Top 25 Experiences in Japan

How does one type a trumpet fanfare? Dun dun dun daaaaaaaaaaa, dun dun da dun dun daaaaaaaaaaaa.

Hmmm, perhaps not. 😛

Why the celebration? Glad you asked. 😀 After over three years of blogging, I have arrived at the milestone 500th post!

I reflected quite a bit about how best to mark the occasion. I debated (very briefly) doing a list of my 500 favorite experiences in Japan (a la this post) but figured that would take entirely too much time (and bandwidth). Then, as I sat down to reference something for an itinerary in my Rough Guides: Japan, I found myself paging through their front photo section of the top 30+ unmissable sights in Japan. So I’ve distilled my seven years here into 25 “gems”. Some of these do gel with more mainstream travel guides, and some are very much off the beaten path. Whatever the case, they are the moments that made my time in Japan as memorable.

**The following are in absolutely no particular order whatsoever. I really can’t pick the BEST among them!**

  1. Adachi Museum of Art


The traditional Japanese garden at the Adachi Museum of Art is consistently rated the best in the world and, after finally getting to see it this past summer, I couldn’t agree more. Make sure your camera’s fully charged.

2. Soaking in the hot springs of Kurokawa Onsen


Kurokawa Onsen has 20+ outdoor baths (rotemburo) and I want to try them all. It’s not the only reason I keep coming back but it’s the top one. The gorgeous scenery and stellar food at this secluded onsen town in Kyushu are an added plus.

3. Celebrating the Doll Festival in Yanagawa

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Many places in Japan set of hina dolls for Girls’ Day on March 3rd but no place does it quite like the canal town of Yanagawa in Fukuoka Prefecture, which offers huge doll displays and boat parades.

4. Playing tosenkyo (a fan game) in a Kyoto machiya


Torrential rain in Kyoto could have ruined my visit but playing this old geisha “parlor game” with good friend Where Next Japan was the most fun in the capital I’d had in a long time.

5. Witnessing the visual wonder that is the Kawachi Fuji Wisteria Garden


I love flowers. I love purple. This private garden south of Kitakyushu was like a vision of all of my favorite things in one place.

6. Hiking the Dakigaeri gorge in Akita


I’d never heard of this gorge in central Tohoku until the day before I went there. It’s not easily reached without a car but the effort to get there from nearby Kakunodate will pay off.

7. Eating osechi ryori for New Year’s


The New Year’s holiday is a time of special foods, all packed with meaning, Half the fun of opening our osechi was trying to figure out what we were eating.

8. Watching the Karatsu Kunchi festival in Karatsu


This bouyant autumn festival in Karatsu is still one of my favorite celebrations. Fast-moving floats and free-flowing sake were the highlights.

9. Staying in a ryokan in snowy Yunishigawa Onsen


Living in Kyushu, we so rarely saw snow, which was part of the reason this December stay in Tochigi Prefecture as so utterly memorable. Having to cross a snowy rope bridge to reach the dining hall helped up the “wow factor” too!

10. Chowing down on local specialties in Okinawa


When I think back on my time in Okinawa, my multiple visits to the traditional cafe of Garamanjaku in Northern Okinawa is one memory that always comes to the forefront.

11. Catching the splendor of the autumn leaves in Kyoto


So much beauty. So few adjectives to describe it. Will Eikando remain my favorite temple for Kyoto foliage? We’ll find out after this year’s trip.

12. Watching the stars from a rooftop rotemburo in Ibusuki

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Outdoor onsen are wonderful. But this rooftop bath with views of the starry sky in Ibuskuki in southern Kagoshima can’t be beat.

13. Cheering on sumo wrestlers at a Tokyo tournament

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After watching my first sumo tournament years ago in Tokyo, I became hooked on this unique traditional sport. Now even my daughter gets excited to attend the tournaments with me.

14. Wandering the lantern-lit streets of Yamaga

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The onsen town of Yamaga in Kumamoto prefecture is known across Japan for its summer lantern festival but I could never get enough of its more low-key winter lantern celebration.

15. Hiking the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trail

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This ancient pilgrimage trail in southern Wakayama prefecture has been getting a lot of attention lately thanks to its PR-savvy tourism office. Turns out, the trip is worth it – gorgeous forests, centuries-old shrines and few crowds make this a perfect getaway from Japan’s cities.

16. Exploring the pottery town of Arita

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There’s something about the porcelain town of Arita in Saga prefecture that just keeps me coming back. I love the old preserved district, the still-working kilns and the ample shopping opportunities.

17. Slurping up nagashi somen in Kyoto

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This unique noodle experience on the outskirts of Kyoto was one of the most fun times I ever had at an eating establishment.

18. Navigating the narrow lanes of Gokanosho

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Gokanosho in southern Kumamoto boasts lanes that are only one car wide. But it’s worth braving the road when it’s foliage time in this hidden corner of Kyushu.

19. Tasting the freshest sushi in Kanazawa

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I still won’t publicly reveal the name of my favorite sushi place in Kanazawa (though some of my clients have gone and raved about it just as much!) but I will simply say that it forever changed the way I look at sushi.

20. Feeling the pounding of the drums at Hirosaki’s Neputa Festival

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I went north this past summer expecting to love Aomori’s Nebuta festival. As it turns out, I was much more captivated by Hirosaki’s version, with its welcoming crowds, fan-shaped floats and beating drums.

21. Summiting Mt Yufu in Oita

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Maybe it was the perfect weather, or perhaps the unexpected but hilarious losing of BOTH the soles of my boots on this hike. But I will always remember our family climb up one of Oita’s iconic peaks.

22. Savoring a taste of home with a Sasebo burger

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This may seem a rather “frivolous” entry on the list but when you live in Japan for as long as we have, you appreciate the small tastes of home. These burgers in Sasebo, introduced long ago by the US Navy, cured any homesickeness we were experiencing.

23. Doing ohanami (cherry blossom viewing) at Kumamoto Castle

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Japan has tons of stunning sakura locations scattered around the country but I will always be partial to my “hometown” of Kumamoto and the candy-colored scene that blooms around the castle every spring.

24. Biking around Taketomi Island

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I was NO fan of the heat and humidity of this island but the sandy roads and tile-roofed houses of Taketomi are undeniably picturesque.

25. Soaking up the serenity of Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en

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Of course, I have to end with a garden. 🙂 There are so many gardens here in Japan but my autumn wander around Kenroku-en, one of the top 3 gardens in Japan, is one I revisit often in my mind.

Are those the definitive 25? Of course not. When I revisit my Japan memories, so many things come to mind. Yet these are the ones that moved my heart.

What moved you? Do you have a favorite spot in Japan or a favorite experience? Or do you have somewhere in this country you are dying to go? Share in the comments below.

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