Japan is our favorite country to visit in the world. We’ve traveled to Tokyo and Kyoto more than any other cities, and have fallen in love with Japan’s culture, people, cuisine, beauty, and history. In this post, we’ll share some of our favorite experiences in Japan thus far.
It was actually pretty tough to narrow this list down to only ten things. We didn’t include anything from Kobe (and as an enthusiastic carnivore, it really pains me to leave off “eating an A5 Kobe steak.”) nor did our experiences in Osaka or at Mount Fuji. There was also a lot from Kyoto that it pains us to leave off the list, but it still has a few entries.
Despite everything exceptional that did not make the cut, this post remains a work in progress. While we’ve visited most major cities and points of interest in Japan, there are still a handful of “big” places we’ve yet to do. Chief among those are Hokkaido and Okinawa, which remain high on our travel bucket list.
In any case, we already have a companion post to this ready to go soon that covers our Japan Travel Bucket List, so stay tuned for that. For now, here’s what’s on our list of must-dos in Japan…
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
The somber experience of visiting Hiroshima’s World War II memorials and sites may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about a fun vacation to Japan. This wasn’t really on our radar until visiting Normandy, and the moving experience there compelled us to visit Hiroshima.
For us, visiting the museum, A-Bomb Dome, and Peace Park were all powerful, and really underscored the humanity that was lost in the senseless bombing. It does an excellent job telling the story of people whose lives were irreparably changed by the bombing, presenting not just their recounts, but artifacts of personal belongings. More than just a cautionary tale and tribute to those who died in the atomic bombing, Hiroshima also imbues an incredible sense of optimism.
It’s a place we think every American ought to visit, both due to its historical significance, but also to put faces on the casualties of war, so they’re less of an abstraction and instead depicted in very real and very human terms.
This one strikes about as opposite of a tone as possible from Hiroshima Peace Park. Robot Restaurant is something we did on our first visit to Japan and have done several times since because we love it so much. It has changed a lot over the years and become more touristy in the process (let’s be real: this was never some sort of authentic, culturally-rich experience).
Nevertheless, Robot Restaurant is still a hoot. It’s bizarre and ridiculous and has more than its share of “WTF?!” moments, but you won’t stop laughing and smiling while watching. The non-stop, brightly-colored battle sequences are an assault on the senses and perhaps even good taste, but it’s also incredibly well-choreographed and entertaining.
As kitschy as Robot Restaurant might be, it has a certain “only in Japan” sensibility, as I cannot imagine anywhere else pulling off a show like this without it devolving into eye roll inducing cheesiness. All in all, it’s one of the most fun things you can do in Tokyo, and we absolutely love it.
Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara
My goal was to make this a list of concise things, not as broad as cities, but really the city of Nara is what should be listed here. It’s a distinct experience that you’ll inevitably have regardless of which specific temples you end up visiting. As odd as it might sound, wandering off-the-beaten-path in Nara reminds me a bit of a Miyazaki film come to life.
For us, the highlight is walking through Nara Park, interacting with the resident deer, and making our way back to Todaiji Temple and the more remote temples that dot the wooded hills in the area. Even more so than Kyoto, Nara has a quaint and historic charm to it. In this area, the city still resembles what it would’ve in its “Ancient Nara” form, and we enjoy the trip back in time–and encounters with those devious deer.
Himeji is now one of the cities in Japan we’ve visited the most, which is really saying something given that the main draw is Himeji Castle. (Mount Shosha/Engyoji is also exceptional.) We’ve gone for every season, and I’m sure we’ll be back again. We even returned again this spring for the cherry blossom night illuminations after having a blast there last time during the hanami party season!
For us, Himeji Castle is far and away the most impressive castle in Japan. Even though the modest interior is underwhelming as compared to the great castles of Europe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a prettier castle exterior not just in Japan, but anywhere in the world. Add to that a jovial atmosphere on the public parks around the castle, and pretty gardens around the exterior, and Himeji Castle ranks as one of our favorite places to visit in all of Japan.
Taking the Shinkansen
I’m not one of those people who hates to fly, but there are exactly zero circumstances that I’d rank flying as the highlight of a trip, much less an experience to be savored. At best, I view the whole airport and flight process as a necessary evil to get where we’re going.
Not the case with the Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train. I consider riding the Shinkansen an “attraction” unto itself, and love the scenic trip between Kyoto and Tokyo, passing beautiful hillsides and getting a glimpse of Mount Fuji along the way. There’s a certain romanticism to rail travel, and that’s particularly true with the futuristic Shinkansen.
I get giddy when seeing these sleek beasts glide into the station, and we’ve already determined that if we ever get another dachshund, we’re naming it Shinkansen (anyone else see the resemblance?!). It doesn’t hurt that there’s no TSA, a great amount of legroom and rarely delays of more than 30 seconds. When it comes to traveling Japan, we feel the journey is the destination, and the Shinkansen really underscores that sentiment.
Kurama & Kibune
There are some great day trips to quiet places from Kyoto, but it’s difficult to top the mountain towns of Kurama and Kibune. The approach on the Eizakan Railway is quite enjoyable, and this area is a great way to escape the crowds when it’s crowded in Kyoto.
Kurama-dera is my second-favorite temple in all of Kyoto, and it’s a joy to hike higher and higher past its many buildings, to arrive at the main complex. From there, I love the hike through the woods over the Kibune, where Kifune Shrine is the main highlight.
As much as that, I really enjoy the quiet streets of both little communities. Even though they’re technically remote, there’s still plenty to see and do, and a variety of intimate restaurants in both towns. (Oh, and Kurama is also home to Sarah’s favorite onsen in Japan!)
SCMAGLEV and Railway Park
When I told Sarah this was my favorite museum that we’ve ever visited, she was skeptical. We’ve been to some of the best art museums in Europe and the United States, so for something dedicated to a fairly niche topic–and a topic I’m not even particularly invested in–should be noteworthy.
SCMAGLEV and Railway Park ranks so highly because it’s not just a museum showcasing model trains and the like, but because of the way it melds history, culture, and yes, cool trains. By highlighting the technological progress of trains in Japan with an emphasis on the present and future, SCMAGLEV and Railway Park is both fascinating and fun. An array of interactive exhibits are awesome for everyone, and will make adults feel like kids again.
This museum alone makes a detour to Nagoya worthwhile, especially for visitors using the Japan Rail Pass who can make use of the Shinkansen (and cross off two Japan bucket list experiences in one fell swoop!).
One of my mandates when creating this list was to limit myself to less than one-third of the list being in Kyoto. I’ve partly accomplished that by lumping several temples that I love together into this line-item. From Enkoji in the far north to Kiyomizudera in the south–plus Silver Pavilion, Philosopher’s Path, Honenin, Nanzenji, and so on–this winding stretch along the foothills of Kyoto’s eastern mountains is our favorite part of the city.
We love it so much that, if we only had one day in Kyoto (something we’d never recommend), we’d simply follow our 1-Day Eastern Kyoto Itinerary and skip the western and central parts of the city. Higashiyama is far and away our favorite area of Kyoto, and we’ve done that long walk–sometimes going south to north only to then turn around and do it in reverse!–more times than I can count.
Seeing the rising tide at Itsukushima Shrine was high on our Japan bucket list for a while, so timing a visit here to coincide with both low tide and high tide was really important to us. Never did we realize or expect that Miyajima Island has so much to offer beyond that floating torii. In addition to that iconic shrine, it has some other stunning temples with striking architecture and mountainside design, a tremendous amount of natural beauty, and a surprising amount of exceptional food.
Honestly, perhaps Miyajima Island should be re-added to our Japan bucket list. Although we had an incredibly satisfying visit and got to see all of the main temples and shrines, and did a good amount of hiking, I still don’t think we got the full experience. Now, we want to stay in a ryokan on the island overnight, taking the time to explore the area after the last boat of day-trip visitors has departed.
T1. Tokyo Disney Resort
This was what motivated us to visit Japan for the first time, and but for Tokyo Disney Resort, the country we’ve fallen in love with wouldn’t have been so far up our travel bucket list. For it to rank so highly for huge Disney fans probably comes as no surprise, but I think it would make this list regardless of our status as fans.
Those of you who have found this blog while planning a trip to Japan who are not Disney fans are probably going to dismiss this one out of hand, but hear me out. Not only is Tokyo DisneySea the greatest Disney theme park on the planet, but the two parks are arguably the best places to go for an authentic cultural experience–at least ones that are accessible to tourists.
Since most visitors overlook theme parks being “too touristy,” you’ll see far fewer tourists here than at any temple or other point of interest. Moreover, Japanese locals are enamored with Disney, and the passionate fanbase has led these parks to develop their own unique quality that makes them both fascinating and fun.
T1. Fushimi Inari Shrine
I’ve mentioned it before here, but Fushimi Inari is what brought us to love Kyoto on our first trip to Japan. That enthusiasm has never waned, even on holiday weekend experiences when the shrine is overrun with tourists. We love it so much that we deliberately booked our first month-long stay in Kyoto within walking distance of Fushimi Inari. When we recently returned for another month in Kyoto and stayed downtown, it felt odd visiting Fushimi Inari “only” a few times.
The obvious draw of Fushimi Inari is the iconic walkway consisting of 10,000 torii gates. That offers some serious wow-factor, and the walking through that sea of never-ending torii gates is a special experience that doesn’t get old. We’re still awestruck by just how many of them there are.
What elevates Fushimi Inari to the top of this list is not those torii gates (or rather, not just those torii gates), but the shrine’s sprawling size, mountainside layout, and incredible depth. Most visitors, even those who walk all the way to the top, only see a fraction of what Fushimi Inari has to offer. Scattered along the hillside are countless pocket shrines, hiking trails, and so much more. I’d hazard a guess that we’ve spent more hours at Fushimi Inari than all other Kyoto temples and shrines combined, and we still discover aspects of it with each visit.
Have you ever visited Japan? What were your favorite experiences? Would any of these make your list? Did you enjoy the Shinkansen as much as us…or are we alone on that one? Which, if any, temples and shrines would make your 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 about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!