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When you’re planning your trip to Japan, sometimes it can feel incredibly overwhelming. After all, there are so many things to do or experience in this incredible country.
How do you distinguish between the once-in-a-lifetime experiences and the things that you’ll probably forget about once you return home?
If this sounds like something you’re struggling with, then read on!
This guide is going to share some of Japan’s most well-known bucket list experiences and how to include them on your trip!
1. See a sumo wrestling match
Sumo is a sport that originated in ancient Japan as a way to entertain Shinto Deities.
Today, Sumo is still practiced (only by men) and is deep in traditional rituals.
The best way to see a sumo match is by attending a Sumo Wrestling Tournament, held at various cities throughout the year in Japan.
If seeing a Sumo wrestling match is important to you, you should research before your visit to find out when the Sumo tournaments are held.
Check out the official Sumo Tournament site here.
If there are no sumo matches held during your time in Japan, you can watch a sumo training session instead!
These need to be booked in advance (you can’t show up at the Sumo Stable by yourself) as often they do not allow tourists unaccompanied without someone who is fluent in Japanese and familiar with Sumo customs.
2. Try on a Kimono or Yukata
Both the Kimono and Yukata are traditional Japanese dress, often made from beautiful patterned fabric.
The Kimono is a ceremonial robe with two collars (often heavier in weight and made from silk) whereas the Yukata is a cotton robe, typically worn during summer.
When visiting Japan, there are various companies where you can rent a Kimono or Yukata for an afternoon (often with a hairpiece too) and it’s definitely recommended if you want to learn more about traditional Japanese dress.
You can do this in most major cities in Japan, but I’d recommend Kyoto as the perfect place to do this.
Kyoto’s backdrop as the more traditional city is incredibly beautiful making it a great place to wear a kimono and take photos
3. Hike Fujisan (Mt Fuji)
For my hiking and outdoor fans out there, hiking Mt Fuji (also known as “Fujisan” in Japanese) needs to be at the top of your Japan bucket list.
The summit of Mt Fuji sits at 3,776 meters (12,389 feet), making this the tallest peak in Japan.
Before you go:
- There is a strict hiking season, which happens during the summer months (make sure you check the official website for actual dates)
- Mt Fuji is best visited as a side trip from Tokyo
- It takes anywhere between 5 – 10 hrs hike to the summit and return (depending on your pace and where you begin your hike)
- This can be a difficult hike, so it’s important to be prepared and do your research!
4. See Mt Fuji
This is one of my most favorite items on this list – did you really go to Japan if you didn’t see Mt Fuji?
Mt Fuji is Japan’s tallest peak and one of the most iconic sights around the world. You can hike Fujisan (as covered above) or if you’re not into hiking, you can go on a day trip to see Mt Fuji!
While there are many places you can see Mt Fuji from, the two most popular (for good reason) are Fuji Five Lakes region and Hakone.
From Fuji Five Lakes, the most iconic sights are from:
- Chureito Pagoda
- Lake Kawaguchiko
From Hakone, the most iconic sights are from:
- Lake Ashinoko
- Hakone ropeway
Psst: Fujisan can be a bit “shy” depending on the weather conditions and cloud coverage. It’s best to try to see Mt Fuji on a clear day to increase your chances of seeing the famous peak.
5. Scramble across Shibuya Crossing
If you’re short on time in Tokyo, this should be at the top of your Japan bucket list. Shibuya crossing is such an iconic sight to behold in Japan.
It’s impressive that when the lights go green, the pedestrians travel in all directions like clockwork.
It’s best to experience the Shibuya Scramble from a distance, but also cross yourself!
Things to know:
- The Shibuya Crossing is right outside the Shibuya Train Station
- To see Shibuya Crossing from above: the Starbucks cafe has an upstairs seating section with great views (this can get busy) or you can pay entry to Shibuya Sky, an observation deck which opened in late 2019
6. Go to a Matsuri (festival)
If you’re visiting Japan, chances are you want to experience traditional Japanese culture.
And there’s no better way to do this than to attend a Matsuri!
A Matsuri is a festival, typically held at a shrine or temple.
Most Matsuri are held over summer/ early autumn, though there are festivals at different times of year.
Most Matsuri include elaborate floats and/or colorful lanterns.
There are so many Matsuri happening over Japan at any given time, it’s hard to list them all – the best way to find out if there is a festival happening when you’re in Japan is to do a quick google search for the dates you’ll be in Japan!
7. Enjoy a Hanami
If you’re fortunate to visit Japan during spring then this bucket list experience is for you!
Hanami is Japanese for “flower viewing”, which is the custom of enjoying the beauty of flowers.
In modern-day Japan, this involves having an outdoor picnic to see the Sakura (or Cherry Blossoms)
8. Walk the same path as religious pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo
The Kumano Kodo is an ancient pilgrimage trail and is only one of two UNESCO listed hiking trails in the world.
This network of trails located in the southern Kansai region has been in use for over 1,000 years (what a history!)
The trails originally were a way that pilgrims to move between the sacred areas on the Kii Peninsula, to visit three main shrines: Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha, and Nachi Taisha.
If you’re a keen hiker or want to experience more of Japan’s cultural side, including the Kumano Kodo on your trip is a must!
I hiked this trail on a recent trip to Japan and will be writing a more detailed blog post about my experience (keep a lookout, my friends!)
9. Stay at a traditional ryokan
Japan isn’t all capsule hotels and high technology.
Japan also still embraces its traditional side, and one of the ways you can experience this is by staying at a traditional ryokan during your time in Japan.
What’s a Ryokan, you might ask?
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, where the rooms have tatami-mat floors and communal baths.
When you stay at a ryokan, you typically will sleep on a futon on the floor and will be provided with yukata (cotton japanese robes) to wear during your stay.
You can find Ryokan all over Japan, though they are more readily available in smaller cities and rural areas.
The best places (in my humble opinion) to stay in a ryokan are in the more traditional city of Kyoto and any other (smaller) city or region you’re visiting.
While you can find ryokan in Tokyo, they’re not as common.
10. Bathe in a traditional Onsen
An Onsen is a communal bath, commonly found in a ryokan, though sometimes they are standalone onsens where you don’t need to stay the night to use the bath.
What makes onsen so unique?
Traditional onsen is a communal bathing experience, where you will be bathing (naked) with other people present.
It sounds strange and awkward but I swear this is a unique experience to Japan that I highly recommend everyone try (at least once!)
Psst: if bathing with strangers sounds awful, you can hire a private onsen so you don’t need to bathe with people you don’t know. I recommend all friends visiting Japan to do this at a minimum!
11. See the Shirakawago light-up event during winter
Shirakawago is a village located in Gifu Prefecture, that is famous for having a whole village of houses which are built in the “Gassho Style” with local wood and thatched roofs.
Shirakawago is picturesque and magical at any time of year, but especially so during winter, where the village has a special illumination event (made even prettier with snow!)
The winter illumination has become so popular that you need to make bookings to see it.
If you’re not visiting during winter, Shirakawago is still worth a visit, as it is a beautiful village. To find out more, check out my Shirakawago guide here.
12. Visit the Sapporo Snow festival
Sapporo is the capital city of the Hokkaido prefecture, an island located in northern Japan.
The area is famous for snowboarding and skiing during winter and is especially popular for the Sapporo Snow festival which happens every February.
No, you don’t need to be a keen skier or snowboarder to enjoy the Sapporo Snow Festival!
The festival features intricately created snow and ice sculptures – the detail and hours of work dedicated to creating these is worth visiting for!
You can also slide your way down snow slides during this festival and go snow rafting.
13. Visit Bunny island or one of Japan’s Cat Islands
You might have seen posts on social media about Japan’s cat islands or bunny island.
These are real islands that are worth a visit should you be a fan of these small furry creatures!
Japan’s Bunny Island, known as Ōkunoshima is off the coast of Takehara city, Hiroshima Prefecture. You can get there via ferry, and yes – there are many bunnies here. The island has a dark history – it was where the Japanese Imperial Army produced poisonous gas during World War II.
There are a couple of stories about where the bunnies came from (either leftover test subjects from poisonous gas production or from the rabbits that school kids released on the island).
If you’re more into cats, there are 11 different islands you can visit which have been overrun by cats.
The most accessible island for most tourists is Enoshima Island, located in Kanagawa Prefecture. Enoshima Island can be reached from Tokyo as a day trip, and takes about 1 hr 15min via Shinkansen (one way) from Tokyo. This is a great resource to figure out which island you’d like to visit.
14. Spend a night in a capsule hotel
As one of the most densely populated cities in the world, Tokyo has inspired many innovative solutions to high demand for space.
One of these is the capsule or pod hotel.
These hotels are tiny (and when we say tiny, we really mean tiny!) rooms that people spend the night in.
Capsule hotels while a definitely must-stay in Japan are not for the claustrophobic, as they are akin to basically sleeping in an enclosed bunk bed.
Things to know:
- Capsules are usually separated by gender, so if you’re traveling with someone of a different gender, you will be placed in different locations
- If you’re a couple, some capsule hotels have a “larger” capsule option
- Think twice about staying in a capsule hotel if you’re claustrophobic or have problems climbing in/out of a bunk bed.
15. Ride the Shinkansen
Shinkansen (or bullet train in English) are the high-speed trains available all over Japan.
For many travelers, these are likely to be the fastest trains they have ever been on (I know as an Australian, this is definitely the case for me!)
Shinkansen can reach a speed of 320 km/h or 199 mph (fast, right?!)
When traveling in Japan, the Shinkansen is a great way to travel between cities, and if you’re visiting multiple cities during your time in Japan, the JR rail pass is the most cost-efficient way to do so.
16. See Miyajima’s famous floating Torii gate
What’s a Torii Gate, you might ask?
Torii gates are uniquely Japanese, and they are a traditional Japanese gate (usually red in color, though not always), found at the entrance to Shinto shrines.
Torii gates symbolically mark the transition from the mundane to the sacred.
Miyajima Island is home to one of Japan’s most famous torii gate at Itsukushima Shrine, famous as it appears to be floating on water.
Important: the famous torii gate on Miyajima Island is undergoing renovations, and is currently covered in scaffolding. The renovations began during June 2019 and are expected to take 1 year to complete (though no official announcement has been made on the expected completion date). If you visit Miyajima Island during this time, you cannot see the floating torii gate.
How to visit Miyajima Island:
- Miyajima Island can be accessed via ferry from Hiroshima and is a very popular day trip
- It’s best to look up tide times to make sure you get to see the Torii Gate when it appears to be floating
- If you’re planning to visit, make sure you check out my Miyajima guide here
17. Hang paper cranes at the Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima
The Children’s Peace Monument was inspired by a Japanese girl by the name Sasaki Sadako.
Sasaki became sick with radiation sickness after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II.
She began folding paper cranes, with the goal of folding 1,000 (it’s believed in Japanese culture that if you successfully fold 1,000 paper cranes, your wish will become true).
Today, you can visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and as part of your visit you can leave paper cranes at the Children’s Peace Monument.
Before you Visit Hiroshima:
- Hiroshima is 1.5hr Shinkansen train ride from Kyoto/Osaka, so it’s recommended that you spend at least 1 night here
- The Children’s Peace Monument is located in the Peace Memorial Park, part of the Hiroshima Peace Museum
- For a detailed guide on things to do, check out my guide to Hiroshima here.
18. Visit Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto
The Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine is one of Kyoto’s most famous Shrines.
This Shinto Shrine is famous for the rows of thousands of Torii gates along the hike up Inari Mountain.
The tori gates have been donated by individuals and local businesses.
It costs 400,000 yen (approximately $3,500 USD) for a small-sized gate, and the cost increases to over one million yen (roughly $8,800 USD) for a large gate!
Since the Fushimi Inari Shrine gets busy with tourists, I’d recommend a visit early in the morning so you can appreciate the shrine in peace.
19. Visit the Hakone Shrine (with views of Mt Fuji)
If you’re planning on seeing Mt Fuji, chances are you’ll be heading to Hakone either to spend the night or on a day trip.
One of Hakone’s most iconic sights is the giant red tori gate at Hakone Shrine, which sits along the shores of Lake Ashi.
The shrine’s location amongst nature makes it an iconic and beautiful sight to behold when you visit Hakone!
20. Admire the views of Fujisan from the Chureito Pagoda
Chureito Pagoda is one of those places you see in countless photos of Japan, but no one really tells you where it is.
This pagoda is part of the Arakura Sengen Shrine located in the Fuji Five Lakes Region, and has incredible, out of this world views of Fujisan.
The pagoda is especially popular during Sakura (Cherry Blossom) season and during fall too.
21. See the floating Torii Gates of the Ōuo Shrine
The floating torii gates of the Ōuo Shrine look like a mythical place that couldn’t possibly be real.
I’m here to tell you that yes, they are real, and you can visit them when you visit Japan!
There are three floating torii gates at the Ōuo Shrine, and legend has it a corrupt magistrate came to party at the nearby island of Okinoshima.
The local residents got him drunk and abandoned him.
He prayed to be rescued and a giant fish saved him, so he built the Ōuo Shrine with the floating tori gates heading in the direction of Okinoshima island.
How to get to the Ōuo Shrine:
- The Ōuo Shrine is located in Saga Prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu
- The Island of Kyushu is located quite far down south in Japan, so the most efficient way to get there is via plane from Tokyo
- Alternatively, you can also visit Kyushu from Hiroshima, which is about a 2.5hr train ride (one way).
22. See the many Torii Gates of the Motonosumi Inari Shrine
Yep, I’ve added another shrine to the list, and that’s the Motonosumi Inari Shrine, famous for its 123 red tori gates lined up, leading to a cliff that overlooks sea views.
The Motonosumi Inari Shrine is not as accessible as other shrines in Japan – there are no nearby train stations and no bus routes to the shrine.
The only way to visit is via car or a 20minute taxi ride from Nagato-Furuichi Station / 40minute taxi ride from Nagato-shi Station.
23. Go sightseeing at Shakotan Peninsula in Hokkaido
Hokkaido is known as one of the best places to go skiing or snowboarding in Japan during the winter.
But this northern prefecture is also a great destination during summer too!
Since it’s further north from Tokyo, Hokkaido is much cooler during the summer, making it a popular summer holiday destination for Japanese.
One of the most beautiful parts of Hokkaido is the Shakotan Peninsula, known for sweeping cliffs and turquoise blue sea views.
The best way to get to Hokkaido is via plane or Shinkansen, however, to see the Shakotan Peninsula, you’ll need to rent a car.
24. See the “Wedded Rocks” in Nagasaki
Known in Japanese as Meoto Iwa, these two sacred rocks located in the ocean represent a married couple.
The rocks are joined by a Shimenawa rope, which is replaced in a ceremony three times a year. You can find out more about how to visit the Meoto Iwa here.
So there you have it – my suggestions for bucket list experiences to add to your next Japan holiday!
What have you added to your itinerary?
Let me know in the comments!
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