Deciding on Japan destinations can be the most difficult part of your trip, especially if it’s your first time. But not exclusively: I’ve taken more than two dozen trips to Japan, and I still struggle with whether it’s a better choice to see lavender in Hokkaido, carpets of shibazakura at the base of Mount Fuji or (extra)ordinary sakura in Kyoto, to give a flowery example of this dilemma.
Indeed, I struggle whether to focus on nature at all—Japanese cities are an ecosystem all their own, after all. If you know you want to take a trip to Japan, but you’re just not sure where or what Japan tourist attractions you should focus on, you’re in the right place.
NOTE: Covid-19 is having a significant impact on travel to Japan, which I expect to continue for much of the rest of 2021. Click here to learn more about visiting Japan this year, or click here if you think you may simply wait until 2022 (or later).
Must-See Japan vs. Japan Off the Beaten Path
If you’ve never been to Japan before, your bucket list is probably long. And while some of the places in Japan you want to visit might be out-of-the-ordinary (I recently helped a couple plan their first trip, and they were adamant about visit the “art island” of Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea), chances are the Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima are at the top of your list, in addition to staying someplace where you can see Mt. Fuji and enjoy a nice onsen bath.
However, the guide I’m about to share doesn’t simply spotlight popular tourist spots in Japan. I’ve spent years exploring the nooks and crannies of Japan, from ancient sacred sites like the Izumo Shrine in San’in region, to unique historical destinations like Yoshinogari Archaeological Park on Kyushu island, to otherworldly nature like Shikoku’s Naruto Whirlpools.
Popular Japan Destinations
It’s a no-brainer to visit Tokyo when you come to Japan—or is it? Landmarks like Tokyo Tower and Senso-ji Temple are iconic, and the neon lights of busy districts like Ginza and Shinjuku convey a futuristic ambiance. But while Japan’s capital is a place you should definitely travel at some point on your trip, it’s arguably not the country’s most essential destination or city, even if I’ve had special experiences (my recent winter trip to Tokyo is a notable example of this) there myself.
Note that while you can see Mt. Fuji from several of Tokyo’s skyscraper rooftops, the best place to get up-close and personal with the mountain is in Kawaguchiko, a lake town accessible by direct bus from Mark City Mall in Shibuya, or various other places in Shizuoka, Yamanashi and Kanagawa prefectures.
That honor would go to Kyoto, in my opinion, though many will argue that the city is overrated. From the scenic viewpoint at Kiyomizu-dera Temple (particularly when it’s framed by sakura in the spring and vivid colors in the fall), to the hypnotic gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha, to the shaded pathways of Sagano Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama, Kyoto is not only my favorite place in Japan, but a city I’d love to call home someday. It’s home to many of the best Japan tourist places, but something intangible as well. Check out my round-up of things to do in Kyoto!
In spite of its large size, Osaka doesn’t get the recognition among popular cities in Japan that it deserves, probably because it’s forever in the shadow of nearby Kyoto. In addition to having the best food in Japan (takoyaki, okonomiyaki, gyoza—oh my!), Osaka is also home to laid-back people, awesome attractions like Osaka Castle and Dotonbori pedestrian street, as well as its status as the hub of the Kansai region. Osaka might not be among the Japan destinations you’re currently considering, but it should be.
On the other hand, many travelers list Hiroshima among their top destinations in Japan, and I’m not sure this is always well-founded.Hiroshima Peace Park and the A-Bomb Dome are very moving and informative, especially if you’re into history, but somehow the modern and vibrant (and delicious—try the okonomiyaki pancakes!) city that stands around them is ultimately more emotionally affecting to me. Indeed, my favorite place to visit in Hiroshima is Miyajima island, home not only to the floating Itsukushima Shrine, but to a small population of deer (like Nara in the aforementioned Kansai region).
Traditionally, Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido has traditionally drawn visitors in with the award-winning ski slopes of Niseko, which are reputedly home to the finest powder in the world. However, if you come to Hokkaido during summer, you can discover tourist attractions in Japan that are not yet mainstream, but will be soon. The most visually pleasing of these are lavender fields in Furano, though I also really enjoy the so-called “Blue Pond” of Biei and the historical canal of Otaru (which is also very beautiful in winter, with massive icicles dangling from its ledges!)
I hesitated about whether to put the Okinawa archipelago in this section or the next one. On one hand, it’s certainly among the most famous places in Japan, if only from a name recognition perspective. On the other hand, visitors to the islands are primarily Japanese tourists (with the possible exception of US military members), which is a shame. The prefectural capital of Naha provides an interesting glimpse into the culture of the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom, while islands like Ishigaki are home to Japan’s best beaches.
Underrated Japan Tourist Spots
Many travelers’ exploration of central Honshu’s mountains begin and end at Jigokudani Monkey Park, but I implore you to spend more time here. Whether you walk along the ancient Nakasendo trading route, discover underrated Japanese cities like Matsumoto and Takayama or simply take a dip in a natural onsen hot spring, make the Japanese Alps a priority, perhaps even at the expense of more popular Japan destinations, particular if you visit Japan in winter.
Speaking of winter in Japan, this is perhaps my favorite time to visit the historical city of Kanazawa, sometimes known as the “Kyoto of the North.” The hub of Japan’s underrated Hokuriku region, Kanazawa is a hotbed of discovery, whether you traipse through geisha districts like Higashi Chaya and Kazue-machi, marvel at Kenroku-en garden in all four seasons or tour former Samurai homes in Nagamachi. With a Japanese name that translates to “Marsh of Gold” in English, Kanazawa certainly sparkles.
I only passed through Kyushu, the southern-most of Japan’s four main islands, en route to paradisiacal Yakushima island on my first trip to Japan. Since then I’ve been back a few times, exploring cities like Fukuoka and Nagasaki, attractions like Beppu Onsen and Japan must see destinations like Karatsu Castle and a relaxed energy that’s elusive in much of the rest of the country. Other popular Kyushu destinations include the castle city of Kumamoto and Kagoshima, a vibrant port city that sits at the best of Sakurajima volcano.
If you’re looking for Japan off the beaten path, San’in (the northern part of the Chugoku region, the westernmost one of Japan’s main island Honshu) is the place to go. A land that is simultaneously full of cultural, historical, culinary and natural wonders and almost completely empty of tourists, San’in has a name that literally translates to “in the shadow of the mountain,” but will leave you feeling bright. Start at the mysterious Tottori Sand Dunes before climbing Mt. Daisen, road tripping in the Oki Islands, visiting Matsue Castle and Izumo Shrine or enjoying the charming country town of Tsuwano.
Whether you’re looking to explore scenic Japan or just want to visit a destination that few others do, Shikoku is a great choice. I particularly love the contrast Japan’s smallest (main) island provides, and the ease of experiencing it. In mere minutes, you can go from captivating cities like Tokushima, Kochi, Takamatsu and Matsuyama to natural wonders like Naruto Whirlpools, Shimanto River and Kotohira-gu Shrine. Though Shikoku isn’t where you’ll find many popular cities in Japan, it hides a magic all its own.
Some of the most beautiful places in Japan I’ve ever seen are in the Tohoku region, which comprises the northern tip of Honshu Island. This is especially the case during winter, whether I’ve found myself walking amid the so-called “Snow Monsters” of Mt. Zao or taking a dip in the famous Tsuru no Yu onsen. Tohoku is also famous during sakura season, particularly if you can manage to see the mystical “petal moat” of Hirosaki Castle. On the other hand, one Tohoku destination I can’t particularly recommend is the “Fox Village” a few hours west of Sendai, which is more of a zoo than any sort of refuge.
How Long Should You Spend in Japan?
Many people believe that because of ultra-fast trains in Japan, it’s possible to do a “simple” trip (i.e. visiting the best cities to visit in Japan) in just a short time. In some sense, this is true—I’ve created an itinerary for one week in Japan that explains how to do this, and advises you of the stamina you’ll need to have to see it through.
Of course, Japan sightseeing isn’t just a matter of ticket sights off a list. A big part of experiencing Japan is feeling the way of life, listening to the cadence of the language, adapting to the local customs and so forth. In general, I’d say to spend as long in Japan as you can afford in terms of time and money, though I find two or three weeks in Japan tends to be a sweet spot for many travelers.
My Japan Itinerary Planning Service
The good news? I’ve assembled an extensive set of Japan trip ideas, whether you need guidance on what to do in cities like Tokyo and Hiroshima, tips for planning a two-week or one-month trip to Japan, or want to try and get the timing of a sakura trip in the spring just right to see your favorite Japan landmarks covered in cherry blossoms. (Trust me: I’ve been too early and too late for full bloom, and you don’t want to deal with either.)
The better news? I’ve decided to offer up my years of experience in the form of a custom Japan travel itinerary planning service, where I create the perfect trip based on your personality and interests. Click here to learn more about the packages I offer, what they include, how much they cost and why all my previous clients are raving about my work as a Japan trip planner.
Other FAQ About Japan Destinations
Where should you go in Japan?
While first-time visitors may want to stick to Japan’s Tokyo-Kyoto/Osaka-Hiroshima tourist trail, I encourage you to venture off the beaten path. Venture onto underrated islands like subtropical Shikoku, adventure-filled Hokkaido or eclectic Kyushu. Visit underrated regions such as spiritual San’in, understated Mie and thrilling Tohoku, or simply hit the beach in Okinawa.
What is the prettiest place in Japan?
The challenge, when traveling in Japan, is finding a place that isn’t pretty. With this being said, I happen to find that Kyoto’s temple-filled Higashiyama district (especially when it’s at the peak of cherry blossom season in early April) is among the most beautiful places in Japan.
Where should you avoid in Japan?
Although certain destinations in Japan (the city of Nagoya comes to mind) have mixed reputations, I don’t necessarily recommend avoiding any specific places. Rather, I would make more of a strategic suggestion: Don’t go anywhere in Japan simply because you feel like you must. Having a burning desire to visit a place, on the other hand, makes even the most boring ones endlessly interesting.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re searching for mainstream Japan destinations like Tokyo and Kyoto, or want to visit Japan off the beaten path in San’in or Tohoku, you’re in the right place. Over the course of two dozen trips to Japan, I’ve done the grunt work of breaking down the country’s complex cities and regions into simple explanations you can easily understand why you should—or shouldn’t—visit them. If you still need some extra help, please don’t hesitate to enlist my custom Japan itinerary planning service.