Japan is a country unlike any other on earth. Consisting of nearly 7,000 islands, this East Asian archipelago is absolutely brimming with places to visit. There’s the futuristic metropolis of Tokyo and the ancient culture of Kyoto; the striking slopes of Mount Fuji and the foodie paradise of Osaka– and that’s just the beginning.
Depending on the season, each of these essential destinations might be blanketed in pale pink cherry blossoms, dazzling autumn leaves or sparkling snow drifts. No matter where you go, you’ll be immersed in the inimitable culture and traditions of Japan, often juxtaposed with exceptionally modern marvels.
Here’s our ultimate guide to where to go in Japan, from glittering cities and historic sites to dramatic landscapes and relaxing getaways.
1. Best City – Tokyo
If you only go to one city in Japan, make it Tokyo. This is the country’s most visited destination, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a wholly unique feast for the senses, from towering skyscrapers and neon lights to gorgeous green spaces and Michelin-starred restaurants.
You’ll need at least a few days to fully experience Japan’s capital. Our favourite sites include the sacred Meiji Shrine, the tranquil Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and the iconic Tokyo Skytree. We highly suggest a trip to the Tsukiji Outer Market followed by a sushi-making class with an expert chef. And you can’t beat a stay at the exquisite Aman Tokyo hotel.
2. Best for Tradition and Culture – Kyoto
Old meets new in the former imperial capital of Kyoto. Here you’ll find an abundance of ancient shrines, traditional buildings and ryokan (inns). Visit the Arashiyama district for lovely autumn leaves, and tour the famous Bamboo Grove on a traditional rickshaw.
Make sure to try obanzai, a style of cuisine native to Kyoto. You can sample sake in the Fushimi brewing district, and even visit the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. Head to the Gion district to enjoy a traditional tea ceremony led by a maiko, or apprentice geisha. You can also visit nearby Katsuragi, the birthplace of sumo, to learn more about this distinctive tradition.
3. Best for Natural Beauty – Hakone
Hakone might just be the most beautiful place in Japan – and that’s saying something. Set in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, this breathtaking town is more like an open-air museum of natural beauty. At its heart is the emblematic Lake Ashinoko, with Mount Fuji as its backdrop.
The best time to visit Hakone is spring or autumn; it’s great for both cherry blossoms and colourful leaves. In warmer weather you can explore the national park by bicycle. And when temperatures drop, enjoy calming hot springs in the Owakudani valley or at the luxurious Gora Kadan Ryokan.
4. Best for Adventure – Mount Fuji
If you’re trying to decide what to see in Japan, Mount Fuji should be at the top of your list. This legendary snow-capped peak is one of the country’s most recognisable symbols. It’s also a haven for exciting outdoor adventures and peaceful mountain getaways.
The best time to visit Japan depends on where you’re going, but the ideal season to see Mount Fuji is from November to February. These months promise clear skies for scenic hikes through Mount Fuji National Park. You can also explore the Aokigahara forest or tour lava caves. To fully immerse yourself in nature, go glamping at the idyllic Hoshinoya Fuji.
5. Must-Visit for Foodies – Osaka
Traditional Japanese culinary culture, known as washoku, is on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. And the best place for a foodie vacation in Japan is undoubtedly Osaka: a bustling hub of restaurants, bars and nightlife, affectionately nicknamed ‘the kitchen of Japan’
Osaka’s Dotonbori district is a hotspot for fantastic dining, while Shinsaibashi is known for shopping. You can take a private tour with a local guide to sample the best street food or find hidden gems for an unforgettable evening. Apart from its culinary delights, the city is also known for Osaka Castle, one of the country’s most important historical landmarks.
6. Best for History – Kanazawa
Visiting Kanazawa is like stepping straight into Japan’s past. This wonderfully well-preserved city is a window into the medieval era, with a 17th-century castle at its centre. Its main attraction is the Kenroku-en Garden, one of the country’s ‘Three Great Gardens’.
Other parts of Kanazawa worth exploring include the Higashi Chaya district, where the geisha tradition lives on. Equally intriguing is the Nagamachi district, which was historically home to samurai and their families. And don’t miss the Omicho Market, which has been in operation for over three centuries.
7. Best for Wildlife – Jigokudani
Animal lovers should head straight to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, located near the town of Yamanouchi. This is the best place to see wild Japanese macaques: furry little red-faced creatures that are sure to capture anyone’s heart.
Jigokudani is an ideal destination for a family vacation in Japan, as kids and adults of all ages will love watching the snow monkeys play and hang out in the hot springs. The best season to see them is winter, which is also the ideal time to enjoy the nearby Shiga Kogen ski area and the hot springs of Shibu Onsen and Yudanaka Onsen.
8. Best for Relaxation – Ise-Shima National Park
If you’re wondering where to visit in Japan for a relaxing holiday, Ise-Shima National Park is the place for you. This coastal region is replete with hidden coves, rich forests and spectacular views. It’s also the first place where pearls were successfully cultivated.
9. Best for Sightseeing – Hiroshima & Miyajima
The city of Hiroshima is full of unmatched opportunities for sightseeing. Many of its most impressive sites were rebuilt after being destroyed in World War II; today they’re shining examples of Hiroshima’s resilient spirit. Make sure to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to learn about the city’s past.
Less than an hour outside Hiroshima you’ll find the island of Miyajima, home to the ancient Itsukushima Shrine with its famous floating gate. Here you can stay at the serene Iwaso Ryokan, a luxury oasis tucked into the trees.
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