If you have been following me on Instagram, you know that Japan is my number one favorite destination of all time. 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. Having visited numerous times myself, I have compiled the ultimate Japan bucket list with 25 of the absolute best things to do in Japan.
1. Get lost in the colorful world of teamLab Borderless.
Unless you live under a massive rock, you have most likely 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 and thought the crowds would maybe die down an hour before closing, but 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 and it really does make for a gorgeous photoshoot backdrop.
Tip: To avoid crowds, 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 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 is (unfortunately) a dying art. By renting a kimono, you are actually helping to 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 fun thing 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, however, 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. Do 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’s believed that if you write your wish down on an ema, the gods will grant your desires.
Haven’t booked your hotel yet? Start planning today!
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 do 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 the hottest new place to visit in Japan.
Of all the recommendations in this guide, Shibuya Sky is the only attraction sight I have not visited yet. It’s definitely on my to-do 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 your 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 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 probably 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. (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. Some cat and dog cafés do shelter rescues, but at the end of the day, not all animals are accustomed to being surrounded by different people all day every day. (Hedgehog cafés are especially problematic as well since hedgehogs are technically nocturnal animals.) Having said that, please, please, pleaseeeee 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.
Now it is extremely expensive to attend an actual geiko/geisha performance. These entertainment dinners can cost 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. It is completely acceptable to admire their beauty from afar, but please do not harass them for selfies thinking you won’t get caught.
On my most recent trip to Kyoto, I wore a kimono around Gion and I cannot tell you how annoying it was for strangers to literally wave their cameras in my face and photograph me without permission. It got so unbearable that I had to ask a man to stop and he kept pestering me about why even when I explicitly said I did not feel comfortable. And I’m not even a geiko or maiko! Imagine getting stopped every single day on your way to work and being pressured to take pictures with hundreds of tourists. Please respect that this is their job and they are not obligated to entertain your photo requests. I cannot stress this enough!
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 key highlight that always attract me to go back again. A kaiseki dinner is a multi-course dinner originally meant for the 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.
And there you have it! The ultimate Japan bucket list.
I hope this guide gives you some ideas and inspiration on what to do in Japan. Don’t forget to pin this for later and I’d love to hear your thoughts if you have already ticked off any of these bucket list suggestions.
Until next time!