We’ve compiled our top ten places to visit in Japan with our handy map below. Sure, you’ll have heard of some already, but we think there will also be a couple of surprises that will appeal to your mind, body and soul.
Tokyo is a benevolent behemoth of sound, tech, ramen and kawaii. It will envelop any traveller into its electric arms. Prepare to be spellbound as you traverse its contrasting cityscape. You’ll see Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, robot cafes and Godzilla, all in one short walk through one of its many sprawling districts. As Tokyo is the world’s safest capital city, travellers can be comfortable knowing they can explore the city by night – where they’ll practically be able to get a tan from the neon light displays, fifteen storeys high.
World famous for the graceful and intriguing Geisha of the Gion district, there is a lot more to this cultural hot spot than meets the eye. Home to some of the most breathtaking shrines and wooden houses from bygone eras that Japan has to offer, Kyoto will have you dying to learn more about Japanese history, art and culture. A little restaurant called Hohei in central Gion has become a cult status Gyoza joint – seriously, you’ll be rolling out of there with a warm dumpling glow! Make sure you attend one of the solemn and spiritual tea ceremonies to centre yourself again.
Osaka offers attractions and sights that appeal to all kinds of folks. If you’re into history, architecture and famed shoguns then a stop at Osaka Castle is a must to take a step back to feudal Japan. Set within vast gardens, this multi-level castle-turned-museum tells the story of many of Japan’s most infamous leaders including the Tokugawa and Toyotomi clans. The Dōtonbori area will put Times Square & Piccadilly Circus to shame, with its soaring billboards, theatres and shops, selling a multitude of unexpected knick-knacks. Just walking around, watching Osaka life go by can be hours of thought-provoking entertainment, and a worthy highlight of this amazing city.
Nara is perfectly navigable in a day. That is if you’re able to tear yourself away from over 2,000 free-roaming, protected deer in the area. You can purchase crackers to feed the deer but beware, they will swarm you if you don’t hide them! Throughout the Nara Park, you’ll find outstanding temples and shrines, notably the Tōdai-ji Buddhist temple with the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha, along with an opportunity for you to earn enlightenment by crawling through a Buddha’s Nostril.
Walking through the old town of Takayama feels like you have been transported to a scene from a Studio Ghibli film – you might expect to see a Samurai around every corner. Its UNESCO listed wooden houses, some dating back to the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), are incredibly traditional, and a far stretch from Tokyo’s hi-tech skyscrapers. Being the gateway to the mountainous regions of the Japanese Alps, it sees a lot of traveller footfall yet it manages to retain that magical, ancient feel. Most shops sell traditional foods and local crafts. There are small museums to explore which explain the history and significance of the Gifu prefecture. See our blog for 5 reasons to visit Takayama.
Get those legs moving! Any trip to Japan for a trekking enthusiast would be considered unfinished if the Japanese Alps were missed. There are so many areas that suit different abilities and interests from keen walkers and hikers to expert mountaineers.Our favourite is a place called Kamikochi. With frequent local buses going between Takayama, it’s easy to get to and there are several traditional ryokan (Japanese inns) set within the trees. We recommend a half day hike on the Dakesawa trail after crossing the Kappa Bridge at the base camp.
It doesn’t get more iconic and real for travellers to Japan than Hiroshima and its surrounding area. It’s been over 70 years since the atomic bomb that wiped out the city, and as expected, there are still some sobering effects left behind even today. Much can be felt from a visit to the Atomic Bomb Dome which was kept standing as a reminder by Hiroshima residents. For those after some tranquil surroundings to reflect on the past and future, Miyajima is a spiritual haven. Stand in the presence of the bright orange Great Torii Gate at low tide and absorb the views from travelling up the Miyajima ropeway. Don’t forget to munch on a local Momiji manjū cake too.
To the south of Osaka is the magnificent Mount Koya where you can take in more classic Japanese views from the cable car. Koyasan means ‘mountain name’, perhaps because the locals couldn’t think of a name worthy enough of its beauty. The artist, scholar and pilgrim Kobo Daishi founded the Shingon school of Buddhism and the monastery here at Koyasan. You can read more about Kobo Daishi and his impact on this region in the book ‘Hitching Rides with Buddha’ by Will Ferguson which has some hilarious and emotional insights. For over 1,200 years Koyasan has been an active Buddhist monastery so you’ll find peace and respite here.
Hokkaido is the second largest island in this curious and spectacular country. Its capital, Sapporo, is a northern Tokyo-meets-Osaka but with more hardcore skiers. This island is famed for its volcano landscapes dotted with hot spring baths, known as onsens. On the coast, you can go bear-watching by sea, which means there is minimal impact on their habitat and wellbeing. Hokkaido’s mountainous regions are home to the free-roaming ezo red fox and sika deer. Visitors to the area are advised to avoid touching these animals as many are infected with the echinococcosis parasite and it’s important to preserve Japan’s natural ecosystems. Hokkaido is Japan’s wild north and temperatures can be very different from southern regions (even in summer) so go prepared.
There is nowhere on earth more magical and mystical than the forests and waterfalls of Yakushima. Nicknamed the ‘fairytale forest’ Yakushima was the inspiration for the famous Studio Ghibli film, Princess Mononoke. For those on a more adventurous quest for a meaningful travel experience in Japan, hiking the Arakawa trail will bring you to Mount Miyanoura and one of the world’s oldest living trees, Jōmon Sugi. The island of Yakushima has an abundance of miraculous life, including the loggerhead turtle beaches on its coast. As ever, it is important to make use of a reputable, respectful guide to avoid disturbing the delicate balance of Yakushima’s ecosystems.
For even more Japan travel tips, head to our travel guide below.