Making a list of the best places to visit in Japan is a tricky thing to do, since Japan is one of my favourite countries to visit. I mean, that’s evident by the fact that I’ve been back four times in nine years. Each time I visit, I definitely see my old favourites, but I also try to go somewhere new or somewhere slightly away from the major stops on any Japanese itinerary like Tokyo and Kyoto. Over my four years visiting Japan, I’ve been to twelve different areas that all had something amazing to offer. There’s still more to see, of course, but this post comprises a list of my favourite discoveries in the land of the rising sun so far.
My list of the best places to visit in Japan
Beppu is the onsen centre of Japan located in Oita Prefecture with a huge number of natural hot springs. Onsen in Japan is traditionally done nude, so if you’re feeling a little self conscious, it might be recommended to try and get a hotel with a private onsen, rather than brave the crowds. I’ve done both, and whilst I didn’t mind the public onsen, I can tell you that when you’re a larger sized caucasian women surrounded by tiny Japanese ladies, the experience can be a little daunting at first. Beppu is also famous for the Jigoku (Hells) of Beppu which are a number of hot springs including a geyser, a bubbling pool of grey mud and a steaming aqua lagoon. Note, these hot springs are NOT for bathing – one even has crocodiles living in it. Beppu makes the list of the best places to visit in Japan for its amazing hot springs, but also its quirkiness.
A favourite spot for Japanese tourists, Hakone is famous for hot springs and a beautiful view across Lake Ashi to Mount Fuji. It’s not far from Tokyo, so could be done in a day trip, but it is a lovely area to relax and spend a night or two. Located in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park in Kanagawa Prefecture, this beautiful area is full of woodland and babbling brooks. I’d recommend a boat ride across Lake Ashi and then hopping on the Hakone Ropeway to see the sulfur pits in the active volcano valley of Owakudani, where you can also sample the famous black eggs. Hakone’s picturesque beauty makes it definitely one of the best places to visit in Japan.
A beautiful city with a tragic history, Hiroshima is one of my favourite places in Japan. No trip to Hiroshima would be complete without a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park, which is a moving and poignant tribute to those who were devastatingly affected by the atomic bomb dropped by the USA on the city to end World War Two. The Peace Park contains the A-Bomb Dome, which is the shell of a building that miraculously remained standing when the bomb was dropped. Also featured in the park is the beautiful pool with the arched cenotaph inscribed with all the names of the victims runing over the top of it and the heartbreaking Children’s Monument which is usually covered with origami cranes. Also in the same complex is the Peace Museum which, amongst other things, contains a watch stopped at the exact time the bomb was dropped. I think it was this exhibit that really hit home for me. Despite its sadness, Hiroshima is now a thriving city again and one of the best places to visit in Japan.
Located only a short distance from Tokyo, Kamakura is a beautiful city in Kanagawa Prefecture. A trip to Kamakura will take about an hour and a half on the train from Tokyo, so it is possible to do as a day trip or an overnight. Kamakura is one of the best places to visit in Japan, particularly if you want an alternative city full of shinto shrines and temples to Kyoto. This region is particularly famous for its giant statue of the Amida Buddha, which used to be housed in a building that was washed away by a tsunami. The Buddha, however, remained put and has been a drawcard to the region ever since. The peacefulness of Kamakura and the beautiful scenery definitely makes this one of the best places to visit in Japan.
A staple on the Japan tourist trail, this wonderful city is undoubtedly one of the best places to visit in Japan. Because of this, it can grow exceptionally crowded, however, particularly around Sakura (Cherry Blossom) and the Autumn foliage seasons. The good news is, though, that Kyoto is beautiful at any time of year, so it is absolutely possible to go during the low season in winter (to avoid New Year crowds, go after 3rd January) and still get amazing photos. Kyoto is quintessential traditional Japan.
Wooden sliding doors with paper windows and lanterns line the cobble stone streets and if you’re lucky, you might spot the famous Kyoto geisha scuttling to their appointments inside the tea houses. The Geisha districts where I’ve had the most luck spotting these icons are Gion Higashi and Ponto-Cho, though there are five districts in Kyoto in total. It’s worth reminding that whilst spotting Geisha is exciting, that these are women going about their jobs, so respect them and don’t get in their way.
Kyoto is famous for temples and shrines, but honestly there are so many temples and shrines in Kyoto to visit, so I put together a handy guide on the best ones to visit in a previous post.
Matsuyama is an absolute undiscovered gem in Japan that not a lot of international tourists have discovered yet. It’s the capital of Ehime Prefecture and is on the island of Shikoku, so flying or travelling by boat are your options to visit. Matsuyama does have an airport and with the rise of low-cost carriers in Japan, it’s pretty cheap to get there by plane. Matsuyama has an incredible castle, which I think is personally the best castle to visit in Japan. I found it more impressive than Nijo Castle in Kyoto or the iconic Osaka castle with a huge expansive area to walk around and discover.
Matsuyama is also home to Japan’s oldest indoor onsen, Dogo Onsen, which has been around since 1894. There are a number of traditional Japanese guest houses (ryokan) in Matsuyama to complete your stay. Fewer people speak English here than in main centres like Tokyo and Kyoto, so be prepared to learn a few Japanese phrases and hope for the best when ordering food! If you’re willing to brave it, though, you’ll discover one of the best places to visit in Japan.
The famous ‘floating’ torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine located on the small Miyajima island is a sight to behold at high tide. The shrine itself is also built over water and is UNESCO World Heritage Listed. It’s easily accessible in under an hour from Hiroshima and is well worth the ferry ride out.
Miyajima was listed back in 1643 in scholar Hayashi Gaho’s Three Views of Japan, which indicates the island temple’s significance and beauty in Japanese history. Miyajima is famous not only for the shrine itself, but for the wild deer that roam the tourist trails. They’re totally friendly, although they’ll definitely pester you for food. Not only is Miyajima one of the best places to visit in Japan, it’s also one of the most iconic.
Nara is located on Japan’s main island, Honshu, in the Kansai region and was the original capital of Japan – before Kyoto. It’s accessible on a day trip from Osaka or Kyoto, or on a longer stay depending on time. I visited Nara specifically because I wanted to view the famous Big Buddha in Todai-Ji – the largest bronze Buddha statue in the entire world – but there’s lots more to enjoy in Nara.
Like Miyajima, Nara is full of wild deer who are used to being fed by tourists, so beware if you have food in your pockets! The ancient monuments of Nara are UNESCO World Heritage listed and are some of the oldest in Japan. They include Horyuji, which is the world’s oldest wooden building and the beautiful Kasuga Taisha. For me, playing with the deer, alone, makes this one of the best places to visit in Japan.
Nikko is located in the mountainous region of Tochigi in Japan, about two and a half hours on the train from Tokyo. It’s a beautiful, vast city with breathtaking natural sites and traditional architecture. By far and away, the most visited site in Nikko is the incredible Toshogu shrine, which is intricately carved and painted. In the Nikko National Park, there are cute wild monkeys (although be careful not to get bitten) and rushing rivers through beautiful gorges.
The perfect Instagram spot would have to be the sacred red Shinkyo bridge which leads to all the Nikko shrines – it’s truly picturesque and worthy of five minutes of reflection, I travelled to Nikko on a day trip, but it was a looooong day, so I’d recommend an overnight stay if you don’t feel up to five hours return train travel in a day.
Located in the Kansai region along with neighbouring cities Kyoto and Nara, Osaka has become a favourite with tourists doing a standard 10 day Japan itinerary: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka. The city is located on a harbour and has a funky and fresh nightlife, particularly in the busy Dotonbori area. Undoubtedly, the most famous sight to visit in Osaka is the Osaka Castle and surrounding park, which really is stunning to look at.
Personally, I’m a massive fan of wandering the many markets, arcades and eateries in the Dotonbori area, which is a long stretch of pedestrian street featuring enormous moving crabs, street food vendors selling octopus balls (an Osaka special) and yakitori restaurants. If you’re happy doing day trips to Nara, Hiroshima and Kyoto, then basing yourself in Osaka is an option – although I’d strongly recommend staying several nights in Kyoto to experience the lantern-lit alleys in the dark.
Northern Japan’s capital, Sapporo, is located on the island of Hokkaido, famous for its snow festival, snow monkeys and powder-like ski slopes. I visited in the beginning of the summer months, so while the rest of Japan was humid and sweltering, I was enjoying temperatures in the high teens – perfect for wandering around. I actually visited for a work trip, but had 24 hours to explore before kicking off the project I was working on.
The Sapporo Beer Museum is a great place to visit if you’re a beer fan and beer tastings are cheap following your visit to the museum. Odori Park is perfect on a sunny day to sit and relax. When the sun is out, street food and beer vendors come out to peddle their wares and it’s a wonderful feeling to sit amongst the sun and flowers with a beer in hand. For great views, a trip out to Mt Moiwa and the Mt Moiwa Ropeway is definitely worth the travel time and if you’re short on hours, then head to the JR Station building and visit the observation deck.
Who could forget the jewel in Japan’s crown, the capital, Tokyo? Tokyo, to me, is the New York of Asia: the city never sleeps and it’s bustling, varied and vibrant. Each district in Tokyo is slightly different, from the traditional neighbourhood of Asakusa to the scramble crossing of Shibuya. I’ve been to Tokyo four times and I’m still yet to feel like I’ve seen it all.
It’s a huge urban city that truly has something for everyone. It’s an absolute must-visit for first timers to Japan in order to experience that traditional meets modern juxtaposition so evident in Japan. Because it’s just so hard to pinpoint a handful of activities to do in Tokyo, I created an Ultimate Tokyo Guide for the best things to do and see in the city.