The Ultimate Japan Bucket List
I’ve visited Japan a couple times, and I love the country. Each time I go I try to find off-the-beaten path things to do, so this list won’t be your standard tourist list. I sorted it by general area, with a section for things you can do in multiple cities in Japan.
These were my favorite things that I did in Japan separated by city area.
This is by far my number one recommendation to anyone visiting Tokyo for the first time. You dress up as different cartoon characters and drive around the city in a go-cart. You have someone who guides your group and takes pictures, so it’s very easy. My favorite part about it is that you get to see the entire city in a nonconventional way. People will wave to you and try to take pictures with you, making it an exciting outing.
Click here to visit the Mari Car website. You will need to get an international driver’s license to be able to participate. You can pick these up at a AAA for roughly $20. Well worth it in my opinion. I believe this has expanded to other cities, as well.
2. Robot Restaurant
This is another one of those “Only in Japan” things. I don’t want to describe it too much, because it will ruin the fun. Basically, picture a futuristic “restaurant” where you watch robots battle all sorts of things. It’s a great show.
Get more info on the Robot Restaurant here. It’s a good idea to purchase tickets in advance, as they frequently sell out at the door.
3. Takasaki - Haruna Shrine/Daruma Temple
Up for a quick day-trip out of Tokyo?
This is a more traditional thing to do, but it’s been one of my favorite experiences in Japan. Haruna Shrine might become a World Heritage Site in the near future. It’s the most beautiful and peaceful place I’ve ever been. It’s a shrine tucked away in a mountain, and it definitely gave me Miyazaki vibes.
The Daruma Temple is located nearby, and it was really neat to see thousands of the darumas in one place. The temple staff were super nice and even gave us tea. Best tea I’ve ever had.
Both Haruna Shrine and the Daruma Temple are located in Takasaki. We rented a car and drove, but I’d recommend taking a bus or train if possible (they were sold out when we visited). If you drive, be prepared to drive on windy mountain roads to get to Haruna Shrine. You will get a genuine Japanese experience visiting these places as they are outside of the touristy Tokyo area.
4. Aoyama Flower Market Tea House
The first time I visited Tokyo, we went to this beautiful flower shop that had a little restaurant/tea house tucked away in the back. I accidentally ordered two full size meals because I couldn’t read the menu, and people looked at me strangely. I ate ALL of it. The food was amazing, and the tea was even better.
It’s a little hidden away, so you can miss it if you aren’t careful. It’s right across the street from Omotesando Station - using the A4 exit. You may have to wait in line a bit for food, but it’s 100% worth the wait. I recommend the strawberry tea if it’s available.
I’m not an overly colorful or out there person, but my love for Harajuku runs deep. There are so many fun things tucked in corners there. I can’t even list all of my favorite things, because there are just too many. Here are a few you must check out/try in Harajuku:
Rainbow Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Giant Rainbow Cotton Candy from Totti Candy Factory
Vintage Fashion Shopping
In order to get the cotton candy, you will need to pick up a time from a worker standing in front of the building. Do this as early as possible, because time slots fill up fast.
Purikura is a type of Photo Booth that is really popular with the younger crowd in Japan. You will have to go into a sketchy looking basement to find the plethora of booths, and you’ll probably get lost, but you need to get at least one photo strip from Harajuku.
6. Onsen - Mt. Fuji
I feel like everyone should try an onsen at least once in their lives. An onsen is a public hot spring bath house. I recommend Fuji-Yurari as the perfect onsen for first-timers. They have private rooms with views of Mt. Fuji, so if you’re shy you don’t have to be naked around others.
Add in a view of Mt. Fuji, and you have the perfect relaxing atmosphere.
Onsens are separated by gender, and you can’t wear any clothes into the springs (including swimsuits). Most onsens don’t allow tattoos, so double check before you go. Click here to check out Fuji-Yuyari Onsen.
7. Tokyo DisneySea
Tokyo DisneySea is unique, as it’s the only DisneySea in the world. The entire park is based on water ports, and they have special food and mascots also unique to the park. This is another one of my favorite places especially if you end up traveling with kids.
I didn’t visit Akihabara until my second time in Japan, and the little nerd in me didn’t know what I was missing out on. I highly recommend this area for anyone interested in Japanese Pop Culture, Anime, Manga, etc. There are a lot of really fun stores and malls in the area. I picked up some manga to work on my Japanese more. Plus they are some of my favorites, but will stick with the productive reasoning.
9. Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
Fun fact about me: I love zoos and aquariums, and I try to visit them in every city I go to. When I heard that the Osaka Aquarium had whale sharks, I couldn’t miss my chance to see them in real life. They have two and they are amazing to watch.
Make sure you stop and get whale shark ice cream before you leave!
10. Osaka Castle
The Osaka Castle is beautiful. If you go inside, be prepared to walk up a ton of steps or wait in line for a really long time to use the elevator.
The secret insider’s tip to Osaka Castle: go super early. If you get there early enough, there is a group led dance/workout that is really fun to watch and participate in. Plus, if you get there early, the lines to get in are significantly shorter.
Nara is a quick day trip from Osaka. If I could live in Nara with the deer for the rest of my life, I would. It’s such a neat experience to have these usually skittish and gentle animals not be afraid of humans. At all.
Just a heads up that the deer like to bite a little.
12. Fushimi Inari-taisha
I had a somewhat different experience here than most people who visit. I took a turn behind one of the small shrine stops and accidentally ended up hiking up the back of the mountain.
However, I actually highly recommend going the back way. There are lots of hidden gems, like a little cemetery/shrine with a waterfall, a better bamboo grove than the Arashiyama one, and when you get to the top, there are significantly fewer people.
Once we got to the top, there was this cute little restaurant with a beautiful view of the city. Naturally, we were starving and exhausted from accidentally hiking a mountain, but it was worth the view.
Pro tip: Just skip the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest altogether. I was pretty disappointed after seeing the one behind Fushimi Inari-taisha.
I definitely recommend going to Japan for hanami. Hanami basically means “flower watching”, and it happens when the cherry blossoms bloom in the spring.
It’s a really big deal to take some time off to appreciate their fleeting beauty, and many people reserve spots in the local parks for picnics.
14. Visit ALL the Pokemon Centers
This was more of a personal goal for myself once I realized they existed. There are Pokemon Centers in most of the major Japanese cities (two in Tokyo), and it is a lot of fun if you’re a Pokemon fan.
There are prints unique to each city, and I’m a huge nerd that wanted to collect all of them. They have exclusive merchandise that you can only get in-store, as well.
15. Airbnb Experiences
The second time I visited Japan, Airbnb had just launched experiences. This is my new favorite thing to do in cities I haven’t been in before.
I took an art class in maki-e from a woman with a studio, and it was so cool! She even gave me suggestions of other places to check out the following days I was there. I was also her only student for a 4 hour time-frame, so it was definitely one-on-one instruction.
When I was in Osaka, I got up early to meditate with a Buddhist monk at Osaka Castle. That’s where I learned about the morning exercise classes for locals. Definitely check it out the next time you travel.
Have you been to Japan? Do you agree with my top picks, or do you have some of your own? Let me know in the comment section below!