Japan is like no other place in the world. It’s a country of contrast and contradiction – where cutting-edge technology, high-speed trains, and futuristic fashions are just as much a part of daily life as centuries-old traditions, ancient temples, and serene bamboo forests.
It’s a place where you can explore a sprawling metropolis in the morning and wander through quiet paddy fields in the afternoon. And that’s without mentioning the delicious food, fascinating history, captivating culture, and warm, welcoming locals.
There’s so much to see and do here, in fact, that first-time visitors can find it overwhelming. So, if you’re thinking about visiting Japan, here’s our pick of the top places to visit and things to do.
If Tokyo is Japan’s visionary capital and Kyoto its historic heart, then Osaka is the city of food, drink, and fun.
Set on the shores of Osaka Bay, Osaka is Japan’s third-largest city, so there’s plenty to see and do here…but this sprawling city is really known for its restaurants, bars, and entertainment.
This is also the place to come if you love street food. The saying here isn’t ‘eat til you drop’ for nothing! The neon-flashing Dotonbori district is packed with street food stalls and unique eateries, with takoyaki (grilled octopus dumplings) and okonomiyaki (a savoury pancake dish) being some of the most popular local nibbles.
Aside from its myriad food options, Osaka is also known for its energy. There’s a pace and spirit here that will have you feeling alive and animated…and that’s before you witness the dazzling spectacle that is the city at night, with its brilliant LED lights and glowing videos flashing along the strip.
But there’s plenty of history here too. Though rebuilt in 1931, Osaka Castle is a faithful replica of the original fortress, which was built in 1586 – and from the top of the tower, you can admire gorgeous views of the city. Be sure to check out the famous temple of Shitennō-ji on the castle grounds; it dates back to AD 59!
Find foodie heaven in Osaka
Another must-visit city, but one with a more historic charm, is Kyoto, which is considered the heart of old Japan.
Kyoto was Japan’s imperial capital for millennia, and the city is full of exquisite temples, beautiful streets, and notable architecture – so much so that it was largely spared bombing in WWII.
If you’re interested in the customs and history of traditional Japan, Kyoto is where to head – and just like Tokyo, you can spend your entire break here and not scratch the surface of what this ancient city has to offer. For starters, there are over one thousand temples and shrines!
Aside from golden monuments, Kyoto’s geisha district, Gion, is one of its most popular attractions – as is the district of Arashiyama, where you can lose yourself among the famous bamboo groves. You can also discover Kyoto’s iconic tea culture at one of the many refined teahouses.
Foodies will also be in their element here, as Kyoto is one of the top gastronomic spots in the country. Tasting your way around the city is a fun way to explore, and you can sample everything from kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) to yatsuhashi (a unique confectionary unique to Kyoto).
Fall in love with Kyoto
3. Yaeyama Islands
Japan may not be as celebrated for its beaches as other countries in Asia… but that doesn’t mean it isn’t home to some truly stunning stretches of sand!
The Yaeyama Islands are a dreamy archipelago scattered across the waters of southwest Japan, and if you’re looking to enjoy a romantic break while in Japan, they’re unmissable.
Home to swaying palm trees, white sand coves, and shimmering turquoise waters, the Yaeyama Islands are a hidden gem – a place where you can kick back and relax while soaking up your blissful, enchanting surroundings. If you’re into diving, this is the place to do it, as the crystalline waters are absolutely teeming with life.
Okinawa is the main island, and you can find plenty of culture here too, from traditional Okinawan architecture to mouthwatering culinary delights. Ishigaki is the second-largest island, and another great place to base yourself – although there are 10 inhabited islands here in total, so you can pick somewhere quieter if you’re after peace and solitude!
If you enjoy visiting big, exhilarating, and forward-thinking cities, then Tokyo is unquestionably for you.
Frenetic, fast-paced, and futuristic, this is a city that captivates people from the moment they arrive – and you can easily spend your entire holiday here and not get bored.
This vast metropolis is home to some of the most ambitious architecture in the world, and the tall, sleek structures that soar into the sky give no hint that this is an earthquake-prone country.
Tokyo is constantly evolving and is always exciting. It’s a place where even crossing the street is an experience (just check out Shibuya intersection, the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing!)
Home to Japan’s best shops, art, architecture, and entertainment, it’s also a city where old meets new, and where peace is never far away. If you need a break from the buzz, there are countless temples, shrines, and imperial gardens to relax in – and if you visit in spring, the beautiful, blooming cherry trees will take your breath away.
Fans of fish and seafood will also be spoilt for choice, as aside from the thousands of sushi bars, Tokyo is home to the world’s largest fish market. Here, you can try incredibly fresh and delicious sushi, visit the world-famous tuna auction, or take a guided tour for a full culinary experience.
More good news is that Tokyo has an excellent transit system, so getting around is easier than you think.
Have an experience like no other in Tokyo
5. Kiso Valley
Japan is famous for its old post towns, which were places built on busy travel routes where travellers could stop to rest. Some of the most charming of these are located in the spectacular Kiso Valley, which was once part of the historic Nakasendo trade route that connected Tokyo to Kyoto.
If you’re looking to hike through dense forests and dramatic mountain landscapes, and over gushing streams, then Kiso Valley will be right up your street. Backing onto what’s known as the Japanese Alps, this region is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
But there’s much more to do here than hike. The valley is home to several well-preserved old post towns, including two of the most famous, Magome and Tsumago. A great way to explore this part of Japan is to walk between the two villages. The trek only takes a few hours and the trail takes you past truly remarkable scenery.
Both Magome and Tsumago are picture-perfect mountain villages where you can stroll along steep streets, admire atmospheric old buildings, and stay in cosy wooden ryokans – traditional Japanese inns. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time, and it’s the perfect way to blend outdoor activity with plenty of history and culture.
Experience jaw-dropping natural beauty in Kiso Valley
If you want to get an understanding of Japan’s Buddhist culture and religion and explore a landscape that’s truly otherworldly, then you’ll definitely want to visit Koya-san.
This sacred monastic complex is located on a beautiful forested mountain outside Osaka and, circled by eight dramatic peaks, it’s seriously picturesque.
There are over a hundred temples here, as well as shrines and pagodas, and it’s considered one of the most sacred places in the country. The top temple, Kongobu-ji, boasts historic ceremonial halls, traditional buildings, and a serene rock garden, and Konpon Daito is also a must-visit thanks to its gorgeous pagoda.
The graveyard of Okunoin is another of the main attractions, and this atmospheric cemetery is one of Japan’s top pilgrimage spots. The mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, is located here, and it’s said that he waits here in eternal meditation. Whether you’re religious or not, most people feel a unique sense of power during their visit.
While most tourists come up for the day from Osaka, many temples offer overnight stays, where you get the chance to spend the night in this spiritual setting, enjoy vegetarian Buddhist cuisine, and rise early to do a morning meditation with the resident monks. If you’re looking for a unique experience you’ll remember forever, this might be it!
In 1945, Hiroshima became the first city in the world to have an atomic bomb dropped on it. Less than 30 years later, the city had managed to double its pre-war population, and today, nearly 80 years on, it’s a leafy, vibrant, forward-thinking city that’s a popular tourist destination.
The incredible resilience of this city and its residents is genuinely remarkable, and it’s impossible to leave without being inspired by the spirit of determination. A gastronomic hotspot, Hiroshima is known for regional delicacies like ramen and oysters, and there are lots of pretty sites to visit, from the garden of Shukkei-en to Hiroshima Castle.
But the number one tourist destination is the Peace Memorial Park, which is located at the epicentre of the explosion and commemorates the victims of the world’s first nuclear attack. It’s here that the true extent of tragedy wreaked by the bomb becomes heartbreakingly clear and, while sombre, visiting feels like a crucial history lesson.
The park itself is beautiful, with cherry blossoms and formal gardens, and there are several different sites. There’s a museum, where you can learn about the effect of the bomb and explore the issue of world peace; the Atom Bomb Dome, which is the ruins of a building at the centre of the blast and the only structure that was left standing; and the Memorial Cenotaph.
Despite the poignant nature of this attraction, the spirit of the city, the warmth of its people, and the delicious food and pretty streets will make sure you only come away with good memories.
Visit the remarkable city of Hiroshima
8. Mount Fuji
Easily Japan’s most recognizable landmark, the revered Mount Fuji will take your breath away – even when it’s shrouded with clouds. The snow-capped summit stands an impressive 3,776 metres off the ground, and the peak has been a pilgrimage site for the Japanese for centuries.
Today, however, climbing the world’s most perfectly symmetrical volcano is almost as popular with tourists as it is with locals, and hundreds of thousands of people climb it each year. The views from the top are sensational, and if you’re there at dawn, you’ll experience the magical, unforgettable beauty of watching the sunrise.
If you don’t fancy the trek, you can admire this picture-perfect volcano from the ground level. For the best views, head to either Lake Ashi or Lake Kawaguchiko. It’s especially dazzling here in spring, when the cherry blossoms bloom, and in autumn, when the trees come alive in a blaze of red and orange.
To find out more about climbing Mount Fuji, you might want to have a read of our article; What are the best mountains to climb around the world?
Head to Lake Ashi for gorgeous views
If you’re interested in art, architecture, and gorgeous coastal landscapes, then you might want to think about visiting the island of Naoshima.
Located in the glistening waters of the Seto Inland Sea, this remote island isn’t particularly easy to get to…but it’s definitely worth the journey.
Just a few decades ago Naoshima was home to a dwindling fishing community, and on the verge of becoming a ghost town – but now it’s a world hub for contemporary art. We even featured it in our recent article, 8 best holiday destinations for art and architecture lovers.
Today, most of Japan’s most celebrated artists and architects have their work displayed on Naoshima, and there are all kinds of art installations, galleries, and museums to visit. Walking around this island feels like you’ve stepped into a fine art playground, and the sculpture parks in particular are some of the best in the world.
The juxtaposition of avant-garde art and architecture with the quiet beauty of a rural Japanese island is truly special and has meant that Naoshima has become one of the most unique – and popular – tourist attractions in the country.
If you want to explore the history and culture of old Japan but also want to escape the crowds, then head to Kanazawa. Just like Kyoto, this historic city is home to well-preserved samurai and geisha districts, traditional houses, and atmospheric temples – but unlike Kyoto, few foreigners come here.
It’s Kanazawa’s remote location that means it’s overlooked by tourists; set between the dramatic Japanese Alps and the swirling Sea of Japan, this stunning city boasts excellent museums, quaint tea shops, sacred shrines, a centuries-old castle, and a bustling food market that’s renowned for its fresh seafood.
But it’s Kenrokuen Garden that’s Kanazawa’s biggest draw – and it won’t take you long to see why. Widely considered the most beautiful garden in Japan, these lovingly landscaped lawns are a true work of art. Breathtaking at any time of year, walking around this enormous garden feels like you’ve fallen into a painting.
Once part of the grounds of Kanazawa Castle, the gardens were opened to the public in the 19th century, and they’re designed around the six essential components that are believed to make up the perfect garden: spaciousness, seclusion, antiquity, abundant water, views, and artificiality.
Stroll past mirror-like pools and bubbling streams, walk over grand bridges and past ornate stone lanterns, admire the majestic trees and fabulous flowers, and take some time to reflect in the many secluded spots. When you’re in need of refreshment, just pop into one of the many teahouses!
Explore traditional Kanazawa
Home to pioneering modernity and ancient history, quirky pop culture and time-honoured traditions, and vast urban jungles and idyllic, rural locations, it’s no wonder that Japan is fast becoming one of the top travel destinations in the world.
Each year more and more people travel to this 6,800-island archipelago, lured by its safe cities, diverse landscape, temple pilgrimages, and delicious, fresh food. While it might seem difficult to travel around a nation that’s made up of islands, Japan’s excellent transport system means it’s much easier to get around than you think.
Warm, welcoming, and ever-evolving, Japan offers something for everyone, no matter what type of holiday you’re looking for. Almost all first-time visitors fall head over heels in love with Japan – so if you’re thinking about going, you definitely won’t be disappointed!
For more inspiration for your next holiday, you can visit the travel section of our website.