Our Top 10 Japan Bucket List Experiences

As promised in our Top 10 Favorite Experiences in Japan (So Far), we are back with a travel bucket list for the country. While we’ve made several trips to Japan and visited most major cities, we have yet to experience the far reaches of Japan. We’ve also yet to eat everything, attend every major festival, see Japan’s most famous monkeys, and–well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves!

We have to admit that we’re total suckers for making travel bucket lists. First of all, they are just flat out fun ways to daydream. Even if we will never visit a fraction of the places on our lists, making them stirs up that sense of wanderlust and leads us to browsing photos, reading fascinating information, and watching videos. That’s definitely not as good as being there, but it’s an enjoyable, vicarious escape for us. (And hopefully reading this list is that for you!)

Moreover, we like creating tangible lists like this as committing “goals” (those are air quotes if only because it seems inane to ascribe goal status to traveling) to writing is the best way to push ourselves to achieve them. In our case, that also entails publishing the list to the internet for anyone to see, but it’s just as effective, we think, when you make a list for your own reference.

The tangible list serves as a constant reminder of your goals and helps you avoid returning to comfortable and familiar favorites. Even though our absolute favorite, Kyoto, makes several appearances on this list, it’s in different and new-to-us ways. That’s another thing we like about bucket lists–they nudge us into experiencing familiar places in new ways.

Note that most of the photos here do not depict the subject matter of the bucket list item. Since we’ve yet to do these things, it follows that don’t have photos of them. (Except, ironically, the photo immediately below this disclaimer.)

Hyotei – Okay, so I debated between this and Tashirojima (or one of Japan’s other cat islands, because of course there are like a dozen). As neat and amusing as I think it’d be to visit an isle of cats, that’s not a realistic or serious goal. And this blog has no time for unserious shenanigans. The cost and time required to see a bunch of cats would not be worth the payoff. There’s no way–we might as well just go to a cat cafe.

Hyotei is similar in that it probably wouldn’t live up to the hype or cost, but we really want to do it anyway. This is the most famous 3-Star Michelin restaurant in Kyoto, a restaurant that has been operating on the grounds of Nanzenji Temple (one of our top 10 temples in Kyoto) since the 17th Century. I’ve read a lot about this restaurant and many reviewers call it overrated and a bit simple relative to other restaurants of its stature, and those assessments wouldn’t surprise me (in fairness, other reviewers reinforce our desire to dine here). Nevertheless, whenever we’ve walked past this restaurant, I’ve daydreamed of dining there someday.

Nabana no Sato Winter Illumination – Really, this one could just be “more winter illuminations.” After attending the Kobe Luminarie, which was absolutely breathtaking, we are hooked. If we still had our Japan Rail Pass during the height of winter illumination season last year, I think we would’ve criss-crossed Japan attending a different one every night.

As it was, we came pretty close to buying a Shinkansen ticket to Nagoya to see the the flower park Nabana no Sato transformed into a sea of lights with an animated light show, light tunnels, and an observation deck. We saw advertisements for many different winter illuminations, and aside from Kobe’s, this one looked the coolest to us.

Gion Matsuri – I could do an entire bucket list of things we want to do in Kyoto. It’s the city where we’ve spent by far the most time in Japan, and yet we have more “unfinished business” there than anywhere. This probably says a lot about our infatuation with Kyoto, but it should also speak volumes about the city’s depth.

Gion Matsuri is the most famous festival in Japan; a huge street party taking place during the month of July that is capped by a massive pageant and parade of floats called yamaboko on July 17th and 24th. The event is also something of a mobile and public art festival, due to the floats being so artfully done and some homes opening up their entranceways for visitors to see their family heirlooms.

Okinawa – Visiting Japan’s Southwest Islands ranks really near the top of the list for Sarah, and I have to admit I’m intrigued…and somewhat perplexed by this chain of semitropical, coral-fringed islands with clear and vibrant water that reminds me more of the Caribbean than Japan.

We’ve visited several different stretches of Japan’s coast, and nothing we’ve seen even remotely resembles photos of Okinawa. That alone has me curious, as do the reports of lush jungles, incredible coral reefs, and rugged peaks.

Kumano Nachi Taisha – To my knowledge, we’ve seen most of the most photogenic temples and shrines in Japan. From the endless path of torii at Fushimi Inari to the sun glistening on Kinkakuji to rising tide at Itsukushima Shrine, we’ve had some incredible experiences.

The major one that remains is Kumano Nachi Taisha, famous for its towering vermillion pagoda set against a mountain backdrop and the tallest waterfall in Japan. I know almost next-to-nothing about the shrine other than this iconic scene, and the fact that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Frankly, that’s good enough; I’d go to pretty great lengths just to photograph that idyllic scene.

Fuji Shibazakura Festival – This was originally going to be “climb Mount Fuji” but just like the goal of visiting Cat Island, that’s unrealistic (albeit for very different reasons). Nevertheless, heading back to Mt. Fuji ranks very highly on our list. We’d like to revisit the Fuji Five Lakes area to see places we didn’t have time to see on our last trip there, we’d like to go to Hakone for the first time, and we’d really like to attend the Fuji Shibazakura Festival.

This event is one of Japan’s most popular festivals, taking place each year during April and May. The festival is held three kilometers from Lake Motosuko, and offers stunning views of nearly one million stalks of shibazakura (pink moss). This gives the appearance of a veritable sea of shibazakura with Mount Fuji as a backdrop, and every photo we’ve seen of this looks absolutely surreal. Booths selling the pink moss, special foods, souvenirs, and local produce round out the event.

Sapporo Snow Festival – The top four things on our list all involve snow, which should tell you how badly “we” want to see Japan as a winter wonderland. It should also tell you who drafted this list, since Sarah is not particularly keen on snow–even though she does want to see/do all of these things.

Next year will mark the 70th Sapporo Snow Festival, which is now a huge event, featuring grandiose snow and ice sculptures and drawing more than two million visitors from Japan and abroad. In addition to the sculptures, there are concerts, snow slides, and other entertainment. There’s also food–and we’re really eager to visit Sapporo’s Ramen Alley. (We love Sapporo-style ramen.)

Jigokudani Yaen Koen (“the Snow Monkey Park”) – Our credentials as serious monkey enthusiasts are unblemished, and it’s very important to us that they stay that way. To maintain our impeccable monkey street cred, we regularly visit Iwatayama Monkey Park in Kyoto, where the primates have great respect for us.

As cool as Kyoto’s monkey park is, the holy grail among monkey enthusiasts is Jigokudani Yaen Koen in Nagano. The rest are just cheap imitators. This is the place to go to see snow monkeys in hot springs, and everybody who runs in the monkey aficionado circles knows it. Even if you’ve never heard of this park, you’ve undoubtedly seen photos of it. (Sadly, we just blemished our monkey street cred by admitting that we’ve never been to Jigokudani Yaen Koen.)

Historic Villages of Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama – These adjacent regions in the remote mountains of the Shogawa River Valley are a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses that date back some 400 years. These distinct architectural style featuring thatched roofs is meant to resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer (and it does).

While visually striking, this architectural style is the epitome of form perfectly married with function, as these farmhouses were refined over time to withstand the brutal winters of this region, and not collapse during heavy snowfall. Some of them can be rented out for overnight stays, and there are also winter illuminations on select nights. After seeing this photo (top), I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a time for us to stay here last winter, but it just didn’t work out. Someday.

Snow-covered Kyoto – One of my recurring nightmares is being in Japan on a beautiful day with a fresh blanket of powder and crisp blue skies, but not having my camera…or not having a memory card…or having a dead battery. Even while awake, I have “day-mares” about having a chance to photograph Kyoto in the snow, but only having a few hours before the snow melted, and having to skip some of my favorite temples.

As “scary” as all of those scenarios would be, I’d still take any of them in an instant if I could. The idea of simply seeing Kyoto in the snow is unquestionably my #1 bucket list item, and the memory of the experience would be so ingrained in my memory that photos wouldn’t even be necessary…but I’d also sure like to take as many of those as possible, too.

If you’re planning a trip, please check out my other posts about Japan. You can also read Our Fall & Winter Japan Trip Report for some experiences we had during our extended stay in Japan last year. 

Your Thoughts

Do you enjoy making travel bucket lists or daydreaming about places you’d like to visit? Would any of these things make your Japan bucket list? What else would be on your travel bucket list? If you’ve yet to visit Japan, do any of these places look appealing to you? Any questions or other comments? Hearing your feedback is half the fun, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

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4 replies
  1. Janine
    Janine says:

    Having done both Okinawa and staying in Ainokura last winter – well, don’t make me choose. They are both SO different. If you do Okinawa I would definitely try to get to the smaller islands as Okinawa itself is very geared towards the Americans living there (though I was shocked to learn – from my son who lived off base and loved it – that so many of them never leave their bases!!! What a waste!)
    Staying in Ainokura was not only amazing because of the village and the house itself but because of the charming couple whose home we stayed in. Amazing, yummy, and very traditional food (dinner and breakfast.) It was one of the highlights of our whole trip to Japan this past year.

  2. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    Awesome list! Making lists like this is so useful. Clarify your travel intentions, guide future decisions, and even reveal differences of goals for couples. Good way to prioritize your travel! Selfishly I’d enjoy some Okinawa coverage, but would also like more snow!

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      We really should’ve gone out to Okinawa last fall when we were in Japan for an extended amount of time, because that would’ve been the most logical time to hit it. Now, I’m not so sure when it’ll happen.

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