For a guy who has spent the better part of the last decade living in Asia, it seems practically criminal that my sole exploration of Japan has been a two-day visa run to Fukuoka back in 2008.
How is it that I have lived so close to a country that has fascinated me since my childhood and never made the trip across?
I have no good excuses.
Japan is obviously a more expensive destination than Thailand or the Philippines or even South Korea, but it’s not like I haven’t managed to make Dubai, The Maldives, and the UK happen in that time.
Suffice to say, when I do tackle Japan, I want to tackle it right.
And that’s where this ultimate Japan bucket list comes into play.
The Ultimate Japan Bucket List: 50 Things to do in Japan
When I started putting my Japan bucket list together, I figured it would be hard to fill the list.
I had trouble filling my China bucket list, so why wouldn’t a much smaller country be a more challenging prospect?
It proved to be quite the opposite, and I’ve had a hell of a time narrowing it down to just fifty things to do in Japan.
I’m sure I’ve left some off and I’m sure I’ve included some you wouldn’t consider worthwhile, so let me have it in the comments!
The below are the things I think should most prominently leap to your mind when you’re considering a trip to Japan.
Some of these are landmarks or historic sites, while others are cultural experiences that I think are central to a true Japanese experience.
But then again, what do I know?
I’ve only ever been to Fukuoka.
#1 – Arishiyama Bamboo Forest
The towering bamboo stalks of Kyoto’s Arishiyama transport visitors to another world altogether. Japan’s rich cultural history with bamboo is easy to understand as you stand amidst its enduring beauty.
It’s easy to forget you’re at the heart of one of Japan’s busiest cities as you wander the serene forest of gently swaying green giants, but that’s all a part of what makes Japan’s gardens and shrines so fascinating.
Whether you take your time wandering through the groves, rent a bike and whizz through with the wind in your hair, or ride the romantic Sagano Train, a visit to Arishiyama is bound to be one of the more enduring memories of your time in Japan.
#2 – Eat ramen at the Ramen Museum
Ramen is right up there alongside sushi when it comes to iconic Japanese foods, but the popular convenience store snack is far more than just broth and noodles.
While you can sample the flavourful noodle dish virtually everywhere in Japan, why not indulge your taste buds while also learning about the huge variety of flavours and styles that exist?
The Shinyokohama Ramen Museum is more nostalgic food court than a true museum, but your stomach is going to thank you for the experience.
#3 – Ride the Shinkansen bullet train
Japan’s rail network is famous around the world for its speed and efficiency and has acted as the blueprint for similar high-speed rail systems in neighbouring China and South Korea.
Stretching from northern Hokkaido to southern Kyushu, the 320km an hour Shinkansen is considered one of the safest and most efficient ways of getting around the country.
While it’s just a means of getting from Point A to Point B, the affordability of the Japan Rail Pass and the experience of hurtling through the idyllic Japanese countryside make it a must see on your trip.
#4 – Eat sushi and sashimi at the Tsukiji Fish Market
You knew that sushi and sashimi were going to make an appearance on this list.
Japan’s most beloved contribution to international cuisine is more than just rice and raw fish, and if you’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you know that it can be a way of life to some.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Japan without sampling its signature delicacy, so why not combine that experience with a visit to the bustling Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo?
Choosing where to eat sushi in Tsukiji can be a daunting prospect, but wandering the world’s largest seafood market is an experience all of its own.
#5 – Rock out all night in a karaoke bar
We could debate until the cows come home whether Korean noraebang, Japanese karaoke, or Chinese KTV came first – but let’s just agree that the phenomenon is most closely associated with Japan.
You’re not likely to have any trouble finding a karaoke joint at the end of a night’s dining and drinking, with both private ‘karaoke boxes’ and boozy live karaoke joints both available.
Most karaoke joints will have a selection of English songs to choose from, and many also serve food and drinks.
We won’t speak of the shady kind that serves other things…
Want to know more? Check out this awesome guide to karaoke in Japan.
#6 – Attend a sumo bout
Sumo is one of the unique athletic pursuits in Japan, and a well-timed visit to Japan can coincide with one of the six annual fifteen-day sumo tournaments that take place.
These tournaments take place in Tokyo (January, May, and September), Osaka (March), Nagoya (July), and Fukuoka (November), and tickets are sold on a per-day basis.
Seeing Sumo Year Round
If you aren’t in Japan for one of the tournaments, you can check the official sumo calendar for exhibitions or pay a visit to a sumo stable, where aspiring sumo train.
Learn more about seeing sumo in Japan.
#7 – Wander Fushimi Inari
There is no end to the beautiful and serene shrines in Japan, but few are quite as photogenic and engaging as Fushimi Inari in Kyoto.
Famed for its lengthy tunnel of brightly coloured torii gates, Fushimi Inari is one of the nation’s most popular shrines.
In addition to its instantly recognisable torii, the shrine is also home to a number of other graveyards, statuaries, and shrines.
#8 – Go skiing
Skiing in Japan has become one of the most popular pastimes for people residing in Asia and Australia, with more than 500 ski resorts scattered across the country’s mountains and valleys.
#9 – See the Macaque snow monkeys in Jigokudani National Park
If you’ve ever been on social media, chances are that you’ve seen an adorable photo of a family of snow monkeys just chilling out in a steaming hot spring.
The Japanese Macaque is the most northern-dwelling (non-human) primate in the world and makes its home in temperatures as low as -15C.
Visitors flock to Jigokudani National Park for their chance to observe and photograph these unique primates, with the best time to see them coming during the winter months when the hot spring is surrounded by snow.
Check out this guide to seeing the snow monkeys for more info.
#10 – Climb Mt. Fuji
Snow-capped Mount Fuji is one of the most enduring images of Japan, and no visit to the Land of the Rising Sun would be complete without witnessing the majesty of Fujisan at sunrise or sunset.
While it’s all well and good to snap a few pictures of the mountain from afar, for a truly Japanese experience, climbing to the top of the 3,776m high mountain is likely to be a memory you’ll cherish for the rest of your life.
How to Climb Mount Fuji
The mountain itself is not considered a difficult mountain to climb, although there are some steep portions and the risk of altitude sickness to contend with. During the official climbing season (July to September), you’ll have to contend with crowds looking for their own dawn summit.
Many climbers will hike about halfway on the first day, overnight in one of the huts on the mountain, and then time their ascent to coincide with the glorious sunrise.
Learn more about how to climb Mt. Fuji.
#11 – Visit the Imperial Palace in Tokyo
A visit to the seat of Japanese Imperial power is a must for an interest in the nation’s history.
While the original palace was destroyed during World War II, the current incarnation is a faithful recreation that is still home to the reigning Japanese Emperor.
While the Emperor’s role is ceremonial these days, the chance to wander the palace grounds and gardens is of obvious appeal. If you time your visit to coincide with New Year’s (January 2nd) or the Emperor’s Birthday (December 23rd), you can even gain access to the inner palace grounds where the Imperial family live.
#11b – Visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace
If you want to complete your palace collection, you can also visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which acted as the residence of the Emperor until the capital was relocated in 1868.
#12 – See the cherry (and plum) blossoms in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Like Mount Fuji, the humble cherry blossom has become a symbol of Japan.
Images of the pink-white blossoms gently drifting on the spring breeze and decorating the roads are highly sought after, and there are entire sites dedicated to discussing the best places to see cherry blossoms in Japan.
The Best Place to See Cherry Blossoms
Tokyo’s Shinjuku Gyeon National Garden is considered the absolute best, both due to its accessibility and its manicured gardens.
The Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, Kema Sakuranomiya Park in Osaka, Mount Yoshinoyama in Yoshino, Osaka Castle, Himeji Castle, Hanamiyama Park in Fukuoka, and Hirosaki Castle in Tohuku are other great options.
Plum Blossoms > Cherry Blossoms?
One of my readers, Rohan has asserted that plum blossom season is every bit as appealing as cherry blossom season.
Blooming from February until March, these more brightly colored blossoms are an attraction all of their own.
Check out where to see plum blossoms in Tokyo.
#13 – Get lost in Akihabara
Whether you’re looking to buy the latest gadgets or you’re wanting to indulge your anime or manga fandom, the neon lights and bustling crowds of Tokyo’s Akihabara district are likely to be of appeal to you.
Japan’s status as a tech giant and as the birthplace of manga are combined into one dizzying, exhausting orgy of consumption that needs to be experienced to be fully comprehended.
Akihabara is also (in)famous for its maid cafes, in which customers are waited upon hand and foot by giggling girls in maid’s outfits. There are also butler cafes for the ladies.
Given the dubious nature of both the clientele and the underbelly of maid cafes, it’s something best avoided.
For a less perverted experience, you can also drop by a Manga Kissa (Manga Cafe) where you can read manga, watch anime, surf the internet, or even spend the night.
While you’re not likely to find any English manga to read, the experience is one you’ll likely not forget.
Read more about manga kissa.
#14 – Visit the Robot Restaurant
You can keep your Michelin stars and your fancy banquets – Tokyo’s famous Robot Restaurant is my ‘must see’ dining experience in Japan.
Nothing epitomises the zany madness of modern Japan quite like this odd combination of dinner theatre, science fiction, and vaguely sexual performance.
While the food isn’t much to write home about, but words can’t quite describe just how weird the Robot Restaurant is.
#15 – People watch at Shibuya Crossing
Bright lights, deafening noise, seething crowds… it hardly sounds like an experience you’d go out of your way to have.
But to many, being jostled at Shibuya Crossing is the quintessential Japanese experience.
Much like Times Square in New York, Shibuya is a pedestrian area that has taken on a life of its own over the years. It’s been immortalized in film to the point that tourists come here simply to say they’ve crossed the busy intersection and taken in the sights and sounds.
For an avid people watcher, staking out a seat in the nearby Starbucks and taking in all of the action is a must.
#16 – Sleep in a capsule hotel
They might not be the most glamorous option and they’re certainly not going to be the most spacious, but Japan’s capsule hotels are such a fascinating glimpse into a kind of high-tech dystopian future where space is at a premium and we’re all packed in tighter than sardines.
That isn’t to say that contemporary capsule hotels are dystopian or even uncomfortable. Many boast capsules (or pods) that have creature features such as flat screen TVs, on-site spas, charging docks, libraries, etc.
They aren’t going to be the best stay of your trip, but it’s an experience that is pretty uniquely Japanese.
It’s worth noting that many capsule hotels are male only, so do your research if you’re a travelling couple or a solo female traveller!
#17 – Attend a Kabuki Show
With extravagant costumes, over-exaggerated acting, and elaborate sets, Japanese kabuki theatre is a hugely popular form of traditional art that stretches back to the Edo Period.
While it started as an all-female art form, modern Kabuki is performed solely by men – in much the same way as traditional Shakespeare featured all male casts with men who specialised in playing the female love interests.
With the stories often derived from Japanese history or mythology, attending a kabuki performance can be a valuable insight into Japan as it was before its rapid modernization.
#18 – Go crazy at Harajuku
If Akihabara is representative of Japan’s modern technoculture, Harajuku is representative of its youth. Those headed to the Harajuku Station area are inevitably drawn to Takeshita Dori and its surrounds, where boutiques, shops, fast food joints, and more vie for the attention of fickle teens.
Its in the Harajuku area that some of Japan’s most iconic youth fashion movements have their origins and people watchers are likely to spot everything from rockabilly-loving hipsters to wildly inappropriate cosplayers on a Sunday when school is out.
In addition to its obvious attraction as something of a human circus, Takeshita Dori and nearby Omotesando are a great place to do a little shopping. You’ll find everything from vintage clothes to noise-making toys to the latest in high fashion in the area.
#19 – Visit Himeji Castle
With its distinct white appearance, Himeji Castle is one of Japan’s ‘twelve original castles’ that has never fallen victim to natural disasters or war. Sometimes known as White Heron Castle, Himeji is one of Japan’s most beautiful examples of the architectural style.
Himeji’s history stretches back more than 500 years to the 1400s when it was a strategic fortress to guard the route to the then capital, Kyoto. The castle as it stands today is a classic example of the 1700s style.
While Himeji-Jo is especially spectacular when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, it is nonetheless worth a visit regardless of the time of year you’re visiting.
#20 – Spot a Geisha in the streets
Alongside the regal Samurai, the serene beauty of Japan’s Geishas is among the nation’s most enduring images.
For those wishing to catch a glimpse of the few remaining true Geisha in modern Japan, Kyoto’s Gion district is where you’ll want to be. Even if you’re extremely patient, however, there is no guarantee you’ll see what you came for.
With Geisha becoming less common as Japan modernises and their services being in high demand by exclusive clientele, a geisha out and about is a rarity indeed.
My friend, Becki from Borders of Adventure has a great piece on her experience spotting Geisha in Kyoto.
#21 – Wander the woods of Meiji Shrine
Located a short walk from the hustle and bustle of Harajuku, Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine is an island of calm at the heart of one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
Upon entering through the shrine’s distinctive torii gate, you’re transported into the heart of a serene forest as more than 100,000 trees work together to drown out the noise of the city.
While the shrine itself is just under 100 years old, Meiji Shrine is arguably the country’s most well-known and popular shrine, with more than 3 million people visiting to pay their respects over the New Year alone.
Whether you come to escape the noise, appreciate the history, indulge in a moment’s quiet prayer, or to spot locals in traditional attire, Meiji Shrine is likely to be a balm for the soul and for the sanity after the delightful madness of modern Japan.
The Off the Beaten Path
If you’re looking for something that isn’t on every single tourist itinerary, below you’ll find a number of suggestions that range from semi-obvious to a little quirky.
There’s a motley mix of cultural experiences, beautiful landscapes, and wildlife experiences.
#22 – Get Lost in Translation at the Park Hyatt Tokyo
Made famous by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannsen’s unlikely pseudo-romance in Lost in Translation, the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s New York Bar has become a popular stop for those whose love affair with Japan started with Sofia Coppola’s Academy Award nominated film.
For those wanting to have their own Santori time, New York Bar in the Park Hyatt has the drinks and it has the live music.
All you need is your own Scarlett Johannsen.
#23 – Wander Naoshima Art Island
Sandy beaches, sunny weather, a laid-back atmosphere, and an abundance of modern art make Naoshima something of a must for those wanting a different Japanese experience.
The entire island is like a massive outdoor art exhibit, and art-minded tourists from across the world make the pilgrimage to the island for their chance to wander amongst the installations and be soothed by the peaceful island atmosphere.
In addition to the various open-air exhibitions, you’ll also find four art museum on the island with works from the likes of Monet, Warhol, Turrell, and more. With the museums themselves being works of architectural art, it’s certainly a feast for the eyes.
Food and accommodation are available on the island, and there’s also a decent beach for those wanting a break from intellectual stimulation.
Check out Wikitravel’s page on Naoshima for a more comprehensive overview.
#24 – Overnight at a Buddhist retreat on Mount Koya
Known locally as shukubo, temple stays are a way for petitioners to extend their time at holy sites and to experience the Spartan accommodations and austere lifestyles of the monks who tend the grounds and temples.
While not every Buddhist temple offers the service, many of the more popular temples around Tokyo and Kyoto offer the option. Mount Koya is an especially good location for those wanting to spend a night or more living in another time, with more than 50 shukubo on offer and some even boasting English-speaking monks and Booking.com pages!
For those wanting to sleep on traditional tatami floors, experience the warmth of kotatsu floors, and eat delicious vegetarian food, it’s a fantastic experience. The opportunity to live (almost) like a month and to have a higher degree of access
The opportunity to live (almost) like a monk and to have a higher degree of access to the temple and its grounds is also a big selling point. Guests are able to wander the grounds when the tourist crowds have departed, participate in morning prayers, and (in certain shukubo) participate in monk-led activities such as meditation or the copying of sutras.
Intrigued? Chasing the Unknown shares her experience staying in a Koyosan Temple Stay.
#25 – Pay your respects at Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Some may call it dark tourism, but making the pilgrimage to sites of unspeakable atrocities can be an important part of learning from the mistakes of the past so that they cannot be made in future.
The twin atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the deaths of between 129,000 and 226,000 people, and while some may still debate whether or not the bombings were justified, it is a catastrophic loss of life that many choose to acknowledge by visiting one or both of the affected cities.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park today stands as a tribute to not only those who lost their lives, but as a testament to the hope that such action will never again be necessary. Visitors can wander the quiet parklands, visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and see the A-Bomb Dome – the closest structure to the detonation that survived.
The Nagasaki Peace Park offers a similar experience, although it is not quite as extensive.
#26 – Scuba Dive on Okinawa
Students of military history may have their own reasons for wanting to visit the site of one of World War II’s bloodiest battles. More than 200,000 people died in the fighting that ultimately saw the US seize the island from Japanese soldiers, and this was most recently immortalised in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.
There are a number of parks and war memorials on Okinawa dedicated to those who lost their lives on both sides of the fighting.
Scuba Diving Okinawa
For those with the scuba bug, the Okinawa island chain offers some truly world-class scuba diving sites. Boasting a huge diversity of landscapes and difficulty levels, the chain is hugely popular with divers.
With waters like you’d expect to find in Southeast Asia, Okinawa’s dive sites range from shore dives to shallow reefs to drop-offs to submerged monuments, Okinawa and surrounding islands such as Yonagunijima and Ishigakikima are a diver’s paradise with plenty to keep even the most experienced diver occupied.
Read more about Okinawa’s dive sites.
#27 – See the Sika Deer in Nara Park
Alongside the snow monkeys mentioned earlier, Japan’s deer are one of the most recognisable symbols of the country. With Shinto Buddhism considering deer to be messengers of the gods, the animals enjoy special treatment as they roam freely through Nara Park in (you guessed it) Nara.
There is far more to Nara than just paying a few yen to feed the city’s iconic deer population, however. Described as “second only to Kyoto as the richest collection of traditional sites in Japan” by Inside Kyoto, Nara has also been described by my reader, Rohan as one of his favourites due to its history and the lack of crowds.
Historic Sites in Nara
Visitors to Nara shouldn’t miss the chance to see the likes of Todai-Ji Temple and Kofuki-Ji Temple, as well as the large number of traditional gardens that dot the city. The Harushika Sake Brewery is also one that is worth a look if you enjoy imbibing Japan’s signature spirit.
Lastly, again at Rohan’s urging, I’ve been told to recommend Sakura Burger. Go, eat one, and tell me how it was.
#28 – Stay in a ryokan hotel
Those looking for some cultural immersion during their visit to Japan should without question spend some time sleeping in a ryokan. Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns with a history dating back centuries.
Today, they are a popular way for tourists to experience traditional Japanese hospitality. If you’ve ever watched a Japanese movie and thought it might be cool to open a shoji (sliding paper doors), take off your shoes and walk barefoot on warm tatami (reed mats), and spend the night sleeping on a futon – ryokan are what you’re looking for.
So, a ryokan is the same as a hotel?
Not exactly. While a ryokan serves the same purpose as a western hotel, it does so in a distinctly Japanese way. You’re not likely to find TVs, WiFi, or large queen-sized beds here.
Not for those who want all of their western creature comforts, a night in a ryokan nonetheless offers a complete package that often includes both dinner and breakfast. In most cases, these meals are taken in your room at a low table, but some ryokan have communal dining areas as well.
Many ryokan maintain elaborate gardens and/or communal baths where you can further immerse yourself in a simpler kind of life.
If you’re interested in adding a ryokan experience to your trip, consider checking out Japanese Guest Houses.
#29 – Visit Studio Ghibli
If you’ve never seen one of Hayao Miyazaki’s amazing anime films such as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, or maybe something grim like Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, you really should.
Go and do that now. I’ll wait.
Visiting the Studio Ghibli Museum
Located in central Tokyo, the Studio Ghibli Museum offers fans of the films a whimsical experience as they explore the various exhibits dedicated to the art and worlds from the films.
Described by the management as ‘a storybook experience with you as the main character’, the museum has you wander through fantastic worlds and rekindle friendships with old friends, whether from your childhood or (like me) your adulthood.
There’s even a cute little cafe on site to nourish your body after you’ve nourished your heart.
You can read more about visiting the Studio Ghibli Museum at Just Hungry.
#30 – Visit Japan’s largest graveyard at Koyasan
I mentioned Koyasan above as the best place in Japan to experience a Buddhist temple stay, but there’s more to the mountain than just a place to overnight.
The heart of Shingon Buddhism, Koyasan is home to more than 100 temples and an abundance of the aforementioned temple stays. Prominent temples include Kongobu-Ji and the Garan complex, at the heart of which is the Konpon Daito Pagoda. Shingon Buddhism posits that this pagoda is at the heart of a mandala that encompasses all of Japan.
Okunoin Temple & Cemetary
Said to be where the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi rests in eternal meditation, Okunoin is one of Japan’s most sacred sites and a truly atmospheric experience.
Over the centuries since Kobo Daishi’s death, many prominent historical figures and monks have desired to be buried close by. This has given rise to one of the most hauntingly beautiful sights in all of Japan: a sprawling graveyard complex in a forest of cedar trees.
Lit by thousands of lanterns and featuring a variety of unique headstone designs, Okunoin is fascinating by day and otherworldy by night.
#31 – Make and eat your own sushi
It’s all well and good to make a point of eating a little sushi and/or sashimi on your trip, but a truly adventurous traveller will want to get their hands a little dirty by making it for themselves.
There’s no one place in Japan where you should get in the kitchen, as the food’s popularity at home and abroad means that there is no shortage of culinary schools on offer for would-be chefs. The lion’s share tend to be in major cities, with Tokyo having the broadest selection.
#32 – Try your hand at Pachinko
Looking something like a child’s arcade parlour, these noisy and smoky establishments are packed at all hours with locals wanting to try their luck and win a little money.
Like some ghastly hybrid between pinball and a Vegas style slot machine, pachinko sees gamblers firing tiny steel balls about the screen hoping to activate the drum (or, in modern machines, screen) and have matching symbols come up.
Just like slot machines, pachinko machines tend to have all manner of colourful and deceptively child-like themes, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking a parlour for something far more family friendly.
Even if you’re not a gambler, wandering around a crowded parlour and soaking in the smoky, gritty ambience of it all is worth a brief stop.
Learn more about pachinko.
#33 – Take obnoxious Purikura
It sounds more mysterious than it actually is. Purikura is a Japanese pronunciation of “print club” and is used to describe photo booths of the kind westerners have at weddings, birthday parties, and other social occasions.
In Japan, purikura is a much bigger part of life, and especially amongst teenage girls.
Found in most video game arcades and scattered about the streets, purikura are photo booths in which a couple or a group of friends can take hammy photos, sometimes with a variety of props or digital filters. These pictures then print out on stamp-sized paper to be tucked into your wallet or pinned to your dream board.
It’s all a little silly, but it’s a fun little souvenir and another window into modern Japanese culture.
Learn more about purikura.
#34 – Go on an Osaka food crawl
In a nation with an enduring love affair with good food, Osaka stands out as the go-to foodie destination in Japan.
As all good foodie cities do, Osaka presents the very best from around Japan but also has its own signature dishes and flavours that people travel to experience.
Rather than bore you with a list of foods to try, I’ll instead leave you in the capable hands of Mark from Migrationology, who has this exhaustive Osaka food guide for your viewing pleasure.
If finding and ordering everything for yourself seems a tad daunting, you’ll find an abundance of Osaka food tours to choose from.
#35 – Get baseball fever
Baseball might me America’s pastime, but Japan also considers the tedious sport to be its national pastime.
(You’ll forgive my disdain for baseball, it’s basically a lazy man’s cricket)
Regardless of your thoughts on the sport, the spectacle of attending a baseball match in Japan is one that should not be overlooked.
Differences between American and Japanese baseball
Raucous fans, a festive atmosphere, tasty bento boxes, a different style of play, and other distinctly Japanese variations on the theme make it unlike anything you’ll have experienced before.
It’s hard not to get caught up in baseball fever as the crowd chants and sings, and while I’ve not had the pleasure of attending a Japanese baseball match, my experience at a Lotte Giants game in South Korea was something very different to my experience at an MLB game in the US.
Learn more about Japanese baseball culture.
#36 – See Kinkaku-Ji Temple
You might be thinking, “But Chris, you’ve recommended so many temples already! Do we really need another one?”
It’s true that in many cases, seeing one temple is seeing them all, but Kinkaku-Ji (Golden Pavilion) is one you’re going to be glad you made the effort to see.
A Zen Buddhist temple located in Kyoto, Kinkaku-Ji’s distinctive gold leaf reflects beautifully from the waters of the large pond beside it.
Something distinct from other temples you’ll see in Japan, the Golden Pavilion is amongst Japan’s most photogenic temples.
#37 – Attend the Sapporo Snow Festival
Even if skiing and snowboarding aren’t really your thing, there’s something at the Sapporo Snow Festival for everybody.
Akin to the Harbin Snow & Ice Festival in China, Sapporo’s festival boasts a number of impressive snow and ice sculptures that practically shine in the crisp winter air.
Spread across three festival sites in the same area, the festival is home to live music, market stalls, and family-friendly activities such as snow slides and food stands.
It’s a celebration of all things white, fluffy, and just a little too cold – and it’s one of Japan’s most popular festivals as a result.
The Sapporo Snow Festival takes place in early February each year.
#38 – Bar Crawl the Golden Gai
You can drink almost anywhere in Japan, but you’ll regret not indulging in Tokyo’s seedier side with a few beverages on the infamous Golden Gai.
A throwback to simpler times, Golden Gai’s many bars range in size from shack-sized six-person establishments to more generously sized bars. Six tiny alleys surrounded on all sides by towering skyscrapers and traffic-choked streets, the Golden Gai has somehow defied Tokyo’s rapid modernisation and retains much of its glorious, seedy charm.
United by a love of alcohol and an anything goes approach to themes, the Golden Gai district is popular with locals and tourists alike, although bars would prefer it if you spend a little money to go with that cheesy selfie you’re snapping.
Where to drink on Golden Gai
Rough Guides has a great guide to Golden Gai that recommends the best bars and gives some etiquette tips. With some bars being invite only and others having a strict ‘no tourists’ policy, you’ll want to do a little research or practice your best sorry in Japanese.
(Seriously, there are so many ways to say sorry in Japanese!)
#39 – Brave a bite on Piss Alley
While we’re in the Shinjuku area, it would be criminal not to take a walk down the notorious ‘Memory Lane’.
Better known as ‘Piss Alley’, this ‘old Japan’ style alley is a cramped laneway of cheap BBQ joints, dingy bars, and places serving up some of the weirdest dishes you’ll encounter in Japan. Got a hankering for horse penis, grilled salamander, and pig testicles? This is where you’ll find it!
For the less adventurous, Piss Alley is better known for draft beer, flavorful yakitori skewers, and hearty bowls of nikomi stew.
#40 – Soak in an Onsen
For the uninitiated, onsen are natural hot springs. These are immensely popular all across Japan, with people traveling to different springs dependent on their ailments and the purported health benefits of the minerals in the water.
Whether or not you subscribe to their health benefits, there’s still a lot of appeal to be found in a visit to one of Japan’s many onsen resorts. Soaking in blessedly warm water surrounded by serene gardens is just about anybody’s idea of heaven.
Dogo Onsen – Japan’s Oldest Onsen
Dogo Onsen in Shikoku is considered one of Japan’s oldest onsen, with stories of Prince Shotoku bathing in its hot waters as far back as 1,500 years ago. For those with an interest in both Japanese history and public nudity, Dogo has obvious appeal
There’s plenty of heated (pun intended) debate as to which onsen resorts are the best, so do your research and decide for yourself which is Japan’s best onsen.
Looking to do something that none of your friends has done?
Been to Japan a few times and it all feels a bit ho hum now?
Below, you’ll find ten obscure attractions and activities to add to your Japan bucket list.
41. Walk the Kumano Kodo
You’ve perhaps heard of the Camino de Santiago, a legendary Christian pilgrimage that draws tens of thousands of penitents and idealistic backpackers to western Europe every year.
Japan not only has its own sacred pilgrimage, it happens to have one of the most underrated and breathtaking hikes of its kind in the world.
An Ancient Tradition
The World Heritage Listed Kumano Kodo has a history that stretches back more than 1,000 years, with petitioners ranging from humble peasant folk to the Imperial family making the trek to the Grand Shrines of Kumano – Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
Following paths that wend and wind through mountain forests and along windswept clifftops, the Kumano Kodo was and is a sacred journey through some of Japan’s last untamed wilderness.
A Modern Hike of Cultural Immersion
While some of the Kumano Kodo’s original routes have since been built over, there still remain a number of Kumano Kodo trails that can be hiked in a few days.
Those wandering this ancient way will pay their respects at isolated Oji shrines, overnight in silent Buddhist temples, and see a side of Japan that most don’t even know exists.
My 2017 Ambition
I’m pleased to say that myself and Adventures Around Asia will be embarking on a ten-day Kumano Kodo trek this November with the Mie Prefecture. You’ll be able to follow along on social media and here on the blog as we tackle this ambitious trek.
In the meantime, CNN Traveler has a fascinating piece on hiking the Kumano Kodo.
#42 – Visit Cat Island
You might have seen photos of Tashirojima, Japan’s famous ‘cat island’ where stray cats outnumber the island’s aging population by a ratio of about 6:1.
This might sound like hell to some, but cat enthusiasts have turned this otherwise unremarkable fishing island into something of a tourist attraction as they come to see the felines who call it home.
With locals believing that feeding the cats brings them luck, they look at the island’s survival of the 2011 Tohuku Earthquake as a sign.
Despite the island’s growing popularity with tourists, it still remains a functional fishing village with an aging population. There aren’t a lot of tourism facilities, so visitors should be prepared to use squat toilets, bring their own food, and return to the mainland to sleep.
#43 – Immerse yourself in the land of Ninja and Samurai
If you’re like me and think that ninjas are just about the coolest thing in the universe, you might have been dismayed to learn that there is precious little information out there about donning the black and slinging shuriken yourself.
Uncovering Japan’s Samurai History
On a more serious note, I’ve always been fascinated with Japanese history. My particular fascination has been with the period from the 12th century to 1868’s Meiji Restoration when the Samurai dominated Japanese politics.
While the intricacies of the various Shogunates and the Bushido code aren’t something I’ll go into here, it’s a truly enthralling period of Japanese history that ended much more recently than many imagine.
Touring Samurai Sites
These days, visitors to Japan can immerse themselves in Samurai history by visiting historic castles and Samurai districts, wandering the various museums on Samurai history, or visiting Samurai theme parks such as Nikko Edomura.
#44 – Ride the Hakone Tozan Railway
For rail enthusiasts, there’s a more traditional alternative to Japan’s famed high-speed trains.
The Hakone Tozan is Japan’s oldest mountain railway and winds its way through narrow forest valleys in a throwback to the glory days of rail.
A scenic trip no matter what time of year you visit, the ride is especially picturesque during June, when hydrangeas are in bloom, and in the fall when the valley is set afire by the autumn foliage.
Other Things to do in Hakone
Of course, there’s more than just a scenic railway in Hakone, and you can find a wealth of things to do in Hakone including peaceful shrines, art museums, and scenic hikes.
#45 – Experience the old school Hanayashiki Amusement Park
Claiming to be Japan’s oldest amusement park, Hanayashiki opened in the 1800s and has been amusing young and old alike ever since.
While most tourists will make a beeline for Tokyo Disney or Disney Sea, I’m drawn to the history and old carnival charm of this park.
A Modern Amusement Park
Historic doesn’t mean out of touch or dangerous, and Hanayashiki today boasts all of the modern amusements and safety measures you’d expect to find in a theme park.
Roller coasters and big drops are set alongside old school Ferris wheels and carousels, and it’s all coupled with the distinctly Asian charm of motorised panda cars, noisy arcade games, and 3D theatres.
A Walk Down Memory Lane
With old-fashioned amusement parks being replaced by modern theme parks full of high tech rides and colourful characters, the chance to take a historic tour of the park is also a draw. Visitors can take a guided audio tour to learn a little more about the park’s history.
The park’s real appeal isn’t its rides or attractions, but its status as a throwback to a bygone era.
#46 – Hike the Northern Alps
If the Kumano Kodo doesn’t look intense enough for you, the Northern Alps might be more your speed.
Starting from idyllic Kamikochi Resort within Chubu SangakNationalal Park, visitors to this geographically stunning region of Japan can embark on a number of hikes ranging from relatively simple day treks to multi-day climbs.
It’s certainly possible to do an affordable camping trek of the breathtaking Northern Alps, so read more about Kamikochi on a budget.
#47 – See the Takane Ruby Bloom in Akasoba-no-Sato
Cherry blossoms too mainstream for you?
Plum blossoms a bit hipster for your tastes?
The yearly red buckwheat bloom (better known as the ruby bloom) in Akasoba-no-Sato is considered one of the more stunning displays of floral beauty in Japan. Taking place every September, this bloom turns the Nagano fields a vivid shade of pink-red that makes for stunning photos.
More than just flowers
Of course, there’s more to Nagano Prefecture than just a yearly blooming of buckwheat.
The aforementioned Northern Alps lie within the prefecture, and there are a number of other landscapes just begging to be explored by the avid hiker.
For history buffs, sites such as Matsumoto Castle, Narai Juku, Zenkoji Temple, and more are scattered about the region like archaeological finds.
#48 – See the 48 Waterfalls of Akame
If waterfalls get your freak juice flowing, Akame might just be your new favourite place in the world.
Boasting a startling 25 waterfalls (48 may be an exaggeration) ranging from towering cascades to raging torrents to admirable trickles, Akame in Mie Prefecture is a region steeped in Japanese myth and legend.
Home to the giant salamander, Akame is often described as ‘the birthplace of Ninja’ due to its rich history as a base of operations and training for the legendary spies and assassins of the Samurai era.
The Five Falls
The highlights of Akame are five especially impressive waterfalls: Fudo, Senju, Nunobiki, Ninai, and Biwa.
Walking between these five falls takes visitors past all twenty five of the park’s waterfalls.
#49 – Get grossed out at the Parasite Museum
One of the more bizarre museums in the world, Tokyo’s infamous Meguro Parasitological Museum is a monument to all of the creepy little buggers who seem intent on making their home under your skin, in your hair, and in your internal organs.
Where else in the world can you see grissly photos, a dizzying collection of parasite specimens, and the world’s longest tapeworm. 8.8m and it lived inside somebody!
It’s a small, two-storey museum that is sure to give you the creeps, but as Time Travel Turtle found, it’s well worth a look.
#50 – Experience rural Japan in Kayabuki no Sato
While there are plenty of places in Japan where you can ‘experience’ rural Japan, Miyama is a small village north of Kyoto that is still very much adhering to the old ways.
The Kayabuki no Sato village is home to thatched roof dwellings that are still lived in by local farmers and families, making it a more authentic affair than the replica villages that tourists can visit elsewhere.
Visitors can stroll around this bucolic little slice of heaven and snap photos but should be aware that many of the homes are private dwellings.
The Folk Museum
For those wanting a glimpse into the construction of the traditional homes, there is a small museum that showcases items from daily life in this idyllic corner of the world.
You’ll also find the Little Indigo Museum, for those with a keen interest in the… uh… dying of indigo.
Overnight in a traditional home
Seeing it by day and snapping a few photos is one thing, but spending a night in one of the thatched houses is a much better taste of cultural immersion. You’ll not only sleep in a traditional home, you’ll also have the opportunity to eat local foods.
Hiking Ashiu Forest
To complete your city escape, it might be worth venturing into the nearby Ashiu Forest for a bit of a walking safari. An old-growth forest that has yet to fall afoul of progress, Ashiu is home to monkeys, deer, and even bears!
This list could easily have been 100 items long, but I’ve kept my Japan bucket list to just fifty items.
Have I missed any that you feel should be on here?
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