If you’re planning a trip to Japan, one of the most important – and challenging! – steps is deciding where to visit.
With so many amazing destinations to choose from, and so much information on the Internet, narrowing down your ideal destinations can seem daunting (whether it’s your first time, or a return visit).
The good news is that Japan has so many incredible places to visit (and bucket list-worthy Japan experiences), that you basically can’t go wrong.
The “bad” news (if there is any) is that there’s no such thing as a true “best places in Japan” list, since so much comes down to personal preferences and interests.
But to help you navigate the possibilities and decide where to visit, we’ve put together our very own guide to Japan’s best destinations.
Our Favorite Places in Japan
This guide is based on years spent living in and traveling throughout Japan, for “work” (research trips!) and pleasure.
It’s also based in great part on having designed and arranged custom trips to Japan for countless travelers from around the world, and includes not only our and our clients’ favorite places, but also some favorites of Japan and other travel experts we’ve come to know throughout the years.
So we hope it helps you decide where to go, whether you’re most interested in major highlights or off-the-beaten-path gems.
But first, a bit of important background!
Japan is Larger than it Looks
Map of Japan
Next to an enormous country like China, Japan looks rather small on most maps, and in fact it’s not a huge country (though it’s larger than most people realize).
In terms of area, Japan is just slightly smaller than the state of California. But in terms of remarkable places and experiences, Japan is as dense as Europe, where you can travel one or two hours in basically any direction and come to a wonderful city or town and unbelievably good food.
This density of incredible places and experiences is what makes Japan feel much larger than it otherwise might. Most travelers to Japan only fully realize this after a first visit, which often prompts a desire to return again as soon as possible to explore further.
Thus, despite its apparent size, we strongly recommend you “admit defeat” from the beginning, and accept that you won’t be able to “do” Japan in just one trip (whether you have 2 weeks or 2 months).
Trust me: I’ve spent years exploring Japan, and I am not remotely near finished!
Because of this, it’s essential to whittle down the virtually countless list of possibilities and try and determine your ideal destinations.
How Long Should You Spend in Japan?
One of the key factors in how many places you will be able to visit during your trip is of course how much time you have available (not to mention your ideal travel pace).
People often ask us, “How many days should I spend in Japan?” There is no simple answer to this, but my usual answer is that you should spend as long as possible!
Generally speaking, the more time you can devote to your trip, the better. Apart from the fact that there is so much to see and do, it’s also worth devoting extra time (if you can) as it’s a relatively long journey for travelers from far-off parts of the world like the US, Europe, and Australia.
7-10 Days in Japan
Typically, the minimum we recommend is about 7-10 days in Japan. 7-10 days gives you a great starting point, and plenty of time for at least an introduction to the country.
Our 8-day sample trip featuring Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hakone is a great example of how much you can see and do with this amount of time.
10-14 Days in Japan
With 10-14 days in Japan, you can of course add on additional destinations, or even simply spend more time immersing yourself in each place you visit.
Our sample trips below provide different examples of how much you can see and do with about two weeks in Japan:
Luxury Japan: Art, Culture & Cuisine
Japan Cities, Mountains & Art
Luxury Ryokans & the Japanese Countryside
Onsen (hot springs)
3 Weeks in Japan
While less common among our travelers from places like the US, many of our Australian clients are fortunate enough to be able to devote 3 or more weeks to traveling around Japan.
With around 3 weeks in Japan (or more) you have time for a relatively comprehensive itinerary, including a variety of regions and a significant degree of immersion.
With 3 or more weeks the possible itinerary permutations are almost limitless, so we hope our list of destinations below helps you narrow things down to your own personal wish list!
Kinkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan
Less than 1 week in Japan
If you’re thinking of visiting for less than a week, make sure to see our article on where to go if you have 5 days in Japan.
And if you’re lucky enough to live near Japan and can pop over for a long weekend, see our posts on what to do if you have 3 days in Kyoto, or one day in Tokyo.
Japan’s Best Destinations: Our Picks
Now that we’ve covered some key background details, it’s time for the fun part!
The destinations below are divided into two main sections:
A brief overview of what we consider to be Japan’s must-visit destinations
Followed by a longer list of other amazing places in Japan
Panoramic views over Tokyo
“Must-Visit” Destinations in Japan: The Essentials
Of course, when it comes to something as subjective as travel, there is no such thing as a true “must-visit.” It comes down to personal preference, above all.
But based on our and our travelers’ collective experience, we consider the modern capital of Tokyo and the ancient capital of Kyoto to be essential destinations, especially if it’s your first trip to Japan.
To complement the two, we recommend at least a 1- or 2-night trip into the Japanese countryside (and a traditional ryokan experience) to round out your itinerary.
Tokyo needs little introduction.
Map of Tokyo, Japan
One of the world’s most exciting and eclectic cities, Tokyo is full of amazing restaurants (with cuisine both high and “low”), beautiful gardens, cutting-edge architecture, charming backstreets, and a glittering neon-filled cityscape.
Read More About Tokyo
What to Do if You Have One Day in Tokyo
Tokyo’s Best Sushi Shops
Tokyo’s Best Off-the-Beaten-Path Neighborhoods
Kyoto could not be more different than Tokyo, but is equally enthralling.
Bamboo forest in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district
One of the most culturally rich cities in the world, Kyoto is what many travelers dream of when envisioning Japan. You could easily spend weeks wandering its back streets, generations-old craft shops and restaurants, ancient temples and gardens.
Read More About Kyoto
Three Days in Kyoto
Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo, Kyoto & Kanazawa
Where To Go If You Only Have 5 Days in Japan
A Traditional Ryokan in the Japanese Countryside
A trip including Tokyo and Kyoto would be great, but to complement the two cities we often recommend at least an overnight trip to rural Japan.
Onsen in winter, Beniya Mukayu
In the countryside, stay at a beautiful ryokan and enjoy onsen (hot springs) and kaiseki cuisine.
Fortunately, this type of experience is available in countless areas throughout Japan, including Hakone and the Izu Peninsula (both featured below), along with many more (see our article on the best ryokans for a short visit).
A trip including these three elements – modern Tokyo, historic Kyoto, and stay at a traditional ryokan in the countryside – is the perfect recipe for a rich and rewarding Japan travel experience.
The beautiful red torii of Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto
More Amazing Destinations in Japan
Now that we’ve covered our recommended “must-visits”, we can get into our longer list of other amazing places throughout Japan.
We couldn’t include every single place we love in Japan, and please note that these are not listed in any particular order!
Kanazawa’s old geisha district, the Higashi Chaya
The main reason visitors flock to Kanazawa is Kenrokuen Garden, considered one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens. Adjacent to Kenrokuen is Kanazawa Castle. Nearby you will find the beautifully-preserved Higashi Chaya-gai, the city’s historic teahouse and geisha district.
Kanazawa is also home to the D.T. Suzuki Museum of Buddhist philosophy, the Nagamachi Bukeyashiki samurai district, the bustling Omicho Market, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, and Myoryu-ji (the Ninja Temple).
One of the best places in Japan for art lovers, the art island of Naoshima is home to a large collection of contemporary art museums, galleries, exhibits and installations.
Benesse House (also home to Naoshima’s most noteworthy hotel) features works by an impressive collection of artists, including Hiroshi Sugimoto, Gerhard Richter, Shinro Ohtake, Richard Long, David Hockney, and many more.
Yayoi Kusama’s famous Pumpkin sculpture, Naoshima
The gorgeous Chichu Art Museum was designed by Tadao Ando to let in an abundance of natural light, and features a small but impressive collection of works by artists including Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria.
The Art House Project is a collection of abandoned houses and workshops – as well as a temple and a shrine – that have been converted into venues and art installations for artists from Japan and around the world.
If you have time for a visit to Teshima while visiting Naoshima, it’s worth a visit! Located just 30 minutes away by ferry, Teshima is a tiny island with three notable art sites.
In addition to the Teshima Yokoo House and Christian Boltanski’s “Les Archives du Cœur,” the island’s highlight is the stunning Teshima Art Museum.
Takoyaki stall on Osaka’s Dotonbori
Osaka is a cosmopolitan city – famous for food and nightlife – and home to Japan’s most famously outgoing citizens. Located just 30 miles from Kyoto, Osaka is often (unfortunately) skipped by first-time visitors, but much-loved by repeat visitors and Japan residents.
In addition to Osaka Castle (reconstructed with a beautiful exterior in a very peaceful urban park), Osaka’s most famous destination is the Namba district, renowned for its street food (including takoyaki) and nightlife. Osaka is also the perfect place for a surprisingly relaxing urban bicycle tour, shopping, excellent hotels, and a visit to the world-famous Osaka Aquarium.
Hiroshima, Miyajima & Onomichi
Located in Hiroshima Prefecture, the city of Hiroshima, Miyajima, and Onomichi are all very worthwhile stops.
Hiroshima’s A-Bomb Dome
Hiroshima is most famous for being the site of one of two atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is located in the Peace Park, adjacent to the sobering sight of the iconic A-Bomb Dome.
The powerful Peace Park and Museum are well worth exploration, but after reliving the horrors of 1945 you’ll see that Hiroshima’s present is much brighter.
Hiroshima’s people are friendly and outgoing, and in addition to the famous local specialty, okonomiyaki, Hiroshima is full of bars and restaurants offering local sake (and, in winter, the amazing local oysters).
Itsukushima Shrine’s “floating” torii, Miyajima
Miyajima Island is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage site located just outside of Hiroshima. The island is home to the historic Itsukushima Shrine, which was originally founded in the 6th century and has long been one of Japan’s most sacred sites.
Even if you have not heard of Miyajima, chances are you have seen photos of the iconic shrine: it’s one of the most photographed sights in Japan, thanks to its magnificent red torii gate, which appears to be floating in the waters of the Inland Sea. The scenery changes dramatically from high tide to low.
At a local izakaya in Onomichi
Onomichi is a quaint port town on the southern coast of Hiroshima Prefecture. In addition to its attractive surroundings and pleasant atmosphere, Onomichi is home to Onomichi U2, a renovated warehouse offering a unique collection of locally-oriented shopping and dining options.
For a small town, Onomichi also has an unusually high concentration of temples, 25 of which form the well-known Temple Walk. Art lovers will want to pay homage at the Onomichi City Art Museum, designed by world-famous architect Tadao Ando.
Mount Koya’s Okunoin Cemetery (Photo Credit: alq666 via Compfight cc )
Located in a peaceful wooded area of Wakayama Prefecture, south of Kyoto and Osaka, Mount Koya (or Koya-san, as it is called in Japanese) is the headquarters of the Shingon school of Buddhism, and home to more than 100 temples and monasteries.
Mt. Koya is one of the best places in Japan to experience a stay in a Buddhist temple. Aside from the chance to stay in a shukubo (temple lodging), Koya-san’s most famous landmark is the otherworldly Okunoin Cemetery, one of Japan’s most sacred sites, and the location of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum.
Deer in Nara, Japan
Located just 25 miles from Kyoto, Nara preceded Kyoto as the ancient capital of Japan, and today is home to a treasure trove of Japanese history (including the UNESCO World Heritage historic monuments of ancient Nara).
Nara’s most well-known monument is the impressive 8th century Todaiji Temple, the world’s largest wooden building, which houses Japan’s largest Buddha, the Daibutsu. A nice walk from Todaiji – and also in Nara Park – is Nara’s most celebrated shrine, Kasuga Taisha.
Other highlights in Nara include the 7th century Horyuji Temple (Japan’s first UNESCO site), Yakushiji Temple, Chuguji Temple, Issuien Garden, and the charming Naramachi historical district.
Hayatama Taisha Shrine, Kumano Kodo
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route is one of Japan’s most enchanting walks.
Deep in rural Wakayama Prefecture, but just a few hours south of Kyoto and Osaka, the UNESCO-recognized Kumano region is filled with spirituality and history, as well as beautiful landscapes, charming villages, hiking, and onsen.
Walks along the pilgrimage route range from day hikes all the way up to challenging multi-day walks for the more adventurous. Kumano Kodo is also part of a Dual Pilgrim program with its sister walk, Spain’s better-known Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James).
Traditional countryside: Japan’s Kiso Valley
The Kiso Valley lies in the lovely countryside between the central city of Nagoya and the alpine cities of Nagano and Matsumoto.
In the heart of the Kiso Valley you can experience a walk along the old Nakasendo Way, which once connected Kyoto and Tokyo. The most well-preserved stretch of the Nakasendo Highway lies between the villages of Tsumago and Magome.
Magome is a charming post town easily reached from Nagoya, and the perfect starting (or end) point for the walk.
The walk from Magome to Tsumago is about 8 km (3-4 hours) and culminates with your arrival in Tsumago, one of Japan’s loveliest villages.
Arai Ryokan, a traditional hot springs inn in Shuzenji Onsen, Shizuoka prefecture
Located just to the west and south of Tokyo, most visitors to Japan travel through Izu without even realizing it.
The shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto passes through the northern end of Izu, but the majority of its gems lie to the south.
Izu is overflowing with natural beauty, onsen, and remarkable seafood and produce, and a handful of our favorite areas include Shimoda (on Izu’s southernmost point), Shuzenji Onsen, Izu-Kogen, and Yugashima Onsen.
The Furano Flower Fields, Hokkaido
Too vast to describe in a short article, Japan’s northernmost island is renowned for its pristine nature and expansive landscapes, incredible seafood and produce, and – by many accounts – the best skiing and snowboarding on Earth.
The whole of Hokkaido is full of stunning natural beauty. Start in Sapporo or Hakodate (both wonderful culinary cities), then venture off into the wild.
While not an absolute must, one of the best ways to explore Hokkaido is by self-drive. Renting a car is not always the best way to get around on Japan’s main islands, but on Hokkaido it’s often a great option.
Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa
When most people think “beach holidays” and “Asia,” Japan is not the first place that comes to mind.
Yet Japan is home to one of Asia’s loveliest subtropical destinations, the beautiful Yaeyama Islands of Okinawa.
The whole Okinawan archipelago is full of gorgeous little islands, but for one of the most unique experiences Japan has to offer, the remote Yaeyama Islands have no equal.
Geographically closer to Taiwan and mainland Asia than to mainland Japan, the Yaeyama Islands feature not only picturesque beaches and nature (including jungles), but a rich Ryukyu heritage and culture.
Cherry blossoms at Takayama’s Nakabashi bridge, over the Miyagawa River
Takayama is a historic town in the Hida Mountains of the Japanese Alps famous for its traditional atmosphere, festivals, local sake, and beef (Hida-gyu).
The town was established in the 16th century, and the best place to start is with a stroll in the Sanmachi Suji district, where you’ll find well-preserved generations-old inns, shops and taverns.
Takayama’s sake is renowned throughout Japan, in large part thanks to the area’s clear water, and we recommend visiting one of the town’s many sake breweries for a taste of the local specialty. There is a morning market held on the town’s central Miyagawa River, and if you want to get out of town for some exercise and activity, there are great cycling opportunities in the beautiful surrounding countryside.
Private onsen at Gora Kadan, one of Japan’s most renowned luxury ryokan
Hakone is the Tokyo area’s most famous nature retreat. In addition to its onsen, it’s most well-known for its views of Mount Fuji on clear days (which can, admittedly, be frustratingly rare).
For art lovers, there is the Hakone Open-Air Museum, or take in the beautiful landscapes from Hakone’s famous sightseeing loop.
The circuit takes you around the region via a charming variety of modes of transport including the Hakone Tozan Railway, Cable Car, Hakone Ropeway, and cruise across beautiful Lake Ashi.
Hakata ramen, Fukuoka (Kyushu)
The city of Fukuoka, also known as Hakata, is one of Japan’s unsung culinary destinations, not to mention one of the country’s most pleasant and livable urban centers.
Fukuoka is the largest city on Kyushu (one of Japan’s four main islands), and thus also the perfect jumping-off point for an adventure into rugged Kyushu.
Those who are fortunate enough to have visited Fukuoka usually know of it thanks to one of its most famous offerings: tonkotsu ramen.
Hakata is also relatively rare in Japan in that it maintains a very lively and active street-food culture, visible in its yatai (food carts).
For a unique and luxurious take on Fukuoka and the island of Kyushu, the Seven Stars cruise train is an enticing option.
Kaiseki cuisine at Ryokan Kurashiki
Kurashiki is a charming town most famous for the Bikan Historical District located along its well-preserved canal area, which dates back over 400 years.
The canal is lined with attractive former storehouses (kura) that have been lovingly preserved and converted into charming galleries, boutiques and cafes. Kurashiki is well-known for its textiles and bizen pottery, and you’ll find shops dedicated to both dotted around town.
Shirakawago & Gokayama
Blue light of evening in the peaceful village of Shirakawago (a UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Japan has no shortage of charming mountain villages, and one of the best places to experience traditional rural Japan is with a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage villages of Shirakawago and Gokayama.
The gassho-zukuri (praying hands) architecture set against beautiful natural surroundings makes them among the most photogenic places in Japan, and the steeply-sloped thatched roofs are able to withstand the the heavy snowfall that the region receives each winter.
Adachi Museum’s famous landscape garden
Matsue, located in western Japan’s beautiful but little-visited Shimane Prefecture, is one of Japan’s hidden gems.
Most visitors travel to Matsue for the breathtaking Adachi Museum of Art. In addition to its impressive collection of modern Japanese painting (including works by Yokoyama Taikan), the Adachi Museum is most renowned for its world-famous garden, which blends almost magically into the surrounding landscape.
In Matsue itself, enjoy excellent seafood and sake, and visit Matsue-jo (Matsue Castle), one of only a handful of surviving original castles in Japan (dating from the 17th-century). Matsue is also the ideal base from which to visit Izumo Taisha, one of Japan’s oldest and most important Shinto shrines, as well as the the idyllic Oki Islands.
Nishimuraya Honkan, Kinosaki Onsen
Kinosaki Onsen is one of Japan’s quintessential onsen destinations.
In addition to the onsen at your ryokan, one of the highlights of a visit to Kinosaki is heading out for a stroll through town in your provided yukata (light Japanese-style robe) and geta (wooden clogs).
The old-fashioned town features seven sento (bathhouses), which sit among pretty streets of traditional wooden buildings and narrow bridges.
Wajima morning market, Noto Peninsula (photo by cotaro70s / CC BY)
Jutting out into the Japan Sea, to the north of Kanazawa, is the rugged Noto Hanto (Noto Peninsula).
Made famous by the wonderful book Rice, Noodle, Fish, Noto Hanto makes for one of Japan’s best self-drive destinations.
Visit the Wajima Market, enjoy dramatic coastal scenery, have lunch at Flatt’s, and – if you’re lucky – spend the night at one of Noto’s beautiful onsen ryokans.
Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Mure (Takamatsu)
Takamatsu is a pleasant city on the northeast coast of Shikoku. It’s the largest city in Kagawa, a prefecture famous for its delicious udon noodles. A ferry also connects Takamatsu to Naoshima.
But the real highlights of a visit to Takamatsu are Ritsurin Koen, a lovely landscape garden, and the powerful Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum.
Takamatsu is also a convenient jumping-off point for Kotohira (home to Konpirasan Shrine and the wonderful Kanamaru-za kabuki theater), and the Iya Valley in Shikoku’s remote interior.
View of the Iya Valley from Iya Onsen Ryokan
Japan Destination Information: Additional Resources
We hope our list helps you decide where to visit!
But if you’re still unsure, or simply want to do some additional research, it may be worth investing in a great guidebook or two.
A couple of our favorites are the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Japan and National Geographic Traveler: Japan (and you can find more in our article on the Best Japan Travel Guidebooks).
If you’re not into guidebooks, there are plenty of fantastic resources throughout the Internet. Japan-guide.com is perhaps the most comprehensive, and you’ll find many more in our post on the Internet’s Best Japan Travel Resources.
Evening blue skies over Tokyo’s glittering skyline
While we couldn’t include every single one of our favorite places in Japan, we hope our guide to Japan’s best destinations helps you decide where to go on your trip!
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The post Japan’s Best Destinations: Tokyo, Kyoto & Beyond appeared first on Boutique Japan.