The 14 best places to visit in Japan
I have been fascinated by Japan since my teenage years and have travelled there many times. Here is my selection of places to discover on your next trip to Japan, each one being unique in its own way.
Japan is one of those countries that you must visit at least once in your life. Each one of your discoveries will be a complete change of scenery in this country which has such a different diametrically opposed culture to ours, spiritual landscapes and refined gastronomy. Big city and modernity lovers, the frenzy of Tokyo and Osaka will give you the impression of being a child in an amusement park. If you are looking for mystical places, the many temples of the archipelago will be an invitation to meditation and finding inner peace. Outdoor enthusiasts can choose between climbing Mount Fuji, skiing in the sublime Japanese Alps or discovering the seabed of the warm Okinawa Island. Relax in one of the countless natural hot springs in the country. Travellers looking for originality will gladly spice things up by going to a few unusual places such as the Owl Cafe or Deer Island. Japan appeals to all profiles and ages. Whether you are travelling alone, as a couple or with your family, it is a must-see destination!
Our selection of must-see places
If you mix modernity with tradition, you get Tokyo, the capital of Japan. This large and bustling megalopolis will delight both city dwellers and people looking for more traditional tours. You can compare Tokyo to a kind of huge playground, and some even say that “everything you once dreamed of is in Tokyo”. It is the city of extravagance! Are you more into trendy shopping? Fashion addicts will go wild in the trendy Shibuya and Harajuku districts were cosplayers and young people show off their alternative look. As for tech-fans and Japanese pop culture fans, they will find what their happiness in the streets of Akihabara (“Akiba”) with their video game shops, arcade terminals and maid cafés. Looking for authenticity? You will be amazed by the traditional district of Asakusa and Senso-ji, and its sumptuous Buddhist temple. Not to mention the Meiji-Jingu Shinto shrine nestled in the middle of a forest, next to the lively Yoyogi Park. Looking for unusual experiences? Tokyo will certainly surprise you! Some of the unique activities you can do in Japan are cuddling dogs or owls in a café, attending a show of giant robots, or immersing yourself in an Alice in Wonderland themed restaurant. Unique experiences that will make your stay even more unforgettable!
Entertainment | Shopping | Park & Garden | Museums | Shows
Osaka is easily accessible from Tokyo and will delight both your heart and your taste buds. Osaka, third largest city after Tokyo and Yokohama, is often overlooked by tourists in favour of its neighbour, Kyoto. Yet, it has its own personality, as do its inhabitants who are said to be friendlier and more relaxed than in the rest of Japan. Even if it might seem less appealing at first sight, it would be a shame to miss out on what it has to offer, especially in terms of taste! You shouldn't miss Dotonbori Street, which is famous for its dozens of restaurants and street food carts. Okonomiyaki (Japanese omelet), takoyaki (deep-fried octopus) and ikayaki (grilled octopus with soy sauce) are on the menu and will delight your palate. Visit Osaka Castle, one of the most famous in Japan, surrounded by ramparts and moats. Treat yourself to a moment of serenity by visiting the Shitenno-ji Buddhist temple, the very first one to be commissioned by the Emperor himself at the beginning of this religion. If you are looking for a more lively atmosphere, head to the Namba and Umada districts. Finally, why not visit Kaiyukan's vertical aquarium, renowned for its whale-sharks. If you are planning on staying in the area for several days, spend a day at Universal Studio's theme park or relax in the huge Spa World
Gastronomy | Entertainment | Shopping | Heritage | Port
Kyoto is a real jewel that has preserved its splendour over the centuries. The former capital of Japan, historical centre and birthplace of many traditions, has nothing left to prove. Visiting Kyoto is like travelling back in time, between sumptuous temples and ancestral traditions. Stroll along the narrow streets of the Gion district, famous for its Maikos (apprentice Geishas), stop off in a century-old tea house, visit the Imperial Palace, and its lush garden, marvel at the Golden Pavilion and the charming Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple with its 1,200 statues nestled in the Arashiyama bamboo forest and then travel to another world while walking under Fushimi Inari 10,000 Tori gates. Visiting Kyoto is also an opportunity to learn more about various traditional Japanese arts such as the the tea ceremony, Ikebana (Japanese floral art) or to wear a real kimono during a stay in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn).
Art & Culture | Heritage | Architecture | Craftsmanship | Relaxation
Hakone and Mount Fuji
Located only a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Tokyo, Hakone is a bucolic volcanic destination famous for its Fuji Five Lakes surrounding the magnificent Mount Fuji. Hakone is a strategic location for its ascent. However, it would be a shame not to explore its surroundings. The Owakudani Volcanic Valley is the perfect place to relax. Take the time to relax in a hot Onsen, and taste a kuro-tamago, which is an egg cooked in steaming spring water. With its 3,776 m / 12,388’ high, Mount Fuji, or Fuji-San, is an emblematic figure of Japan. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is referred to as “Fujisan, Sacred place and source of Artistic inspiration”. Climbing this mythical summit covered in white is described by the Japanese as a mystical and spiritual experience, which is within every-bodies reach. It is possible of climb it in only a day if you start off at night (it is a 6 hour walk) to arrive at dawn as the sun rises around 4:30-5:30. If the weather is clear, you can admire Tokyo, the Japanese Alps and the Pacific Ocean. Divine!
Hiking | Mountains | Volcano | Viewpoint | UNESCO World Heritage
Not far from Tokyo, Nara, the first capital of Japan will seduce both nature and Buddhist art lovers. Even if some temples are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, the city of Nara is also known for a completely different reason: its wild roaming free deers. They are everywhere! Playful and gourmand, there are more than a thousand of them to entertain tourists who specifically come to enjoy this unusual spectacle. They are even more numerous in the Nara Koen, the immense park of Nara. There are 36 temples scattered all across the park. You can start off your visit with the Kofuku-ji temple, which contains the emblem of the city, a five-storey pagoda reflected in the water of the Sarusawa Pond. Do not miss out on the Todai-ji temple and its 15 m high bronze Buddha. Finally, the Kasuga-Taisha Shinto sanctuary and its path of lanterns will take you some 1,300 years back in time. If you have time, the thousand-year-old city of Nara is home to one of the largest museums in Japan, dedicated to traditional Japanese art, the Nara National Museum, featuring an impressive collection of Buddhist statues.
Art & Culture | UNESCO World Heritage | Museums | Monuments | Animals
Far from the big cities, nestled in a lush setting, Nikko offers breathtaking landscapes. Only 93 miles/150 km from Tokyo, this small town of 90,000 inhabitants will delight travellers looking for calm and serenity. A truly mystical atmosphere reigns in the mountainous Nikko. Why not go on a spiritual retreat on its mysterious paths. Discover the temples dedicated to the great shoguns (Toshogu), shrines to thank the deities of the mountains (Futarasan), a legendary bridge surrounded by local myths (Shinkyo), or the lake with sacred waters (Chuzenji). But above anything else, the most spectacular things the city has to offer are its natural wonders which incite meditation. Travel through the reliefs of Nikko, under the cedars of Sugina-Miki Park or in the cool atmosphere of the Kegon waterfall for a mystical communion with nature.
Nature | Mountains | Lakes | Hiking | Art & Culture
If you like legends, legends and bamboo forests, the beautiful coastal city of Kamakura is the ideal spot. Ideally located just a one hour train ride from Tokyo, Kamakura is very popular among tourists and people living in Tokyo who come to de stress from the hectic city life pace. The Tsurugaoka Hachimangu sanctuary and its view are a must-see, but the real star of the site is the 13.5 m Great Bronze Buddha in Kotoku-In temple. You have to look for the real wonders in the surroundings, in the heart of the forest. The Sasuke-Inari shrine seems to be straight out of the Miyazaki’s classic “Spirited Away”. Statuettes of foxes of all sizes are everywhere, sometimes even covered in moss, they lead the path to the pagoda. It is said to have been built by an illustrious shogun to thank a fox messenger who appeared to him in a dream and allowed him to win a great battle... Hidden in the heart of a rocky tunnel, the discreet Zeniarai-Benten shrine is said to contain the secret of wealth: a magical source! People come here not to wash their clothes, but their coins, literally. Coins and banknotes are placed in a basket before being sprinkled with water and dried. This ritual is supposed to increase your wealth. Why not try it out for yourself?
Nice village | Hiking | Architecture | Beaches | Nature
On August 6, 1945 at 8:15 am, an atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima on the island of Honshu... Going to Hiroshima is like making a cultural and historical pilgrimage, to feel the trauma of the past and the unshakeable faith in the future. Do not expect to see a city in ruins, it is quite the opposite! The only visible remains of this tragedy is the Genbaku Dome, which is firmly implanted in the Peace Memorial Park on the banks of the Ota River. If you want to learn more about the terrible history of Hiroshima, the Peace Museum has 5 floors dedicated to this tragedy. If you are sensitive, you will find it difficult to hold back your tears. Shukkei-En Park is a place of historical meditation and is undoubtedly the most emotionally charged area. It was just a few meters away from the hypo centre of the bomb, called “ground zero”, and was the last shelter of many of the inhabitants who were buried there. If you want to learn more about the city and its history over the centuries (apart from the bombardments), visit Hiroshima Castle, or “Carp Castle”, a superb relic from the Feudal era. After so many trying emotions, you might just want to escape to something more magical. The Mitaki-dera Temple will only reveal its secrets to the bravest as a real expedition in the heart of nature awaits travellers in search of wisdom. Divine statues covered in moss and dreamlike quotations engraved in stone here and there have merged with the abundant vegetation. The tranquillity of Onomichi harbour is a real breath of fresh air. Its beauty has inspired many Japanese artists, writers, poets and filmmakers. The panoramic view from the cable car is a real delight and Senjiko Park offers an unforgettable carpet of flowers during the Spring and Autumn.
Monuments | Museums | Heritage | Sea
Miyajima or Itsukushima Island
Let yourself be soothed by the sound of the waves, admire the sunset on the sea and mountain background, stroll along the narrow streets lined with small wooden houses, pet wild deers, this is the promise of Miyajima, a true paradise. For many travellers, Miyajima or Itsukushima Island, is love at first sight, an escape to paradise. Located in Hiroshima Bay, and considered one of the three most beautiful places in Japan, Miyajima is a sacred island. No birth or cemeteries are allowed here, it is even forbidden to cut down trees. When they arrive, visitors are greeted by a large vermilion tori, which seems to be floating on the water. It is the gateway between the world of the profane and the world of the Gods. Itsukushima shrine is also on the waterfront, accessible from the shore and is an ideal point of view to observe the sea. This small 9 km long and 7 km wide island offers many trails to hiking enthusiasts with different levels of difficulty. You will climb Mount Misen, take the Momiji path along the river or the Daisho-In path with its 2,000 steps. The Omoto trail is the longest and steepest as it stretches over 3.5 km and will take you through the unspoilt wilderness. Parks, temples, pagodas, festivals, many attractions are waiting for you during your visit.
Island | UNESCO World Heritage | Relaxation | Hiking | Nature
Between natural hot springs, volcanic landscapes and ski resorts, Hokkaido has something for everyone. The second largest island in Japan is one of the few places where some Japanese aborigines (Ainu) still live. In summer, the hiking trails of national parks, such as Daisetsuzan and Shiretoko with their mountains and volcanic lakes, are very popular among tourists, as you can observe some brown bears or climb Mount Yotei, known as “mini Mount Fuji”. In winter, the snow that covers Hokkaido is a delight for skiers who enjoy going to Jozankei and Noboribetsu ski resorts, while others enjoy a panoramic view in the century-old onsens ( hot springs). Beer-lovers will appreciate tasting the capital’s speciality, the Sapporo beer, and visiting the Beer Museum. If you are visiting in winter, do not miss the Snow Festival (Sapporo Yuki Matsuri) during which impressive sculptures are carved.
Island | Gastronomy | Hiking | Natural wonders | Sea
The Japanese Alps
The Japanese Alps consist of three mountain ranges over 3000 m / 10,476 ft high. In this region, nature is preserved and ideal for relaxing and hiking. If you want to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and discover the Japanese countryside, this is the place for you. Located in the heart of the mountains, Matsumoto ski resort is an interesting starting point if you are planning a tour of the Japanese Alps. The ancestral Nakasendo Way that links Tokyo to Kyoto is an opportunity to discover small picturesque towns (69 in total) including the very charming Tsumago and Magome. Nagano, the Japanese capital of winter sports, obviously has many ski resorts such as Hakuba and Shiga-Kogen, but also a lot of onsens. If you are looking for a unique experience, Jigokudani Park with its monkeys bathing in hot springs will surprise you! The spectacular Kamikochi Valley and Hida Mountains are undoubtedly the most representative vision of the Japanese Alps. Further east, the very rural Takayama, also called “Little Kyoto”, seems to have remained frozen in the Edo period. It is also the perfect opportunity to visit the beautiful city of Kanazawa, which is full of historical sites and offers a particularly sophisticated cuisine.
Mountain | Hiking | Nice village | Nature | Natural wonders
Okinawa, or “Japanese Hawaii”, brings a little warmth to this list! This tropical paradise is famous for being home to the largest concentration of centenarians in the world. An excursion there is the perfect opportunity to get to know the inhabitants and understand their way of life. What makes Okinawa unique is the diversity of the islands. They each have their own history, their own culture, and yet, a general harmony. They can be divided into three groups: Okinawa, Miyako and Yaeyama. People here look healthy, zen and friendly, it is fun to see so many elderlies doing sport outside. A distinct feeling of tranquillity reigns in this region. Even if some parts are very modern and touristy, such as Naha, the capital of the main island of Okinawa, it is easy to find a deserted beach and enjoy a moment of solitude. The small islands of Miyako and their sandy beaches are a perfect spot to discover the multi-coloured coral reefs. Ishigaki-jima Island is particularly famous for observing majestic Manta rays. A little further away, the island of Iriomote is known for its concentration of wild cats and preserved nature, Taketomi, where you can visit the surrounding villages in a wooden cart pulled by buffaloes.
Island | Natural wonders | UNESCO World Heritage | Archaeological site | Diving
The main attraction in Beppu are the countless hot springs and the amazing foggy panorama that is displayed before your eyes. The steam escaping from everywhere seems to give us a glimpse of the underworld... Head to the Kannawa district to visit the so-called “Eight Hells”, which are made up of hot springs, each with its own particularity. You might even have the opportunity of tasting eggs cooked directly in the hot spring. Continue your visit with Takasakiyama National Park and its 1,500 wild monkeys. On a completely different note, the city is also known for its sex museum, the Beppu Hihokan. Like many other museums of this kind, it will not be to everyone’s taste, but it has the merit of offering original paintings and being entertaining!
Relaxation | Mountains | Animals | Natural wonders | Nature
First of all, Japan was a teenage dream for me, a magical country that I fantasized about for many years before having the chance of setting foot in it. I had imagined it, written about it, drawn it, but discovering Japan was far beyond my expectations ! Pure magic ! What stroke me about Japan was the mixture of ultra-modernity and tradition. Even in big cities, you can easily go from a futuristic district to a traditional Japanese garden, only a few meters away. It feels like crossing a magical portal that can teleport you into another world. This ambivalence immediately appealed to me . I like the fact that we can choose this destination to have fun as the country has many types of entertainment , or for a more authentic and “nature” approach, since it offers an infinite range of magnificent panoramas, sacred places and outdoor activities. Japan is a very exotic country, no matter where you are, you will feel that you are in Japan and nowhere else, it is unique, with a very strong personality that is felt in every symbol, colour, word or face. There are no words to define Japanese people other than deeply kind, helpful and big-hearted , which is all the more accurate when you move away from the big cities. You will always find someone to help you, despite the language barrier. Let’s talk about the language! Despite the number of Western tourists who visit the Archipelago every year, very few Japanese people speak English . Therefore, you should expect to be confronted with funny situations, especially if you decide to go off the beaten track. Yet, Japan remains very accessible for a holiday. As I said in the introduction, the country itself is a must-go, a destination you should definitely add to your must-go destination list.