Discovering the Diverse Delights: Unveiling the Best Travel Locations in Japan
Japan is a country that effortlessly blends its rich history with modern advancements, creating a unique travel destination for explorers from around the world. With so many captivating cities and breathtaking landscapes, it can be overwhelming to decide where to go first. From the bustling streets of Tokyo to the serene beauty of Yakushima and the historical charm of Kyoto, Japan offers an array of unforgettable experiences. In this article, we will delve into the best places to visit in Japan, providing you with a comprehensive guide to help you plan your dream adventure. Whether you are seeking cultural immersion, natural wonders, or a blend of both, Japan has something to offer every traveler. Let's dive into the enchanting world of Japan and discover the hidden gems that await you.
Tokyo: Best Destination for Contemporary Culture
Tokyo is a city that constantly looks towards the future, pushing the boundaries of what is possible on its densely populated and earthquake-prone land. With its ever taller and sleeker structures, Tokyo is known as Japan's epicenter of contemporary art, architecture, pop culture, shopping, drinking, and entertainment. It is also tied with Kyoto as the top spot for dining. However, what truly captivates visitors is the city itself. Stretching as far as the eye can see, Tokyo is a sprawling and organic entity that is constantly changing. With its diverse collection of neighborhoods, each experience of Tokyo is unique.
Planning tip: If you plan on attending sumo, kabuki, or Giants baseball games, it is best to purchase tickets one to two months in advance. Additionally, attractions such as the Imperial Palace and Ghibli Museum require prior planning.
A heartwarming scene in Kyoto as a man and his daughter, both dressed in traditional kimonos, play with snow in a stunning garden. (© Eriko Koga / Getty Images)
Kyoto: Best Destination for Traditional Experiences
Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan for a millennium, boasts over a thousand temples. Among them are magnificent structures like Kinkaku-ji, an exquisite pavilion covered entirely in gold leaf, and serene places like Ryōan-ji, known for its stark Zen rock garden. However, temples are just the beginning of Kyoto's wonders. The city is also renowned for its tea culture, offering opportunities to appreciate the art of tea in elegant teahouses. Kyoto is also home to the iconic geisha, who mesmerize audiences with their traditional music and dance. Additionally, Kyoto boasts a rich food culture, including the world of kaiseki, a form of Japanese haute cuisine.
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Naoshima: Best Destination for Art and Scenery
Surrounded by the sparkling waters of the Seto Inland Sea, Naoshima is a picturesque island located between Honshu and Shikoku. Its beautiful scenery, extraordinary contemporary art museums, and numerous outdoor sculptures make it a highly sought-after tourist destination.
Previously a dwindling fishing community, Naoshima underwent a transformation when it was chosen as the location for the Benesse Art Site in the late 1980s. This project led to the establishment of world-class art galleries, including the Chichu Art Museum and Benesse House Museum. These museums, known for their exquisite architecture and important art collections, are set against breathtaking landscapes. The island also features innovative outdoor installations scattered throughout.
While the town of Naoshima itself doesn't offer much in terms of activities, the island's remarkable art, architecture, and scenery are more than enough to captivate visitors. The success of the Benesse project has also inspired the creation of art museums and installations on the neighboring islands.
Mt Fuji: Best Destination for Views and Pilgrimages
Even from a distance, the sight of Mount Fuji is awe-inspiring. Up close, the perfectly symmetrical cone of Japan's highest peak is nothing short of incredible. Witnessing the dawn from the summit of Mount Fuji is a magical experience. The mountain holds a significant place in Japanese culture and attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who continue the centuries-old tradition of climbing this sacred volcano. For those who prefer to appreciate the stunning views from nearby peaks that are less challenging to climb, they can follow in the footsteps of Japan's most famous painters and poets.
Planning tip: The best time to climb Mount Fuji is during its official climbing season, which spans from July 1 to mid-September. This timeframe avoids the rainy season and snowfall. It is essential to check for typhoon warnings before embarking on a hike in Japan.
The Memorial Cenotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park serves as a powerful monument to the victims of the atomic bomb. (© WorldStock / Shutterstock)
Hiroshima: Best Destination for Historical Significance
Hiroshima, located on Honshu Island, may be younger than many other Japanese cities, with a history dating back less than 500 years. However, its fate was forever sealed in history on August 6, 1945, when it became the first city in the world to experience the devastating impact of an atomic bomb.
Despite over 60% of its buildings being destroyed, Hiroshima has made a remarkable recovery since that tragic event. By 1974, the city had doubled its pre-war population and has become an important and popular tourist destination.
One of the main attractions in Hiroshima is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, created as a memorial to all those who lost their lives or were affected by the atomic bomb. This expansive park houses several significant sites, including the Peace Memorial Museum, where visitors can gain insight into the harrowing impact of the bomb on the citizens of Hiroshima. Another noteworthy attraction is the magnificent Torii, a wooden shrine gateway that appears to float in the sea at high tide. The Torii can be found on nearby Miyajima Island.
Yakushima: Best Destination for Nature and Serenity
Often described as magical and enchanting, Yakushima is a small island off the southern coast of Kyūshū. It is a place that defies descriptions and leaves visitors in awe. Yakushima is home to some of Japan's last remaining primeval forests, with ancient cedars known as yakusugi. These incredible trees have giant roots that resemble otherworldly tentacles. Hiking trails through the rugged terrain, often adorned with moss, lead visitors beneath these majestic giants. The mystical landscape of Yakushima is said to have inspired the iconic Studio Ghibli animated film "Princess Mononoke."
Detour: During breaks from hiking, a visit to the Yakusugi Museum is highly recommended. This museum provides insights into the significance of yakusugi, or Japanese cedar trees, to the islanders of Yakushima. English audio guides are available to enhance the experience.
Oku-no-in Cemetery in Koyasan is a highly revered pilgrimage spot and sacred place in Japan. (© Pal Teravagimov / Shutterstock)
Okinawa and the Southern Islands: Best Destination for Beaches
Okinawa and the Southwest Islands offer a unique experience distinctly different from the rest of Japan. This archipelago, located between Kyūshū and Taiwan, has a vibrant history as the former Ryūkyū Empire. The cultural differences are reflected in the architecture, food, and overall atmosphere of the islands. One of the main highlights of Okinawa and the Southern Islands is the stunning beaches, such as those found on the Yaeyama Islands and the Kerama Islands. With their sugar-white sands and turquoise waters framed by swaying palm trees, these beaches offer the perfect opportunity to bask in the sun, snorkel, or scuba dive.
Osaka's vibrant street food scene and bustling nightlife make it a must-visit destination in Japan. (© Vincent St. Thomas / Shutterstock)
Osaka: Best Destination for Street Food and Nightlife
While Tokyo often steals the spotlight for urban experiences, Osaka, Japan's third-largest city, takes the crown for its street food scene. Make sure not to miss out on takoyaki, the city's signature dish of grilled octopus dumplings. Additionally, Osaka boasts a dazzling nightlife with its canalside strip along Dōtombori, where LED lights, animated signage, and flashing video screens create a mesmerizing spectacle. As Japan's oldest merchant center, Osaka exudes its own unique pace, spirit, and zest for life. The city's unofficial slogan is kuidaore, which means "eat until you drop."
Planning tip: In addition to nightly accommodation fees, most Osaka hotels charge an accommodation tax that varies based on the standard nightly rate.
Kamikōchi's stunning natural beauty attracts hikers from all over the world. (© Suchart Boonyavech / Shutterstock)
35 Best Places To Visit In Japan
Are you searching for exquisite destinations in Japan? Below are the finest places to visit in Japan that you should include in your itinerary to make the most of your trip. Scroll down to discover the wonders that await you in this picturesque country!
- Tokyo – The Essence Of Japan
- Kyoto– A Sacred And Serene City
- Nara– The City Of Culture
- Mt. Fuji– A Breathtaking Marvel
- Hokkaido– A Paradise For Nature Lovers
- Ishigaki– An Exotic Destination
- Hiroshima– A Historically Significant City
- Sapporo– Escape The Heat And Humidity
- Osaka – A Cultural Delight
- Yakushima – A Naturally Gifted Island
- Hakuba – Perfect For Adventurous Activities
- Kamakura – Home To The Great Buddha
- Nagano – Great For Family Adventures
- Kawaguchi – Beautiful Landscapes Surrounding Mt. Fuji
- Takayama – A Retreat From City Life
- Shibuya – The Bustling Heart Of Tokyo
- Naoshima – A Lush-Green Island
- Asakusa – Perfect For Parties And More
- Akihabara – A Haven For City Life Enthusiasts
- Odaiba – For A Rejuvenating Experience
- Kabukicho – A Hub For Nightclubs And More
- Ueno Park – A Breath Of Fresh Air In Tokyo
- Yokohama – Charming And Vibrant
- Nikko – A Treasure Trove Of History
- Tohoku – Relax In The Lap Of Nature
- Kawagoe – A Journey Back In Time
- Nagoya – A City With Traditional Beauty
- Kanazawa – A Paradise For Food Culture
- Shirakawago – A Surreal And Enchanting Place
- Shikoku – Where Serenity Welcomes You
- Nagasaki – A City With A Tragic Past
- Kobe – Surprisingly Attractive
- Fukuoka – Japan’s Oldest City
- Hitsujiyama Park – A Sight Not To Be Missed
- Hakone – Spectacular Views Of Mount Fuji
1. Tokyo – The Essence Of Japan
Tokyo is a city that showcases the vibrant colors of Japan. In Japan, there is a seemingly endless list of remarkable places to explore, making it impossible to experience everything in one trip. However, the captivating city of Tokyo certainly deserves the top spot on your itinerary, thanks to its anime culture and world-class attractions. And if you're not particularly drawn to historical sites, fear not, as Tokyo also boasts an exceptional culinary scene! It is undoubtedly one of the best places to visit in Japan.
Best Things To Do:
Places to stay:
- Guest House Trace
- Manga Art Hotel
- Khaosan Tokyo Samurai
Places to eat:
- Tapas Molecular Bar
- Ise Sueyoshi
How to reach: Tokyo is well-connected to the rest of the world by airways, with numerous airlines from India offering flights to Narita Airport.
2. Kyoto – Sacred And Serene
The city of shrines, gardens, and palaces! Among all the major highlights of Japan, the sacred city of Kyoto stands out as one of the best places to visit in Japan, especially in spring. Regardless of whether you're traveling with family or your partner, Kyoto's iconic temples, shrines, palaces, gardens, and bamboo forests are a feast for the eyes and should not be missed on your first trip.
- Kyoto Imperial Palace
- Philosopher’s Walk
- Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine
Best Things To Do In Kyoto:
- Visit the Kiyomizu Temple
- Explore the Nijo Castle
- Visit the famous Kinkaku-ji
Places to stay:
- Village Kyoto
- Downtown Inn Kyoto
- Santiago Guesthouse Kyoto
Places to eat in Kyoto:
- Samurai Juku
- Sugarhill Kyoto
- Saishuan Shiraki
How to reach: The closest airport to Kyoto is Osaka International Airport, which is approximately an hour away from the city.
3. Nara – City Of Culture
Home to adorable deer, temples, and more! No list of the top attractions in Japan would be complete without including Nara. Known for its numerous shrines, monasteries, museums, and the famous Nara Park, this city offers a deep dive into Japanese culture and traditions. It is definitely one of the unmissable places to visit in Japan.
- Nara Park
- Ninja Museum of Igaryu
Best Things To Do:
- Visit the Isuien Garden
- Befriend the deer at Nara-koen Park
- Explore the Nara National Museum
Places to stay:
- Smile Hotel Nara
- Super Hotel Lohas JR Nara Eki
- Guesthouse Nara Komachi
Places to eat:
- Tonkatsu Ganko Nara
How to reach: Kansai International Airport is the closest airport to Nara, and it takes around one and a half hours to reach Nara.
4. Mt. Fuji – A Breathtaking Marvel
A paradise for adventure seekers! Renowned worldwide for offering the most thrilling experiences in Japan, Mount Fuji is the ultimate destination and one of the most romantic places in Japan. While the official climbing season runs from July to September, the beauty of Mt. Fuji can be witnessed from a distance throughout the year. It is one of our favorite places in Japan and should be on your must-visit list!
- Mount Tenjo
- Chureito Pagoda
- Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine
Best Things To Do:
- Go skiing
- Visit the Arakurayama Sengen Park
- Enjoy the views of Mt. Fuji from the Subashiri 5th Station
Places to stay:
- Hatago Ichiya
- Bself Fuji Villa
- Hotel Mount Fuji
Places to eat:
- Hoto Fudou
- Tempura Restaurant Ninja
How to reach: The nearest airport to Mount Fuji is Shizuoka Airport, which is located 83.5 km away. Taxis or buses can be hired to reach Mt. Fuji.
5. Hokkaido – Closer To Nature
The haven of natural hot springs! Known for its volcanoes, hot springs, and ski areas, this beautiful Japanese island resembles something out of a storybook. Hokkaido's various attractions and experiences make it an ideal destination for both families and couples. Whether it is the stunning Blue Pond or the zoo, you will be left mesmerized. It is one of the most idyllic places to visit in Japan during summer.
- Asahiyama Zoo
- Farm Tomita
- Blue Pond
Best Things To Do:
- Relax in a hot spring
- Indulge in scrumptious seafood
- Visit the famous national parks
Places to stay:
- Yorkshire Farm
- Hotel Park Hills Hokkaido
- Puremiahoteru – CABIN – Obihiro
Places to eat:
- Hokkaido Cafe
- Hokkaido Ramen Kyowakoku
How to reach: New Chitose Airport in Sapporo is the closest airport to Hokkaido. Local taxis and cabs are available for transportation.
6. Ishigaki – Exotic Destination
The trendiest travel spot in Japan! Voted as the most popular travel destination for 2023, Ishigaki Island is unquestionably one of the best places to visit in Japan. Despite its size, the island offers unique experiences to its visitors, making their holiday in Japan truly glamorous. It has also been voted as one of the best places to visit in Japan during cherry blossom season.
- Kabira Bay
- Taketomi Island
- Ishigaki Limestone Cave
Best Things To Do:
- Indulge in snorkeling
- Relax on the beaches
- Savor the Ishigaki Beef
Places to stay:
- Ishigaki Guesthouse HIVE
- Blue Cabin Ishigakijima
- Ishigaki Seaside Hotel
Places to eat:
- Sushi Taro
How to reach: The closest airport to Ishigaki is Ishigaki Airport, located just 18 km away. Local buses and taxis are available.
Suggested Read: Ishigaki Island: The Hottest Travel Destination
7. Hiroshima – Historically Significant City
A city that enhances Japan's landscape! Despite being globally renowned as the site of the devastating atomic bombings, Hiroshima remains one of the major places to visit in Japan. Aside from the dedicated memorials and sites that commemorate the history, the city boasts other captivating attractions, such as the Itsukushima Shrine. This is one of the most popular places in Japan.
- Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park & Museum
- Hiroshima Castle
Best Things To Do:
- Try Okonomiyaki, the local delicacy
- Visit the Mazda Museum
- Capture pictures at Shukkeien Garden
Places to stay:
- K’s House Hiroshima
- Grand Prince Hotel Hiroshima
- Court Hotel Hiroshima
Places to eat:
- Parco della Pace
How to reach: Iwakuni and Matsuyama airports are located approximately 70 km away. Taxis, buses, and cabs are available for transportation.
Suggested Read: Godzilla Theme Park In Japan: An Epic Experience!
Planning your holiday but confused about where to go? These travel stories help you find your best trip ever!
8. Sapporo – Forget The Heat And Humidity
A haven for beer and ski lovers! With cities like Sapporo, you won't have to worry about where to go in Japan. The city not only provides relief from the heat and humidity but also offers a winter wonderland experience during its famous Sapporo Annual Snow Festival. If not for the stunning gardens, the giant snow sculptures will certainly capture your heart! This is one of the best places to see in Japan!
- Moerenuma Park
- Former Hokkaido Government Office
- Mount Moiwa Observation Deck
Best Things To Do:
- Visit the Sapporo Beer Museum
- Party in Susukino
- Indulge in local delicacies at the Curb Market
Places to stay:
- The Stay Sapporo
- Relief Sapporosusukino Hotel
- Tmark City Hotel Sapporo
Places to eat:
- Gotsubo Oyster Bar
- Hyousetsu No Mon
- Sapporo Beer Garden
How to reach: New Chitose Airport, located in Sapporo, is the closest airport, approximately 53 km away. There is an abundance of local taxis and cabs to transport you to your destination.
9. Osaka – A Cultural Delight
With its vibrant shopping arcades, incredible food scene, and vibrant nightlife, Osaka is a must-visit city in Japan. It is not only a paradise for food and party lovers but also for avid tourists who are captivated by the wonders of every place they visit. This is one of the most recommended places to visit in Japan for first-timers!
- Universal Studios Japan
- Osaka Castle
Best Things To Do In Osaka:
- Visit the Kaiyukan Aquarium
- Visit the Hozenji Temple
- Go beer tasting and enjoy the nightlife
Places to stay:
- Hotel Taiyo
- Hotel Fine Garden Juso
- APA Hotel Osaka Higobashi Ekimae
- Osaka Tacos
- Giga Rabbit
- Curry Yakumido
How to reach: The nearest airports to Osaka are Kansai International Airport and Osaka International Airport. Taxis are available at the airports for convenient transportation.
Map of Must-See Destinations in Japan
© OpenStreetMap © MapTiler © Touropia
If you're planning a trip to Japan, there are several incredible places you shouldn't miss. One of the must-visit destinations is Kyoto, known for its ancient wonders, especially in the Edo capital. Kyoto offers temple pilgrimages and a chance to explore the historical charm of the city. Another place to consider is Shikoku, where you can embark on temple pilgrimages and immerse yourself in breathtaking scenery. Hiroshima is another remarkable destination, offering peaceful streets and a chance to visit important historical sites. And of course, don't forget to visit Tokyo, an energetic city with endless opportunities for shopping, dining, and entertainment.
Kinosaki Onsen is renowned for its fabulous hot springs, which have attracted visitors since the eighth century. Located in the Kansai region of south-central Honshu, this small town is now part of Toyooka city. Kinosaki Onsen is bisected by a charming willow-lined canal, with the Maruyama River nearby. Visitors can experience the healing properties of the warm waters in any of the seven public onsen bathhouses. The bathhouses feature elaborate interiors, fine architecture, and beautiful gardens. Staying in a ryokan, a traditional inn, is a quintessential part of the Kinosaki Onsen experience. The town also offers a variety of shops, cafes, and restaurants where visitors can purchase local handicrafts and enjoy tasty delicacies, especially fresh seafood.
The Kiso Valley was once part of the Nakasendo trade route, which connected Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo). It is known for its charming old post stations and stunning mountain scenery. The valley, located in Nagano Prefecture, is surrounded by thick forests and steep mountains, with the Kiso River at its center. Many visitors choose to hike between the Edo period post towns of Magome and Tsumago, which offer verdant forests, bubbling streams, and picturesque old buildings. Nagai, another charming post town in Kiso Valley, is worth exploring, along with the delightful hiking trails that weave through the surrounding landscape.
Ishigaki is considered Japan's premier beach destination and serves as a gateway to other islands in the Yaeyama archipelago. What sets Ishigaki apart is its stunning beaches, particularly Fusaki and Maezato, which are protected by nets and are ideal for families. Located 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) south of Tokyo, Ishigaki offers more than just beaches. Visitors can indulge in an exuberant nightlife, engage in a variety of water sports, go beachcombing, or even climb Mount Nosoko for breathtaking views.
Miyajima, a small island in Hiroshima Bay, is one of Japan's most popular tourist destinations. It is famous for its stunning scenery, ancient temples and shrines, and the iconic "floating" torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine. The island, also known as Shrine Island, offers a blend of natural beauty and cultural heritage. Mount Misen, with its sacred slopes and various Buddhist temples, is a hiker's paradise. The island is also inhabited by tame deer that roam freely, adding to the enchantment of the place.
Kanazawa, located in Ishikawa Prefecture, is a historic city with a rich cultural heritage. Its location between the Sea of Japan and the Japanese Alps contributes to its unique charm. The city offers a fantastic castle dating back centuries, well-preserved samurai and geisha districts, delightful temples and shrines, and great museums. The Kenroku-en garden, considered one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan, is a must-visit. Kanazawa is also famous for its fresh seafood, which can be found at the bustling Omicho Market.
Kamakura, located on the shores of Sagami Bay, is a coastal city and an hour-long train ride from Tokyo. It was once the capital of Japan and is home to numerous important landmarks, beautiful temples, and shrines. The Great Buddha of Kamakura, a towering bronze figure, is one of its most famous sights. The Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, Kenchoji, and Engakuji Zen temples are also worth visiting. In addition to its historical and cultural attractions, Kamakura offers fantastic shopping and dining experiences. Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy hiking in the surrounding forest or lounging on the beautiful beaches.
© Amnachphoto / Dreamstime
Nikko, located at the entrance to Nikko National Park, is a city surrounded by lush forests and spectacular mountains. The city is famous for its Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, and beautiful scenery. The Tosho-gu complex, with its two mausoleums of Tokugawa Shoguns, showcases exquisite Edo-era architecture. The Shinkyo Bridge and Kegon Falls are also popular attractions. Nikko offers sparkling waterfalls, serene lakes, and hot springs amidst its breathtaking natural landscapes. With its convenient proximity to Tokyo, Nikko is an ideal destination for a day trip or a short getaway.
Takayama, located in the northern Japanese Alps of Central Honshu, is a picturesque city known for its traditional townscape and unique culture. The historic quarter showcases exquisite architecture from the Edo period, traditional sake breweries, and charming old merchant homes. Temples, shrines, and museums are scattered throughout Takayama, with morning markets offering a glimpse into local life. The Hida Folk Village allows visitors to explore a recreated mountain village with traditional thatched-roof farmhouses. The city's rich culture is celebrated through two prominent festivals, Sanno Matsuri and Yahata Matsuri, which feature lavishly decorated floats and vibrant lanterns.
Hakone, located southwest of Tokyo, is a sought-after destination known for its stunning mountain scenery, relaxing hot springs, and world-class art museums. The town sits on the shores of Lake Ashi, with the iconic Mount Fuji in the distance. Hakone offers traditional bathhouses and ryokans, where visitors can indulge in a rejuvenating hot spring experience. The town is also home to numerous galleries and museums, showcasing exquisite sculptures and artworks. A boat ride on Lake Ashi is a popular activity, offering mesmerizing views of the scenic surroundings and Mount Fuji. Hakone's Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park provides tranquil hiking trails for those seeking solace amidst nature.
Nara, the first permanent capital of Japan, is located less than an hour from Kyoto. The city boasts a wealth of historic sights, including revered temples and shrines. Most of the attractions are concentrated in Nara Park, surrounded by lush greenery and home to friendly deer that roam freely. The park features Kofuku-ji with its multi-storey pagodas, Kasuga Taisha with its splendid stone lanterns, and Japanese gardens that offer a tranquil escape. Todai-ji Temple, with its awe-inspiring architecture and giant Great Buddha, is a highlight of Nara. The city also offers excellent museums and the charming old merchant district of Naramachi, preserving its rich history and culture.
Most Beautiful Places in Japan
Japan is home to numerous breathtaking destinations, and below you will find a selection of our favorite villages, towns, and regions throughout the country. Even if you prefer urban environments, we highly recommend venturing into the Japanese countryside to complement your city experiences.
Thanks to Japan's exceptional rail network (for more information, see our Guide to Train Travel in Japan), accessing rural areas is convenient. However, in certain regions, hiring a private driver or renting a car is advisable for exploring the more remote areas.
For further inspiration on rural travel, take a look at our feature on Japan's Best Off-The-Beaten-Path Places. Nature enthusiasts and those seeking relaxation in rural settings will also find inspiration in our sample itinerary for a 13-day luxury ryokan and Japanese countryside experience.
Despite our enthusiasm about the beauty of Tohoku, it remains an overlooked destination by many travelers. This is unfortunate for those who appreciate unique locations but excellent news for those who are open to exploring less touristy areas.
Situated in northern Japan, just south of Hokkaido, the Tohoku region is vast and renowned for its remote nature on Honshu Island. Listing all its highlights would be an extensive task, so we recommend referring to the Tohoku section of our article on Japan's best off-the-beaten-path destinations for a more in-depth insight into this lesser-visited region.
The Kiso Valley and Nakasendo Road
The Kiso Valley, located just south of the Japan Alps and north of Nagoya, is an extraordinary place to embark on a village-to-village walking experience along the Nakasendo Way. This destination is ideal for travelers seeking a combination of natural landscapes and traditional culture. During the Edo period, the historic Nakasendo Road served as a route for samurai traveling between Tokyo and Kyoto.
For a shorter trip, consider hiking the half-day route between Magome and the stunning village of Tsumago, spending the night at a picturesque rural ryokan along the way. If you have more time, we recommend extending your stay to two or three days and including stops in Kiso-Fukushima and Narai-juku, which offer a more secluded and authentic experience.
The Izu Peninsula, located just south and west of Tokyo, often goes unnoticed by visitors who are unaware of its beauty. While the shinkansen (bullet train) passes through the northern part of Izu when traveling between Tokyo and Kyoto, the peninsula's most captivating gems lie further south.
Izu is an abundant source of natural beauty, hot springs (onsen), and remarkable spots such as the charming Shuzenji Onsen village, the coastal Izu-Kogen, and the historic Shimoda. Additionally, Izu boasts several exceptional ryokans with hot springs, making it an ideal destination for a luxury ryokan experience near Tokyo and Kyoto.
Koyasan (Mount Koya)
Although Mount Koya has become increasingly popular and crowded in recent years, it remains an appealing destination for travelers interested in Buddhism and Japanese history. Located roughly two hours south of Osaka and three hours from Kyoto, Koyasan can be visited as a day trip, but to fully immerse oneself, staying overnight in one of Mount Koya's temple lodgings (shukubo) is highly recommended. For more information, refer to our Guide to Visiting Mount Koya.
Naoshima is undoubtedly one of Japan's premier destinations for art enthusiasts and admirers of modern architecture. This island is home to remarkable attractions such as the museum-hotel Benesse House, the awe-inspiring Chichu Art Museum designed by Tadao Ando, and the eccentric Art House Project. To learn more about this exceptional art island, consult our informative Guide to Naoshima.
Kurashiki, a small city in Japan's Chugoku region, has a special place in our hearts, partly due to our fondness for Ryokan Kurashiki. The city is renowned for its beautifully preserved historical district, situated along a picturesque canal. Known as the Bikan Historical Quarter, the old merchant district features charming galleries, boutiques, and cafes housed in lovingly preserved former storehouses (known as kura). It is a delight to stroll through the streets of Kurashiki and soak in its traditional atmosphere.
Less than an hour away from Kyoto, the rural city of Nara holds the distinction of being Japan's original ancient capital before Kyoto. Today, Nara is renowned for its impressive collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites, many of which are within walking distance of each other in the central Nara Park. The park is also famous for its friendly deer, which are known to approach visitors. For more information about Nara, consult our comprehensive Guide to Visiting Nara.
Kinosaki Onsen is a haven for travelers who appreciate traditional villages and hot springs (onsen). This city has been delighting onsen enthusiasts for generations, offering an abundance of historical ryokans and bathhouses. It is a pleasure to stroll through Kinosaki Onsen's old-fashioned town, dressed in a light Japanese-style robe (yukata) and wooden clogs (geta), absorbing the ambiance.
Kamakura, a laid-back seaside town approximately an hour south of Tokyo, offers a perfect blend of history and nature. While it is famous for its rich historical heritage, such as its numerous temples and shrines, Kamakura also boasts trendy cafes and shops operated by young entrepreneurs who have relocated from cities like Tokyo. For detailed information, refer to our comprehensive Introduction to Kamakura.
Located a couple of hours north of Tokyo in rural Tochigi Prefecture, Nikko is a mountainous destination renowned for its UNESCO World Heritage shrines and temples, surrounded by stunning natural beauty. While it is possible to visit Nikko's highlights, including Nikko Toshogu Shrine and the Kegon Falls, on a full-day trip from Tokyo, spending more time in the area allows for a more in-depth exploration. Nikko and Kinugawa Onsen are also home to numerous ryokans with hot springs, ideal for travelers seeking a deeper experience of the region.
Alongside Naoshima, the quaint port town of Onomichi stands as one of our favorite destinations in Japan's vibrant Setouchi (Seto Inland Sea) region. Located on the southern coast of Hiroshima Prefecture, Onomichi enchants visitors with its unique atmosphere that blends retro and modern elements seamlessly. As you stroll down its old-fashioned central shopping arcade (shotengai), you will encounter classic neighborhood shops alongside small, design-forward boutiques. For more information about this unconventional town, consult our dedicated Guide to Onomichi. Onomichi also serves as an ideal starting point for exploring the scenic Shimanami Kaido.
Hakone, despite its popularity, remains a must-visit destination for nature enthusiasts, art appreciators, and those seeking luxurious accommodations. Alongside Izu, it is one of the best and most convenient places to experience a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) during a journey between Tokyo and Kyoto. For further details about this scenic onsen destination, consult our comprehensive Guide to Visiting Hakone. Additionally, when weather conditions are favorable, Hakone provides stunning views of Mount Fuji. Although the mountain is often obscured by clouds, Hakone offers an excellent vantage point for majestic sightseeing. If catching a glimpse of Mount Fuji is a priority, consider visiting the town of Kawaguchiko as an alternative.
Few places rival the natural beauty of Yakushima, a subtropical island located off Kyushu's southern coast. Known for its untouched coastline and rugged hiking trails that wind through lush forests filled with ancient cedar trees (some dating back 7,000 years), this remote island captivates visitors with its UNESCO World Heritage status and unspoiled charm.
As Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido is renowned for its cuisine, whiskey, winter powder for skiing, and expansive landscapes. Once inhabited by the indigenous Ainu people, Hokkaido has a complex history that has unfortunately led to the decline of Ainu culture. However, efforts have been made in recent years to honor and appreciate both its historical and contemporary significance.
While traditional villages are relatively scarce in Hokkaido compared to other rural areas of Japan, the island offers pristine natural expanses, unique wildlife in places like the Shiretoko Peninsula, exceptional skiing and snowboarding opportunities in destinations such as Niseko, and exceptional culinary experiences. For further details about this northern island, consult the Hokkaido section of our post on Japan's best off-the-beaten-path destinations.
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route is among Japan's most enchanting walks. Situated deep in rural Wakayama Prefecture, a few hours south of Kyoto and Osaka, the Kumano region boasts spiritual significance, historical sites, breathtaking landscapes, picturesque villages, and rejuvenating hot springs (onsen).
The pilgrimage route offers a variety of walks to suit different preferences, ranging from day hikes to challenging multi-day treks for the more adventurous. In addition, the Kumano Kodo is part of the Dual Pilgrim program in conjunction with its sister walk, Spain's renowned Camino de Santiago.
Takayama, Shirakawago & Gokayama
Established in the 16th century, Takayama is a historic town nestled in the Hida Mountains of the Japanese Alps. This town is revered for its traditional atmosphere and exceptional culinary offerings, including the renowned Hida-gyu beef, delectable rice and mountain vegetables, and premium sake. Despite its popularity, Takayama's backstreets remain peaceful and serene, offering visitors an authentic experience.
Within close proximity to Takayama lie the UNESCO World Heritage historic villages of Shirakawago and Gokayama, as well as the lesser-known Hida-Furukawa. These destinations allow visitors to immerse themselves in the rich cultural heritage of the region.
Matsue, located in Shimane Prefecture, Western Japan, is a hidden gem awaiting discovery. Many visitors are drawn to Matsue for its breathtaking Adachi Museum of Art, which features an impressive collection and a world-famous garden that blends seamlessly with the surrounding landscape.
In the city itself, travelers can savor excellent seafood and sake while exploring Matsue-jo, one of Japan's few remaining original castles. Matsue also serves as an ideal base for visiting Izumo Taisha, one of the country's oldest and most significant Shinto shrines, as well as the idyllic Oki Islands.
Stretching into the Japan Sea north of Kanazawa, the rugged Noto Peninsula, also known as Noto Hanto, is a captivating destination that rewards self-drive enthusiasts. It gained recognition through the remarkable book "Rice, Noodle, Fish," one of our favorite Japan travel books. Explore the Wajima Market, revel in dramatic coastal vistas, savor a meal at Flatt's, and consider spending the night at one of Noto's splendid onsen ryokans.
While not synonymous with famous Asian beach destinations, Japan is home to the stunning subtropical paradise of the Yaeyama Islands. Located in the Okinawan archipelago and closer geographically to Taiwan than mainland Japan, the Yaeyama Islands boast picturesque beaches, lush jungles, rich Ryukyu heritage, culture, and tantalizing Okinawan cuisine.
Shikoku's beautiful Iya Valley remains one of Japan's best-kept secrets due to its remote and untouched nature. Characterized by narrow river gorges, steep mountain peaks, and dense vegetation, the valley offers a fantastic opportunity to experience the rural and traditional aspects of Japan. Explore more of captivating Shikoku in our feature on Japan's best off-the-tourist-track regions.
In conclusion, Japan is a country that effortlessly combines tradition and modernity, offering a plethora of mesmerizing destinations for travelers to explore. From the bustling streets of Tokyo to the tranquil beauty of Yakushima, each place has its unique charm that will leave you captivated. Whether you're a history enthusiast, nature lover, or a foodie seeking culinary delights, Japan has something for everyone. So grab a map, plan your itinerary, and get ready to embark on an unforgettable journey through the Land of the Rising Sun.
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