tickets directly from the park’s website. However, tickets are limited, and blackout dates apply to comply with the coronavirus pandemic safety conditions.


Don’t: Feed the deer at Nara Park

What you expect: A magical, ethereal Disney princess moment

What you get: Fear as deer chase you through the park, deer bites, trauma

Instagram is what brought me to Nara Park in Nara Prefecture. The region is famous for this park not only for the stunning architecture, but also for the hundreds of free-roaming deer that guests can pay to feed. Scrolling through images of impeccably dressed people trapesing around a park trailed by deer, petting their heads and bopping their noses like influencer versions Snow White led me to believe that I, too, could be a maiden of the forest.

If you believed everything you saw on my own Instagram account, you would believe that I had a breezy, peaceful experience with these deer, the epitome of innocence and sweetness. But a curated social media feed can tell great lies, my friends.

These deer are brazen, especially after going long hiatuses without a steady stream of tourists to feed them. As I fed them rice cakes I purchased from a street vendor—all of which are unaffiliated with Nara Park, by the way—I realized in a sudden moment of panic and horror that the deer noticed that I did not have enough for everyone, and they retaliated. I could only flee for so long, because they are fast creatures, before I was nudged and nearly knocked over for more food. One deer bit me on my backside, and as hilarious as that sounds, it was terrifying!

My friends are truly talented photographers for being able to capture the very few moments of cute and calm interactions with the deer before the chaos ensued. It is not the animals’ fault, as they are used to being fed and now almost depend on the dwindling number of visitors for sustenance, which is enough to make you sad in its own right. But I cannot help but look back on that moment with fear rather than delight. 


Do: Todai-ji Temple

Photo by 123RF

If planning a trip to Nara, skirt past the deer at Nara Park and prioritize seeing the Todai-ji Temple instead, a temple complex also located within the park.

Todai-ji is home to the Great Buddha Hall and Great Buddha statue. The hall has an unusual attraction, a pillar with a hole cut in it said to be the same size as the statue’s nostril. If guests can squeeze their way through it, they are granted health and good luck.

The pillar usually draws a line of people willing to test their flexibility and challenge their claustrophobia by squeezing through. Not many foreign tourists know about this, and it’s a cultural experience that makes for good photos, videos and memories.


Don’t: Animal Cafes

Photo by 123RF

What you expect: Cute cuddly time with adorable animals while eating good food

What you get: Questionable ethics, mediocre coffee

It can be tempting to want to cuddle a hedgehog or stare into the massive eyes of an owl while enjoying hors d’oeuvres and desserts. But the truth is your time with the animals is extremely limited, you spend the majority of time taking turns to interact with them, and the animals sometimes act nervous or skittish when sharing a room with you and dozens of other guests. It’s also difficult as a visitor to verify the welfare of the animals, their treatment after closing time and exactly how the café came into possession of these animals. Some Tokyo animal cafes have snakes, meerkats, monkeys and other exotics. They’re cute, but it’s hard not to feel a twinge of guilt. It feels a little strange to sip a latte next to an owl that has a chain around its ankle, as was the case at an animal café I visited in Shizuoka. 

The food at these places also tends to be mediocre, mostly overpriced coffee and dry pastries.


Do: Quirky themed cafes

If you want an “only in Japan” type of dining experiences, there are plenty of choices that don’t involve live animals, and better than the overrated and now-closed Robot Café.

From Ninjas to vampires, there are plenty of fun places to enjoy.

Some of my favorites include Alice in Storybook and Alice in Labyrinth, both themed after Alice in Wonderland, the witchcraft-themed Chamber of Raven, a cake-go-around café called Maison Abel Café Ron Ron that gives serious Marie Antoinette vibes, and Reissue, a Harajuku coffee shop that can make some seriously impressive 3D and 2D latte art at the costumer’s request.

There is also Dawn Avatar, a café staffed almost entirely by robots run by people with disabilities. 


Don’t: TeamLab

What you expect: A breathtaking digital exhibit where you can get gorgeous photos

What you get: A lot of waiting around for your photo op, being rushed through rooms, still some great photos though

TeamLab is known for its immersive digital arts exhibits, and photos in front of neon-glowing floating lanterns have become almost a rite of passage for visiting Japan. The Borderless exhibit in Odaiba will close this August to relocate in the city center. TeamLab Planets, the better of the two in my opinion, remains open.

Unlike some other attractions on this list, I am not suggesting skipping TeamLab altogether. I think it is worth a visit, especially Planets, where guests wander through barefoot, including a gorgeous and relaxing water room. But there is some need for expectation management. The most popular rooms, such as the flower room in Planets and the floating lantern room in Borderless, have time limits, which is basically enough to just take a few photos before it’s time to leave. There are also usually lines for the most popular rooms.  

I would recommend going on a weekday and arriving early. At Borderless, hit up the lantern and floating nest rooms first, as they are the ones that garner the largest wait times.


Do: Rotating art exhibits

Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower and Mori Art Museum regularly have interesting, limited-run art exhibits that oft get overlooked by foreigners. There are also annual art conventions such as Design Festa, scheduled for this May. The fall Design Festa included rooftop vendors, a floor of glow-in-the-dark installations, steampunk exhibits and dance performances. Past art shows have included displays of creations inspired by Demon Slayer and Sanrio.

The Koen-dori Gallery in Shibuya is hosting an adorable temporary exhibit until April 10 called Museum of Mom’s Art featuring works from mothers across Japan, from amateur hobbyists to seasoned artists.  

If you want something that more closely resembles TeamLab without the crowds, the Kadokawa Musashino Museum in Saitama has a 360-degree digital art exhibit until April 10. The art is on loan from Paris’ Danny Rose Studio and is themed around the influence of Japanese culture on European art.


Don’t: GoKarting

What you expect: Zipping around the streets of Tokyo wearing a fun costume

What you get: A lot of waiting around in Tokyo traffic, frustrating the locals

Go-Karting in Nintendo-inspired outfits tops almost every “Crazy Things to Do in Tokyo” type of listicles on the internet. Many of these businesses have either closed because of the lack of tourists, or no longer offer Super Mario costumes because of licensing issues.

I went go-karting last October at MonkeyKart, a Shinjuku shop that has remained open and offers rides through Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku. My friends and I donned Disney-themed onesies (I chose a Little Green Man costume from Toy Story) and hit the streets with our guide after a blink-and-you-miss-it brief on how to operate the go karts and motor scooters.

It was still fun, but we spent a relatively short portion of the tour going fast. Most of our time was spent in traffic, getting in the way and getting honked at.



If you want a video game-inspired day of action, consider Odaiba instead. Odaiba is considered Tokyo’s entertainment capitol and is filled with shopping malls, indoor amusement parks and entertainment centers.

Joypolis is an indoor theme park that contains several virtual reality attractions. Tyffonium is another virtual reality center that includes fully immersive, scenario-based experiences, from horror themed to family-friendly. Tyffonium is located inside the Divers City mall, a shopping complex marked by the massive unicorn Gundam outside it.


Don’t: Nikko

Photo by 123RF

What you expect: Temples and shrines shrouded in tranquility and mystery

What you get: Temples and shrines shrouded in crowds

This is another location on this list that involved expectation management rather than completely avoiding. Nikko is home to the Toshogu Shrine, which includes the Three Wise Monkeys carving (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil).

Nikko is also famed for its stunning display of autumn leaves. The coronavirus pandemic has alleviated crowds slightly, but it is still a popular destination. Be prepared to wait in lines and to not have any part of the shrines to yourself. The 3 Wise Monkeys carving is also much like the Mona Lisa, much smaller than most expect.


Do: Kamakura or Nagatoro

If you want to see impressive shrines and nature, I recommend a trip to Kamakura or Nagatoro. During the summertime, Kamakura is one of the best places in Japan to see hydrangeas. It also offers close access to beaches and an impressive Buddha statue. There is also the stunning Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine.

Nagatoro is a great alternative to Nikko for autumn leaves viewing, as well as cherry blossoms in the spring. Visitors can take a longboat ride down a swift river under the blossoming trees for a bit of a thrill with beautiful scenery mixed in. There is also a charming shopping street with galleries, cafes and street food. The Hodosan Shrine also closely mimics the one in Nikko, minus the famous monkey carving.

There is almost an endless supply of things to do in Japan. No matter how long your stay here is, even if it’s years, there is enough to keep you busy every weekend and still leave feeling like you might have missed some things. If you still want to see some of the touristy places for yourself, go for it without judgment and you will still have fun. But don’t hesitate to also explore off the beaten path and take full advantage of being in such a unique country.


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