A kaleidoscope of ancient traditions, high-tech bullet trains, remote temples, stunning nature and some of the most delicious food out there – Japan truly has something for every kind of traveller.
Curious about visiting Japan but not sure where to go? Fear not – to help you decide, we’ve put together a guide with our top places to visit in Japan that will give you a real insight into this unique destination.
Tokyo – A kaleidoscope of technology & tradition
If you’re going to Japan you’ll most likely fly into Tokyo, so a few days in the Nippon capital are a given. With its bright neon lights and its 80s retro-futuristic atmosphere, there’s nowhere like Tokyo. Experience the daily tuna auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market, visit one of the city’s majestic centenary shrines, relax by the Imperial Palace gardens, try some traditional yakitori at the infamous Golden Gai in Shinjuku or feel like a kid again at the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. Thanks to Tokyo’s hi-tech public transport system, you’ll have no problem navigating the different contrasting areas of this bustling city.
Hakone – At the foot of Mount Fuji
Really close to Tokyo, and easily accessed by train, you’ll find Hakone – the perfect setting to Mount Fuji. A paradise for outdoor lovers and trekking enthusiasts, Hakone offers a relaxing escape from Tokyo. Bath in volcanic onsens (natural hot springs), explore the jaw-dropping scenery over the Ashino-ko lake and marvel at the tori of Hakone-jinja rising from the water. And if that isn’t enough, walk along the Old Tokkeidan Road and make a stop at The Gyoza Centre for some delicious Japanese dumplings. Top stuff.
Kyoto – The heart of Japanese tradition
If you want to learn about Japanese traditions, then a trip to Kyoto is a must. Once Japan’s capital, this popular (and touristy) city encapsulates with perfection the essence of Japan through ancient temples, perfectly manicured zen gardens and time honoured tea ceremonies. Cycle through the backstreets of Gion with a local guide and discover how Geisha live, making a stop at the iconic Shinto shrines with their bright red tori gates. Visit the serene Kinkaku-Ji golden temple and explore its picturesque gardens or head over to the Fushimi Sake district for some locally-brewed hot sake.
Osaka – Japan’s foodie capital
Osaka isn’t just another Japanese metropolis full of bright neon lights. Oh no. Famous for its giant skyscrapers, nightlife and Samurai past, Osaka (Japan’s second biggest city) is also a foodie’s paradise. Walk through the busy streets of Dotonbori and try some freshly cooked takoyaki (dough balls with octopus) or okonomiyaki (savoury pancake) and make sure to stop by the famous Glico sign, Osaka’s emblem.
Visit Osaka’s castle for an insight into one of Japan’s most famous landmarks and pop into the Museum of History and learn all about traditional life in Osaka. If you’re into miniatures and maquettes – you’ll love this. Osaka is also a great place as a base to explore other smaller Japanese towns. For example, if you have time, you can hop on the bullet train for a quick visit to the town of Nara, famous for its wild deer and its Todaiji temple or pop into Kobe for a famous Kobe beef stake. Delish!
Hiroshima – Peace and paper cranes
Hiroshima is widely known for the tragic events of 1945 when the first atomic bomb was dropped over this Japanese city. After World War II, the city was rebuilt and many of Hiroshima’s historical landmarks were reconstructed (Hiroshima’s castle amongst others). The city is now a place of love, peace and prosperity. Take the time to reflect on the past at the Peace Memorial Park, explore the miniature valleys and mountains of the Shukkeien garden before having a cup of matcha in a traditional tea house.
You can also take a trip to Miyajima – the island of the gods – to marvel at the fabled Itsukushima shrine and learn all about the history of this ancient land.
Takayama – Quaint markets and Alpine mountains
Approximately four hours away from Tokyo, among the striking Japanese Alps, you’ll find the quaint town of Takayama. Its green landscape, traditional architecture and local gastronomy makes Takayama really worth a visit. Walk along Sanmachi Suji, a collection of narrow lanes, lined with beautifully preserved merchant houses that make you feel like you’re stepping back to the times of the samurai. Visit a traditional sake brewery and become acquainted with the best quality sake in the region or try the city’s own style of ramen, called “chuka soba”. Don’t forget to read our Takayama travel guide with all the things you can do while you’re there.
Kanazawa – Turrets, temples & Samurai heritage
Explore Kanazawa on Japan’s west coast, an attractive city bursting with culture and history. Largely untouched by the war, the city boasts beautifully preserved Samurai and Geisha districts, as well as one of the country’s finest gardens, all centred around the impressive Kenroku-en Castle. Its proximity to the sea has also made it a hotspot for fish and seafood dishes, so a great place to be if you’re hungry. We highly recommend paying a visit to the Omi-cho market, where you’ll see the bustle of everyday life and taste the very freshest fish and seafood available.
Matsumoto – Great for scenic walks
Nestled amongst Japan’s beautiful Alpine mountains, you’ll find the cosmopolitan little city of Matsumoto. Flanked by imposing peaks, Matsumoto is home to a magnificent wooden castle at its heart, attractive Edo-period streets to stroll around at leisure, and a vibrant atmosphere. Easily accessible on foot, stroll around the cafes and galleries located at the Nakamachi district (the former merchant district) and if you love art, then we highly recommend a visit to the Ukiyoe Museum where you’ll learn all about traditional woodblock prints.
Nakasendo – Stroll the ancient trail
The Nakasendo Way is an ancient walking trail of the Edo period that connects Tokyo with Kyoto. It’s a great way to sample Japan’s rural scenery of thick forests, cobblestone roads and traditional-style Japanese houses. You can walk the most popular section, Magome to Tsumago, as a day trip from Tokyo and Kyoto. As you make your way through the forest, you’ll be treated to views of cascading waterfalls and beautiful mountain vistas peeking through the trees. Oh, and you can’t forget a stop at the local Tea House!