Planning a trip in the land of the rising sun and looking for the best cities to visit in Japan? Read on to find out which cities you should be adding to your Japanese adventure.
Japan is a fascinating country that attracts more and more visitors each year. The country’s long history combined with rich cultural heritage have made it one of the most unique destinations. Home to towering skyscrapers sitting alongside well-preserved architecture, jaw dropping natural beauty and excellent food, Japan has something for everyone.
With so many amazing destinations to choose from, it can be a daunting task to decide on which places to choose. To make your experience in Japan as memorable and enjoyable as possible, it’s best to do your research beforehand.
Whether you enjoy big city atmosphere, visiting historical sites or being one with nature, the following cities are well worth a visit on your next trip to Japan. To help you in your decision process, I have asked the help of fellow travel bloggers. We have gathered a list of the best cities to visit in Japan, all tried and tested. So without further ado, here are our recommendations for the 15 best cities not to miss out in Japan.
Suggested by Travel Collecting
You have to visit Kyoto when you visit Japan. Kyoto used to be the capital city of Japan, and although Tokyo long ago became the political capital, Kyoto is still the historic capital. There are famous temples such as the Golden Pavilion Temple, an incredibly beautiful gold-colored pavilion that glows in the sunshine, set in lovely gardens on the edge of a pond that provides picture-perfect reflections. Another famous temple is the Silver Pavilion Temple, which is, as it sounds, silver colored. The gardens here are famous for the raked sand that is so distinctive to Japan. Another famous garden is Ryoan-ji, possibly the most famous Zen garden in the world. The garden’s stones and raked sand are a perfect embodiment of simplicity and balance.
On the western outskirts of town, don’t miss Arashiyama, where maple trees in autumn are ablaze beside the river, cherry trees form clouds of pink in the spring, and the famous bamboo forest is beautiful any time of year. This is a perfect place to stay in a traditional ryokan (read about the best ryokan in Kyoto here) and soak in a hot mineral spring onsen. Another popular place for traditional ryokans is Gion. This is the historic center where you can still see beautifully dressed and painted geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) walk through the streets in the evening on their way to their appointments. They are hostesses and entertainers and having an haute cuisine multi-course kaiseki dinner with maiko dancing is a real treat.
You can get to Kyoto by Shinkansen (bullet train) in about three hours from Tokyo. The nearest major airport is Kansai International airport. There are frequent and easy train connections to Osaka, Kobe and Nara.
Suggested by Through an Aussie’s Eyes
Osaka is one of Japan’s busiest yet most popular cities. Situated on the island of Honshu, Osaka offers a tantalising nightlife, delicious street food and the opportunity to explore both the old and new of Japan. Osaka has two international airports so there is no reason not to venture out into the city. The public transport is fantastic and everyone will do their very best to help you understand the trains (don’t forget your Japan Rail Pass!).
Osaka offers a little bit of everything for everyone. Take the kids to Universal Studios and let them experience the different worlds of Jurassic Park, Waterworld, Minion Park and Harry Potter. Go for a walk through Dotonbori and see the neon lights. There are plenty of food displays and numerous restaurants to try. My must-try food for you is Okonomiyaki which is a Japanese savoury pancake and it is delicious! Continue to Shinsekai to experience the old downtown district. This is where you will really get a good vibe of the city and don’t forget to check out the giant pufferfish. Go out and see Osaka Castle, one of the greatest castles in Japan. It was built in 1583 by a notorious warlord and is one of Osaka’s most popular spots to visit during the cherry blossom season. Osaka is easily one of my favourite cities to see in Japan.
Suggested by The Adventurous Flashpacker
Once the ancient capital of Japan, Nara is these days famous for two things: picturesque temples and (gorgeous!) free-roaming deer. Nara is an easy day trip from Osaka or Kyoto. Simply jump on a train and you’ll be there in a jiffy! If you have the JR Pass, take the JR Yamatoji Line from Osaka Station (50 minutes) or the JR Nara Line from JR Kyoto Station (45 minutes).
Nara’s a pretty small city, and it’s possible to cover the highlights in just one day. Most of the temples and deer are concentrated around Nara Park, which is well sign-posted and easy to navigate on foot. Some of the most impressive (and popular!) temples are Todaiji temple with its massive intricate gate, Kasuga-taisha with its hundreds of lanterns and Kofuju-ji temple with its five-storied pagoda. You don’t have to look far to find Nara’s ubiquitous deer – there are hundreds of the cheeky creatures wandering all around Nara Park and the temples just waiting for unsuspecting tourists to feed them! Pick up a stack of deer biscuits from the street side vendors, and keep all other food closed in your bag (you’ve been warned!).
As well as temples and deer, Nara’s attractions include traditional Japanese gardens, a quaint historic town filled with narrow alleyways wooden houses, and traditional tea houses and restaurants. Nara is the quintessential traditional Japanese town and is bound to capture your heart.
Suggested by Travels with Talek
Koya-san, or Mount Koya is a temple complex south of Osaka, Japan and one of the holiest places in the country. Founded in early 800 CE, the town eventually grew to encompass over 120 temples. Most of the temple residents follow Shingon Buddhism. The townhouses the mausoleum of the religion’s founder, Kobo Daishi in Okunoin Cemetery.
The Okunoin Cemetery in Koya-san is the country’s largest and oldest. Kobo Daishi’s tomb lies at the centre of the cemetery. The followers of Shingon believe Kobo Daishi is still in the tomb in a state of deep meditation. Meals are lovingly and ritually prepared for him every day.These small, child-like figurines found in the cemetery may look cute but they tell a sad story. They represent the Jizo Bosatsu that protect the souls of children who left the earth before their time.
To ensure the spirits are warm and cozy in the chilly, mountain nights, most are given simple woollen hats and bibs or aprons. Others can sport elaborate capes, makeup and lipstick. The sight of hundreds of these stone figurines clad in children’s clothing in a cemetery setting at dusk is downright gripping. Getting to Koya-san does take a bit of time and effort but directions are also in English and the Japanese people are very helpful, so it’s hard to get lost.
Suggested by World Trip Diaries
Nagoya is one of our favourite cities to visit in Japan. It is still a big city, with all the crazy and wonderful things in the big Japanese cities (like big malls, neon-illuminated streets, buzz) but all in a low key kind of way. It’s one bullet train away from Tokyo (around 3 hours) or one hour from Osaka and Kyoto, and easy to reach.
While you’re there, don’t miss Nagoya Castle, which is beautiful; the Toyota Museums (yes, there are many! From the evolution of the cars to a factory tour!), the biggest planetarium in the world at the Nagoya Science Museum, and the TV Tower, which is the oldest tower of the kind in the country!
And then, for the ones travelling with kids or Ghibli Studios animation fans, they have the incredible house from My Neighbour Totoro. It’s in Moricoro Park (an awesome park, visiting the house or not) and it’s worth your time for sure! Just don’t forget to watch it again just before you go to compare it all!And don’t forget to eat misokatsu (pork cutlets with a miso sauce). Yum! If you still have the time, then Shirakawa-go with its picturesque villages is an hour away, making Nagoya the best place to stay for a trip to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Suggest by Fit Two Travel
Takayama is a hidden gem nestled in the Japanese Alps. It’s a traditional and authentic Japanese town in the Hida mountains. Walking around old town Takayama, you’ll enjoy rows of old wooden latticed buildings of shops, coffee shops and sake breweries. Twice a year Takayama hosts one of Japan’s biggest festivals with a dozen festival floats. Make a visit to Hida folk village or a day trip to Shirakawago, both places have traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses with steep thatched roofs.
Try some hidagyu, the local beef of Takayama. Hida Beef is a high-quality marbled beef from the cattle raised in the Gifu Prefecture. Ramen is obviously popular throughout Japan, but Takayama has its own version of ramen known as “chuka soba”. Don’t miss tasting some sake as Takayama has been famous for its sake production since the Edo period.
Takayama is 4 hours and 20 minutes away from Tokyo on the shinkansen. It’s easy to visit from Tokyo and Kyoto, but well worth city to visit while in Japan.
Suggested by Around the World in 24 Hours
Hiroshima, Japan is a city that is famous for the most tragic of reasons. On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city, killing over 100,000 people. Any trip to Hiroshima should begin with a visit to Hiroshima Peace Park and the nearby Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. There are over 50 memorials in the park. When I visited, I needed to take frequent breaks in order to collect myself because the experience was so emotional. But no matter how much time you spend in the Peace Park, be sure to ring the Peace Bell. They say that every time someone rings the bell, it sends out a wish to live in a world without nuclear weapons.
While any trip to Hiroshima will center around Hiroshima Peace Park, please take in some of Hiroshima’s more cheerful attractions as well. You can attend a Hiroshima Toyo Carp baseball game. (Confusingly enough, the team has two mascots and neither one of them is a carp. However, one of them is a terrifying blue-green Muppet-like beast.) Fans of unusual beverages should sip on a Hiroshima cola, which tastes mildly of a local variety of orange. My favorite spot in Hiroshima is the Alice Garden, decorated with sculptures shaped like playing card suits.
Hiroshima has two local culinary specialties that no traveler should miss. One is the plump and flavorful Hiroshima oyster. I recommend getting them for lunch at Ekohiiki. The other is the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, a Japanese savory pancake made with egg, cabbage, and a jumble of other delicious ingredients. The place to get them is Okonomimura, a building that contains 25 different okonomiyaki stands. I sadly didn’t try all 25, so I can’t say which is the best. Just find a friendly looking chef, order your okonomiyaki and dig right in!
Suggested by Around the World in 24 Hours
Miyajima Island is one of the most confusingly named destinations I have ever encountered. Technically, the name of the island is Itsukushima. However, most people, including the island’s tourism website, do not use this name. The world knows it as Miyajima, or Shrine Island. Miyajima has been called one of the three most beautiful places in Japan since the 17th century. People come from all over the world to see its stunning orange gate, known in Japanese as a torii, floating in the water. Miyajima is easily reachable as a day trip from Hiroshima. You just take the train to the Miyajimaguchi train station, and then you can take the ferry over to the island. The view from the ferry alone is almost worth the whole trip.
Though the floating gate is the most famous attraction in Miyajima, it’s not the only reason to visit. If you’re a nature lover, you’ll enjoy the tramp up the sacred Mount Misen, also located on the island. It’s about a 90-minute walk to the top and your reward is the gorgeous views from the peak. Extreme nature lovers will also enjoy the friendly deer that roam the entire island. Just keep any snacks far away from Bambi and his friends! They have powerful noses for food.
Speaking of food, don’t sleep on the local specialities. Miyajima is most well known for its cakes called momiji manju, which are shaped like maple leaves. They have a light cakey exterior and are filled with a sweet red bean paste. Many momaji stores are made with machines displayed near clear glass windows, so you can see them being made fresh. Another Miyajima-approved snack is the eel bun, which is made with the sweet flesh of the local conger eel. After you’re all full, be sure to catch the ferry back to the mainland!
Suggested by Ms Travel Solo
Naoshima is a contemporary art island in the Seto Inland Sea. Part of Kagawa Prefecture, the small island has many art museums and installations scattered around the island. If you are travelling to central Japan and interested in modern art, Naoshima is the perfect day trip for you.
One of the best highlights of Naoshima is visiting Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin. It is Yayoi Kusama’s first outdoor sculpture and is part of the outdoor installation on Naoshima Island. The artist is famous for her polka dot motifs, and you can find her masterpieces at many renowned museums throughout the world. Another highlight is visiting the Chichu Art Museum, which is designed by Tadao Ando, a famous Japanese architect. Inside the museum, you can see works by Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria.
During your visit to Naoshima, also visit other art museums, including Benesse House Museum, Lee Ufan Museum, and Ando Museum. And you can’t miss the Red Pumpkin which is at the ferry terminal.
It is possible to walk around the island. But touring Naoshima with an electric bicycle is so much more fun. It only costs ¥1000 (about $10USD). There are several places to eat on Naoshima Island, but the best is the Chichu Cafe in the Chichu Art Museum. You can enjoy a meal or drink with a fantastic view of the Seto Inland Sea.
To get to Naoshima, you need to make your way to Okayama first. From Okayama, take a regular train to Uno via JR Uno Line. It takes 50 minutes and costs ¥580 (about $5USD). Once you arrive at Uno, walk 5 minutes to Uno Port and catch a ferry to Naoshima.
Suggested by Ms Travel Solo
If you are visiting Naoshima island, you should also visit Teshima, which is another island full of contemporary modern art. As the second largest island in the Seto Inland Sea, it only has 1,000 people on Teshima. The island does not feel crowded and is not overrun by tourists. It is one of the best off the beaten path places in Japan for art lovers.
The island was once full of toxic waste which was dumped illegally for many years. But the government cleaned up the island and transformed the island into an art destination. When you visit Teshima, make sure you rent an electric bike to tour around the island. It is one of the best ways to see Teshima.
The highlight of Teshima is the installation at Teshima Art Museum. It is a concrete installation where it is open to air and nature. The entire installation resembles a water droplet hitting a surface. And inside the dome, you can see droplets of water pooling together and create a pool of water. The entire installation is calming and is one of the most spiritual installations I’ve ever seen.
While you are in Teshima, visit other art museums and installations including Teshima Yokoo House, Les Archives du Coeur and La Forêt des Murmures. Similar to the direction to Naoshima, you must first make your way to Uno Port. From the ferry terminal, take a ferry to Teshima Island. If you are already on Naoshima, you can hop on one of the ferries going to Teshima.
Suggested by The Munching Traveller
If you’re looking to catch a glimpse of the elusive Mount Fuji, you may just want to try your luck at Hakone! Since the peak of Mount Fuji only appears in the best conditions (good weather without clouds), you might as well keep yourselves busy with other fun activities! Hakone is located west of Tokyo, within Japan’s Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. The city is a mountainous region best known for its onsens (hot springs).
It takes about 2 hours to get to Hakone from Tokyo and the easiest way to see the various sights in Hakone is to grab the Hakone Freepass. The 2-day freepass includes a round-trip train ride on the Odakyu Line from Shinjuku in Tokyo and grants you transport on all 8 modes in the Hakone Region when you are there. Even though you could possibly see most of the famous attractions in Hakone within a day, you may just want to spend a night in the hot springs hotel, living in a traditional Ryokan and experiencing one of the best Kaiseki dinners.
Some of the activities in Hakone include a sightseeing cruise on Lake Ashi on a Viking Ship, visiting the Hakone Open Air Museum, riding through Owakudani crater on the Hakone Ropeway, and strolling through the Ancient Cedar Avenue. A must-do when you are at Owakudani Crater is to taste the black eggs boiled in natural sulphuric spring water. It is said that these eggs would lengthen your lifespan and Japanese elderly folk would return each year to consume these eggs almost like a birthday ritual!
Nago, Okinawa Island
Suggested by Dame Cacao
Most people don’t think of sunny island paradises when Japan comes to mind; it’s more like sushi and kimonos. But there is a part of Japan in which snorkels are more popular than skis, and the overwhelming crowds do eventually thin: Okinawa. This southernmost Japanese prefecture is actually located a three-hour flight southeast of Tokyo, as close to Taiwan as it is to the southern tip of mainland Japan. Okinawa is known domestically as the ideal island getaway, basically the Hawaii of Japan, but you may know it better for being the longtime home of an American military base.
The prefecture’s international airport is located in the capital city of Naha, but for those looking to really get out of Japanese cities, the first place you should head for is Nago. Less than two hours’ drive from the capital, Nago is known for delicious pineapples & other tropical fruits, as well as its huge aquarium and truly stunning beaches. If you’re spending 5 days in Okinawa, which is my humble recommendation, then spending a couple of days in Nago is a must. Scuba diving & sunset-watching are year-round past times, but across the entire island remain vestiges of the indigenous culture and ancient Japanese temples & architecture. Japanese foods also get a bit of an Okinawan makeover, taking their cue from locally-sourced ingredients like sea grapes and purple sweet potatoes. You can leave Okinawa without trying Blue Seal ice cream, either.
After landing at Naha International Airport, you only need to take one bus from the airport to arrive in downtown Nago, barely a city by Japanese standards. Bonus: since the main island is so far south, temperatures remain relatively consistent across the prefecture, only getting as cold as about 10C/50F at night in the dead of winter.
Yokohama is a large port city, a close 30 minutes train ride from Tokyo. The historic port opened in mid 19th century and in just under 150 years, it developed into an international hub. As the second largest city in Japan, Yokohama is worth a visit. The foreign community who established themselves in Yokohama have made the city a cosmopolitan destination. Contrary to its neighbour Tokyo, life in Yokohama is a little more peaceful. You can wander the streets of the largest Chinatown while sampling some Chinese delicacies or spend the afternoon exploring the banks of Minato Mirai. More an even more relaxing day, take a stroll in the Sankeien Garden.
Thanks to its large foreign community, Yokohama has one of Japan’s most diverse cuisine. For a taste of what this city has to offer, head to Japan’s largest Chinatown or visit izakaya pubs scattered in the city where you can enjoy yakitori and Japanese sake. There are also lots of high end Japanese or Western restaurants, trendy cafes, jazz cafes (kissa), or value restaurants to please everyone.
Ehime Prefecture is situated in Shikoku Island, the smallest and least visited of the four main islands in Japan. The prefecture, located between sea and mountains is famous for mikan (sweet tangerine) and the pilgrimage of the 88 temples. The prefecture’s capital, Matsuyama is home to one of the twelve original castles, the oldest onsen, several temples and beautiful architectures from various eras. Matsuyama is mostly visited by Japanese people or pilgrims. The region is remote but will offer you the best off-the-beaten experience. If you are looking for less touristy locations, this small island is perfect for you.
With a population of nearly 40 million people, Tokyo is known for its diversity. The city has managed to blend the old with the new. Move from one neighbourhood to the other and you will feel like you have travelled to a different city. On one hand you have neighbourhoods like Shinjuku and Shibuya buzzing with modernity, skyscrapers with neon lights and busy crowds. On the other hand, you can wander in the small alleys of Asakusa or Kanda and find yourself in an old-style neighbourhood with small restaurants, stalls and temples.
Tokyo is one of the culinary capitals of the world. In fact, the city is home to more Michelin stars restaurants than anywhere else in the world. The food on offer is delicious be it from a stall, family own eatery or high class restaurant. As well as good food, the city offer some of the best views of the vast city. To get the chance to see Mont Fuji, ride the elevator of the observatories of Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Metropolitan Building (free) or the Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills.
A sample itinerary in Tokyo can be like this. For a zen start, head over to the ancient town of Asakusa. After paying your respect to Kannon, the Goddess of mercy at Sensoji Temple, then sample some sweets at Nakamise Dori. Head to either Shibuya and Ginza for some retail therapy. If you are into anime, games or manga, then you will feel right at home in Akihabara or Nakano Broadway. Spend the afternoon people watching in Harajuku, centre of youth culture and fashion but also home to one of Tokyo’s biggest green space: Yoyogi Park.
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So which of the best cities to visit in Japan has picked your interest? Would it be a modern city like Tokyo and Yokohama? A history-rich city like Kyoto or Hiroshima? Or a lesser known city like Matsuyama or Nago?
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