Japan is a country that has it all and more… sacred Shinto shrines, magnificent Buddhist temples, bygone trade footpaths, spectacular landscaped gardens, eclectic themed pet cafes, diverse art styles, preserved cultural icons, and gastronomical delights. (We dare you to read that out loud without taking a breath!)
Japan is truly a country of endless discovery. You could spend a lifetime exploring this country and barely scratch its extraordinary expanse, trust me, we’ve tried!
However, this plethora of choices comes with a hidden cost. With so many alternatives to consider, choosing where to go in Japan from the sheer number of options of things to see, do, and experience is no easy feat! Information in foreign languages is rather scarce meaning that only a true expert knows the best places to visit in Japan. In order to live like a local, you have to be clued in the best things to do in Japan and we’re here to serve as your guide!
We encourage you to explore and research more on your own, even if it means getting lost along the way. To help you get back on the right track we’ve rounded up the best cities in Japan to serve as a frame work and to give you a head start – ready, set, GO! Here are our recommendations for the best places to visit in Japan:
Wait for it… GO! 📷@lavalleenyc
The famous “Scramble Crossing” by Shibuya Station is without a doubt one of the most iconic sights of Tokyo. On an average weekday, this bustling intersection bears foot traffic levels as high as 2.8 million people. Yes, that’s 2.8 million people a day! If you’re trying to snap the perfect selfie in the madness of the crossing just be sure to get yourself to the other side by the time the traffic signals turn red!
In addition to Shibuya’s mind-blowing crossing, many of Tokyo’s hippest clothing brands can be found in this area. Several cutting-edge fashion shops are located on or around the Center Gai Street. The famous Shibuya 109 shopping mall is a well-known legendary haunt for many shoppers and is anchored just a few minutes from the train station.
Benesse House Art Site 📷@larebve
Officially part of Kagawa Prefecture, Naoshima is a small island in the Seto Inland Sea. Though it is a nice rustic getaway from Tokyo, the island is most famous for its numerous modern art museums, architecture, and sculptures. Many of these were designed by the well-known architect Ando Tadao. Some spots to keep an eye out for are the Chichu Art Museum, the Lee Ufan Museum, and the Benesse House.
As you might imagine getting to Naoshima is a royal pain in the, err, backside! You’re going to need to first make your way to either Uno port in Okayama Prefecture or Takamatsu port in Kagawa prefecture before you can catch a ferry out to the island. The ports themselves are hard enough to find let alone the island so plan for a long journey and expect to stay overnight in the area.
Asahi Beer Hall 📷@julyuljul
This area of Tokyo is widely considered to be the city’s main cultural draw. While the district is home to a number of smaller temples, the main attractions feature the majestic Senso-ji Temple and the surrounding Nakamise shopping block. In addition to these historical treasures, Asakusa is also located within a short distance of the Tokyo Sky Tree and the Asahi Beer Hall. If you’re going to be in the neighbourhood, you’d do well to check these two venues out as well! The Asahi Beer Hall is one of the best places to visit in Japan for booze lovers!
Gamer’s paradise 📷 @lluid____
Calling all nerds! Akihabara has earned the well-known designation of being the world’s geek capital. From anime and manga to video games and computers, you will be hard pressed to find a more concentrated collection of geek culture on this planet. If you’re looking to experience a maid cafe (or even something a little more risque) look no further than fantastical Akihabara.
Be wary when popping into shops though as a small handful are considered to rank well beyond the “safe for work” category. Don’t say we didn’t give you fair warning…
City chic 📷@travel_zoom
Odaiba is a large man-made island situated within Tokyo Bay and just beyond the Rainbow Bridge. The island is home to some impressively extravagant shopping centres sporting a Ferris wheel and other fun attractions because… Japan! During the upcoming 2020 summer Olympics, Odaiba will host a fair few sporting events, so enjoy it now before the crowds roll in!
Odaiba is quite popular with tourists thanks to the instalment of a life size Gundam statue stationed outside of the Diver City mall. Odaiba also features the popular Oedo Onsen Monogatari, a natural hot spring themed park. If you’re not planning on visiting another one during your travels, Oedo Onsen Monogatari is definitely worth the entry fee.
Neon beauty! 📷@jiburicom
Shinjuku is famous for its overwhelming neon signs and there’s no place more exemplary of this than Kabukicho. The area takes its name from a Kabuki theatre that was erected in the vicinity following the devastating aftermath of World War II. Since that time, Kabukicho has evolved into one of Japan’s biggest red light districts and is a haven for numerous drinkeries, funky hostess/host clubs, and other novel adult diversions.
Luckily though, Kabukicho has more to offer than just glitz and sleaze. For one, the infamous Robot Restaurant is located in the heart of the district. As if this weren’t enough, Kabukicho also lays claim to being Tokyo’s latest attraction – the sensational VR Zone Shinjuku. If you have fantasies of playing games like Mario Card in VR, then you can’t afford to pass on this scene!
7. Ueno Park
Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park 📷@nicoleluzzitelli
If your travels allow for only a brief stay in Japan, there would likely be no better place to check out than Ueno Park. This area offers a smorgasbord of attractions that allow visitors to sample many of the country’s unique charms within a single venue. Furthermore, there is an awesome bustling shopping bazaar to investigate called Ameya Yokocho which features the remnants of an ancient black market.
Lastly, if you like off-beat destinations, we also recommend that you take a look at nearby Yanaka. The area was one of only a few to survive the destructive ravages of World War II and therefore provides an authentic gateway into Tokyo’s historic and cultural past.
Panda… Panda… Panda… 📷@misstaolin
While Tokyo’s southern neighbor isn’t exactly an unknown per say, a surprising number of visitors to Japan never make it to Yokohama. Given the area’s history and charm, this is a real shame. Whether you want to walk the streets of one of the world’s biggest Chinatown areas or have a fun day exploring the Minato Mirai waterfront, this city is guaranteed to dazzle everyone! While Tokyo can seem overwhelmingly fast paced at times, Yokohama’s welcoming vibe is definitely more relaxed. Taking a day strolling around Yokohama is definitely one of the best things to do in Japan to give yourself a better overview of the different cities.
Golden Glory 📷@c.om___
Nestled against the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, Nikko is one of eastern Japan’s most important cultural spots. The city’s main attraction is the Toshogu Shrine where Tokugawa Ieyasu, the legendary founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, is enshrined. Nikko also has some other enchanting settings such as Futarasan Shrine and the Kanmangafuchi Abyss that are not to be missed.
Be sure to also visit the nearby Edo Wonderland. This theme park was created to transport visitors back hundreds of years to Japan’s medieval era. It’s a little pricy to enter but the fees are well worth a visit!
10. Hitsujiyama Park
Lawn cherry blossoms at Hitsujiyama Park 📷@andromeda.g94
Japan is known for its cherry blossoms so visiting during cherry blossom season is an absolute must. Just look at those flowers! Visit Hitsujiyama Park for the picturesque shibazakura which translates as ‘lawn cherry blossoms’.
From late April to early May, head to Shibazakura Hill in Hitsujiyama Park. With over 400,000 trees of nine different varieties, it’s a perfect patchwork of pink, red, white and violet, set against the backdrop of the gargantuan Mount Buko. For some serious Instagram inspo, catch the Chichibu Shibazakura Festival in the park, where the petals are arranged in an extravaganza of shapes and swirls.
Tohoku is a collective term used to describe the northern part of Japan’s main island. The whole region of Tohoku is brimming with hidden gems and visitors would do well to check out the likes of Yama-dera and the Ginzan Onsen.
A word of advice for those visiting in early August: be sure to check out Aomori’s Nebuta Festival. It’s an unforgettable once in a lifetime experience, but you’ll need to book accommodation well in advance before reservations are scooped up by domestic tourists!
Kita-in Temple 📷@jhtto
Located only 45 minutes northwest of Tokyo, Kawagoe might as well be a modern-day time machine! This little known spot has earned itself the nickname “Little Edo” (Edo being the old name for Tokyo) due to its numerous historical warehouses. Today the area is an enjoyable historic day trip from Tokyo for both travellers and locals alike.
One interesting titbit is that Kawagoe’s Kita-in temple is literally comprised of the only surviving pieces of Edo Castle. After a great fire, the shogunate had portions of the castle carried on foot all the way from central Tokyo up to Kawagoe to reconstruct the temple. Now you can impress your friends with Kawagoe trivia… you’re welcome!
A practising Buddhist Temple 📷@sanviar
The seaside town of Kamakura was once the military capital of Japan. The area is largely responsible for the rise in samurai culture as it is known today. Additionally, Kamakura is also one of the main birthplaces of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Many of the temples that fostered such spiritual tenets are still practising the essence of Buddha’s teachings today.
Typically, Kamakura is only thought of as a day trip, however, the area has abundant activities to delight one for several days. Featuring bamboo groves and ancient temples, Kamakura is actually capable of fulfilling every reason why travellers trek to Kyoto. Given Kamakura’s lively beaches, back street shopping alleys, and local good eats, this locale is guaranteed to charm and amuse everyone.
Whatever you do though, be sure not to miss nearby Enoshima! It’s an exceptional and breathtaking treat.
Peddling on Lake Ashi 📷@ic.theworld
Hakone is a popular destination with great views of Mt. Fuji, if the weather’s on your side that is! It can be both a great day trip as well as an overnight destination. While famous for its hot springs, Hakone has much to offer when it comes to recreations.
Consider touring Hakone’s boiling sulphur pits from a ropeway, crisscrossing Lake Ashi on a pirate ship, or taking in the mountain views while on board a cable car – we told you it had lots to offer! The volcanically active area surrounding Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park is well known for its hot springs and views of Mount Fuji.
15. Mt. Fuji
Mount Fuji is truly breathtaking 📷@m_gonmori
In recent years Japan’s largest active volcano has been attracting challengers from across the globe. Every summer, Mt. Fuji’s climbing season officially begins in early July and runs through the middle of September. During this brief seasonal window, there is relatively little snowfall on the mountain and the weather tends to be quite mild.
That said, time for a quick disclaimer: despite its beauty, Mt. Fuji is a challenging beast. If you’re planning to attempt a climb please do some research first and have an honest discussion with yourself regarding your physical wellness, condition, and capabilities. Nothing spoils a vacation more than having to experience an airlifted rescue off the mountain… no one wants to be that guy!
Nagoya Castle 📷@mochi.bomb
Nagoya is the biggest city in Central Japan. However, many travellers see Nagoya as nothing more than another milestone en route to Kyoto from Tokyo. Despite being one of the largest cities, Nagoya is often overshadowed by Tokyo and Kyoto when it comes to urban and historical destinations. Those willing to get off the train will find that Nagoya has many amazing and little-known hidden gems!
For starters, the city is home to an impressive castle that is currently undergoing reconstruction using traditional methods. Nagoya Castle is best known for being embellished with golden dolphins, or kinshachi. As if that weren’t enough, Atsuta Jingu is also located in Nagoya. Supposedly this shrine is the resting place of the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, a sword that is often hailed as the “Excalibur of the East.”
Kanazawa Castle 📷@eliabarone
It’s no secret that Kyoto has become one of the most popular destinations on the planet. This fame, however, has brought with it hordes of tourists. Luckily, there’s an alternative. Nestled against the Sea of Japan, Kanazawa is every bit as historic as Kyoto but without the overwhelming crowds. The area is also known as “seafood heaven,” and there’s nothing fishy about the fresh sushi here. Well, apart from the, errr, fish?
Be sure not to miss out on the unique Ninja-dera temple! This structure was actually made to serve as a fortress in disguise. It is rife with secret passageways and traps to deter all would be attackers. You’ll need to make a reservation in advance for a tour but it’s well worth the added time.
Looks like a fairy-tale village 📷@saravinyeta
Shirakawago is a small village in one of Gifu prefecture’s many valleys. The site is best known for its amazing handmade “gassho-zukuri” buildings. Shirakawago receives an abundance of snow during the winter months and these residences were specifically engineered to shrug off heavy snowfall. If you’re looking to see a glimpse of what traditional life in Japan used to be like, there are few better spots than Shirakawago.
19. The Kiso Valley
The pretty town of Magome 📷@adventure.through.my.lens
The Kiso Valley is located well off the beaten path but at the same time WAS ironically on the beaten path. One of two major highways from Tokyo to Kyoto, the Nakasendo, once zigzagged through these mountains transporting countless traders for hundreds of years. Today, much of the old road is preserved and provides a great hiking adventure. Furthermore, the outpost towns of Magome and Tsumago have gone to great lengths to authentically recreate an environment allowing one to envision and experience life during medieval times. Cool, right?! If you’re into outdoorsy activities, this one is a must!
20. Eastern Kyoto
Sunset goals 📷@hash_krash
Kyoto continues to become increasingly crowded these days. Nevertheless, Kyoto remains THE best place to visit in Japan for cultural insight. There are far too many “must-sees” in the city for a first-time traveller to consider missing it. Luckily, many of the major attractions are scattered along the eastern valley wall. As a starting point, consider checking out Gion for rare Geisha sightings and then visiting Kiyomizu-dera temple.
Additionally, while technically considered “Southern Kyoto,” you also cannot afford to miss the legendary Fushimi Inari Taisha. This Shinto shrine has become iconic of Kyoto in recent years and chances are you’ve already seen its thousand torii gates plastered across your Insta feed. Be sure to go early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
Look up! 📷@foundnouns
While most of Kyoto’s main attractions are located to the east, you’ll need to head over to Arashiyama in the west for the quintessential “bamboo forest” experience. This cool AF area has long been popular as a natural retreat with Japanese, dating well back to the Heian era. In addition to the stunning bamboo forest, you’ll also want to be sure to check out the Tenryu-ji temple and the Iwayatama Monkey Park. When accounting for travel time, you’ll want to budget for at least half of a day for Arashiyama.
Crowds at Shinsaibashi 📷@larebve
Dotonbori and the nearby Shinsaibashi shopping arcade are two of the major shopping areas in southern Osaka. There’s a lot of phenomenal street food and other fun things to do in this area; many consider it a must if you’re visiting Osaka. Be sure to keep an eye out for the Glico sign that overlooks the bridge. It’s a major landmark and symbol of the Dotonbori area.
Tennoji is the other key area of Osaka and takes its name from the popular Shitenno-ji temple (meaning Temple of the Four Heavenly Kings). In addition to this popular attraction, the area is also home to the 300 meter tall Abeno Harukas skyscraper. If you’re a fan of viewing city landscapes at high altitudes, there’s no better place in all of Japan!
23. Nara Park
Bambi ‘n co. 📷@omniyafareed
Located about an hour or so south of Osaka, Nara Park is most famous for its adorable and mischievous deer. In addition to these free roaming wild critters, Nara park also has two very important cultural assets, the Giant Buddha at Todai-ji temple and the Kasuga Grand Shrine.
If you plan on visiting Nara, be sure to get an early start as many of the attractions close by 5pm. Be sure to get there before lunch so that you have sufficient time for meandering amongst the deer and being completely awed by the park!
Itsukushima Shrine 📷@misstaolin
Tragically, the city of Hiroshima is known throughout the world for the being the first victim of the horrific atomic bombings. As one would expect, the city’s most noted attraction is the monument dedicated to this terrible act – none other than Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial.
Despite Hiroshima’s catastrophic legacy, the area is also home to another amazing attraction. Located on the island of Miyajima, Itsukushima Shrine is one of the country’s best. The shrine is graced by a gigantic vermillion torii gate and sits out in the water. The structure appears to float on water when the tide is running high.
Spirited away vibes 📷@mayasause
Japan is comprised of four major islands plus the Okinawan islands. Of these, the island of Shikoku is the smallest of the bunch and is also the least visited. That said, the area is not without its endearing and unique charms. Shikoku is notorious for its 88 temple pilgrimage which entails a gruelling multi-day trek travelling temple to temple along the island’s circumference.
You’ll also find the Iya Valley and its amazing vine bridges. This area is so remote that it has often been hailed as the “Tibet of Japan.”
One of the most photogenic vantage points in all of Kyushu😍 📷@japan_discovery
Kyushu is the southernmost of Japan’s four major islands. The island is divided into seven prefectures, each with their own unique appeal. From the vibrant and energetic city of Fukuoka in the north, through the traditional ryokan and hot springs of Oita, past historic Kumamoto, all the way down to natural paradise Kagoshima in the south, this volcanic island really does have something for everyone.
Easily traversable by Shinkansen, Kyushu has a wealth of natural beauty, history, food and culture that is so distinct from the main island of Honshu that it almost feels like another country. Make sure not to miss out on your next trip to Japan. If you’re visiting in July, the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival is a must see with its giant floats. Also worth checking out are Kagoshima’s Sengan-en gardens.
Meet the cats of Shofukuji Zen Temple 🐱 📷@johnamino
Fukuoka is one of the biggest cities in Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island. The city is located relatively close to the Asian mainland and has been an important port city for hundreds of years. Fukuoka has a number of interesting spots to check out but one of its most unique features is its riverside yatai food stalls. One of the best things to do in Japan, these stalls are something that you usually only find at festivals in Japan.
Unlike Tokyo, Fukuoka has a much more chilled out pace and is a great town to leisurely explore as a backpacker. The city and the surrounding area are home to a number of attractions to checkout as well including a castle and the first ever Zen temple. Anyone visiting in July is highly encouraged to check out the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival.
Outdoor enthusiasts will find that Sapporo is a great base from which to head out and explore. Additionally, due to its location on Japan’s northernmost island, Sapporo is a great escape from the oppressive summer humidity. Good news for those feeling a little too hot, hot, hot!
That said, the city is probably most famous for its annual snow festival. Every year artists fashion large snow sculptures with some measuring more than 25 meters wide and 15 meters high! It’s definitely worth a visit and if you’re in Japan during February you have snow excuse not to check it out!
Riverside beauty 📷@nihilarexx
The city of Nagasaki is another major port on Japan’s southernmost main island. As with Hiroshima, Nagasaki also has its own peace memorial. The city also has a handful of temples and shrines that are worth checking out if you’re staying in the area for a while. Among these, you’ll find one of only a few shrines connected to China’s legendary Confucius. Fans of urban exploration should definitely check out Gunkanjima (Battleship Island) for some amazing structural ruins.
30. Hida Takayama
Lovely fields of sunflowers 📷@taka_hidatakayama_photographer
Unlike with a lot of Japan, Hida Takayama retains its beautifully preserved traditional structures. The city is nestled high up in the mountains of Gifu prefecture away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and Osaka. Though definitely located a good way off the beaten path, Hida Takayama is one of the prime candidates for those who are looking to experience old Japan. Don’t miss the open air Hida Folk Village museum that exhibits over 30 traditional Japanese buildings!
Twinkly Kobe lights 📷@pacpaconigiri1
The city of Kobe is sandwiched between the sea and Mt. Rokko. Lately, it has become famous across the globe for its beef, is anyone else craving a burger?
Located between Osaka and Hiroshima, Kobe is often passed up by travellers en route on the bullet train. For those with the time to spare (and perhaps a JR rail pass), it’s definitely worth devoting a day to! In addition to the aforementioned mountain and its spectacular views of the bay, Kobe is also home to the Arima Onsen. This collection of hot springs is often hailed as one of Japan’s top-three. Being a port city, Kobe also has a great bayside entertainment facility as well as a bustling Chinatown to check out.
Located in the heart of central Japan, this area is often passed up by the normal hordes of tourists that flock to Kyoto. Thanks to its remoteness though, you’ll be able to experience Japan much more authentically without having to fight through the crowds – so no need for the tough elbow work!
In addition to the beautiful scenery, the city of Nagano is home to a lot of hidden gems. From the 1998 winter Olympic facilities to a Ninja village for kids, there’s something for everyone here. Within the bounds of the prefecture you’ll also find the Shiga Kogen ski resort and the famous onsen-bathing snow monkeys of Jigokudani.
Be sure to also consider visiting Matsumoto city. Matsumoto is also a great starting point for those looking to go experience the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route and its massive snow walls (even in early summer)!
Hawaii? Thailand? NOPE! Okinawa😎 📷@y_p_3
The Okinawa islands are located about two and a half hours from Tokyo by plane. While technically part of Japan, the isles may as well be another country! Historically, Okinawa was actually its own entity known as the Ryukyu kingdom. Because of this legacy, Okinawa has a very different history to the rest of Japan which is immediately apparent in the local cultural motifs.
Today Okinawa is best known as a tropical retreat by many Japanese. In addition to lazily relaxing by the beach, there are a lot of other fun things to do. Costa-del-Okinawa!
About the author:
Donny is an American born PR and social media consultant living and working in Tokyo, Japan. After spending some of his most formative years in Shiga prefecture’s Hikone City, Donny has an intimate understanding of Japan and its history. Able to grasp the nuances between East and West, most of his career has been predicated on standing in the liminal space between cultures and bridging the divide. He currently provides consultations at Kyodo PR to a wide array of multi-national corporations.
Outside of the office, Donny spends much of his time exploring and storytelling about Japan’s under appreciated cultural assets. After turning thirty in late 2015 Donny noticed what a poor job many of Japan’s more “off the beaten path” destinations were doing at reaching tourists. Unable to let Japan’s legacy go under appreciated, he has been utilizing his marketing skill set and unique background to help these hidden treasures get the attention that they need.