The Ultimate Japan Bucket List: 25 Places To Visit

May 4, 2021 | Adventure Travel, Backpacking, Food & Drinks, Group Tours, Japan, Travel Tips

Japan is a country full of wonder and culture, and is made up of over 6,800 islands in total which is crazy! It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia, and for good reason. In 2019, 31.9 million people visited Japan and tourism had been increasing year upon year until the pandemic hit. However, this country is still on many a bucket list and as soon as travel resumes, we know this will be one of the go-to travel destinations once again! From driving a go kart throughout the city of Tokyo to diving with whale sharks in Okinawa, this country has so much to offer. We’ve compiled a list of 25 things you don’t want to miss when travelling to Japan so if you’re planning your post pandemic getaway already, then keep reading for all the insider info you need to build your Japan bucket list out!

1. MOUNT FUJI

When you think of Japan, one of the first things that comes to mind is the incredible Mount Fuji. Mount Fuji is a very distinctive volcano found about 100km away from the capital of Tokyo. Although the last eruption was in 1707, this volcano is still considered as active and is a pretty amazing sight. If you are planning a trip here in the future, then make sure you don’t forget your camera!

On both our Japan tours, we travel to the stunning mountain town of Hakone where you can get the most incredible views of the elusive Mount Fuji. We will take all One Life trips on the Hakone Ropeway & then head to the beautiful lake Ashi afterwards to view Fuji from a pirate ship – yes, you read that right! These are two experiences you just can’t leave off your Japan bucket list!

3 people standing in front of Mount Fuji in Japan

2. GO STREET KARTING IN TOKYO

Tokyo is a crazy and unique city, and with that comes plenty of cool experiences for any traveller. One of these is the opportunity to Go Kart through the city. There are plenty of tour companies that will allow you to drive through the streets of Tokyo in these awesome karts (just be sure to take your driving licence with you). Most of these tours will give you a quick lesson in the go karts, a tour guide driver and even give you the chance to dress up, how cool is that?

If you don’t have a driving license, but still want to get involved there is occasionally the option to go in a Tuk-Tuk alongside. If this isn’t available why not grab some food and head to an area along the driving route, this way you’ll get to see all the karts as they go past. One of the most popular companies that offer this experience is Street Kart Tokyo Bay. 

Go karts stopping at traffic lights in tokyo

3. FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE, KYOTO

The Fushimi Inari Shrine is the head shrine of Inari, and is situated at the bottom of Mount Inari. There are plenty of sub shrines to explore within so you will want to take your time exploring this amazing place. This location is incredibly popular on Instagram, so chances are that you will have seen a photograph of this spot at least once before! Don’t miss out on getting your own.

It is a favourite with photographers because of the famous Torii shrine gates. Each of these bright orange gates has been donated by a business or individual in the hope that they will receive good luck and fortune in the future and the name of each donor is inscribed on the back of their gate in black ink.

It is one of the most popular places to visit in Kyoto, and it isn’t hard to see why. If you want to avoid the crowds, we would recommend you get here early. If you head to the entrance between 7am-8am, you will have a much quieter and peaceful experience.

 lantern hanging from fushimi inari shrine in kyoto

4. GO DIVING ON OKINAWA ISLAND

Okinawa is a 160 strong island archipelago and is found in the East China Sea. These islands are nicknamed the “Hawaii of Japan” because they are so beautiful, and they’re a popular holiday spot. One of the main reasons people visit these islands is to dive because of the marine life found here. Whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, sea turtles and humpback whales are just some of the diverse wildlife you can find here. If you are super lucky you might even get the chance to see the incredibly rare Okinawa Dugong.

If you want to know an interesting fact about these islands, then you should know they have another nickname – “the island of longevity”. Wondering why? Well, many people here lead very happy and healthy lives – past 100 years of age and with very low levels of disease! The Japanese attribute this to a concept that they call “Ikigai”. Translating to “reason for being”, once people here find ikigai, they pursue it every single day with a strong sense of purpose.

sea turtle swimming in okinawa, japan

5. ADMIRE THE CHERRY BLOSSOM IN SPRING

Japan’s cherry blossom season normally falls anywhere between mid march to early April but this can change each year. These beautiful trees usually only bloom for two weeks of the year, and the peak will differ depending on which area of Japan you are visiting. In the mountainous areas of Japan, Cherry Blossom often blooms later and can sometimes even be seen in May.

If you want to tie in your visit to Japan with Cherry Blossom season it is best to do some research first. Look at which areas you are visiting, and the bloom dates for previous years to give you a rough idea of when to go. If you are travelling during that time, and staying for a two week trip then there is a good chance you will get to see this beautiful occurrence.

Some of the most popular places to admire the Cherry Blossom include Yoshino, Hirosaki castle, Takato Castle ruins park and the Fuji five lakes.

Cherry blossom season at Osaka Castle

6. VISIT TOKYO’S POKEMON CENTRE

Pop culture is huge in Japan from movies to gaming, and we can all agree that the most well known franchise is Pokemon! Pokemon (also known as pocket monsters in Japan) has gripped the world, and is massive with gamers and people alike. The first games were released in 1997 and the aim was to catch all 151 pocket monsters and become the ultimate Pokemon master. A lot of things have changed since then, but the franchise has only increased in popularity over the years.

If you are interested in Pokemon or just want to have a unique experience, then definitely visit the Pokemon center in Tokyo! It is the biggest Pokemon center in Japan and is found just around the corner from Tokyo station. Whether you want to eat Pokemon themed food in the cafe, buy some cool merchandise or simply find out what the fuss is all about, you won’t regret it.

man holding a pokeball toy in his hand

7. PAY YOUR RESPECTS IN HIROSHIMA 

On the 6th August 1945 during World War II, the United States dropped a nuclear weapon over Hiroshima. It is estimated that around 70,000 people died on impact, with tens of thousands more dying of injuries and radiation poisoning in the following weeks and months. The city was flattened, and the aftermath was felt by the Japanese people for decades. However, today Hiroshima is thriving with a population of over 1.1 million people and the city is known for promoting world peace.

During our 14 day Japan tour we visit Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park where we have a local guide who can truly educate us on the devastating events that happened here. We view the Atomic Dome, have the opportunity to ring the peace bell and then say a prayer at the eternal flame. After this, we head to the museum to learn about Hiroshima’s awful past and how those events will continue to live on in people’s memory forevermore.

The atomic bomb dome in Hiroshima, Japan

8. EXPERIENCE THE WORLD FAMOUS BULLET TRAINS

The Shinkansen (also known as a bullet train) is a network of high speed railway lines across Japan. So, what makes this railway line any different to those across the world? These trains travel at speeds of up to 320Kph (199mph) and are probably one of the most reliable travel networks in the world. The trains often depart on time to the second, and considering the speed of these trains there has never been any fatal accidents in its 57 year history.

There are different classes to choose from depending which train line you are on, giving you a choice of how to travel depending on your budget. For foreign tourists travelling independently, the Japan Rail Pass is the most cost effective way to travel over long distances. This pass offers unlimited train rides on Japan Rail trains for 7 days, 14 days or 21 days.

a bullet train pulling into a train station in Japan

9. WANDER THROUGH THE MAGICAL BAMBOO FOREST

If Arashiyama Bamboo Forest isn’t on your Japan bucket list already then it needs to be! This bamboo forest is one of the most popular things to do in Kyoto and is one of the most photographed places in the city. You can take a serene walk along seemingly endless paths lined with towering bamboo trees that wave in the wind. Trust us, when we say that this place will leave you completely speechless.

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is open 24/7, so you can either head up there early, take an afternoon stroll or wander through it at night. This place is truly magical and we can’t recommend it enough!

The walkway through arashiyama bamboo forest in Kyoto

10. FEED THE DEER IN NARA PARK 

Nara Park is found within the city of Nara (sorry to state the obvious!) and was established in 1880, making it one of the oldest parks in Japan. The park is known for its super cute resident deer which roam around the park grounds freely. There are estimated to be around 1,400 deer here and the story is that they are connected with the gods. The legend goes that in 768 AD, a god travelled from the Ibaraki Prefecture to Mt Mikasa in Nara on a white deer. After that, deer were considered sacred and killing one was punishable by death.

Today the animals are protected, and are known as holy animals by the local people. What’s even better is that you can purchase special crackers called “shika senbei” to feed to the deer. Aside from the deer though, there are plenty of other things to see in Nara Park including the Todaiji Temple which is the largest wooden building in the world, Nandaimon Gate and Kasugataisha Shrine – all of which we highly recommend visiting!

close up image of a deer in nara park, japan

11. SEE THE SNOW MONKEYS IN JIGOKUDANI NATIONAL PARK

If you love animals, then this experience has to be on your Japan bucket list! Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is located within Jigokudani National Park and is known for its world famous Japanese macaques.

These macaques are the only wild monkeys in the world to bathe in hot springs, and it really is an extraordinary sight to see. This area is known to be covered in snow for nearly a third of the year, giving these macaques the nickname of “snow monkeys”. At an altitude of 850m, this place can get pretty chilly so we don’t blame these cute monkeys for taking a dip in the hot springs, we’d do the same!

japanese macaque sitting in the hot springs

12. VISIT THE UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE TOWN OF TAKAYAMA

The Old Town of Takayama is something else, and is one of Japan’s lesser known gems. It has been preserved from the Edo period (which dates back to 1603) so is the perfect place to get a feel of a traditional Japanese street. When you walk through the streets here, it truly feels like you are in a different era!

The scenery surrounding the town Is breathtaking and there are so many great things to do. Some of the most popular attractions here include the Onsens (Japanese hot springs), sake tasting and of course the food. During our Japan tours, we visit this UNESCO site and go on a tour of Takayama Old Town to explore and have our own sake tasting at one of the breweries. This place is pretty special, and we would recommend it to any traveller who is planning a trip to Japan (just be sure to only participate in sake tasting if you’re over the age of 20, which is the legal drinking age in Japan).

takayama inari shrine in japan

13. EXPLORE OSAKA CASTLE

Osaka Castle (or Osaka-jo in Japanese) is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks and is a popular tourist destination with over 2.5 million people visiting every year. The castle has eight floors and its history dates back almost 450 years.

The castle was built in 1583 and was supposed to be impregnable, only to be burnt down during the Tokugawa conquest. The castle was reconstructed in 1620, and was then hit by lightning in 1660 which ignited stocks of gunpowder inside, resulting in a huge fire which burnt down most of the castle! After being repaired in 1843, the castle was burnt down again during a civil conflict which led to another rebuild in 1931. Osaka castle then underwent a total restoration in 1997 after it was attacked by the United States army during World War II. It’s safe to say the castle hasn’t had much luck throughout the years, but after the latest restoration it is looking stunning and we love to visit it.

The architecture of the castle is amazing, but the parks surrounding it are also a must visit. This is where you will get the best views of Osaka Castle, and you can even take a short boat ride around the surrounding moat. In the Cherry Blossom season and fall season, these parks are especially popular so be sure not to miss out on spotting the blooms here.

 a view of osaka castle in japan

14. VISIT A KARAOKE BAR

You can’t visit Japan and not go to a Karaoke bar in our opinion. Karaoke originated in Japan, so it is only fair to respect that and sing our hearts out, right?

The big cities in Japan have the most karaoke bars so you will have a lot of choice (and no excuses for not visiting). The best way is to go in a group and hire out a karaoke box, fully equipped with a karaoke player and microphones. Most will also have a private phone connected to reception, where you can order food and drinks until your heart’s content. The charges will vary depending on which bar you go to, so it’s best to do some research first.

a karaoke sign with lights

15. RELAX ON MIYAJIMA ISLAND

Located just an hour away from Hiroshima, Miyajima Island is known for its magical forests and ancient temples. However, it’s probably most famous for the Great Torii Gate, which is part of the Itsukushima shrine. It is a Shinto shrine and is thought to be the border between the human world and spirits. This Torii gate is found in the middle of the sea and at high tide it looks as if it’s floating in the water.

Other popular places to visit on Miyajima Island include the history museum, Mt. Misen, and the five story pagoda. On the last full day of our 14 day Japan tour, we visit Miyajima Island and see all the stunning sights, including the Great Torii Gate at high tide and the Miyajima shrine. This island is a beautiful place, and one not to be missed!

the great torii gate on miyajima island

16. VISIT KYOTO’S GION DISTRICT AND GO GEISHA SPOTTING

Geisha’s are at the heart of Japanese culture, and are found in various cities across Japan. The Geisha are known as entertainers that undergo various training including traditional Japanese arts, communication skills and hospitality skills. These beautiful women attend numerous events including banquets where their role is to make guests feel at ease. They do this by engaging in conversation, drinking games and participating in amazing dance performances.

If you want to see a real Geisha, then the best place to visit is the Gion District in Kyoto. This district is the most famous all over Japan for Geisha spotting. The geisha here are also known as geiko, and live in special houses called okiya. If you love culture, then this is an experience that needs to be on your Japan bucket list!

a geisha walking down a street in japan

17. RELAX IN AN ONSEN OR PUBLIC BATH HOUSE

If we can find a way to relax whilst travelling, we’ll take it! An Onsen is a natural hot water spring and thanks to Japan’s high levels of volcanic activity, there are plenty of them across the country. The water is geothermally heated below the ground and then rises to the surface leaving you with a bubbling natural jacuzzi to relax in.

A public bath house (otherwise known as Sento) are indoor bath houses which use ordinary heated water. They are used as an everyday hygiene measure by Japanese people, which makes it a very interesting and unique experience. The Onsen’s are a lot more popular, but generally you can’t enter them with tattoos, so a public bath house will be your best bet.

One thing to note about an Onsen or Sento is that the majority will require you to be naked for hygiene purposes! However, the baths are segregated by males and females, so you won’t have to be in there with the opposite gender. The idea of this is really scary for tourists but trust us, it’s a great experience. We do know that not all people will feel comfortable with this, so there are the odd few Onsen that will allow you to wear a swimsuit whilst relaxing in the hot springs. You’ll just have to do a bit of research first! 

a public bath house in tokyo, japan

18. WANDER TSUKIJI FISH MARKET & TAKE A SUSHI MAKING CLASS

The world famous Tsukiji Fish Market is found in Tokyo, and is known for its delicious seafood. This market is also the birthplace of Japan’s most famous food, sushi! The wholesale part of the market closed in 2018 and was moved to another location, but the outer market of Tsukiji still remains and there’s plenty of incredible and unique foods on offer for those with adventurous taste buds.

The opening times vary depending on the shops inside the market, but typical opening times are 5am-2pm. With over 300 shops and restaurants found here, you will have plenty to do – so make sure you give yourself a bit of time to explore. 

During our Japan tours we explore the famous Tsukiji Fish Market together before heading over to our sushi making class where sushi masters will teach you how to roll the perfect sushi and fry teriyaki tuna!

a group of people at a sushi making class in japan

19. VISIT THE GOLDEN PAVILION IN KYOTO

The Golden Pavilion (also known as Kinkakuji) is a Zen Buddhist temple located in Northern Kyoto. It’s most famous for its top two floors being completely covered in gold leaf, which makes this spot extremely popular with tourists. You can’t actually go inside the temple as it isn’t open to the public, but you can get an amazing view from the large pond in front. The view of Kinkakuji with the water in front is stunning and makes for incredible photographs!

The Golden Pavilion is another spot that can get very busy, so we would recommend that you head there just after 9am or later on in the evening before it closes. This temple is beautiful, and if you can enjoy it with fewer people then it’s even better!

the golden pavilion in kyoto, japan

20. GET A TASTE OF SAKE

Japanese sake is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting rice, and is a somewhat acquired taste. It has been extremely popular in Japan since it was first made, over 1,000 years ago. There are five main types of sake; Honjozo-shu, Namazake, Daiginjo-shu, Junmai-shu and Ginjo-shu. Each has its own unique taste and is served differently. Sake also has quite a high alcohol volume of about 17%-19%.

One thing to note is that the word sake has different meanings in English and Japanese! The English meaning is what we know it as, which is “alcohol made by fermenting rice”. However Sake in Japanese quite simply means all alcoholic drinks, so if you want to try it you will need to ask for ‘nihonshu’. Don’t forget that the legal drinking age in Japan is 20!

bottles of sake in japan

21. TRY OUT A KENDO CLASS

Kendo is a Japanese martial art that arose from the Samurai. Training with a blade was considered incredibly dangerous, which is why Kendo was introduced. This martial art uses bamboo swords (otherwise known as shinai) as well as protective armour. Kendo is practiced all across Japan, but it has also become popular in other parts of the world such as Canada, Brazil and the United States. 

The aim of Kendo is to strike your opponent on the body. However, you can’t just hit them anywhere, there are designated strike zones, and you have to call each one out before striking the other person. The three strike zones are the head, trunk and forearm, and if you strike anywhere else on the body you won’t score any points. There is actually a fourth strike zone which is the part of the throat below the head protector, however this is considered too dangerous for children to practice. The contest lasts for 5 minutes and the first person to score two points wins the match. 

On our Japan tours we go to a traditional Kendo class which takes place in the dojo where it all began. Our authentic Bushido instructor, a descendent of a Japanese Samurai, teaches us the way of this respectful martial art, before we finish with a 10 minute guided meditation! It’s an awesome experience that we love to help tick off people’s bucket lists.

people at a kendo class in japan

22. VISIT SENSO-JI TEMPLE IN ASAKUSA

Senso-ji temple is a Buddhist temple found in Asakusa, Tokyo. It’s an ancient temple and is actually the oldest in Tokyo. It’s estimated that Senso-ji was completed around 645 AD, meaning it has plenty of unique history and stories. There are plenty of ways you explore this incredible temple, but the most popular is to start from Kaminarimon gate. This way you get to see the two statues that guard it; Fujin-sama (the god of wind) and Raijin-sama (the god of thunder and lightning).

Senso-ji is dedicated to Kannon, who is the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The story goes that in 628 AD two brothers; Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari, went on a fishing trip where they caught no fish, but instead came across a small gold statue. Unaware of its value they threw it back into the river, and carried on along the river in their boat. The statue kept getting caught in their net, and they kept throwing it back into the water, until finally they took it back to their local chief. The chief recognised the statue as Kannon; the goddess of mercury. The three men then made a small grass hut as a shrine to the statue, which is how Senso-ji temple started.

The temple is the heart of Asakusa putting this part of Tokyo on the map as an important pilgrimage site. Due to this, the temple attracts around 30 million worshippers a year. 

a crowd of people in front of sensoji temple in asakusa, japan

23. EXPLORE THE BEAUTIFUL TEMPLE OF KIYOMIZU-DERA

Kiyomizu-dera is one of Japan’s most famous and celebrated temples. Located in Kyoto, the temple dates back to 798, although the current temple is a reconstruction which dates back to 1633. As reconstructions go, this is pretty old! 

Some of the most popular experiences at this temple include admiring the Hondo (the main hall), trying to ensure success in love at the Jishu-jinja shrine, and checking out the Tainai-meguri which is located near the main entrance. You can even drink sacred water from the waterfall Otowa-no-taki, which is believed to give you health and longevity. The name Kiyomizu-dera literally means ‘pure water temple’ as it gets its name from the Otowa waterfall, where it was built.

kiyomizu-dera temple in kyoto, japan

24. VISIT AN ANIMAL CAFE IN TOKYO 

Cat cafes originated in Asia, but they are now a phenomenon that can be found all over the world. Japan has lots of these, but they have also introduced plenty of other animal cafes for people to visit. Whether you enjoy the company of cats, dogs, rabbits, hedgehogs or owls, there are plenty of cafes for you to choose from!

What’s better than grabbing a coffee, and being able to pet cute animals at the same time?

a cat standing on a table alongside a takeaway cup of coffee

25. SLEEP IN A RYOKAN OR TEMPLE

Everyone loves the opportunity to sleep in unique accommodation whilst they travel. Two of the most incredible accommodation options in Japan are a Ryokan or a traditional temple.  

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn where you will usually sleep on tatami mats, and there is often a communal bath within. It is a great way to understand the culture of Japan, and is a very personal type of stay. You might even get the chance to chat with the owners! If you want to stay in a temple, this is an even more unique experience where you will get to learn a lot about the Japanese culture and buddhism.

During our 10 day Japan tour, we stay in a stunning Japanese temple in Takayama. Our beds are simple tatami mats, and all the rooms are centred around a stunning Japanese zen garden. On our 14 day Japan tour, we also stay in a traditional Buddhist temple in Koyasan. This is our chance to learn the temple way of life, in a real, working temple surrounded by monks and it’s an experience no one forgets in a hurry.

a typical ryokan in japan

As you can see, Japan is full of endless things to do and beautiful places to visit. Whether you love an adventure or you are more interested in the history and culture of a destination, Japan has so much to offer. All of us here at One Life Adventures have completely fallen in love with this beautiful country. We believe Japan and it’s incredible experiences are to be shared with everybody, which is why we have dedicated two fantastic tours that will show you the best things to do in this country!

This Japan bucket list is only scratching the surface of this incredible destination, so if you want more amazing experiences you can find more information about our 10 Day and 14 Day Japan tours on our website. If you are dreaming of visiting Japan, then we would love to show you around!

Feeling inspired to save for your next adventure? Check out our other trips here and use the code ONELIFE15 at checkout to get an enormous 15% off all our trips, for a limited time only!  (May 2021)

Written By: Abbie Bevan

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