When we were planning our trip to Japan, we sat separately and wrote our own individual bucket lists for what we most wanted to do and see. We always feel that if you're travelling somewhere long haul, you should treat your visit as if it's the only time you're ever going to go -you may well go back, but the world is big and there are a lot of places to see before repeating any. This means we try to hit all of our wish list for that destination in one trip, rather than saving things for "next time". Making a hit list like this really helps us write our itineraries and prioritise the things that we would be genuinely gutted if we we didn't do/see them. Below is the compiled collection of we think should be on your absolute MUST list for your trip to Japan!
So much fun. And not expensive! We went to Rainbow Karaoke Dotonbori and paid about £4/5 each for 2 hours karaoke in private room with all you can drink soft drinks. What a laugh!!
Ride a bullet train
We ended up doing this many times on our trip as we travelled around Japan, and the novelty never wore off. Nothing can replace the first time you walk onto the shinkansen platform and see the sleek, long nosed futuristic train pull in. Magical! The ride is so smooth that you don't even realise how fast you are going until you look out of the window. Make sure you book your JR Pass before heading to Japan if you're going to take a few bullet train journeys - Tokyo to Osaka costs about £105 one way,and a 7 day rail pass is £214, so if you're doing more than 2 journeys, the pass is already saving you money. We saved more than £200 on our 2 week trip!
Soak in an Onsen
Lying back in a healing hot bath, while your troubles drift away in the steam was our idea of heaven. We kind of forgot about the obligatory nudity though... no panic, it's 1000% worth it! Read our how to guide here.
The first of 2 giant Buddhas on this list, this one literally stopped us in our tracks, as did the COLOSSAL wooden building surrounding it. One of many ancient treasures in this incredible town, go as a day trip from Kyoto.
Conveyor belt sushi
A great and inexpensive way to try lots of different sushi. We liked Sushi No Musashi in Kyoto station, or for super quirky, hit up Genki Sushi in Shibuya, Tokyo, where you order dishes off your own little screen and it arrives on a little train along a track that runs around the restaurant. So fun!
Visiting a theme park in Japan was an absolute must for us. As big Disney fans we decided to go to Disneysea as it's totally unique. It's the most astonishing place - you have to go on the Indiana Jones, Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Soaring rides. For more tips to get the most out of your day at Disneysea, check out this blog!
See if you can spot Geisha in old Kyoto
Head to Gion after dark and walk down the narrow streets lined with 17th century tea houses and restaurants, hung with red lanterns. Dozens of pairs of men's work shoes are lined up in the entrances, and if you're lucky you'll see Geisha and their Maiko apprentices emerge from a taxi and head inside. Please be sure to be respectful of these women and do not follow them down the street or take photos of them. Strict rules about this are displayed on signs at the top of the street, which have been brought in to protect the Geisha from badly behaved tourists.
See Mt Fuji
Ah Mt Fuji, our white whale! We were so so keen to see this iconic mountain, the symbol of Japan - this would have been one thing on our list that we would have been really disappointed not to get, but also one kind of out of our control. In a perfect world, we'd have also seen Mt Fuji from the shinkansen window as we travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto and back (sit on the right hand side from Tokyo to maximise your chance), but we had such cloudy weather. On the way out we had zero visibility, and on the way back we could see the very very top of the peak above the clouds, but no mountain.
We didn't go to Hakone, which is another place where you can see Fuji, weather permitting, but we did go on a day trip to Kamakura, and had fantastic views from the beach down by the causeway to Enoshima Island on the very last day of our trip. Phew.
Drink in Golden Gai
This historic ramshackle collection of about 200 tiny pre-war bars in Shinjuku, Tokyo are a must visit for an atmospheric drink. Some bars only cater to locals (they will have signs in Japanese or "members only" on the doors), so look for English menus to find venues that welcome tourists! Some have a cover charge, some will waive it if you sit and drink for no more than 30 minutes, many also serve small plates.
Sleep in a traditional Ryokan
Spending the night on a futon, in a paper walled, tatami matted traditional Japanese room was very high on our wish list. We stayed in Senshinkan Matsuya, a beautiful old guesthouse in the mountain town of Shibu Onsen, which allowed us to also visit the famous 9 public onsen (you must be an overnight guest in order to access them) as well as the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park the following morning. You can book to include dinner and breakfast (definitely do this!!) and they even provide yukata robes and wooden geta shoes for you to wear around the town and in the ryokan.
See some Sumo
Ask people to name what comes to mind when you mention Japan and they'll probably say sushi, Geisha and sumo wrestling. This sport is so iconic and totally unique. If you are visiting Tokyo in January, May or September you can try to get a ticket for the national sumo tournament that takes place at the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo arena. If it's sold out, head to the stadium anyway to see the wrestlers coming and going, and they often have a screen round by the merchandise stalls where you can watch the action. There is another tournament in Osaka in March, or Nagoya in July. If you're in Tokyo outside of sumo season, you can visit a sumo stable to watch a morning training session. The Japan Sumo Association website has a list , out of these, Arashio Beya is probably the easiest, just turn up between 7:30 and 10am and watch through glass windows from the roadside.
Another big Buddha, this one is located in the sea side town of Kamakura, an easy hour's JR train ride from Toyko. There is something about this huge statue's beautiful zen face that stopped us in our tracks. Plus it's really old (1252) and has survived earthquakes, typhoons and even a tsunami!
In fact, stick a day trip to Kamakura on the list
The whole town is awesome. It's a former capital of Japan and chock full of incredible temples, from magnificent Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu to quirky Zeniarai Benzaiten and beautiful Hase Dera. Take the Enoden electric railway from Hase station to Enoshima, and keep your eyes out for Mt Fuji views. Paddle in the Pacific on Katese Nishihama Beach, then walk over the causeway to Enoshima island to explore the shinto shrine split into three parts up the hill. Time it right and you can watch the sun set as the sky turns fiery over Mt Fuji from the top! Be sure to try a tako sembei (octopus cracker), a local speciality.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
This is probably one of the first things you put on your list. And for good reason, it's stunning We would recommend arriving early though - in January we were there by 8am and were 2 of about 10 people there which was wonderful. So zen, walking under the green swaying leaves and listening to the wind... by 10am it was like Disneyland. In peak seasons you might need to arrive even earlier if you want to avoid the crowds.
Tokyo's most important Buddhist temple, Senso ji is famous for its huge red lanterns and shop lined approach, Nakamise-dori.
Also in Tokyo, across town near Harajuku is the city's other most famous and important temple, Meiji Jingu. Walk under a huge torii gate and through beautiful dense forest until you reach this majestic shinto shrine, dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken.
Sleep in a pod hotel
For a quirky Japanese experience, you have to stay in a pod hotel! Sleeping in a capsule might not be the best rest you'll ever have, but it's the most futuristic spaceship-like bed room you'll ever have! Capsule hotels provide lockers for your valuables and shared lockers, and men and women sleep on separate floors. Only book for one night, so you can tick it off, then book somewhere slightly more spacious afterwards.
People watch in Harajuku
Hip Harajuku feels a world away from the sterile, mannered centre of Tokyo. Trendy teens in outlandish fashion hang out on Takeshita Street, where you can window shop frilly Lolita dresses and gothic fetishwear, cuddle cats and hedgehogs in Kawaii cafes and eat ridiculous street food, like potato tornadoes and rainbow candyfloss as big as your head.
When we were first researching Japan we had seen the snow monkeys relaxing in their natural hot tub on TV (possibly with David Attenborough narrating?) but had no idea where in Japan they were. Turns out they're a train journey away from Tokyo! You can do it as a slightly mad daytrip (take a shinkansen to Nagano then join a coach tour) or take another train from Nagano to Yudanaka and stay in Shibu Onsen. Two list ticks! Some Ryokans provide transport to see the monkeys in the morning. As with most popular sights, if you're sleeping over locally, get there early to beat the coach tours.
Akihabara Electric Town or DenDen Town arcades
Game on! Head through the vibrant streets of cosplay and comic books to the colourful buzz of the arcades in Tokyo's Akihabara or Osaka's DenDen town. 5 storeys high and packed with every possible video game you can imagine, watch the seriously skilled players before having a go yourself. Mario Kart racing anyone?
Vending machines seem to pop up about every 50 metres or so along the streets of Japan. You won't find food in them, only cans and bottles of drink, but what tickled us was getting a bottle of sweet tea or a can of coffee, and it was piping hot when it came out! A brilliant way to start the day!
An easy one to tick off the list, but nothing can replace your first encounter with a Japanese loo. The panel of buttons on the wall seems confusingly futuristic at first glance, but you soon get used to it: Heated seats, running water sfx or music which comes on automatically to save your modesty, and the option for a wash "down there" with a range of speeds and pressure... you'll miss it when you sit on your cold loo seat back home!
Kampai! It wouldn't be a trip to Japan without raising a little cup of rice wine. With a huge range to choose from, from hot to cold, dry to sweet, you're bound to find one you like!
An easy bus ride from Emmachi Station, Kyoto, this iconic golden pavilion reflected in the lake it sits beside is such a beautiful, classically Japanese sight. One of Kyoto's many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Kinkaku-ji is one of the most popular buildings in Japan. It is three storeys high, with each floor designed in the architectural style of a different era. The ground floor is simple, with white plaster walls and dark wood beams, while the top two floors are covered in the stunning gold leaf.
Spot a maid outside a cafe
Back in the electric areas of Tokyo's Akihabara and Den Den Town, amongst the game arcades and manga shops, are the maid cafes. Outside on the streets, girls in french maid uniforms, kitten ears and knee socks give out flyers advertising their cafe. See how many you can collect!
Probably the most famous and busiest pedestrian crossing in the world, this "scramble crossing" is just outside Shibuya train station. At peak times, thousands of people head over the roads in different directions, while miraculously avoiding collisions. It's great fun to follow the crowds and dive in - you'll certainly feel like you're in a city of 39 million people here! For more of an elevated view, buy a coffee and grab a window seat in the Starbucks opposite.
Watching young Chiyo run through the seemingly unending tunnel of red torii gates in Memoirs of a Geisha is what first made us want to visit Japan, many years ago. Walking all the way up to the summit of Mt Inari, through thousands of torii gates is an incredible experience. Again, get here early. In January we arrived at 8am and had a wonderful chilled visit. By the time we got back down at 11ish, bedlam. Also, many people just walk a little way in to take photos before leaving again, so the higher you go towards the top, the quieter it will become. Take the local JR Nara line from Kyoto - not the rapid train, it doesn't stop at Inari station!
Another film location, Himeji Castle might be recognisable to James Bond fans as the ninja training camp in You Only Live Twice. This wonderful, absolutely beautiful Japanese castle is in Himeji, a city on the bullet train line between Hiroshima and Osaka. If you have a JR Pass, break your journey for a few hours and visit the castle. You can see the soaring white building (nicknamed the white heron or white egret castle) from the train station.
You can go all the way up to the 6th floor of the main keep, and wander the grounds, which are full of cherry blossom trees in spring. What also makes this castle special is its age! Yes you can visit castles in Hiroshima and Osaka, but these are post WWII rebuilds, and Kyoto's Nijo Castle's main keep burned down in the 18th century - Himeji castle is a rare original dating from the 1600s.
We so wanted to visit Hiroshima. Yes it's a long way from Tokyo, but you can easily get there from Osaka by bullet train, and we believe it is SO important to go to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Just like when we visited Auschwitz from Krakow, we knew that this would be a tough day out emotionally, but learning about the horrific human suffering that took place when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 is vital to ensure that it never happens again. The iconic ruins of the A-Bomb Dome are hauntingly beautiful, and be sure to ring the World Peace bell. Afterwards, seek out an okonomiyaki for dinner, it's a Hiroshima speciality, and raise a beer to world peace.
Teamlab Borderless Tokyo
This mindblowing, jawdropping, immersive sensory, electro/video art installation was one of our favourite experiences in Tokyo. Art works walk and fly from one room to another, respond to your touch, and constantly evolve so that if you do laps, things will keep changing.
Top tip: Buy your tickets in advance - if your preferred date sells out online no tickets are available on the door.
Street food in Osaka
Osaka is the foodie capital of Japan, and the perfect place to try all the country's fabulous street food! Absolute musts are local specialities like takoyaki (octopus balls) and kushikatsu (fried things on sticks!), but you should also visit Kuromon Ichiba Market to seek out crab legs and tako tamago, a mini octopus on a stick, stuffed with a quail egg. Looks intimidating, tastes amazing! Major food districts here are Dotonbori and Shinsekai, visit both, eat everything!
Feed the Deer in Nara
You can’t go on a Nara day trip without running into the city’s most famous residents, the sacred sika deer. Revered as messengers of the Shinto gods, the deer are protected national treasures. They’re allowed to roam freely throughout the park and surrounding streets and will happily approach you for a treat. For about 200 yen you can buy a stack of deer senbei from carts around the park. The crackers are designed just for the Nara deer so please don’t feed them anything else- it can be detrimental to their health.
Now for the deer's party trick - if you bow respectfully to the deer, many of them have learned to bow back in the hopes of receiving a tasty reward! Approach a solo deer so you don’t get overwhelmed by a group, and remember that while the deer seem tame and friendly, remember that they are still wild animals. They won’t appreciate being cuddled for selfies, and keep carrier bags out of sight.
We couldn't write a Japan bucketlist without cherry blossom, or sakura. Every spring, thousands of tourists flock to Japan to photograph and have picnics under the perfect pink trees, which are seen to symbolise rebirth after winter and purity. Be warned - if you want to see cherry blossom, you will have to time your trip carefully - the flowers appear in late March/ early April and only last for a couple of weeks (Japan.com has a handy timetable where you can keep an eye on things). Expect the country to go blossom berserk during this time, with cherry blossom sweets, drinks, coffees, and more merchandise than you can shake a pink floral stick at!
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