Planning your next trip to Japan, but don’t know where to start? Japan has so many must visit places, it's hard to fit them all onto one list! We’ve compiled this comprehensive guide to destinations you can’t miss in Japan, sorted by region, to help you decide which area is best for you. We’ve also listed some of our favorite cities and prefectures (in no particular order) for a quick glance at each site. So, without further ado, here’s our list of the 20 Must Visit Places in Japan!
Hokkaido is the best place to go in Japan for great skiing in the winter, or for a refreshingly temperate, humidity-free summer. Head to Sapporo to enjoy the best nightlife north of Tokyo, drink Sapporo Beer, and see the Sapporo Snow Festival in February. 40 minutes from Sapporo is Otaru, a nostalgic town with mid-century style architecture. Enjoy Otaru’s Music Box Museum or try blowing your own glass art at one of Otaru’s many classes. And don’t pass up exploring Hakodate, especially climbing (or taking the ropeway) up Mt. Hakodate to soak in a wonderful view of the cityscape from 334 meters (1095 feet) up!
Before you get to Tokyo, the northeast region of Japan has plenty to offer. Head to Aomori City in July for the Nebuta festival, one of the three largest festivals in the region. Or, if you miss the celebrations, you can always go to Nebuta Warasse to see the festival floats any time you want! In Morioka, head to Morioka Site Castle Park in spring or fall for some of the best views of cherry blossoms and autumn leaves. Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture ranks as the most scenic spot in Japan. In Matsushima Bay, there are over 260 small and large islands covered in pine trees, and you can take a short cruise around them. While exploring the islands, head to Godaido Hall, famous for its 12 lunar calendar animal carvings.
There’s a saying in Japan that goes “Never say ‘Kekko’ (that you’re satisfied) until you’ve seen Nikko!” Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture is known as one of the most naturally beautiful cities in Japan. Famous natural sites include the Kegon Falls (ranked among Japan’s top three waterfalls), Lake Chuzenji, and the cedar trees of the Nikko Suginamiki Path. Make sure you check out the Toshogu Shrine (Tokugawa Ieyasu’s final resting place) where you can see the iconic “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” monkey carving. The best time to visit Nikko is when the hills come alive with red and gold leaves in autumn. Even Japanese people travel here to admire them!
There are so many things to see and do in Tokyo that they can make up their own blog post! Head to Ginza, the Japanese fashion capital, to find the biggest brands from all over the world, the Imperial Palace nearby, and Tsukiji Fish Market to see a traditional-style Japanese market where vendors sell fish, vegetables, and fruit at wholesale prices. You’ll find the hippest areas of Tokyo in Shinjuku and Shibuya. Get off at Shibuya station and head to the Hachiko Exit to see to see the statue of this pup, beloved for his loyalty. Then head out to try cuisine from around the world, or to the famous 109 Shibuya department store to shop for clothes by local underground designers.
Kamakura was once the political center of Japan. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is designated as Important Cultural Property, as it was the scene of several political events during Kamakura’s zenith (1185-1333). Another traditional site is the Kotokuin Temple’s Great Buddha, which is home to one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha. Hasedera Temple houses the famous 11-headed Buddhist Goddess of Mercy sculpture. At 9.18 meters (over 30 feet), this is one of the tallest wooden statues in Japan. Kamakura is located right on the coast, so head to the beach while you’re here! The popular, manmade Enoshima Island is connected to the mainland by a bridge, so it’s quite easy to visit.
Hakone is famous for hot springs, breathtaking nature, and views of Mt. Fuji. If you plan to stay overnight, try visiting or staying in a ryokan—a traditional Japanese inn. During the day, take the Hakone Ropeway to see Owakudani volcano emitting great sulfurous plumes! Unfortunately, walking trails to Owakudani are closed indefinitely due to volcanic gases, but the ropeway is a safe alternative. While here, check out the Gotemba Peace Park which explodes in pink during cherry blossom season, or you can go for a short cruise on Lake Ashi in a pirate-themed ship!
7. Mt. Fuji
Mt. Fuji is as iconic as cherry blossoms in Japan. Japanese people often say that you must hike Mt. Fuji at least once, but if you hike it twice you’re a fool! If you don’t have time or energy to climb the 3,776 meters (12,388 feet) to the top, there are driving and cycling roads that lead to multiple stations on the mountain. Traveling by car, you’ll encounter “Melody Road.” If you drive at 40 km/h, your tires will pass over grooves in the road and play a sweet but haunting melody that’s easiest to hear if you keep your windows down. Don’t forget your jacket—Mt. Fuji’s climate is always a few degrees colder and much windier at higher altitudes than at her foot.
8. Nagano City
You might remember Nagano City as the site of the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. The Japanese Alps can be accessed via Nagano City, where you can enjoy skiing, hot springs, and hiking. Major attractions in Nagano include Zenkoji Temple, which was built in the 7th century and said to house the first Buddha image imported to Japan. Another famous religious site is the Togakushi Shrine. According to legend, the Shinto Sun Goddess hid herself here due to her brother’s cruelty, leaving the world shrouded in darkness. If you’re traveling with your family, visit the Kid’s Ninja Village, situated in the middle of the Togakushi Shrine complex. Train like a ninja; climb jungle gyms and complete obstacle courses with your little assassins-in-training!
Takayama in Gifu Prefecture is an especially secluded area, so it’s retained much of its 17th century charm. Not only is the area famous for its high-quality timber, but many skilled artisans live here and build yatai—traditional Japanese parade floats. Takayama holds two festivals a year (the Sanno Spring Festival and the Hachiman Autumn Festival) that are considered some of the most beautiful celebrations in all of Japan. If you miss the festivals, you can head to the Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan to see the parade floats. Year round, you can go to the morning market, which is one of the biggest markets in Japan. The shops and stalls sprawl across 350 meters (almost a quarter mile) of land and sell fruit, vegetables, traditional Japanese souvenirs, and even Hello Kitty merchandise.
In the mountainous Gifu and Toyama Prefectures you’ll see powerful testaments to humankind’s ability to adapt. The historical village Shirakawa-go became an official World Heritage Site in 1995 and is most famous for its Gassho houses. These farm houses were designed to look like how one might hold their hands in prayer. The thatched roofs are also made to withstand heavy snow—without using any nails, at that! Each piece of wood was expertly crafted to fit together like a puzzle. Despite drastic economic changes during the 1950s, many of the towns’ structures and roads were preserved. Travelers can book an overnight stay in one of these historical homes.
Kanazawa is the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture. Over the centuries, Kanazawa rivaled Edo (former Tokyo) and Kyoto in cultural achievements. It also was fortunate to avoid natural disasters and war, and consequently, you can see many well-preserved districts where samurai once lived. The best place to go in Kanazawa is Kenrokuen Garden, one of Japan’s three great gardens. It took over 2 centuries to complete the garden, which borrows from Chinese aesthetics.
When you step into Kyoto, Japanese history comes to life before your very eyes. Unlike other areas of Japan, Kyoto came out of WWII bombings and air raids unscathed, and most of its World Heritage Sites have survived the years since their founding. In Kyoto, not only can you see the old temples and shrines, but even some of Kyoto’s people still live in machiya—traditional Japanese wooden townhouses. While in Kyoto, take a day to see some of the famous religious sites like Kinkakuji, the Fushimi Inari Shrine, and Kiyomizu Temple. Experience Kyoto’s nightlife in the Pontocho and Gion areas and dine along the Kamo River. Don’t forget to sample Kyoto’s traditional foods and sweets like tofu, green tea, Japanese haute cuisine (kaiseki), and yatsuhashi!
13. Nara City
Just a hop, skip and a jump away from Kyoto lies the city of Nara. Nara is home to the famous Nara Park where wild, mild-mannered deer gather and interact with people. You can buy deer feed at the park, and the deer will bow at you (like Japanese people do) for a treat. Near the park is the famous Todaiji Temple, home to one of the largest bronze Buddha statues. You’ll marvel at the engineering prowess of the architects who designed this impressive temple in 728 AD to house the 15-meter (50 foot) Buddha inside.
14. Mount Koya (Koyasan)
Mt. Koya is a deeply 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 weary travelers. UNESCO World Heritage Site Kongobuji Temple offers a place for guests to enjoy tea and features the largest rock garden in Japan. At Okunoin Temple, you can see headstones of famous figures from history like Oda Nobunaga, Takeda Shingen, and Date Masamune.
A large part of the Kansai region is steeped in traditional Japanese culture, but if you’re looking for something more modern, head over to Osaka. Osaka is a favorite travel destination for Japanese youth who love fashion and food. Head to Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi for the hottest trends, nightclubs galore, and the latest food crazes. The saying in Osaka is “Eat ‘til you drop,” so try Osakan fare like okonomiyaki and takoyaki, too! Cruises are available on the nearby canals for a small lunch or a tour. At night, check out the Umeda Sky Building for an expansive view of the city lights below.
Himeji City in Hyogo Prefecture is most famous for the World Heritage Site, Himeji Castle. Himeji (just 1 kilometer from Himeji station) is one of 12 original castles in Japan and perhaps the most beautiful with its ivory walls. This structure is spectacularly preserved, and 82 of its wooden buildings have survived since its founding. To the west of Himeji Castle is Kokoen Garden, a fairly recent addition built in 1992 to celebrate the castle’s 100th anniversary. Kokoen Garden covers about 35,000 square meters including 9 gardens reminiscent of the Edo Period, a brilliantly-reflective pond, a waterfall, and a tea garden for guests to enjoy a cup of matcha.
Kurashiki, famous for its canal area, is the second largest city in Okayama Prefecture. During the Tokugawa Era, white-walled and black-tiled rice storehouses were built. Now, those storehouses have been converted into shops, museums, and cafes. The Ohara Museum of Art stands near the canal and is dedicated to the painter Kojima Torajiro. Famous modern Western artists are also featured here, including Picasso, El Greco, Monet, Gaugin, and more.
18. Naoshima Island
Naoshima Island on the Seto Inland Sea is better known as “Art Island,” as this is a major place to see contemporary Japanese art. Upon arrival to Naoshima’s port, you’re greeted by Red Pumpkin, a giant sculpture by Yayoi Kusama. A similar pumpkin sculpture stands by the Benesse House, which is part art museum and part luxury hotel. Another prominent artist featured here is Ando Tadao, who designed the Chichu Art Museum, an architectural marvel as most of the museum is underground and works are viewed in natural light. The newest addition to Naoshima Island’s art culture is the Lee Ufan Museum, built in 2010. Korean artist Lee Ufan collaborated with Ando Tadao to create this special museum, which is reminiscent of a cave.
19. Hiroshima City
Sadly, Hiroshima City is primarily known for its tragic history. Gain a better understanding of the effects of the atomic bombing at UNESCO-recognized Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, located in the center of the city. Here, you’ll see Hiroshima Genbaku Dome, which was the only structure within the blast radius that survived the explosion. In the park, you can see the Children’s Memorial, which is dedicated to Sadako Sasaki and other Japanese children who died from radiation poisoning years after the bombings. While you’re in Hiroshima Prefecture, visit Hiroshima Castle and nearby Miyajima Island where you can see the Itsukushima Shrine, rated as one of the most beautiful places in Japan.
Kyushu is one of the southernmost islands of Japan, and there’s a lot to do here! The largest city in Kyushu is Fukuoka—one of the top ten largest cities in Japan—but you might be more familiar with Nagasaki City. Like Hiroshima City, Nagasaki suffered an atomic bombing. You can visit the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum or Nagasaki’s Peace Park to pay your respects. For a lighter activity, head to the Glover Garden to marvel at the architecture of the “Madame Butterfly House.” In Kumamoto, don’t miss seeing one of Japan’s most famous castles—Kumamoto Castle. Head to Oita Prefecture to see the uniquely-preserved Kitsuki Samurai District and learn how samurai lived.
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