Japan is a country that will surprise, excite and make you never want to leave. It’s a country with so much to offer to every kind of traveller; from the culture buff to the outdoors adventurer. From the moment I step foot in Japan for the first time, there was always a sense of awe and excitement that accompanied me everywhere. In a culture that’s so different from my own, there is something new to discover at every turn. Whether you’ve already planned your trip and are looking for more suggestions or if you’re only just starting, this Japan bucket list is for you. These simply are the best things to do in Japan, that you really shouldn’t miss.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Japan is the perfect destination any time of the year. In spring, you can see the cherry blossoms turn the landscapes pink and in the summer days are at their longest and temperatures at their warmest. It’s also the greenest time of the year. With the arrival of autumn, the red, orange and yellow leaves add beautiful splashes of colour to Japanese gardens and winter is the perfect time for winter sports and snowy outdoor onsen dips.
GAWK AT AND CLIMB MT. FUJI FOR SUNRISE
Mount Fuji is quite easily Japan’s most famous natural sight. The perfect cone-shaped mountain is still an active volcano even though it hasn’t erupted in about three hundred years. Its Japan’s highest peak, dominating the island of Honshu for miles in every direction. In each season Mt. Fuji looks different- in the summer with virtually no snow through to winter where you’ll see prominent snow coverage of most of the peak. Luckily to see Mount Fuji, you don’t have to come too close, however, I recommend against that. One of the best ways to experience the majesty and strength of the peak is to climb it. From July to August it’s possible to climb Mount Fuji using one of the four paths that lead up to the summit, the most popular being the trail that starts in the village of Fujinomiya. If starting from Fujinomiya make sure to also check out Shiraito Falls- a beautiful, wide waterfall located nearby. Start your climb to the summit of Mt. Fuji at night, arriving at sunrise to the most spectacular views and goraikō (arrival of light) you might lay your eyes on during your trip to Japan. I assure you that is no exaggeration.
Japan is after all the land of sushi, where sushi honours years of tradition and mastery. In Japan, however, you’re much less likely to find California rolls filled with avocado, cream cheese, salmon and veggies as sushi is an extremely minimal art. The most common types of sushi are nigiri or very simple cucumber rolls as well as sashimi. Preparing and eat sushi is like a ritual in Japan and eating at a traditional sushi restaurant you’ll sit at the counter and have the sushi chef personally make the sushi for you. It’s an eating experience you simply cannot miss.
Plant-based sushi restaurants do exist even though for obvious reasons the experience isn’t quite as authentic. You can find a number of them on Happy Cow. Upon visiting Japan I decided to actually go to a traditional non-plant based sushi bar and I simply filled on cucumber rolls and tofu. It was beyond me how delicious such simple sushi was and the experience itself was second to none.
For more on sushi culture and the best sushi master at work I highly recommend watching the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, now available on Netflix.
STAY IN A RYOKAN
Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that date back to the 8th Century, meaning they might just be the oldest type of lodging in the world. They are normally located in traditional Japanese buildings, sometimes constructed around an inner courtyard or Japanese garden. Inside the modest room, you’ll find the traditional tatami mat and a low central table around which there will be cushions to sit on. In the cupboard, you’ll find your bed which you’ll have to unroll when you’re ready to turn in for the night. The price of the stay will almost always include dinner and breakfast of a traditional, locally sourced and seasonal meal and many ryokans pride themselves on the quality of their food. You’ll find amazing ryokans throughout Japan however I’d recommend staying in one in a small town or in the countryside to fully appreciate its peace and kanso.
BATHE IN AN ONSEN
An onsen or Japanese hot spring can be combined with a stay at a ryokan or can be experienced separately in a public onsen. Traditionally onsen are outdoor hot springs but many nowadays are indoors and can be run publicly or privately. Onsen entrance today is separated by sex and men and women bathe separately as you’re not allowed to wear a swimsuit. The onsen experience can be incredibly relaxing and the hot, healing water does wonders for the aching muscles after days of walking around and exploring. It’s an experience I’d highly recommend when in Japan. If you do have large, noticeable tattoos you may be denied entry. Some onsen are tattoo-friendly, and some aren’t so it’s worth enquiring before going.
TREK IN THE KAMIKOCHI VALLEY IN THE JAPAN ALPS
A stunning testament to nature, the Japanese Alps are simply beautiful and deserve a few days from Tokyo. The Kamikochi Valley is one of the most famous and popular valleys in the Alps and it’s easy to see why. There are a number of hikes you can do in the valley- the most popular one being the one that we did which was just a simple path that leads all around the valley floor and follows the Azusa river. You’ll be stunned but the fantastic views, the snow-capped peaks the peaceful, dense forest and the crystal clear, blue water below. The valley can be visited as a day trip from Matsumoto however I’d definitely recommend staying at least one night in a ryokan in the national park for the full experience.
VIEW TOKYO FROM ABOVE
Japan’s capital and largest city simply goes on and on for miles without ever seeming to end. It’s a sea of concrete blocks, crisscrossed by tarmac and punctuated by the occasional skyscraper. Tokyo is truly a city like no other and you should definitely give it some time to explore when in Japan. While doing so it’s a must to take it in from above and if you can both during the day and at night. There are a number of places to see the city from above including the Tokyo Skytree, a free-standing broadcasting tower, Tokyo City Hall, where the entrance is free, so perfect for the budget traveller and the classic Tokyo Tower.
VISIT A CASTLE
Japan has a number of traditional castles that are still in mint condition and preserve the countries history and cultural heritage. Castles were originally constructed from wood and were used as fortresses- many of then still have thick, high stone walls and moats around them making it difficult or any enemy to access. The architecture and design are truly unique and you won’t find a structure like this anywhere else on earth. Visiting one is also a great opportunity to learn more about the rich Japanese history. The best castles to visit are Osaka Castle and Matsumoto Castle.
If you’ve always wanted to learn a little Japanese, now might be the best time. Yes, it is completely different from any Roman language but it’s not as difficult to learn as you might think once you’ve got the basics. It’s always a great idea to know the basics of a language before visiting the country and few people in Japan speak English. Rosetta Stone, Duolingo and Babbel are great places to start.
Get your Rosetta Stone Japanese, plus 24+ languages online course here.
STROLL THROUGH ARASHIYAMA’S BAMBOO FOREST
You’ve no doubt seen this bamboo forest on Instagram and it is one of Japan’s most popular sights. Located in Kyoto, even with the crowds, the bamboo forest is a magical place to visit. The sight of so many lush, green bamboo stems growing skyward is a sight in itself not to mention the effects of light on the forest especially at sunrise or sunset and the invigorating, organic smell. A perfectly constructed path takes you through and around the forest and if feels like you’re walking through a fairytale. To avoid the crowds make sure to visit early in the morning, the earlier the better or just before it closes to fully appreciate the place without the masses.
EAT AUTHENTIC RAMEN
Need I say more? The typical Japanese noodle soup simply has to be tried. Some of the best places to try it are Tsuta Ramen in Sugama, Tokyo, Ichiran or Chabuzen, Shimokitazawa, Tokyo for a plant-based version.
For more on the best vegan ramen in Tokyo check out this article here.
STAY IN A CAPSULE HOTEL
Another Japanese experience which has to be had is the capsule or pod hotel- a bed-sized room which you rent for the night which, quite honestly makes you feel like you’re sleeping inside a spaceship capsule or a morgue. Like a hostel, most of the amenities in these hotels are shared such as a common/living area, bathrooms and dining rooms and all have wifi. Capsule hotels mostly cater to men, businessmen specifically with only some catering to women with separate floors for each gender. Pod hotels are definitely an experience and while mine wasn’t bad, I probably won’t do it again, especially when they aren’t as cheap as you might think. You’ll also want to avoid these if you’re claustrophobic.
RIDE THE SHINKANSEN
The Shinkansen or the bullet train as it’s also known is a Japanese engineering feat. Reaching speeds of up to 320 km/h (200 mph), riding the Shinkansen at times feels like you’re floating above the tracks and not riding on them. If you’re imagining taking a leisurely train ride while sipping tea and quietly watching countryside life go by, you might want to opt for a different train. This train is all about speed and it’s difficult to observe anything outside the window as it zooms past but it will get you from A to B bang on time, most likely to the second.
Layover in Kuala Lumpur? Check out this Perfect 2 Day Kuala Lumpur Itinerary
ADMIRE THE SAKURA DURING CHERRY BLOSOM SEASON
Spring season is one of the busiest times for tourism in Japan and it’s probably due to the blooming Sakura. Sakura season or cherry blossom season takes place normally at the beginning of April on the main island but it’s earlier on the tropical islands of Okinawa and later on Hokkaido. Cherry blossoms can be seen all over Japan but the most beautiful places to view them include the area around the Fuji Five Lakes, Hirosaki Castle and of course, Japan’s most famous cherry blossom viewing destination Yoshino.
VISIT KINKAKU-JI ( GOLDEN PAVILLION)
Kinkaku-ji is one of the most popular and arguably the most beautiful Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. The temple itself is located inside a Japanese strolling garden, surrounded by greenery and foliage and perched at the edge of a large pond. The water is so still and beautifully reflects the golden temple in the shimmery sunlit water. Everything is so harmonious and the man-made structure fits into the natural landscape beautifully.
FEED DEER IN NARA
The small city of Nara is home to a number of shrines, Buddha statues, some of the oldest temples in Japan and of course deer. I wouldn’t be lying if I said that these forward animals might just be the reason travellers come here. These tame Sika deer, which mainly roam around Nara Park are after one thing- a cookie. Vendors all around the park sell these deer cookies which you can purchase to feed the deer. They come up close and have no issue eating the cookie out of your hand, some of them might also come up to you sniffing out your midsection for cookies. If you’re an animal lover this is an experience you probably won’t forget in a hurry.
DELVE INTO TRADITIONAL JAPANESE CULTURE IN KYOTO
Full of ancient temples, bamboo forests, exquisite Japanese Zen Gardens, the cutest streets, cultural heritage and traditional food Kyoto makes for an unmissable stop on your Japan itinerary. It’s easy to lose yourself in the leafy paths and moss-green gardens, the meditative atmosphere of which is alluring and sometimes addictive. Kyoto is the place to stay for a little longer and even hire a local guide to really find out more about traditional Japanese culture, religion and aesthetic and what makes this country so different compared with so many others. Some cultural things to do in Kyoto include exploring The Kyoto Imperial Palace, Arashiyama, Ponto-cho street tea houses, Kamo shrines, Kinkaku-ji temple and Ryan-ji temple.
EAT AT A FAMILY MART OR 7 ELEVEN
This one might not be at the top of your Japan bucket list, but if you’re travelling on a budget eating at Family Mart or 7 Eleven might be something you do quite often. The food here is surprisingly good and Japan is known as having the best convenience store food in Asia. You can find many healthy options here such as vegan Onigiri, seaweed salads, cucumber sushi rolls, noodles and fried tofu. It’s not Michelin star food but its not bad either and quite frankly it is the cheapest meal you’ll get in Japan.
VISIT THE HAKONE NATIONAL PARK AND SHRINE
Located just East of Mount Fuji, Hakone National Park is one of the best places in Japan from which to view the gigantic cone-shaped mountain. Hugging Lake Ashi, the small town of Hakone is the perfect place to slow down for a few days, take in the majestic views and bathe in the beautiful onsen located here. If you’re feeling a little more energetic the park has several well maintained, easy hiking trails which are perfect for a day or two of walking. Make sure not to miss Hakone shrine, a beautiful tori gate overlooking Ashi lake.
VISIT A ZEN JAPANESE GARDEN
Japanese gardens are known worldwide for their calm, peacefulness and harmony and where better to see them than in Japan itself? You’ll no doubt see a few when visiting temples as many Zen Buddhist temples do have gardens. In many gardens, you are welcome to sit in them or in the main pavilion and simply enjoy the peace, listen to the calming sounds of the water and birdsong or meditate. Japanese Gardens are absolutely stunning with all the elements of the garden coming together as a perfectly harmonious one. They are best visited in the summer or the fall, when the moss and trees are at their greenest or when the maple trees start to release their autumnal colours adding splashes of orange, yellow and even deep reds into the gardens. Some of the most famous gardens to visit are Tenryu-ji and Ginkaku-ji in Kyoto and Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo as well as the gorgeous Okayama Korakuen in Okayama Prefecture.
LEARN ABOUT KANSO
Kanso is the Japanese equivalent of Feng Shui, the art of having only what you need and getting rid of everything else, minimalism basically. Kanso and Zen are all about achieving harmony with nature or your surrounding environment and Kanso is the Japanese aesthetic. If you are interested in minimalism and the beautiful Japanese aesthetic and zen way of life you might want to take some time to learn about Kanso.
EAT IN OSAKA
The Japanese consider Osaka to be the food capital of Japan and whatever it is you’re looking for, Osaka will have it from excellent sushi to soba noodles. Japanese people love to eat but I think in Osaka, this is taken to a new level. With so many places to eat and so many specialities to try you won’t come near to trying it all but why not try? Some of the best things to eat in Osaka are sushi, udon noodles, Japanese BBQ if you eat meat, comforting Japanese curry and of course, the ultimate symbol of Osaka, takoyaki.
EXPLORE MODERN JAPANESE ARCHITECTURE IN OSAKA AND TOKYO
Japan provides the perfect balance between the old and the new, the traditional and modern and you’ll see these juxtapositions everywhere you go. The countryside is a celebration of the traditional and natural and the cities are highly modernised and at the forefront of technology. One of the best ways to notice this is through Japanese architecture. Modern architecture in Japan is iconic, harmonious but still quite simplistic and minimal- qualities that you’ll also notice in the traditional structures. Tokyo and Osaka are the best places to really take it all in when it comes to modern architecture so make sure to take a walk around Ginza and Shibuya in Tokyo and visit the Umeda Sky Building in Osaka and the Tokyo International Forum, Nakagin Capsule Tower and the Asahi Group Head Office building in Tokyo.
Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s most famous wards or neighbourhoods and home to a variety of neon-lit shopping streets, entertainment streets, great restaurants and Shinjuku station- Tokyo’s largest and busiest train station. You can easily spend a whole day in this neighbourhood, walking around and exploring all the attention-grabbing buildings and museums. Some of the most notable places that can’t be missed are the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (great place for seeing city views for free), Omoide Yokocho, a historic street food alley as well as the Samurai Museum, Yayoi Kusama Museum and the Tokyo Anime Centre.
STROLL THROUGH FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA SHRINE
As one of Kyoto’s main sights, no doubt you’ve already seen a picture of this revered shrine on social media. The shrine itself belongs to the Shinto religion and is dedicated to Inari, spirit or kami of rice and agriculture. The shrine is located on a mountain and here you’ll find around one thousand torii gates one after another painted bright red. Walking through them early in the morning is magical and they lead you to the main temple buildings all around the site. As this shrine gets extremely busy during the day make sure to visit at first light for the best pictures and more peaceful experience.
WEAR A KIMONO
The traditional and national Japanese garment worn by both men and women is something you’ll definitely see when in Japan but why not try wearing one for yourself? While modern Japanese people rarely wear them nowadays unless for a special occasion you might see geishas walking around particularly in Kyoto sporting them. In Kyoto, there are a number of kimono shops where you can rent one for a few hours and walk about the city. The kind saleswomen will help you into one and it’s yours to walk around the city in for a while.
WALK THE SHIBUYA CROSSING
As the busiest pedestrian intersections in the world, the Shibuya Crossing is something that you really have to see for yourself. Traffic from all four sides stops simultaneously as pedestrians take to the tarmac crisscrossing around each other to get to the other side. Tall buildings with neon lights and signs flash wildly above as you navigate the sea of people and the area can be compared to Piccadilly Circus in London or Times Square in New York. It’s said that about 2,500 people use the crossing each time the traffic lights stop.
GO SKIING OR SNOWBOARDING IN HOKKAIDO
Hokkaido Island, in the very north of Japan, is known as Japan’s natural paradise and is a great place to visit any time of the year, however, in winter it transforms into a theme park of fresh powder. There are many ski resorts located in beautiful snowy valleys with frozen lakes and pine forests. Fresh powder is guaranteed in Hokkaido making it one of the best places in the world to ski and snowboard during the northern hemisphere winter. Pair a day on the slopes with soaking at an outdoor onsen in the evening to relax your sore muscles surrounded by snowy peaks and you have the perfect winter ski break.
DRINK MATCHA TEA
Japan is the origin of matcha tea, a concentrated powdered green tea which is full of antioxidants. If you love matcha, you’ll be happy to know that matcha is used as a flavour in anything; matcha ice cream, matcha cookies, matcha mochi, matcha milk and more. The best way to try matcha in Japan and to learn more about the tradition of drinking tea is by participating in and learning about the tea ceremony. Alternatively, you can also visit one of the many tea houses located all over Japan to try the delicious, warming beverage.
EAT SOYA BLACK SESAME ICE CREAM
All around Japan you can find this delicious plant-based ice cream made from soya milk and black sesame. It’s so good in fact that it’s become a Japan bucket list item. If you’re not a fan of sesame try the matcha ice cream too, it’s also pretty amazing.
WALK THE MAGOME TO TSUMAGO TRAIL
Located in the Kiso Valley, 94 km northeast of Nagoya, Magome is an ancient small town that will take your breath away. Both Magome and Tsumago are on the Nakasendō, an ancient road that connected Kyoto with Edo, during the Edo period and while you’ll probably not have the time to walk the whole historical route, walking just these few kilometres are a must. It takes just a few hours to do but you’ll spend many more exploring these villages, stopping at tea houses and shrines and admiring the stunning landscapes. The best way to do it is as an overnight trip by starting in either Magome or Tsumago and walking to the other and staying the night. Tourists mostly come of the day meaning by sunset you’ll have these spectacular villages, ryokans and onsen to yourself.
Do you have any comments or questions about this Japan Bucket List? Leave them below, I’d love to hear from you.
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