MY DREAM CAME TRUE!
Reviews of bucket-list-worthy things to do all over the world

Jen's Japan Bucket List!

Hakone shrine torii gate on Lake Ashi (Hakone-Moto) 

In June of 2013, a friend and I headed to Japan for two weeks. We stayed for 11 nights in Tokyo (with day trips to Tokyo Disneyland, Tokyo DisneySea, Hakone, Nikko and Utsunomiya, and Kamakura) and 3 nights in Kyoto (with a day trip to Nara). We used a 7-day JR (Japan Rail) Pass (possibly the best bargain available for foreign tourists visiting Japan) to cover the cost of most of our travel outside of Tokyo.

Below are the highlights of our visit to Japan, the things that I would do again if I could go back and take the trip over again. I hope this list helps you plan your dream come true trip to Japan!

Dr. Jen (California, USA)

P.S. If you're traveling to Japan, be sure to check out the novel I wrote called Lost in Tokyo, about a girl finding herself and falling in love while exploring amazing, must-see things to do in Japan. Lost in Tokyo is on sale now at Amazon.com and is FREE with Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime!

 

Check out Dr. Jen's novels at


 


TOKYO AREA:


Exploring Tokyo Disney Resort (Urayasu)


I spent three full days at Tokyo Disney Resort, one day at Tokyo Disneyland, one at Tokyo DisneySea, and one exploring the three hotels (Tokyo Disneyland Hotel, Disney Ambassador Hotel, and Tokyo DisneySea Hotel MiraCosta) and the shops, especially the Bon Voyage gift shop.

The biggest highlights of my Tokyo Disney Resort experience: dining in the exclusive-feeling S.S. Columbia, riding rides that don't exist in the U.S., experiencing my favorite Disneyland rides somewhat differently, and soaking in the atmosphere of the Disney hotels.


See Jen's review and photos of Tokyo DisneySea!

See Jen's review and photos of Tokyo Disneyland!

Cooking our own meal at a neighborhood okonomiyaki restaurant: Sometaro (Asakusa)


Because we chose to be spontaneous with our restaurant choices, I did very little research beforehand. Sometaro "accidentally" came up in my research of things to do in Tokyo, but I'm glad that it did. It was our best restaurant experience overall and the food was delicious!

Walking the wooded path through Yoyogi Park to Meiji Shrine and watching a traditional Japanese wedding procession (Shibuya)


The misty, light rain that accompanied us on our visit to Yoyogi park couldn't have been planned, and it added perfectly to the atmosphere of the park and the Meiji Shrine. Another highlight that we hadn't planned was watching a wedding procession that passed right through the shrine courtyard.

See Jen's review and photos of Meiji Shrine!

Finding interesting and tasty treats at Japanese convenience stores (all over Tokyo, and Japan)


When I travel internationally, I love checking out the sweets at grocery and convenience stores to discover "exotic" treats. My favorite finds in Japan: Meiji chocolates and Glico Caplico Giant "Ice Cream" (actually, it's bubbly, multi-flavored chocolate) cones!

Shopping at a Daiso 100 Yen store (Harajuku)


I love U.S. dollar stores (especially the 99 Cents Only Stores), and so I couldn't wait to check out Daiso, a 100 Yen store.

The store offered some wonderful items at the bargain price of 100 Yen.
On my first visit I bought: Mickey Mouse lingerie bag for the wash, Mickey Mouse chopsticks, a Mickey Mouse mouse pad, and a pack of Mickey Mouse tiny zippered plastic bags about the size of a credit card. When I returned to the store one week later, all of these items were no longer available. They were replaced by other items.

Getting a birds-eye-view of Tokyo (and on one day, Mount Fuji!!) at Park Hotel Tokyo (Shiodome)

Seeing Mount Fuji was on my Japan Bucket List, but I knew that it was unlikely given that I made my trip during the early summer rainy season. I unexpectedly got my chance on a clear day that followed a few days of rain. Mount Fuji could be seen from our hotel lobby, to the right of Tokyo Tower!

We also found great views of Tokyo at Tokyo Metropolitan Office Building and Park Hyatt Tokyo (both in Shinjuku)

Paying my respects to Hachiko (Shibuya)


Hachiko was a very loyal dog who greeted his owner every work day at the Shibuya train station. After his owner died unexpectedly while at work, Hachiko continued his daily vigil. Today there is a statue to honor the awesome dog.

Gotta love dogs like Hachiko!

Getting a different perspective of Sensoji Temple (Asakusa)


Although I research and plan my trips with gusto, I always leave myself open to discovering something new and unplanned. When an unusual building across the street from Sensoji Temple caught my eye, I decided to take a detour to check it out.

It turned out that the building was Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center. It has a free observation deck that gave us a cool view of Sensoji Temple, Tokyo Skytree, and the golden turd (AKA: Asahi Beer Hall).

The other surprise was what I discovered when I actually visited the temple and looked at the underside of the big red lanterns!

[SPOILER ALERT:
Under some of the large paper lanterns at Sensoji Temple are elaborately-carved, wooden images of dragons! END SPOILER]
Using Western-style Japanese toilets (all over Tokyo, and Japan)


Each toilet that I encountered in Japan was a little different. Some had magic (ie. motion sensitive) lids that raised automatically, some had heated seats, some had sprays that washed bottoms (front and back), some played “music” (gurgling water). I never knew what I would find when I opened the stall door.

Finding the ruins of Edo Castle at Imperial Palace East Gardens (Central Tokyo)


There are few really old buildings in Tokyo. It was cool to see one, even if it was only the ruins of one.

Shopping at a Japanese toy store: Kiddy Land (Harajuku)


Kiddy Land had a whole floor devoted to Peanuts characters, a whole section devoted to Disney, some merchandise based on the popular Studio Ghibli films, and a bunch of other toys and toy-related items for kids and kids-at-heart.

Crossing the intersection at Shibuya crossing (Shibuya)

Having seen Shibuya crossing in Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's movie starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, I had to try crossing the famous intersection myself.

I was surprised by the experience. When the crossing light changed to green, in the bustle of the huge intersection, I felt like I was part of a few-second-long street fair. People moved around me in different directions. It felt chaotic, in a cool way.

I also took in the view from the second story of Starbucks, where Coppola filmed some of her coverage of the Shibuya crossing scenes.

Eating at a Tokyo McDonalds (all over Tokyo)


I had to do it! Not because I didn't enjoy authentic Japanese food; I enjoyed my culinary adventure at authentic local restaurants in Japan very much, but on my second to last day in Tokyo, I just had to satisfy my curiousity about the burgers and fries at McDonalds in Tokyo. I wondered whether they'd taste as delicious as the ones I'd grown up on back home in the U.S. The answer: they were perfect!

KYOTO and NARA:

(Kyoto: 2.5 hours by train from Tokyo (free with 7- or 14-day JR Pass))
(Nara: 1 hour from Kyoto (free with 7- or 14-day JR Pass))


Meeting and feeding wild Japanese monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park (Kyoto)


At Iwatayama Monkey Park  (AKA: Arashiyama Monkey Park), my friend and I climbed into a cage where I met and fed wild Japanese macaque monkeys. After we fed the monkeys, we were free to wander the grounds where we watched monkeys relax and play, without any bars between us, while enjoying expansive views of the city of Kyoto.

See Jen's review and photos of Iwatayama Monkey Park!

Hiking through tunnels of red torii at Fushimi Inari Shrine (Kyoto)

Fushimi Inari Shrine is famous for its thousands of torii that wind their way up Mount Inari. We ended up visiting the shrine in the evening and found the experience of hiking through the gates as day turned to night, having the shrine almost all to ourselves, absolutely enchanting.

See Jen's review and photos of Fushimi Inari Shrine!

Walking through the dark in “the womb,” walking with my eyes closed between the “love rocks,” and drinking the “wish-granting water” at Kiyomizu Temple (Kyoto)

Kiyomizu Temple (Kiyomizudera) is well-known for its wooden balcony, built entirely without nails, that overlooks Kyoto. I found that there were many fun and interesting experiences to be had there, and at adjacent Tainai-meguri (AKA: Zuigudo Hall).

Read Jen's review and photos of Kiyomizu Temple!

Being interviewed by Japanese school kids (multiple locations)

Apparently, a popular school assignment for Japanese school children on field trips to tourist attractions is to practice their English by interviewing English-speaking tourists. During our trip, we were interviewed at Zeniarai Benten Shrine (in Kamakura) Kiyomizu Temple (in Kyoto), and Kasuga Grand Shrine (in Nara).

Feeding the deer in Nara Park (Nara)

Nara is teeming with historic sites, but for me, the biggest draw was the friendly deer. Some of them have learned to bow!

See Jen's review and photos of Nara, Japan!

Getting our pictures taken at a Japanese photo booth (purikura) machine and then adding special effects using editing screens that were solely in Japanese (we did this outside an arcade in Kyoto, but the machines are likely available at arcades in major cities all over Japan) 

Before our trip, I had heard about Japanese purikura machines and thought they sounded like fun. We spotted a few one evening outside an arcade in Kyoto and decided to give it a try. Adding to the fun was the fact that all of the instructions on the machine's screens are in Japanese. After dropping 400 Yen into the booth, posing for our photos was easy enough, but then, when we went to pick up our photos from the slot outside the machine, they weren't there.

Fortunately, a group of teenage girls about to use the machines guided us into a booth adjacent to the photo booth, where we could add effects to our photos. Through trial and error, we decorated our photos, as a clock on the screen ticked down. As you can see, the results are pretty funny!

Passing through the wooden “column of enlightenment” at Todaiji Temple (Nara)

At Todaiji Temple, there is a well-known Great Buddha. There is also a less-well-known tunnel in one of the columns inside the huge wooden building that houses the Buddha. It is said that those who are able to pass through the tunnel will attain enlightenment. I gave it a try.

See Jen's review and photos of Nara and Todaiji Temple!

Strolling through a grove of bamboo at Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (Kyoto)

The bamboo grove in Arashiyama is relatively small, but it had a nice mystical quality. I imagine that it would be even more magical in the rain.

HAKONE:

(2 hours by train from Tokyo; 5000 Yen with Hakone Free Pass; 3900 Yen with 7- or 14-day JR Pass)


Eating a black egg and “egg-flavored” soft serve ice cream at Owakudani Valley in the mountains of Hakone

Our visit to Owakudani Valley was one of the highlights of our trip to Hakone. And it might have added seven years to my life!

See Jen's review and photos of Hakone and Owakundani Valley!

Taking a dip in a traditional Japanese onsen: Tenzan Onsen

Taking a nude dip in a public bath was a bit intimidating for me at first, but the experience was surprisingly calming and relaxing.

See Jen's review of Tenzan Onsen!

Doing the Hakone Free Pass loop

Seeing Mount Fuji up close should have been the highlight of our trip to Hakone, but it wasn't because we didn't see her. We did find some unanticipated fun surprises though.

See Jen's review and photos of Hakone!

NIKKO and UTSUNOMIYA:

(Nikko: 2.5 hours by train from Tokyo (free with 7- or 14-day JR Pass))
(Utsunomiya: 1/2 hour from Nikko, plus ½ hour bus ride to get to Utsunomiya Zoo (free with 7- or 14-day JR Pass, except for approximately 500 Yen each way for bus ride to the zoo))


Going to Utsunomiya Zoo where I fed monkeys, lemurs, an elephant, and giraffes (Utsunomiya)

The Utsunomiya Zoo is a tiny, little, small town zoo where visitors are invited to feed some of the animals. Utsunomiya is on the way from Tokyo to Nikko, and the zoo made for an interesting side trip.

See Jen's review and photos of Utsunomiya Zoo!

Seeing colorful, intricate Toshogu Shrine in the woods (Nikko)

Toshogu Shrine is nestled in a mystical forest in the mountains and was unlike any other shrine that we visited in Japan.

See Jen's review and photos of Toshogu Shrine!

KAMAKURA:

(1 hour by train from Tokyo (free with 7- or 14-day JR Pass))


Hiking to the Great Buddha

There's an easy, civilized way to visit the Great Buddha of Kamakura, but my friend and I chose a rugged, slippery, muddy hiking trail known as the Daibutsu Hiking Course instead. It was a great decision!

See Jen's review and photos of the Daibutsu Hiking Course and the Great Buddha of Kamakura!

Seeing the hydrangeas (June and July only) and stone statues at Hase Temple

This unique temple has hundreds of small Jizo statues, a cave dedicated to a sea goddess, and, in June and July, a fairytale garden of blooming hydrangeas.

See Jen's review and photos of Hase Temple!

P.S. If you're traveling to Japan, be sure to check out the novel I wrote called Lost in Tokyo, about a girl finding herself and falling in love while exploring amazing, must-see things to do in Japan. Lost in Tokyo is on sale now at Amazon.com and is FREE with Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime!