I love lists. I write to-do lists every morning detailing what I need to accomplish that day. I write items on the list that I`ve already finished just so I can cross them off. Anyone else do this? No, just me? Okay, good talk.
In any case, lists help me focus and prioritize. And while I think travelling should be a more meaningful experience than simply ticking something off a list, having a travel bucket list can really help, especially in a country as richly varied as Japan. Or if you`re anything like me, by the time you`ve reached the ripe old age of 25, you`re prone to forget things unless you write them down immediately.
Disclaimer: this is my own personal bucket list, including suggestions from friends both within and outside of Japan, as well as from the Facebook group JET-setters (a great group by the way). It`s a combination of nature, culture, food, and activities that, for me, encompass the diverse range of experiences Japan has to offer. There are so many other options! I cannot express this enough – I had to limit myself to 15 because otherwise you would be reading this post forever and I`d be writing several hundred bucket list items. Are there any that you want to add? Let me know – I`d love to hear what other people recommend.
So, without further ado, let me introduce Japan`s finest fifteen (in my humble opinion):
- Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima – Okay, this maybe isn`t very original, but it`s one of the most visited places in Japan for a good reason. It is of such religious significance that no births or deaths are permitted near it, so the shrine retains its purity. The famed floating torii gate is classified as one of Japan`s top 3 views, along with Matsushima Bay and Amanohashidate.
- Hiking Yakushima – This came up the most when I appealed to JET setters for bucket list items. Located off the coast of Kagoshima, the island is home to some of Japan`s oldest trees – many over 1000 years old – and is said to be the inspiration for the backdrop of Studio Ghibli`s “Princess Mononoke”.
- Shimanami Kaido bike ride – Often cited as one of the best cycle routes in Japan, and even the world. Also, I had to include an Ehime one! My next goal is to cycle there and back over two days. Shameless plug, but looking forward to seeing lots of you at the AJET event later this month!
- Climb Mt. Fuji – It is said that there are two types of fools in the world; those who climb Mt. Fuji more than once and those who don`t climb it at all. Whatever you do, don`t be the latter. I climbed Mt. Fuji a few years ago and witnessed the best sunrise I have ever seen in my life. I`m a fool so I may climb it again.
- Lake Ashiko, Hakone – If you don`t feel like climbing Mt. Fuji, how about just viewing her instead? Hakone, with its variety of hot springs, museums and views of Fuji-san, is a hugely popular destination – helped by its proximity to Tokyo. Lake Ashiko is one of the best places to view Japan`s tallest mountain, and even if she alludes you, Hakone Shrine, the pirate ships and natural beauty around the lake are sure to make up for it.
- Yuki Matsuri, Sapporo – Best booked well in advance before flights and hotels sell out (book now for February 2018), the Yuki Matsuri remains one of my top bucket list items. More than 2 million visitors descend on Hokkaido`s biggest city every year to see the incredible snow and ice sculptures that will put your best snowman-making efforts to shame.
- Watch sumo – Another まだ for me. I`ve tried to attend sumo matches twice this year alone, but was unable to get tickets (admittedly, I was trying to go for the cheapest tickets on Saturdays). This year is particularly important as it is the first time a Japanese born wrestler has reached the highest sumo rank of yokozuna since 1998 (the sport has been dominated by Mongolian wrestlers in recent years). If it proves impossible to get tickets for a tournament, another option is to visit a sumo stable and watch morning practices.
- Stay in a temple, Mt. Koya – One of Japan`s most sacred places, Koya-san is the start and end point of the Shikoku`s 88-temple pilgrimage. It is the place where Kobo Daishi is said to be in eternal meditation awaiting the arrival of the Buddha of the Future and is also home to Japan`s largest graveyard, which has been described as both solemn and haunting. I can think of no better place to experience a temple stay.
- Eat wanko soba, Iwate – The name originating from the small bowls in which the noodles are served (minds out the gutter, people), wanko soba is Japan`s ultimate all-you-can-eat challenge. The aim: consume as many bowls as you can. With 8-15 “wanko” bowls equaling a normal-sized soba serving, women apparently consume an average of 50, and men an average of 60. But why stop there? Some restaurants offer commemorative plaques for those who reach 100.
- Tsukiji market, Tokyo – Famous for its live Bluefin tuna auctions every morning, Tsukiji is the biggest fish and seafood market in the world. While witnessing the auctions is often one of the top picks for Tokyo, relations between tourists and buyers/sellers are strained (the market is first and foremost a business, not a tourist attraction). Instead, you`re best off heading to Tsukiji at around 9am to watch the fish being prepared at different shops and restaurants. Indulge in a fresher-than-fresh seafood breakfast – it`ll be the best sushi you ever try. Visit before the inner market is relocated (although the moving date is still uncertain).
- Watch Awa Odori, Tokushima – “The dancers are fools / The watchers are fools / Both are fools alike, so / Why not dance?” I personally believe this statement to be 100% true, so the Awa Odori (The Dance of Fools) sounds like my kind of festival. It is said that Tokushima city, descended upon by 1.3 million festival revelers, resounds with the sound of taiko drums and song from August 12th to 15th.
- Bathe in onsen, Beppu – Onsen should be an item on any Japan bucket list, and the country is blessed with so many popular hot springs spots and quaint (and not-so-quaint) resort towns. The most famous of these is Beppu, which produces more hot spring water than any other resort – over 83,000 litres a minute! Beppu also boasts sand, steam and mud bathing options in addition to normal hot water baths. Take a tour of Beppu`s “Hells” if you`re feeling brave enough (not scary, just a little tacky?). Keep your eyes on Beppu to see if the mayor comes through on his promise to build the world`s first “Spamusement park”, where – you guessed it – visitors will be able to ride rollercoasters and other attractions while soaking in the best hot spring water Japan has to offer.
- Bamboo grove, Arashiyama – Setting foot in Arashiyama`s bamboo grove feels like you`ve fallen right into an old Japanese woodblock painting. It`s one of Kyoto`s top sightseeing spots, but somehow walking through the emerald grove never seems to induce the same stress levels as walking through crowds at some of Kyoto`s other top attractions. Prepare your camera (no selfie sticks, please – don`t be that person) but be warned; photos just can`t capture the magic of the place (or maybe that`s just my poor photography skills).
- Lavender fields, Furano – Think about Hokkaido – what springs to mind? Skiing and snowboarding, Yuki Matsuri, winter is coming? But Japan`s northernmost island holds very different charms in summer, when the stark white landscape is transformed into a carpet of colours by lavender fields (other flowers are available). At the very least, summer in Hokkaido provides a welcome respite from the humidity and stickiness that smothers the rest of the country.
- Try taiko drumming – There`s something about the beat of drums, the most primitive of instruments, that instantly raises energy and excitement levels. Taiko drumming has not only an infectious beat, but also provides a pretty effective workout. Get those arms you`ve always dreamed of AND make great music? Sounds like a winner to me.
Although I`ve fully enjoyed my time in Japan so far, I haven`t experienced all the country has to offer – not by any stretch of the imagination. But you have to save something for the next visit, right? Here`s to whatever adventures the next two months (and beyond) will bring!
Anna Tattersall is a 3rd year Saijo ALT getting ready to head back to the UK in August. She enjoys travelling, Yosakoi dance and running, and has an unhealthy addiction to Earl Grey tea.