Figuring out your next vacation destination is one of the most thrilling moments when you plan a trip. But when you’re searching for the best places to go in Japan, it can get overwhelming! Every region has memorable sightseeing spots, food specialties, and plenty of opportunities to make for a fantastic adventure. How can you narrow it down?
The most straightforward answer we can give is that it helps if you research different locations and see what tickles your fancy. Will you stick to urban sprawls like Tokyo and Osaka? Traverse the sacred sites in Kyoto and Nara? Or get away from it all in the rural areas of Hokkaido?
To help you get started on your journey, we’ve listed our top 20 places to visit in Japan and what to do when you go!
Although we don’t like to play favorites, we’re kicking off this list with the capital of Japan. That’s because no matter what your interests are, you can find it here. There are so many things to see and do in Tokyo that you could never cover all of them in one week, much less a few days. It deserves a second, third, and even a fourth visit from any well-versed traveler!
Northern Tokyo’s Top Things to Do
Start your day by learning about the history of the city at the Edo Tokyo Museum. The life-size and scaled models give you an immersive lesson on Tokyo's development from the 1600s to now. A short subway ride from here takes you to the magnificent Asakusa Sensoji Temple and Tokyo SkyTree. If you’re coming during the sakura season, don’t miss Ueno Park, where over one thousand cherry trees bloom.
Central Tokyo’s Top Things to Do
Tokyo is home to Japan’s royal family. You can get close to the Imperial Palace and see the Nijubashi Bridge or the East Gardens. However, you can’t enter the grounds except for on January 2nd and February 23rd when the emperor gives a public address.
Near the palace are Tsukiji and Toyosu Fish Markets and the Akihabara neighborhood, where you’ll find all things related to manga and anime. Also, if you’re in Tokyo in November and December, stop by the Hama-Rikyu landscape garden to see fall foliage.
Western Tokyo’s Top Things to Do
If you love temples and shrines, make a stop in the Shibuya neighborhood to see Meiji Jingu. It feels tranquil in this area, but a short walk will take you to hectic places like the Scramble Crossing, where you’ll find bars and clubs galore and the Hachiko Memorial Statue. If traditional art is more your pace, see the Nezu Museum’s collection of ceramics, calligraphy, and more.
Southern Tokyo’s Top Things to Do
Art aficionados also can’t miss Roppongi Hills, which has grown into the center of modern art culture in Japan. The Mori Art Museum features contemporary installations and prides itself on choosing pieces that the most casual observer will love. From here, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to Tokyo Tower. Its 150 and 250-meter high observation decks give you a 360° view of the city, and on a clear weather day, you can see Mount Fuji.
Love fashion, food, and fun? Osaka is the dream destination for you! You’ll find that Tokyoites are polite but business-like, whereas Osakans are by and large a jolly and playful bunch. Founded 1400 years ago, you can find traditional sites, but most people go to Osaka to enjoy its modern atmosphere.
Things to Do in Osaka
Travelers and locals alike love Osaka Castle, where warrior and politician Toyotomi Hideyoshi lived with his loyal samurai. The castle fell several times due to battles and natural disasters, and now houses a museum dedicated to its history. From the top floor, you can take in a spectacular view of the city. The Castle Park that surrounds the main keep has 300 cherry blossoms, which bloom in late March and early April.
The bustling downtown area offers top-notch shopping and dining options. The Shinsaibashi arcade is home to luxury boutiques. Among them, you’ll see familiar brand names, department stores, and retailers that specialize in high-quality kimonos. At the end of the long street, you’ll reach the colorful Dotonbori Canal, where hundreds of neon signs light up at night.
Osaka Food to Eat
Osakans are obsessed with food, and as the saying goes, this is the city to kuidaore—eat ‘til you drop! The regional specialties range from battered street foods like takoyaki to high-quality beef.
The Dotonbori area is one of the best places in Osaka to take a food tour, but not the only one. At the food theme park Naniwa Kuishinbo, you can choose from over twenty restaurants in a 1960s atmosphere. Or, check out the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum, where you can make a customized cup of noodles!
When you step into Kyoto, Japanese history comes to life right before your eyes. Unlike other major cities in Japan, Kyoto came out of WWII unscathed, and most of its historical and culturally significant sites have survived the centuries. Kyoto is home to seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which include several awe-inspiring Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
Kyoto’s Temples and Shrines
Fun fact, there are over 1600 temples and shrines in Kyoto! Although that's intriguing, it makes it a little overwhelming to build an itinerary around. Thankfully, we’ve got the inside scoop on which ones are worth the trip!
We’re partial to Kiyomizudera Temple, Kinkauji, and Fushimi Inari Shrine, especially if it’s your first time to Japan. If you love Japanese-style gardens, head to Kodaiji Temple, Heian Shrine, or Ryoanji Temple. Also, take the time to see the Sanjusangendo’s striking display of 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy.
Other Things to Do in Kyoto
If seeing temple after temple starts to wear you out, there’s so much more to do in the city! You can explore Nijo Castle and the former Imperial Palace. Kyoto is also a textile powerhouse, and you can see the latest kimono designs in the Nishijin neighborhood. Or, enjoy a captivating meal with a real-life geisha, and sample the local food and drink at Nishiki Market and the Fushimi Sake District.
When is the Best Time to Visit Kyoto?
There’s no such thing as a "bad" time to see this ancient city! Travelers particularly love going to Maruyama Park during the cherry blossom season, and to the Arashiyama district to see Tenryuji Temple’s garden surrounded by autumn leaves. If you love Japanese festivals, check out the Gion Matsuri in July and the Aoi Matsuri in May.
Mount Fuji is as iconic in Japan as the cherry blossoms. Japanese people say that everyone should climb Fuji at least once in their lives, but you’re a fool if you do it twice! But you don’t have to wait around for the hiking trails to open to enjoy her majesty.
What to Do Around Mount Fuji in Spring
There’s more than one pink flower to see in Japan! From mid-April to May, 800,000 moss phlox bloom on the vast fields near Lake Motosuko. The Fuji Shibazakura Festival celebrates the blossoms with food stalls, a pop-up cafe, and an onsen foot bath. With Mount Fuji in the background, the magenta garden is a sight to behold.
What to Do Around Mount Fuji in Summer
If you feel inclined (pun intended), Mount Fuji’s climbing season is from July to September. Or, you can drive halfway up her 3,776-meter summit to the fifth station when the weather is fair, but dress warmly—even in summer! Mount Fuji is always several degrees colder and much windier at her top than at her base.
What to Do Around Mount Fuji in Fall
Japan’s maples attract visitors from all over the world to take in their vibrant hues. Hakone is the best destination near Fuji to see the fall foliage. You can take a cruise on Lake Ashi for photo ops, and as transportation to the Hakone Ropeway and the volcanic valley Owakudani.
What to Do Around Mount Fuji in Winter
There’s nothing like the view of Mount Fuji, but clouds cover her peak for most of the year. Japanese people joke that she’s a shy mountain, but in reality, it’s all a matter of temperature and pressure. In winter, her base and peak reach equilibrium, and you’ll be much more likely to see her come out!
Sadly, the world became aware of Hiroshima City when the atomic bomb fell on August 6th, 1945. You can gain a better understanding of this tragic day and its effects on the survivors at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
Here, you’ll first see Genbaku Dome, which was one of the few buildings that remained somewhat intact after the explosion. Several more monuments memorialize victims, including the Children’s Memorial dedicated to Sadako Sasaki and all young people who suffered from illnesses due to radiation poisoning. Near the Victims Memorial Cenotaph, you’ll find the Peace Museum, where you can see pictures and virtual renderings of the day, as well as hear survivor stories.
While in Hiroshima, take a day trip from the city and hop on a ferry to Miyajima Island. As you sail across the bay, Itsukushima Shrine’s torii gate will greet you. At high tide, both look as though they’re floating on the water. Make sure there’s enough time in your schedule to explore the island beyond the shrine, as this is one of the three top-most beautiful places in Japan.
Japan’s northernmost island has so much to offer, and yet hasn’t garnered as much attention as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. It’s a little off the beaten path for most Western travelers, but more and more people are waking up to its charms every year! If you love nature, seafood, or snow, we can’t more than recommend Hokkaido!
Things to Do in Hokkaido
Do you love skiing on powder? Hit Hokkaido's the legendary slopes! Sapporo City alone gets an average of 191 inches of snow every year, with most falling in January and February.
Winter is also the time of year to enjoy festivals like the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, or go birdwatching and see rare species like the red-crowned crane. When the chilly weather gets to be a little too much for you, warm your bones in a piping hot onsen!
As gorgeous as Hokkaido is in winter, however, it’s beauty becomes even more apparent in summer. In mid-July, lavender fields bloom in Furano and Biei cities. It's also the best season to explore the island’s untouched natural sites like the Shiretoko Peninsula, Kushiro Marshlands, and Lake Toya.
You can still see these places in autumn, but you’ll want to dress warmly. Also, add Sounkyo’s Ginga and Ryusei Waterfalls to your list to see the extraordinary autumn leaves. Spring offers its own merits as the weather slowly reaches higher temperatures. The (very) gradual change in season means the cherry blossoms in places like Matsumae Park and Goryokaku Fort don’t bloom until May!
You might know that Kyoto was once the capital of Japan, but did you know that Nara was the first? Nara is the jewel on Japan’s World Heritage Site crown and boasts sightseeing locations that date back to the 6th century. The most impressive among them, though, is Todaiji Temple.
According to legend, Emperor Shomu commissioned the construction of Todaiji after a slew of disasters and epidemics, and millions of citizens came to help. Since its founding in 738 CE, it has housed the world’s biggest bronze Giant Buddha and was the largest wooden building until 1998.
As you approach the enormous entrance gates in Nara Park, wild shika deer will follow you begging for treats. You can buy specially-formulated biscuits to feed them at the park, and please be careful not to let them munch on any outside food or trash you might be carrying. Also, watch your six around these critters! The brave ones will nip your backside if they’re hungry.
The Japanese say, “Never say ‘kekko’ (I’m satisfied) until you’ve seen Nikko!” The little town makes for a convenient day trip from Tokyo that will satisfy your craving for Japanese traditions, breathtaking nature, and historic sites.
Start at the UNESCO World Heritage Park, where you can access three incredible sightseeing spots in one area. Toshogu Jingu enshrines the spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who ushered in the culturally defining Edo period. It’s also home to beloved wood carvings such as the Three Wise Monkeys and the Sleeping Cat. Walking through the Sakashitamon Gate, you can climb up to Tokugawa’s mausoleum.
A short distance away are Futarasan Shrine and Rinnoji Temple. Markedly different in design, the famous monk Shodo Shonin, who brought Buddhism to Nikko, established both. They both also have exquisite gardens that reach their full glamor in November when the fall foliage turns their most brilliant colors.
Before you leave Nikko, stop by the 100-meter high Kegon Falls, which flows out of Lake Chuzenji. Along with the Nachi Falls in Wakayama and the Fukuroda Falls in Ibaraki, it’s one of the most scenic waterfalls in the country. Beautiful all year round, it’s particularly attractive when the maple trees in the surrounding Nikko National Park change colors in mid to late October.
Once the political center of Japan, Kamakura is a nostalgic town that holds onto the scenes of its height of power. Among its most alluring attractions is Kotokuin Temple’s Great Buddha, which is the second-largest of its kind in Japan. A wooden building once housed the statue, but a tsunami destroyed it in 1495, and the Great Buddha has sat outside ever since. Cherry blossoms surround the grounds in late March and early April.
If you’re coming to Japan in summer and looking for a little fun in the sun, you can find some of the best beaches near Tokyo on Enoshima Island. Surfers stay on the mainland, but swimmers and sunbathers cross the footbridge for the exceptional resorts. You can also explore the Benten Kutsu or Iwaya Caves or take in the view from the Sea Candle Observation Tower in the Samuel Cocking Garden.
We touched on this town further up the list, but it merits an individual entry. Known for its hot springs, natural scenery, and views of Mount Fuji, Hakone deserves a visit plus an overnight stay! It’s the perfect place to experience spending the night in a ryokan—a traditional Japanese inn.
During the day, you can see how Hakone embraces modernity without losing its past. In the Edo Period, it was the entrance to present-day Tokyo, and you can see the paths ancient voyagers took on the Old Tokaido Road and at Hakone Checkpoint. Visitors these days love the Hakone Open-Air Museum, where statues and sculptures complement the surrounding mountains and trees.
Being a somewhat rural town, Hakone is lovely to visit in any season for different reasons. Go to Gotemba Peace Park, which explodes in pink during the cherry blossom season. Or take in the sights of the autumn leaves near Lake Ashi. On foggy days in summer, people go to Hakone Shrine to see the imposing buildings suddenly emerge from the mist.
At one point in time, Japan had over 5,000 castles! Unfortunately, many fell during wars or due to fires and natural disasters. Now, there are more than a hundred, but most are recreations. Only twelve “original” castles remain, and Himeji-jo is the most dazzling among them.
Also known as the White Heron, Himeji Castle is the epitome of 17th-century architecture and innovation. Walking the labyrinth-like approach to the six-storied main keep, you’ll quickly understand why no army was ever able to demolish it. The sophisticated fortifications of the grounds are one attraction, but the elegant appearance is the other.
The magnificent ivory walls seem to become even brighter when cherry blossoms or maples color the grounds. The topmost floor of the main keep has a small shrine, and you can peer out from the top to see other seventy-nine buildings and the surrounding city.
To the west of Himeji Castle is Kokoen, a Japanese-style landscape garden added in 1992. Kokoen covers about 350,000 square meters and houses nine different gardening styles that are reminiscent of the Edo Period. They employ elements such as reflective ponds, waterfalls, and tea houses where you can enjoy a cup of matcha.
These days, Tokyo beats out every city in Japan for being on the cutting edge of current trends. But a few centuries ago, Kanazawa rivaled it in cultural achievements. Luckily, it avoided devastating storms and wars over the years, and you can still see many ancient and well-preserved areas.
If you only have time to stop in one place in Kanazawa, don’t miss your opportunity to see Kenrokuen Garden. The Maeda family built Kenrokuen over two centuries, and it is now one of Japan’s top three landscape gardens. While many gardens use several Chinese elements in their designs, Kenrokuen separates itself by employing all of them.
For another traditional and atmospheric place, head to the Nagamachi Samurai District. Once a residential sector for middle and upper-class samurai, you can stroll past the hundred-year-old earthen walls on narrow lanes and enter restored homes and businesses. There are also museums with artifacts related to these aristocrats’ daily lives.
Even if you’ve never heard the name “Kyushu,” you probably know of Nagasaki, which was the second city destroyed by an atomic bomb. You can learn more about this fateful day at Nagasaki Peace Park and the Atomic Bomb Museum, but Nagasaki is more than its tragic history.
Nagasaki was one of the most important ports of entry for foreign traders, and you can see their mark to this day. First, take a trip to Dejima Island, where Portuguese traders were designated to live during the Edo Period. At Glover Garden, you can walk through mid-nineteenth century homes built by European residents once Japan’s isolationism ended. Around the same time, French missionaries built Oura Tenshudo, Japan's oldest Catholic church.
As one of Japan’s southernmost islands, Kyushu has plenty of onsen towns to explore. But if bathing doesn’t interest you, check out the seven viewing hot springs and geysers known as the Hells of Beppu. The most photogenic among them is the cheerily named “Bloody Pond Hell,” which is an eerie crimson color. In the same region, you can also see the Takasakiyama Monkey Park.
For more scenic areas, head to Miyazaki, where you’ll find one of Japan’s hidden gems. The Takachiho Gorge is a 120,000-year-old natural wonder with a 17-meter high waterfall that cascades into the Gokase River. You can explore the gorge from below by boat or above on hiking trails.
Near here is the Amano-Iwato Shrine, which Japanese mythology references as the place where the Sun Goddess hid and sent the world into a long period of darkness. From November to mid-February, Yokagura Performances reenact this story in different venues around town.
We can’t move on without mentioning the Kyushu's springtime flowers. Cherry blossoms bloom around late March and early April, but the main attraction is closer to May when the wisteria flowers open. During this time, the Kawachi Fujien Garden opens to the public, and you can walk through long tunnels with different-colored wisteria hanging down from the tops and sides.
If you’re looking for one of the best places to go skiing in mainland Japan, look no further than here. You might recognize Nagano and the Japan Alps as the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. But you don’t need to be an athlete to enjoy this prefecture.
Soaking in an onsen to relieve stress is one of Japan’s national pastimes, but there’s one thing that can make it even more entertaining—monkeys! During winter, wild Japanese Macaques in Yudanaka seek out warmth by jumping into hot springs. They used to climb into any old place they could find, including tubs at the nearby ryokans. Now, you can see them at Jigokudani Monkey Park, where they're able to bathe in peace.
South of here, you’ll reach Matsumoto. Hands down, the city’s most well-known sightseeing destination is the prominent castle in the center of town. Matsumoto-jo is one of Japan’s twelve original castles and is jet black. A short walk away is the historic Nakamachi District, and you can visit one of Japan's largest wasabi farms in Matsumoto’s suburbs.
The secluded Takayama retains much of its 17th-century charm. As you walk around the beautifully preserved Old Town, you’ll pass homes, cafes, and breweries that opened centuries ago. Near here, you can also find Takayama Jinya, which was a government outpost from 1692-1960. You can also go shopping at the Morning Market, where you’ll find food and souvenirs.
Spring and autumn are the most lively times of year to visit, as the town prepares for its seasonal celebrations. The Sanno Spring Festival (April 14th-15th) and Hachiman Autumn Festival (October 9th-10th) are the pride and joy of the little mountain town.
During both events, the locals pull wooden floats through the streets during the day and again at night. You’ll notice that marionettes adorn the tops of several of the floats, and you can watch them “perform” in the afternoon. In the evening, the floats come out again, but this time with glowing paper lanterns. If you miss the festival, you can see the floats at the Takayama Matsuri Yaitai Kaikan all year round.
The historic Shirakawago Village is a powerful testament to humankind’s ability to adapt to harsh environments. The remote mountains that span Gifu and Toyama Prefectures get heavy snowfalls that would be unliveable, if not for generations of engineering prowess.
The farmhouses have thatched roofs that don’t use any nails. But, they’re able to withstand the snow because of their architecture. Gassho-zukuri style refers to how the sides of the steep roofs come together like hands in prayer. The shape made it possible for residents to live on the first floors, and have room for cultivating silkworms in the attic.
Some of the farmhouses are over 250-years-old, which led to their inscription on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. No matter when you go, the natural landscape of the mountain comes alive in the seasons. However, there is something slightly magical about seeing them under a blanket of snow. If you want an immersive experience into the lives of the people who lived here, some farmhouses are available for booking overnight stays.
Naoshima is the place to go for contemporary Japanese art. The sandy island has a rural and almost Mediterranean atmosphere with its beaches and sunny weather. As you ferry across the Seto Inland Sea, Yayoi Kusama’s Red Pumpkin statue pops out to welcome you.
You can find a similar sculpture at the Benesse House, which is part art museum and part luxury hotel. The complex comprises of four buildings that architect Tadao Ando designed. Overnight guests can get after-hours access to the museum, and original pieces decorate every accommodation.
Tadao Ando also designed the Chichu Art Museum, and the architecture is just as stunning as the artwork. Most of the facilities are underground, and they only use natural light for illumination. Inside, you’ll find pieces by Claude Monet, James Turrell, and temporary exhibits.
The Lee Ufan Museum, another Tadao Ando creation, opened in 2010 for the Setouchi Triennale festival. It features works that span Lee Ufan’s career, who is a Korean artist that teaches in Japan. The outside of the museum features Ufan’s large installations made of stone, iron, and concrete, and you can also see a few of his paintings inside.
The Tohoku region sometimes goes overlooked by foreign tourists, but it most assuredly deserves your attention. Between its spirited summer festivals, ancient holy sites, and marvelous nature, spending time here will make for an unforgettable trip.
If you come in August, start in Aomori City to see the Nebuta Matsuri from the 2nd-7th. The evening parades feature massive floats made from paper and red lamps. From the 3rd-6th, Akita holds the Kanto Festival, where skilled performers balance towering bamboo poles and lanterns on different parts of their bodies. Finally, head south to Sendai during the Tanabata Matsuri (6th-8th), and the whole downtown area comes alive with streamers and paper decorations.
In fall, Tohoku is one of the best places to go in Japan for viewing autumn leaves. Among the most beloved destinations are Lake Towada and the Oirase Mountain Stream. You could spend days camping and hiking through these areas, but you don’t have to be an outdoorsy type to enjoy them. Both have scenic viewing areas that you can access by car.
If you love sightseeing boats, head to either Geibikei Gorge or Matsushima Bay. A gentle river flows through the Geibikei Gorge, allowing for small gondolas to safely ride over the shallow areas. Matsushima Bay is one of Japan’s top three most scenic areas. Over 260 pine-covered islands dot the water, and you can choose to take long or short trips.
For sightseeing locations that are gorgeous at any time of year, you can’t go wrong by making a trip to Chusonji Temple. Most of the original buildings burned down years ago, but thankfully, the golden Konjikido Hall is still around. Also, don’t miss Tohoku’s castles like Morioka-jo and Tsuruga-jo, both of which are iconic places for seeing cherry blossoms.
Mount Koya is a profoundly significant religious site in Japan. It serves as the center of Shingon Buddhism, which is a blend of Japan’s major religions: Shintoism and Buddhism. It’s a sought-after destination for pilgrims, and many temples offer lodging for wearing travelers.
Among its UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the one that any traveler should put at the top of their list is Kongobuji Temple. Toyotomi Hideyoshi constructed it to commemorate his mother. Visitors can enjoy cups of tea inside of its traditional tatami rooms or stroll through the rock garden, which is the largest of its kind in Japan.
Okunoin Temple also stands as a memorial for some of Japan’s most historically influential figures. Feudal lords such as Oda Nobunaga, Takeda Shingen, and Date Masamune made Okunoin their final resting places. The founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kukai, also has a mausoleum here.
If you’re interested in learning more about Shingon Buddhism’s development, visit Garan. According to tradition, Kukai threw a ceremonial tool from China, and it landed where this temple complex now stands. The two most prominent buildings are the 45-meter-tall pagoda and Kondo Hall, where monks hold ceremonies.
During the Edo Period, picturesque Kurashiki was at the center of Japan’s rice distribution. Its canals and storehouses were critical in keeping the citizens of Osaka and Tokyo well fed. These days, you can take a gondola ride on the willow-lined canal, or browse through the old storehouses. Though they still have their original black-and-white facades, they now house shops, cafes, and museums.
The most impressive of the canal area’s museums is the Ohara Museum of Art. Unlike most of the businesses in the area, it isn’t a converted warehouse, but it was the first Western art museum in Japan. The Main Gallery includes pieces by artists such as Picasso, Monet, and Rodin. You can find works by multiple Japanese artists in the Annex, and an entire building dedicated to European-trained painter Kojima Torajiro.