Japan is one of my favorite countries in the world, and for good reason! In over 100 countries that I’ve visited, I have found that Japan has the most fascinating juxtaposition between the new and the old, the modern and the traditional. You could be in the middle of one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world, yet still find yourself sleeping on a tatami mat. Between the ancient temples, bright neon lights, and unbelievable food scene, I wanted to create a guide for you on the best places to visit in Japan. I promise you’ll discover some off-the-beaten-path locations that you may not have thought about adding to your Japan itinerary. Of course, I plan to add many more places to this list in the future too!
Neon lights of Tokyo – Places to visit in Japan
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How to Get To Japan
Getting to Japan is incredibly easy, with the three main airports being…
- Narita Airport, located outside of Tokyo.
- Haneda Airport, located even closer to Tokyo.
- Kansai International Airport, located near Osaka.
Be sure to research which airport makes the most sense to fly into based on your itinerary. You can book your airfare here. Perhaps it isn’t even an airport at all. If you’re visiting Japan from South Korea, you can actually take a ferry from Busan to Hakata (or vice versa). You can also take a ferry to China, but I’d personally recommend flying since that would take three days. To my knowledge, Princess Cruises and Celebrity Cruises also visit Japan.
How To Get Around Japan
The absolute best way to get around Japan is with the Japan Rail Pass, as Japan has some of the best public transportation in the world. The Japan Rail Pass is available only for tourists and provides you with unlimited travel on any JR line across the four main islands for a period of one, two, or three weeks depending on which pass you purchase. 5 FT Tip: The Japan Rail Pass MUST be purchased prior to arriving in Japan! Click here to find out the five reasons you should have a Japan Rail Pass, and how to go about purchasing one!
Shinkansen Train in Japan
Armed with your rail pass in hand, you’ll be ready to explore! Here are the 16 best places to visit in Japan:
Tokyo is one of the world’s largest metropolises. From authentic shrines to anime-filled streets and the busiest street crossing in the world, there’s plenty to see and do! While you could easily spend a week exploring Tokyo alone, two to three days will give you a good introduction to the city. Whether you want to admire the cherry blossoms in Ueno Park, check out the temples in Asakusa, or dive into “teeny bop” in Harajuku, you’ll definitely experience authentic Japan. Click here to read my two-day Tokyo itinerary.
Where to Sleep? The beautiful thing about Tokyo is that you can find everything from your luxury 5 Star hotels to locally-run inns and Ryokans. You can search hotels in Tokyo here or get $55 off your AirBnB using my code here.
Tokyo – Places to visit in Japan
While there isn’t too much to do as far as site-seeing in Nagano, it’s absolutely worth taking the Shinkansan to Nagano. Why? Aside from Japan’s popular Zenkoji temple, and the 1998 remaining Olympic facilities, make the trip to Nagano to go gliding above the Alps! It’s nothing like hang-gliding in Rio de Janeiro or aerobatic gliding in Hawaii; in my opinion, it’s even better! The Japanese Alps are simply spectacular from above and, if you’re lucky, you’ll even see Mt. Fuji in the distance! The hour-long scenic flight is simply not-to-be-missed. Feel free to read about my experience and see my photos from the glider here.
Gliding over Nagano & the Japanese Alps – Things to do in Japan
Yamanouchi was one of my favorite places in all of Japan! Whether you want to visit the highest and coldest ski lift in Japan, watch the snow monkey bathe in natural hot springs, soak in the onsens, or enjoy the hospitality at a traditional Ryokan, there’s something for every travel type from luxury to adventure. Plus, it doesn’t get much better than mountains and monkeys! Read more about my time in Yamanouchi here.
Where to Sleep? I couldn’t recommend staying at Ryokan Biyu highly enough! It was one of the most authentic, traditional, and unforgettable stays that I have had in any country. You can read more about my experience at Ryokan Biyu here. And, if you’re as excited about Japan’s Ryokans as I was, you can book your stay here.
Snow Monkey Park – Things to do in Japan
If you’re looking for the best place to view cherry blossoms, look no further than Matsumoto Castle. Honestly, Matsumoto Castle would be impressive at any time of year and, quite frankly, it’s a great place to experience Japanese history without the hordes of tourists in the bigger cities. Built in 1593, Matsumoto Castle is a National Treasure of Japan, and I fully understand why! It is arguably my favorite temple in Japan, and you can discover why here.
Matsumoto Castle – Places to visit in Japan
Nagoya may not be on your initial list of places to visit in Japan, but it certainly should be. Located less than two hours from Kyoto, Nagoya has a beautiful castle, temples and shrines, and architecture remaining from the Edo Period. My favorite area of Nagoya is Arimatu, a historical street lined with traditional wooden houses ranging from 1603 to 1868. While I was in Nagoya, I had a local kimono experience (where I was the only non-Japanese), matcha making class, and Ikebana lesson. It was in Nagoya that I had the most culturally enriching experience away from any tourists. You can read about my experience in Nagoya here.
Where to Sleep? While I can happily suggest a luxury hotel in Nagoya, I want to support my friends over at Guesthouse Mado. This very small guesthouse has made strides in connecting travellers with local cultures and customs. Had it not been for them, I never would have been able to experience all that I had in Nagoya. Do yourself a favor and check out Guesthouse Mado here for a taste of authentic Nagoya.
Kimono experience – Things to do in Japan
Kyoto has so many temples and UNESCO World Heritage Sites that you’ll certainly want to do some planning beforehand; choose whichever ones are most important to you so that you can ensure not to miss them! Quite a bit of Kyoto has been destroyed by fires over the years, but you’d never know – that is how many historically significant monuments and places of worship still remain. As for me, with two days in Kyoto, I visited the Bamboo Forest, the Gold Pavilion, and the Fushimi Inari Shrine amongst many other sites. You can check out my full two day Kyoto itinerary here.
Where to Sleep? You can’t go wrong in Kyoto! There are so many sites to see and a great transportation system in place, so I’d recommend planning out where you most want to visit and staying in that area. Search accommodations in Kyoto here or get $55 off your AirBnB using my code here.
Fushimi Inari Shrine – Places to visit in Japan
Nara is an incredibly easy day trip for anyone visiting Kyoto or Osaka. In fact, in 710, Nara (then Heijo) was Japan’s first established capital. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about going to Nara “to see the deer,” as all of the locals said; I grew up in a small town filled with deer. That said, I’m quite happy we did. Nara Park is home to hundreds of deer, which are considered messengers from god and a national treasure in Japan. Todaiji Temple is also makes the trip worth it, as it’s quite spectacular. In fact, it’s the largest wooden structure in the world! Click here to see everything that I did in Nara.
Where to Sleep? While Nara is a small town, it has gotten more popular over the years so more accommodations have popped up. They are largely family-owned guesthouses and inns. Have a look at accommodations in Nara here.
Take a selfie with a deer in Nara – Things to do in Japan
I’d probably only recommend journeying to Yoshino during cherry blossom season or peak fall foliage. The hike up Mt. Yoshino is both scenic and cultural, with great viewing platforms along the way. I’d definitely recommend going with a bit of an appetite, as there are many local stalls and markets on the way up offering delicious regional cuisine. I tried everything from cherry blossom anman to yomogidango, yokan, hot kuzumochi, and so much more. To know what I’m talking about, you’ll have to read about my day here.
Where to Sleep? Go back to Nara or continue on to Koyasan.
Cherry blossoms in Yoshino – Places to visit in Japan
Koyasan is a very special place in Japan and a worthwhile stop if you’re interested in Japanese spirituality. There’s an incredible array of temples in Koyasan that are certainly worth checking out, as well as Japan’s largest rock garden and cemetery with over 200,000 gravestones. What makes Koyasan unique is that it is one of the few places where you can stay overnight in a temple. 52 of Koyasan’s 117 active temples currently provide lodging for those who want to sleep in a temple — I’m sure you can guess by now that I did. Learn the concepts behind a monks meal (five flavors, five cooking methods, five colors), and be sure to take part in the morning ceremony, whether you’re religious or not. You can read about my experience here.
Where to Sleep? I highly recommend staying in a temple while in Koyasan. I chose to stay at Muryokoin and you can see what I thought of it here. Go into your stay with an open mind, and enjoy this traditional overnight experience. You can search places to stay in Koyasan here.
Koyasan – Places to visit in Japan
I’m likely in the minority when I say that I think Osaka is overrated, so give it a visit and check it out for yourself! Osaka Castle is worth seeing though, as well as the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum, Sumo Spring Grand Tournament (if you visit mid-March), and Universal Studios Japan. Personally, I just believe that there are more beautiful and historically significant locations in Japan… but let me know in the comments below if you love Osaka!
Where to Sleep? Like Kyoto, Osaka is a sprawling city. Decide which sites you’d like to see, and stay near there. I stayed within walking distance to Osaka Castle, and I’m happy that I did. Search accommodations in Osaka here or get $55 off your AirBnB using my code here.
Osaka Castle – Places to visit in Japan
Himeji is just an hour from Osaka, and you’ll feel transported back in time yet again. Himeji can be done as either a day trip from Osaka, or as an overnight if you’re working your way toward Hiroshima. Himeji Castle may very well be Japan’s most stunning castle, as it’s not only pristine, but in perfect condition too! Believe it or not, it’s actually one of Japan’s twelve remaining original castles, as it was never damaged by earthquakes, fires, or wars. Needless to say, it’s an important site to see in Japan.
Where to Sleep? There are plenty of modern-style rooms in Himeji. I’d recommend getting a hotel near Himeji Castle or the train station. You can search all accommodations in Himeji here or get $55 off your AirBnB using my code here.
Himeji Castle – Places to visit in Japan
12. Mt. Shosha
From Himeji, take a bus from the station to Mt. Shosha, and then hop on the cable car up! The Engyogi Temple Complex on top of the mountain was where The Last Samurai was filmed and, since it’s one of my favorite movies, I wanted to check it out for myself. Today, it’s an important training center for priests and a popular pilgrimage destination as well. There are nine key sites and plenty of beautiful views, so you will want to give yourself about 2-3 hours to explore Mt. Shosha.
Where to Sleep? Head back to Himeji.
Engyogi Temple – Places to visit in Japan
Hiroshima is a city that most Americans associate with the atomic bomb, and yet it has rebuilt itself incredibly well in the last 70+ years. Modern and bustling with people, Hiroshima appears like any other Japanese city — clean, high-tech, and easily navigable. As you make your way to Peace Memorial Park though, you will be reminded of the atrocities that took place on that very site; you’ll see the skeleton of the A-Bomb Dome and origami paper cranes, amongst many other significant memorials. If you’re visiting Hiroshima, it’s an absolute necessity to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum; it is one of the most informative and gruesome museums that I have been to, yet so incredibly important. I walked out knowing infinitely more about what happened on August 6, 1945 than I had prior.
Where to Sleep? I highly recommend staying in the Nakamachi area, as it’s very centrally located. You will be able to walk to all of the important sites in the area and there are numerous delicious food options within walking distance too. Search accommodations in Hiroshima here or get $55 off your AirBnB using my code here.
A-Bomb Dome – Places to visit in Japan
14. Miyajima (Itsukushima)
If one image of Miyajima comes to mind, it’s the O-torii Gate. Placed in the water, and perfectly framing the mountains in the distance, the O-torii Gate is certainly a sight to see! Other than taking in the views, it’s worth visiting the Itsukushima Shrine, dedicated to three goddesses. Surprisingly, I also found Miyajima to be a great place to sample the local food. From momiji manju to baked sweet potato ice cream and toyoka, there’s plenty of yummy treats to discover!
Where to Sleep? Head back and sleep in Hiroshima.
O-Torii Gate – Places to visit in Japan
I have a fascination with the samurai. When I learned that there was a small town that had a bridge that could once only be crossed by samurais, I had to go check it out! Iwakuni’s greatest attraction is the Kintai-kyo Pedestrian Bridge. It was originally built in 1673 and is entirely made of wood; there are no metal nails used! Another fun thing to do is get ice cream. I know, I know, you’re probably thinking, “More food Sarah?!” But! Musashi, the smallest ice cream shop in Iwakuni, boasts 100+ different flavors! Of course you’ll find your traditional favorites, but you’ll even find habanero, wasabi, fish, and garlic flavors of ice cream, just to name a few.
Where to Sleep? Head back and sleep in Hiroshima.
Kintai-kyo Bridge – Places to visit in Japan
Fukuoka is a great place to check out, especially if you’re planning on visiting South Korea after Japan (as you’ll find the ferry terminal to Busan nearby). Fukuoka has some stunning temples, including the first Zen temple constructed in Japan, fantastic yatai (mobile food stalls very common in Japan), and some interesting castle ruins too. If you have time, head over to Nokonoshima Island to explore the flower fields in bloom! Read more about what to see and do in Fukuoka here.
Where to Sleep? I stayed between the Susakimachi and Komondomachi areas and found them to be very centrally located. You can search all accommodations in Fukuoka here or get $55 off your AirBnB using my code here.
Nokonoshima Island – Places to visit in Japan
This is hopefully just the start of my Japan travel guide, but these sixteen spots will keep you plenty occupied for at least three weeks in Japan. There’s so much more to see, do, and explore. Unfortunately we had a terrible rain storm the day that we were supposed to be at Mt. Fuji, and the earthquakes that hit Japan in 2016 ruined our four nights planned in Kyushu, but it was still a phenomenal experience. Guess it’s just another reason to go back soon!
Where are these places located in Japan?
I personally flew into Narita Airport and left via ferry from Hakata to continue my trip into South Korea. On the map below, you will find the location of the sixteen aforementioned destinations. Of course, if you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below!
Have you packed your Travel Essentials?
If you're wondering what to pack for your trip to Japan, be sure to have a good read through my article, “137 Travel Essentials: A Comprehensive Packing List.” This will walk you through everything that I bring with me from luggage suggestions to carry on essentials, packing essentials, outdoor essentials, and so much more! I break it down into categories depending on the type of trip you’re doing; whether you’re going on a luxury journey through Japan’s high-tech cities, backpacking your way through the countryside, or climbing Mt. Fuji, you’ll find everything that you need to pack no matter what type of traveler you are!
Do you have Travel Insurance?
I hope you don’t travel without travel insurance! If you do, you better think again. Travel insurance is arguably the most important thing to have on hand (after your passports and visas). I’ve had to use my travel insurance multiple times on the road, even though I’m healthy. You never know when something might happen; take comfort in knowing that whether your flight gets cancelled or you wind up sick and in the hospital, you will be covered. I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance for each and every one of you. You can get a free quote here.