The best places to visit in Japan are the ones which are a little off the beaten path. Of course, the capital city, Tokyo, it's one of the best destinations in Japan, and no doubt that enjoying an onsen in the mountains of Kyoto is right up there on every bucket list. However, we also loved the lesser known places, the secluded paths in the forests of Nikko, the beautiful mountains in the Nagano area and the gorgeous wild lands in Hokkaido. We believe 2 weeks in Japan are barely enough to scratch the surface.
Here are the best places to visit in Japan so you can fall in love and create a perfect Japan itinerary to remember.
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Best places to visit in Japan
We asked our friends to tell us what their favourite destination in Japan and we came to the conclusion that each answer was unique, tailored to suit individual preferences. It's difficult to be objective when Japan is such varied destination with blooming cities, traditional districts, mountains and tropical islands. If you can think of it, chances are, Japan has it. With so many things to do in Japan, we decided to put together our list of favourite places we loved the most. We'd love to know which of these destinations you are going to add to your itinerary.
Tokyo, the capital of Japan
It goes without saying that Tokyo is one of the best places to visit in Japan. The electric streets of Shinjuku, the colourful shops of Harajuku and the traditional quarters of Asakusa all make Tokyo a fantastic destination. Tokyo is safe, efficient and well organised. The first time we visited Tokyo we expected a chaotic city and we were so surprised to find a neat place, where, although overpopulated, everyone respects your personal space. The public transport is clean and reliable and everything has a place in Tokyo.
We found over 50 things to do in Tokyo and fell in love with the city. So much so, that we decided to move to Japan for a while to understand it even more. Tokyo has various districts, all suitable for different moods. Ginza is the place to shop till you drop, Shinjuku is a vibrant place of skyscrapers and adult only entertainment and Shibuya is perhaps the most well known of them all.
Kyoto, the old capital
Japan's old capital city, Kyoto is one of the most well-known cities in Japan. It's famed for its temples and shrines, bamboo forest and Geishas. Kyoto has its former entertainment quarters, Gion, where travellers can enjoy an evening stroll through traditional, narrow alleyways, lined with wooden houses. It's also where we recommend you book a tea ceremony or a Geisha show.
For foodies, Kyoto is perfect because of its traditional kaiseki dining with consists of multiple small courses which enable you to sample a variety of local dishes. We believe food in Kyoto is outstanding and for street food lovers, we recommend trying the Nishiki market.
With so many things to do in Kyoto, it's easy to see why so many travellers add it to their itinerary around Japan. Don't forget to arrive early for a spiritual journey around Fushimi Inari Shrine or arrive late in the evening for a mystical experience around Arashiyama Bamboo Forest.
Osaka, the nation's kitchen
Osaka is primarily famed for its beautiful 16th-century shogunate Osaka Castle which has undergone several restorations. It is surrounded by a moat and park with various trees which look stunning during the cherry blossom season.
During our Osaka itinerary, we decided to visit the aquarium for the shark whales and take a romantic ride on the Ferris wheel. We recommend a trip around Dōtonbori in the evening when everything becomes lit up and fun. This part is a little touristy, but in our opinion is well worth it as you will have lots of fun eating great street food and seeing an array of jumbo restaurant mascots.
Of course, many visit Osaka for the Universal Studios, something which we missed the first time we visited. We recommend buying your tickets in advance. This is subjective, but in many ways, Osaka was like a smaller Tokyo. Still quite corporate, with its own Akihabara (DenDen Town) and its own Harajuku (Amerikamura). Either way, Osaka is a glorious city which needs to be added to your list of top places to visit in Japan.
Nikko, home of Toshogu shrine
With so many things to do in Nikko, it's easy to see why you are going to love this destination in Japan. Nikko is famed for the Tōshō-gū shrine, the vermillion Shinkyo bridge and the Kanman-ga-Fuchi Abyss park, but there is so much more to it than just these well-known attractions.
We spent a weekend hiking in Nikko, visiting a remote Sake brewery, photographing some incredible waterfalls and falling in love with its local food. It was in Nikko where we tried an onsen experience for the first time, and let me tell you, we are smitten!
Nikko is especially beautiful if you decide to visit Japan during winter, as some of the paths will look absolutely stunning when lined with fluffy snow all around.
Yudanaka, home of the Snow Monkeys
Yudanaka is located around 90 minutes away from Tokyo and 10 minutes from the Snow Monkey Park. With so many beautiful ryokans, this is definitely the place we recommend you stay for a night or two. It's an onsen area with amazing hot springs and relaxing facilities. There are some ryokans which provide private onsen time so you and your loved ones can have the privacy you deserve. It's not only romantic but a true treat for the soul.
Click to book your ryokan!
It's not uncommon to see locals wearing yukatas here, which is a traditional Japanese garment. When you stay at a ryokan, you will get one too. Wear it with pride, it's comfortable and great for pictures.
Mount Fuji, the symbol of Japan
Mount Fuji has been an iconic place in Japan and its profile is the subject to so many works of art, especially since the Edo Period. Some travellers brave for its summit and hike the volcano during summer. It takes around 5-7 hours to climb it and another 3-5 hours to descent. You have to spend the night on the top before getting ready for the descent. We recommend climbing it in the first half of July and if possible, do so during the week as the weekends can get quite busy.
If you just want to see Mount Fuji from afar, we recommend visiting the Five Lakes for the most epic pictures you can imagine. We know you saw many pictures of the volcano, but in reality, its peak is mostly covered in cloud so it's best to decide on the visit in the spur of the moment, once you check the weather first thing in the morning. We tried seeing it 4 times before we got lucky!
We then visited Lake Kawaguchi and it was epic as we finally got to see the peak in all its splendour.
Hiroshima, the city of peace
Hiroshima is a modern city known due to its tragic 1945 events. Today, Hiroshima is now a thriving city which welcomes travellers from all around the world, wanting to catch a glimpse of Peace Memorial Park. Hiroshima is a beautiful city, but also a little heavy on the heart. Visit its memorial museum and learn about the history and the devasting effect of the atomic bomb. Hopefully, such educative tours will continue to influence the coming generations that avoiding conflict is key and peace is the only way which can help us further the human race.
We didn't stay in the city but decided to visit Hiroshima from Osaka. If you wish to spend the night somewhere zen, we recommend taking the ferry over to Itsukushima island.
Itsukushima Island, the Shrine Island
Many visit Itsukushima island to see the beautiful Great Torii Gate, partially submerged, hence giving its name "The Floating Gate". Itsukushima island is also home to a semi-tamed deer which are known to follow visitors in pursuit of food.
Itsukushima is located just off the shores of Hiroshima and you can access it via a ferry ride which is included in your JR Pass. Itsukushima offers fantastic overnight accommodation, delicious local food and great hiking trails for the adventurous souls.
If you decide to visit for the day only, make sure you venture further than the Torii Gate. Although the star attraction of the island, there is more to discover, including the Itsukushima Shrine which looks glorious at sunset.
Nara, and the bowing deer
Nara was one of our favourite places in Japan because of its iconic templates and incredibly cute wild deer. Although you will want to see the impressive Tōdai-ji temple, we recommend a walk towards Kasuga-taisha, which is a little more off the beaten path. For outdoor enthusiasts, go on a hike on Mount Wakakusa and discover the gorgeous autumn leaf colours during Fall.
Nara Park is the star attraction known for its semi-tamed wild deer who learned how to bow for food. You can purchase biscuits from street vendors to feed the deer. Don't be alarmed if deer start following you for food, just keep calm and move away slowly.
Nara can be accessed by Shinkansen from all nearby major cities like Kyoto or Osaka.
Uji, the home of Matcha tea
Are you a tea lover? Then you won't want to miss Uji, a beautiful city located less than 30 minutes from Kyoto. It's known for its 10th-century Buddhist Byōdō-in Temple which houses the Phoenix Hall, a Unesco World Heritage site.
Uji is also known to be paradise to tea lovers. This is where it is believed the mighty Japanese tea originated. According to legend, it was in Uji where the first tea seed was planted, which led to the beautiful tea industry Japan is now known for. We recommend a Japanese tea ceremony here in Uji.
Yoshino, best cherry blossom spots
Yoshino is known to be the best place in Japan for the cherry blossom viewing. It's been named so by the Japanese government and for a good reason. Mount Yoshino is floating during the sakura season, due to its myriad cherry blossom trees. We visited Yoshino just on time to enjoy the beginning of the festival and it looked incredible.
We recommend arriving as early in the morning as possible to avoid crowds. It gets really busy throughout the day, with tourists and travellers from all over the world. For beautiful photography, stay until late, just on time for the sun to go down. You can capture some beautiful photographs, once the crowds are all gone.
The Blue Pond of Hokkaido
Have you ever seen that gorgeous mac desktop with a blue pond? It was shown everywhere for a while. The photo was taken at The Blue Pond, a man-made pond in Biei. It looks stunning year around but especially beautiful during the winter period. We recommend adding the Blue Pond to any Hokkaido itinerary.
The Blue Pond is located just outside the hot spring town of Shirogane Onsen where you can spend the night and enjoy a stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan.
Kiso Valley, the old trade route
Kiso Valley is perfect for any outdoor enthusiasts who wish to enjoy a traditional walk alongside Japan's Central Alps. The walk is based on a 70 km trade route located in the Nagano area.
Most people don't walk the full route but spend a couple of days between Tsumago-juku and Magome. It is a well-preserved trail many travellers come to enjoy during summer. We recommend spending at least one night in either Tsumago-juku or Magome. They are known for their traditional wooden ryokans which offer half board basis.
Mount Kōya, the sacred mountain
Mount Kōya is one of Japan's most sacred mountains and the best place to spend a night in a temple. If you ever wanted to get in touch with your own zen or learn a little more about Japanese spirituality, this is the place in Japan to do so.
There are several hikes you can take during the day called pilgrimage trails. The most popular trail is the Koyasan Choishi Michi which is around 23 km long and takes several hours to complete.
Mount Hiei, a view of Kyoto
Have you ever heard of Mount Hiei? It's one of the most interesting places for a day out of Kyoto. We loved it so much, we got engaged there. To reach Mount Hiei, you need to take a train from Kyoto, then either hike to the top or take the cable car (which by the way, it's an amazing ride). You can descend it on foot by passing a beautiful Buddhist temple on your way.
We visited during winter, in December, and loved the glorious nature all around. Close to Mount Hiei, there are a few options for some incredible Kyoto onsen we recommend for one or two nights.
Okinawa, the tropical Japan
Did you know Japan has a set of sub-tropical islands which look like unreal postcard pictures? Okinawa is the largest of the Okinawa and Ryukyu islands of Japan. You can fly to Okinawa from Tokyo and take the ferry to island hop around them.
Some of the islands have pristine beaches, others are known for their wildlife or incredible rainforests. Check the weather before booking your trip to Okinawa to ensure you are avoiding the typhoon season.
Takayama, the autumn leaf viewing
Takayama is a beautiful city located in Gifu Prefecture. It is known for the gorgeous autumn leaf display and well-preserved streets in its historic district. Sanmachi Suji is lined with wooden houses make it atmospheric and ideal for photography.
The city is famed for the Takayama Festival which takes place mid-April and mid-October. It is considered one of Japan's three most beautiful festivals alongside Gion Matsuri in Kyoto.
You can reach Takayama from Nagano or Nagoya, but we strongly advise that you spend at least one night in Takayama to worth the long journey. If you don't wish to rely on public transport, we recommend renting a car, which makes Takayama a lot more accessible.
Hakone, a view of Mount Fuji
Hakone is a town not far from Tokyo known for its iconic views of Mount Fuji and select onsen resorts. If luxury is your best friend, we recommend spending a night in a fancy ryokan which offers private onsen and incredible views of the iconic Mount Fuji.
Hakone can also be visited just for the day, located just a short train ride away from the capital city. During autumn, Hakone is dressed in a beautiful orange coat of leaves, which can be admired from the Hakone Ropeway. Lake Ashi is known for its floating Torii Gate and Ōwakudani is a geothermal valley where you can purchase onsen eggs. For a cultural day out, check out the Hakone Open-Air Museum.
These were our favourite places to visit in Japan. With so many incredible destinations in Japan, it's easy to see why this is our dearest country in the whole world. Which place will you add to your itinerary first? Let us know in the comments section below.