A dream destination for many, Japan remains one of the most fascinating countries in the world, with numerous cities and destinations worth exploring. From ancient temples and majestic shrines to luscious green gardens and lively city streets, the land of the rising sun has everything a traveler could wish to see.
Choosing the best destinations from a never-ending list, however, can be a daunting task for many. As such, we've decided to help by suggesting some of our favorites, based on our experiences traveling in Japan.
- Tokyo offers visitors unlimited options for shopping, entertainment, culture, and dining, best experienced in districts such as Asakusa, Shibuya, and Akihabara.
- Renowned all over the country for its natural beauty and many hot springs, Hakone is one of the most popular destinations in Japan.
- Declared a World Heritage Site in 1995, Shirakawa-go's largest village and main attraction, Ogimachi, makes for an excellent day trip from Takayama.
- Kyoto was omitted from the list of target cities for the atomic bomb drop during World War II due to its immense historical significance, and it remains home to countless temples and shrines today.
- In addition to being a large port city, Osaka is known for its modern architecture, nightlife, and scrumptious street food.
Tokyo is not only Japan's capital but also the most populous metropolis on the planet. The city offers unlimited options for shopping, entertainment, culture, and dining. These are best appreciated in districts such as Asakusa, Shibuya, and Akihabara.
That being said, the capital is also home to famous shrines and food markets that draw thousands of tourists to the city every year. Here are some suggestions for what to do in Tokyo.
Although Shibuya is one of the twenty-three city wards of Tokyo, it is perhaps best known for the world-famous shopping and entertainment area found around Shibuya Station.
Shibuya is one of the capital's most lively and colorful areas, lined with stores, restaurants, and nightclubs that serve countless visitors from all around the globe.
Tsukiji Outer Market
Tsukiji Outer Market is a site close to where the former Tsukiji Wholesale Market used to be. It consists of wholesale and retail shops, with restaurants crowded along narrow lanes.
A visit to Tsukiji Outer Market would be incomplete without a fresh sushi breakfast or lunch at one of the numerous local restaurants.
These establishments usually open early in the morning and since most of the fish found at the new market is delivered directly from Toyosu Market (the new location of the original market), these are some of the best places in the city to enjoy fresh seafood.
Note: The Tsukiji Inner Market closed on October 6, 2018, and moved to a new site in Toyosu where it reopened as Toyosu Market. Tsukiji Outer Market is still in business.
Also known by some as Akiba, Akihabara is a district in central Tokyo most famous for its many electronic shops.
Akihabara, however, is also recognized as being the epicenter of Japan's otaku (diehard fan) culture, with many shops and establishments devoted to anime and manga culture scattered among the electronic stores today.
Asakusa, in Taito, is a district located in the heart of Tokyo's Shitamachi ("low city"). An air of yesteryear Tokyo still survives in this district, which is most famous for Sensoji, a popular Buddhist temple built in the 7th century.
Visitors access Sensoji via the Nakamise, a shopping street known for traditional snacks and tourist souvenirs.
Completed in 1920, the Meiji Shrine is dedicated to the revered spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. It was destroyed during the Second World War but was rebuilt shortly after.
The spacious shrine grounds offer walking paths that make for thoroughly relaxing strolls.
Fuji Five Lakes
The Fuji Five Lake region, a two-hour bus ride from Tokyo Station, is not only one of the best places for viewing Mount Fuji from up-close, but also a good base for climbing the mountain.
The region is known as a lake resort area, but visitors can also partake in hiking, fishing, camping, and other outdoor activities.
Renowned all over the country for its natural beauty and many hot springs, Hakone is one of the most popular destinations in Japan.
Not only does it attract Japanese tourists from different parts of the country, but it also provides the perfect break for foreign visitors looking for a change of pace from Tokyo. In addition, Hakone's Lake Ashinoko has some of the best views of nearby Mount Fuji.
Lake Ashinoko, with Mount Fuji as a backdrop, has become the most iconic symbol of Hakone. The lake's shores are mainly undeveloped save for a few small towns in the north and east, and a couple of lakeside resort hotels.
The best views of the lake along with Mount Fuji can be enjoyed from Moto-Hakone (a few steps south of the sightseeing boat pier). Boat tours between Moto-Hakone and Hakone-machi are available from the lake's southern shores and Togendai and Kojiri at the lake's northern end.
Hakone hot springs
If you're in Hakone, you really should visit a hot spring, as the mountainous town has been one of Japan's most popular hot spring resorts for centuries. The region has more than a dozen springs that provide water to the numerous bathhouses and ryokans where visitors can enjoy a hot spring bath.
Due to its importance during the Edo Period (1603-1868), Kanazawa grew to become one of the most important cultural hubs in Japan, with its cultural achievements rivaling those of Kyoto and Tokyo.
Today, Kanazawa remains an important city on Japan's central Honshu Island and serves as the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture. The city has many historical attractions including restored residences and districts, as well as modern museums. Its best-known attraction, however, is Kenrokuen, one of Japan's most beautiful gardens.
While Japan is regarded as having "three beautiful landscape gardens," Kenrokuen in Kanazawa is arguably the most beautiful of them all. The spacious grounds used to be the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle and were constructed by the ruling Maeda family over a period of nearly two centuries.
Opened to the public in 1871, Kenrokuen (literally meaning "Garden of the Six Sublimities") has since featured a variety of flowering trees, water features, bridges, teahouses, rocks, and viewpoints for visitors to explore.
Takayama, also known as Hida-Takayama to differentiate it from other towns, is a city in the mountainous Hida region of the country.
Having gained importance during the feudal ages as a source of high-quality timber and highly skilled carpenters, Takayama and its immaculately preserved Old Town still retain a traditional touch unlike many others in the country.
If you're looking to escape the hustle and bustle ever-present in many Japanese cities, and relax in the rural countryside instead, you should make a trip to Hida-Takayama.
Takayama Old Town
The Old Town in Takayama has been beautifully preserved, with many buildings and houses dating all the way back to the Edo Period (1603-1868).
The southern half of the Old Town (especially Sannomachi Street) is particularly pretty with many old homes, shops, coffee houses, and sake breweries. Some of these businesses have been operating for centuries.
Several homes in the Old Town open their doors to the public and provide a rare glimpse into how local merchants lived during the Edo Period, when the city thrived as a wealthy town of merchants.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Shirakawa-go lines the Shogawa River Valley and is world-famous for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, many of which are over 250 years old.
Gassho-zukuri means "constructed like hands in prayer," as the steep thatched roofs of these farmhouses resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. This architectural style developed over generations and is designed to withstand the heavy snowfalls experienced by the town in winter.
Shirakawa-go's largest village and main attraction, Ogimachi, makes for an excellent day trip from Takayama. The best way to experience the town, however, is to stay overnight at one of the farmhouses.
One of Japan's ten largest cities, with a population of 1.5 million people, Kyoto served as the country's capital from 794 until 1868 AD.
Over the centuries, it was destroyed by numerous wars and fires. Due to its exceptional historical significance, however, the city was omitted from the list of target cities for the atomic bomb drop and escaped destruction during World War II. Countless temples, shrines and other historically significant structures survive in the city today.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Shrine is an important Shinto shrine located in southern Kyoto. It is most famous for its countless vermilion torii gates, which straddle a network of trails that lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari, behind the main gates.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is the most important of several thousand shrines dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, Inari, and has ancient origins predating the capital's move to Kyoto in 794.
One of the most celebrated temples in the country, Kiyomizudera, was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1994.
The temple was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall and is best known today for its wooden stage that sits 13 meters above the hillside below. This stage offers visitors splendid views of the surrounding cherry and maple trees.
The Higashiyama District of Kyoto is one of the city's best-preserved historic districts, affording visitors an experience of traditional Kyoto. Its narrow lanes, wooden buildings, and traditional merchant shops invoke reflections on the old capital city.
Recent renovation efforts in the district have included the removal of telephone poles and further repaving of streets, to give the area an even stronger traditional feel.
Nara, previously known as Heijokyo, was Japan's first permanent capital in the year 710. The capital moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784, and later to Kyoto, due to Nara's powerful Buddhist monasteries growing in strength and exerting political influence in the area, posing a serious threat to the government.
Located less than an hour from Kyoto and Osaka, Nara is home to Todaiji Temple, one of Japan's largest and oldest temples.
Todaiji Temple is one of Japan's most famous and historically significant temples. The temple was constructed in 752 and was the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples. It grew so powerful that it was deemed a threat to government affairs and this was the main reason behind changing the capital from Nara to Nagaoka in 784.
The temple's main hall, Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall), is the world's largest wooden building and houses one of Japan's largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu).
Osaka, formerly known as Naniwa, is the second largest metropolitan area in Japan. The city has been an economic powerhouse of the Kansai Region for many centuries and remains the commercial hub of the Japanese island of Honshu.
In addition to being a large port city, Osaka is also known for its modern architecture, nightlife, and scrumptious street food.
Osaka Castle's construction began in 1583. Toyotomi Hideyoshi wanted the castle to become the center of a new, unified Japan under Toyotomi rule. It was the largest castle at the time. However, a few years after Hideyoshi's death, rival troops attacked and destroyed it.
The castle underwent renovation and repair in 1997, lending it a modern look. Its tower is now entirely modern on the inside and even features an elevator for easier accessibility. The castle also houses a museum detailing the castle's history and featuring Toyotomi Hideyoshi's life.
The lively entertainment area of Dotonbori is Osaka's most famous tourist destination and is renowned for its gaudy neon lights, extravagant signage, and enormous variety of restaurants and bars.
The name "Dotonbori" refers both to Dotonbori Canal and to Dotonbori Street that runs parallel to the canal's southern bank. It is one of the most colorful areas in Osaka and an absolute must-visit location when traveling through the Kansai region.
Hiroshima is a major city of the Chugoku Region and home to over a million inhabitants today. The city was largely destroyed by the atomic bomb during the Second World War. After the war, great efforts were made to rebuild the city and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park commemorates the 1945 event today.
Peace Memorial Park
Hiroshima's Peace Park is one of the most prominent features of the city. Spanning an area of over 120,000 square meters, the park's many trees, lawns, and walking paths stand in stark contrast to the surrounding downtown area.
Not only is the park a powerful symbol of the most destructive force ever created by humankind, but it also expresses hope for world peace and for the ultimate elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Miyajima is a small island less than an hour from the city of Hiroshima. It is best known for its giant torii gate, which seems to float on water during high tide.
This is ranked as one of Japan's three best views and is certainly one of the most photographed.
Sapporo is the capital of Japan's Hokkaido province and is Japan's fifth largest city. It's one of the youngest cities in the country: in 1857, its population stood at a mere seven people.
The redevelopment of Hokkaido started during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), with Sapporo being chosen as the island's administrative center. Interestingly, the capital's architectural design is based on the American grid system.
Sapporo became world-famous in 1972 when it hosted the Winter Olympic Games. Today, the city is well known for its ramen, beer, and annual snow festival in February.
Sapporo Snow Festival
The festival in February is usually a week long. It is one of Japan's most popular winter events. It features spectacular snow and ice sculptures and attracts more than two million visitors from Japan and around the world. The 2019 Sapporo Snow Festival will take place from February 4-11, 2019.
Visit Japan's top destinations with Asia Highlights
Each of these Japanese destinations is worth visiting, as they offer visitors uniquely different travel experiences. Asia Highlights' team of specialists takes special pride in carefully planning the perfect itinerary for you and your loved ones, so you can make the most of your time in the land of the rising sun.