If you have been following me on Instagram, you know that Japan is my number one favorite destination of all time. Having visited numerous times myself, I have compiled the ultimate Japan bucket list featuring top 25 best things to do in Japan.
Last updated on August 18, 2022.
The Ultimate Japan Bucket List for First-Time Visitors
From strolling historic temples in a traditional kimono to dining at a crazy robot restaurant, the land of the rising sun offers a wide array of unique experiences you simply cannot find anywhere else in the world.
If you are visiting for the very first time, consider adding these exciting activities to your Japan bucket list!
1. Get lost in the colorful world of teamLab Borderless.
Unless you live under a massive rock, you have probably seen or heard about teamLab Borderless on social media.
They are widely known for their colorful and futuristic digital art installations, and you can easily spend half a day in this three-dimensional 10,000 square meter world.
Tip: Purchase tickets online in advance and visit early to avoid crowds.
I couldn’t make it right at opening so I opted to go later in the day. I thought the crowds would die down around closing time. To my surprise, however, it was still packed! Also remember to allocate plenty of time here. Certain rooms (like the Forest of Lamps above) have time restrictions and require you to wait in line.
2. Stroll Kyoto’s famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
One of the most popular Japan tourist attractions is the beautiful bamboo forest in Kyoto.
You can often find visitors dressed in kimonos here and it really does make for a gorgeous photoshoot backdrop.
Tip: To get the entire forest to yourself, come early in the morning or a little before sunset. If you are visiting during summer, be sure to bring bug repellent as well. (And maybe don’t wear shorts like I did. Otherwise, you’ll be an all you can eat buffet for mosquitoes.)
3. Get your fortune told at a temple.
Omikuji are Japanese fortunes written on strips of paper. They can be found at temples and shrines all over Japan, and are fun to read whether you are superstitious or not.
How it works is you need to first make a payment of 100 yen, which is roughly $1.
Next, you shake a box of numbered sticks and pick one out. Based on the number that you draw, you then select your fortune from the corresponding drawer.
I picked out “great blessing,” which is the best fortune. Two months after my Japan trip, I bought a brand new car. Within the very first month of my purchase, I was rear-ended by an oil truck whilst stopped at a red light. Luckily, I’m still alive and well, but you tell me if these are real or not!
Tip: If you pick out a bad one, remember to tie it to a pine tree or on a metal wire rack specifically dedicated for bad fortunes.
Iconic Temples in Japan
Fall scene at Kinkaku-ji.
While on the topic of temples, below are a few Japan must-sees.
- Kinkaku-ji aka the Golden Pavilion. This Kyoto temple gets its nickname from being covered in gold leaf. It was originally a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. After his death in 1408, it became the Zen temple that it is today.
- Kiyomizu-dera is another popular temple in Kyoto. It is known for its spectacular views and medicinal waters from Otowa Spring.
- Senso-ji is a Buddhist temple located in Asakusa, Tokyo. Legend has it that two brothers fished a statue of the goddess of mercy – Kannon. Although they put the statue back into the river, it kept returning to them. Senso-ji was therefore built to commemorate and worship Kannon.
- Gotoku-ji is Tokyo’s lucky cat temple. During the Edo period, a cat under the care of a Gotoku-ji priest led Ii Naokata (a powerful feudal lord) to safety during a thunderstorm. To express gratitude to the priest’s warm hospitality, Naokata donated rice and land, and selected Gotoku-ji as the cemetery for his family.
- Kotoku-in is home to Kamakura’s Daibutsu (or Great Buddha), which is Japan’s second tallest bronze Buddha statue.
- Todai-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Nara. It is the largest wooden building in the world and houses Japan’s biggest buddha statue.
Maneki-neko (lucky cat) statues at Gotoku-ji Temple.
4. Wear a kimono.
This is a must-do in Japan.
You can find rental shops all over the country and you can hire professionals to dress you. Some shops also provide hair and makeup services.
If you’re feeling extra, you can even schedule a photoshoot with a photographer.
Don’t worry. This is not cultural appropriation!
Locals love seeing tourists appreciate their customs and traditions. More importantly, you are supporting the kimono businesses.
Japan’s younger generations no longer wear kimonos, unless for important occasions or during summer festivals. As a result, kimono making in Japan has unfortunately beomce a dying art. By renting a kimono, you are actually helping keep the industry alive!
Tip: My favorite place to rent from is Kimono Rental Wargo. They have 20 locations all across Japan with rental plans starting at as little as 2,980 yen (~$28 USD or $37 CAD).
5. Attend a traditional tea ceremony.
Tea ceremony at Keio Plaza Hotel.
Chado, or the way of the tea, is a tradition with roots dating back to the Kamakura period when tea drinking was first practiced in Japan.
In the olden days, only rich samurais and monks were allowed to attend tea ceremonies, and women were strictly prohibited from participating. Fast forward to today, everyone is welcome to take part in this ritual.
A tea ceremony involves ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha that takes place specifically in a tea house.
A formal ceremony lasts several hours and typically begins with a kaiseki (multi-course) meal. Guests then taste a bowl of thick tea followed by a bowl of thin tea. Most ceremonies nowadays have been shortened in length and focus more so on the enjoyment of thin tea.
6. Feed a deer at Nara Park.
Another one of the top fun things to do in Japan is to feed a deer in Nara. There are over 1,000 sacred deer that roam freely around Nara Park, and they are considered messengers of the gods.
Deer senbei, or deer crackers, can be purchased for 150 yen (a little over $1).
Before feeding the deer, hold the crackers up first. The deer will politely bow down then you can proceed to feed them. (Some people hide the crackers behind their backs to get a second or third bow.)
Do be careful, as some can bite and headbutt you for more crackers even when you’ve run out!
7. Bathe in an onsen.
Outdoor onsen at Onishiya Suishoen in Kinosaki.
An onsen, or hot springs in English, is the perfect remedy for a long and tiring day.
Keep in mind that public bath houses are enjoyed completely nude. Men and women are usually separated, although there are a few mixed-gender pools.
If you don’t feel entirely comfortable, I suggest booking a night at an onsen ryokan (or onsen inn) that offers private in-room baths.
8. Brave the world’s busiest intersection at Shibuya Crossing.
Shibuya Crossing is believed to be the world’s busiest intersection. At peak times, foot traffic can rack up to thousands of pedestrians.
Would you add this to your Japan bucket list?
9. Ride the Shinkansen.
The Shinkansen, or bullet train, can travel as fast as 285 kilometers per hour, making it a fantastic way to get around the country.
If you plan to travel extensively across Japan, you may want to consider getting a Japan Rail Pass.
Tip: Don’t forget to try ekiben, which are bentos (packaged meals) specifically sold on trains and at train stations. Eating is usually taboo on public transit, but the Shinkansen is an exception.
10. Marvel at the views of Mt. Fuji.
Mt. Fuji is definitely a Japan must-see.
While it is notoriously known for being shy and hiding behind the clouds, you can try your luck at these best Mt. Fuji viewing spots.
11. Hike through 10,000 torii gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha.
Fushimi Inari Taisha (or Fushimi Inari Shrine) is one of the most famous landmarks in Japan.
It is the head shrine of Inari (the Shinto god of rice), and is famous for its bright colored torii gates. These gates span across five kilometers – give or take – and takes approximately two to three hours to hike through.
Tip: The higher up you go, the less crowded it gets. If you’re looking to venture off the beaten path, there is a hidden bamboo forest here as well. Despite not being as impressive as the iconic Arashiyama grove, it is still a nice, tranquil escape.
12. Make a wish at a Shinto shrine.
Ema = wooden wish boards in Japanese.
In Japan, it’s typical to wish for good health, happiness in the family, or success in school/at work. It is believed that if you write your wish down on an ema, the gods will grant your desires.
13. Attend the annual Fuji Shibazakura Festival.
Fuji Shibazakura Festival is an annual flower festival that takes place mid-April until the end of May in Fujikawaguchiko.
If you are planning your trip for April or May, I highly recommend that you add it to your list of things to see in Japan.
14. Enjoy hanami from a boat at Chidorigafuchi Park.
Hanami is a flower viewing tradition in which people gather together for outdoor picnics and parties underneath cherry blossom trees.
To take things up a notch, why not rent a boat at Chidorigafuchi Park!
15. Watch the sun set at Shibuya Sky.
Shibuya Sky is a 360° open-air observation deck at Shibuya Scramble Square. It opened in November 2019 and is one of the hottest attractions in Japan.
Of all the recommendations in this guide, Shibuya Sky is the only Japan tourist spot I have not visited yet. It’s definitely on my Japan bucket list for when I return.
In the meanwhile, let me know in the comments if you’ve been and feel free to share some tips 😉
16. Slurp ramen noodles like a local.
In Japan, it is entirely normal to slurp your noodles. In fact, it is encouraged, as this signifies to the chef that you are enjoying the food.
It is also common to order ramen from a vending machine at the door. You get what’s called a “ramen ticket,” which you present to the waiter once you are seated.
Classic tonkotsu ramen at Ichiran.
Ichiran is a crowd favorite when it comes to the best ramen in Japan. It is a chain restaurant with more than 65 locations all across the country.
What’s special about Ichiran is not only are their tonkotsu broths rich in flavor, their individual cubicle dining spaces are an introvert’s dream come true.
Menbaka Fire Ramen’s famous negi (green onion) ramen.
Feeling a little more adventurous? Kyoto’s Menbaka Fire Ramen serves up flaming negi ramens. (I personally didn’t think much of the ramen itself. However, the show was a highlight of my 2015 Japan trip!)
Other Noodle Dishes to Try
It’s hard not to like ramen, but save some space for these other delightful noodle dishes.
Tempura udon at Shin Udon.
- Handmade udon. My favorite is Shin Udon in Tokyo. All of their noodles are made fresh in-house and cut and boiled to order. I am not exaggerating when I say I am willing to drop one grand on flights just to get a taste this delicious goodness again.
- Soba. Soba noodles are thin noodles made from buckwheat flour. They can be served chilled with a dipping sauce or in a hot broth as a soup noodle dish.
17. Sample fresh sushi and sashimi at a fish market.
Fresh salmon sashimi at Tsukiji Fish Market.
If you are a sushi enthusiast, you are likely familiar with Tsukiji Fish Market.
It is Tokyo’s oldest and most famous fish market where you can find fresh seafood and sample sushi + sashimi. While it did close down in 2018, it has since been replaced by Toyosu Fish Market.
Tip: Another alternative is Kanazawa Fish Market.
18. Dine at a themed café.
From maid cafés to animal and cartoon character cafés, Japan is nothing short of whimsical dining experiences. Heck, there are even robot restaurants too! How crazy is that!!!
Pikachu pancakes at Pokémon Café.
Keep in mind that not all animal cafés are ethical.
While some cat and dog cafés do shelter rescues, not all animals are accustomed to being surrounded by different people all day every day. (Hedgehog cafés are especially problematic since hedgehogs are technically nocturnal animals.)
Having said that, please do your research before visiting one.
19. Let your inner child roam free at Trick Art Museum.
Forget taking boring tourist pictures like everyone else. Trick Art Museum in Tokyo and Kobe provide the golden opportunity for you to get creative and make some silly memories.
20. Learn about the history of Japanese castles.
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Another bucket list Japan activity is to tour historic castles.
Castles are called shiro in Japanese and used to be fortresses occupied by feudal lords, samurais, or members of the imperial family.
Incredible Castles You Must See
- Osaka Castle played an important role in unifying the country during the Azuchi-Momoyama period, and is a major landmark today.
- Himeji Castle is Japan’s most well-preserved castle and a national treasure. Because of its white walls and elegant appearance, it is nicknamed Shirasagijo (White Heron Castle).
21. Spot a geiko in Kyoto.
Before you get confused, a geiko is the equivalent of a geisha, and she is a woman highly trained in the art of music, dance, and entertaining. (Geisha is the term used in Tokyo while geiko is used in Kyoto.)
A maiko, on the other hand, is a young apprentice geiko/geisha.
Together, the two can work hand in hand to put on private banquet dinners.
Young maiko tuning her shamishen before a performance.
It is extremely expensive to attend an actual geiko/geisha performance with entertainment dinners costing up to 80,000 yen (~$765 USD or $1,000 CAD) or more. However, that is not to say you can’t spot a geiko or maiko in the streets.
Tip: The best time to catch a glimpse of a geiko or maiko is around dusk on weekends and holidays. Hanamikoji Street in Gion and Shijo Street at the end of Pontocho are two optimal locations.
Kyoto Photography Ban
Starting November 2019, you can get fined 10,000 yen (~$95 USD or $125 CAD) for photographing a geiko or maiko.
22. Watch a sumo match.
2009 Tokyo Grand Tournament.
Sumo wrestling is Japan’s national sport and official sumo tournaments take place six times a year. Tickets can be purchased from a Ticket Pia store, online from Ticket Oosumo, or at the stadium on the day.
23. Zoom down the streets of Tokyo in a go-kart.
This one’s for all the Nintendo fans. Round up your friends for real-life Mario Kart in Tokyo.
Tip: Klook offers amazing discounted deals starting at $29.55 USD or $38.65 CAD. You will need a full Japanese driving license or an International driving permit.
24. Indulge in your otaku fantasies at Akihabara.
Hands up if you love anime!
Akihabara is a buzzing shopping district in Tokyo. Here, you can find mangas, figures and figurines, models, collectibles, video games, toys, maid cafés, cosplay costumes and props… Oh the list goes on!
If anime’s not your thing, check out the electronics stores. After all, Akihabara is said to be the world’s number one place to shop for high-tech gadgets.
25. Spend a night at an onsen ryokan.
Private in-room onsen at Fufu Kawaguchiko.
As mentioned above, an onsen ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn with onsen pools.
Apart from these pools, what differentiates it from most hotels is that guest rooms typically have tatami mat flooring. Instead of sleeping on a regular bed, you sleep on a futon.
In addition to that, kaiseki dinners are another Japan bucket list-worthy experience that always attract me to return.
A kaiseki dinner is a multi-course dinner originally meant for royal noble classes. Every chef prepares it differently, but the standard dishes are as follows:
- Sakizuke; an appetizer served with sake or some drink of your choice
- Nimono; a simmered fish
- Mukozuke; a sashimi dish
- Hassun; a seasonal offering
- Yakimono; a grilled specialty
- Hanamono or shokuji; a rice dish
There are also upscale onsen hotels that are more modern and luxurious. Having stayed at both types, I can’t say I prefer one over the other, as both have their unique charms.
I hope this Japan bucket list article gives you some ideas and inspiration on what to do in Japan. Don’t forget to pin this Japan travel guide for later and I’d love to hear your thoughts if you have already ticked off any of these Japan bucket list suggestions.
I had a layover in Japan once a year ago, and ever since wandering the airport I’ve wanted to go back and explore Japan as one of the top places on my bucket list. The things I had in mind of must-do was to try traditional Japanese ramen (I’m a big fan of the American packages – guilty pleasure!) and see Mt. Fuji. I’m glad that both of those things also made your list, thank you for the tips!
You’re most welcome, Chloe! Hope you get to make it back soon. I have a feeling you’d love Japan 😉
I absolutely loved the 2 weeks I spent in Japan and will definitely go back some day. Although I did manage to do most of what you have mentioned in your post, I missed going to an onsen which is a pity because it would have been one of the top experiences in Japan, for sure! Although I was lucky to catch the Fuji Shibazakura Festival, I was a little late for the hanami and that’s one big reason in itself to go back some day!
An onsen is an absolute must! Now you have another reason to return. No, make that two reasons! Seeing cherry blossoms in Japan is a total bucket list experience too.
First of all, as a photographer, I am delighted with your photos. They are perfect. Japan has been on my dream list for a long time. Your great and detailed tips on what to see during the first visit will help a lot in planning the trip. I would love to see Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, attend the Tea ceremony, and dress in a kimono. Outdoor onsen at Onishiya Suishoen in Kinosaki seems perfect for me. Of course, on top of my list is Mt. Fuji and Japanese food.
Thanks Agnes! You would for sure enjoy those activities and Japanese food is honestly my absolute favorite. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for you to visit soon!
We were in Japan for a few busy weeks. But it is clear we need to go back and see even more on a return trip. We are worry we missed the bamboo forest in Kyoto. Good tip to go early in the day. And we absolutely are sorry to have not rented a kimono. We loved when we saw people all decked out. Finding an onsen or two will definitely be on our plan for the next visit. So many reasons to go back.
Bummer! There’s so much to see and do in Japan that it’s hard to fit everything into one trip. You definitely need to plan another trip back and I do too! I have been seven times and my list of reasons for returning again simply never end XDD
Every people I know that just came back from Japan always talked about Shinkansen. If I’m not mistaken it’s also the fastest and the cheapest transportation in Japan? Anyway, the ramen and the sashimi definitely makes me drooling. I had a bowl of ramen once when transit at Narita. Shibuya Crossing looks crazy. If you are there with children, I’m pretty sure you must hold their hands.
Yes! It’s the fastest, but not necessarily the cheapest as busses are even more affordable 🙂
What a great list! So far, I’ve only done the Shibuya crossing, Mount Fuji, and ramen. I have a trip planned for February next year, but I’m not sure what my exact plans are and that may change 😭. But I’m going to save this list anyhow.
Don’t worry, my schedule changes constantly too and I always end up planning trips last-minute. Bookmark this page and Japan will always be there waiting for you!
I just came across another article talking about the cultural appropriation of tourists wearing komonos, and they talked about how locals actually love it! They love sharing this piece of culture with others as a way to cross barriers and share knowledge about Japanese history and culture. Anyway, I’m glad you included it in this article along with so many other great activities and things to do.
Exactly! I’ve always had locals come up to me and compliment my kimonos so the thought of this being cultural appropriation never crossed my mind. It’s great to see people being respectful and taking precautions though!
I was meant to be in Japan for the first time last summer until my trip was canceled due to some scheduling conflicts. It would have been our first trip to Asia. This list reminds me of all the reasons it was on my list and I can’t wait to get to book my trip when I can.
Aww I’m so sorry you couldn’t make it, Jamie! I’m sure you’ll get another chance in the future and you would totally love Japan 😀
Excellent post and wonderful photos! We did many of the 25 highlights on your list.
I would probably add visits of:
a) Traditional Japanese buildings and towns like Takayama and Hida Folk Village
b) Museums like the Tokyo National Museum
c) Japanese Department Stores like the Isetan Shinjuku Store
d) Traditional Japanese Gardens
I’ve heard so much about Hida Folk Village and have yet to visit!
I have been dreaming of Japan for such a long time and you have listed pretty much all the things I want to do… The digital art expo looks amazing and there are so many good photos to be taken at the temples and Mount Fujiyama. I definitely want to attend a tea ceremony, it is so quaint and charming. I would even go to a sumo match just for the thrill factor!
Well it sounds like someone needs to plan a trip to Japan ASAP hahaa 😉
Japan is such a colourful and vibrant country. These are amazing experiences the country has to offer. Would love to visit the enchanting temples of Japan.
Temples are a must-see in Japan. Hope you get to visit soon!
These are all wonderful suggestions, and I liked your explanation about kimono wearing for tourists – trying to navigate being a guest in another country/culture without causing offence can be tricky.
Oh for sure! It’s always good to be careful, but most locals honestly just love it 😀
What a fab post! I love that you have mixed in both modern, traditional culture and included plenty of food! I used to live in Nara, so I am happy to see that you included some of their sights as well. 🙂
I didn’t know about the photography ban for geiko/maiko in Kyoto. That is actually a really good idea – although I wonder how many people will listen to it. I have seen sooo many tourists flock to gion to take their photos.
Ahh no way!!! I’m super jealous! It’s such a dream of mine to live in Japan for a year so I can fully experience the country in all four seasons.
Re: photographing geiko/maiko in Kyoto… I really do hope people respect the rules. If not, the ¥10,000 fine can teach them a lesson.
These are some cool and surprising activities! you chose really interesting things to do. Specifically, I liked the Trick Art Museum, the Sumo match, and the fortune cards. And your photos are really beautiful!
Thanks so much, Moshe! Any plans to visit Japan in the near future? 🙂
I love Japan. The culture, the food, the sights, and the lack of crime is a refreshing change from traveling S. America. But wow, can you do something about the prices 🙂
Hahaa I know what you mean. Japan’s definitely one of the more expensive Asian countries, but it’s still worth every penny to visit!
Japan has forever been the country that keeps being the one I miss out on, some great tips on places to visit and things to do I can imagine Watching the sun set at Shibuya Sky would be incredible, but Mario Karting though the streets what an experience that will be. I will get there one day
First of all, your photos are ridiculously amazing! I kept showing them to my wife in awe!
Now I love this introduction to Japan! Everything you mentioned are things I have on my bucket list. I have always been intrigued by the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and walking amid the torii gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha. But I have added attending a real Tea Ceremony and your #22 Attend a Sumo Match to my Bucket List Project. I think Darcee, my wife would really find wearing a Kimono fun and there is no doubt that she would love seeing the Kinkaju-ji Gold Pavilion!
This was such a good find seeing as I’m planning on going to Japan in fall of next year because I know that they’ll be opening in some form or fashion for the Olympics by summer. I have been there once as a kid, but it’s been so long that it’ll almost be like a first trip to go back as an adult! A major draw for me is all the outdoor activities, plus the fact that the scenery is gorgeous in every season! I’m also sad I’ll be missing the Fuji Shibazakura Festival if I go in fall, but will keep that in mind for a possible return trip in spring the following year!
I have never been to Japan before. Therefore, your post is ideal for me. Bookmarking it for future reference. Would love to visit soon.