One of the most important, enjoyable, and challenging steps in organizing a trip to Japan is picking where to go. With so many incredible sites to visit and so much internet content to sift through, deciding on your ideal destinations can be difficult, whether it's your first trip to Japan or a repeat visit. The good news is that there are so many wonderful urban and rural places and bucket-list-worthy Japan experiences that you can't go wrong. The “bad” news is that there may not be an actual “best places in Japan” list because so much depends on personal likes and interests.
We've compiled this in-depth guide to 10 of Japan's top destinations to help you cut through the clutter and make informed decisions for your Japan trip, so keep on scrolling.
10 Best Travel Destinations Around Japan You Must Visit
Japan is a traveler's dream, with hillside onsen (hot spring) villages, peaceful beach-lined islands, and buzzing megacities on the menu. Although there are countless ways to experience Japan's delights, some cities and locations are essential to any beautiful vacation there. Here are the top 10 picks for travel destinations in Japan.
Tokyo is a city that is always looking forward, pushing the limits of what is possible on highly populated, earthquake-prone ground by erecting ever taller, sleeker skyscrapers. It is Japan's premier destination for modern art and architecture, pop culture, shopping, drinking, and entertainment (and a tie with Kyoto for dining). But the city itself captivates visitors more than any single sight. It's a vast, organic entity that stretches as far as the eye can see. Tokyo is constantly changing, and with such a broad array of districts, no two visits are ever the same.
Kamakshi, one of Japan's most beautiful natural panoramas, is a highland river valley surrounded by the rising peaks of the Northern Japan Alps. Day treks along the pristine Azusa-gawa are offered through calm willow, larch, and elm forests. Kamakshi, the home of Japanese alpinism, is also the starting point for more challenging hikes up some of Japan's tallest mountains, such as Yari-ga-take (3180m). Private cars are prohibited in Kamikchi, reducing the impact on the people.
#3. Okinawa and the Southern Islands
Okinawa and the Southwest Islands provide a completely unique experience in comparison to the rest of Japan. This semi-tropical archipelago connects Kyushu and Taiwan. Until they were annexed by Japan in the nineteenth century, they founded their own monarchy, the Ricky Empire, and the cultural contrasts can be seen in everything from architecture to food. This is where you'll discover Japan's best beaches, such as those on the Yaeyama and Kerama Islands, with sugar-white sand and turquoise waters. Sunbathe or snorkel and scuba dive.
Naoshima is one of Japan's great success stories: a rural island on the verge of becoming a ghost town transformed into a world-class center for contemporary art. Many of Japan's most renowned architects have contributed structures, including museums, a boutique hotel, and even a bathhouse, all meant to complement the island's natural beauty and existing populations. The ensuing fusion of avant-garde and rural Japan is mesmerizing. It has also prompted some Japanese to leave the big cities and live a simpler life, migrating to Naoshima to operate cafés and inns.
Try to time your visit to coincide with one of the three exhibitions of the Setouchi Triennale festival, which takes place every three years in the spring, summer, and fall – the most recent being in 2022. Naoshima presents a variety of art, theatrical, music, and dance events that contribute to the festival's originality.
Kyoto, Japan's imperial capital for 1,000 years, has over a thousand temples. Among them are the colossal, like Kinkaku-Ji (a magnificent pavilion covered in gold leaf), and the meditative, like Ryan-Ji, with its stark Zen rock garden. And temples are just the beginning: there's tea culture, which you can enjoy at one of the city's many magnificent teahouses; geisha art, those iconic performers of traditional song and dance; and rich food culture, including kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine).
Regarding urban experiences, Tokyo does not have all of the superlatives. Takoyaki, Japan's hallmark dish, is a must-try in Osaka, Japan's third-largest city (grilled octopus dumplings). It also offers one of the most stunning nightscapes in the town, with a brilliant display of LED lights, dynamic signage, and flashing video screens along the canalside strip Dtombori. Japan's oldest commercial center, the city has its own speed, vitality, and enthusiasm for life: its unofficial slogan is kuidaore (eat until you drop).
In addition to nightly accommodation fees, Osaka hotels often charge an accommodation tax, which varies according to the regular nightly rate.
Hiroshima is now a forward-thinking city with beautiful, leafy boulevards. It is not until you visit the Peace Memorial Museum that the true scope of the atomic bomb's human toll becomes clear. A visit here is a terrible and crucial lesson in history. The park around the museum, much of which was created by Tange Kenz, Japan's famous modernist architect, provides numerous possibilities for introspection. However, the city's spirit of determination, as well as its food, will ensure that you depart with fond recollections.
Yakushima, a small island off the coast of southern Kysh, is frequently regarded as remarkable, charming, and even otherworldly. It's a place where words fail, and clichés take their place. The yakusugi, an old cedar unique to the island whose gigantic roots form alien tentacles, can be found in some of Japan's last virgin forests. Hiking routes run beneath them, covering rugged ground that is typically strewn with moss. The environment here is thought to have inspired Studio Ghibli's renowned animated film, Princess Mononoke.
When you're not hiking, visit the Yakusugi Museum to learn more about the significance of yakusugi, or Japanese cedar trees, to the Yakushima islanders. There is an English audio guide available.
#9. Mt Fuji
Mt Fuji will take your breath away even from afar. Close-up, Japan's highest peak's absolutely symmetrical cone is nothing short of amazing. Dawn from the peak? It's pure magic. Fuji-san is one of Japan's most treasured and everlasting landmarks. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people climb it, carrying on a centuries-old practice of pilgrimages to the sacred volcano. Those who prefer to seek out picture-perfect views from less-difficult summits nearby might follow in the footsteps of Japan's most famous artists and poets.
To avoid the wet season and snowfall, climb Mt Fuji during its official season, which runs from July 1 to mid-September. Before hiking in Japan, always check for typhoon warnings.
Riding the funicular up to Kya-san, the hallowed Buddhist monastic complex seems like ascending to another universe. Over a hundred temples may be found here, the most notable of which is Oku-no-in, whose walkways wind between tall cryptomeria trees and time-worn stone stupas covered in moss and lichen. Other temples provide a unique experience, such as the opportunity to spend the night, dine on traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine, and rise early for morning meditation with the resident monks.
Though there are no specific dress standards in Japanese temples and shrines, visitors are encouraged to remain relatively quiet in these sacred spaces.
Japan is quickly becoming a popular tourism destination for tourists from all over the world. Around 30 million tourists visit Japan's popular tourist spots, including World Heritage Sites. Each location emphasizes an escape from busy tourist areas and everyday life for an opportunity to think and reconnect with nature or even uncover the heart of communities in rural and small-town Japan. If you're planning a trip to one of these destinations, know that it will be well worth your time.