There are so many fascinating cities and towns in Japan that it’s difficult to choose which one to visit. It’s a country with thousands of years of history and food culture, some of the best winter sports and diving in the world, and national parks featuring unusual and diverse landscapes. From northern Hokkaido down to the south in Okinawa, you’ve got sites worth making a trip for. Pick your base wisely and you might be able to visit more than one of these top destinations in Japan.
An easy day trip from Osaka or Kyoto, Nara is a compact city that feels like a step back in time. It was the first permanent capital of Japan and retains many of its historical shrines and temples. It’s often associated with the famous deer of Nara Park that bow to visitors and look for a delicious biscuit in return! From the park you can access Kasuga-Taisha Shrine—one of Japan’s most sacred sites—and Todaji Temple, home to the world’s largest bronze buddha.
Kyoto is everything you hope it’ll be and more. You can see thousands of years of history by exploring temples like the Kinkaku-ji and historic sites such as Kyoto Imperial Palace. Visit some of Kyoto’s beautiful shrines, including Fushimi Inari, before catching a maiko show in Gion, the city's geisha district. Aside from history, Kyoto is also a modern city filled with izakayas, wine bars, and art museums. There's so much to do, be sure to plan a few days here.
There are endless things to do in Tokyo, so get ready to dig in. The capital is as bustling, busy, and bright as you might expect—but there are also quieter neighborhoods where you can still find the Tokyo of old. Some of the highlights include Shibuya and Shinjuku, neon-soaked wards that promise nightlife, restaurants, and shops aplenty. Nearby, Tokyo’s public gardens like Shinjuku Gyo-en offer a peaceful respite. Within the city, you can enjoy theme parks like Disneyland and Disney Sea, or celebrate Japan's animated film legacy by checking out Studio Ghibli Museum.
Nikko National Park
A picture-perfect and highly spiritual destination, centuries-old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are surrounded by sweeping natural landscapes in Japan’s original national park. Some of the highlights include Toshu-gu, a lavish shrine and the final resting place of the first Tokugawa shogun, and the Buddhist temple Rinno-ji, founded in the eighth century. Don’t miss the Yomei-mon, also known as Sunset Gate, one of Japan’s national treasures featuring five hundred hand-carved figures. These exceptional sights are set within one hundred hectares of nature, where you’ll find waterfalls, over a dozen hot springs to sink into, and great lakes. One of the most iconic sights here is the red Shinkyo Bridge, which stretches across the Daiya-gawa River.
Most people head to Kyoto city and don’t get a chance to explore the wider prefecture—but Amanohashidate is one of the most impressive sites in the area. Head over to the coast to see the famous three-kilometer sandbar, classified as one of Japan’s most scenic views. There are many viewpoints to enjoy here; for the best, meander over to the cable car and head up for a birds-eye view.
Head up to Hokkaido to visit one of Japan’s most famous ski resorts, which receives the lightest, driest snow in the region and borders the breathtaking Daisetsu-zan National Park. Not just a winter destination, Furnao is famous for its wine production; thanks to the expansive lavender fields that cover most of the region, wine infused with the herb is popular here. Combine that with beautiful, rolling hills, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into southern France.
With over a hundred baths, this is one of Japan’s favorite onsen towns. Enjoy traditional Japanese accommodation by booking a stay at any one of the town's ryokan, some of which have been around since 1879. Each of the ryokan have their own private baths to relax in, with some offering special facilities including mud, sand, and steam baths.
But there's more to Beppu than bathing. Here, you can try unique food that’s been cooked in volcanic waters, making for interesting new flavors. Just 25 kilometers (about 16 miles) from Beppu you can reach Yufuin, a mountainous town that’s filled with boutique shops, cafés, and restaurants.
Fukuoka is a perfect city for foodies and is considered one of the major culinary destinations in the country. Make sure to try Fukuoka’s famous Hakata ramen, a form of creamy tonkotsu ramen that has made waves locally and internationally. Head to Hakata yatai stalls where more than two hundred vendors serve up the tastiest dishes in intimate lantern-lit surroundings. This is a great city to enjoy the coast, with beaches, water sports, and nearby island adventures. Visit Shikanoshima for historic monuments and shrines, or Nokonoshima, famous for its seasonal flowers.
A convenient trip from Tokyo and Mount Fuji, Hakone has a lot to offer for those who love mountain views, hot springs, tea houses, and romantic ryokan. Yunessun and Tenzan are two of the most popular hot springs, but there are plenty of onsen to enjoy as well, including novelty baths with wine, herbs, milk, or coffee. There are more than a dozen art museums here ranging from the quaint (like the Museum of Saint-Exupéry and The Little Prince) to expansive (like the Open Air Museum). There are plenty of walking options, including routes up The Great Boiling Valley, where you can try Hakone’s signature black eggs; there’s also a gondola up for an easier ride.
Kerama Shoto National Park
There are about two dozen islands surrounding Okinawa, Japan's favorite vacation spot. The Kerama Islands, an archipelago of approximately 30 islands, are surrounded by healthy coral reefs and a diverse ecosystem that makes for perfect diving and snorkeling adventures. With pine forests, sheer cliffs, and mountains, the landscape offers an endless amount of photo spots and hiking options. Many of the islands are inhabited, so you’ll find hotels, restaurants, and tour agencies in this subtropical paradise.
Off the coast of Hiroshima, Miyajima Island has long been regarded as one of the most scenic spots in Japan. It’s often associated with images of the torii gate of the sixth century Itsukushima Shrine; during low tide, you can walk up to the gate, but when the tide is high, it appears to float. There are many places to go hiking at Mount Misen, where you can get spectacular views of the city. The Daisho-in Temple complex sits at the foot of the mountain and is just one of the spiritual sites you can see on the island. Omotesando shopping street attracts those looking for local handmade crafts as well as street food lovers.
There’s a lot to see in Hiroshima even though it’s often associated with the atomic bomb that fell on August 6, 1945. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Parks is a must-visit for this reason; here you’ll find museums, various monuments honoring those that died, and the A-Bomb Dome that survived the blast.
Hiroshima is also famous for its ramen, particularly the Onomichi style; make sure you seek out some of these tasty noodles loaded with flavor. For a different side to Hiroshima’s history, pay a visit to the beautiful Hiroshima Castle and grounds, just a 15-minute walk from the peace park.
Often described as "Little Kyoto," Kanazawa largely escaped the bombings and so has retained most of its historic buildings and sites. Here you can explore preserved Edo-period, geisha, and samurai districts as well as winding streets and beautiful buildings. Take some time to wander the pedestrian street between Katsurazaka and Renchimon gates for regional crafts, restaurants, and cafés. Later, take a stroll through what’s considered one of Japan’s three best landscape gardens. With its varied flowers and foliage, Kenrokuen, established in the 18th century, is lush in any season. Follow the paths to higher ground to get views over the garden and visit nearby Kanazawa castle.
Whether you see the majestic Mount Fuji from afar or climb to the top of this famous peak, there’s nothing quite like seeing one of the world’s most famous mountains for yourself. Climbing Mount Fuji was once considered a pilgrimage, and as you climb up, you can see shrines and monuments dating more than a hundred years. There are four routes you can take to the top, but the Yoshida Trail is one of the most popular.
You can even hop on a bus at Shinjuku in Tokyo to get halfway up the peak. If you just want to see the mountain, then take the bus to one of the small towns beneath it like Fuji Yoshida, or get a look at it from Lake Kawaguchiko.
A UNESCO World natural heritage site, this island nature reserve features Japan’s oldest Yaku cedar trees, mossy wooden bridges, waterfalls, and streams. The Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine inspired parts of the animated film Princess Mononoke, and it’s easy to imagine forest spirits hiding within the dense woodland. There are many hiking trails and routes to choose from of varying difficulty. For a view of the island and a bit of challenge, you can hike up Taiko rock and see the trees spread out below you.
If you're not into hiking, head to the coast of the island to enjoy the hot springs and the beaches where loggerhead turtles come to lay their eggs.