From robots to monkeys to bamboo forests, we made a list of all the things you won't want to miss on your trip to Japan.
1. Stroll through Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
This enchanting pathway through a bamboo forest will transport you out of the city streets and to a fairy tale land. The grove of giant, swaying bamboo stalks is beautiful year-round and emanates tranquility. If you have time, stop in some of the cute (albeit touristy) shops near the entrance and visit the neighboring temples.
2. Be mesmerized by Fushimi Inari Shrine
If you've seen "Memoirs of a Geisha", you'll recognize these famous orange gates. Though I'd learned about these extensively in art history during university, they were far more spectacular in person than I could have imagined.
In order to walk through all of the gates, you'll need to set aside a better portion of a day. If your time in Kyoto is limited though, don't fret! An hour or two should be sufficient to explore a large portion of this shrine and leave without feeling like you're missing out. Check out our full Japan itinerary for more ways to plan out your trip.
Tip: The beginning of the pathway is packed with people stopping for pictures. Keep walking past the crowds until the path starts going uphill. You will be able to get a picture without anyone obstructing your shot. You will also reach a lookout point and be rewarded with a view overlooking Kyoto.
3. View Kinkaku-ji Temple at sunset
Also known as the "Golden Temple" this is one of the most famous sights in Kyoto. As we found out, it is popular for a reason. It's exterior is completely covered in gold leaf and makes a stunning reflection in the lake beside it. It is definitely worth a visit, but be warned - the grounds are teeming with tour groups at practically all hours. The morning is said to be least busy, but dusk the most beautiful. Viewing the golden temple as the sun starts to set is spectacular.
4. Take a Cooking Class
One of our very favorite things to do while traveling is to take a cooking class to learn about the local cuisine. Past cooking classes we've taken abroad have included Italy, Peru, Korea, Bali, Thailand, Vietnam, and India (and we're looking forward to adding more to that list soon!).
We are both self-proclaimed sushi addicts, and we couldn't have picked a better place to learn than Japan.
For the price of a fancy sushi dinner back home, we got a private hour and a half lesson taught by a lovely local woman. She first guided us through the steps of making dashi - the broth that is essential to all Japanese dishes. Next, we made two types of rolls and onigiri. We thoroughly enjoyed our creations and left stuffed. This was some of the best food in Japan we tasted.
Tip: Cooking Sun, located in Kyoto, provided us with a top-notch experience and we would highly recommend booking your Japanese cooking course with them.
5. Go Geisha Hunting
Take a stroll around the lantern-lit Pontocho Alley at dusk and you may just be rewarded with a rare sighting of a geisha or maiko (geisha's apprentice). The evening hours are when they make their way to one of the many traditional restaurants on this street in the Gion district, and will be your best chance at seeing their exquisite silk kimonos and painted faces up close.
In the 1920's there were more than 80,000 geisha in Japan. Today there are only 2,000 of these female performers who continue to follow the strict lifestyle, so spotting them is special. Have your camera ready, because when you do see a geisha, it will be a fleeting moment as she scurries in wooden sandals to her next appointment.
6. Glimpse (hopefully) Mount Fuji
This iconic mountain is known for being shy. And as it turns out, she was hiding in the clouds during our visit. We took a cable car and a ship to places that are stunning viewpoints on a clear day. Too bad for us, we only saw a thick, never-ending white fog instead.
That's just how it goes when you're traveling. You might not always have clear skies or get the perfect picture, but you've got to make the best of it!
While on the grounds of the mountain, be sure to eat the famous black eggs. They have been hard-boiled in the nearby hot springs and are said to lengthen your life by 7 years.
7. Take a Dip in an Onsen in Hakone
If you visit Japan during the winter, taking a dip in an onsen is a must. I'd imagine these traditional Japanese hot springs are nice in other seasons as well, but the immersing in the steaming water while chilly winter air kisses your shoulders is particularly relaxing.
For a perfect onsen experience, look no further than Hakone, a small town not far from Tokyo. Hakone is known for two things - its numerous onsens and the unrivaled views of Mount Fuji. Though the thick clouds made it impossible to see the famous mountain while we were there, the private outdoor onsen at our guesthouse made up for it. We enjoyed wine and music as snowflakes fell from the night sky. There is no picture of this activity for obvious reasons...
8. Spend the night at a Ryoken
This type of traditional Japanese inn is characterized by tatami-matted rooms and exceptional hospitality. Often times guests are provided with yukata robes and access to private on-site onsen. Staying at a ryokan can be very expensive, but if you search, you can find some good deals.
Tip: If you're on a tight budget opt for ryokans that don't serve meals. Our ryokan was less than half the price of many others in Hakone - mainly because dinner was not included in our stay. We had a great stay at Fuji Hakone Guesthouse.
9. Monkey around at the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
This was one of the best things we did during our week in Japan. We escaped the chaos of Tokyo for a little day trip to Nagano (yes, the host city of the 1998 Winter Olympics).
The path leading to the monkey park is lined with towering pines, and when we visited in February they were frosted with snow. We finally made it to a river valley and we knew we were close when we spotted a monkey in the middle of the path. As we ventured further, they were everywhere. The monkeys brushed past us as if we weren't there at all. The most entertaining sight was to see them soaking in the natural hot spring.
Getting to the Monkey Park is a bit of a logistical headache, and it takes a full 3 hours from Tokyo, but it's completely worth it. Check out our directions on our Japan itinerary post. Although we made it a day trip, we'd recommend staying the night nearby if time allows.
Tip: During the winter, the trail that leads to the monkey park gets very icy, so wear sturdy footwear. I lost track of how many people I saw fall. And I made the list once or twice (or five times!).
10. Eat Sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market
Sushi enthusiasts and newbies alike need to visit this Tokyo icon.
Although the market itself closes down well before noon, there are plenty of shops still serving the freshest rolls in all of Japan throughout the lunch hour. We had to wait in a queue before entering, and were sat at a table along with another couple because the small restaurant was packed. I guess that's how you know it's good, right? The exquisite, yet affordable fish was well worth it.
Tip: If you want a really unique experience, watch the live tuna auction that takes place each morning. The only catch? (Pun intended!) You'll need to arrive between 3 and 4 in the morning to glimpse the action. Yeah, not my thing... Another bummer? The subway system doesn't start running until 5 a.m., so unless you stay within walking distance of the fish market, you won't make it in time.
12. Cross Shibuya Intersection
Known as the busiest intersection in the world, the Shibuya crossing is everything I imagined Tokyo to be. Neon lights aglow and people walking in all directions in organized chaos. This spot, where five intersections converge is known famously as "the scramble" and should be a must on your Tokyo itinerary.
Tip: It is well-known that the best place to view the commotion is from the second level of the Starbucks overlooking the crossing. It is such a noted tip that there was barely room to walk through while we were there. An employee came by and told everyone with cameras to put them away, so this may no longer be a good photo op.
13. Eat Ramen in Tokyo
Forget the instant noodles you feasted on after drunken nights in college. The gourmet version is leaps and bounds more delicious, though sadly, it's not any healthier.
We tried a few ramen shops in Japan, and they all have different flavors and specialties.
Typically, you'll buy a ticket from a vending machine and present the ticket to an employee. Watching them prepare the steaming bowls of noodles is as much a part of the experience as eating the dish itself. And if you're a long-haired lad or lass (like me), they may just offer you a (new) hair tie to prevent your locks from dipping in your soup. How thoughtful.
14. Experience the craziness of the famous Robot Restaurant
Join Anthony Bourdain, Katy Perry, and countless others who have been audience members of this illustriously wild show. Although it's known as a restaurant, one doesn't come for the food. The scantily-clad dancers, pulsating lights and giant robots are what draw large crowds of tipsy tourists and Japanese businessmen each night.
The show just can't be described in words. It's an experience that is so uniquely Japanese, that you won't see anything like it elsewhere in the world. Watch some of the madness on our action-packed Japan video.
Tip: Don't pay full price for tickets. Book on Japanican for a savings of 21%. Or better yet, we've hear that most hotels with concierge service offer 2-for-1 tickets to this show .
15. Wander the woods at Meiji Shrine
Not far from downtown Tokyo, Meiji Shrine is an escape from the city's bustling streets. Unlike many of Japan's temples, the structures have not been brightly painted. Instead, the wooden gates were left in their natural state, making these forested grounds all the more serene. If you visit Meiji Shrine on a Saturday, you may be lucky enough to witness a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony, like we did!